Friday, June 19, 2009

The Fourth Culture

by J J Cohen

Last night I rushed to get my son Alex to his 7.30 fencing practice. I grabbed Jonah Lehrer's Proust was a Neuroscientist to bring with me, because there is only so much epée-rattling I can watch in a ninety minute period. I had finished long ago almost all of the book, except for the concluding chapter on Virginia Woolf. Lehrer's argument: Woolf realized that the self is an imaginary but necessary entity that makes coherent the chaotic onslaught of experience. Self, in other words, is a kind of retroactive effect of the choosing of what phenomena comes to attention and what is lost to the world's plenitude. In Lehrer's account, Woolf mapped this out artistically long before contemporary neuroscience did with CAT scans, brain lesion study, and experiments.

It's an intriguing chapter -- and the clanging of epées, the shouting, the adolescent jokes, and the general maelstrom of sensory stumuli that fencing practice generates really did emphasize for me the material bombardment from which we extract a narrative of being singular and choosing.

The book's coda makes explicit an argument that has been running quietly throughout Proust was a Neuroscientist. Whereas C. P. Snow argued in 1959 that we require a third culture, one that bridge the noncommunicating realms of art and science, those scientists who have self-appointed themselves as this culture (especially Steven Pinker) carry a fair amount of animus towards the humanities, believing it enough if they communicate their science directly to the masses. Lehrer argues that not only does such a third culture misrepresent what Snow imagined, it often gets the humanists wrong (and misapprehends their artistic sources as well) by not having listened or read attentively. Lehrer therefore calls for a fourth culture, a space of true collaboration, and it is that call I'd like to quote this morning:
[A fourth culture] seeks to discover the relationships between the humanities and the sciences. This fourth culture, much closer in concept to Snow's original definition (and embodied by works like [Ian McEwan's] Saturday), will ignore arbitrary intellectual boundaries, seeking instead to blur the lines that separate. It will freely transplant knowledge between the sciences and humanities, and will focus on connecting the reductionist fact to our actual experience. It will take a pragmatic view of truth, and it will judge truth not by its origins but by its usefulness. What does this novel or experiment or poem or protein teach us about ourselves? How does it help us to understand who we are? What long-standing problem has been solved? ... While science will always be our primary method of investigating the universe, it is naïve to think that science alone can solve everything itself, or that everything can even be solved ... When we venture beyond the edge of our knowledge, all we have is art ... No knowledge has a monopoly on knowledge.
Lehrer's words here are powerful. His call to collaboration and dialogue is, I think, answered in part by initiatives like the Qu(e)ering series, the BABEL project, postmedieval. Like Lily's art in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, we need to keep seeking the "queer amalgamation of dream and reality, that perpetual marriage of granite and rainbow," that "sudden intensity."


Karl Steel said...

Good post. It's a subject on my mind recently because of one of the places Zizek stumbles in Violence (otherwise very good). Namely, Zizek stumbles when he talks about "science" (as opposed to religion) as a set of knowledge rather than as a technique. And, while I'm more than sympathetic to the Lehrer here (and to his blog, which, thanks, I now read), it strikes me that this material, too, seems to be talking about science as a body of knowledge. However, what strikes me as most revolutionary about science is not its set of (always changing) facts but its being "open source," which is to say, replicable by anyone and transparent in its methods. This is an ideal, of course, but I think it's what differentiates "science" from our thinking with and through Woolf, even if they arrive at some of the same conclusions.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Maybe, but you'd get a very different account from science studies (i.e. Bruno Latour, the Marxist-leaning "Edinburgh school") -- emphasizing science's nontransparency and its predetermination of many of its answers through its self-limiting networks of knowledge.

That's just another way of saying that the reality and the ideal don't coincide. That isn't surprising. Actually I think Latour would go further and ask: what cultural work does that never-attained ideal accomplish? What hybridities does it disavow in the name of some impossible purity?

Anyway, isn't art just as open source?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

This comment got swallowed yesterday:
I wonder if humanities and art types are ready for what they would get. The disdain for science, particularly for the social sciences, is frequently striking to me (I have trained on both sides of the dial).

