Winter 1997, Volume 14.1
With writing, so we say, we lose all that we owe to a Homer, an Aristotle, a Goethe. Not to speak about the Holy Scripture. Only, how do we happen to know that these great authors (including the author of the Holy Scripture) would not have preferred to speak on tape or to make a film?
—Vilém Flusser, Introduction to Die Schrift
In the tradition of Weber Studies, a journal dedicated to allowing maximum space for its contributors, I am faced with the challenge of delineating in two pages the major intersections of this special issue on science, technology, and the arts. Yet, in a sense, this challenge of informational compression is in part what this issue is about: many of its contributions, either implicitly or explicitly, raise the question how the institution of literature can sustain itself in a culture that has frequently been described as a post-print age. They query, what is the place of the printed word in a world equipped with (post)modern information processing technologies capable of recording their environment with a speed, complexity, and economy unmatched by the linear and single channel of written language?
Most of the contributions engaging this focus give a resounding—albeit not unequivocal—answer: books will continue to have a legitimate existence in an age dominated by electronic media. CD-ROMs and hypertext will not make them into quaint archaic artefacts—textual dinosaurs of interest only to cultural archeologists of the cyberage. Rather, while print has emerged from a different conceptual order, it has entered in a productive relationship with other media emphasizing its difference from electronic processing technologies. In the spirit of such media interactions, this issue will appear online as a special supplement to ebr, the electronic book review (http://www.altx.com/ebr), in the spring of this year. We may be living in an electronic global hamlet, but that hamlet is not prepared to leave the culture of print behind—at least not yet.
A second "line of force" unifying many of the texts featured in this issue is their investment in disciplinary interchange. Instead of accepting C. P. Snow's cultural divide between science and the arts, a number of essays, poems, and texts probe what the French philosopher of science Michel Serres has described as "Northwest Passages": they explore disciplinary crossings and passageways between, not just two cultures, but a network of discourses including "literature" and "science," as well as "technology" and the "arts." And by dissolving the discreet boundaries thought to exist between domains of knowledge and inquiry, they open up suggestive ways of rethinking discursive relationships and of producing cross-disciplinary insights: how do the laws of thermodynamics inform late 19th-century Victorian narrative? What is the relationship between modern painting and the emergent theories of the electron? How can chaos theory be brought to bear on literary narrative? What are the reciprocities between the languages and models of science and those of poetry? These are some of the interdisciplinary questions raised in this issue.
Historically, the critical and theoretical contributions span more than two hundred years of literary production, ranging from Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759-67) to Nicholson Baker's The Fermata (1994), and they thus reproduce, in broad brush, the spectrum of responses toward the science & technology complex of modernity. While Sterne's narrative polemics and formal ruptures can easily be seen as an early literary critique of Newtonian mechanics and the emerging cultural authority of science and technology, Baker's novel-fantasy presupposes contemporary technologies as a condition of possibility: the story of a postmodern flaneur who can suspend time and indulge in the male gaze could only have been written in a society of the spectacle where fast-forward, pause, and play buttons afford instant (visual) gratification and the illusion of empowerment. In turn, many of the contemporary poems framing these essays take precisely this culture of simulation as their point of departure, as does a personal meditation on the work of poetry in the age of its technological obsolescence. Vilém Flusser's posthumanist philosophy of communication and Gregory Ulmer's work on a rhetoric of electracy embrace and theorize this cultural shift toward visual codes, a shift visible as well in the book reviews concluding this issue. Chronologically, a piece of cyberpunk fiction extrapolates many of these postmodern concerns into the not too distant future, when microelectronics and genetic engineering can construct smooth insectile cyborgs and, along with them, unmatched public surveillance and totalitarian control.
In their entirety, the essays, poems, and fiction gathered in this special issue are meant to give a sense of the current range of interests in the fields of science, technology, literature, and the arts. What underlies their work is a disciplinary fluidity grounded, fundamentally, in an elementary reciprocity: just as science is always already a rhetoric of science—a way of making presumed-to-be factual statements with the techniques of narrative, i.e., fiction—fiction and narrative are inevitably informed by the tropes and models of science and technology. They are all embodiments of the human imagination.