Steven Meyer, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Science

Steven Meyer, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 350 pp. $26.00 Pdf. £74.99 Hb. £24.99 Pb. ISBN: 9781107079724

It is perhaps the fact that 2018 is the anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that this eclectic collection reminded me of Victor Frankenstein’s response on first seeing his creation come alive. Like the creature in that scene, The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Science has some parts that are impressive, even beautiful, but as a whole it is an unnatural representation of the field of literature and science. This is due to two key factors. First, Steven Meyer’s introduction obscures more than it reveals and makes opaque a field that is open and welcoming. Second, the collection as a whole is as much focussed on science studies as it is on literature and science.

The Companion contains 14 chapters (as well as its introduction) organised into 4 parts of unequal length. These cover an introduction to the field, its historical evolution, its theoretical underpinnings, its present interests, and concludes with a summative essay (again by the editor) that draws the collection together under the banner of empiricism. Published by Cambridge’s US arm, the authors are largely but certainly not exclusively North American scholars, and many are notable, recognisable figures. For example, the first section includes a chapter by the celebrated Belgian academic Isabelle Stengers who offers a richly provocative reading of contemporary science fiction. Yet this is also where the collection takes on its schizophrenic character, paralleling Frankenstein’s creature’s colliding identities. Stengers is primarily a sociologist and science studies scholar. Here, she certainly writes as one. There is no sense of reading science fiction as a literary enterprise, nor of the field of literature and science as the scaffold for her analysis. Worse, this is the only chapter in Part One. Apparently there was supposed to be a chapter from Donna Haraway, who instead published it elsewhere (the editor tells us).

Unfortunately, the chaotic nature of the collection had already begun in the introduction (although the strange revelation about Haraway’s non-inclusion suggests it began earlier). There, Steven Meyer attempted to lay out the different historical moments of literature and science scholarship, using terms such as first wave and second wave to differentiate between them. I sympathise with this effort at clarity, but the result is confusion. For instance, in attempting to characterise the historic position of scholarship on scientific objects and spaces rather than texts, Meyer places them as part of ‘second phase second-wave Literature and Science’ (9). Even with the whole introduction to read and re-read this is empty and confusing language. Indeed, the nomenclature and categorisations will be alien to the experienced and the new arrival alike. There are other missteps. Meyer’s characterisation of the differences between the North American and British scholarship is both demeaning of the work taking place in the UK and plainly wrong. British literature and science, for Meyer, is ‘considerably more traditional’ (3), by which he means not as advanced as in the US. This is not only a particularly derogatory way to consider some of the field-leading scholarship, but is patently out of touch. There used to be a clearer demarcation – British work allied to the history of science and North American work to critical theory, to give it a brief taxonomy – but the field has moved on considerably in the last few years. Recent scholarship is not wedded to these national differences: instead it has become more international, methodologically innovative, and open to all sorts of influences from the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. The introduction therefore misses an opportunity to capture what is happening now in a misguided effort to privilege North American practices over all others. Just as problematic, and not unconnected to this narrow focus, is the extraordinary claim that literature and science might be best defined as where ‘science studies and comparative literature…meet’ (11). Indeed, the introduction sets the tone for the volume’s focus on science studies, arguing that the keynote to understanding the field is to see how ‘twenty-first century literary studies and science studies have come to be so richly integrated with literature and science’ (12). Science studies obviously has a role to play in some literature and science scholarship, but it is hardly the defining feature of it. As Meyer would have it, however, there is hardly the depth of a Companion page to place between them. This skewed perspective is indicative of the introduction as a whole. It is eclectic to the point of eccentricity, the view of a single scholar rather than representative of the field at large.

