"Reading Between the (Front) Lines: Science and Stories"
by Karen Mann
(The 3rd Annual College of Arts and Sciences John Hallwas Liberal Arts Lecture, September 7, 2005)
I am the child of bookkeepers and the sister of a civil engineer. Today many people see me only as a professor of literature, especially since I am the mother of two very talented prospective English professors, but it was probably formative that my father would occupy me and my brother on long car trips by giving us math problems to solve. It was assumed during the fifties space race that I would grow up to be a scientist. During my junior year in high school however, I was struck by the regularity with which my analytic geometry teacher would turn the page to that day’s math problems, which I knew would be the same problems on the same day for juniors during the following school year. To my high school mind mathematics would always be the same. Stories, on the other hand, could always be different. Of course, much of the success of mathematics and of science depends on that kind of reliability: the law of gravity is unlikely to change from one year to the next, and that truth provides an important benefit.
However, the truth can be overrated. I will hint at the reasons for this by providing a few epigraphs to this talk. In the 1890’s Oscar Wilde wrote that "Even things which are true can be proved." Ursula LeGuin, also wrote, in an unabashed work of science fiction, that she had an intention behind her imaginary practice of foretelling the future. She wanted to exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question (70). Both of these authors delight in telling lies. This may arise from the fact that writers of literature are at bottom metaphor hunters. It is not that devotees of literature ignore the literal meanings of science. I for one like it when science puts a scaffold beneath the place that a metaphor has flown me to. I also like it when science points out that there is only air beneath that metaphor. I shall spend some time on that possibility first.
The mustard seed of my argument is what is known as the Sokal hoax. In 1996 Alan Sokal, a physicist, published an article entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" in the journal Social Text. In it Sokal purported to show the emergence of a liberatory postmodern science. The embarrassment arose from the fact that Social Text is "one of the more sought after publication options for scholars in the expanding field of cultural studies" (Editors 2). This journal accepted an article that was "a mixture of plausible claims that go too far, implausible claims that go nowhere at all (concealed in syntax so dense as to be almost unreadable), and fringe philosophical theories set forth as widely accepted scientific advances" (Editors 2). In his subsequent explanation Sokal said he was attacking "the nonsense and sloppy thinking" that "denies the existence of objective realities [or] downplays their practical relevance." For him, "there is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter" ("Revelation" 51). His target was postmodern literary theory carried to its logical extreme. No one at the journal Social Text consulted a physicist about the accuracy of Sokal’s work, because, according to Sokal, "knowledge of the real world is superfluous; even physics becomes just another branch of cultural studies. . . . allusions, metaphors and puns substitute for evidence and logic" ("Revelation" 51-52).
There has been a great deal written about the rightness or wrongness of actions by Sokal and the editors at Social Text. Others have used the episode to examine larger issues about the relationship between science and the humanities. John Guillory, a highly respected humanities scholar, wrote in 2002 about some apparent dichotomies that have become entangled with the Sokal hoax. He concludes there that cultural and/or literary studies have failed to acknowledge that science has already won epistemologically: that is, the educated world believes that science knows best how to determine what is true. He also believes that cultural or literary studies have failed to recognize that they are simply using their literary own modes of analysis (not the scientific method, but textual criticism) to examine all things, even non-textual things. I am going to spend some time in discussing the peculiar methods for making meaning in literature, so that we can see whether or not they have any validity in a world where science can claim to define reality.
As a preliminary let me justify my focus on literature as a humanities discipline. Other humanities disciplines continue to assert that they tell the truth: namely philosophy and history. And the other arts included within the humanities, music and the visual arts in particular, have a grounding in mathematics and in optics that gives them an important kind of scientific reality. Literature, however, is merely words used to create fictions. Scholars of literature try to tell you the truth about lies. What possible validity could such an activity have?
To start, Alan Sokal objects to the fact that important French theorists use mathematical terms and concepts that they do not understand in ways that make no sense. He also seems to object to the practice of arguing from analogies or metaphors between different realms of thought. Last, he objects to theories that have no need of testing to determine their validity. Obviously, the last two objections stem from a commitment to the scientific method as a means for determining and refining our conceptions of the world in which we live.
