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Between Science and Literature

Between Science and Literature: An Introduction to Autopoetics

Foreword by N. Katherine Hayles
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Between Science and Literature
    Book Description:

    Between Literature and Science follows through to its emerging 21st-century future the central insight of 20th-century literary and cultural theory: that language and culture, along with their subsystems and artifacts, are self-referential systems. The book explores the workings of self-reference (and the related performativity) in linguistic utterances and assorted texts, through examples of the more open social-discursive systems of post-structuralism and cultural studies, and into the sciences, where complex systems organized by recursive self-reference are now being embraced as an emergent paradigm. This paradigmatic convergence between the humanities and sciences is autopoetics (adapting biologist Hubert Maturanas term for self-making? systems), and it signals a long-term epistemological shift across the nature/culture divide so definitive for modernity. If cultural theory has taught us that language, because of its self-referential nature, cannot bear simple witness to the world, the new paradigmatic status of self-referential systems in the natural sciences points toward a revived kinship of language and culture with the world: language bears witness? to the world. _x000B_The main movement of the book is through a series of model explications and analyses, operational definitions of concepts and terms, more extended case studies, vignettes and thought experiments designed to give the reader a feel for the concepts and how to use them, while working to expand the autopoetic internee by putting cultural self-reference in dialogue with the self-organizing systems of the sciences. Along the way the reader is introduced to self-reference in epistemology (Foucault), sociology (Luhmann), biology (Maturana/Varela/Kauffman), and physics and cosmology (Smolin). Livingston works through the fundamentals of cultural, literary, and science studies and makes them comprehensible to a non-specialist audience.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09174-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. FOREWORD: Writing Between
    (pp. ix-xii)

    Years ago I had the exhilarating—and frustrating—experience of coteaching an interdisciplinary seminar on reflexivity with a physicist and philosopher. The physicist led us through Gödel’s incompleteness theorem to show how reflexivity entered into mathematics and physics; the philosopher guided us through Aristotle, Kant, Fichte, and others to trace the roots of reflexivity in the philosophical tradition; I added readings by Borges, Hofstadter, and Calvino. Yet in the end, the students appeared to be even more confused about what reflexivity was than when the seminar began; whether this can be counted as progress I leave to a Zen master...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. 1 The Livingthinglikeness of Language
    (pp. 1-3)

    This book is an introduction to a constellation of ideas about self-reference and performativity. What these ideas have in common, to start with, is that they develop alternatives to the narrowly realist view of referential language. The focus on this common feature makes the book an introduction to the most important axis of literary and cultural theory throughout the past century. Along the way the reader will find various definitions of terms, examples and vignettes, images and catchphrases, exercises, and thought experiments that are intended to manufacture new intuitions about wordsasthings.

    But the axis of literary and cultural...

  6. 2 Words and Things
    (pp. 4-10)

    This book takes off from a simple proposition: that language is kin to the world it inhabits; languagebears withnessto the world. Since I was trained as a literary theorist, I consider this mostly as a proposition and less as a truth, but the proposition itself suggests (in this case anyway) that there may be less difference between these two than you might think, so you can suit yourself.

    What the proposition means, for a start, is that language cannot be understood as a God-given gift or a free human creation or a tool to be bent to human...

  7. 3 Thirds and Wings
    (pp. 11-14)

    If language isof the world, like galaxies and ecosystems, this means itparticipates in what it represents, though how privileged it may be either as a representative or as a participant remains to be seen. “Always part of the totality it represents” is how deconstructionist literary theorist Paul de Man characterized the operation of a symbol (191), at least as it had been conceived by the romantics in the late eighteenth century. De Man argued that the romantic doctrine of the symbol was a kind of philosophical bad faith, the retreat to a comforting wholism in order to avoid...

  8. 4 The Order of Things in a Nutshell
    (pp. 15-24)

    Epistemologyis the study of knowledge; anepistemeis a paradigm or a kind of logic—or more descriptively a kind ofecology—that governs various forms of knowledge at a specific time and place. Foucault’sOrder of Thingstraces shifts in the Western episteme since the seventeenth century, focusing on the interrelated histories of linguistics, biology, and economics. Of course, to call the interrelations among kinds of knowledge anecologyis to put an organicist spin on the story; at one time Foucault preferred to call what he was doing anarchaeologyof knowledge, though his metaphors in the...

  9. 5 Artistic Interlude I: The Sick Mind Continues to Infinity
    (pp. 25-30)

    Foucault milked the drama of “the sick mind” in implicit opposition to the supposedly stable and normal categories of language, science, and reason. Of course, it is more than a sick mind’s fancy that things are capable of being categorized in all kinds of ways, capable of entering into a range of different and sometimes mutually irreconcilable kinds of relationships with other things. In fact, this capacity seems to be as fundamental to the things of physics and chemistry as it is to language, culture, and knowledge and to the webs of linkages and disjunctions between and among them. Clearly,...

