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The Two Cultures, Redux

C.P. Snow seems to be having a moment. The British scientist/novelist/parliamentarian's 1959 lecture, "The Two Cultures," decrying the division between "literary intellectuals" and scientists, seems to be popping up everywhere these days, first in a gauntlet-throwing article in the Boston Globe's Ideas section about how much literature has to gain from science ("Literature professors should apply science's research methods, its theories, its statistical tools, and its insistence on hypothesis and proof"); and today in a New York Times piece by Natalie Angier describing the "New Humanities Initiative" at Binghamton University in New York, a project that intends to bring together humanistic themes and methods along with the scientific: "The students would be introduced to basic scientific tools like statistics and experimental design and to liberal arts staples like the importance of analyzing specific texts or documents closely, identifying their animating ideas and comparing them with the texts of other times or other immortal minds."

I have to say I react to this with some skepticism, on the one hand, and big yawns on the other--skepticism, especially to the Globe's emphasis on "hypothesis and proof" because it seems like a desperate attempt to "rescue" literary studies by shoehorning it into a inferior scientific subbreed (and it will never work, because fiction isn't data and never will be); yawns because of course scholars of literature have for centuries been absorbing scientific method and ideas into their studies.

Whether or not you agree that Einstein spawned literary modernism, New Criticism, in which critics and scholars focus abstemiously on the text, eschewing biography or history, seemed designed to turn close reading into a scientific (highly rigorous, codified) practice; and no scholar of literature can completely avoid studying science any more than he or she can completely avoid studying music or politics or anything else, really, because writers write about everything. (And that's even leaving out the works of science that can and should be studied on a literary level: Freud's Interpretation of Dreams; Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial; Robert Hooke's astounding Micrographia; Darwin's books, just for a few examples.) So interdisciplinary study seems like an obvious move (and now that we aren't New Critics any more, it's pretty much the defining characteristic of literary study in the universities); there's nothing revolutionary to that at all. 

These articles also both ignore one really exciting field of literary studies that's doing a fantastic job bridging the "two cultures" gap: ecocriticism, or scholarship about culture and the environment. When I was a kid, "environmental literature" meant didacticism of the Lorax and Rainforest Rap type. But more and more writers are writing about the environment, and scholars are noticing, giving renewed attention to classics like Thoreau's Walden but also picking up newer, "modern man's estrangement from nature" writers like Edward Abbey and T.C. Boyle. The field now has tailored advanced degreesassociations, anthologies, and conferences, and given how preoccupied Americans are with the environment these days (don't ask how, but I recently came across a not-so-great Jane Smiley story in Playboy about a woman using sex to bribe her husband into becoming more green), it's a promising direction for literary studies to take--and one that doesn't require any compromises of the "hypotheses and proofs" sort.

Bonus: I had nowhere else to fit this link, but here's a great Guardian blog post debunking C.P. Snow and calling on the commenters for poetry about science, my favorite being: "Poetry is shit / Read some science books / Stuff your English Lit / I don't give two fooks." Any challengers out there?

--Britt Peterson