Tag Archives: Science

Theodor Fontane and the Tachyonic Antitelephone

Early in Fontane’s novel Der Stechlin Dubslav and Gundermann are engaged in a discussion of the telegraph. I was revisiting this passage and thinking about it in connection with issues of relativity and causality in Robert Musil’s novel Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften.

The conversation begins with Dubslav commenting that the brevity mandated by the form of the telegram has eroded language.

Kürze soll eine Tugend sein, aber sich kurz fassen heißt meistens auch, sich grob fassen. (GBA-EW 17 : 28)

Brevity’s supposed to be a virtue, but saying things briefly usually means saying them coarsely. (CHE 17)

Gundermann, a reactionary bourgeois who makes a living turning Brandenburg’s trees into planks for Berlin’s hard wood floors, seizes on these remarks to take a pot shot at the Social Democrats. The erosion of language is a “Zeichen der Zeit” (“sign of the times”) and “Wasser auf die Mühlen der Sozialdemokratie” (GBA-EW 17 : 28-29) “water on the mills of the social democrats”; CHE 17). Dubslav reverses himself in the face of Gundermann, and balances his criticism of the telegraph with something that he finds more praiseworthy about the technology.

Schließlich ist es doch was Großes, diese Naturwissenschaften, dieser elektrische Strom, tipp, tipp, tipp, und wenn uns daran läge (aber uns liegt nichts daran), so könnten wir den Kaiser von China wissen lassen, daß wir hier versammelt sind und seiner gedacht haben. Und dabei diese merkwürdigen Verschiebungen in Zeit und Stunde. Beinahe komisch. Als Anno siebzig die Pariser Septemberrevolution ausbrach, wußte man’s in Amerika drüben um ein paar Stunden früher, als die Revolution überhaupt da war. (GBA-EW 17 : 29)

When you get right down to it though, it really is a marvelous thing, this science business, this electric current. Tap, tap, tap and if we had a mind to (even though we don’t), why we could let the Emperor of China know we’ve gotten together here and were thinking about him. And then all these odd mix-ups in time and hours. Almost comical. When the September Revolution broke out back in seventy in Paris, they knew about it over there in America a couple of hours before there even was a revolution. (CHE 18)

Dubslav’s complaint about the telegraph was concerned with its effects on language. He speaks in favor of a notion of industrial progress, but his admiration for the sciences and technological innovation is less about technology as such and more about the telegraph’s effect on spacetime. He imagines the telegraph as a tachyonic antitelephone, a hypothetical device capable of sending information faster than light thereby causing a paradox of causality. The compression of space and time with modern technology is something that crops up again and again in the literature of the late nineteenth century, one sees it especially in the way that train travel is described. The experience of the accelerating train in many of Raabe’s texts, for instance, is often a metaphor for the experience of time in modernity. But the paradox of causality Dubslav describes is different. It is not merely that “the time is out of joint,” as Hamlet famously put it, but that it is out of joint to the extent that temporal relations are suddenly reversed.

The connections between global and local that the telegraph makes possible do more than simply establish a parallel between the lake and communication technology, rather the telegraph reproduces technologically the mythic properties ascribed to the lake (i.e. the fact that it responds physically to seismic activity anywhere on the planet). Dubslav’s example of the news of revolution echoes the revolutionary symbolism of the lake. The possibility of sending a telegram to the emperor of China more explicitly articulates the imperial side of the openness to the world that Melusine espouses. The lake, after all, connects to Java, “mit Java telephoniert” (GBA-EW 17 : 64; “has a telephone line direct to Java,” CHE 43). Both raise the specters of German colonial presence in Qingdao and New Guinea. The empire functions here as Edward Said argues it does elsewhere in nineteenth century literature, “as a codified, if only marginally visible, presence in fiction” (63), and I would add, is another important component of the novel’s geographic imagination.1 The telegraph, in short, is a physical manifestation of global networks of domination and a reproduction of the lake’s chthonic global connections.

The tachyonic antitelephone was the most intriguing discovery of this passage. Einstein’s theory of relativity was still eight years away or so when Stechlin appeared in book form. A common (mis)perception of German realism holds that the literature of this time did not rise up to the status of “world literature” that one finds in the “great” novels of England, France, or Russia in the latter half of the nineteenth century, although Fontane is in this regards supposedly the great exception. But Fontane is not the only German author of this period with the sensitivity and perceptiveness to anticipate, say, a tachyonic antitelephone.


1Said also draws the comparison of the presence of empire to the presence of laborers. “To cite another intriguing analogue, imperial possessions are as usefully there, anonymous and collective, as the outcast populations . . . of transient workers, part-time employees, season artisans; their existence always counts, though their names and identities do not, they are profitable without being fully there” (63-64). The analogy might also be applied to the notably marginal – albeit no less significant – absence of the glass workers at Globsow.

Scientism in the News

A few interesting articles came down the pike recently that are worth sharing.