  10. 6 An Introductory Vignette
    (pp. 31-35)

    Once upon a time, about a billion years ago (or so geologists say), near the middle of the North American continent, the earth split open and oozed out vast amounts of molten rock. As it cooled, the rock collapsed in on itself and formed a giant depression that would later fill up with the waters of Lake Superior. Millions of small air bubbles petrified in the cooling rock, riddling it with hollow vesicles. Rainwater percolated down and volcanic waters pulsed up through hairline fractures of the basalt. As dissolved minerals leached from the rock crystallized out of the water, they...

  11. 7 Sometimes a Cigar
    (pp. 36-38)

    Is there such a thing as things in themselves? We can at least circle around this question by thinking through one of the most famous pronouncements on the subject: Freud’s supposed assertion that “sometimes a cigar is only a cigar.”

    To begin with, it should be noted that this is an especially dubious assertion from a man who kept smoking cigars even after he was diagnosed with the mouth cancer that would kill him and, finally, even after parts of his jaw had been cut away. Such devotion (not to mention such cancer) could have been inspired only by a...

  12. 8 On Meaning
    (pp. 39-42)

    Occasionally, when I’ve been bored with a book I’ve been reading, I’ve flipped ahead through the pages and thought, there is nothing butwordshere!

    What was I expecting?

    Never mind that people have lived and died for what is written in books; at these moments, it is thoroughly dispiriting to reflect that the text to come—no matter how informative or meaningful—will only be, after all, more of the same, word following word, eyes scanning back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. The sky will not open. The world will not change.

    This must be why...

  13. 9 Fact and Fiction
    (pp. 43-50)

    Since the opposition between fact and fiction has come to seem such a given, it is surprising to find that the wordsfactandfictionboth derive from Latin words that mean nearly the same thing—to doorto make(as doespoetryfrom the Greekpoeien). In English,fictionhas always had the primary sense of something fashioned or feigned—thoughfashion, likefact, derives from the Latinfacere, whereasfeign, likefiction, comes fromfingere. It took until the nineteenth century for the sense of fact as something actively done or made to be completely driven out...

  14. 10 How Bad Facts Make Good Theories
    (pp. 51-57)

    It is a truism that a “higher truth” than the merely factual is evoked in literature. What this usually means is that by not getting bogged down in the facts (understood as particular historical details), a work of fiction or poetry is better able to paint a “big picture” of how the world works and what kind of world it is; it misses the trees in order to see the forest. Mary Shelley’sFrankenstein, for example, is prefaced with the typically romantic claim that her story, “however impossible as a physical fact, affords a point of view to the imagination...

  15. 11 Self-Reference I
    (pp. 58-69)

    Linguist Roman Jakobson identifiedself-referenceas the predominant linguistic function of poetry; he called itpoeticity. The term refers to the way poetry tends to call attention to itself as an artifact of language—for example, by rhyme or meter or special diction—so as to makewhatis being said secondary tohowit is being said. As such, poetry is opposed to referential discourse, which tends to efface its own artifice, the better to represent itself as a transparent window onto the world—a ploy also known asrealism. An extreme form of self-reference may be where “the...

  16. 12 Self-Reference II
    (pp. 70-77)

    This section develops another couple of important dimensions of self-reference via the consideration of three literary texts—from 1853, 1936, and 1970—that refer to themselves, circuitously, as economic transactions. These texts differ from the ones we have just considered, at least insofar as a text is not a running dog or a subway station, whereas it often does (as in these cases) form part of an economic transaction. Such self-reference opens the question of to what extent the text’s economic role may subsume or saturate whatever other dimensions in which it may operate (that is, the other ways in...

  17. 13 Autopoiesis
    (pp. 78-89)

    Among the most familiar of all science-fictional technology isStar Trek’s transporter, a device that can dematerialize a thing—even a living body—into a pattern of information that it transmits as a beam and rematerializes at another location. A living body, in fact, as construed by contemporary biology, isalreadymore like a transporter beam than like a solid, inert object. As most people know, our bodies are in constant flux at the cellular level, where cells are continually disintegrating and being replicated. In a matter of months, most of our organs have been completely replaced, one cell at...

  18. 14 Poetic Interlude: Defrosting
    (pp. 90-96)

    Robert Frost, famously, called poetry “a momentary stay against confusion.” This description assigns an important function to poetry, perhaps even including a political role in affirming some of what dominant power and ideology might otherwise render unintelligible. Unfortunately,momentaryseems to suggest something isolated and punctual, andstay against confusionseems to imply that poetry may be the reactionary defense of an order and identity (its own, for one) against all others, and especially in the high-cultural circles of the modern Western poetic tradition, a defensive and self-enclosed poetry has tended to function as a way of affirming a defensive...

