Underground Technopower: Bridging “the Two Cultures” in Academia

Perhaps it is true that, “Literature changes more slowly than science,” (Snow, 8) [0] but I would argue that poetry is now in a state of evolution, wanting to engage with readers in a way it has typically been unknown for. Contemporary poets and poetry want to allow the universal access and human interaction digital humanities facilitate, “Knowledge representations are also the means by which we express things about the world, the medium of expression and communication in which we tell the machine (and perhaps one another) about the world. […] a medium of expression and communication for use by us,” (John Unsworth)[1].

Traditional notions of these two distinct disciplines imply that science moves towards a positive future, while literature seems to meditate on the past, and the anguish that dwells there. Marrying the two keeps us in the present, as well as the past, while helping us move into the future. Franco Moretti suggests in his article, “Graphs, Maps, and Trees,”[2] that we must step back and look at the big picture through collection and analysis of data to truly get an idea of what is happening in the field of literature. He makes a strong case for the field of Digital Humanities providing us with the ways in which the canon effectively erases literary history. Digital Humanities already appears a large part of the current climate in poetry, from online book reviews, to interactive poetry apps, to personal websites and public forums where important literary conversations are happening between key players and aspiring writers, to mass collections of literary documents and analysis, to the obsolescence of paper submissions to online literary journals , to online recordings of chapbooks whose existences are purely sonic[3]–a collective conversation is happening in the literary world through technological means.

It is clear that C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures was written in the late 1950s, for I cannot agree that, “There seems then to be no place where the two cultures meet” (16). Snow calls for a “third culture,” one in which these vastly polar disciplines meet. It is my opinion that a large spectrum already exists between the sciences and humanities, by means previously stated. Many books of poetry making art of biology and other sciences are being published as well, demonstrating another facet of this extensive spectrum. Spring Gun Press[4], for example, recently published “Eric Suzanne’s Riding SideSaddle,*[5] a work on 250 interchangeable index cards, that explores the construction of narrative and the authority of the novel form,” breaking down elemental data known of existing narrative and allowing the reader to interactively place cards in particular, selective orders to create new formulas and, consequently, new art–the relationship between analytical data and art is key here. Ian Hatcher[6], a developer who has worked on many literary projects with Spring Gun and other such presses, creates interactive websites[7] and apps, using complicated algorithms and code, allowing users with any educational or non-educational background to create poetry and interact with existing texts off of the page. Pedagogically, we teach young poets a sort of algorithm when writing poems. These teaching methods come from applied use, research, and collected data, highlighting the existing relationship between scientific method and literature of which Moretti emphasizes. When we pull back and see the larger milieu of literature and science, they are hardly distant, and yet, they remain separate in academic culture.

In his article, Hacking the Humanities[8], Elias Muhanna writes, “As I read through pages of perfect mimicry and snarky pastiche, I felt relief. The “two cultures” of the sciences and humanities were not so far apart, after all, or at least could be bridged by the lingua franca of pop culture.” Using a natural-language processing toolkit, one student created a “robot encyclopedist [that] spoke in magnetic poetry phrases, which occasionally yielded uncanny reproductions of Plinian syntax but often fell flat.” Muhanna goes on to say, “There were two things, though, of which I was certain. First, a machine guided by an undergraduate had taught me something new about the expository style of an ancient Roman natural historian. Second, I had to hire Henry.” Muhanna’s reaction is incredible considering what little rules exist when a student turns in a project like this. In my own graduate program, a student was punished by a colleague for creating an algorithm, which generated poems from existing sonnets. The teacher saw this as a form of cheating, or a way to avoid creating original poetry, which perhaps is true. Certainly as teachers and as writers, artists, etc. we are uniformly taught that methods such as these are not viable ways of creating art. But what would our academic landscape look like if students were encouraged to do such things or to follow their natural talents? What if students with more technological, mathematical, and scientific experience were taught to apply these gifts in the humanities?

Many poets have already breached this gap outside of academia, but I cannot help but wonder who got them there or if, as Cynthia Selfe puts it, they came to this medium by their own experimentation and research. Perhaps it is time that academia provide the tools and examples for developing writers and humanists to participate in contemporary conversations via technology between literature and science, or whatever place a student may fall on the existing spectrum.

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2 thoughts on “Underground Technopower: Bridging “the Two Cultures” in Academia

  1. Lori Emerson says:

    Hi feralroots – do you mind letting me know your first name? No need for last – I just want to make sure I know who’s posted what. – Lori


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