Themes in Literature

Literary Science and Technology

Science and Technology

While science and technology play key roles in human affairs, they tend to recede into the background of daily life. We seldom think about the structures and practices of scientific institutions or about the social and environmental costs of our technologically textured lives. But as canonical literature from medieval times to the present makes abundantly clear, cultural responses to and attitudes about scientific developments and engineering breakthroughs have always been potent, complex, and multiple. Literary works by authors from Geoffrey Chaucer to Don DeLillo have variously reflected, reinforced, and (in some cases) destabilized these larger societal responses and attitudes. Studying this literature, therefore, occasions valuable opportunities to better understand the taken-for-granted background of science and technology. Many literary texts foreground the complex relations between science, technology, and society by calling attention to fundamental problems of definition and recognition. The term science, for instance, poses considerable problems precisely because of its privileged status in mainstream culture. We associate it with “reality,” “truth,” and “reason,” and when individuals or institutions speak on behalf of science, lay audiences often assume that what is being conveyed is factual, trustworthy, and authoritative. Unfortunately, distinguishing between “genuine” and “mock” science is no easy matter; scores of unscientific practices and products announce themselves as thoroughly scientific simply to gain acceptance or to influence consumers. Even in early modern times, when science referred generally to any systematic acquisition of knowledge, differentiating between real and fake science could be tricky.

Geoffrey Chaucer dramatizes this problem in “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” of The Canterbury Tales by critiquing mutually reinforcing entities within medieval society: devious alchemists, armed with a bewildering scientific vocabulary and an arsenal of laboratory technologies, who promise to transform base metals into gold; and greedy clients whose materialistic desires perpetuate the existence of charlatan science. In so doing, this satiric tale foregrounds fundamental problems of “validity” and “misrecognition” that arise any time science is invoked. Significantly, Chaucer links these problems to cultural ideas about technology. Prior to the 19th century, this term could refer broadly either to material instruments or to any systematic technique. Chaucer’s text suggests that any technology—whether instrumental or methodological— should be understood as an extension of the culture that produces and employs it. The early laboratory implements of this tale—fire, crucibles, chemical elements—are not value-neutral: They establish and confer authority, and their use and abuse reflect and shape particular human interests and cultural values. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the term science gradually lost cultural and professional currency and gave way to natural science, a phrase denoting only those enterprises that advanced our understanding of the physical world. The circulation of this phrase was largely an attempt to distinguish “real science” from other forms of systematic inquiry (philosophy, history, theology, and so on) whose methods did not require observation, experimentation, and replication.

Because this new emphasis on discovering nature’s secrets called into question long-standing theological explanations of the universe, many writers explored the ethical and philosophical implications of natural science’s goals. Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, for example, takes place in a theocentric universe, but it registers profound anxiety about scientific ambitions. Inquiries into the laws of nature, the play suggests, can give way to scientific hubris, to an immoral aspiration to attain godlike wisdom. For the play’s protagonist, seeking such knowledge comes at the expense of his moral decency. Thus, when Faustus bargains away his soul for ultimate knowledge, he sinks deeper and deeper into despair until his final dismemberment by the devil’s brutal agents. Of course, many other writers saw promise, nor corruption, in the natural sciences. Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis (1627) conjures a mythical island replete with a compassionate citizenry and an expansive scientific institute aimed at studying physical laws and taming an inhospitable natural world. Still, while proponents of Bacon’s ambitious scientific vision increased in number, many writers in the 18th century would nevertheless continue to examine the consequences of imperialistic science. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, for instance, depicts astronomers as a dark embodiment of humankind’s growing preoccupation with the physical world, suggesting, as Marlowe did, that such concerns come at the expense of moral and spiritual growth. Most 19th-century literary texts concerned with science and technology are probably best understood as responses to the so-called Age of Enlightenment of the previous century. Philosophical and scientific thinkers of the Enlightenment generally asserted that reason and science provided the means of overcoming superstition, controlling nature, and achieving social and political progress. Against such assertions stands Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, whose scientist embodies the Enlightenment faith that all laws of the physical universe can be known.

