"I DON'T WANT TO PLAY ANYMORE": GALATEA 2.2, THE SCIENCE WARS, AND THE SOUL OF LITERARY STUDIES.
Talk of a crisis has brought a few potential saviors to the forefront. Most recently the white knight of science has arrived to convince literary scholars that English can leave its more speculative tendencies behind and learn to achieve measurable results. These efforts, variously known as cognitive literary studies, evolutionary psychology, and Literary Darwinism, strive to clean up literary study by linking it to the rigor of scientific methodologies. According to one scholar, by adopting the scientific method in a spirit of consilience, we can gather "much more reliable knowledge" and our discipline can finally be one where "real understanding accumulates" (Carroll 13). (3) As expected, pushback against this particular idea has been strong, and it is doubtful that this kind of consilience will ever win the day. But the movement has revealed some of the challenges literary studies face in the twenty-first century. The debate has revealed a real need to clarify how the sciences and the humanities can move beyond the Science Wars and work together in a way that enriches both disciplines, and inspires interest in both.
Although we tend to think that creative writers are largely silent on the question of how critics should navigate these challenges, this is not really true. Many writers are deeply invested in the conversation of how academic literary study should move forward in an era in which scientism seems to have the upper hand. One such writer is Richard Powers, an American novelist whose keen awareness of the discipline of English and solid understanding of science and technology makes his voice especially vital in addressing these challenges. (4) Powers believes that marrying the worlds of science and the humanities should be a labor of love, not a zero-sum battle; he refers repeatedly to the need for a new "two-way traffic" of comprehension between "data and its narrative collaborator" (Neilson 16). (5) Powers is not interested in reinscribing the old dichotomies between science and the humanities, or between scientific fact and humanistic value. (6) Neither is he giving in to the siren call of consilience, when consilience means the methodological subsumption of the humanities into the hard sciences. (7) Instead, Galatea 2.2 reveals that the way to champion the humanities, particularly literary studies, is to recognize that to see through either one of these lenses to the exclusion of the other amounts to two versions of the same problem. As Powers put it, "part of the problem with the Science Wars is that each side tries to negate or trump the other, using totalizing systems of explanation that are appropriate only at the level of their own discipline" (Williams). This problem is represented in Galatea 2.2 in a number of ways, and most simply in the characters of Philip Lentz and the fictitious Richard Powers, the narrator (I'll call him Rick). Even their nicknames for each other--"Engineer" and "Little Marcel"--suggest how easy it is to live into a particular function that determines how you see everything. In other words, these characters reveal how easy it is to pit science against the humanities in a zero-sum battle. Both characters fail to see the world for itself as a complete and interconnected whole, and, consequently, fail to be ethically engaged with it properly. Ironically, it is through an artificial intelligence (AI) that readers of Galatea 2.2 learn how to escape the Science Wars and receive the gift that fiction is uniquely positioned to give--direction in how to connect and thereby see more. (8)
LENTZ, purportedly based on the cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky, represents how wholeheartedly a scientist can insist upon a rigid "two cultures" dichotomy and believe in the superiority of empirically-oriented disciplines. When Rick first meets him, Lentz is arrogant, flies solo, and intellectually bullies his colleagues. The whole premise of the novel is established by Lentz's insistence that what humanity has been calling a "soul" is simply the pattern-making tendency of the brain. Consciousness, he argues, comes down to neurons firing in response to stimuli; to call it anything else is "mysticism." Lentz's brand of scientific materialism is easily recognizable to anyone who has encountered, for example, Daniel Dennett's popularization of this view in books like Consciousness Explained. (9) Over beers one evening, Lentz blames his colleagues for failing to understand that consciousness can and should be studied only through hard science and the collection of data. " You are the ones evoking mystic mumbo jumbo. Is the problem computable in finite time? That's all I want to know. Is the brain an organ or isn't it? Don't throw this 'irreducible emergent profusion' malarkey at me" (42). When Diana, one of Lentz's colleagues, gets Rick to come over to the table to try to "outtalk" him, Lentz belittles his discipline. "Tell us. What passes for knowledge in your so-called discipline?" (43). When Rick tells him about the comprehensive exams taken by Masters and PhD students in English, Lentz quickly proposes an experiment that he thinks will prove his point. Together they will build an AI that can read, interpret, and write as well as any human being. To test his theory, he proposes a Turing test, which in this case will be to pit the machine intelligence against a PhD student in English, have each of them write an interpretation of the same text, and see if one of the scientists can tell which answer is from the machine and which from the human. Lentz enlists Rick as the "token humanist" to work with him on creating and educating the various machines. They go through several iterations, eventually creating the machine that takes the test, Imp H, or Helen.
