Monday, July 7, 2008

Reading Causes Global Warming!

The answer to climate change? Stay stupid!

From corporate interest groups to journalists looking to sensationalize a story, to political ideologues, scientific writing is fair game: treat it, not for what it is, but as a form of rhetoric--a naive rhetoric that makes no effort to embed its statements in defensive ambiguity, and so, the victim of all the grown-up versions of playground bullies.

Evolution and climate science have been the prize targets of late. Recent posts on RealClimate HERE and HERE give you an idea of how this works, and what demands it places on scientists who take seriously their responsibility to inform the general public.

Why for me, the contributors to RealClimate--and Cosmic Variance, among others, are the heroes of our time. The service they provide to the general public in taking time from their real work is invaluable.

There's a parallel here: we complain about the coverage of literature and the arts, but compared to how the established media treats science--thoroughly corrupted in equal parts by politics and the drive to "entertain," literature comes off pretty well... only because, I suppose, for those with their claws on the levers of power, it matters so much less.

In reading a series of comments on This Space, I was struck by how we are assaulted, in a similar way, by those who launch rhetorical challenges and attacks that are impossible to answer. The most difficult (my illustration here).. are from those who have a degree of intelligence, education... but mistake engagement for confrontation... (or is it, confrontation for engagement?) impossible to know how or what to say to them.

No, science is not the model for aesthetics or critical thought--the analogy to science is just that... a richly ambiguous metaphor. What we should take seriously, is how--the different ways--that theories change. In science, the idea is that that each change leads us closer, to a more all embracing understanding. In aesthetics, no such ultimate goal is possible... or meaningful. We need to free ourselves, not of past errors, as in science, but of the past itself. Which is of course, impossible. So it isn't the past we need to break away from, but a present viewed and understood exclusively in the terms and ideas of the past, without acknowledging how much we--and our way of seeing, feeling, thinking... has changed, and so altered the "reality" we would, as writers, as "artists" represent.

And yet, in this critical debate... conflict... whatever you want to call it, I am at a loss to know how, or with whom, to engage on those elements that matter most to me, as a thinker (such as I manage to be), as a writer, as a reader.

I very much wanted to add a comment to that exchange on This Space--but when another exchange only tightens the jaws of the rhetorical bear trap... what is one to do?


  1. With respect to the comments over at This Space, let me say that you're not the only one disappointed that the conversation got sidetracked so completely, as happens so often. I thought your comment was the only one relevant to what Steve was talking about. (I'm not sure I understood your point, in relation to his post.)

    I agree with your basic point about science and science journalism. However, I would like to say I think there is something problematic about the notion that, "In science, the idea is that that each change leads us closer, to a more all embracing understanding."

    (Sorry for not expanding on my point, but it's late and I'm tired. Perhaps I'll say more later.)

  2. More than a little wasted myself... what I meant was that science has, at least as a theoretical goal, an all embracing theory--that would explain everything. An all embracing model.

    (I assume (hope) the Steve you have in mind was Mitchelmore, and not Augustine...)

    There can be no such thing for literary criticism. We can draw on insights from science--as writers and artists have done since science has overtaken philosophy and religion... but there is no end-point, not even theoretical... as artists reflect, not a vision from above--but from within the ever changing human condition.

    This is, I believe, is the strength of fiction... not that it shows us or pretends to, an unchangeable reality, but that it reflects back to us our illusions in a way that we can sort them out... recognize in our reading the artiface... even if it doesn't go on to explain the "real."

    Why I hold to the primacy of the aesthetic--undisguised. Like Shakespeare in Tempest--give us a dream we can believe in for the duration of the play... but give us credit to understand that it is only a dream... and then we can go one to what's really interesting... why this dream, and the wish to believe in it, matters so much to us! And what that means when we move on beyond the aesthetic, to how we interpret the events in our lives--from the personal to the supranational.

  3. Yes, I definitely meant Mitchelmore.

    And, I'm arguing that it's problematic that science has, as a theoretical goal, an all-embracing model or theory. You say that "science has overtaken philosophy and religion", but has it? As an explanatory system, perhaps, but was that ever really what was important about philosophy or religion? (I ask this--somewhat rhetorically, I admit--as an atheist.) I've been struggling with the idea that, in its drive towards explaining everything, science gives the impression that it can explain everything, even those things that are beyond the purview of science, questions about existence and meaning that still matter to people--which I think are where philosophy and religion come in. The fundamentalist tendencies in the major religions are modern reactions to this tendency, and they borrow some of science's language, claiming to have all the answers in some text.


  4. Richard,

    Let me begin with the point you make about fundamentalist religious movements being reactionary--though this isn't central to what you're saying, I think it's so often (almost always, I should say), misunderstood or ignored, that Fundamentalism is symbiotic to modernity--it doesn't exist without it. The recent wave of books, by not recognizing the reaction, are quite unable to ask the kind of question necessary to understand the nature of what they're looking at. Of course, the reactionary character is much older than modernism--all the major religions began as reactionary movements, revolutionary reinterpretations resting their legitimacy on a claim to being the original model. This subject is a book in itself...

    Of course my characterization of science is an over simplification: my focus was not on science but literature; I simply wanted a comparison to highlight something that literature is not. I think it's good to resist saying too much about "science" in general--what science wants, seeks, aims for... as though an abstraction were capable of such things. Better to get down to particulars. In general, however, those working in scientific fields do look for more embracing explanations--one of the measures of a successful, and useful, explanation. In that sense, we can speak of progress in science in a way that would be misleading and quite unhelpful for the arts.

  5. Jacob,

    I agree with the basic thrust of what you're saying. When I mentioned those things that are outside science's purview, and then said "which I think are where philosophy and religion come in", I should have added "and art".

    I think that, perhaps because of this possibility to "progress" in science, many do have a tendency to look for "progress" or "advancement" in literature. I agree that this is not a useful way of looking at the arts.