Following the strange singularity of Stengers’ Part One, Part Two provides a series of snapshots of literature and science past. Mary Baine Campbell writes on Shakespeare’s links to Bacon, seeing their work as intertexts of one another. It is a rigorous comparative essay, ending rather unconvincingly with a falling back to the emotive resonance of literature as opposed to the rational thinking of the scientist that undermines the aims of the argument. This is followed by the first properly introductory essay by Devin Griffiths on Darwin and literature. Griffiths considers Darwin’s place in literary studies, his influence in cultural studies, and specifically on race, class, and sexuality. He spends time on book history, on the visual imagination of Darwin and gives a critical account of literary Darwinism. It is comprehensive, sharp, and well-considered and is probably the highlight of the collection. Next is Joan Richardson’s interesting chapter on William and Henry James. This opens by interrogating the emergence of the term scientist as an analogy for artist, and gives an interesting short history of the use of the term scientist that might have been extended into the discussion that followed. Instead the chapter narrows to consider only ‘the James boys’ (82), as Richardson calls them. This section of the Companion concludes with Kitt Price’s lively and witty essay on Empson’s poetry and its connections with Einsteinian physics. This is a valuable research topic opening up new ways of thinking about Empson – but is a very different kind of essay to, say, Griffiths’ introductory chapter on Darwin. It is therefore hard to know whether the Companion is a collection of research pieces or an introduction to the field.

Part Three turns from history to theory. This is the most troubling section of the Companion. As a whole it turns back to science studies, is focussed almost exclusively on North America, and seems entirely tangential to the global field of literature and science. It opens with T. Hugh Crawford’s consideration of the US-based academic organisation, SLSA, and its relationship to science studies via the work of Bruno Latour. This does at least offer some insight into the early emergence of theory in the field of literature and science, although could have done much more to consider how that functions now. This thoughtful chapter is followed by Haun Saussy and Tim Lenoir’s quirky analysis of a project titled “Writing Science” and the turn to digital humanities. An opaque chapter without explanatory merit, this is work very much at a slant to literature and science. This is exacerbated by James J. Bono’s chapter on science studies as cultural studies. While lively and reflective of itself, the literature and science scholar will be wondering whether they have picked up a volume on science studies once again. Adam Frank’s concluding chapter on affect theory in literature and science is once again aligned with science studies from the start. Indeed its opening sentence is ‘What can affect theory offer science studies?’ (176) What follows is a very interesting reading of scientific biography, looking closely at the work of Evelyn Fox Keller on Barbara McClintock. This is fascinating material, but seems unconvincing as a keynote of literature and science’s engagement with literary and cultural theory.

After the STS bent of the previous section, Part Four is a welcome return to the field itself. This is easily the strongest section and the only one that truly delivers on the Companion’s title. Wai Chee Dimock offers a reflective meditation on Thoreau and climate change, which is focussed on soundscapes and the loss of biodiversity. It is a detailed and poignant account that links contemporary climate science to Thoreau’s wildernesses with a political purpose, and does so very credibly. Thereafter, Alan Richardson takes us on to another key element of recent themes in literature and science – cognition. Clear and erudite, with sound readings and thoughtful explorations of the successes and limitations of cognitive literary studies, and the challenges it has faced from some critical perspectives still regarding it as linked to literary Darwinism, it is the first properly introductory chapter since Griffiths on Darwin and is a match for that. This is followed by an equally valuable piece by Tim Armstrong on modernism, technology, and the life sciences. Armstrong gives us a set of useful introductory tools to examine modernist writing through the emergence of the loose collection of disciplines we know as the life sciences. He focusses on bodies, change, and complexity as well as considering the biopolitical, across a terrific range of canonical and non-canonical modernist works of prose and poetry. This is a fascinating account for the new and experienced scholar alike. The section concludes with an unusual chapter by Reviel Netz which claims to be about cognitive practices, but is actually a history of Greek science and literature and what that might tell us about the field today. What emerges is a fascinating view of how literature and science have their parallels in performance and writing as well as in poetry and prose. Netz concludes that this is both valid, but also allows us to see that change is under way. The chapter is original, transformative, and enormously valuable as a fresh perspective on the field.

The final words of the volume are taken by the Companion’s editor, Steven Meyer, in his concluding chapter on Alfred North Whitehead. Meyer makes a very credible case for the recuperation of Whitehead and his work for literature and science studies. This part of the final chapter is an apt and important endpoint. However, it is marred by a strenuous and ultimately tortured effort to bring together every chapter of the Companion under the banner of empiricism. Rather like Victor Frankenstein’s ultimate meeting with his creature on the ice flows of the frozen North, this last part of the chapter brings us circling back to where we began, most startlingly obvious in the return to some of the jargon of the introduction. This is both an unwelcome reminder of where we started and an unfortunate end to a problematic collection.

Martin Willis, Cardiff University