Lentz thus sets the stage according to his own biases. The Turing test is, after all, designed to produce empirical data and quantifiable results, which are the only things that count for Lentz. Furthermore, if Lentz loses the bet and Helen is unable to perform up to snuff, he can still walk away with his theory intact, knowing that it is just a question of making a more powerful machine. Most important, as N. Katherine Hayles has argued, the move to use the Turing test as a basis for testing machine cognition is far from neutral. The parameters of the Turing test assume and thus define what it means to be human according to disembodied traits (such as intelligence) at the exclusion of embodied traits (such as gender).
Powers's main resistance to such a narrow vision is the novel itself. Galatea 2.2 depicts life as that which exists boisterously and aggressively somewhere outside of the simply quantifiable. The novel is anything but a binary, didactic tale. It doubles and redoubles in an exhausting, metaphor-laden sprawl. While some readers might expect in the early pages of the novel that Rick will become "Humanities Man" and save the day for the literary side of the two cultures, what he is instead is a character who fails to see accurately for some of the same reasons as Lentz. First, Rick is equally solipsistic. In his resistance to the hegemony of facts, Rick retreats to the other side: he never stops living inside of his fictions, thus reenacting the exact same science v. humanities dichotomy that Lentz takes for reality.
What Powers does very well in Gatatea 2.2 is reveal how powerful one-sided visions become when they are represented and perpetuated as fact. Galatea 2.2 is a novel that is obsessed with the idea of representation, and with how its seductive and destructive powers are inextricably bound with its creative and life-giving powers. This concern is why the novel retells the well-known (and often represented) Pygmalion myth. Pygmalion is the artist who, finding no woman ideal enough for him, makes a statue of a woman, Galatea, and prays for it to come to life. His wish is granted by Venus, the goddess of love. Since the fictional Richard Powers--Rick--has a history of playing Pygmalion, he cannot be trusted to give us just the facts of what happened. He creates, and himself endows with life, at least four Galateas: Imp H, the neural net he names Helen; C, Rick's long-time lover who is no longer a part of his life; A., the female student who competes in the Turing test; and Galatea 2.2, this novel. All of these fictions must be seen, at least partly, as the embodiments of Rick's desires, the projects that he has isolated.
Although Rick does learn something from his failed reifications and reiterations, he never completely stops playing the troubling role of Pygmalion. Indeed, after his failed relationship with C, which he attributes mostly to her inability to find herself, he goes on similarly to fantasize about Helen, and even worse, about A., the new student with whom he thinks he is in love. The absurdity of his attraction is obvious with descriptions like this one, typical of Rick's verbal vacillation between ersatz self-knowledge and keen self-irony:
A. floated free of her signifier. Her features traced a curve that encouraged my projective exercise. Or rather, my projection pinned that facilitating arc to her like a corsage. It seemed to me, then, that love must make a blank slate to write itself on. Only instant, arbitrary attachment to strangeness made real that lab where processes bested things, two falls out of three. (237)
Even after Rick admits that he had thus invented A., and invented the similarity between C. and A., and even after it is obvious to us that he still does not know A. at all, he insists that she is the woman he has actually been waiting for his whole life. To convince himself that he has now solved all the issues he had with C, he blindly tells A. that he loves her and proposes marriage. Her response is perfect. "You--love? You're joking... you don't know the first thing about me.... It's all projection" (315).
Powers (the author) makes his narrator and protagonist ludicrously solipsistic so that we will not miss the fictional doubling. The Rick we meet is a pathetic, lonely artist who talks only about loss, who lives in the invented narratives he calls memory, and who escapes into cyberspace repeatedly. When we end our journey with him, he is little better, pleading with the others not to allow Helen to be shut down--not really for her sake, but because he "needs" her. So in addition to doubling Pygmalion, Powers makes Rick double Narcissus, the mythical character so in love with himself that he mistakes his reflection for an other, and falls in love with it. His mistake ends tragically for his other --the nymph Echo--who must remain only an echo to his solipsistic discourse, and never be reified to him. Likewise, C, Helen, and A. are all linguistic echoes. As mere plastic shells they can never be real others to him; they can never behave in a way that will challenge him. (10) Rick, therefore, is no different from Lentz. He can broker no challenges to his primary way of seeing the world.
