SCIENCE, SOCIETY & CIVILISATION
(Issue 8, 2016)
PREFACE by Guest Editors Andy Hicks and Rob Mayo
The year is 2016. Three hundred and fifty years ago, in 1666, Isaac Newton formulated the Law of Universal Gravitation; two hundred and fifty years later, the publication of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity would once again revolutionise the field of physics. In that same year, 1916, during the advent of mechanised warfare on the fields of the Somme, the first successful use of cooled, stored blood in a transfusion was completed. A mere eighty years later, in 1996, the first successful clone of an adult mammal was created, just ten years after the catastrophic Chernobyl disaster. Scientifically speaking, such coincidences are not unusual. Nevertheless, rarely have the consequences of Homo sapiens’ predilection for knowledge been thrown into such sharp relief.
The epistemology, praxis and products of science have long been considered a measure of a society's civilisation status. Even in our postmodern era, predictive models based on empirical observation are still accorded pride of place – as are the people who produce them. In the public eye, great scientists often fulfil, at least notionally, the roles that intellectuals and philosophers once held. It is beguilingly easy to characterise scientific advancement as an uninterrupted progressive movement from ignorance to wisdom, poverty to wealth, misery to happiness. Nevertheless, it is surely in the spirit of science to constantly test this model; to question, examine and investigate the nature of the inextricable relationship that we share with science and technology. Nor need we restrict ourselves to the scientific method in doing so. As Edward O. Wilson once noted, science can never substitute for art when it comes to expressing the full richness of subjective human experience, and we delude ourselves when we believe that our part in the relationship is ever purely objective or rational. Social and cultural reactions to scientific and technological advances are as important as the advances themselves; they tell us as much about the human condition as they do their subject. The articles, creative pieces and reviews collected in this issue of HARTS & Minds engage with a selection of these reactions across a range of time periods, disciplines and genres. Some could be said to grapple with the difficulties of subjectivising the objective – in particular, the complex task of translating medical and scientific knowledge into the aesthetic realm. Others, conversely, uncover the subjectivities and prejudices that lurk at the heart of that same ‘objectivity’ – in particular, the naturalisation of gender segregation that has played so regrettable a role in the history of scientific theory and application thus far.
Science can be a tricky thing. Its objects, theories and conclusions may often seem abstract, esoteric, or counterintuitive. Perhaps in response to the ever-increasing complexity of scientific theory, a rich tradition of aesthetic (and, in particular, visual) responses to and representations of science has accompanied its historical practice. In ‘The Paradigmatic Evolution of Scientific Graphic Design’, Gill Brown traces the history of visual representation in the sciences, applying Thomas Kuhn’s famous paradigmatic theory of science to its graphical counterparts. Brown’s conclusion is interdisciplinary in scope; she notes that closer co-operation between scientists and graphic designers might produce insights yet untapped. Helena Bacon, meanwhile, takes as her subject a quintessentially modern mode of the visual arts – avant-garde cinema – but with a distinctly classical twist. In ‘Biology and the Baroque in Matthew Barney’s The Order’, the perhaps unlikely combination of the cremaster muscle, baroque aesthetics, and Deleuzian philosophy is brought together, as Bacon explores the medical, mythological and scientific imagery of Barney’s influential work. Moving from screen to stage, Christopher Herzog, in ‘Spectating the Mind: Dramatizations of Neuroscience in Mick Gordon and Paul Broks’ On Ego and Analogue’s 2401 Objects’, critically examines the use of projected visual material – in particular, the dissemination of brain imagery – in contemporary science plays. Herzog argues that these impressive visual displays are not as neutrally didactic as might initially be presumed, but instead veil altogether more ideological aspects within the practice.
The visual arts are not, of course, the only means by which the humanities might approach the sciences. In ‘King, Rebel, Soldier: Trauma and Culture before the 19th Century’, Sean Gullickson examines historical literary responses to trauma. Long before the term ‘trauma’ came to be seen as a psychological as well as a purely physical concept, writers struggled to define and depict its effects. Reading Gilgamesh and Henry IV Part 1 in relation to the work of Jerónimo de Pasamonte, a seventeenth century Spanish soldier, Gullickson tackles the complex interactions between trauma and culture by blending literary analysis with modern empiricism.
