Wednesday, September 3, 2014

There's No There Halfway There

It is not a promising sign when a very serious work of literary theory starts to sound suspiciously like the academic satire of the moment, in this case, Karen Barad's Meeting the Universe Halfway and The Big Bang Theory, respectively. It is even less promising when a reader finds herself wondering whether the book isn't just an elaborate, as-yet-unrevealed latter-day version of the Sokal hoax.

At 500 pages in length, the book isn't so much  tl;dr (too long; didn't read in dismissive internet parlance) as much as dr;tifmtkgwtiotwaidrwtiabdafhpbdfsohs (didn't read;too infuriating for me to keep going without throwing it out the window and I didn't really want to injure anyone by dropping a five hundred-page book down five stories onto Houston St.). In gamer parlance, I rage-quit the book. If you look at my own copy of it, my hand-written notes in the margin get progressively messier and darker as I gripped my pencil harder and harder as I read on. My comments here are, thus, restricted to my infuriated impressions of the introduction of the book rather than being a full-on book review.

My main critique of the work as it is set up in the introduction (and to be sure, I have a host of other, smaller qualms about it) is of Barad as a reader of literature and, by extension, of the pervasive, pernicious idea that the study of literature is easy and that anyone who can perform at a high level in physics can obviously "do" literature. By signing onto this kind of approach it is as if, as a field, we have collectively adopted the persona of a clique of freshman engineering majors who sign up for anything from Chaucher to Faulkner expecting it to be an easy A because, you know, literature. It's a bad position for literature professors to take.

My abortive attempt to work through Barad's book came as part of my research and reading for my chapter for the proceedings volume from my fellowship year at the Katz Center at Penn. It will be a volume that uses "entanglement" as its buzzword, and I didn't want to submit a chapter that didn't demonstrate an awareness of the body of theory that is associated with that word. It was more than that, too. I was initially optimistic that an approach that brings the idea of scientific precision to humanistic inquiry might have interesting applications in a Judaic Studies context with its own disciplinary history grounded in the Wissenschaft des Judentums, a nineteenth-century movement to do just that: apply scientific precision to the study of manuscripts and texts. But no dice. Where the Wissenschaft moved forwards in incremental steps, precise but always willing to be revised when new evidence presented itself, often to other Wissenschaft scholars — after all, these were the guys who were identifying the major medieval players, uncovering texts and spelling out their stemmata, and compiling the basic building block research tools of any future work, and that kind of identification necessarily happens piecemeal and only when a critical mass of data is widely available — the basic pose in applying quantum entanglement theory to humanistic inquiry is one of hubris.

Barad asks the question: "What is it about the subject matter of quantum physics that it inspires all the right questions?" While she goes on to moderate her comment somewhat by saying that the answers are almost always off the mark, it is a troubling posture nonetheless, one that seeks to introduce a scientific framework to literary study from the point of view that science is inherently superior to literature. It's a bit of benevolent intellectual colonialism.

The body of the introduction goes on to prove that quantum physics cannot always ask the right questions, especially where literature is concerned. This introduction works through an analysis of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, a stage play that imagined, in a riff on Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, three versions of the historic 1941 meeting in that Danish city between the physicists Niels Bohr and the selfsame Werner Heisenberg.

In plain terms, Barad is mad that the play doesn't reflect what we later learned to be the historical reality of the meeting between Bohr and Heisenberg. After Frayn's play debuted, Bohr's estate released some of his papers relating to the meeting with Heisenberg, and it turned out that none of the three possible scenarios imagined by the playwright was the scenario that actually transpired (at least as far as Bohr's correspondence lets us know). Barad writes:
How does Frayn react to this revelation? He remains steadfast in the face of this crucial addition to the historical record. Frayn has indicated that the release of these important historical documents has had little effect on his thinking about the relevant issues and would not affect any future editions of the play. He admits only one inaccuracy: that he portrays Bohr as having forgiven Heisenberg too readily. This dismissive stance toward history is completely consistent with Frayn's privileging of psychological ("internal") states over historical ("exteneral") facts throughout the play...
It feels brash to say that Barad is completely missing the point of literature. But literature is not history. Literature is not history. And I say this as someone with one foot in each of the two academic worlds and as one trying to bridge that divide with some reinvention of what constitutes cultural and literary history. Literature is a space to explore the psychological and the internal. Just to pick the most obvious example, lives of Alexander the Great are never really about Alexander the Great; rather, they are always space to explore the issues of greatest interest to authors and readers. Perhaps Heisenberg is a similarly (if more limited) giant and multifaceted figure figure who, in a literary sphere, presents as a blank canvas for artists' exploration. Miguel Cervantes wrote Don Quixote ex nihil rather than discovering it as an Arabic manuscript, even though there is a character in Don Quixote named Miguel Cervantes who does just that. Literature is a different kind of uncertainty than the kind of uncertainty that physics admits. And while Barad does, to some extent, acknowledge that, she tries to make the latter run roughshod over the former.

And ultimately, it's our own need to prove how scientific! we are that is the chief problem. Of course, as a scholar of literature, it's to be expected that I would see this book as a manifestation of a reader-reception problem rather than any real problem of the author's making. Barad wrote the book, but we are at fault for signing on in the hopes that science might cure our collective humanistic inferiority complex.

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed this summer (unfortunately behind a paywall) voiced concerns by scientists that historians of science were too interested in medieval medicine and not interested enough in the history of quantum physics and atomic energy, and that this means that they are not scientific enough:
Mr. Chang sees many historians "quite afraid of science" when it comes to, say, the gritty technical details of molecular biology or the Standard Model of particle physics. Rather, they turn toward studying medieval scientific precursors or how people in the 20th century read Isaac Newton. It’s all valid work, but it has helped sever their ties to science.
The very best medieval (and ancient) historians of science I know may not be the top-tier research physicists, but they all have a very solid background in science. Early on in graduate school I had thought about pursuing history of science but moved away from it precisely because I didn't have the scientific background. And as I am now just beginning a second book project that will focus on the translation of Aristotle's Meteorologies in Toledo in the thirteenth century, I am beginning not in any of the familiar places but rather with some physics catch-up. History of science isn't the enemy of science, even if it isn't focusing on the topics that research physicists would like it to. So, too, is literature not the enemy or even the antithesis of science.

The idea that we must constantly be striving for parity with the sciences in our methodologies, perhaps as a way to stave off popular discourse that the humanities disciplines are useless in the new economy, perhaps to try to keep up with the increasing emphasis on funding for STEM subjects, perhaps to staunch the flow of funding and students away from the humanities, is a losing proposition. Instead of trying to prove how much we are like the sciences in order to prove our worth, we should be challenging the discourse that says that science is the only worthy approach to the world and that literature and history have nothing to offer unless they can quantify their results in handy tables and equations.

Quantum physics can't possibly inspire all the right questions all the time, nor does it have a monopoly on all the right questions; and it is scholars of literature who should be the first to be shouting that, rather than shimmying up to an imaginarily omnipotent scientific approach. We are capable of asking the right questions, too.

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