Two Cultures? – Shaking the snow globe again

In today’s Observer review, there is an article about the nature of the two cultures – science and art – and whether they are becoming further apart.

It would appear on the surface that this is happening, partially through politics, partially through the religious impulse of creationsim and perhaps some from the failure of teacher to make scienc exciting. It may be cool to be a geek but it certianly is not cool to understand science.

Considering that we now live in an age where science is the underpinning of most things, the lack of interest or excitement is a worry.

I wonder if the actual problem is not from the science side, considering that there are powerful popular writers like Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker or Daniel Dennett – all of whom put forward strong arguments for the rationalist view of the world – but from literature.

Apart from Douglas Coupland, popular literature has failed to truly hold a mirror to the world in the last fifteen years or so. Indeed it has ignored the world, trying to hold onto an outdated view of itself as arbiter of taste. In the rare excursions into the real world, like Philip Roth’s frustrating The Plot Against America, (frustrating through his lack of trying to read an alternative history and blatant disbelief in his own created world), the sense of disbelief is not sustained nor the actualities of the world dealt with. In Roth’s view, the cynical world will be overthrown but not the reasons for it.

Here is the nub of the matter: “not the reasons for it”. Roth does not take on the rampant extremism or critique its roots like, for example Russian authors such as Solzenitsyn or Pasternak. Instead he believes that in overthrowing the head, a fix can be granted. Indeed Don DeLillo’s recent novel has been lauded as a triumph and whilst it deals with a harrowing subject, it is already one that has moved on.

These are snowglobes of books: shake them up to get a reaction but the snow will settle once again and quickly.

It has been left, largely, to the cyberpunks to delineate the reasons for the world and to engage with the scientific reasons. Gibson’s Pattern Recognition updated the world of Neuromancer, bringing it up to date with the new world of logos and shared experiences on the Internet. We all suffered from apophenia reading it but his is a world where meanings are malleable and depend in the engagement of the reader with the physical and the cyber. Neal Stehenson’s novels, from Snow Crash onwards, have dealt with the realities of the engineering of the world and how it is being recreated from Turing tests, the Metaverse to the network and cyberhaven realities of the Information Age. What truly links both is their fascination with the architecture of the world.

However the humanists have not sat back lightly. Kim Stanley Robinson has veered into alternative science history in the Years of Rice and Salt (and will do so again next year in the Galileans) and argued that it is individuals who can remake the world whilst large events will happen as they will anyhow. James Morrow’s Last Witchfinder is a clarion call for doubt in the ag of reason, to not be so sure that everything is rational and right, that there can be room for change.

The two cultures argument is an artificial one. Science and art are two different spheres which rub along and there is a real problem, I believe, with the lack of public understanding of science. Perhaps the ideals of the Enlightenment are beginning to fail because we have got so used to their freedoms. We take stock and prepare to enter both worlds of science and art and rediscover our world.

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