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?


Jay Clayton on Literature & Science

It just so happens that next week the Journal of Narrative Theory (JNT) at Eastern Michigan will be hosting a dialogue on… exactly what I’m interested in learning more about right now. The JNT has invited Jay Clayton of Vanderbilt and Laura Otis of Emory to come speak “about cognitive science, genetics, and the literary imagination.” I’m really looking forward to all of the events: the colloquium on Tuesday, in which students and faculty will discuss some articles by the invited speakers, the dialogue itself on Thursday, and the opportunity to have coffee with the speakers the afternoon of the dialogue. In preparation for the events, particularly the colloquium, I’m reading through the articles provided by the JNT, and I’ll be writing about these articles (and some others, if I have time) on this blog, beginning with…


Jay Clayton’s “The Ridicule of Time: Science Fiction, Bioethics, and the Posthuman” from last summer’s American Literary History. In the article, he makes the case for including literary voices in discussions of the ethics of biotechnology.

Clayton begins by saying that science fiction has had “a pervasive but unexamined influence on” bioethics (318). Most people assume “that SF warns against the consequences of biotechnology,” when in fact it is “overwhelmingly positive about the possibility of transforming the human” (319). He admits that the most famous SF novels, and films as well, are dystopian, like “Brave New World and Oryx and Crake” (319), and that the SF work that is optimistic about the posthuman falls largely within the “90 or 95 percent of SF production” that “is strictly perishable” (Suvin, qtd. 319). However, from a public policy standpoint, this mass of “popular, ‘low,’ or plebian” (Suvin, qtd. 319) fiction is important, because it represents “a significant strand in our culture” (319), which ought not to be overlooked.

Science fiction responds to the concerns of the age in which it is written, whether it be eugenics, the Cold War, racism, etc., as Clayton amply demonstrates. Thus, we have developed “a kind of awareness we might call science-fictionality, a mode of response that frames and tests experiences as if they were aspects of a work of science fiction” (Cscicsery-Ronay qtd. 319-20). As SF possibilities linger in our collective cultural imagination, SF concepts become easy rhetorical devices for both sides of the futurism debate (if we can boil it down to just two sides).

spacevikingOn the one hand, “[s]cientific jeremiads,” that is, works of opposition to biotechnological interventions, “attempt to motivate people to act in history—to resist a feared future—by conjuring a ‘novum,’ to use Darko Suvin’s term for a new reality science fiction creates” (335). Such writing also utilizes “metaphors of organicism” (335), what I would call appeals to naturalness, which are, in fact, appeals to the illusion of naturalness. This is especially important in relation to Fukuyama’s claims about what constitutes “human nature” (337). I will no doubt take up the idea of “naturalness” in a later blog post.

The jeremiads also use “performative speech,” or the use of broad proclamations about what “we” are feeling about scientific developments: “something . . . leaves a lingering moral qualm” (Sandel qtd. 335). (I am reminded of the phrase “questions are being raised about,” which allows the writer/commentator/whoever to displace the burden of explaining why the given topic is relevant onto a nonexistent passive subject. Fox News might be the worst abuser of the phrase, but it’s fairly commonplace.) The other rhetorical device is “symbolic oppositions,” the familiar us/them dichotomy that “plainly substitutes symbolic for social analysis” (Bercovitch qtd. 336).

On the other hand, the scientific “encomia,” or works in praise of biotechnological interventions, also use the “same rhetorical elements” (337). Though he refers to a number of works, Clayton does not give any specific examples of how the “rhetorical elements” are used. He does, however, demonstrate “slippage,” in which science-fictional elements are appropriated, unacknowledged, into purportedly non-fiction writing, which “illustrates the kinship these works bear to our culture’s science fiction” (338).

“Both jeremiad and the encomia have their uses,” Clayton nearly concludes, “but the latter especially courts the ridicule of time” (338). That is, it’s easy to make predictions and wild extrapolations about what the future may hold and hope that you’re right. More than likely you won’t be, but in the meantime you might get paid to give public lectures. “They traffic in mundane predictions, and their attempts to inspire awe at biotechnology’s wonders sometimes result merely in the feeling of ‘gee whiz'” (338). (Could this be an example of performative speech?)

Clayton ends abruptly with a call to “take up the challenge” of bringing “the analysis of posthumanism to bear on problems with tangible impact on patients, health-care providers, and scientific policy” (339). At the very least, literary scholars should resist the trend of “generalizing glibly about cultural attitudes from a sample size consisting of a few decontextualized novels and films” (338), though it’s not clear what else there is for us to do.

Some questions that I have for Dr. Clayton that I might bring up when I see him next week:

Does the optimism in SF about the possibilities of biotechnological intervention say more about the self-selecting group of individuals most interested in SF? How much can we look to that mindset as evidence of more popular optimism about science, particularly when the most popular novels and films seem much more pessimistic?

It seems as though this conversation gets to the heart of the contemporary conversation about the role of the humanities in society. The humanities, the argument goes, need to be doing something for society, rendering some tangible service. Is there a danger to the humanities in making promises about what we have to offer to scientific discussions? Walt Whitman wrote of the sciences that their “facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling,/I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling” (“Song of Myself,” part 23). Are we qualified to make our dwelling in the sciences?

How is the relationship between the literary imagination and the sciences, as you perceive it, similar to or distinct from that relationship as it might be perceived from a position that is primarily reliant on cultural criticism? For example, one might argue from a Marxist perspective that technological advancements have historically benefited and will continue to benefit the capitalist class. Do you see your project as approaching the sciences differently?

How does the relationship between SF and biotechnology translate into discussions about information technology, robotics, global warming, etc.? Do the discourses of other scientific issues have a similarly problematic relationship with science fiction?


For more information about Jay Clayton, you can check out his profile on Vanderbilt’s website, where you will find this delightful picture of him next to what looks like a mural of a tricycle.