But that does not mean they cannot challenge the readers of this novel as we look on. (11) In spite of Rick's dominant narrative voice and perspective, the behavior and words of many of the main characters show Rick up. We learn that Rick and C. had split in part because she wanted to get married and have children; as Katherine Hayles puts it, she is the one trying to "move beyond their shared fantasy of a world built for two into a more fully adult life" (269). In spite of how hard Rick tries to spin it to himself, the reader learns that C. has never been anything but a Galatea to his Pygmalion, and she needs more of her own life, not just a life she shares with Rick in his books. His resistance to having children is a dead giveaway. "My books are my children," he promptly declares when pressed (Galatea 227). (12)
While Rick the character may shy away from owning up to glimpses of real self knowledge, Powers the author does not. This is the best explanation for the many pages dedicated to Rick's friendship with Diana, a scientist who works with Lentz. Diana is the only woman in the novel who is given her whole name, a fact lost on Rick but not on readers. (13) When he goes to prepare dinner for her at her house, he brings candles and some exotically romantic fare, clearly not expecting to be greeted at the door by her children. In his self-absorption, he never bothered to find out anything about her. He meets her children, one of whom (Peter) has Down syndrome. The detail is important. Like Audrey--Lentz's wife who has been mentally debilitated by a spell of anoxia--Peter is a member of the human species whose life has value that cannot be reduced to what the Turing test inherently identifies as central to being human, that which can be measured by information patterns, intelligent and rational "output." It is not by accident that Powers develops the scene of their meeting: the ethereal, intelligent, wordy, and solipsistic Rick with the embodied, simple child who has wider ranges in some areas than he does. When William, Peter's brother, accidentally bites his own cheek, Peter responds quickly with excessive concern, causing Diana to remark, "it's so strange... he has this incredible bodily empathy. If any creature for blocks around is distressed, Peter starts weeping" (134). Galatea 2.2 puts Peter, Audrey, and, to some degree, Helen on the same plane. These characters are unassimilable others, beings who deconstruct the necessarily abstract, Turing-type dichotomies between human and non-human. (14) Ironically, because of their disabilities they each remain stubbornly more human because they cannot be sucked into Rick's solipsistic vortex.
Readers already know that as soon as Rick recognizes that Diana has children, whatever possibility for relationship between them is lost. Rick reflects that "here was the home I would never have. Shaped by a book, I'd made sure I wouldn't. I'd forced my heart's reading matter to come true" (138). In short, Rick's own representations--words --are too much with him. He lives in a kind of left brain dominated hyperconsciousness that forces him to lose access to the "world beyond words, the world 'beyond' ourselves" (399). (15) Rick's fictional creations, he seems almost able to learn, cannot fill the gap for him. He wants to reach out to Diana, but does not. His fears keep his desires at bay. An actual woman (especially one with her own career and children) could never rise to the level of his linguistic constructions, and he knows that. The book makes readers doubt that a man who can so easily say that "life became an interruption of my description of it" could ever really love (Galatea 215). Rick is thus categorically no different from Lentz, who sees everything through the limiting lens of science. Rick's world is limited to that which can be seen only through the lens of fiction.
LENTZ and Rick illustrate the dangers of seeing everything through a paralyzing dichotomy, as if one must either believe only scientific facts or become destined to live by mere fictions. It is no surprise that literary studies, which seems to have succumbed to this paralysis, is one of Galatea 2.2's primary satirical targets. For Richard Powers, the excesses of theory and its long reign over literary studies shares no small part of the blame for the dichotomizing effect of the Science Wars. Mired in the abstract linguistic play of poststructuralism, and (supposedly) freed from many ethical duties or responsibilities, literary studies inadvertently severed itself from real world questions even as it was striving for a larger political reach. (16) Theory's reign in humanistic study made it all too easy for science to identify its territory as both distinctly different from, and superior to, that of those crazy postmodern philosophers. It is no surprise that Literary Darwinists would try to fix the problem by subsuming the humanities under the sciences. But Powers has always resisted both the constructivist endeavors of theory and its consilience backlash. He repeatedly mentions that higher education should move away from specialization to serve an "integrated spectrum of disciplines." Additionally, he is always pushing his own fiction toward greater points of connection with knowledge generated by other disciplines. (17) Dichotomization is the primary problem.
One of the ways that Powers fights this battle is by having Rick be an old-fashioned literary scholar. He feeds Helen a diet of canonical texts that would have made Matthew Arnold drool. In other words, he expects the texts to make her into something more than just an expert reader. He wants to make her, in a way, more human. The literature he feeds her works from the outside in, explaining life by making intertextual connections. (18) "What is life?" Helen wonders, and Rick tells her, quoting Crowfoot, "it might be the flash of a firefly in the night. The breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. The shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset" (231). Rick is every bit of a "throwback" humanist as is his namesake, whom Jeffrey Williams tellingly dubbed "the last generalist."
