Critical theory and physics

There’s been quite a discussion over at Uncertain Principles that relates to my Salman Rushdie-inspired diatribe last week on literary criticism. Chad Orzel took the opportunity to riff off my suggestion that students be taught close reading before they are taught critical theory, and by analogy extend that discussion to physics. Most physics cannot be understood without mathematics. Yet physicists are often asked to teach “physics for poets” courses where math is not required.

What would be the equivalent for literature teachers? A class where reading is not required? Orzel argues that a more appropriate analogy might be my suggestion to teach literature without invoking theory. You’re not going to get anywhere in the field of literary study without understanding theory, just like you won’t get anywhere in physics without math.

Gordsellar at Eclexys makes this point crystal clear:

What feels like a spontaneous, naive (ie. unstudied) insight into a text is usually a rather standard and formulaic reading of the text. You may think you under stand a book straightforwardly but your straightforward “understanding” is really built upon a huge network of preexistent reading and understanding strategies which you have been taught. Given the kind of things that have gone into building our education system — the way curriculum has been formulated with the approval of “specialists”, the way literary figures and establishments have rallied behind insane, awful, ridiculous things like, oh, war and slavery and the like, why should we trust “received” understandings of how we come to understand books?

Allow me to expand on that point just a bit: In Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (as I mentioned the other day, the one Rushdie text I’ve read) there are dozens of references: to other texts, to Indian/Pakistani politics, even to Star Wars. If you read Haroun sentence-by-sentence, as Rushdie suggests, but you don’t understand his references, you’re never going to come to the same conclusion Rushdie intends you to. You’re forcing the text through the iron grate of your ignorance. Worse, as Gordsellar points out, you’re never truly naive: you’ll add your own nuances to the text based on what the educational establishment (and TV, and popular culture in general) has managed to impress on you previously.

Here’s the problem: physicists can pretty much agree on how students can be prepared to take physics courses: study mathematics. Yet if we must understand critical theory in order to appreciate texts, what theory should we be taught? Could English professors ever agree? If they can’t, is it because English has become too permissive as a discipline, or is physics too rigid? Or is the unified approach of physics simply a reflection of the nature of the discipline?

I think there is some truth of each of these ideas. Math, especially the ability to understand integrals and derivatives, makes a huge difference in understanding physics. But what do we really want educated people to understand about science? I’d argue that what’s most important is the ability to approach new research. Sometimes, to even begin to understand a research study, you must backtrack and gain the necessary knowledge: integrals, Newton’s third law, whatever, but it’s also true that science not necessarily a unified progression towards truth. Different areas of science require different background knowledge. Not all the math you learn in calculus class will necessarily be applicable to everything you learn in physics.

It’s similar in literature: the most important thing is probably knowing how to approach a text. Without some understanding of Indian politics, Haroun takes on a different meaning, but you don’t necessarily need to have had an intensive course in Indian history to get something out of the text. And yes, it’s also important to understand that in any case, all approaches to a text involve many assumptions, that no approach is truly neutral.

It would be good if some of that skepticism could also be taught to scientists. Scientists, of course, are not nearly as “neutral” as they’d like to appear. I noted one example of this on friday, when psychology researchers threw out evidence suggesting that people prefer lighting slightly to the left of themselves, rather than directly overhead. This sort of bias is difficult to root out, whether in science or in literary criticism. Perhaps the sort of general education Chad Orzel and I are advocating will help.

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5 Responses to Critical theory and physics

  1. Mark Paris says:

    Is there any similarity between what a casual reader does and any approach to an area of science (let’s just say physics to stand for any science)? And what about the reading matter itself? Is there anything in physics that corresponds to Stephen King? Science fiction? Popular Science magazine? As a scientist and recreational reader, I find that I like science fiction and mysteries. I also like to read some popular science magazines, although I get fairly frustrated at the unscientific articles I sometimes see. Science fiction is not science; does a literary critic see a hack’s novel in the same way a scientist sees “intelligent design”? What about a very well-written horror story that has no deep meaning, only the desire to induce a shiver?

  2. dave says:

    I don’t know — I think maybe there’s just not really an analogy there. Critics (as opposed to reviewers) tend to simply ignore the texts they don’t like. For a critic, literature is the phenomenon they investigate. Maybe it’s like “evidence” or “nature” for a scientist. It’s not that a physicist doesn’t like snails; she’s just more interested in quarks.