While this novel condemns detached intellectualism, it also raises serious questions about the motives and consequences of scientific work. Lured less by “knowledge for its own sake” than by the promise of power that knowledge confers, Victor Frankenstein signifies the negative potential of science. He functions as a nightmarish counterexample to the idealized image of the Enlightenment scientist dedicated to cool, dispassionate observation and truth seeking. Victor’s success in animating an assemblage of dead body parts is undone by his subsequent inability to ease the torment endured by his monstrous creation; their entwined lives serve as a dramatic argument for responsible science that properly accounts for the social costs of so-called breakthroughs. Similar critiques of Enlightenment values can be found in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fiction. In “The Birth-mark,” a chemist’s clinical obsession with his wife’s birthmark threatens her well-being and eventually leads to her death.

Similarly, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” features an inhumane scientist whose isolated horticultural experiments leave him emaciated, sallow, and sickly looking. His work also transforms his daughter, who develops immunity to the poisonous flowers he cultivates but renders her toxic to anything or anyone in proximity of her breath. Collectively, these texts argue for a mode of science that critiques and limits its own ambitions and takes into account the social costs of scientific work once it leaves the laboratory. These literary arguments, however, did little to curtail the degree to which science and technology propelled larger processes of urbanization and industrialization. Many late 19th-century literary texts responded to this nagging realization by juxtaposing pastoral and industrial imagery. Huck’s desire to embark on a journey into unspoiled territory, near the end of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for instance, might reflect a growing ambivalence about the purported civilizing effects of an increasingly urbanized world. And in Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the protagonist’s failed attempts to industrialize Arthurian England offers a stark rejection of Enlightenment notions that time and scientific initiative result in progress. By the 20th century, science no longer needed the qualifying term natural to denote methodological research capable of generating certainty about aspects of the physical world. Nevertheless, the definitional instability of the term remains to this day as the intellectual writings of social scientists, historians, and philosophers have increasingly questioned the supposed boundaries dividing science from other forms of intellectual and cultural work. Such writings argue that scientists belong to a distinct culture with its own ethics, politics, languages, and rituals, and that their work is shaped, in direct and indirect ways, by larger national and international pressures. Much 20th-century literature reflects and informs these observations by questioning science’s autonomy and objectivity. In many texts, scientific research and its technologies become driving forces behind the growth of consumer culture, corporations, economic systems, and political entities. In his U.S.A. trilogy, John Dos Passos employs a narrative technique that interweaves documentary sources, newspaper collages, fiction, montage techniques from film, and biographical sketches to depict the lives of working Americans in an industrial culture.

His rapid narrative transitions emphasize the role of communication, entertainment, and information technologies in shaping lived experience. A few decades after Dos Passos’s trilogy, Ray Bradbury’s fiction would consistently imagine future worlds in which consumer culture and entertainment technologies render the critical imagination obsolete and undesirable. His Fahrenheit 451, along with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, dramatize how computer and surveillance technologies disseminate and enforce values compatible with the dominant power structures. These nightmare worlds depict entire populations that come to see individual conformity as an acceptable price to pay for national security. Other texts reveal a growing ambivalence toward the seeming omnipresence of military and information technologies in our lives. An atomic war might be the cause of the airplane crash that strands a group of schoolboys on a deserted island at the beginning of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but details of the cataclysm are mentioned only in passing. Later in the novel, the bestial violence that erupts on the island suggests that military technologies might be little more than extensions of an inherently violent and combative human nature. Published a few decades later, Don DeLillo’s White Noise employs an ironic and ambivalent narrative voice for a plot that juxtaposes consumer excess, unstable identities, omnipresent information technologies, and looming threats of ecological disaster. In complex ways, these texts contribute to the always unfinished work of historicizing and theorizing the relations between society, science, and technology. They reflect and contribute to larger cultural debates about how best to understand the impact of science on our present circumstances and how to approach an uncertain future in which technology and science will unquestionably play a role.

See also Adams, Henry: Education of Henry Adams, The; Lowry, Lois: Giver, The; Poe, Edgar Allan: “Murders in the Rue Morgue, The”; Silko Leslie Marmon: Ceremony; Steinbeck, John: Cannery Row; Stevenson, Robert Louis: Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde; Vonnegut, Kurt: Cat’s Cradle; Whitman, Walt: Leaves of Grass.

5 thoughts on “Literary Science and Technology

  1. Politics & Prose: Little (Big) Books – politicsprose: While many great works of literature are weighty—in sub…

  2. I forgot to give my literature book. Sorry baby. But pn fairus wont be around this week. I think so lah. Rmai org ckp liddat.

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