Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini (eds), The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science

Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini (eds), The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science (London and New York: Routledge, 2010 [dated 2011]), 550pp. Hb £125.00. ISBN 978-0-415-49525-7.

In reviewing The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science, I find myself faced with the challenge of how to discuss a book that, while difficult to get into, becomes one that is difficult to put down. Initially daunted by the sheer volume of material and the £125 price tag, I am extremely glad to have surmounted the activation barrier. While the Companion’s preface speaks as if to an insider about a field complex enough to daunt a newcomer, the collection turns out to be full of excellent articles and a multitude of useful emergent (if non-linear) narratives. Its dense opening pages blithely reference C. P. Snow, Copernicus, Francois Lyotard, Bruno Latour and Katherine Hayles, as well as ‘our postmodern condition’, ‘metanarrative’ and ‘technoscience’, as they paint a picture of the state of the field, with its attendant and hard-to-untangle ironies that result from the ‘counter-trends toward transdisciplinary convergences-in-difference between the discursive, technical and natural disciplines [that] have been accelerating for several decades’ (xvi).  But the volume quickly settles down into something that is welcoming and informative, wide-ranging and detailed.

The first of its three sections starts simply with a call to resist monolithic uses of ‘Science’ (as in the idiom that asserts that Science has made a new discovery). Each of the 20 chapters of Part I devotes itself to one of the many sciences and its links to whatever literatures the individual author sees fit. The editors’ wish to avoid a ‘top-down’ approach becomes clear as we move from ‘AI’ to ‘Alchemy’ and realize that we are to proceed alphabetically, rather than chronologically or according to some predetermined narrative trajectory. Part II is a similarly organized collection of disciplinary and theoretical approaches, and it is only with Part III that we move (mostly) chronologically among periods and cultures, with chapters on ‘Russia’ and ‘Japan’ nestled nicely between ‘Industrialism’ and ‘Modernism’. This organizational scheme makes for some first-glance oddities: Bruce Clarke’s chapter ‘Systems Theory’ immediately precedes John Bruni’s ‘Thermodynamics’ (from which science, systems theory develops). Part II encompasses essays as differently ambitious as Vicki Kirby’s ‘Deconstruction’ (which seeks, in the space provided, not only to explain the basics of Derrida’s works but its inspirations in, connections to and usefulness for scientific investigation) and Lisa Yaszek’s ‘Science Fiction’ (which provides an impressively brief and sense-making history of the genre from the eighteenth century to the present). Here also, Maureen McNeil’s ‘Cultural Science Studies’ gives the BSLS community that never-to-be-underestimated pleasure of telling us what we already know—i.e. how important Gillian Beer’s work has been in establishing ‘narrative analysis as a valuable resource for science studies’ (279).

The apparent temporal, stylistic and methodological oddities, however, reflect the complexity of the ‘field’ of ‘Literature and Science’ and the Companion’s sense that ‘literature and science is by far the most eclectic and experimental of the (post)humanistic interdisciplines’ (241). Out of the diversity of issues and perspectives, common concerns emerge early and continue throughout both the volume and the field it seeks to represent. One such concern is manifest in the book’s sustained attempt to resist demarcating disciplinary boundaries or limit available methodologies, a goal rooted (of course) in the shared wish to dispel the ‘two cultures’ model in its numerous manifestations. For example, both Mark S. Morrison’s ‘Alchemy’ and Jay Labinger’s ‘Chemistry’ seek to lessen the distance between cultural practices presumed disparate, even antagonistic. The former emphasizes the role played by alchemy—so often dismissed as pseudo- or non-science—‘in the development of what eventually became modern chemistry’ from its influence on such figures as Newton and Boyle through its renewed importance as nuclear physics is styled ‘modern alchemy’. The latter traces the undersung and evolving relationship between literature and chemistry and its perception, focusing on the changing representation of chemistry in literature through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. An interesting companion to this piece can be found 400 pages later, in Virginia Richter’s ‘Industrialism’, a title meant to focus, perhaps, on the ‘culture’ rather than the ‘period’ implied by ‘Victorianism’. Resisting a common and potentially reductive dyad of science v. industry, Richter emphasizes the ‘intricately linked trinity’ of ‘science, industrialism, and capitalism’ (477) even as she moves from literary representations of science to the ways in which realist narrative incorporates and interrogates the methods and principles of scientific discovery. Such chapters represent an excellent place to begin to explore what’s at stake in the study of literature and science, even with non-major undergraduates.

The better-versed reader will find that the Companion partakes of the spirit of chaos; narratives emerge spontaneously, as it were, from the complex interactions among its diverse parts. And though these defy linear summation, I will attempt to represent one such here:

A disturbing sense of complicity emerges in both Robert Markley’s ‘Climate Science’ and Stacy Alaimo’s ‘Ecology’. Both essays explore our vexed relations with nature—so frequently imperialist, oriented according to use-value, and centered on ourselves.  For Markley, the perspective leant to us by imagining (as we can never experience) the timescales of climactic change reveal the ‘risks [of] reinscribing a Lockean vision of the inexhaustibility of natural resources’ that attach even to the idea of sustainability (72). Alaimo identifies the history of ecology as complicit with a ‘utilitarian conception of nature as a repository of “natural resources”’, not least because the funding for ecological science depended in early twentieth century on the promise of ‘“control over life”’ (105).  This ‘paradigm of dominion’ is taken up again by Richard Nash—though not before he delights us with a poem featuring two talking skunks and the all-too-familiar frustrations of trying to converse with the automated voice of a credit card. His ‘Animal Studies’ sees attitudes wherein the world is understood as ‘a resource at the disposal of the human … giving way to a paradigm of responsive interaction and mutual interdependencies’ (255) with the advent of what Katherine Hayles retroactively dubbed the ‘posthuman’ (254). This, along with musings about whether universities now need a ‘posthumanities’ naturally send one flipping pages for Neil Badmington’s essay on ‘Posthumanism’ (easily found, now that we have the hang of it, right between ‘Philosophy of Science’ and ‘Science Fiction’). Or, if one shares the quirks of this reader, back to ‘Systems Theory’ and ‘Thermodynamics’, whose shared emphases locate interdependence as a defining feature of a system (214) and point to how twentieth-century ‘non-equilibrium thermodynamics … spells out a set of interrelated responsibilities’ that speak to our current climate crisis even as they revamp our relationship to evolution (232, 234). Our return to David Amigoni’s ‘Evolution’ is more or less inevitable, but we go newly outfitted with wonder at how Darwinian narrative reads differently through a climactically-sensitive, posthumanistic, systems-oriented lens.

Whether we proceed directly from ‘Evolution’ to Judith Roof’s ‘Genetics’ or perhaps continue to explore our ‘ontological otherness’ through Susan Squier’s ‘Agricultural Studies’ (what exactly is the ‘post-pastoral’?) depends on which version of this book we want to read. I regret that I have not yet begun to scratch the surface of this hefty volume’s 44 chapters or even to tap the possibilities suggested by such alphabetical clusterings as ‘E-literature’, ‘Feminist science studies’ and ‘Game studies’—though I know just where to look the moment someone first refers to the ‘efeminist’. Indeed, I look forward to expanding the eclectic pleasures of post-human interdisciplinarity as new narratives emerge from the dog-eared Companion at my side.

Barri Gold, Muhlenberg College