"Theory" in particular puts itself in a lofty position vis-a-vis these activities and pursuits that are more sullied by practical limitations, compromises, etc,; and systematically, predictably, prefers the more analytically coherent over the more open-ended and often unsatisfying insights that come from the real practice of science (whether "hard" or "social"). Not to deride theory by any means, or the arts and humanities, but merely to suggest that to bring dialogue about, it might require more and different engagement, particularly engagement with those who are not well-versed in the hyper-technical theory lingo. Perhaps more humility w/r/t the questions that they find interesting and the methodologies they use to approach them.

One specific challenge would be this: Go read some science. Not something insanely complicated, but just some basic articles on a topic of interest, perhaps in one of the more easily accessible fields of science, like psychology, sociology, political science. (Not something written for an outside audience -- instead, insider ball.) Trying to dialogue with such on-the-ground work seems to me more of a challenge -- and seems to me to hold more promise -- than the mediated dialogue of science already "processed" through some other thinker or theorist.

Just two cents from a reader and fan of in the middle.


cgb, you should read Lehrer's book, because you are pretty much summing up his "coda" -- except that he takes aim at both sides for insufficient engagement. Pinker, for example, has much to say that is negative about humanists that is actually based on a misreading of one of Virgnia Woolf's statements about human nature changing. Lehrer has little sympathy for vatic postmodernism/theoryspeak, little sympathy for the exclusivity scientists grant themselves. He doesn't privilege either side over the other.

Lehrer's graduate work, by the way, brought him to a protein analysis lab (I think this might have been his Rhodes year in the UK). He didn't ultimately choose a career in science, but he is no outsider to its disciplinary discourse/"insider ball". He is a frequent contributor to SEED magazine, one of the many web outlets that is attempting a fourth culture bridge.

Anonymous said...

There already is a "fourth culture". Its called the Internet. The problem perhaps is that we think of "culture" as something that is kept, nurtured, embraced by an elite of institutional pedagogy. In keeping with Karl's "open source" notion of science. Really it is the culture of the internet which cross-breeds every association and fact that ultimately puts the humanities and science in some kind of equivocal collaboration. Perhaps we need something of an Internet University (not a university that is on the internet), one that studies only via the connections it can find, the Middle, so to speak.

cgb said...

sorry my comment got swallowed, not sure how that happened.

thanks for that response. i would like to check the book out!

Karl Steel said...

Thanks all for comments, and thanks Jeffrey, for yet another reminder to read Latour (which I really should, especially since I've read so much J. Yates).

Here's a review I just did at Goodreads that's relevant to the discussion here:

There's been a lot of talk lately about a fourth culture that would put science and the humanities in productive conversation. There's plenty of art that does this, for example, the work of Steve Kurtz or Eduardo Kac. I know of some literature that does this too, and not only Paradise Lost: Richard Powers' The Goldbug Variations, in which DNA is a great symbolic ediface, comes to mind, as do the several episodes in Byatt's Frederica Tetrology that concern artificial intelligence, "deep grammar," fibonacci numbers, and ecology. Because of a shared concern with 19th-century naturalism, Byatt's Angels and Insects is probably the closest to Ship Fever.

All this is a long-winded way of praising Barrett for this set of stories about science, and natural science in particular, but also a way of saying, too, that many of the calls for "fourth culture" that I've seen (and I've confessedly haven't read that many), seem to keep calling for a fourth culture without, however, speaking much about the various ways that artists have already been engaged in putting science--whatever that is--and the humanities in productive conversation. Highly recommended, then, for correcting this, and for its feminism and political engagement (especially in its title story: good for the angry anticolonial Irish who should be in all of us) and also, in its stories about Linnaeus and the (fictional) Marburg Sisters, for its very human concern for memory and loss and memory as a kind of having.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for posting this, Karl: another book for my reading list. What brought you to Barrett?

Karl Steel said...

She's one of Alison and Eileen's top authors, so I just had to put her next on my 'fiction Summer' list.

Also, another 'fourth culture' artist: Lucretius!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Two good reasons to read Ship Fever! As to Lucretius: Michel Serres -- a serious mathematician, not a humanist by training -- is all about this philosopher. Lucretius has made a huge comeback in early modern studies as well. In medieval studies, less so.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Karl, by the way, I think you would REALLY enjoy reading the Michel Serres/Bruno latour interviews in Conversations on Science, Culture and Time. I love this book, having found it unexpectedly inspirational for many, many reasons.