Thursday, December 28, 2006

CP Snow's Two Cultures Today

Scientist and novelist CP Snow declared fifty years ago that the educated classes were becoming two cultures, literary and scientific.

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics, law of entropy. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: 'Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?'

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, 'Can you read?' — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.

This was controversial, not least because literary people felt put down and insulted. Criticism fell into four broad categories: Snow had overstated the case; the divide was not new; a third culture was developing even as he had spoken; and Snow had helped worsen the divide by building fences. Snow came to partially agree with all these, while retaining his original view as essentially correct.

The cultural landscape has changed in the last fifty years, but there remains a core truth in Snow’s proposition. I have been writing much about the Arts & Humanities Tribe over the last few months which bears directly on the issue. For any new readers, a quick review. I was raised in the Arts & Humanities Tribe which is now so anti-Bush, anti-conservative, anti-neocon. Many groups might criticise this administration for other reasons. There are conservative and libertarian criticisms of the current administration, but the critical groups generally consitute the Democrat coalition: government unions, African-Americans, and liberals. The A&H Tribe constitutes much of the proud-to-be-blue-state liberals. I have criticised their position as being founded on emotion and tribalism more than reason. Their criticism of Bush and the red-state voters is often ill-concealed social criticism and cultural disdain.

I am not completely satisfied with my own choice of words in designating this group as the Arts and Humanities Tribe. Those in the social sciences are overwhelmingly in this group, yet many of those have little actual knowledge of arts and letters. Their philosophies are watered-down from A&H originals, and they adopt the language and attitudes of that tribe. Flowing in the other direction, the liberal arts have become suffused with the social sciences: much of history and literature are now warmed-over sociology, anthropology, and bad economics.

Confusing the terms further is the strong grounding many conservatives have in the traditional arts and humanities of Western Intellectual thought. They read history and literature, they know art and music. To exclude William F. Buckley or Victor Davis Hanson from the A&H designation would seem to dissolve the entire construct. In knowledge of literature and history before 1900, in fact, conservatives perhaps exceed liberals.

The enormous tectonic shifts over the last fifty years, and especially the last twenty, have come from the science and technical side of the culture. Science geeks read a lot of science fiction, a much-despised genre that has provided most of the original thought of the second half of the 20th Century. Certainly, it has provided enormous amounts of crap in the form of half-baked philosophy, formulaic adventure stories with science accessories, and ill-disguised fantasies of omnipotence. But in a world in which technical marvels are increasingly invading the cultural environment and changing behavior, science fiction often provides the only examples of near-future problems even being addressed.

Early on, science fiction was also called “speculative fiction,” and I wish that name had caught on better, as it retains a good deal of what is important. It is science fiction to imagine a mechanism by which someone could read minds and create an adventure about it. It is speculative fiction to try and work through the real consequences in a culture. How would friends and family react? What balances of power would be upset? Could a human personality endure the knowledge? It is one thing to imagine what fun people would have if machines did all our work; quite another to to imagine what this would do to the human character and what we might attempt in response. It is this speculative aspect that makes science fiction important intellectually. It is the lack of this that makes alienation in chicana fiction, or irony in Queer Studies barely worth mentioning. Speculative fiction has wildly explored the alienation of sentient beings which are different life-forms from each other, and societies where there are four distinct sexes, or parthenogenesis. Modern literature and high art seem tepid and timid in comparison, which is why they have needed to rely increasingly on sexual shock, predictably leftist sentiments, and social transgression to attract any attention at all.

Science fiction is predominantly Anglospheric, especially American, as well. The Europhilic and oriental fascination of the A&H crowd derives directly from the transnational nature of their studies. This is much less evident in science fiction, or science in general.

The science and technology crowd has made another enormous inroad into the arts & letters as well. The production of art for audience has become increasingly technical. Music, film, and theater have increasingly required not only technicians, but artists who understand the technology, and technicians who understand the art. It is still possible to carve out a career in the arts with little technical knowledge, but those opportunities are increasingly local. Technology has always driven the arts, but the changes were always slow enough that a person could absorb the necessary technical aspects early on and adapt very little over a career. The changes in acoustics or piano construction over Bach’s long lifetime were incremental, but the Moog synthesizers which were gloriously cutting-edge in the 1970’s are laughable antiques now. You might think that all one has to do is get up and sing, but microphones, lights, synthesizers, monitors, and editing effects are all part of the package. If you the performer do not understand these things, then you are dependent on those who do.


terri said...

One of the earlier science/speculative fiction books that was not Anglo is "WE", by Russian writer, Eugene Zamiatin. It was written around 1920. "1984" is very similar to it in its basic premise. A good read.

The Arts and Humanities tribe could probaly be restated by the terms "humanist tribe" or perhaps even "post-modernist tribe".

Those terms are much more closely related to the general philosophy of the tribe you are trying to describe.(in my opinion anyway)

sarah said...

Interesting post. I really like the Snow quote. Not much has changed, I would say, although
I fear that the two cultures are becoming more rather than less hostile to one another.

It's bad enough that so many of us don't appreciate or understand science. But life is really getting weird when the same people who don't think they should have to know the equivalent of reading believe they are entitled to all of the benefits of science simply as a "right." Health care is considered by seemingly educated people to be a "right," yet the only logical way to implement this non-right is by effectively enslaving medical practitioners. This disease of thinking we don't have to understand anything we don't feel like paying attention to is going to consume our culture if we don't stem the tide.

I was raised in the A&H tribe, as well. It never crossed my mind to consider science as a profession, even though I am very drawn to ideas. I definitely grew up thinking there were two kinds of ideas in the world, the hard ones that were for the other tribe and the soft ones that were for us. Now I wish I had gotten a real education. I'm making up for it as best I can; as a writer, I've had the chance to cover some pretty technical topics, and I really enjoy learning about them. Everything is connected, and we do ourselves a great disservice when we forget that and allow ourselves to imagine that only the things we are comfortable with are important. That goes for all the tribes in our culture, of course.

On a positive note, it seems like a lot of us are very focused on making connections these days! The Internet has made inter-tribal connections so much easier. We still mostly cluster, but we are learning to share our thoughts in writing in a way that is new. Never before have so many of us had access to each other through the written word, and I find it very cheering to see so many of us taking advantage of that!

I will be thinking about this post for quite a while. Good food for thought here. I'll read your other posts before going any further with my conjectures!

Giacomo said...

Very interesting. Part of the divide occurs in college, which is attended universally by both educated groups, science and humanities.

A broad liberal education is no longer required in most schools to obtain a degree. The science crowd can focus from the second semester of freshman year, and avoid contact with icky philosophy or literature courses. Similarly the Arts and Humanities tribe can continue to be just as flummoxed in college as they were in high school by simple Newtonian physics, without reprisal.

How do you become a truly educated man/woman?

David said...

We've made a lot of progress since Snow's time. Today, we graduate people from college who are familiar with *neither* the Second Law of Thermodynamics *nor* with Shakespeare.

sarah said...

Well put, David. You are so painfully right!

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Anonymous said...

It is not two cultures it is THREE. The Sci/tech people, the arts/humanities people and the MASSES or Great Unwashed or whatever you want to call them.

But there are lots of pseudo-intellectual phonies in both of the first two groups pretending what they know is more difficult than it really is. Just because someone has a science degree does not mean they can have an original thought. But they aren't about to admit they are second or third rate.

Now computers and the internet make it possible to short circuit the educational system. What are we going to do with that ability?


Anonymous said...