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Envisioning a Bridge to a Third Culture: A Contradiction or a Paradox? Envisioning a Bridge to a Third Culture: A Contradiction or a Paradox?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-01-28 08:21:03
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In two previous articles on C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures I examined how the divide between liberal arts and science has been conceived and analyzed by the same Snow and his critics. In this third follow-up I’d like to focus briefly and rather schematically, in the mode of a brain-storm, on the desirability within modernity of envisioning a third culture: a cultural bridge, or a sort of theoretical ideal synthesis of the two estranged cultures.

bridge01_400We should preface the issue by pointing out the origins of the term “science.” William Whewell, a philosopher and historian of science who used 'science' in his Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences of 1840, is credited with establishing the term. I suppose one can even go further back to Francis Bacon, the father of the scientific method. However, the term was not recorded as an idea till the early 1830s at the Association for the Advanced Science when it was proposed as an analogy to the term “artist.”  Leonardo Da Vinci would have approved, given that he conceived of himself holistically as both an artist and a scientist and perceived no dichotomy between the two. And yet, the two cultures simply ignore and exclude what was originally the analogy to science-art. And there is the root cause of the divide identified in the 18th century by Giambattista Vico in his New Science as “the barbarism of the intellect,” something I have already discussed at length in the pages of Ovi magazine.

It is significant to point out here that in the second edition of The Two Cultures, in 1963, Snow added a new essay titled "The Two Cultures: A Second Look." In that essay he predicted that a new "Third Culture" would emerge and close the gap between literary intellectuals and scientists.  Also important to take notice that he originally named his lecture "The Rich and the Poor" In his last public statement he makes clear that the larger global and economic issues remain central and urgent: "Peace. Food. No more people than the Earth can take. That is the cause." As I have already pointed out in my previous articles one must wonder what Snow’s real agenda was after all. In point of fact he produced precious little in the way of a theoretical philosophical scheme with which to synthesize his two cultural worlds and bring about a third culture.

So the question persists: is it desirable that artists working with computers and inspired by the exciting innovations and discoveries taking place in science, be also keenly interested in what the cultural critics and commentators from the humanities have to say on the meaning and impact these discoveries and innovations have on culture and society? Can the use of the computer be a point of reference, a sort of center, and if so can the center hold?  Because our work and tools are in constant flux, we are forced to articulate the reasoning and meaning informing the art produced, which has traditionally been the role of art critics and historians. This, I would suggest, creates room for an active dialogue with both humanists and scientists. Thus we are placed in between these "Two Cultures," which creates a triangle and promises to an emergence of a Third Culture. This may be a privileged but also a dangerous position, at least in this transitional stage. Therefore it is important to take a hard close look at the background and current status of the so called Two Cultures. Here perhaps the comments of Thanos Kalamidas, the editor of Ovi who is an artist working with computers, whose book Immigrating Art I have reviewed in Ovi, may prove illuminating, and I for one hope that he will consent to share his experiences in this context.

But before we delve into the issue perhaps we should first answer the question: are there still today, the era of post-modern art and philosophy, individuals who resemble Da Vinci in the sense of not conceiving themselves within the dichotomy art/science? Actually there are such individuals, one that comes to mind is Paul Feyerabend who wrote an influential book titled Against Method (1975) which was translated into sixteen languages. In that book he argued that philosophy cannot provide a methodology and rationale for science since there is no rationale to begin with and to explain. Particularly irritating to scientists was his famous “anything goes” assertion which went like this: “All Methodologies have their limitations and the only 'rule' that survives is 'anything goes.'” He also suggested in that book that assuming that science and art share a problem solving attitude, then the only significant difference between them would disappear and then we could speak of styles and preferences for the former, and progress for the latter. Indeed, much of epistemic relativism in philosophy is understood by the scientific community as violent attacks on science. And that is too bad.

