Saturday, December 30, 2006

Fecundity out of repression

The title is from a thoroughly enjoyable essay by chemists Roald Hoffmann and Pierre Laszlo on scientific conversations:
Here is a question we believe probably one should not ask, especially a young scientist should not ask in a scientific conversation: "Do you understand?" On the face of it, what could be more honest and straightforward? The speaker, who may have just presented a difficult concept, or spoken too quickly, has sensed a nonverbal response on the part of his audience/ listener, and is stating that he or she is willing to explain things again. But the question, unless asked in just the right tone, and between people of equal status or confidence, may be just as problematic as the question "Do you love me?" If it has to be asked, it may be too late.

-"The Say of Things," Hoffmann and Laszlo, Social Research, Fall 1998

I had an interesting question put to me recently about how scientific and literary narratives differ. Since I'm unnecessarily literal and have never written scientific narrative, I went to the library and read some core works in the rhetoric of science. For those in the know, or whose idea of fun needs fine-tuning, that'd be rhetoricians of science like Charles Bazerman, Alan Gross, and Greg Myers, plus a couple of sociologists: Steven Shapin, Bruno Latour.

The reading suggests something interesting, I think, about why science doesn't show up more as an everyday part of conversation in literary fiction. All the writers focus on how scientific journal articles are argumentative, and the writers with a more historical bent look at why and how scientific journal writing developed that way.

The evolution, as these writers tell it, has 17th-c. natural philosophers beginning to argue in print with each others' remarks and suppositions about how nature works, and retreating to increasingly careful and precisely-described experiments to support their claims. Personality recedes in favor of experiment. After a few decades, the scientists leave the pedestrian world of "x works like y," the claims grow broader about the relationships between things in the natural world, and the experiments are designed to support these large statements. The arguments get fiercer, narrower, the scientists' "I" recedes far, far into the background; forms get more rigid, the audiences get more sharply defined. We land in the world of the zillion-endnotes Journal of Scientific Subfield article with heavy combat among referees, editors, and scientists on everything from punctuation to the permissable breadth of claims, given the scientists' place in scientific society.

Sounds like a reasonable enough progression to me, given a mechanistic conception of the universe. If you presume things work in some orderly, objectively explainable fashion, and you say, "It goes like____," someone else will likely argue, and you're off to the races. There can be no legitimate retreat from argument into subjectivity, no fuzzy "This is how I see it," (followed by jumble of half-baked historical references capped with assertion of the artist's absolute right to call it as he feels it). Which is what happens, I think, in worldview arguments in fiction.

So assume that's really how scientific narrative goes. Why, then, would such narratives be amenable to use in fiction? It seems to me that fiction deals mostly with public conversations that are not tightly constructed. What do you owe your mother? Who is a stranger? How is it possible to live with other people? Is there any such thing as a person? Loose ends, hardly anything but loose ends.

If the scientific story says, "X is true, supported by y, z, 3," then I wonder what the novel can do with it. (Particularly since the novelist is not placed to argue with this scientific statement.) The novel can blink and keep walking, which is, I think, what happens most of the time. Or it can say, "Oh, well, if X is true, then the social implications might be ______," which lands you in the realm of speculative fiction. Or -- if it is a more literary novel -- it can lift some aesthetically striking or resonant part of X, ignore the science, and attach social or psychological meanings to the scavenged bit -- the strange horrors of being subject to clocks, for instance. But in none of these is there really conversation between science and the novel.

I'm thinking also of scientific images that end up in mass media, which is where fiction writers generally see them. If scientific images are originally framed for use in argument, I bet it's unlikely the scientists doing external PR try to tear them down and reframe them for other kinds of conversation -- literary conversation, or loose public conversation. I would guess they try instead to repackage the images in either simplified-educational form or art-photo form -- consider Felice Frankel's work. Something that will sell, something that will be recognizeable as science. If this is how it goes, I see no reason to expect that the arguments and conversations implicit in the images -- however strange or beautiful -- would engage well with the world outside professional science's formal combat. Which may be why these images seem so curiously mute, and why they're so difficult to use in stories.

All of this brings me back to Hoffmann and Laszlo's essay, which is about kinds of conversations that go on in chemistry. They are impatient with the dispassionate journal essay, and describe with delight scientific conversations they've known as working chemists -- conversations with nature, conversations with students, conversations with other chemists. At the end they write:
Thinking about real value, if conversation is compensatory of repression—more open just because the written product of scientific work is so constrained—could it be that much more real discovery and creation takes place in conversations? We think so! It is the first place where one expresses understanding outside of the private confines of one's mind. The research group presentation is probably next, the writing of the paper the last, very important, place. The conversation—with a colleague, student to student—is where the ideas get expressed. And until they are expressed, in some way they are not real. The conversation reifies the idea; it selects in the mind of the researcher one possibility of many, it is the first existential act in science.
If these ideas are not already handmaiden to scientific argument -- if they aren't already constrained in the way of the journal article -- then maybe this is a place where novelists should talk with scientists. Maybe this would be more fecund than the novelist's seeing the carefully-produced images in the Tuesday New York Times. I wonder how that would be, and what sort of conversation might be possible.


ehj2 said...

Dear Amy,

This is the most important conversation on the planet that is NOT taking place very well (deliberately and consciously) -- the nature of truth and narrative and how we choose narrative threads to live by.