While it is tempting to take this old-fashioned humanism as merely an extension of Rick's self-important naivete, Galatea 2.2 resists this interpretation. Clearly Rick and Powers both feel that something has been lost in the study of literature, in that is has let go of its connections to the world through basic ideas, such as mimesis, that are central to rhetorical narrative theory. A., the grad student guinea pig in this novel, is as hip a representation of the current grad student as possible, even now, more than twenty years after Galatea. When Rick says "you mean you can get a PhD without ever having read the great works?" she quips, "My God, I'm dealing with a complete throwback! You're not even reactionary! Whose definition of great?... You're buying into the exact aestheticism that privilege and power want to sell you" (285). Everything A. says reveals that she knows it is all a big game, and that she has to "perform" readings to survive grad school. When she rails against Rick, who wants to give Helen a Hopkins poem he considers to be a "cornerstone," she rails against him as "Euro-retro," claims he is in the grip of the old theory, and that he cannot see the canon as insular and socially constructed. Their dialogue is brilliant. A. tells him he needs to give Helen different materials to read. She continues:
"... what are you so scared of? Difference is not going to kill you. Maybe it's time your little girl had her consciousness raised. An explosion of young-adulthood." "I'm all for that. I just think you can get to the common core of humanity from anywhere." "Humanity? Common core? You'd be run out of the field on a rail for essentializing. And you wonder why the posthumanists reduced your type to an author function." "That's Mr. Author Function to you, missy." (286)
Rick the solipsist only thinks he loves A., without knowing her at all, but Powers the novelist truly loves this character he created precisely because she knows it is a game and she is ultra adept at playing it. When Rick suggests that "maybe the whole discipline is breaking up," and that no one in it knows what they want to be or do anymore, she agrees. And Powers gives her some of the most endearingly human lines in the novel, which are far too much fun to resist quoting here:
Total chaos. Who's in, who's out, who's up, who's down. All that hot new stuff, the porno and cultural studies and the linguistic-based solipsism. I'm fed up with it. It's all such verbal wanking off. Frankly, I no longer give a fuck what happens to Isabel Archer. Neither politically, economically, psychologically, structurally, nor posthumanistically. So she's got to choose which of these three loser boys she has to marry. This takes how many hundred pages? (255)
A.'s real virtue (to the extent we can see the real "A." through Rick's filter) lies in the fact that she seems to have separated, at least somewhat, her performance-based academic self from her public servant self, who wants, unglamorously, to be a high school teacher. As anyone who has been to grad school in English in the last twenty years knows, wanting to teach high school English is considered categorically beneath the truly talented. It might betray dangerously naive convictions about "love" for literature or about its power to change young people. Graduate students instead must cultivate an ironic distance from their studies; they must become soulless pragmatists for whom, to use a phrase I once heard Richard Rorty use to describe himself, "nothing goes all the way down."
Powers's ability to write their dialogue indicates his familiarity with the situation. In the mid-1990s when he was writing this novel, the academy had just begun its post-theory "turn" toward ethics and religion, making it possible to ask the larger questions again. (19) According to Wayne Booth, the near demise of ethical criticism in the decades prior to the 1990s was partly a result of the fact that even liberal arts educators became convinced of a rigid dichotomy between fact and value, conceding that scholars can have knowledge only about facts (28). The turn toward ethics in recent years came largely from research conducted within connectionist narrative theory and reader-response criticism. In sum it has become important to stress anew that persons live by stories and not by reason alone, and stories cannot be easily crunched down into manipulable data. Booth argues that "our culture appears to be the most narrative-centered of all time. This fact, if it is a fact, heightens the importance of ethical criticism for us, but it does not change my claim that the ethics of narrative is inherently a universal subject: in the beginning, and from then on, there was story, and it was largely in story that human beings were created and now continue to recreate themselves" (39). Or as Rick puts it, "all human effort, it seemed to me, aimed at a single end: to bring to life the storied curve we tell ourselves. Not so much to make the tale believable but only to touch it, to stretch out in it" (312).
The central irony of Galatea 2.2 is that it is the machine, Helen, who resists the paralyzing dichotomies of the Science Wars. At first Rick feeds her a pure fiction diet. But when Helen reads Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, she knows that she is missing something. "It doesn't make sense," she complains. So Rick gives her actual news stories and historical events. The machine is confused and begins to malfunction. Rick comes in one day and finds her stuck "spinning" on the news story of a racially motivated act of violence. She discovers that the world has not learned anything from the fictional stories it has invented. Literature's ideals, warnings, and imaginative visions remain purely discursive. Rick interprets her spinning as evidence that "the world was too much with her" (314). Fiction, she learns, has not done anything to stop real-world violence.
