Sunday, November 14, 2004

Science and literature: Henry Adams as a case study

My phone is ringing off the hook, and the FAX paper is rolling over onto the floor! Everyone is excited to find out what I think about the science of complexity as it appears in _The Education of Henry Adams_. I'm so busy answering everyone's questions that I haven't had time to finish writing the essay.
Actually, that's not really true, but it sounds so much better than the truth.

Still if you are indeed wondering what the heck I'm talking about, here's the shortest possible soundbite:

Literary productivity sometimes appropriates and alters scientific concepts, leading to insights that may become more interesting in the future—for both literature and science. A new interpretation of the classic autobiography-cum-historiography, The Education of Henry Adams (1907) is argued, showing how Adams used much of the lexicon and concepts of today’s advanced science of complexity – a century ahead of time. While Adams did not offer a coherent and full-blown theory of complexity, and while his application of physical science to human history remains deeply problematic, this uncanny and anachronistic coincidence needs to be explored. While most commentary and teaching on Adams is restricted to chapter 25 on “The Dynamo and the Virgin”, instead I argue that chapters 31 “The Grammar of Science” and chapter 34 “A Law of Acceleration” are more pivotal today after the advent of our science of complexity, and allow a reading of The Education in terms of its search for a new historiography derived from the “uncertainties,” “multiplicity” and “complexity” of modernist science. Hence this is a case study in the transactions between literature and science, the moral of which is anything but simple: models from physical science imported into a literary field do not necessarily need to remain faithful to that science’s discursive rules and results.

Literature, autobiography, and historiography do not necessarily intend to clarify physical science, but rather to complicate and multiply the range of references and analogies and implications within their own discursive fields, or even within a singular text. Here in this case, it is an exemplary Self vis-à-vis the accelerations and discontinuities of a deeply felt history, a self grappling to find some way to predict the future, some way beyond random chaos, only to send out ironic signals of the failure of this search. Call it paralogy or incommensurability if you like (Lyotard 1979) or simply alteration through recontextualization (see Debord on detournement), still the rhetorical complexity of such texts should not be read backwards into the hypothetical or thetical scientific phrases they appropriate. (We might call this the Sokal heresy of the retro-phrase.) After all, one principle of complexity is the “irreversible” nature of some processes, resulting in an emergent property that cannot be reduced to or predicted from the simpler order that preceded it in time. I propose likewise that literary appropriations are irreversible.

So now you see, I've ended the whole Sokal affair single-handedly. Yeah right.


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