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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.


Writing for Interdisciplinary Journals and Book Series
25. January 2012, mrossini | 0 Comments

Dear All

To explore the possibility of a single-authored or joint publication in today’s workshop, please find below a list of journals and book series for which I either act as the General Editor (EP), an editorial board member (CP, W&T) or an affiliate happy to establish ‘first contact’ or mediate on your behalf.

@you and world: If you are the editor of any other journal or book series that you’d like to advertise as a possible forum for the participants of this and future Winter School, please add your title/link as a  comment or separate post. We’d particularly welcome online/open access possibilities, even ‘academic hypertext’ (see post David Jara above) Read more


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