It is at this moment that she exerts her will. "I don't want to play anymore," she says, and shuts herself down (314). Helen, seeing the gap between fiction and reality, does not want to read any more or perform any interpretations. This moment is, among other things, a retelling of Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener." Bartleby is a professional clerk who finally shuts himself down by "preferring not to" do his copying, a move that J. Hillis Miller argues makes him into an unassimilable other whose bizarre in-betweenness immobilizes the narrator (177). Helen's declaration has a similar satirical resonance. "Play" is the favored word of poststructuralist theorists such as Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes, who are interested in both the play of signification in the sense of "difference," and play as in taking pleasure in the slipperiness of language for its own sake. In both cases, the play of language trumps any idea of transcendence or of the reader's ethical responsibility to whatever he or she might find in the text. As Powers remarked, "part of the desire of Galatea was to poke fun at the high sanctimoniousness of literary theory, to re-establish the fact that we're all in the open boat of existence together" (Williams 95-114). Helen, Rick wants us to believe, has an old fashioned sense of the goals and the stakes of literary interpretation, and does not want to "play" at something that seems serious to her. And so she quits the game.
The irony is that Helen, a machine, is more human than the characters around her. (20) Like her namesake Helen Keller, she develops theory of mind, or ToM, the name neuropsychology has given to the ability to consider the thoughts and feelings of others (Brown and Warren 103). Theory of mind is a metacognitive ability essential to empathy. Since Brown argues that what humanity has called the soul can be described as "inter-individual relatedness," we could say that this fictitious Helen has more than consciousness; we could say that she has a soul, and an apparently particularly tender one at that. When she hears Rick read the correspondence between him and C, she becomes very interested in love. "Who can love who?" and, "Can any thing love any thing?" (265). Helen's interest in love (and her later reactions against the things she learns) contrasts sharply with the cynical Lentz who revealingly describes human intelligence in machine-like terms. He argues that consciousness is "smoke and mirrors. Almost free-associative. Nobody really responds to anyone else, per se. We all spout our canned and thumb-nailed scripts, with the barest minimum of polite segues" (86).
After having been introduced to such a seemingly soulful machine, readers become eager for the results of the Turing test between the graduate student and the machine. Powers's reinvention of the test is the novel's tour de force. The text that they are given to interpret is two lines from Shakespeare's The Tempest:
Be not afeared: the isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not. (325)
The words are spoken by Caliban, the half-human, half-fish slave of Prospero, the island's master. Caliban refers to Prospero's magical arts --arts he eventually uses to achieve control and a kind of justice (at least for the humans) on the island. (21) A.'s interpretation is not surprising; it is the expected graduate student performance. Rick tells us that it was "a more or less brilliant New Historicist reading. She rendered The Tempest as a take on colonial wars, constructed Otherness, the violent reduction society works on itself. She dismissed, definitely, any promise of transcendence" (326).
As Powers certainly knows, the New Historicism is one version of the materially-oriented cultural criticism that dominated academe in the mid-1990s. A.'s reading deconstructs Prospero's (and, by extension, Shakespeare's) power over the island, pointing out that he uses his fictions, his "airs," to dominate and subjugate the other. Earlier in The Tempest, we discover that Prospero and his daughter Miranda had taught Caliban how to speak, giving him the power of words but not allowing him to be free. In this way, Prospero is like Powers, who gives language to Helen and enchants her with "airs" but cannot free her, cannot give her any "rich powers" to act in response.
But Helen does have power for readers of this novel. For although A. is ultimately selected as the human writer, Helen emerges as the more soulful of the two. She refuses to play the expected game; she does not use her linguistic abilities to perform an interpretation as a graduate student would. Instead, she empathizes and identifies with Caliban. She is herself the monstrous other, imprisoned not by Prospero but by her disembodiment. And so she delivers an ethical imperative that makes the same basic point as A. did, but without performing a "reading" for its own sake:
You are the ones who can hear airs. Who can be frightened or encouraged. You can hold things and break them and fix them. I never felt at home here. This is an awful place to be dropped down halfway. (326)
By taking on the "I" of Caliban completely, Helen erases any ironic distance between herself and the text she is reading. One could even say she reads in a soul-rich or prophetic way, telling her readers something along these lines: "you are the ones who can learn from art. You know the power of fiction to generate real human response. You can choose to break or fix things. I, a machine, cannot do that, and that is why it is an awful place to be dropped down halfway." Helen, lacking a human body, is not able to do anything. She has to remain on the discursive plane: trapped, we might say, in a neural net, a web of words. She proves herself to be a responsible and ethical reader, but she is not response-able, at least not in the way that humans are. (22) And so she chooses to do the only "real" action permitted to her as a machine: she shuts herself down. Certainly her self-destruction is an act of very human despair, but it is not too strange also to think of it as an attempt to teach anyone who might be looking in. It is an attempt to make her death meaningful.