  19. 15 Performativity I: Power and Meaning
    (pp. 97-108)

    If self-organization is a circle, or, just a little more elaborately, if organisms and communities are complex, self-enfolding fractal circuitries, then violence would seem to be a kind of straight line.

    Asubjectinflicting immediate violence on anobjectseems to be the most straightforward kind of violent power. A gun, for example, is an instrument to make power straightforward: it polarizes two people into subject and object (an act of violence in itself) according to which end you’re on. This is the case even though, when anything more than the immediate effect of violence is considered, things get more...

  20. 16 Performativity II: Metacleavage
    (pp. 109-119)

    Realism and referentialism would like to align the waywords(or, more generally, categories in language) are divided and joined together to the waythingsin the world are divided and joined together (and by the way, there is a word—one of those rare words that is its own opposite—that means bothdividingandjoining together: the word iscleaveorcleavage.) The theoretical movement known as structuralism, starting in the early twentieth century, began from the premise that language is poorly understood only as referential, that languages and cultures must be studied as systems unto themselves, self-referential...

  21. 17 Artistic Interlude II: The Abyss of Distinction
    (pp. 120-123)

    I had only been in the Louvre once before, and only for a couple of hours. The immensity of it is too daunting; the nightmare of déjà vu corridors and endless, airless cocktail-party drawing rooms where grandiose paintings hang around stiffly, not speaking to you. So the previous time I was in Paris, when I arrived to find a museum workers’ strike in progress, I felt a sense of happy reprieve. I stood around watching a robotic device cleaning the windows of the glass pyramid over the entrance: clearly, somebody needs to teach these robots about solidarity. But the next...

  22. 18 Performativity III: Retroactivism
    (pp. 124-133)

    In chapter 16, we looked at some examples of how, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, modernity and rationalization performatively shaped space and time and bodies and wood and labor, and how some of these articulations inform the more abstract or conceptual habit of binarizing and hierarchizing difference. Cultural theorist Fred Jameson coined the termideologemeto name fundamental conceptual units such as the hierarchized binary (76, 87); these units resemble what get calledtropesortopoiin rhetoric (that is, figures of speech or common metaphors); the more monolithic epistemological versions are Foucault’sepistemeor Kuhn’sparadigm....

  23. 19 The Return to Resemblance
    (pp. 134-145)

    The shaping of scientific theory by its social context is a first principle of the critical position often calledconstructionism, of which an early example (see chapter 2) is Marx’s assertion that Darwin had found “among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labor, competition . . . and the Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’” (7). This ventriloquism of society through nature was also one of the things Oscar Wilde found disingenuous about romantic poets claiming that nature spoke to them: “Wordsworth . . . found in stones the sermons he had already hidden there” (301). Engels elaborated...

  24. 20 Gravity Cannot Be Held Responsible?
    (pp. 146-159)

    Albert Einstein may have said that “gravity cannot be held responsible for people falling in love.” Since I haven’t been able to findwherehe is supposed to have said it, I have to doubt the attribution, but since much of what’s significant about the statement resides in what makes it definitive for a popular icon of scientific genius, perhaps it evengainsin resonance if attributedfalselyto Einstein. It may be taken as a statement of humility (“I’m just a humble physicist; my jurisdiction does not extend to human affairs”), which in turn implies a kind of arrogance...

  25. 21 Queer in a Queer World
    (pp. 160-173)

    Samuel Delany’s science fiction story “The Star Pit,” written in 1965, traces intricately orchestrated dynamics of love, dependency, and entrapment; the story also features a series of figures of model ecological systems (“ecologaria”) that reflect on such orchestrations. When he wrote the story, Delany had just read Frank Herbert’sDune, the 1965 novel that thematizedecology as world makingin a way that installed it at the heart of the project of science fiction. But Delany’s story also plays out an alternative to the romanticized wholism characteristic of ecology in the 1960s, an alternative still salutary in counteracting the formalizing,...

  26. 22 An Alienist History
    (pp. 174-182)

    I hope I won’t jeopardize the otherwise unassailable validity of this book by concluding in a somewhat different tack; in any case, this section will begin as pretty straightforward cultural criticism but slip quickly into the mode of fiction and attempt to do most of its theorizing in that mode. Could such criticism possibly be effective, and if so how? Could it alter cultural practices or epistemology, or could it have any positive traction on ideology at all? These are precisely the questions I have about the alien abduction movement, the subject of this section.

    Alien abduction stories began in...

  27. Bibliography
    (pp. 183-188)
  28. Index
    (pp. 189-192)
  29. Back Matter
    (pp. 193-194)