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Camps & Bandwagons: some thoughts on sciences vs humanities, with reference to Snow’s The Two Cultures (1959)
7. February 2014, Jeroen Nieuwland | 0 Comments

Greetings fellow Winterschoolers! Am just working my way through our reader and thought I would share some brief ruminations on one of the texts, namely CP Snow’s 1959 lecture The Two Cultures. Don’t know what happened though, this thing turned out quite  few paragraphs longer & more meandering than planned…

In any case, Snow’s title refers to (English) universities’ sciences and humanities departments, which Snow argues are too separate, to such an extent that they form two cultures, & a hindrance to solving important problems. A few examples came to mind that would seem to contradict the persistence of this situation today. But before mentioning these, there are several problematic aspects of Snow’s content, style, and language that bear brief critical mention. At first the paper simply seems sort of quaintly dated, but there are quite a few other problems. And indeed, apparently the lecture sparked a heated debate shortly after it was delivered, when it was sharply – and many found rather too personally and crassly – criticised by one FR Leavis, a literary critic.

Snow was both a novelist and scientist (chemist), and thus spoke with apparent authority on both the sciences and humanities. Not quite, according to FR Leavis, who in his retort scoffed both at Snow’s skills a novelist: “As a novelist he doesn’t exist; he doesn’t begin to exist. He can’t be said to know what a novel is.” and his academic rigour: “Of qualities that one might set to the credit of a scientific training there are none”, we get no more than “a show of knowledgeableness”.

A few snippets of Leavis’ text (more of which I have not read) contain more wit and substantial argument than Snow’s piece. I am not a strong critical reader and much prefer reading affirmatively anyway, engaging with (parts of) texts that speak to me. For example, when Deleuze says we should only write about texts we love (does he not say that somewhere? I can’t find the quote) (although I do not agree we should always only do that). Similarly, Eileen Joy has recently proposed a generous kind of reading, instead of a corrosive criticism. And Katherine Hayles also speaks of an “ethics of creativity instead of a culture of critique”.

Nevertheless, there are problems with Snow’s style and language that also reflect on the substance of his argument. Several logical fallacies occur & more importantly he is at times blatantly sexist. Despite this being a lecture, not an academic paper (& thus less bound to academic stringency), Snow’s tone is nevertheless overly anecdotal, with smug asides about dinner parties, going out, having coffee (1, 2, 3, 45). He is generally self-absorbed and uses his opinion as a measure of truth: on a page where he asserts his “personal history is not the point now” there are 9 instances of the 1st person personal pronoun… Further down, “they won’t listen to me, but I believe they have overdone this…”.

Yet, at the same time there is a consistent appeal to common knowledge with phrases like “we all know”, “everyone would agree”. Then there are constant instances of stereotyping and generalization: “The Russians have judged what kind and number of educated men and women a country needs to come out top in the scientific revolution” (37). Furthermore, he bases much of his argument about this science – humanities divide on anecdotal evidence gathered at dinner parties, about scientists who can not quote Shakespeare and everyone else who “can not even” explain thermodynamics, or define mass.

Finally, Snow engages in some pretty crass sexism. Expectedly, there is the constant use of the male pronoun, which granted is to a large degree a matter of convention (today the female pronoun seems to be the corrective default no?). But even taking into account Snow’s context of late 1950s Cambridge culture, does not excuse an aside such as, ‘I myself have round Sicilian girls taking top places in honours physics course – a very exacting course’… All of these points do not necessarily efface the interest of his original thesis of a fundamental divide between science and humanities, but they do seem illustrative of his wider generalising, analogical, representational thinking.

Having said all that, the text did bring to mind some examples contemporary convergences of sciences and humanities that contrast with Snow’s argument. Of course, 30+ years after Snow, in 1996 there was the famous Sokal affair, when a bogus paper by physicist Alan Sokal was accepted by a peer review journal of postmodern studies. Sokal’s point was that there is too much sloppy, incorrect use of exact sciences such as math, physics, topology, by philosophers (Derrida, Deleuze, Lacan and others) who want to be interesting and eccentric.

These philosophers are obviously still read though, and other academics today are also pushing the boundaries of peer review format by integrating style and form into their argument. A good example of this is Karen Barad’s paper “Quantum Entanglements” which is about discontinuity and spacetime enfoldings, but is also formally structured as such. Within universities Cultural Studies would probably be a good example of a discipline that mixes science and humanities (and come to think of it there are many other similar examples, such as digital humanities, neuropsychology). Furthermore, universities are increasingly offering lectures online and organising participative, open-source style courses, for example on iTunesU, or CourseEra . Although, beyond that I actually do not have a good idea of what the actual state is in universities today between sciences and humanities.

