A couple of days ago I showed my husband, Ben Fletcher-Watson, a researcher with a humanities background, a tweet which I thought was hilarious. His reaction surprised me and led to a long discussion at the kitchen table, which in turn became the inspiration for this guest blog on the continued gulf between science and the arts. Enjoy!
Yesterday afternoon, my wife, Sue tweeted me a link to the following tweet by a neuroscientist colleague of hers:
I think this may be the worst abstract I have ever read. Enjoy, people… pic.twitter.com/oyOtg2x8Xf
— Duncan Astle (@DuncanAstle) January 25, 2016
This is a sciencepoetical essay combining neurodidactics as an interdisciplinary research field representing an interface between neuroscience, didactics, and educational sciences with the potentials in and with recent post-constructivist and/or post-humanism, compostist, and multiparadigmatic theories of embodiment and matter becomings. It is an attempt to think new about the nature–culture divide and learning. The idea and notion of the rhizome, and thus the idea of the rhizome-embrained body of a child, is followed through. I write along a neutral and panpsychist monist philosophy of mind un/conscious–attention–discovery sensation–thinking–learning continuum, hopefully contributing to research on conceptual change in children and ultimately the Neuron. I write. I thus Pessoa word and I try to Cixous forethink in and with words. They are (my) stimulating electric currents.
As a humanities researcher married to a scientist, I often find myself having to explain the accepted forms of my discipline to Sue, and vice versa. Likewise, I assume (perhaps unfairly) that many followers of Sue’s blog may not be that familiar with the more radical movements within the humanities, so it’s worth unpicking this, admittedly challenging, text a little bit.
Reinertsen states at the outset that her piece is “sciencepoetical”, part of a thirty-year-old tradition of blending poetry and science. The concept of science poetry was popularised in the 1980s by Latin American writers such as Rafael Catal, whose Cienciapoesía describes the genre as an “integrated vision of reality” (1986, p.13). It has been described as seeking to “reconcile the differences between the humanities and the sciences by revealing the scientific mediation of literature, and the humanistic mediation of science” (Smith, p.759).
As such, it can perhaps be thought of as a contribution to the inter/trans/multi-disciplinary debate which was famously summed up by C.P. Snow as “the Two Cultures” (1959). For Snow, the antagonism and lack of mutual understanding between the humanities and the sciences was a barrier to progress. As he stated in the lecture which kickstarted the debate:
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: ‘Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?’ I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, ‘What do you mean by mass, or acceleration?’, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, ‘Can you read?’ — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.
In a way, science poetry can be seen as an attempt to hold out a hand across the intellectual divide, playing with language to see what it can offer to both sides. Similarly, the OuLiPo movement blends creative writing and mathematics to produce quite beautiful works such as Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes (1961). In this book, Queneau has written ten sonnets, all with identical rhymes, then layered them on top of one another and sliced out the gaps between lines, so any combination of lines from any sonnets can be read as a new poem. This produces 1014 (100,000,000,000,000) different poems.
Considering this artistic and scholarly context, it seems obvious that Reinertsen’s abstract is not quite as impenetrable or idiosyncratic as it appears. She is consciously engaging with an established mode of writing – although it’s rare (and to my mind, refreshing) to see it used in an academic publication. I assume that the editors of Global Studies of Childhood also thought so.
Pushing a little deeper into the thicket of words, it’s also clear that she is signposting her intentions by playfully riffing on other authors, as when she says “I write. I thus Pessoa word…”, mirroring Fernando Pessoa’s statement that “I love words. Or rather; I love to word”. This astonishing Portuguese author is responsible for one of the most curious works of literature of the modern era, The Book of Disquiet (written between 1913 and 1935). In his introduction to the 2001 edition, Richard Zenith writes: “What we have here isn’t a book but its subversion and negation… the mutant germ of a book and its weirdly lush ramifications… an anti-literature, a kind of primitive, verbal CAT scan of one man’s anguished soul” (p.ix). Reinertsen is adopting and adapting Pessoa’s style to mash-up theories and concepts from across the intellectual spectrum. As Pessoa himself says, “Art is a science… It suffers rhythmically” (p.214).
Reading the full paper, this experimental style becomes even more vibrant – and indeed, it is clear that the abstract, far from being a “word salad”, accurately reflects both the form and intention of the paper itself.
Reinertsen’s other publications demonstrate the development of this personal style from her PhD thesis to a 2013 paper outlining “postconceptual hyperbolic word creation thus a view of using language for thinking not primarily for communication”. Note the emphasis on hyperbole – this is intentionally knowing, witty, a wink to the reader.
Reinertsen is standing on the shoulders of writers like Pessoa, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and a thousand others, but what marks her out is her determination to do so within the academy, bringing the richness of ‘literary’ language and the playfulness of poetry into an often formulaic way of writing.
Interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity – if these are to be more than fashionable buzzwords that we slap onto funding applications, then academics need to be prepared to wrestle with difficult concepts from both ends of the spectrum. As a humanities scholar with an interest in developmental psychology, over the years I have been introduced by Sue to a range of concepts from the basics of the scientific method, through theoretical models of child development, to the pedunculopontine tegmental nucleus (though I use the last one mainly as a tongue-twister in rehearsal warm-ups). This traffic needs to go both ways.
I can accept that titles of these recent publications in the prestigious scientific journal Nature (depicted above), heavy with jargon and convoluted grammar, are doorways to works with scholarly value. Perhaps also scientists with a commitment to working across disciplines might try examining ways of writing that take them beyond the tried-and-tested passive-voiced formulae of science writing.
There are plenty of critiques to be made of Reinertsen’s abstract, and her body of work, and I’m sure the peer reviewers at Global Studies of Childhood made some of them. By choosing to publish, she is showing a willingness to engage with other scholars in the process of knowledge-construction which hopefully inspires all of us to undertake research. Recognition of the validity of her approach, and of the limitations of the reader’s own paradigm, is essential to permit scholarly debate across disciplines. Otherwise, we’re just Two Cultures with no hope of bridging the divide.
Ben Fletcher-Watson is currently completing a PhD in drama at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the University of St Andrews, supported by an ESRC CASE Studentship. His research examines contemporary Scottish practice in theatre for early years. He has published articles in journals including Youth Theatre Journal and Research in Drama Education. He serves on the Executive of the Theatre and Performance Research Association (TaPRA) and is an ASSITEJ Next Generation Artist.