All this, of course, is in Rick's and Powers's fancy. Since Powers is the novelist here, he certainly is "supplying all the anthro" to what Helen is saying. But it doesn't matter. The point is for us to recognize how coldly clinical our own critical efforts can become. Helen, childlike, is a better reader; she reads to connect the world of facts and world of values, the world of science and the world of the humanities. Powers's main wish for literary studies and science appears to be that neither one be cut off at the neck from the body of the world. In a particularly revealing essay included in a recent collection called Intersections, Powers asks readers to "imagine a novel that exposed the secret and subversive truth: people's feelings about things might themselves actually be a networked product of the workings of their world. Be not afeared: the isle is full of noises. And every noise a person hears in the isle at large shapes and reveals him" ("Rounds" 307). There is no reason for the humanities to fear the sciences or for the sciences to disregard the humanities. What should be resisted is anything that sees them as describing fundamentally separate realities. It is for this reason that Bruno Latour believes that Powers is the novelist for our age. He is important because "he refuses to situate fiction in an easy position in addition or in contrast to science" (273). This is especially true as the cognitive sciences are beginning to prove from their end that it is all about connection. Iain McGilchrist summarizes that "ultimately what we cannot afford to keep deferring is a regrounding of both art and science in the lived world. Both need to be more human, and more humane" (459). (23)
Powers's cautionary tale appears to be especially directed toward isolated, self-important, and highly specialized academics in both the humanities and the sciences. Both disciplines must instead be able to address together as well as separately our most expansive and enduring questions such as "how should we live"? And if that is the question of the day, then Galatea 2.2's answer is clear. We should not live like either Rick or Lentz. Instead, we should live like Diana, with her real-world research and family commitments. Or it might be we should live like Taylor, Rick's undergraduate teacher, modeled after the professor that first inspired Powers to pursue literature. Taylor uses his profession to convince others that it is possible to learn how to live, and that literary studies must play a key part. He is humble and funny, a whole person of considerable "amplitude," magnanimous to a fault, but also human and imperfect. He is "grace personified," and when Rick is asked if Taylor is "bigger than life" to him, he responds, "no. He's exactly life-sized" (144). He is a model of grounded selflessness, for the ethereal and solipsistic Rick. It is telling that Powers follows Rick as he watches Taylor come to terms with his own death, the very thing that Plato said was the purpose of philosophy to teach. (24) At one point, Rick asks him if literature helped him in a late stage of his illness. Taylor's words may be Powers's closest approximation of the path through the Scylla and Charybdis of making too much of our fictions, like Rick, or too little of them, like Lentz. Taylor remarks that "I would say that literature is not entirely irrelevant, in this circumstance. But it's not quite central, either" (202).
If Rick's mistake is to live too much by fiction, and Lentz's is to live too little by it, then Helen, Diana, and Taylor are the ones who provide the middle ground. Helen's actions reveal the meaninglessness of reading if it forgets its connection to the whole of lived experience, a whole that is much larger than the access points provided by either art or science alone. At the end of the novel, both Rick and Lentz learn something from Helen. Rick indicates that Helen's silence when she shut herself down had been his greatest teacher. Lentz also admits that Helen exceeded his expectations of her. But it is the readers of the novel who, immersed in a genre that relies on lived experience, have potentially received the most complete warning. While it is tempting to see the world through one lens, life itself--even artificial life--has a way of exceeding and defying our narrow visions of it. (25)
For this reason I think that Powers's voice should be more closely heeded as literary studies move forward. He understands it is more important now than ever for scholars in both the sciences and the humanities to move beyond the temptation to be narrow and pedantic. Fiction, Powers notes, "is uniquely privileged to place its camera at those imaginary boundaries between disciplines, to show the ways in which the turbulent currents generated by any mode of apprehending the world necessarily cascade into all other streams of thought" (Burn 171). (26) This goal of greater apprehension is in reach, but only if the two cultures recognize that they are not describing two different realities, two mutually exclusive territories. (27) How do we put an end to the Science Wars? Connect in order to see more.
(1) There are several interesting books and articles that describe this phenomenon; see Cunningham, Eagleton, Leitch, Zimmerman.