Literature is older than science. And scholars of the evolution of human cognition connect the earliest uses of language with the telling of stories. The neuroscientist Merlin Donald, in Origins of the Modern Mind, speaks of a series of stages for our developing human minds. Building on our fundamental primate capacity to comprehend the events and episodes of our daily lives, humans can construct imitations of those events: we can act out what happens to us in a time and place different from the original event. Hence, theater is more ancient than literature. Through acting out or mimesis, human societies model social roles, communicate emotions, and transmit rudimentary skills such as cooking or tool-making or auto mechanics. What words add to miming is a grouping of such individual imitative acts into a conceptual world view. Language allows society to tell stories, to compare experiences across a number of episodes, to provide a context for individual events. We can not only act out important events, but we can also provide a commentary on them.
Science, in coming into being, relies on these narrative and communicative capacities of language. Science itself begins in analogy and in narrative commentary. The earliest scientific theories for explaining and predicting were really analog devices: Stongehenge is a metaphor for the movements of the heavens. Sokal had complained that even if literary theorists admitted that they were only using concepts from mathematical topology as metaphors for psychoanalysis, that procedure was suspect because there is no natural relationship between such different domains.
Likewise, there is no natural similarity between stones and stars. Nor is the fixity of the stones on the ground at Stonehenge similar to the movement of the stars in the heavens. Yet the stones of Stonehenge do permit humans to map out visually the relationships between time and the position of the sun. And science today is still reliant on analog devices to represent or symbolize other more invisible realities, in the oscilloscopes, the voltmeters and the other measuring systems for their experiments. And of course, language must also narrate for scientists the results that those analog devices provide. I do not say this to justify the abuses of analogy that occur in the theorists that Sokal quotes. I do wish to reinforce the value of analogy building, even for science.
Let me say a bit more about the kind of thinking we do when we use analogies. For Sokal and probably for most non-literary types, an analogy is only a convenient device for explaining the unknown through the known. For example, if some one doesn’t understand the difference between fancy and imagination, the analogy of cake-baking might help, even if cooking has little in common with poetry: fancy is like the collection of ingredients before the cake is baked; imagination is the resulting unified delight that we have to eat after the baking. Of course, if some one has never baked a cake, the analogy is of no help. But there are profounder benefits to analogical thinking than this. Analogies place relationships in the foreground. They depend on a one-to-one correspondence between the details of the two items being compared to each other. That is, the analogy makes certain aspects of each item significant because they form the interrelated points of a comparison. For example, one might wish to understand or explain the permanence of love by using the analogy of a fixed navigational star, as Shakespeare does in Sonnet 116.
O, no, [love] is an ever fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his highth be taken.
Here, there are one-to-one correspondences between the person who is loved and a star, between the difficulties of life and tempests, and between the lover and a wandering ship ("bark"). The analogy only works, however, because of the clear interrelationships among the star, the tempests and the ship, all of which are purposed to reveal steadfastness (a "concept"). Here, the writer has tried to explain something "invisible" and abstract – love—through something more tangible and perhaps understood – sailing. But despite this explanatory benefit, analogical thinking lacks the absolute certainty of the logical syllogism: after all, the crucial element that defines a lover may be exactly that which he doesn't have in common with a wandering boat. Yet making that comparison can make the idea left out more obvious. Psychologists say that analogies not only make similarities more prominent, but they also make differences more prominent as well (Gentner and Markman 138-39). Further, psychologists have also argued that the movement in analogical thinking from an initial known situation to a new, unknown one, makes connections that can only be guesses whose correctness must be checked separately (Gentner and Markman 132). Anologizing is a process capable of generating new ideas, which may be either false or true. This may appear to be an argument against using analogies to understand the world, as rhetoricians and logicians have long explained. However, it is the possibility of mistake that gives analogy-making its power. That is, analogy-based thinking cannot be accepted at face value, treated as "natural": it requires the testing of particulars and their relationships before conclusions can be drawn about the meaning. This leaves open the possibility for discovering the new by a close examination of any particular evidence in relationship to a pattern of meaning. Especially setting new analogies against old particulars may result in seeing something new. Such, for instance, is the result of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's analogy between women and Negro slaves in her 1860 Address to the New York state legislature. By allowing male legislators to see women in a new context, she could alter not only their conception of women but also the realities of the legal and social world in which women lived. In exploring ethical questions especially, we must have thinking strategies that create the possibility for that "new" insight that may lie beyond our present understanding and viewpoints, our "science" loosely defined. By practicing analogical thinking, we attempt to find new patterns or perhaps see our old patterns of thinking as only working analogies.