However, firstly, many interesting projects today are taking place outside of, or adjacent to university organisations. This is in part because of resistance to corporatization and managerialization of universities (presciently predicted also by Bill Readings’ 1998 The University in Ruins); and also due to convergence of technologies and less hierarchical structures. Secondly, many of these para-academic projects are not only made possible due to convergences, but, in turn, also actively thematize and reflect on the integration of different disciplines and media.

Some specific examples will hopefully clarify: The TED platform offers 100s of examples of scientists, artists, and innovators working across disciplines (although TED itself has recently been criticized for being overly formulaic and rehashing old ideas instead of presenting truly new insights). More and more people are organizing their own initiatives (often) outside of the university, that would not be possible without new technologies; for example, using GoogleHangout, which allows people from anywhere share ideas in in real time but in a virtual space, as well as allowing anyone else with access to internet to benefit from these discussions later (several people recently discussed all of Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway in this way; and even a big name like Badiou recently gave a talk using GoogleHangout).

Then there is the Public School, another open, non-hierarchical platform that enables anyone to propose a course about anything. Media theorist Alexander Galloway organised a series of lectures about new French philosophy, which also resulted in a booklet, also made freely available as a PDF, that included not only transcripts of the lectures, but also discussions, questions, notes, and diagrams from the meetings themselves.

Another example is the (I believe now disbanded) D.U.S.T. collective in Dublin that organised conferences in a para-academic fashion; that is to say including academics giving papers, but with a continual emphasis on openness of discussion, and also merging with artistic practices. Urbanomic Press similarly, publishes academic works and the influential philosophical journal Collapse, but (as far as I gather) is not a university press, and also publishes and organises art and transdisciplinary works and events (and transnational, often in conjunction with the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin).

Remix Theory also mixes sciences and humanities, based on the idea that creativity / inventions rarely appear ex nihilo, but are (most) always a recombination of already existing ideas / technologies. Remix theorizes how to facilitate and put these connections into practice. This often involves fundamental critique of university structures (copyright, peer review, outrageous prices of academic papers / monographs) as well as self-reflexive practices that question ostensibly defined borders (between for example, music, art, science) and experiment with how these in fact are, or might work through each other. Theorist Mark Amerika’s RemixTheBook invited many people from different backgrounds to remix his book about remix. Similarly, Janneke Adema is writing a PhD about the academic monograph and applying her findings to the actual form of her writing; publishing her research in traditional formats and journals, but also as an open-source document, and making other uses of mixed media. Adema’s and Gary Hall’s initiative Living Books About Life, also combining sciences and philosophy. These are ISBN registered books, but online and again making use of different media and formats.

Finally, conversely, many non-academics are integrating science and academic registers into their artistic, poetic, musical practices. Think of DJ Spooky who does many cross-disciplinary collaborations; media and bio poets and artists who use biology, programming, or any number of sciences in their art (Christian Bök even gave himself a phd in biochemistry to be able to create his Xenotext poem, involving a pastoral sonnet encoded in the DNA of a bacterium).

So again, I do not know to what extent Snow was right in locating a gap between the sciences and humanities within universities (I expect he was), how much of a problem this is or was, or how this has changed since (I feel it must have). However, there certainly are nodes of networks popping up all over the place that are integrating and experimenting with rapid convergences permeating pretty much all areas of our lives. I think this is all pretty exciting for the constantly new possibilities and developments that are happening, pushing our understandings of our environment and ourselves in our environment to new and unknown becomings.

For one, convergence, remix, open-source, crowd-source, para-academic / public initiatives, pose questions about the very practice and understanding of subjects (e.g. physics, math, literature, language) that are generally considered and taught separately (I was going to say historically have always been separate, but of course they all started out as philosophy / natural philosophy right?). For example, two paradigms these developments do not smoothly align with are the categorical (but very differently argued) distinction made by both Badiou and Deleuze (two random examples I just happen to know) between science and art. Badiou claims they are truth-processes, while Deleuze describes science as creating ‘functions’ of knowledge, and art as creating ‘blocks of affect’.

How would these categorizations, of either science, or art, or politics (very unlike Deleuze come to think of it, such clear cut either / or differentiation) – apply to the crazy miscegenated inventions that freely combine anything, and can often be seen – not as either science or art – but as science and art and politics and open-ended experiment? Where would the following things fit in: turntables made from paper? A computer virus translated into audible noise? DNA as information storage? (Nearly) bulletproof skin made with spider silk?

