I am interested in the way scientific language changes with the passing of time. A sincere science* text, which is by nature written towards objectivity, has no more purpose when its objective ideals are proven to be incorrect. In its way, it becomes a kind of language poetry. Its uselessness becomes like the “uselessness” of literature.
You know what I mean: crazy 17th century biology books earnestly featuring seven-headed hydra, or charmingly innacurate old maps with dragon faces at their edges. Those are almost art pieces, or cultural monuments. “Popular Science” books from the 1950’s and 1960’s, are also good in this way, because they seem aware of themselves as both literary and educational objects. I think their charm is in how recently, comparatively speaking, they were written. They sound almost logical, but still brutishly, mawkishly, misinformed. Read now, these books are practically elegies for an era of scientific optimism and postwar American certainty that I find shattering. They are archaic and tender. Sometimes when you read real earnest Marine Biology texts by people like Rachel Carson, it’s like meeting little curators and scientists puffing out their chests. You want to pat them on the head, in this one way.
Old science books also have a really interesting way of using to taxonomy to cathect “our” (ie, Humankind’s) distance from the world into The Discipline We Call Science. The slime and dust of the world is notably absent, replaced by a sincere hammering-in of our role as guardsmen of a fallible world. As if we weren’t part of it.
I think a similar gesture is made in most monster and horror movies from the same era as the American “Popular Science” boom: again, a cathexis or fetishization of our fear of nature into one incomprehensible beast. Be it a complex of academic jargon or a monster come from the depths, the fear is the same. King Kong is just a giant manifestation of our revulsion at the exotic. Godzilla is our guilt about nuclear warfare.
I like the way that these texts — both the science books and the movies — were so brazen in their time and seem so small now. Even the most seemingly well-founded scientific claims made in the 1950’s, now proven wrong, are like unrequited love letters to a perfect and rational world which doesn’t exist and probably never existed. Science books are love poetry books.
Yet, regardless, this kind of language’s poetics are always unintentional, which puts a damper on my ribald aestheticization of it. And there are great limitations to objective prose. It only allows through the smallest of pores any mention of this illogical world. It cannot describe the grit of sand nor the breadth of emotional reaction to life. The problem lies in an inescapable tautology: to fully understand a scientific, taxonomic, objective conception of the natural world is to be so steeped in scientific idiom that poetics become impossible.
This is a loss, of course. At the same time, I think that there is a great joy in the destruction of the boundaries we’re steeped in. It is evident to me that there is no boundary between ourselves and the world, because this boundary (long called Science) is as variable and flawed as the idea of boundaries themselves. Where does it end, you know?
* The words “science” and “sincere” are really damned close. Are my glasses broken or am I right?