I want to move now from thinking by analogy or metaphor to telling stories, the other pre-eminent activity of the literary arts. It may appear that the evolution of human cognition moves us humans beyond story-telling to more advanced kinds of analysis (which would include, I might add, the theorizing of English professors as well as the theorizing of scientists). Certainly Donald does argue that our modern modes of thinking became possible only in a time when stories were de-mythologized. He speaks of the moment in Greek history when the lack of a single overriding religion permitted disengagement from a single mythic story believed to define the meaning of the universe. He notes that Hippocrates fought for the separation of medicine from religion in his school in Cos in the fourth century B. C. E. (342). For Donald, secularization left the Greeks free to explore the new possibilities offered by such new mental tools as written language, mathematical systems for numbers and graphs, and the understanding of astronomy. By recording their thoughts about the world in words, the Greeks gave society a means to share and refine ideas. So – insofar as literature reinstates stories as a source of meaning, instead of the methods and materials of a scientific examination of our world, stories would appear to be a step backward in human thinking.
Let me distinguish between the place from which stories may have come and how we might use them now. Originally oral stories could be recreations of real everyday events, like the stories we tell around the dinner table. Such stories are grounded in a reality we can perceive through our senses. But language use developed in human societies in order to tell stories that were necessary as myths, as definitions of ultimate realities – they had religious significance and validity. Further, they governed everything: the meaning of clothing, food, shelter, family and the times for activities on which survival depended. The literature we study today is generally NOT approached as myth. Literature is NOT religion. Indeed, much of literature carries on it the mark of its own falsity. It’s my sense that literature, indeed, is sometimes more effective than science in exposing the falsities of prevailing myths. At a minimum, stories replace one myth with another, so that like analogies, they do expose the provisionality of any myth’s truth.
How do stories do this? An example might be a segment from the television series called Firefly (0:30-5:00 of "The Train Job"). This scene occurs during the fist five minuets of the introductory episode called "The Train Job." In it, Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his two crew members, Zoe and Jane, get into a fight over independents vs. the "empire" at a saloon, before being rescued from a large number of armed opponents by their "firefly" space ship. I assume that no one in an audience would take this segment for reality. In fact, we have an rather uneasy relationship to the images we see. On the one hand, these appear to be real people. We can test their talking, their sitting, and their fighting against our knowledge of external realities. On the other hand, other visual cues take us to the realm of stories: the western is a well-established (probably distorted) narrative about real American experiences in the past. Yet, for experienced viewers, this clip is not the "real" west, among other things because of the geisha, as well as the use of Chinese for some dialogue. Historians would be appalled. This lack of true reference to reality makes this episode potentially a story ABOUT stories about the west. Its violation of historical reference is deliberate. And the freeing of our sense of reality from a specific time and place is most thorough when the film episode adds a space ship to the world of the American west. At this point, the writer/director Joss Whedon has probably lost both the American historians and the physicists in the audience. As a literature professor, do not take that space ship exactly literally, though. Instead, I get the wittiness of Whedon’s juxtaposition of two story domains. He is not attempting to immerse us in the reality of the west or of space flight, but is rather trying to make us think about the implications of each imagined world – all the while hooking us with film’s other plausibilities, and the capacity of stories to work on our emotions and our sense of real social relations. "The west" becomes not a myth in which we must believe, but a tool by which we can examine how individuals might interact within a certain kind of social space. Narratives of this sort do not trick our sense of reality, but ask us to look at reality carefully, one might almost say objectively or scientifically.
