The discourse of reconciling two epistemologically fundamental yet disparate cultures (the humanities and the natural sciences) has come a long way. From the unfortunate decade of the 1990s when such a discourse – or rather, emotionally-charged debate – was dubbed ‘The Science Wars’ to today’s more productive debates, intellectuals from both camps are finally attempting to bridge a divide that had heretofore been left gapingly open. Websites such as the one this article is published on [www.alan-shapiro.com] have served as a medium for reflection, debate and discussion on this topic. I would like to contribute to the discussion by expanding upon an idea which was briefly mentioned in Alan N. Shapiro’s lecture ‘Media Theory: Beyond the Dualities of Form and Content’ [delivered at Trent University in Canada on January 26, 2012]. In that lecture [available here as an article], one of the most important issues in how we conciliate the humanities and the natural sciences was briefly articulated. This was evidenced in the first line of the article where the author momentarily mentions the distinction between interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary.
The epistemological implications of reconciling the humanities with the natural sciences will be mediated through a rethinking of the terms interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary. But before discussing the semantic difference between the prefix trans- versus the prefix inter- and how this difference may alter the understanding of the word ‘disciplinary’, I think it would be worthwhile to first consider some important published contributions to the discourse of reconciliation between the natural sciences and the humanities. This brief appraisal of the literature may allow for an invigorated approach to our current project, while possibly also pointing to new methods and possibilities.
One recent text that touches on this debate is Normand Baillargeon’s Liliane est au lycée (2011). Baillargeon is a professor of education at the Université de Québec à Montréal. In this text, he interrogates the importance of being cultured, or rather having a knowledge of “la culture générale”. Baillargeon’s main concern lies in promoting the significance of obtaining a general culture, and he interrogates the question of what a ‘general culture’ actually consists. This debate, he claims, has been absent within the academic francophone world which has not gone through the ‘canonical debates’ seen in the humanities, particularly in literature departments throughout the academic anglophone world of the 1990s. Whereas traditionally this debate has centered upon the cultural importance of some literary texts over others, Baillargeon argues that however we define the “general culture”, it is imperative that we expand our concepts and include a knowledge of the natural sciences.
Baillargeon expresses lament over the current separation between the humanities and the natural sciences. He recounts aspects of Charles Percy Snow’s infamous 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures”. Baillargeon rehashes Snow’s claim of how there is a mutual ignorance of each other’s disciplines. Traditionally, Baillargeon asserts, people from the humanities tend to be more proud of their ignorance of the natural sciences than vice versa. Here, Baillargeon falls prey to making, like Snow before him, gross generalizations about people from a given intellectual community. Following this line of thinking, Baillargeon goes on to disparage what he calls the “pedants and charlatans” of academia, a not so veiled attack on postmodernist and poststructuralist-identified French intellectuals, whom he claims have been blindly lauded by their many disciples in the humanities.
To some, the denigration of these apparent ‘pedants and charlatans’ is nothing particularly new when one considers the Science Wars of the 1990s. The Science Wars is a term used to describe the series of intellectual exchanges between ’scientific realists’ and adherents of ‘postmodernism’ which culminated in what is known as the ‘Sokal Affair’, which subsequently gave birth to a book entitled Fashionable Nonsense (1998), written by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. The book attempts to call out various intellectuals who, in the authors’ view, have been incorrectly using science and mathematical formulas to explain and present their cultural theories. Despite the subsequent fallout from this, in many ways this antagonism between the ‘two cultures’ has subsided over the last decade. It now appears that we are entering into a post-Science Wars discourse where, more than ever, there seems to be a desire to develop what Charles P. Snow has termed an in-between ‘Third Culture’, one that would reconcile the former two.
One of the most recent pleas for attempting to establish this idealized ‘Third Culture’ occurs in the winter 2012 edition of the literary journal Brick. In the article entitled “The Culture of Science Divided Against Itself”, theoretical physicist Lee Smolin laments the gap between the two cultures of the humanities and the natural sciences. He hopes to serve as “an ambassador from the scientific world to the literary world” (Smolin 134). Smolin recounts the divide caused by the Science Wars, particularly in reference to the Sokal affair, yet stresses the need to inaugurate an era of civility and an exchange of ideas between the two cultures. Furthermore, Smolin points to the current division in the natural sciences, which he characterizes as comprising two opposing clusters of opinion of scientists who believe “in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory, the anthropic principle, and the strong artificial intelligence hypothesis” and “[m]any people [who] disbelieve all three” (Smolin 137). Smolin believes that the underlying disagreement that shapes the configuration of these views clustering on one side or the other side is the respective views of time. One side he characterises as “friendly to a picture of the world in which time is real, in which the present exists and so is different from the past, which no longer exists, and the future, which has yet to exist” and the other side in which “time is an illusion and all that is real or true is so timelessly” (Smolin 137). Some may take umbrage with the accuracy of such a characterization, but regardless, most would recognize this disunity at the roots of the natural sciences, particularly in physics, one which Smolin believes can only be reconciled by first reconnecting the gap between the humanities and the natural sciences: “The main limitation we face is lack of imagination. Which is one more reason why we scientists and humanists should heal our divisions and be in closer touch” (Smolin 137).