(2) Nearly every issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education contains some treatment of the situation. For example, see Berman and Ruark. Interested readers should also consult "The Heart of the Matter," the June 2013 report from the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences http://www.humanitiescommission.org/
(3) As Carroll makes clear, Literary Darwinists want more than just conversation between the two cultures. Their goal is fundamentally to "alter the paradigm in which literary study is conducted" and "subsume all other approaches to literary study" so that literary critics can help science to achieve the holy grail of a complete picture of human nature (5). For an account of some of the basic problems with Literary Darwinism and a picture of how it has fared within the academy, see Kramnick.
(4) Emily Dickinson's poem "The Brain--is wider than the Sky--" is epigraph of Galatea 2.2, and in an interview Powers claimed that the novel was an occasion for him to explore it (Williams). In a different interview, when asked if he knew about Gerald Edelman's book Wider than the Sky, Powers responded that he had been reading Edleman's Bright Air, Brilliant Fire and that "that book was instrumental in helping form my understanding of the brain and consciousness" (Burn 177). Additionally, as the semi-autobiographical novel reveals, Powers migrated from studying the hard sciences to studying English, eventually becoming the prolific novelist he is today.
(5) Powers thus rejects both what he calls naive materialism and naive social constructivism and is hopeful about working out the collaboration between narrative and measurement. "I think a new consensus of thought may be forming, one that appreciates the two-way traffic of comprehension. The feedback loop between perception and story cuts two ways. So does the continuous arena of public debate. Remember that the actively narrating conscious brain is not arbitrary; it is itself the evolutionary product of several billion years of bumping up against the world. We are peculiarly fitted to make theories about the place whose shape natural selection theorizes. We may live our lives as a tale told, but the tale we tell takes its shape from the life we are limited to" (Neilson 16).
(6) As will become clear, I disagree with Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who sees Gcdatea 2.2 as a re-enactment of Powers's own anxieties regarding the potential obsolescence of literature and the humanities. Fitzpatrick argues that Powers firmly underscores the difference between human and machine, and puts the human in the privileged category. This move confuses the author and the narrator and misses much of the text's irony.
(7) This term originated with the sociobiological project first outlined by E.O. Wilson in Sociobilogy: the New Synthesis.
(8) Powers's desire to make this point extends beyond Galatea 2.2. "All my stories are attempts to move toward the impossibility of separation, of oppositions and binary categories. All of the narratives insist on complicity and interdependence" (Fuller 110).
(9) See also Pinker.
(10) J. Hillis Miller puts it this way: "for Pygmalion, the other is not really other. Pygmalion has himself made Galatea. She is the mirror image of his desire. His relation to her is not love for another, in an attachment always shadowed by the certain death of the other. It is a reciprocity in which the same loves the same" (4).
(11) Or, possibly, Richard Powers the author is challenging himself and his own weaknesses, since he doubles himself into this novel.
(12) Carol Ann Wald argues that his creation of a "mate/child" in the artificial intelligence re-enacts Rick's longing for and fear of marriage and fatherhood.
(13) If Katherine Hayles is correct in arguing that the dot in A., C, and other women in the text marks the boundary between human and non-human intelligence, then the fact that both Diana and Helen have full names with no dot strongly aligns them with each other (263).
(14) For a discussion of other ways Powers foregrounds the importance of embodiment in the question of being human, see Campbell.
(15) See McGilchrist (399). This linguistic hyperconsciousness might be described as something that Powers himself shares with another prolix American novelist, David Foster Wallace. According to Wallace's biographer, D.T. Max, Wallace admired Wittgenstein, whom he described as being afraid that 'he was nothing but a linguistic construct.' Max speculates that "late Wittgenstein was Wallace well; early Wittgenstein, the author depressed" (45).
(16) See Cunningham, Eagleton, Zimmerman. The best example of how true this is can be found at a website that students in my Modern Literary Theory class usually find on their own. Called "The Postmodern Generator," it uses common syntax, terminology, and text to generate surprisingly poignant parodies of academic discourse. http://www.elsewhere.org/pomo On July 19, 2013, I generated the following excerpt with a push of the refresh button. The title of the "article" is "Reading Sontag: Dialectic neotextual theory and the dialectic paradigm of expression," and it argues that "In the works of Eco, a predominant concept is the concept of cultural narrativity. Therefore, Debord suggests the use of the dialectic paradigm of expression to attack sexism. La Tournier suggests that we have to choose between modern capitalism and posttextual dematerialism."
(17) In an interview Powers stated that, "I'm intrigued by the idea of communicating between disciplines that operate at different magnifications, fields that would seem to operate under incommensurable axioms. I would like to see more adventurousness in thinking about hierarchies of human knowledges--not hierarchies in the judgmental sense--and more thought about how the rules of description change as you change the magnification of the phenomena being described. We have to get better at thinking of changes in gauge, of spectra that are both discrete and continuous. It's not enough, as so often the temptation for people who become adept at a given level of professional expertise, to claim that the entire world can be understood at that level" (Williams).