The means by which literature generates a critical and thoughtful response to our human reality is through its refusal to be limited by time and space. That may sound at first as if it is a denial of the reality of time and space, but it is not. When we are mentally freed temporarily from the demands of the here and now, we are able to work on the improvement of our condition, in much the same way as a freedom from the demands of just staying alive permits us to improve our physical circumstances. Indeed, we are distinguishable from the other higher primates because we are not literalists all the time. I would like to offer another visual analog for this "truth" in a segment from another film –avowedly (and deliberately) another science fiction film. Minority Report by the director Stephen Spielberg is a futuristic murder mystery. In it, a police unit known as Pre-Crime is able to know when a murder is going to be committed by means of the imaginations of three special individuals whose minds can image the future. At the film’s opening (2:40 -5:00; 7:35-8:35 Minority Report), we are offered two divergent images that can serve as metaphors for ways to ascribe meaning. The rolling ball follows the arrow of time. It arrives ahead of the act it names but determined in its course by the necessity that one event follow another, like the gravity that carries the ball on its downward path. Scientists could well argue that this image conforms to the necessary reality of those physical objects that science tests and describes, and this necessity should order stories. The movement of that ball is predictable and repeatable by any number of independent researchers. On the other hand, Tom Cruise, as the police detective John Anderton, is manipulating images offered up by the unconscious of three pre-cogs that do not come in any such necessary order. He must try to organize their randomness. The complex reality that Anderton is trying to understand must be built from the welter of particular evidence. He must create a context that will locate the inevitable causal sequence within a particular domain.
As this film progresses, the viewer is repeatedly offered close-ups of clocks, as if such technological devices constitute proof of time's inescapable order. Yet memory has a habit of engaging in the kind of temporal slippage that Spielberg symbolizes, for example, by reordering space during the car chase. There is almost no sophisticated story that does not tangle its logical temporal order in some way, in the interests of creating meaning. And sometimes films also create impossible spaces. In Finding Neverland, a movie about the real life of the playwright J.M. Barrie, it is portrayed that Barrie brings his acting troupe to the drawing room of the dying Mrs. Llewellen-Davies, so that she can see the play that her sons have inspired (1:32:08-1:36:00 Finding Neverland). Only the most naïve of film viewers would believe that J. M. Barrie has managed to create the subsequent stage set within the confines of an Edwardian drawing room. At a certain moment in the film, the director is asking us to disconnect ourselves from literal reality and enter a different conceptual space. This imaginary space has, of course, a great deal of power over our own reality, because I imagine the physical bodies of a number in this audience responded to this fantasy as if it were real. Even if we were sufficiently intellectual to understand the meaning behind this piece of movie magic, we would still probably manage to feel sad. I think it is that kind of power that science hopes to minimize, for stories are capable of harnessing that power to some pretty awful untruths.
A recent article in the New York Time Sunday magazine suggests this danger, or opportunity. Matt Bai begins his argument on the magazine’s cover: "Once upon a time, in the Land of Beltway, the English language was being held prisoner by a band of Republicans. They said things like ‘death tax’ and ‘the liberal senator from Massachusetts’ and put good people of Happy Valley under a spell. The Democrats just didn’t get it. Then one day, a mysterious stranger came to happy Valley, carrying some very, very big books. And he told the Democrats that he had a plan . . . ." The cover image adds this apparent title: "The Story of How the Democrats Learned to tell Stories Again (or Is That a Fairy Tale, Too?)." On the inside, the actual title is more terse: it is "The Framing Wars." Bai offers a kind of working definition for "framing": framing is "choosing the language to define a debate and, more important, fitting individual issues into the contexts of broader story lines" (40). His example from recent events concerns Republican efforts to end the filibuster. Democrats made this a story of a powerful dominant party overstepping its bounds to eliminate an 200-year old rule in the middle of the game. That story was successful with the public last spring.
The individual who is teaching the Democrats this strategy of telling the right story is linguistics professor George Lakoff. His argument is that language use is linked to the mind’s conceptual structures, to the way each individual’s worldview and ideas inform the thought process. Bai questions whether words alone are enough to win elections. He concludes that words are not enough, that "the right words can frame an argument, but they will never stand in its place" (71). I wonder.
