Clare Maniez et al (eds.) Science and American Literature in the 20th and 21st Centuries

Claire Maniez, Ronan Ludot-Vlasak and Frédéric Dumas (eds.), Science and American Literature in the 20th and 21st Centuries: From Henry Adams to John Adams (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012). Hb xv + 197 pp. £39.99 ISBN 9781443835190

The fourth essay in this collection, by Noëlle Batt, argues for an analogy between the challenge faced by neuroscience in explaining ‘binding’ or ‘integration’ (how the well-understood processes of stimulus-registration in specific regions of the brain give rise to higher-order consciousness) and the difficulty literary theory has in accounting for the emergence of aesthetic meaning from ‘sub-semantic’ units of language. Batt’s essay seems to hold out an enticing ready-made critical narrative with which to approach this volume: how do these eleven essays, on topics from Henry Adams to hypertext, cohere into a whole? Its avowed purpose is ‘to show how scientific discourse informs literary writing and to consider the relationship the two types of discourse have maintained’ (viii). A remit so broad might result in failure to achieve ‘integration’, especially since the editors have chosen to include essays on technology as well as science, but in fact the chapters of this book speak to and resonate with one another in all kinds of fascinating ways. However, a conspicuous fault-line segregates those (a slim majority) which ground their arguments in rigorously researched readings of scientific and historical texts, from a substantial minority which offer decent enough elucidations of literary texts, but try to make connections with science and technology apparently based on general knowledge.

Batt’s essay belongs in the former camp, as does Gilles Chamerois’s, part of a flurry of recent criticism (along with book chapters by Theophilus Savvas and myself) about anachronistic science in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Chamerois brings to bear an impressive range of contextual and critical material supporting brilliant, often witty close-readings, overshadowing the collection’s other essay on Pynchon: Bénédicte Chorier-Fryd’s argument that scientific themes are present in Pynchon’s Inherent Vice as subtext, rather than foregrounded as in earlier works, is well made, but her essay lacks focus, too often drifting into opportunistic discussions of other aspects of the text. She offers pop science allusions to uncertainty and quantum physics to account for Pynchon’s paradoxical ontologies, without solid textual references to anchor them. The Pynchon chapters are grouped in Part I, ‘Literature as a History of Science’, with Michel Imbert’s essay ‘The Grammar of Sciences in The Education of Henry Adams’, which offers a compelling account of Adams’s use of, and struggles with, scientific discourse in three key chapters of The Education, showing us Adams in dialogue with William James, Karl Pearson and Charles Darwin.

Part II, ‘Literature and Neurosciences’, comprises Batt’s essay and one of the collection’s strongest chapters, an illuminating analysis by Yves Abrioux of Alan Turing’s 1950 paper setting out what has become known as the ‘Turing test’, in which a questioner tries to distinguish responses given by a machine and a human being. Abrioux demonstrates that the subtleties of Turing’s rhetoric evade assimilation to a rigorously experimental procedure. Readings of novels by Joseph McElroy and Philip K. Dick are presented as areas for further inquiry rather than fully realised critical studies. In contrast, Pawel Frelik’s essay ‘Mind-Reading – Science Fiction and Neurosciences’ focuses almost exclusively on Peter Watts’s novel Blindsight, and where Abrioux demonstrates that in-depth analysis of techno-scientific literature can suggest striking new interpretations of fiction, Frelik does little more than advocate for Watts’s text as a fictional articulation of a single idea, that sentience may be a handicap to intelligence in the Darwinian struggle for existence.

Part III, ’Literature and the Ethics of Science’, opens with an essay by Françoise Palleau-Papin which argues from the fact of William T. Vollmann having written a book about Copernicus – his 2006 Uncentering the Earth – that his 1996 novel The Atlas attempts an ‘uncentering’ of the self analogous to the Copernican overthrow of the geocentric cosmos. There is one (passing and secondhand) reference to Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but none to either Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution or Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus itself, and Palleau-Papin’s well-judged close-readings of The Atlas soon give way to sweeping pronouncements about literature and science. However, Mathieu Duplay’s commentary on the John Adams opera Doctor Atomic broaches weighty questions about time, knowledge and the cognitive function of poetry with an authority founded on both breadth of reading and acuity of insight. Part III concludes with a study by Anne-Laure Tissut of the graphic novel VAS, an Opera in Flatland by Steve Tomasula and Stephen Farrell. Tissut tries to show that Tomasula and Farrell’s intertextual play constitutes both appropriation of and intervention in the discourse of genetics and evolution. The lack of direct reference to texts instantiating such discourse is overshadowed by the even more startling omission of any discussion of Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, surely the most important point of intertextual reference for VAS.

Stéphane Vanderheaghe’s essay – in Part IV, ‘Hypertextuality, Technology and Literature’ – argues that Robert Coover’s fiction aspires to the condition of hypertext. Despite one or two odd omissions of its own (no mention of Coover’s role in founding the Electronic Literature Organisation), Vanderheaghe’s piece presents abundant textual evidence, within a clearly defined theoretical framework drawn from Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag. Vanderheaghe’s theorisation of hypertext sits interestingly alongside that presented by the collection’s final essay, an analysis of Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl by Arnaud Regnaud, and the implicit dialogue between these two pieces is suggestive. Regnauld is interested in the interface between the visible and the legible, and makes a powerful argument for the limitations of spatial metaphors for digital data. The fertile juxtaposition of these two essays, along with the techno-science focus of the excellent pieces by Abrioux and Duplay, compels the conclusion that it is in the area of literature and technology (rather than science per se) that this collection has the most to contribute. Its diversity means it will take readers to unfamiliar places, and the methodological choices of its strongest chapters – the range of scientific and critical texts marshalled by Chamerois, the schematic diagrams and graphics employed by Abrioux and Regnaud – beat a path worth following. The fact that one or two contributors write in not quite idiomatic English adds charm.

Simon de Bourcier, University of East Anglia