Live Polar Zones

Upon my father’s recommendation, I have recently picked up C.P. Snow’s essay “The Two Cultures,” a mild-mannered examination of the growing chasm between scientific and literary intellectual communities. Despite the fact that Snow’s evident bias towards the sciences betrays his claims of existing in the two spheres himself, and despite the unenlightened connections he makes between the Modernist movement’s emphasis on alienation and the advent of ‘imbecile expressions of non-social feeling,” i.e. Nazism, (I find this very unfair considering the scientific community’s involvement in say, the atomic bomb, etc), “The Two Cultures” raises some good points.

One, Literary intellectuals have inexplicably co-opted the term “intellectual” to refer only to them, as if there were no others. I will cede this point to Snow, for it is totally true. Literary intellectuals are also, historically, complete luddites about technology and mock the illiteracy of the scientific community without themselves even being able to recite the first law of thermodynamics. I will be the first to raise my hand and point to myself; I just figured out the keyboard shortcuts for copy/paste last week.

Two, If the two cultures cannot manage a way to communicate — or at least respect — one another, then the great findings of science and the great works of art will never get the discourse and celebration they deserve. Without a shared language, the great frameworks that intellectuals build onto the natural world on either side of the chasm will only serve to better whatever discipline they are part of, without adding to the whole. Totes.

This may be an illogical segue into this entry’s featured internet finding, but bear with it. I just found out last night that there is a 24-hour online webcam on the South Pole. As an admitted member of the so-called world of literary intellectuals (or whatever), my only knowledge of the South Pole comes from a) Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and, b) the collected writings of Fridtjof Nansen. Because of these sources, I had long imagined the South Pole to be a giant crystalline castle full of hell of penguins, ice-forts, diamonds of ice, and sea birds still unafraid of the presence of men. Imagine my disappointment (sure, this is a running theme) when I looked at this webcam. You know what the South Pole looks like — this unimaginable point, sought for centuries by explorers hungry to be the first to set foot there? It’s like some weathervanes, a drab building, and like cars. Every once in a while a dude walks by. It is so ugly. It literally looks like the base camp at Mount Hood Ski Bowl.

Of course, I am talking in extremes. One pole of intellectual society is a world apart from the other; as the South Pole of my dreams has been squelched by the South Pole of reality. Snow writes, “that unscientific flavour [of literary people] is often, much more than we admit, on the point of turning anti-scientific. The feelings of one pole become the anti-feelings of the other.” Granted, my hostility for the South Pole 24-hour webcam is unwarranted and is, precisely, the kind of anti-feeling Snow discusses.

However, what I mean to say is: it is not as if this new, ugly South Pole of scientific research has to negate my fantasies. They both exist, and mine can naively continue to be populated by diamond-coated polar creatures as the real one trudges along its ruined path. The important thing is that we all acknowledge the legitimacy of both conceptions — that the real and the mythic are both acceptable expressions of the same concept. The lack of communication between the two worlds is probably rooted in an inability to see common ground. What better terrain than the Antarctic?


  1. #1 ezra Koenig
    December 20, 2005

    Hopefully this chasm between the scientific and literary communities is closing. In the early 90’s when postmodernism was running the academy, some “intellectuals” were straight up hostile to respected physicists and shit. They were so deep into the non-supremacy of scientific thought and the need for relativism that they made very rational science-dudes look like right-wing grandpas.
    Now that the real right-wing (the CHRISTIAN right) has stolen their gameplan and come up with “Intelligent Design”, these jokers have to backtrack and reassert the inherent truth of modern science. Bottom line: postmodernism is fun if you’re making a collage for your sister’s birthday or something but not if you’re on life-saving medication or working in an abortion clinic…

  2. #2 Claire
    December 20, 2005

    Right, try explaining to a mild theoretical physicist that his discipline is a dead one because of the negation of the progressive linearity of rational thought, or whatever. The literary academics get all huffy in their tweeds but it doesn’t work both ways; as far as I know, scientists aren’t hurling spitwads at critical theorists because they misunderstand the inherent rationality of the natural world.

    The problem is that anyone fully versed in the idiom of their discipline — deep enough in it to understand the beauty of its frameworks — is incapable of stepping back far enough to explain the beauty of it in terms that “the other” can understand.

    Thankfully, you’re right, my friend, between the poles, there’s a growing universe of idiots to neutralize the debate.