Needless to say, the last trauma of all – death – has been a preoccupation of literature since its very beginnings, and perhaps never so consistently or prominently as in the genre of crime fiction. But death is not as universal or as egalitarian here as one might assume – as Elena Avanzas Álvarez perspicaciously notes, the corpse ‘is the reason why crime fiction exists and, more often than not, that corpse is female’. In ‘Forensic Science and Forensic Thrillers: A Feminist Perspective on the Re/presentation of the Female Corpse’, Álvarez argues that the introduction of female forensic doctors in modern crime fiction, prompted by the feminist discourse of the 1980s and 1990s, has re/produced female corpses that are no longer presented as objects for masculinist investigation, but subjects with their own (sadly curtailed) stories. Unfortunately, these modern, progressivist developments are not always mirrored in the history of science, despite the field’s long insistence on its own objectivity; nevertheless, there still remains the potential for a few counterintuitive surprises. In two articles centred on the nineteenth century, Carolyn Laubender and Elizabeth Lowry examine the female figure as both the object and practitioner of science. In Laubender’s ‘The Eye of the Beholder: Visions of Sexual Difference in Darwin and Freud’, the origin stories of species life and of psychology, developed by the two thinkers, are shown to be figured through the narrative of sexual difference. Perhaps surprisingly, as Laubender notes, both thinkers specify the critical importance of the female gaze in their narratological theories; and while this does not necessarily denote a politically desirable position on either thinker’s part, Laubender suggests that this feature reflects the instability and contextuality of scientific knowledge production. Meanwhile, Lowry’s ‘“In Danger of Losing Our Charms”: Framing Femininity Vis a Vis Science and Technology at the Columbian Exposition of 1893’ rhetorically analyses the publications that surrounded the World’s Fair of that year, noting the tension between their portrayal of women as passive consumers and the fin de siècle concept of the ‘new woman’. Lowry argues that the discourse surrounding the fair, particularly regarding the work of female inventors and technologists, is exemplary in articulating the tensions inherent in the contemporary gender status quo.
Like the practice of science itself, the reviews and creative pieces of this issue are broad in scope, various in technique and subject, and distributed in time and space. Sixteenth century science – in its magical and medical guises – provides a fascinating glimpse at the antecedents of modern practices. Emily Soon reviews the summer 2016 exhibition ‘Scholar, Courtier, Magician: The Lost Library of John Dee’, a fascinating illustration of a time before scientific practices as we now know them coalesced, and of a figure whose enigmatic legacy has perhaps obscured an earnest and systematic thinker. Antonio Mileo, meanwhile, reviews the monumental 2010 monograph L’ospedale del reame. Gli Incurabili di Napoli, edited by A. Valerio and G. Rispoli. This exhaustive history of the sixteenth century ‘Hospital of the Incurables’ of Naples provides valuable insight into a fundamental locus of early medical practices. Our creative pieces return us to the twenty-first century, as Laurence Cotterell’s techno-gothic tale ‘The Ministry’ depicts a harrowing encounter in a hallucinatory London, and Ted Bonham subjects civilisation, narrative, and even science itself to the acid bath of falsifiability and scepticism in the avant-garde ‘Science: A Narrative Theory’. Daniel Martini’s elegiac poem ‘Naked’, meanwhile, grapples with the possibility of innocence or elegy in an ever more mediated world. Finally, Cain Shelley looks with cautious optimism to the future, in his review of Nick Srnicek’s and Alex Williams’ prognostic manifesto Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015).
The year is 2016. In a hundred years from now, in 2116, or fifty, in 2066, or even in ten, in 2026, the intertwined realms of science, society and civilisation may be unrecognisable, and our current cultural and technological practices perhaps reconceived as another step in the march of history. For better or for worse. Science is in the business of making predictions, but we will not presume to so uncomplicatedly appropriate its practices here. Instead, we hope that this fascinating collection of critical and creative work provides fertile ground for further meditation on the current state of the art – and, inevitably, inextricably, the current state of the arts.