First there is Leon Wieseltier’s article in The New Republic “Crimes Against Humanities.” Wieseltier’s article is a response to Steven Pinker’s article “Science is not you Enemy,” which appeared in the same publication in August.  Wieseltier’s argument is not without its own problems (is the opprobrium heaped on post-modernism really necessary here?), but given how well Pinker manages to peddle his books and land invitations from Stephen Colbert, it’s refreshing to see a critical treatment of him in the popular press.

Pinker’s article is worth reading if only because it is so typical of him, at least when he is speaking to a broader audience.  The introduction sounds reasonable enough if one does not consider the intellectual legacy of the Enlightenment thinkers that he invokes.  The argument really starts to fray when Pinker attempts to appropriate the label “scientism.”  He does so through a set of convenient re-definitions and omissions, as when he speaks of skepticism and the peer review process as if they were the exclusive domain of the STEM fields.  Echoing the rather dubious thesis from The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Pinker also makes an argument here for an ideological status quo:

And contrary to the widespread canard that technology has created a dystopia of deprivation and violence, every global measure of human flourishing is on the rise. The numbers show that after millennia of near-universal poverty, a steadily growing proportion of humanity is surviving the first year of life, going to school, voting in democracies, living in peace, communicating on cell phones, enjoying small luxuries, and surviving to old age. The Green Revolution in agronomy alone saved a billion people from starvation.

Wieseltier’s argument, on the other hand, uses Pinker’s as a jumping-off point for a larger defense of the way humanities – specifically cultural studies, broadly understood – think about the world and broach the matter of whether an argument is “true.”  Wieseltier writes:

In literature and the arts, there are ideas, intellectually respectable ideas, about the world, but they are not demonstrated, they are illustrated. They are not argued, they are imagined; and the imagination has rigors of its own. What the imagination imparts in the way of understanding the world should also be called knowledge. Scientists and scientizers are not the only ones working toward truths and trying to get things right.

One need not look far in intellectual history to find thinkers making claims about science or history that have not been shown to be dated or flat out wrong in an empirical sense.  But whether they are right or wrong in the empirical sense is not always the most interesting question to be asked.  The value of such a text is not in its facticity, but rather in whether or not they make visible something that we might not otherwise recognize.  Freud may be “debunked,” as a graduate student instructor I once had insisted, but that does not mean that there is not a reality beyond what can be measured by instruments that Freud does not help us to understand.

Wieseltier also gets points in my book for his Musil citation.

On a related note, Adam Gopnik published an interesting review in the New Yorker of three books on the current obsession with neuroscience – Pinker’s own field.  To varying degrees and in different ways the books are all skeptical of the assumption that neuroscience can really yield some sort of truth about “human nature” (which, according to The Man Without Qualities, is “as capable of cannibalism as The Critique of Pure Reason“).  The review is worth a look, as it draws out many of the conceptual problems related to the investment in neuroscience as an avenue for accessing some deeper truth about ourselves and our faculties.

Towards a Critique of C.P. Snow

The way in which somTower Bridge nearing completion.  Public Domain image from UK National Archives.e literary critics cite C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” speech of 1959 is always rather interesting to me.  It’s not uncommon to see humanists interested in developing points of contact between the sciences and the humanities cite Snow’s model as a useful heuristic. It’s remarkable that this particular text gets cited so frequently, because I’m not so certain that we can really get all that much mileage out of it.  The point that I am going to try to make here is that we need to be a bit more critical when we cite this text, lest we end up investing it with an authority that ends up actually obscuring the implications of Snow’s argument.  It’s time to subject this text to a fresh critique that we may be able to move beyond it.

The basic thesis, for those unfamiliar with the speech, is that academia has become polarized between “literary intellectuals” on the one side and scientists on the other, and each side perceives only a distorted image of the other, which fuels a certain mistrust (4)1.  For Snow, it’s a mutual suspicion borne out of mutual ignorance, but the blame does not fall equally on both sides.  Instead the attack is mostly directed against so-called literary intellectuals.  Snow recounts asking a crowd of this persuasion if they knew the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which he claims to be the scientific equivalent of having read Shakespare, only to be greeted with a deafening silence (14-15).  “If we forget the scientific culture, then the rest of western intellectuals have never tried, wanted, or been able to understand the industrial revolution, much less accept it.  Intellectuals, in particular literary intellectuals, are natural Luddites” (22).  Part of Snow’s ethos, then and now, comes from having had a career as a scientist and a novelist.  This street cred as a novelist is probably undeserved, after all, who in 2013 has actually read one of Snow’s novels?

These are all rather provocative claims, and stirred up no small amount of controversy in their day.  Critic F.R. Leavis polemicized against Snow, and he has had other critics, including Stephen Jay Gould and Thomas Pynchon.  Criticisms notwithstanding, it’s not particularly surprising that the two cultures metaphor still gets batted around.  Snow offers a dichotomy that appeals to common sense, but it’s printed and you can cite it, and so if you are looking for ways to raise the stakes of your argument, it’s a handy go-to text.

