Friday, July 14, 2006


Science and the Humanities


My favorite magazine is American Scientist, which we get because my wife is an engineer but which I am always the first to read. Unlike Scientific American or even my beloved Natural History (which I've been reading for more than 30 years), American Scientist hasn't gone too far down the path of mere journalism and advocacy: real scientists still write a lot of the articles and the level of discourse is very high without being obscure.

So I was very interested to see an article in the past month's A S by Geoffrey Galt Harpham, a literature professor at the National Humanities Center (I didn't even know we had one!). Since my own research attempts a dialogue between scientific insights and humanistic scholarship, I was very pleased to see something from a fellow English professor in American Scientist.

[Now, before I go further, an aside: in my very first class in the Loyola Chicago Ph.D. program, we read and discussed Harpham's The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism, and I have to admit, I was not a big fan and perhaps said and wrote some things (which may be archived somewhere) that were intemperate. Some very, very good discussions came out of that seminar ("The Body in Medieval Art and Literature," taught by Allen J. Frantzen), but I found the book to embody many of the most irritating tics of late-80s/early-90s: over-citiation of the same old tedious theoriests, gimmicky uses of parentheses, overuse of antithesis ("anti-professionalism turns out to be professionalism's most typical gesture") as if the revealed "paradox" was a blinding insight, etc. And yet when Harpham was discussing the Isenheim Altarpiece in particular, he was genuinely insightful, and his linkage of ascetisim to criticism was pretty convincing.

One more point in Harpham's favor: I was able to use Harpham to at least give pause to David Halperin, who was the single most obnoxious guest speaker with whom I have ever dealt. Others have told me that Halperin is actually a nice guy, but you couldn't prove it by his behavior at Loyola, where he over did the whole "I'm angry and defensive" schtick to just exactly the wrong audience: really, you are coming to meet and talk with a bunch of graduate students in the worst job market in decades and you are whining that you don't have graduate students at a tenure-track job at MIT? We cobble together the funds to invite you to speak to us and then you act hostile and obnoxious? Also, when you've just had an hour-long discussion with 90% of the audience for your talk, you look kind of foolish when, for the actual talk, you need to put on a leather-daddy hat. Just saying. Anyway, my very pleasant moment was when I asked Halperin about the chapter, "St Foucault," in Harpham's book. Halperin went absolutely white. He hadn't read it, which was no big deal, but his own new book, which was in press, was entitled St Foucault. No big deal, actually, but it was nice to see someone squirm who had been a big jerk for the rest of the day. And lesson from this: the little people remember.]

So I didn't have particularly high hopes for Harpham's essay, and I wasn't particularly disappointed. I agree with Harpham that more connection between the sciences and the humanities is desireable, but what he actually says isn't specific enough. And the program he is running at the National Humanities Center is very laudable:

Research Triangle Park, NC. The National Humanities Center seeks scholars in the humanities, as well as those working in biological or computational science, to participate in a three-year project that will gather, synthesize, and promote new knowledge about fundamental human capacities, including such higher-order capacities as communication, imagination, judgment, and creativity. Participants in the project will pursue their own projects, but will also share responsibility for the ongoing initiative, including lectures, symposia, and, at the conclusion of the project, a Web archive of its findings. Interested scholars are encouraged to apply to the Center (see Fellowships on the Center's homepage)
.

But the problem with these kinds of calls (and they've been around for a while, including E. O. Wilson's Consilience) is twofold. First, the scientists involved tend to give the very strong impression that the humanists need to learn from them but not necessarily vice versa. I am obviously engaging in a little hubris here, but I think that an evolutionary biologist could also get some good ideas from How Tradition Works just as I got a lot of good ideas from evolutionary biology and even more from various literary and historical scholars.

Second, and perhaps more problematic, is that between the manifestos, theoretical arguments (and their tiresome refutation), funding requests, announcements, etc., the interdisciplinary work never seems to get done. This is a problem with academia in general, and of course for a lot of people, you can't do the research without the funding (one reason why the Sheep DNA project is temporarily stalled), but one big difference between the humanities and the sciences is that for many of our projects, we don't need to go through a multi-stage funding review: we just go to the library, sit down at the computer, and just do it. Let's hear about the results.

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