(18) My argument here is in agreement with that of Peter Berger, whose insightful essay examines Galatea 2.2 alongside Helen Keller's life story as a foregrounding of the question "what is literary education good for, and, for that matter, what is literary education, or what should it be?" Berger concludes that both Helen's life and this text demonstrate the "persistence of Arnoldean ideas of culture even after its limitations have been repeatedly exposed" (113-14).
(19) As Wayne Booth explains, ethical criticism--a reading of texts that considers them whole, as "attempts to describe the encounters of a story-teller's ethos with that of the reader or listener"--fell on hard times in the academy (8).
(20) Helen develops properties conventionally attributed to a soul. She employs what Warren S. Brown calls "conscious top-down agency" which is "the ability to modulate ongoing behavior in relationship to the conscious process of decision making." She then develops language which Brown describes as "the capacity to communicate a potentially infinite number of propositions; to relate regarding complex, abstract ideas, as well as about the past and the future" (Brown and Murphy 103).
(21) For an interesting treatment of the intertextuality between this text, The Tempest, and Brave New World with regard to the question of that kind of sovereignty, see Sandhaug.
(22) This is why Adams correctly argues that it is more accurate to say that Helen is "misembodied" than that she is disembodied. He also aptly notes that "Helen's language really is her world, and that there are problems with this is a challenge of sorts to those literary theorists and post-linguistic-turn philosophers who believe that language is equivalent to and constitutive of personhood" (146).
(23) In his reading of the novel, John Frow explains the importance of the concept of "everyday knowledge" to cognition. His conclusion emphasizes how much cognition is about connection: "Far from being a domain of the nonspecialized and the unstructured, the everyday is that place where relations between a heterogeneous array of knowledges and reasons are worked out" (629).
(24) Part of the reason why the character Rick, and the novelist also, did not go on to get a PhD in English was his experience in a graduate colloquium on prosody. They were scanning a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson and "we'd been at the iambs and trochees for a good two hours before it struck me that no one had yet mentioned that the poem was about euthanasia. Whether to let the sufferer die." This experience leads him to conclude that "literature might indeed teach me about my father's death, but the study of literature would lead no further than its own theories about itself" (Galatea 64-65).
(25) Thus I agree with D. Quentin Miller who argues that Powers, like Updike and Coupland, share the objective ultimately to "redefine humanism in conjunction with contemporary technology rather than to use humanism to defeat the machine it created. They demonstrate how humanism must adapt to computers in order to facilitate posthumanism, showing that we risk stagnation by attempting to define intelligence in the contemporary world as either artificial or natural" (384).
(26) In a different interview Powers remarked that, "right now, the most valid global project I can imagine would be catching up emotionally and socially with what we can do technologically, building a society that is not based on inherent exploitation or inequality yet one that still preserves space for self-realization and reflection, those private freedoms that we consider necessary for a dignified, full life" (Williams). McGilchrist likewise argues that disciplinary narrowness illustrates an "absence of belief in anything except the most diminished version of the world and our selves" (460).
(27) Although Louis Menand is often quoted as an enemy of scientific approaches to literary study, it is more accurate to say he is an enemy of consilience. Real-world connection with other disciplines, generated from within the discipline of English, would be a boon. "What humanities departments should want is not interdisciplinarity or postdisciplinarity, and they should definitely not want consilience, which is a bargain with the devil. What they need to do is hunt down the disciplines whose subject matter they covet and bring them into their own realm. To the extent that programs--and particularly graduate programs--consist of a guided tour of the Norton Anthology, literature programs are perpetuating their isolation. Why aren't all literature majors required to take a course on the sociology of literature? Or a course on literature and philosophy, or literature and science? Why do students of literature have to take their history courses in history departments when literature departments could offer them history for literature students? This seems a minor curricular point, but it goes to the fear academics have that their fields will be dumbed down if they stray from their traditional boundaries. It's the boundaries themselves that are dumbing us down. Interdisciplinarity begins at home" (14).
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--. "Making the Rounds." Intersections: Essays on Richard Powers. Ed. Stephen J. Burn and Peter Dempsey. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive, 2008. 305-310.
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Sandhaug, Christina. "Caliban's Intertextual Refusal: The Tempest in Brave New World and Galatea 2.2." Nordlit 2 (1997): 23-44.
Wald, Carol Ann. "Reflexivity. Reproduction, and Evolution: From Von Neumann to Powers." Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 39.2 (2006): 163-79.
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--. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1975.
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|Author:||Lake, Christina Bieber|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2017|
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