All pretty whacky, fun, and as always, potentially destructive stuff; complicating clear cut ideas about science / art etc. More importantly perhaps, these explorations also solicit ethical questions concerning subjectivity, technology, the inextricable entanglement of our selves and our environment, structures of education, corporatization of universitites. Such an ethics, I feel, should, to begin with, always be an immanent ethics; never transcendent, dictating rules / behaviour across contexts, but rather embracing uncertainty and always grounded in specific, social, cultural, historical contexts.


Words That Travel: Youth Vocabulary Creating Imagined Global Communities.
28. January 2014, Adrian Herrera | 1 Comments

Flying on an airplane in a long, intercontinental flight I decided to kill some time watching American TV series. Among the options I found was 2 Broke Girls, a situational comedy where two young women from Brooklyn, N.Y. start a cupcake business with almost no success. Interestingly I immediately noticed how the two protagonists (Max and Caroline) spoke. In particular, I noticed how some of the words or expressions they use were already integrated in the language of young Spanish-speaking people I know, who would use these English formulations in any given Spanish sentence whether in a conversation, in a Facebook status or in a tweet in Tweeter. Some of these words and expressions are “bitch”, “fuck off”, “suck it”, just to name a few examples. I then tried to remember the profile of Spanish speakers I knew who had integrated this vocabulary in their everyday language: young (between 20 and 30 years old), bilingual, highly educated and living in big cities, massive consumers of American TV films and series and of international (mostly English) music. The integration of this vocabulary obeys, in my opinion, to a particular phenomenon in which speakers associate these words with funny contexts and TV characters they identify with. In this way, not only the semantic, but also the pragmatic dimension of these words, considered as vulgar in English, changes when integrated into a Spanish-speaking context: “bitch” wouldn’t function as an insult anymore, but almost as a praise, remarking abilities such as being able to defend oneself quickly (to be Schlagfertig in German) or having high self-esteem. In a Spanish context, it could be even used in an oral context in front of other people: in many Spanish-speaking cultures insulting each other belongs to a regular camaraderie code, not only among men, but also among women –or between men and women: hijo de puta (son of a bitch) or güey (jerk) can be used friendly in some regions (from Cádiz to Mexico City), so why shouldn’t the English “bitch” be used in the same way? In the case of “bitch”, I could notice its semantic / pragmatic transformation in a situation where a Mexican friend answered her cell phone during a dinner with Canadian visitors who spoke some Spanish: When she answered her mobile, she greeted “¿Qué onda, bitch?” (What’s up, bitch?). Our Canadian guests looked consternated, since they thought my friend was annoyed by the call or angry about something. But they realized immediately she hadn’t lost her good mood: they were confused, because the used vocabulary (original semantics) didn’t match the context and they needed some seconds to comprehend the word’s new function (pragmatics). No insult was really meant.

This reminds me of the adoption of the word “cool” in Spanish language: at least in Mexico, where I grew up, it was Bart Simpson who brought it into the language of youngsters. Noticing the pale effect –or I’d rather say no-effect–of the literal Spanish translation (cool = fresco), the Latin-American dubbed version of The Simpsons started using the English “cool” (“cúl”) instead. This adjective, widely accepted by most –if not every— young or not so young media consumers, also appears in current German language.

This phenomenon shows how words travel through media. If they stay longer in the vocabulary of a particular language, or disappear after some years, it’s a matter of time. Until now nobody would use these words in Spanish or German outside a conversation or in a social media context. But why are these words so easily integrated? Is it that their imaginary, fiction-charged connotation contributes to a positive reception in another language? If, as a speaker, I identify myself with Bart Simpson or Max, from 2 Broke Girls, and if I use their vocabulary, do I integrate together with their words, also the whole imaginary dimension and thus contribute to their pragmatic / semantic change in the receptive language?

Benedict Anderson explains in Imagined Communities (2004) how languages such as Latin, Arab and Chinese once contributed to build communities of men of letters, unified by ability to access not only to knowledge, but to an immanent truth through the reading and interpretation of sacred signs. I ask myself in what extent are mass media contributing to create a similar international, imagined community of people who are linked by the integration of a popular, English vocabulary, and their connection to the world of entertainment and popular culture: “bitch”, “cool”, “fuck” are expressions I hear not only in Mexico –or that I have used myself in certain contexts–, but also in Germany among people of a certain age (outside this age-group, particularly an older one, these words probably don’t have an effect of any kind).