What I find most fascinating and Da Vinci-like about Fereyabend is his complete embrace of paradox. Like Da Vinci he is another complex persona who as a teenager studied opera and astronomy simultaneously and envisioned himself working in both fields. Later he kept going back and forth between majoring in physics and philosophy, eventually settling on the latter. Fereyabend studied under Popper at the London School of Economics. He then moved to Berkeley, where he befriended Kuhn and strongly rejected science as being superior to other modes of knowledge and as a result he ended up being labeled an anti-scientist.  

Important to point out that one of the enterprises of Leonardo was that of the building complex bridges. It appears that in the Renaissance it was rather common for scientist-artists to also be architects and engineers. One thinks of Michelangelo who was also an architect. So unconsciously, if you will, the scientist-artists of the Renaissance were already busy building the triangular bridge of art, science and technology.

But I am afraid that there is still much work to be done in building this proposed bridge between the humanities and the sciences. Much cynicism and skepticism has to be overcome. For instance, John Brockman, editor of a book of essays entitled The Third Culture, negates Snow's optimistic prediction that a day will come when literary intellectuals will communicate effectively with scientists. Instead he makes the claim that the contemporary scientists are the third culture and alludes that there is no need for trying to establish communication between scientists and literary intellectuals, who he calls the "middlemen."  Although the choice of people in his book is significant, the mere fact that it is comprised almost completely of Western white men, with the exception of Lynn Margolis with her essay "Gaia is a tough Bitch" makes it impossible to take his proposition seriously. But it does point to the continuing gap between the humanities and sciences and clearly shows that the bridge being constructed is still very fragile.

Perhaps the source of the communication problem can be traced to the fact that most of the philosophers under attack in the scientific community do not work closely with scientists and that scientists are equally isolated from the movements of philosophical thought and contemporary artistic expression. As long as the work does not have a reason to be located in a few disciplines simultaneously, room for misunderstandings will be ample. The work of artists working with technology demands interaction with scholars from a wide variety of disciplines such as computer science, social studies, philosophy, cultural studies.

The envisioned bridge is triangulated and made into a more stable structure with the work of artists who are utilizing new technologies and are in active dialogue with both sides. Artists using technology are uniquely positioned in the middle of the scientific and literary/philosophical communities, and we are allowed "poetic license," which gives us the freedom to reinforce the delicate bridge and contribute to the creation of a new mutant third culture. By utilising tools familiar to scientists and collaborating with the scientific community, we may be getting closer to an atmosphere of collaboration and mutual respect.

This road, however, is not without dangers. It is a delicate mission to be in between disciplines that are themselves in a tenuous relationship. I experienced that existentially when, at Yale University, I decided to write an interdisciplinary Ph.D. dissertation encompassing philosophy and literature within Humanism and requiring the participation of two different academic departments. It was not an easy road.  Perhaps the greatest danger is for artists to look to the literary, philosophical, and theoretical circles for interpretations of scientific data and then further reinterpret their versions without checking back with the scientists. Much postmodern writing borders on linguistic play with mathematics and scientific terminology that serves to alienate the scientific community, which has used precise methods to arrive at those theories. This is not to say that one should blindly accept all products of the scientific community, but simply to suggest that any working relationship needs to be based on mutual respect and dialogue.

The other danger that faces those 'in between' working on creating 'something else' is the general attitude of theory being above practice, prevalent in both humanities and sciences. At this stage, it is in the practice of art that the freedom lies to make assertions that are beyond the rational and beyond necessary methodology of proving a thesis. Practice informed by theory, utilising a methodology which makes it accessible to both worlds, is the key. Or, conversely, theory informed by practice. Here the pragmatism of a pierce or a William James could prove most useful. Currently, much of this bridge-building work takes place in universities in any case. Academia allows artists contact with scholars from many disciplines. In order to function and communicate effectively in this context, one is forced to learn the etiquette and language of various disciplines, as difficult as that may prove to be. The challenge, then, is to do this without losing the intuitive practice that taps into the silent, the unknown, the mysterious, the sublime and the poetical.

