Monday, November 19, 2012

Doing Things w/Science: Literary Scholars Love Science

Guest Post by Leigha McReynolds


Read Only: Love//Science.exe

As a general rule, literary scholars love science. In spite of the stereotype that any person who ended up in the humanities must be inherently incapable of succeeding in a STEM field, the truth is that we appreciate science as much as any of our fellow nerds in biology, psychology, or physics PhD programs. I know plenty of us follow “I Fucking Love Science” on Facebook. Science is a field of constant discovery and production of knowledge. Scientists create dramatic and compelling narratives and theories about the human body, the ecosystem, the universe, etc. These are efforts that literary scholars also value and duplicate in their unique disciplinary ways. 

True, most of us really dislike, and often are not very good at, math. This accounts for our antipathy to mathematics and engineering, and our complete inability to split up a check without a cell phone calculator. In fact, math is often what keeps us from pursuing science as our field of study. That’s one reason, among many, that I’m in an English, not an astrophysics, PhD program. And the more English scholars I meet, the more I see my experience is not unique. 

But it’s not just the math that drives us from science to the humanities in general, and literary studies in particular. We’d rather read novels than textbooks, and we’d rather write papers than take tests. On the one hand this represents a disciplinary divide between ways of receiving and measuring knowledge. More importantly, however, it signifies disciplinary differences between between what is valuable knowledge and how knowledge can or should be appropriately used. Literary scholarship allows a freedom to theorize and pick our “evidence” from anything we can find in culture. 

In the past thirty or forty years, literary scholars and historians have made significant contributions to the history of science. This is because our way of viewing the world as narrative, and our history of approaching cultural artifacts as socially constructed, allows us to see that science is also a cultural phenomenon. What science is, how science is done, the authority science has over certain areas of knowledge, has evolved like all of our cultural institutions. Literary scholars are in a unique position to trace that evolution. 


"Reading for the Plot"

(Also the title of a work of literary theory by Peter Brooks, and one of the first theoretical works I read outside of class for my first literary research paper.) 

I read for the plot. Occasionally I will read a book so fast, just to know what happens, that after finishing it I immediately re-read it because I know I’ve missed things, like character names. My fondness for plot is why I’m drawn to “genre fiction” which used to be non-canonical but has recently made its way into mainstream literary scholarship. So when I was finally in charge of my own scholarship - I was out of coursework and crafting an exam list which only had to include things I wanted to study - poetry, realism, and modernism were out. 

Since then, I’ve read almost exclusively in mystery fiction, sensation fiction, and science fiction; genres that are known for their plots over, say, the psychological development of their characters. (I could talk about whether or not that’s an accurate assessment, but that’s another topic.) I also started pursing my interest in science. This was easy for two reasons: 1) science in literature is currently a hot topic and 2) genre fiction consistently engages with science, whether it’s forensics, psychology, or chemistry. 

What surprised me, and what’s now the topic of my dissertation, is that through their engagement with science, these genre fictions offer a more radical view of plot than I expected. In fact, I argue that their engagement with science actually destabilizes plot and narrative, working on a logic of relativity (yes, Einstein’s relativity) that questions our assumptions about truth and reality. I also see this working in contemporary science fiction. 

At my last conference presentation I drew connections between Wilkie Collins, a nineteenth century British sensation novelist, and Ursula Le Guin, pointing out how each author, through a sustained engagement with their contemporary scientific moment, produces a narrative where the reader can’t be sure what really happened. That’s a convention associated with the strange experiments of modernism and post-modernism, not plot-reliant genre fictions. Science makes narrative do strange things.    


Avoiding the Dangers of Relativism

In my academic work, I privilege indeterminacy, freedom, and relativism. I question what it means for something to be “fact” and investigate how the facts of one narrative, either literary or scientific, are not the facts of another. However, I in no way want to argue that because human experience is subjective, we can just make up whatever we want. That’s a dangerous position, especially in this political climate, when the far right is rejecting established facts of history, science, and social reality. I hope that instead my work calls attention to the construction of facts and narrative over time, and reveals the power of that construction. The implicit ethical imperative is that we need to be very careful how we write our narratives of truth, whether we write them as novelists, literary scholars, or physicists.  


Leigha McReynolds is a doctoral student of English 
at the George Washington University, 
in the 19th C. British Literature concentration;
w/a focus on Hypnotism + Science-Studies.
(She's also a competitive ballroom dancer & xenophile)

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