Actually, it may be that story-tellers are better at exposing the untruths of stories than scientists are, or at least as good. Let me return to Alan Sokal and his upset over the falsities offered up in the theories of well-known French intellectuals. Sokal did not take the scientific route of argument and evidence, even if he calls the submission of his article an "uncontrolled experiment" (49). In fact, his scholarly dishonesty is a part of some objections to his hoax. That is, he chose to tell a lie, to create a fiction, to rely upon, in fact, the method that literature uses to police within its own borders. He chose satire. I do believe that his single hoax did more to expose (if not explode) certain assumptions than any more measured or logical argument might have done. We in literature might not use a scientific method that includes double-blind studies or demands for replicability, but we do have a long tradition of pointing out when certain emperors have no clothes. The novel form is perhaps one long history of such parody and exposure, using the very doubleness of words and plots to expose the doubleness of words and plots.
In the end, it does come down to language, the control of language, and the power that derives from that control. It is apparent that it is about power because of the inevitable return of that pesky metaphor "war." C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis may have "framed" their disagreements in Britain in the 1950’s and ‘60’s as a "two cultures" debate, but this gentlemanly term has morphed into the culture wars, then the science wars, and with Matt Bai the framing wars. I have only two final topics to comment on in regard to this interesting phenomenon.
First, is language the problem? Are professors of literature mistaken when they consider everything just a text made up of words? We cannot avoid the fact that we swim in words, that none of our university disciplines can exist without language. All of our intellectual advances depend upon not only language, but upon written language, our ability to write down a rough idea, hold it still long enough to play with it and refine it, and then hand it on to other individuals widely separated from us in time or space, so that they can refine it further. How difficult life would become if we were reduced to acting out, to gesturing or miming our meanings.
Scientists would probably assert that the problem does not lie with language itself, but with the precision with which we use it and the limits we place on what it refers to. Words should clearly be tied to the things they are intended to represent. Statements about the real world should accurately represent that world. Words should have a kind of integrity, conveying their meaning impartially to any impartial observer. Mathematical language is the epitome of such word use, and the proof of its power lies in the enormous technological advances made through its use. Viewing my film segments would be impossible without it. But if language were always literal, I doubt that it would have helped to free our thinking from the limitations of our human senses or the appearances of our physical world. Language should have versatility as well as integrity.
Let me draw from F.R. Leavis, the humanist who opposed C.P. Snow in the original two cultures debate. As one scholar explains, Leavis believed that during the seventeenth century in Britain, language was no longer considered "the medium through which the shared human consciousness was created, but . . . [was] conceived as a tool to describe a reality that already existed. It was thus associated with description rather than creation -- the age of Shakespeare had given way to that of Newton. As if that were not bad enough, language was even cast as a barrier between the observer and the observed. That is, language – that which enabled thought – was now conceived of as its impediment, something to be circumvented through abstraction, mathematics, and plain prose" (Ortolano 168-69). To limit language to the logical and the clear was to deprive it of its capacity to connect and to create. Of course, that limitation is only partially true in the sciences. Even physicists, or perhaps especially physicists, who are working on the edges of our sense of physical reality draw upon language to do more than "refer." They "describe" quarks as having "flavors," such as "charm" and "strangeness."
I hope my argument about the value of both analogies and stories can serve to justify a broader approach to language than literal meaning. Alan Sokal rightly objects to meaningless language, to words unconnected to either real things or coherent ideas. But he is wrong to imagine that there is no benefit to using the connections between words to go to places that their original links to things might not suggest. Beyond this argument about the measured uses of language, we still have the question of whether the realities that the humanities and the sciences invoke through their words are of equal value today. Here we touch on the question of power in a new way. Have the sciences provided material benefits to human society that far outstrip anything the humanities an offer? Does this justify their dominance in university curricula and in university budgets?
