The Reciprocal Relations of Science, Technology, Literature, and the Arts

Although in ancient times scientific and technological knowledge was often presented in form of poetry, modern scientists, engineers, and writers tend to think of their enterprises as fundamentally different and perhaps even diametrically opposed. Writers and literary scholars in particular often find questions involving possible relations between the fields annoying, irrelevant, and threatening. Can you explain why this might be the case?

Despite general lack of interest in examining the relation of science and technology to the arts, major twentieth-century artists and writers have sought to embody theories of modern science in their art. Many critics of early twentieth-century modernism now explain the narrative and representational experimentation of Picasso, Bracque, Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner as attempts to come to terms with the theories of Einstein and Heisenberg; in the Alexandria Quartet Lawrence Durrell has explicitly sought to do the same. Although at least some major writers and critics see an intimate relationship among science, technology, and the arts, scientists tend to see their fields in complete isolation from art and culture. Science, they reason, is a field unto itself, and if it has a language it is that of mathematics. As usual, the story has not turned out to be so simple and direct. Historians of science have shown how pioneering researchers inevitably draw upon the cultures surrounding them for their ideas and images. In Darwin's Plots, for example, Gillian Beer shows quite convincingly the way reading Victorian novels, particularly Charles Dickens, influenced The Origin of Species.

The Effects of Information Technology upon Literature and the Arts

The development of cinema, television, video, and digital information technology has provided the kind of intellectual distance necessary for students of information technology and culture to perceive the effects of our still dominant information technology — the printed book — upon literature. Increasingly, literary, art, and cultural historians have discovered important relations among paper-making, print techology, modes of publication, economic factors, ideas of creativity, and the specific works of art and literature produced? Try a few thought experiments and ask yourself the following:

Literature as Information Technology

The coming of computer-based information technologies with their emphasis upon process, system, and code has enabled students of literature and the arts to perceive that they, too, function as forms or subsets of information technology. Soon after people began to write computer programs, teachers of expository writing noticed that programming shared methods used in argumentative writing. Considering literature in terms of process, system, and codes (or semiotics) reveals that on several levels it clearly functions as an information technology. Complex forms of argument and patterns of rhetoric thus appear to be a branch of information technology, as do literary kinds or genres, such as the epic, the novel, tragedy, and so on. One of the most obvious and intetresting forms of convergence between students of literature and computer science has come in the area of computer-generated narratives: computer scientists working in artificial intelligence (AI) and folkorists, narratologists, and structuralist theoreticians of story telling all break down stories into component parts or structures and attempt to show how meaningful narratives can be generated from these parts.

Science and Technology as Subject in Literature and the Arts

Since the coming of Romanticism in the late eighteenth century, many poets, such as Blake and Keats, have tended to oppose science and technology to the arts, choosing to see them as different, even antithetical, modes of thought. Such has not always been the case, for only a few generations before, the great Neoclassical poet Alexander Pope celebrated Newton's discoveries in the The Optics as wonderful sources of beauty and order. One question for cultural historians, historians of ideas, and those who study the connections of science, technology, and the societies in which the occur, then, is how could such a change in attitude have occurred.

Throughout the twentieth century writers, painters, and photographers have rejected (or reconfigured?) romantic attitudes towards science and technology, finding great beauty in machines, factories, and the modern city. At least as early as the 1930s, for example, photographers presented giant steam locomotives as objects of aesthetic enjoyment.

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Last modified 15 August 2003