The implied dualism here (on your site) between science and art seems to leave out a lot. Linguistics, at least in the Noam Chomsky "form," belongs here. I realize I'm making a distinction here between linguistics as a science and the mathematically-based disciplines of physics and chemistry, but I don't see any hope of bridging the gap between the language of Robert Frost and Richard Feinman without some recognition of the underlying linguistic elements. Since both languages convey demonstable and real (verifiable) experience, both are profoundly accurate in their respective realms.

The "art" part of this conversation (here) seems to leave out mythology, and I would include the thread (as represented by Jung and Joe Campbell) as crucial. It is impossible to comprehend art without mythology and psychology.

Somewhere on this site you agreed with a relatively "negative" review of the Harry Potter books -- without acknowledgement of "the uses of enchantment" (Bruno Bettelheim) and the importance of myth and narrative in the psychology of children (who become adults with, hopefully, advanced versions of more mature myths).

We (as honest scientists and philosophers) have to start with a given (Wittgenstein's "the world as it really is") -- and accept that gazillions of "uncorrupted" children have to be "right" (in some way) in their massively collective decisions. Those decisions are "meaningful" and "relevant" in some important way. We may not -- as "overly" conscious adults -- understand those collective decisions, and we're invited (obligated) to look for something "behind" those decisions (if we want to understand them as art or science).

Kids are not drawn to stories for "good writing." Actually, neither are adults. We look for stories that reflect our inner experience of life as we actually experience it (and often we are drawn to stories that show potential solutions to problems in our conscious and/or unconscious lives). Only incidentally do we demand well-crafted stories.

Harry Potter is raised by a culture that doesn't comprehend him and can't. Every child goes through a period of believing she is an orphan, in the wrong place or the wrong time, somehow in the wrong family. A mistake has been made. We are strangers in a strange world.

Every child believes herself a hero, and every myth of every hero begins with a danger to the hero's childhood.

For a story to be "real" (i.e., relevant) to a child (or a mythologically conscious adult) it will give some honor to those threads. The review you cited, and agreed with, disparaged those threads as illogical and unreal, when they are actually necessary and fundamental.

Psychologically, there may be no difference between a child's belief in magic beans, and an adult's belief in the holy grail. Something must be a container or "hook" for the projection of human "meaning" and value. Both art and science provide hooks for that projection and provide the symbols we live by. We are both vested in understanding (making conscious) the shared plane in which those symbols reside -- without dishonor to either.

"Freedom" for instance, is a symbol with footholds in art, linguistics, science, rationalism, mythology, psychology, religion. All lay claim to it. When you and I use the term, we may be standing in the realm of the enlightenment writers; our listeners may be hearing through a narrative of fundamentalist religious mythology. How do we find and articulate, with fidelity and completeness, our common ground?

Our problem -- and the one you are very conscious of here on this site -- is that adults still choose immature and self-destructive narratives to inform and guide their lives (and their nations), and are too easily persuaded to make horrific (unscientific or uneconomic) decisions based on narrative that has been purposely distorted to manipulate them for the benefit of a few. By way of example, America, a powerful and wealthy country with a huge resource base and isolated from the world by two large oceans, seems easily driven to profoundly unconscious behavior by overwhelming fear of imagined dangers. Where does this fear come from and why is it so easily aroused and manipulated by corporatist-driven political forces?

Politics (and corporatism and marketing) is far more about narrative and myth (symbol and art) than it is about science and reason.

The topic is intimidating and overwhelming, the challenge is the very survival of our species and the continuance of liberal democracy.

It feels like an obligation to be in the conversation. At the same time it feels like it is almost too late a point in history to stop the trainwreck of civilization. So-called "adults" in western countries like America now know less about the symbols and mythical threads that motivate them (and even where their food comes from) than the ancients who attributed these energies (and their food) to the gods of every locale.



p.s. good luck with your deadline.

You've probably read all of Antonio Damasio (a scientist who writes poetically about the confluence of philosophy and neurology) -- if not, I think you'll deeply enjoy "Looking for Spinoza."

And, if you aren't already aware of it, the site "" is a continuous stream of intellectual food on art, science, myth, politics, and psychology.

angela said...

Googling "metafer" to see if anyone will catch my reference if I blog it without explaining about Joseph Campbell, I find maybe you're the only one. A two cultures blog! Me too, but trying to be third culture. Anyway, thank you for sharing all of this. Your writing is intelligent and beautiful and I'll look in sometimes.


P.S. What is it about your voice and name? Am I recalling posts to the Brown MFA listserv circa 1999?

Amy Charles said...

ejh2, I want to respond, but not tonight. :) Soon. Thanks in the meantime for the thoughtful reply.

Angela, the internet's a small world. Yep, that was me. I bet Web del Sol guy is still prickly about that little episode. :) I'll check your site, too.

Amy Charles said...

ejh2, will get back to the rest, but wanted to say my dislike of HP has to do with quality of storytelling & derivativeness, & fact that there are many others out there who do it better, not insensitivity to myth. But when you've got Lewis & Dahl & Bradbury & Grimm & even E. Nesbit, for that matter, I don't see the excitement in Rowling. Writing's just not as good, and she's not nearly as aware of how myth articulates as, say, Lewis was.

I'd have eaten it up too at age 8. Read all kinds of crap. Remember much of it. Doesn't mean I couldn't tell good from bad.