Of all of the critiques I have encountered of Snow, Thomas Pynchon’s 1984 essay “Is It O.K. to be a Luddite?” is my personal favorite for its perceptiveness and its humor.  Pynchon points out the reductiveness of Snow’s dichotomy given the accessibility of information, and that was in 1984, before any trivial question that popped into ones head on any subject could be answered in the time it takes to type it out.  Although less a critique of Snow and more a defense of Luddism, Snow’s speech is the point of departure for Pynchon.  Still, his characterization of the Snow text seems to me to capture the character of the speech in a way that gets lost whenever the two cultures metaphor turns up in scholarly as well as popular discourse:

Fragmentary echoes of old disputes, of unforgotten offense taken in the course of long-ago high- table chitchat, may have helped form the subtext for Snow’s immoderate, and thus celebrated, assertion, ”If we forget the scientific culture, then the rest of intellectuals have never tried, wanted, or been able to understand the Industrial Revolution.” Such ”intellectuals,” for the most part ”literary,” were supposed, by Lord Snow, to be ”natural Luddites.”

Except maybe for Brainy Smurf, it’s hard to imagine anybody these days wanting to be called a literary intellectual, though it doesn’t sound so bad if you broaden the labeling to, say, ”people who read and think.” Being called a Luddite is another matter. It brings up questions such as, Is there something about reading and thinking that would cause or predispose a person to turn Luddite? Is it O.K. to be a Luddite? And come to think of it, what is a Luddite, anyway?

Needless to say, the answer is that it’s more than okay.  But what Pynchon is getting at in a humorously roundabout way is that Snow’s text – beyond the human element of hurt feelings which is very present – in tossing around the label “Luddite” as a pejorative, casts its imagined opponents as irrational reactionaries unable to appreciate the wonders of the industrial revolution.

This is the real problem that I see obscured when Snow is cited by people who think that we in the humanities should be more receptive to the sciences.  While the argument that we should learn more about science and math when and where we can is a good one and an important one, Snow’s vision is the kind that is grist for the mill of leftist critiques of science.  Because the talk is not really about how unfortunate it is that these two cultures won’t come together in some kumbaya moment, but that the preference for the humanities and particularly the classics in British education has diminished the nation’s status on an international stage.  This at a historical moment when Britain is confronting its perceived diminished status as a global player with the loss of its colonies and the emergence of the United States (which is handling STEM instruction better than Britain, according to Snow) and the Soviet Union.

My basic problems with Snow’s text, then, are these: 1.) His vision is a technocratic one.  He argues for a restrictive kind of positivism that has its place as one way of arriving at knowledge, but by no means has a monopoly on possibilities for knowing the world. That’s why the humanities are important and necessary – we explore all of the questions that you can’t answer with the help of fancy instruments.  2.) It accepts the scientific and industrial revolutions as intrinsically good when that is obviously not the case.  People concerned with the plight of the environment ought to know that all too well.  3.) The speech is a politically compromised document, invested as it is with particularist concerns over the material well being of the British nation.  4.) It proceeds from a false dichotomy, and offers nothing substantial to ground its positions.

In short, before we cite this text we need to think about what it means, both for politics in general and for the survival of our own disciplines.  Speaking of disciplines, it may be my own disciplinary bias, but it always seemed to me that the person whom we ought to be citing if we want to think about the humanities versus science isn’t C.P. Snow, but Robert Musil.  As an engineer who studied with Ernst Mach, he knew what he’s talking about when it comes to empiricism versus more speculative modes of thinking.  One of my favorite sections in The Man Without Qualities reads:

If someone were to discover, for instance, that under hitherto unobserved circumstances stones were able to speak, it would take only a few pages to describe and explain so earth-shattering a phenomenon. On the other hand, one can always write yet another book about positive thinking, and this is far from being of only academic interest, since it involves a method that makes it impossible ever to arrive at a clear resolution of life’s most important questions. Human activities might be graded by the quantity of words required: the more words, the worse their character. All the knowledge that has led our species from wearing animal skins to people flying, complete with proofs, would fill a handful of reference books, but a bookcase the size of the earth would not suffice to hold all the rest, quite apart from the vast discussions that are conducted not with the pen but with the sword and chains. The thought suggests itself that we carry on our human business in a most irrational manner when we do not use those methods by which the exact sciences have forged ahead in such exemplary fashion.(I, 264)3

Everyone here has their shortcomings.  The utopia of essayism is what Musil’s narrator offers where Snow talks about a “third culture,” but the fact that that whole project falls apart by the end of the first book makes me think that it gives us far more opportunities to think about these disciplinary questions in far more interesting ways.

1.  Snow, C.P. The Two Cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

2.  Musil, Robert. The Man Without Qualities. Sophie Wilkins, trans. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1995