Smolin is not the only scientist who has made overtures at reconciling the two cultures. In 2007, a critically and commercially acclaimed book, Proust was a Neuroscientist, was published by Jonah Lehrer, a graduate of Columbia university in neuroscience and former Rhodes Scholar who studied 20th century literature at Oxford. In his text, Lehrer discusses many great artists such as Walt Whitman, Paul Cézanne and Marcel Proust while focusing on the scientific hypotheses that, he claims, were imbricated in their various works of art. His central thesis is that “Science needs art to frame the mystery, but art needs science so that not everything is a mystery,” further claiming that “[s]cience is seen through the optic of art, and art is interpreted in the light of science” (Lehrer xii). Like Smolin, Lehrer puts great hope in the reconciliation of the two cultures, implying that the natural sciences should be more open to the scientific theories implicit in various works of art and fiction. This presupposes, however, that the scientific community would be open to fictional theorization, a proposition that seems unlikely. Apart from the publication of Proust was a Neuroscientist, Lehrer has also recently been working on understanding the science of creativity as well as the creative process.
The previous textual examples indicate a desire to reconcile the humanities with the natural sciences anew, to bridge the widened gap created during the Science Wars. The above mentioned friction would lead one to believe that it is imperative that we proceed with caution, in order to avoid another Science Wars-esque situation. Yet how can the humanities – or, more importantly, its frequent object of study, the arts – be warned to proceed into this dance cautiously, when at its core, such a caveat is the complete antithesis of its being
? Art is at its most banal and useless when it plays safe.
So perhaps another way to approach this problem is to consider the difference between an inter-disciplinary and a trans-disciplinary method. More importantly, what are the possible differences that are signified by these two disparate terms?
A denotative analysis of the prefix ‘inter-’ in any online dictionary leads us to a list of synonyms among which ‘between’, ‘among’, ‘mutually’, ‘reciprocally’, and ‘together’ appear. The prefix ‘trans-’, however, reveals synonyms such as ‘across’, ‘beyond’ and ‘through’. Both lists of synonyms are similar but are also different in very important ways. Inter- has the connotations of ‘cooperation’ and ‘reciprocity’, whereas trans- can be said to have a connotation of ‘beyond the known limits’.
A transgression of limits and distinctions is what is underscored in Jean Baudrillard’s book, The Transparency of Evil (1990). In this important text, Baudrillard interrogates how “[i]n the postmodern media and consumer society, everything becomes an image, a sign, a spectacle, a transaesthetic object — just as everything also becomes trans-economic, trans-political, and trans-sexual” (Kellner). Ironically, Baudrillard was making a critique of “postmodern” culture even though commentators like Kellner mistakenly saw Baudrillard as being symptomatic of that postmodern culture. For Baudrillard, the proliferation of images and signs in our postmodern, or perhaps better, transmodern world, complicates what were previously firmly defined categories:
“The law that is imposed on us is the law of the confusion of categories […] Each category is generalized to the greatest possible extent, so that it eventually loses all specificity and is reabsorbed by all other categories. When everything is political, nothing is political any more, the world itself is meaningless. When everything is sexual, nothing is sexual anymore, and sex loses its determinants. When everything’s is aesthetic, nothing is beautiful or ugly any more and art itself disappears.” (Baudrillard 10)
Therefore the trans- here – as well as all trans- terms throughout Baudrillard’s text (transpolitics, transaesthetics, transeconomics, etc.) – connotes a ubiquity that nullifies distinctions and thus makes each category, each distinction, transparent because its difference is effaced.
This contamination of signs that leads to a ‘transparency’ can also lead, paradoxically, to an effective epistemological tool. Consider Baudrillard’s later claim that:
“[I]t should be possible for certain processes – economic, political, linguistic, cultural, sexual, even theoretical and scientific – to set aside the limitations of meaning and proceed by immediate contagion, according to the laws of the pure reciprocal immanencies of things among themselves rather than the laws of their transcendence or their referentiality – that this is possible poses an enigma to reason while offering a marvellous alternative to the imagination.” (Baudrillard 78)
This thrilling erasure of mediation described above can be seen as evident in our postmodern condition. The lack of attention and constant need to skip from one site of information (whether this be a website, television channel, etc.) to another, matched with the increasing clinical diagnosis of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or low attention spans, seems to confirm Baudrillard’s observation. More importantly, what Baudrillard had also accurately noted is how this loss of mediation entertains us:
“Anything that bypasses mediation is a source of pleasure. In seduction there is a movement from the one to the other which does not pass via the same […] In metamorphosis, the shift is from one form to another without passing via meaning. In poetry, from one sign to another without passing via the reference. The collapsing of distances, of intervening spaces, always produces a kind of intoxication.” (Baudrillard 79)
Baudrillard’s mention of poetry is very important here. One of the most effective and enduring tropes in poetry is metaphor. However, metaphor is not just reserved for the literary community, for as James Geary points out in I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way We See The World
“is at work in all fields of human endeavour, from economics and advertising, to politics and business to science and psychology […] Metaphorical thinking – our instinct not just for describing but for comprehending one thing in terms of another […] shapes our view of the world, and is essential to how we communicate, learn, discover and invent.” (Geary 3)
Metaphor, therefore, provides one of the best vehicles to bypass mediation that can facilitate a sense of wonderment, at least in a Baudrillardian sense noted above. But, according to Baudrillard, in a ‘transmodern’ world where images are continuously becoming unhinged of meaning, metaphor may also be under threat:
“[T]he possibility of metaphor is disappearing in every sphere […] because for there to be metaphor, differential fields and distinct objects must exist. But they cannot exist where contamination is possible between any discipline and any other” (Baudrillard 8).
