‘Literature and Science Under the Microscope’ – an informal response

Gowan Dawson’s excellent review article in the recent JVC of the ‘state of the union’ of literature and science is especially welcome to all of us committed to the new British Society for Literature and Science, and to me personally as the Society’s Membership Secretary. I hope, indeed, that it brings me a significant amount of work over the next few months as more scholars interested in the field join what is already an active group. In my view, Gowan is particularly well-placed to offer such an analysis as he is one of an increasing number of academics in the field of literature and science who are continually engaged in that difficult interdisciplinary project of sustained scholarly involvement in both fields and their communities simultaneously.

One of the central themes of Gowan’s argument is the necessity of appropriate interdisciplinarity; the crucial specificity of understanding that comes only from a prolonged engagement with whichever field one feels less expert within. Although Gowan suggests that attention to historiographic (and more importantly historical) accuracies may seem like ‘hair-splitting pedantry’ (308) it is, he goes on to argue, vital for ‘literary critics … to recognise’ (308) the processes of cultural formation through which the sciences have developed. At the first BSLS conference Gowan and I discussed this very topic, agreeing that this model of thoroughgoing interdisciplinarity – in which history of science scholarship was often to the fore – was most recognisable, and for us, the most admirable of the available work in the field.

Unsurprisingly, then, I am in agreement with the majority of Gowan’s arguments. I do think, however, that there are one or two aspects of work in the field of literature and science to which he might have given a little more space. Specifically I want to mention two areas: scientific heterodoxy and non-textual forms of literature and science scholarship. That space could have been at the expense of the extensive consideration of Darwinism, although I am not yet certain of whether I think that it was advantageous to so concertedly critique the reductiveness of some forms of Literary Darwinism or simply further evidence that discussions of Darwin do, and will continue to, dominate debates on Victorian literature and science. Regardless, it seems to me that the excellent work on various forms of scientific marginality within literary contexts – mesmerism and phrenology come first to mind as does the genre of gothic fiction – would have supported Gowan’s argument in the latter part of his article that it is perhaps too limiting that literature and science scholarship most often ‘emphasize[s] only the more positive aspects of such interchanges.’ (313) Some of the best work on one of those ‘morally unimpeachable’ (313) canonical writers that Gowan cites, George Eliot, has profitably considered the contested and gloomy evocation of the role of mesmerism in her gothic short story, ‘The Lifted Veil’. Similarly, readings of fin-de-siècle gothic fictions (for example Dracula or Trilby) have offered a more complex picture of the interaction between popular narrative and scientific heterodoxy, illuminating the often-controversial reception of scientific ideas in the public sphere.

I also think that some consideration of literature’s connections with non-textual science would have been welcome. First, I agree wholeheartedly with Gowan’s attentive critique of Victorian scholarship’s sometimes-monocular focus on the one culture of literature and science in the nineteenth century. Taking note of the work from other periods, he argues, ‘afford[s] a useful reminder of the potential insularity of many assumptions regarding the apparent distinctiveness of the Victorian common context of shared ideas, metaphors and narrative patterns.’ (311) It is not this that gives me pause for thought, but rather the final two categories of that ultimate list of ‘ideas, metaphors and narrative patterns.’ A different ‘one culture’ might be constructed from these: the over-riding emphasis in literature and science scholarship on language, or at least on the textual. Gowan’s own historiography of the field tends to privilege this type of work, and rightly so in the field’s earliest incarnations in the work of Beer and Levine. What may have added strength to his argument that rather than continuing to think of literature and science as equivalent ‘there has been a growing emphasis…on the actual specificity of the two’ (310) is the increasingly influential scholarship on literature and non-textual science: instruments, sites or places of science, visual images, even smells. For no other reason than their very difference from the literary text, these important non-textual cultures of science usefully highlight the specificities of the two fields. For me, literature and science scholarship too often finds it difficult to break away from the written words of science. This seems to be truer of British studies in literature and science than of the work of our European and North American colleagues who have more readily embraced the philosophies of science drawn from the sociological work of Latour and others who have investigated the spaces of the laboratory, for example, as rigorously as the written scientific papers emerging from them.

Gowan closes his article by generously suggesting that the BSLS ‘has the potential to inaugurate…a historically sensitive as well as self-reflexive approach’ (314) to literature and science. I think it would be fair to say the same of his contribution in this review article. The subject will certainly be invigorated by the work of the BSLS but it also requires the debate engendered by reflective and suggestive articles like his. I congratulate him.