One of the most important scientists who has commented on the similarities between artists' and scientists' creative process is physicist Werner Heisenberg (1958). He believed artists' creativity arose out of the interplay between the spirit of the time and the individual. For McLuhan, artistic inspiration is the process of subliminally sniffing out environmental change: "It's always been the artist who perceives that alterations in man caused by a new medium, who recognizes that the future is the present, and uses his work to prepare ground for it. Back to the future.

The work of philosophers trying to create the synthesis of a third culture is vitally dependent on an active dialogue with scientists and humanists while performing an important function of being bridge builders. And as any engineer knows, we have to know the territory on both sides and be very precise in how we negotiate the space 'in between.' Negotiating the gap between the canon of rationality and the fluid poetic is ultimately the goal of artists who work with communication technologies.

Gell-Mann is the founder of the Santa Fe Institute where Kauffamn, Bak, Penrose, and others have worked on the possibility that there might be a still-undiscovered law of nature that explains why the universe has generated so much order in spite of the supposedly universal drift towards disorder decreed by the second law of thermodynamics. Are we getting closer to Asimov “final question” discussed in the previous piece? This something else as Gell-Mann refers to it would be located beyond the horizon of current science-something that can explain better the mystery of life and of human consciousness and of existence itself. To Gell-Mann this indicated a certain tendency towards obscurantism and mystification.

One of the most profound goals of chaoplexity pursued by Kauffman, Per Bak, John Holland, and others is the elucidation of a new law, or set of principles, or unified theory, or something that will make it possible to predict the behavior of a variety of dissimilar complex systems. A closely related proposal is that the universe harbors a complexity-generating force that counteracts the second law of thermodynamics and creates galaxies, life, and even life intelligent enough to contemplate itself. How could one not then summon the ancient texts of the Vedas, Buddhism, and much of eastern mysticism? Although Gell-Mann was playing when he referred to the eightfold way and to Finnegan's Wake, he did touch on that something else many disciplines are struggling to define.

The discussion of whether we are reaching the 'end of art' is not limited to the field of art. Apparently this is an ongoing and lively discussion in the world of science as well. John Horgan, who spent years profiling major names in the world of science for Scientific American, asks this question in The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (1996). He lists a number of disciplines and questions major personalities in their fields about whether they are reaching their limits: philosophy, physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology, scientific theology, and machine science. One could easily compile a list of disciplines in the humanities asking this same question, but the simple point Horgan misses is that every end constitutes a new beginning, and by stating doubt that there will be anymore Einstein's or Bohr's in the future, he does not take into account the possible emergence of a group genius and endless mutations of disciplines that truly do result in something new.

Reaching limits in science or any other discipline for that matter really means being on the threshold of the inevitable something else. Ultimately, bridging and synthesizing many worlds while composing “something else” becomes the art. Leonardo Da Vinci would have no problem with that process, for he possessed a mind that was always envisioning and carrying out the solution to problems considered impossible to solve, and conceiving new origins and new births. Rinascimento [Renaissance], after all, literally means “re-birth.”

     

      
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Emanuel Paparella2013-01-28 11:00:03
P.S. by way of a footnote. I apologize to the readers for overlooking the inclusion of a caption under the picture that accompanies this contribution of the so called Golden Horn bridge of Leonardo da Vinci (also known as “the bridge to everywhere”) as found in As, near Oslo, Norway.

It is worth noting that for 500 years said graceful bridge remained a mere obscure drawing in one of Leonardo’s notebooks, until it was brought into being by the contemporary painter-artist Vebjorn Sand. The original Leonardo’s project goes back to 1502 as part of a civil engineering project for Sultan Bagezid II. Its smaller version, financed with a public project in a nation which ironically does not belong to the EU, is now a pedestrian crossing near Oslo over European route E18.

The Wall Street Journal in 2005 referred to this project as a “logo for the nations.” The goal of the Sand project is in fact both practical and culturally symbolic: to build practical but graceful footbridges around the world using only local materials and local artisans as a sort of public art project. It is hard to think of a more apt symbol and metaphor for the bridging of disparate cultures in the EU and the world at large.


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