On the one hand, it seems that a new imagined community of social media consumers has been created and it’s in a constant transformation. Besides, there is a conscience of the existence of an imaginary Other (TV and Film characters) and of the culture in which it has been created. But on the other hand this follows to another question: to which extent is that “Other” conscious about the existence of us? Does that “Other” absorb linguistic elements from us or we are just being linguistically “colonized” or at least “marked” by a global media experience which links us not only to a generational identity, but also to an imagined global self-regulated by a same center of power (American TV)? Which other examples can be found and if these words also travel with their imaginative, fictional semiotic charge? Are these words travelers –or are they already settled immigrants?


The World of Matter
25. January 2014, mrossini | 0 Comments

World of Matter is multimedia project providing an open access archive on the global ecologies of resource exploitation and circulation. It comprises visual practitioners and theorists conducting long-term research on material geographies, who engage ideas and practices from art, spatial culture, urbanism, anthropology, art history, cultural theory, photojournalism, activism, publishing, curating and education.
Its main initiator is Swiss artist Ursula Biemann whom some of you know from the conference Art With(out) Borders that Winter School participants Tanja Klankert and Erin Rice organized last year.
Project website: http://www.worldofmatter.net


Book Recommendation – Buchempfehlung
14. May 2012, svonfischer | 0 Comments

Generation FacebookVom Leben im digitalen Enclosure

Text: Dr. Theo Röhle, Universität Paderborn

Der Börsengang von Facebook rückt näher. Am 18. Mai sollen erstmals Aktien für jedermann erhältlich sein, zumindest in den USA. Für das Unternehmen werden Einnahmen von bis zu 11,8 Mrd. Dollar erwartet, dessen Gründer Mark Zuckerberg würde damit in die Riege der 40 reichsten Menschen der Welt aufsteigen. Auch wenn der Börsenwert des Unternehmens nach aktuellen Berechnungen unter den 100 Mrd. Dollar liegen wird, die einst prognostiziert wurden, bricht Facebook alle Rekorde: Der bisher erfolgreichste Börsengang eines Internetunternehmens hatte Google 2004 nur vergleichsweise geringe 1,7 Mrd. Dollar eingebracht. Und es werden zunächst nur 5% der Aktien frei gehandelt werden.

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Abstract Klara Groß-Elixmann
4. January 2012, Klara Gross-Elixmann | 0 Comments

Neither hypnosis, nor the study of syphilis, nor the debate on Friedrich’s III. death of throat cancer – Arthur Schnitzler has followed the medical discourse of his time and participated in its shaping. His Medizinische Schriften documents this participation in a multitude of different reviews, reports, and the only independent study Über funktionelle Aphonie und deren Behandlung durch Hypnose und Suggestion. In this text materia Schnitzler’s comments on his contemporaries’ medical works and the Viennese School present a well-grounded analysis of the situation of the medical profession during his time. These texts demonstrate different kinds of knowledge at the same time: Knowledge about the treatment of hysteria, the aetiology of syphilis, the arguments of hereditary theories and other issues. The extensive opus of Schnitzler’s literary texts stands next to this medical discourse, coeval varies and expounds its problems and therefore transforms parts of this medical knowledge. Read more


Abstract Michael Hagner
22. December 2011, svonfischer | 0 Comments

In media studies it is often argued that the emergence of new media inevitably leads to anxieties among devotees of old media who suspect that these media become irrelevant: photography menaces painting, film executes photography, tv menaces film, and the Internet finishes everything else. The printed book is no exception from this logic. Long before the invention of ebooks and Open access, various prophets predicted the decline of the Gutenberg Galaxis. Even without subscribing to such apocalyptic visions, we can not overlook the fact that the humanistic book has come under pressure. Being the unquestioned and primordial scientific medium in the 20th century, an assembly of habituations and practices has shifted within a few years. That implies institutions of advanced studies, publishers, research communities and the scholars themselves. The question, thus, is:  Which role will the printed book play within and without the humanities?

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Abstract Roland Wenzlhuemer
8. December 2011, svonfischer | 0 Comments

Societies and cultures depend on shared knowledge – for instance about different social roles and positions, the norms and behaviour associated with these roles, rights and duties, shared values or a common cultural heritage to name but a few examples. In order to be shared, knowledge on the one hand needs to circulate within a specific group. And on the other hand, of course, knowledge (or bits and pieces thereof) is also constantly exchanged with other such groups – purposefully or not. Hence, knowledge – willingly or not – is constantly on the move.

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