Laura Otis on History, Science, and Literature

This is a follow-up to my last post, in which I talked a little bit about an article by Jay Clayton. Both Clayton and the following author will be stopping by Eastern Michigan to take part in the JNT Dialogue next week, so I’m doing a bit of reading and summarizing to help myself (and any fellow grad students who might see this) to better prepare for the professors’ visit.

In her 2010 article in the History of Science Society journal Isis, “Science Surveys and Histories of Literature: Reflections on an Uneasy Kinship,” Laura Otis calls for greater crossover between the study of literature and the study of the history of science.

Both fields, literary studies and science history, “build worthwhile knowledge” through a “focus on textual analysis” (572). Though the texts that each fields studies might vary, they are always “fictions, stories that are actively made” (573), even though we often think of scientific writing in strictly empirical terms. Since “knowledge about the past can be accessed only through fictions” (573), the close reading tools developed in literary studies are of great use to historians. Such close reading “plays an essential role in both fields: the ability to detect patterns and to resist tempting stories” (575).

Otis briefly illustrates the way that “patterns of metaphor,” to use one literary feature, provide evidence for an understanding of the evolution and migration of ideas (574). She writes about how in the mid 1800s, neuroscientists described neural networks using the metaphor of telegraph networks. “By the 1890s, however,” this metaphor was rejected in favor of more organic metaphors” (574). By practicing close reading, historians of science can draw conclusions about how, to paraphrase George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, people thought and perceived the world (574).


Laura Otis. With a bike. I’m really looking forward to meeting these people.

While these two fields have much in common with one another, each field also must work on its “relationship with the people practicing or creating its objects of study: history of science departments, with scientists; and English departments, with creative writers” (575). This resonates with me personally. When I tell people I’m a literature major, I often get the follow-up question, “oh, so you like to write? (as in fiction).” Well yes, I do, but that’s not the point. And moreover, I frequently feel the burden that Otis describes in an interview with Emory Magazine: “I was raised with the idea that science is work and literature is play.” I don’t know if I was raised with this idea, but while many of my friends have gone on to become computer scientists and engineers (and make, you know, money), I’m still in school, learning how to write about writing.

I’m happy with my decision, right?

Anyway… This article is primarily interested in epistemology. Since the physical evidence of the episteme of any given historical moment is produced through social processes (it is manufactured) in much the same way as other cultural products, then the tools for understanding the construction of knowledge within the sciences, for producing an epistemology, are similar to the tools for understanding the construction of meaning within literature, for producing a reading. Though the process of interpretation is more valued in the field of literature, “[b]oth scientific and literary studies involve input from the observer, and both require interpretation” (572). And most scholars, in both fields, are “epistemologically self-aware, actively questioning the kind of knowledge they’re building” (573).

Both this piece by Otis and the Clayton article I wrote about yesterday call for communication and cross-pollination between disparate fields, both inside and outside the academy. Whereas Clayton wants science fiction authors (and their interpreters) to join the public policy conversation about bioethics alongside scientists, Otis wants historians, literary scholars, scientists, and creative writers to talk to one another and share methodologies.

One question for Dr. Otis:

Does the sharing of ideas and methodologies among disparate academic fields have larger policy or other societal implications, as it does for Dr. Clayton?