Tuesday, March 16, 2004

This is a relatively interesting meditation on the relationship between Science and Poetry by Paul A. Cantor - but, of course, I have to criticize it. Through discussion of how various Romantic writers engaged with the science and technology of their day, Cantor tries to show that literature is needed to flesh out the consequences and meaning of technological advances, otherwise:

"As [Shelley's] portrait of Victor Frankenstein suggests, such a liberated science may lead to a new kind of slavery, as human beings lose control of the products of their technological imagination, and perhaps end up serving the very forces that were meant to serve them"

This is a trite prognosis. I talked about it in my oral presentation on "avances tecnologicos" in Spanish class last year; I believe in the introduction I rhetorically asked whether "...nos volveremos esclavos a nuestras propias herramientas?" (will we become slaves to our own tools?)

My conclusion in that discussion was that the unpredictability of the consequences of technology, and the lack of control its creators have on its development, can have positive as well as negative results. For instance, the internet, developed by the military-industrial complex to serve its own purposes, has ended up being an immensely liberating force in the lives of many people. Technology developed from wave/particle physics resulted in the atomic bomb, but also the laser eye surgery which has corrected my chronic short sight.

Canton argues that literature can "help out" science by imagining the human consequences of technological developments. Bollocks. Literature provides insights into what it means to be human, and into our dreams and fears. The Prometheus/Frankenstein myth is about fear of technology itself, and is a variation on the Garden of Eden myth, which is about fear of knowledge. Specific science fiction writers tend to reflect the fears of their own age, and mostly get details of the future wrong. You don't see Philip K Dick being invited to sit on MIT's artificial intelligence development committee, and H G Wells was never an advisor to NASA.

It's right to consider the ramifications beyond the success or failure of one's immediate technological tinkerings. But you don't need to be a poet to look at the big picture and consider the wider human and ethical issues, which in the end is all we can ever do.

Why I am bothering splitting hairs over this article? I'm slightly irritated by the assumption that there ever could be an "unbridgeable gulf between science and poetry", as if they didn't inevitably cross-fertilize one another through the mediation of that swamp of paradigms, prejudices and ideologies we call "culture". But I think what's really bothering me is the suspicion that what this is really about is "the role that literature can play for science". Despite appearing to make a robust defence of poetry, Canton in fact appears to be cravenly buying into the view that all endeavours should have some kind of instrumentalist justification in relation to science. In the positivism-crazed 20th century, many disciplines desperately tried to show either that they were sciences themselves (psychology, sociology) or that they could "usefully serve" science (analytic philosophy, by clarifying concepts). Literature, it's suggested here can help by imagining the consequences of technological developments.

It can't. But it doesn't need to. Literature helps us grapple with what the hell it's all about (at least some of the time reaching into the grab bag of current scientific facts for its material; Martin Amis' London Fields is a good example). It needs no further justification or reconciliation - end of story.

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