    “Good” and “bad” writing is more of an issue for writers than for critics. The analogy here might be engineering. A Yugo can take you from point A to point B just as well as a Porsche; yet the Porsche is considered “good” engineering and the Yugo is considered “bad” engineering. From a physicist’s perspective, both cars work the same. He might choose to drive the Porsche (let’s imagine it was a really good grant year), but that choice has little to do with his work as a physicist.

  3. gordsellar says:

    Wow, I’m quoted! Thanks for the booster. :)

    Dave, I don’t think all critics ignore texts they don’t like: I think they often are especially attracted to texts they don’t like, and with which they find a lot of grist for their mills. (Especially the writings of other theorists…)

    As for Mark’s comments: I think SF straddles the line between science and lit; it can be a full-fledged lit, and it’s a lit about science which has affected the kind of (applied, at least) science we do. I think you’re pushing the analogy too far, but I would say that popular science and a lot of “popular literature” are both designed for nonspecialist audiences, and both as a result *can* end up being pretty watered down versions of the real thing.

    The difference, I guess, is that the high-end literature (of all genres, including high-end SF) is available to all, and easily misread by all, but really only properly accessible to people who’ve learned how to read those texts. This is not just to speak of, say, ezra Pound or Proust… some of Greg Egan’s writing requires a particularly mathematical mind to grasp, and many other works in SF require an ability to relate to the text in a way I’d say is somewhat different from in other literatures.

    Finally, I think if a horror story *is* indeed well-written enough to induce a shiver, then it does have a deep meaning, implicitly. A lot of that meaning might be about human fears and the delight we seem to take in being frightened, but it’s still an important meaning… though if it’s the only one the author is working with, it expires rapidly, in my book.

  4. Mark Paris says:

    I was, indeed, pushing the analogy to the breaking point, but I was trying to figure out how the two fields relate. It seems that like most analogies, it eventually breaks down, so all you can say is that they are similar in some respects and different in others. It is the exact dividing line that I was interested in.

  5. roy s says:

    The flaw in all post-modern theory, literary pphilosophical or anything, has been to deconstruct language and meaning instead of western logic, based on western traditional philosophy- that is source of the problems with all contemp. theory of all stripes and why science is virtually mute and has such dificulty taking out the the formulas from their thoughts- there is nothing solid behind the formula in modern science- most scientists are intellectual blondes, ( save the best eccologists) my apologies to blondes for the slander- mis applying their specialisation to all other science , ergo franken foods- and monster bacteria super-strains, necrotising faceitus, etc.- and why lit. theory is self absorbed and meaningless. –we need to do as Wittgenstein (on certainty) and Dewey ( on philosophical reconstruction), amongst others have sugested- that is to deconstruct modern logic and reasoning, and find out how they led modern thought and language into this dead-end abyssis that contemporary academia is obsessed with- deconstructing traditional logic will lead to a more sophisticated understanding of communication, based on an integration of emmotional expression and sound logic, resulting in a ‘modernisation’ of pre – renaissance ‘rhettoric’, where logic, philosophy, academia and western science went wrong- see: Peter Ramus- French educational reformer- who slanderised the art of rhetorical persuasion, leaving us in the post-modern world with a flawed logic and so defenceless against bad, corrupt science and politicians, corporations- enron et al.
    –for example, literary prob’s can be related to sience or math, through alaysis of issues and conflicting agendas, perhaps even graphed, without numbers but spectrum of criteria lining each axis- relevant differentiation of each criteria, giving radiating points on these axes, and so the number of variables in any specific problem will determine the shape- and relative curvature or straightness of the result- this will not lead to a numerical formula however- which could be done but would be meaningless unless it were simplly some sort of numerical code substitute for language- visually graphing problems as i propse- (i assume only more scientifically or mathenaticlly inclined will understand this hypothesis)- will result in simplified yet suficiently sophisticated analysis- bar graphs and pie graphs don’t require numbers to allow structured sound reasoning- non numerical ”values ” can be structured and described scientifically if you have the conceptual faculty and dexterity- this is not that a big a stretch from ecconomic analyses,using graphing, yet at the same is quite a leap, explaning how all human problems , obviously scientific or not , could be approached-

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