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The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science

by Bruce Clark and Manuela Rossini, Editors
Routledge, NY, NY, 2012
542 pp. Trade, $220; paper, $49.95
ISBN: 978-0-415-49525-7; ISBN: 978-0-415-50959-6.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg
Department of Transtechnology
University of Plymouth

The publication of this important collection of essays is presented as a defining moment in the consolidation of trandisciplinary convergences.  Explicitly situated as the foundational text for a new field of study in its own right––“Literature and Science”––it is essentially a post-modern text about literary cross-disciplinary contact zones. Composed of 44 essays by leading figures in their fascinating and mostly recently emergent respective fields, and including two essays by practicing scientists, Jay Labinger and Stephen Norwick, it provides the most concise and advanced current reflection on the connections between literature and science. All in all, it is an exciting introduction to the intellectual work taking place at the cutting edge of trans-disciplinary research.

Providing an authoritative documentary base on the subject for professional scholars, it will be of immense value for cross-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary teaching and research. Divided into three parts, it ranges widely. Part One consists of 20 essays on “co-evolutionary” conjunctions in literature and science namely: artificial intelligence and life, alchemy, biology, chaos and complexity theory, chemistry, climate science, cognitive science, cybernetics, ecology, evolution, genetics, geology, information theory, mathematics, medicine, nanotechnology, physics, psychoanalysis, systems theory and thermodynamics. Part Two consists of 14 essays on disciplinary and theoretical approaches in the fields of agricultural studies, animal studies, art connections, cultural science studies, deconstruction, e-literature, feminist science studies, game studies, the history of science, media studies, the philosophy of science, posthumanism, science fiction and semiotics. Lastly, Part Three covers literature and science in different periods and cultures specifically Greece and Rome, the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. It includes two essays on the Scientific Revolution (from Copernicus to Boyle and from Newton to Laplace) and others on Romanticism, Industrialism, Modernism and Postmodernism. For the sake of geographic, historic and cultural range, the cases of Russia and Japan are considered as noted above though future companions could easily extend this to other cultures, places and times. In short, it is an indispensable resource for appreciating the range of theoretical and disciplinary approaches used in this new discipline. Encyclopedic in nature, the essays are extremely interesting and pithy with concisely relevant bibliographies.

For the field of Literature and Science, this is in effect––the bible. It will perform the same function that two other Routledge compendiums did for cultural studies in the 1990’s, namely Cultural Studies (Grossberg, Nelson and Treichler 1992) and The Cultural Studies Reader (During 1993). This lineage is important to emphasize here because of the obvious effect flagship authors from cultural studies such as Donna Haraway have had on this new and closely allied field.  Accordingly, this related companion will be particularly useful for classes in cultural studies, the history of science, and in honor’s college classes on each of the many subjects noted above.  However, as importantly if not more so, if it were to be used in undergraduate or graduate science classes, it could stimulate a profound appreciation of how literature and culture has been informed by science and thus a wider understanding of the enduring importance of literature and the humanities to science. While it will be inspirational for those working in the humanities and social sciences on science related subjects, whether it is truly transdisciplinary or merely inter-disciplinary is open to serious debate. Transdisciplinarity would require that the study of “literature and science” will advance theory and practice in science. There appears to be little or no evidence of that potential here.

Throughout the companion, the authors and the editors consistently refer to C. P. Snow’s notion of Two Cultures, that rank notion of a complete separation of 20th Century science and literature, albeit as too often is the case.  In this the book attempts to definitively address the Two Cultures legacy within each of the many disciplines considered. It systematically addresses issues associated with disciplinary boundaries and the languages that constitute these boundaries. Explicitly postmodernist, yet always articulated very clearly, it aims to illustrate “counter-trends toward transdisciplinary convergences in differences . . . .” The authors who do directly address C. P. Snow’s notion judge it “pat” and “naïve” and yet manage to simultaneously maintain and advance the essential idea of separate disciplinary spheres produced and enclosed through language.  The shared axiom of faith here is that literature and science are “no longer” seen as so starkly separate. Yet with the Yudkin and Levis Cambridge debate in mind, one should surely question this assumption that there ever was such consensus on Snow’s divide, at least in the UK.

Finally, these diverse interpretive communities are committed to addressing and overcoming the problem of humanists’ fluencies in science. Therein lies the transdisciplinary challenge.  Considering the nature of this problem, and the unresolved issues relating to the Science Wars that will surely dog this work, this companion is rather more of a cross-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary contact zone than a transdisciplinary bible.  Any such potential critiques from the scientific and positivist transdisciplinary community aside, the companion is nevertheless an essential resource for academics interested in both literature and science, that is, pointedly using the two terms separately.  It will be of great use to those teaching across the sciences, humanities, and social sciences and of special use for those teaching or learning about both relatively new and old disciplines such as nanotechnology and cybernetics. Endlessly fascinating, it is interesting to contemplate the authors probing the tangled banks of these disciplinary convergences, following the roots wherever they may lead, each essay so different from each other and yet so dependent on each other and in so complex a manner.  It is particularly fitting that the companion ends with a memorably succinct discussion on postmodernism emphasizing plurality. In the end there is a grandeur in this book. It is, however, more likely to return the reader to reconsider Romanticism from new perspectives than to foster the requisite appreciation of what constitutes science and why there are important irreconcilable differences that matter. It is thus unlikely to be as useful to science (not science studies) as it should be and thus its transdisciplinary nature and function is questionable.

Why emphasize this point? We learn here that it was in the Romantic period that the sciences and humanities were profoundly inter-tangled, so much so as to be inseparable from each other and indispensable to each other. In that period, as we also learn here, C.P Snow’s divide made no sense at all.  That aside, the C. P Snow debate being clearly ripe for a critical evaluation, throughout the book the essays attempt to create a grey zone between fact and fiction that will and should bother scientists no end.  Over this divide, no matter the mutual fascination and theoretical physics, forlorn we must stand apart – laboratory and field science divorced from literature.  Is not the transdisciplinary function said to exist in this new field and claimed as immanent in this study merely a matter of discourse, a fiction, a merely wishful discursive “fact”? There perhaps lies the most important and consequential argument between those in science and those in “literature and science” that could result from this collection. Such debate could clarify the difference between science and literature and thus provide a better formulation of the conjunctions that exist in “literature and science” where the grey zone is the contact zone.


Last Updated 1 November 2012

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