Guest Post: B.R. Cohen

Today, my friend Ben Cohen helps us mind the gap.


February 27, 2008

Today, my friend Ben Cohen helps us mind the gap.

Ben is an environmental studies scholar who teaches Science, Technology, and Society (in the Engineering School), and Environmental History (in the History Department), at the University of Virginia. He writes for both academic journals (such asEnvironmental HistoryandConfigurations), and popular magazines (check hiscool interview with Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma in The Believer ). Ben also writes a dashing column called “B.R. Cohen’s Annals of Science” for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency , where he’s an assistant editor, and co-authors The World’s Fair, a blog that puts the sigh (of delight!) back in science. Read a previous guest posting here.


Too Much Culture But Not Enough to See
B.R. Cohen

I’ve never been a fan of the Two Cultures thing. Maybe it’s just C.P. Snow’s version that bugs me. Snow was such a bad novelist and, from that, I couldn’t avoid thinking he wasn’t a very good lecturer either. Thus I could only say his 1959 Rede Lecture at Cambridge (called “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” when later printed) was fine, as far as it goes. But as far as it goes, it doesn’t go far. That is, until it gets literary critic F.R. Leavis all uppity and this little battle between two cultures is off and running again and we get another half century of references and replays and debates slotted into that two-side form. But I don’t want to talk about it.

Instead, I’m sure my beef is this: There’s just so many ways to undermine the proposition and to cut things in two that it’s a shame to allow the Snow variant to hold sway.

We could historicize it and say, oh, what was so different about Snow’s 1959 lecture compared to T.H. Huxley’s (shown at right) in 1880? Huxley’s was called “Science and Culture.” It set off a little tiff with Matthew Arnold. Taking a day off from fighting the good fight for Darwin, Huxley said this: “All the subjects of our thoughts . . . may be classified under one of two heads—as matters of science and matters of art.” Arnold fired back in the 1882 Rede Lecture (same one as Snow, 77 years earlier), suggesting that scientific knowledge would eventually be “to the majority of mankind, after a certain while, unsatisfying, wearying.” Snow himself was a replay.

Or we could debunk by going the route of the “lots of cultures” camp. Folks have done that by and by. What makes physicists and novelists so dichotomous that doesn’t make the astrophysicist and geneticist as equally distinct? What common grounds do the poet, sociologist, and media studies scholar have that bind them on one side of a divide (not science) against a polymer processing researcher, computer scientist, and wildlife ecologist (science)? I’ve sat in talks by ecologists that, I swear, were constructed without the aid of the English language. But I’ve also seen talks by media studies folks that were equally devoid of the language I’d considered my mother tongue. And poetry? I’m told it doesn’t even have to rhyme.

But then there are other ways to cut things in two. There’s the science/religion thing; people force that into a two-culture framework. But that’s just it, it’s forced, as if they had to slot things that way. Consider this, which will get us to a Science/God divide. Here’s the Baghavad Gita (Chapter 2, Line 14 [500 b.c.e.]):

From the world of the senses…comes heat and comes cold, and pleasure and pain. They come and they go: they are transient. Arise above them, strong soul.

And then this ominously similar sentiment, by the ill-fated Marquis de Condorcet, who nearly lost his head in another famous two-culture divide between those promoting The Terror and those subject to it ( Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind [1795]):

Man is born to receive sensations; to perceive them and to distinguish between the various simple sensations of which they are composed…. Sensations are attended by pleasure and pain; and man for his part has the capacity to transform such momentary impressions into permanent feelings of an agreeable or disagreeable character…

The Sanskrit text encompasses a tale of the human spiritual quest, resulting in a vision of God in all things, and vice versa. Condorcet’s text rushes through a tale of physical and social human history, resulting in a vision of perpetual growth of humanity, beyond the realm of God. One story rests with God; the other beyond. One is about identity, of who we are; the other is about progress, of who we will become. All the more curious that Condorcet met the mob and didn’t see much of that future. But, lest I leave this as a digression, isn’t it more intriguing to wonder why there would only be two choices? ‘Who we are’ v. ‘Who we will become’? A world through God’s eyes and one beyond God? We only get two choices?

And why not other divides? What about the solitary thinker versus the team player? Think about Descartes escaping the cold Europe of Christian philosophy, peering out the window of his tiny poêle to check on the Thirty Years’ War, and collecting his thoughts in that shuttered-up stove-heated room. Reflecting on that (circa 1619) in his Discourse (1637), he says “that there is often not as much perfection in works composed of many pieces and made by the hands of various craftsmen as there is in those works on which but a single individual has worked.” And so the God-given rationality of the human mind was sufficient to begin figuring out the world, to let a single individual work it out. He wanted to do it alone. Not very good for conversation, I suppose, to be holed up like that. So why not a divide between the conversationalist and the silent observer? Are we supposed to decide which is better?

And what about the academic stuff straight-on: The guy at the departmental seminar who yammers on about his own interests to the speaker regardless of its relevance to the actual topic at hand, versus the other guy who’s asleep in the back row? Is there an arrogant/sleepy divide in academia? What about the divide between the class with PowerPoints and the class with overhead slides? Or, gasp, chalkboards? Or those who prefer the late afternoon lecture to the early morning rise-and-shiner? How about one of the more prominent divides in the engineering school where I work: Those who prefer the chairs that raise and lower with that little lever under the seat versus those who like the plastic chairs with wheels that let you lean back and rock a little bit as you offer a pensive pose to the class? Maybe Snow didn’t have that option. Maybe I’m being too presentist.

Is it perhaps not about different cultures at all but about ways of seeing the world, as with the geographer Donald Meinig, who has a dazzling chapter called “Ten Versions of the Same Scene” in The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes, or Wallace Stevens on “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, Dorie Bargmann on “Thirteen More Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, or Jenny Price, with “13 Ways of Seeing Nature in LA”? So why must we have dichotomies, instead of views of 10? Or 13? Why not 42? Cultural bipartitions all buy into the same easy game. Can’t we see farther?

OneCulture, two cultures, the new two cultures, beyond two cultures, beyond culture, a third culture, a fourth culture, many cultures, I don’t know. I said I didn’t want to talk about it. I’m not sure we’re getting anywhere.


Back to Top