John Brockman – http://www.edge.org – just wrote a pretty smart essay on the re-marriage of science and culture studies after a long period of opposition. (Hasn’t posted it, yet. Link to come.) He asked a few of us for comments to begin his online discussion. I thought I’d pass on my contribution.
This blog-thing is quite new for me – and it’s hard to do when I’m as busy as I am right now – but I’ll be using it to share the things I write that might not normally make their way to you. This will include interview responses, lists of favorite books that I’m asked to assemble for magazines, as well as some rough drafts of pieces that I’m writing, in the hope of getting some feedback.
Fascinating piece, John. And it couldn’t come at a better time.
Funny, it reminded me of Buckminster Fuller’s argument, in Operation Manual for Spaceship Earth, that the invention of academic disciplines was intended to prevent anyone from getting the whole picture. Of course it led to tremendous advances in particular fields, but it also led to an incompatibility between them.
I’m just finishing a book where I touch on some of the lasting effects of modernism and science on religious narrative. Cultural theorists may think we’re in the age of “post-post-modernism,” but our theologians are still simply contending with the impacts of Descartes, Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud. The most profound impact of modernity is that we can no longer base the authority of our religious testaments on history; our myths and our Gods are refuted by scientific reality. We lose our absolutes, and the sense of certainty they afforded us.
So in march the post-modernists, from James Joyce to MTV, who learn to play in the house of mirrors, creating compositions and world views out of relativities. Entirely less satisfying (feels more like a Slurpee than hot oatmeal that actually fills you). We cultural theorists tried to make sense out of this world of self-references as if it mattered.
What we ended up with was a culture of inside jokes, cynicism, and detachment. Detachment was considered “cool” and then “cool” itself was replaced by objectification. So all our kids walk around like models in a Calvin Klein catalogue; and actually getting photographed is the supreme honor. It means that you are single absolute — the benchmark against which others will define themselves.
This whole Vanity Fair culture, beginning with Didion or Wolfe, and ending with Sedaris or Eggers, has run its course. We’ve grown sick of living in a vacuum and struggling to remain detached. It’s no fun to read magazines through squinty, knowing smirks. We realize that detachment is a booby prize. We want to engage, meaningfully, in the stuff of life.
In comes science. And with it, comes good, old-fashioned, innocent awe. Science is not the force that corrupts our nature – it is the open-minded wonder that returns us to it. It is being welcomed back into the culture of narcissism because we’ve finally grown tired enough of ourselves to care about something real. We ache to let go of our postured pretentiousness and surrender to that sensation a kid gets at the Epcot Center or planetarium.
The jaw drops, the eyes widen, the mind opens.