Baudrillard’s warning is that the usage of metaphor as a epistemological tool to transgress from one discipline to another must be used cautiously. This can be interpreted as implying that the various circumstantial methods, or rather how they are used, can make metaphor an effective tool but can also make metaphor complicit in undermining the differences between disciplines.
In a paradoxical way, Baudrillard’s concern about the usage of metaphor is strikingly similar to Sokal et al’s concern insofar as the latter claims that various French intellectuals use scientifically-based metaphors to prove cultural and social theories. Which is to say that on a very basic level, both parties are concerned about the transgressions between two divergent disciplines, such as science and art, and how such transgressions affect the disciplines. Both sides are immensely concerned about the implications of transdisciplinary studies in the sense that they are weary of attempting to understand each other’s discipline through the lens of an other discipline. One might argue that Sokal et al’s concern is with ‘how’ science metaphors are used, in other words how accurately or correctly. Although I am greatly sympathetic with this point, I would argue that this is a necessary risk of transdisciplinary studies. There is an amazing confluence between Sokal’s Fashionable Nonsense and Baudrillard’s The Transparency of Evil. Sokal and Baudrillard’s concerns both reflect the dangers of transdisciplinary and they are respectfully noted, but that does not mean that it is not worth the risk of using a transdisciplinary methodology. In fact, this risk emphasises the importance of transdisciplinarity, and it further reflects the fact that transdisciplinary studies are more effective than interdisciplinary studies, as it attempts to go ‘beyond’ rather than simply reciprocating or recycling knowledge.
A great example of how this might be done lies in an interesting usage of metaphor in Michael Ondaatje’s postmodern-identified novel The English Patient. Here, the narrator claims: “When sunlight enters a room where there is a fire, the fire will go out” (Ondaatje 195). Obviously this is not objectively true, but here lies a poetic sensibility that makes us feel that it is true because, on some level, it seems true that a fire is impossible to see in a brightly lit room. Evidently, one could simply say that a fire is more difficult to see in a brightly lit room. Then someone (an educator) may ask: Why is this? Here a scientific explanation of light particles, etc., which would explain why fire is more difficult to see in a brightly lit room would be helpful, perhaps followed by an experiment. This is the world of interdisciplinarity. How it moves to transdisciplinary is when one can go into an explanation of why this metaphor is important to the text, in that the usage and contrast of light and dark are recurring metaphoric tropes throughout the text and then ask: What can they be said to represent, in each instance? When they are used, what does the light signify, what does the dark signify? Are there moments when a competing usage of light blocks out another usage of light in the text? Are there moments in light particle physics that prove this to be true?
Where the transdisciplinariness of the above example becomes particularly effective is when an educator uses an interdisciplinary model and inspires the students to go ‘beyond’, using the interdisciplinary information at hand to make transdisciplinary observations and possibly new discoveries or insights; in other words, to challenge heretofore predominant concepts and theories and push beyond such models. It is evident that this will possibly engender mistakes and misuses of information from the discipline of the others, but if ‘imagination’ is what is needed to reconcile the natural sciences and the humanities – as Smolin and others have implied – then we must understand that imagination has a paradoxical nature. Imagination is often generated and spurred by absurd and nonsensical attempts in the usage and interpretation of science. To get the benefits of “science fiction” one must also allow the freedom of the artist of “science fiction.”
Can the natural sciences and the humanities finally be reconciled? In an interdisciplinary way, I believe this is possible. But in a transdisciplinary way, this might be nearly impossible. The natural sciences need to be open to the playfulness inherent in the arts, particularly the playful nature that the arts have in toying with scientific observations. As I detailed above, transdisciplinary methods can promote interesting ways of thinking, and one way this is possible is through metaphor. But if the natural sciences are creating the strict guidelines to when and how metaphors (and other such artistic devices) are used, the possibility of reconciliation seems fraught.
But we know that Impossible is Nothing.
Baillargeon, Normand. Liliane Est Au Lycée: Est-il Indispensable D’être Cultivé? Paris: Flammarion, 2011. Print.
Baudrillard, Jean. The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena. 1990. London: Verso, 2009. Print.
Geary, James. I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. Print.
Kellner, Douglas, “Jean Baudrillard”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2009/entries/baudrillard/>.
Lehrer, Jonah. Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Print.
Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient: A Novel. 1992. New York: Knopf, 1993. Print.
Smolin, Lee. “The Culture of Science Divided Against Itself”. Brick. Winter: 2012. 131- 137. Print.