Those who defend the sciences, like C.P. Snow and Alan Sokal, accuse humanists of being anti-science because they are anti-technology. C.P. Snow called literary intellectuals "Luddites," referring to those people in nineteenth-century Britain who broke the machinery of the industrial revolution in fear of their livelihoods. In the 1950’s he saw university humanists as proud of their ignorance of basic scientific theories. (I should add that he saw a similar disdain for humanistic knowledge on the part of university scientists.) If anything, the abstruseness of pure research in both the sciences and the humanities has since increased. Even within the sciences, I am sure that there are limits to what a chemist can properly evaluate in the work being done by a physicist. However, when we turn to the impact of our research on the public, the benefit that society gains from our work, there is little question that the advances in science are more noticed and admired that the latest literary theories. Yet, the example of Sokal’s hoax, and the story about Lakoff’s frames for influencing political behavior, should warn us that the story-tellers continue to have a powerful impact on public decisions. Let me give you one last example of this truth from an August 12 New York Times review of the film documentary The Century of the Self. Technological advances after World War II permitted the development of boxed cake mixes, which were intended to free housewives from the efforts of baking from scratch. These were a public failure, until marketers deduced that housewives felt guilty about their diminished role in cooking for their husbands. When the scientists at Betty Crocker altered their innovation to require that women add an egg to the boxed ingredients, the product was an enormous success. That success was not dependent upon the scientific effectiveness of the dry cake mix, but the story within which that mix would be incorporated.
To scientists this may seem like a failure of public good sense. But as Sokal himself says, "there are so many phenomena, even in physics, that are imperfectly understood, for the time being, that there is no reason to try to imitate the natural sciences when dealing with complex human problems. It is perfectly legitimate to turn to intuition or literature in order to obtain some kind of nonscientific understanding of those aspects of human experience that cannot, at least at present, be tackled more rigorously" ("Fashionable" 188). Given the degree to which complex human problems seem "chaotic" in the scientific sense, intuition and literature will probably be around for some time to come.
I have one remaining unexamined thread about the relative power of certain uses of language, and that is the relative power that the humanists and sciences have within the university. The space is too short for more than assertions: I hope my argument convinces people here that literature matters. It matters a lot. John Guillery, in his discussion of the two cultures, explains some of the reasons why English professors turned from literature to the more social scientific cultural studies. These include the increased demand for credentialing in technical as opposed to humanistic fields," and "the increased demand on the literary professoriate to remediate the language skills of an ever expanding and more demographically diverse population, effectively deemphasizing the study of literature" (p. 12 of 47). Like Guillory, I do not have space to justify these assertions, and like Guillory I see them as weakening the status of literary study among the university disciplines. I hope this essay serves to explain why we very much need literature professors as well as technical writers.
I close with what I consider a valuable example of the interconnections between science and the humanities: film itself. A little more than one hundred years ago, scientists and engineers provided the first motion picture apparatus. We have had ample evidence of its value for science in the images of the space shuttle Discovery as it left the earth in August. But perhaps even more profound than that scientific application is the fact of movies. When directors harnessed the science of the motion picture camera for story-telling, we gained an powerful marriage of science and art. With each scientific innovation, from faster film speeds to the steady cam, video and then the computer, artists drew upon the story-telling possibilities of the new technology to create ground-breaking films: Citizen Kane, The Shining, and even The Blair Witch Project and The Lord of the Rings. And all of us have seen films in which the absence of a good story-teller has resulted in a film that is a failure because it is simply technological wizardry.
There is a further advantage to film as an exemplar of science and art: Movies are social events. I do enjoy the freedom to watch films at home – because I gain artistic control over the medium through fast forward or endless repetition. But film is at its best when it is a social experience. As a matter of fact, the only other matter that I mentioned in my letter about delivering this lecture was my pleasure in talking about films with my fellow viewers, especially my not untalented children, afterward. I don’t necessarily like speaking immediately about what has moved me in a film, but I do think discussing and comparing the meanings that a film represents are important human social activities. These moments may be our version or gatherings around the human fire, when we collectively negotiate the meanings of our experiences. I would hope that humanists and scientists alike would engage in those kinds of conversations. They could even be about science and mathematics, and I would be excited to join in.
Bai, Matt. "The Framing Wars." The New York Times Magazine 17 July 2005: 38+.
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