  3. #3 Jeff
    December 21, 2005

    No reasonable postmodernist would put down scientists themselves for the work they do. After all, with “difference!” as the rallying (dispersing?) cry of postmodernism, it wouldn’t do much good going around suppressing all kinds of interpretations of the world. The PMist has beef not with science, but rather with Science, and those who present it as if its account of the universe carries some implicit moral or political order, i.e. the all-encompassing socially-standardizing truth-claims just recently wrested from the clammy grasp of religion. Science can be very peacefully reconciled with (subsumed under?) PMism as one discourse among others, one which has effects (which in fact IS its effects) and accomplishes things in the world, but which, like all others, lacks any essential qualities and is practically made up of exceptions and divergences. As such, “Science” can seem morally despicable or politically retrograde as often as progressive or objective or what have you. The mistake is attributing any of these shortsighted impressions to one thing which is called Science. There is no one science. Science is invoked in different measures in a host of endlessly varied human activities. Some of which suck, some of which save lives, some of which supplement (but can never fully dispell) our cherished personal myths, some of which are just kind of trippy.
    So then I pretty much agree with you guys. I’m a big fan of the argument that there really isn’t any argument, just two shortsightedly reified categories that people like to vaguely oppose because they need to get published or can’t get an erection.

  4. #4 rosine
    December 21, 2005

    this chasm you point to between the two cultures could be partially justified by a deterministic approach to it… may be the difference between the two sides of the brain can be referred to – i.e a side for the logical, mathematical, technical approach of the universe based on the study of facts (or presumption of facts) and a side for the philosophical, poetic
    and imaginative – like town and country…of course there are incursions of one side into the other one (like Portland, the west sometimes goes east and the east …west), and some scientists have been poets (?)…and artists (Good old Leonardo…)but may be the opposition is necessary to get full apprehension of the universe and everything human…and the incursions are to be enjoyed for their timely occurrence but not be wished upon on a permanent basis – risk of empoverishment. Dunno. Could be, might be.

  5. #5 Shoshanna
    December 22, 2005

    It seems like you have to have two or more poles of thought with their respective experts who can’t see eye to eye in order to establish the boundaries of the field between them where most everybody else hangs out. It’s most obvious when you think of politics, that there are extremists on different ends but the average person doesn’t want to go around starting revolutions or killing people, but is rather mildly influenced by different combinations of views taken from both extremes. So too with science and myth; it’s easy, from within an academic community, to start splitting theoretical hairs, but most other people do a better job reconciling the two than the theoreticians. They read both the weather forecast and their horoscope. They believe in both chemotherapy and love. It doesn’t have to be complicated. We need different views of the world to more fully understand it.

  6. #6 evan
    December 23, 2005

    If there is a gap between empirical science and literary science then the mystics will fill it. Eventually! (7-7-07)

  7. #7 Claire
    December 23, 2005


  8. #8 a lonely crusader for knowledge
    December 28, 2005

    All attmepts to determine the definite effect of 6M HCl on 1913 first printings of Lawrence’s Son’s and Lovers have been decidedly inconclusive. Character development generally holds together in most trials, however effects on plot and symbolic coherence remain stubbornly variant in every case. Sexiness levels, of course, are fully retained in all cases. Indeed, the work of several colleagues seems to affirm that, in the presence of most, if not all, reactants, the book is damned hot.

  9. #9 Serge
    February 24, 2006

    (My former post seems to be lost. I try again) :

    Why not extend the discussion on the “Three Cultures”? I mean Litterature, Painting, Science… and why not Music as a 4th Culture?
    Science gives you methods to address problems in understanding things thanks the power of formulas and calculus.
    But what is the best way to answer this problem : describe the feelings you get by seeing a blue sky. Painting may be the more right way.
    In fact, Science, Litterature, Painting are only three human languages made of “words”, syntax and rules, as different as english, russian and chinese are. Some people speak or understand two, most understand only one. What is confusing, is they have “words” in common. It’s a waste of time if you want to decide which one is better than the others. Is it wise to discuss the gap between russian and american litterature? More than this, these language are complementary, each one needs others to borrow ideas and progress.
    What to do when you have foreigners with different languages? : learn the language of each one other!
    As example, to avoid confusing by using common words like “time”, scientists made a translation by using “subjective time” expression, knowing that humans have a subjective feeling of time, thinking it is unidirectional and flows at a constant “speed”. This “subjective time” is different from the “physical time” of the Universe.

    Einstein stressed, “Space and time are not conditions in which we live, but modes in which we think.”


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