Talking About the Sciences

With all the discussion in academics about the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) for students, the journal diacritics turned the lens on how humanities scholars talk about this topic. Penn State University English professor Brian Lennon helped put together a recent issue on this topic and joined us for a Q&A to go behind the scenes.

Q: How did this collection of essays come together?

A: Laurent Dubreuil, diacritics‘s editor, had already established plans for a sequence of special issues with the theme “Thinking with the Sciences.” He asked me to supervise the second issue in that series.

dia.43.1_frontLogistically speaking, there wasn’t much more to it than that. But at first, at least, I found it more difficult than I’d anticipated to locate scholars in the humanities who were truly able to “think with the sciences” in anything more than a naïve sense of that phrase. The naïve interpretation might be paraphrased as something like “Thinking with the Sciences Because If We Don’t Do So, We’ll Be in Big Trouble.”

That is, it assumes (1) that there is some kind of behavioral problem at hand (a problem with the behavior of humanities scholars, naturally, rather than with the behavior of scientists), which exists because of the failure or refusal of the humanities to do something with or otherwise in relation to the sciences; (2) that this act of “thinking with the sciences” represents a solution to that problem. Neither of these assumptions is actually warranted, either by the phrase or by the editorial intent supporting it; but the naïve interpretation is ready to hand, and many of us leap to it. More humanities scholars than one might expect leap quite readily to that naïve interpretation, today.

They don’t seem to be able to imagine the humanities disciplines, or themselves as humanities scholars, as having an intellectual authority equal to that of the sciences — yet that is how I myself imagine the act of “thinking with” anyone or anything else. I think this failure of imagination — and to be honest, of courage — is the only problem with the humanities disciplines today, if there is any problem at all.

Q: How important is it for journals like diacritics to provide a place to talk about science beyond what you describe as the “shouting about ‘STEM’” in business culture today?

A: In one sense it is very important, because that kind of discourse is not reasoning in any meaningful sense (this is why I describe it as “shouting”). Rather, it is an attempt to persuade by invoking causal relationships that are basically magical in character (“study STEM and you’ll be employable”), or by straightforward intimidation. Such magical talk is reproduced and transmitted faster and further when it goes interrupted. And while many scientists and engineers privately lament such hopes, because they know they will be disappointed, they seldom lament them publicly — some simply can’t afford to do so, others simply don’t care to do so. (Phillip Rogaway’s recently widely circulated paper “The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work” emphasized the moral hazard of arrangements in which scientists in the United States are basically hostages of military funding, in particular.) So it’s important for the rest of us to interrupt such talk, as well as to clearly model alternatives. To the extent that we’re talking not only about, say, members of the voting and tuition-paying public (that is, students and the parents and guardians of students), but about professional educators themselves, it’s important to provide models of courage in standing up to intimidation. Many professional educators are quite vulnerable, in relative terms, in any number of ways economically and otherwise. It’s also important because some professional educators are simply cowards! Of course, one could say that precisely because what I called “shouting about STEM” is an irrational discourse, it doesn’t matter at all whether it’s interrupted. But I don’t believe that.

Q: What role do “professional thinkers” have in discussions about the sciences?

A: They have no role at all if they’re not thinking before they speak and act and write. I mean making judgments as unhurriedly as structurally possible, under conditions that they have worked to the very best of their abilities, and often at some relative form of professional risk, to free from opportunism and from bribery, intimidation, and other forms of coercion. Professional thinkers have a duty to not be terrorized, whether we’re talking about spectacular public violence of a literal kind, which they face as any other human being, or by academic administrative threats to withhold funding from one’s department or program unless certain demands are met, which they face as professionals with career investments. Academic scientists’ working conditions are far from free of such coercion, but it seems to me that humanities scholars are more easily terrorized, perhaps because they feel they have nowhere to turn and no way out.

Q: What did you learn from the other contributors to the issue?

A: In each case I learned something about (1) how to think generally; (2) how to model dignity, self-possession, and rational authority in humanities scholarship; and (3) how to “think with the sciences” in a non-naive interpretation of that phrase, something that requires those other two abilities. In addition to these things, from Natalia Cecire’s essay I learned, for example, how best to articulate my own long-standing discomfort with a particularly aggressive and highly visible social formation in U.S. American “experimental” poetry and poetics research and creative production, especially in its appropriations of a generalized and diffused scientism or scientistic authority. When I say “how best to articulate,” I mean how to articulate that discomfort in a way that is properly sensitive to the complexity of the social and institutional foundations of that formation, of its intellectual and creative heritage, and of its human aims and aspirations, among other things. From David Golumbia’s essay, in addition to deepening my understanding of the linguist Noam Chomsky’s long and varied intellectual career taken as a whole, I learned another in a series of lessons I’ve learned from Golumbia’s many other publications: how to argue rationally and sensibly about an extremely difficult and sensitive topic, which is the implicit and explicit politics of academic research and academic behavior, especially in cases where an academic scholar disavows the legible “politics” of her or his research, deflects or refuses it, inverts it or contradicts it with other, more personal political commitments, or is consistently inconsistent or outright confused or befuddled about the whole constellation of issues at hand. And from Laurent Dubreuil’s essay, I learned something about how to schematize without schematizing — to define a place for “poetry” within a system of distinctions while somehow, in deploying both wisdom and a kind of mischief in developing a philosophical argument, not only not confining the object of discussion in that system, but “liberating” the object from it in a liberation that is both genuine, and yet free of all unwanted and unwarranted spontaneism.

Q: What do you hope comes from this project?

A: I hope it serves as a model. As I wrote in my introduction to the issue, each of the scholars who contributed work to the issue is a humanities scholar capable of “thinking with the sciences” in the non-naive interpretation of that phrase, who serves us better, at a time like the historical present, by confidently extending the “with” of the predicate clause: that is, by thinking about the sciences as well, or even against them, instead. That’s what “thinking with the sciences” must also be.