The Third Culture: The Frontline of Global Thinking

A Conversation with
Hong-Shu Teng [7.1.14]
Topic:

After years of fermentation, the third culture finally yielded superior results in the 1990s. In 1996, John Brockman, American author and founder of the famous knowledge platform Edge.org, published The Third Culture, a compilation of top scientists’ reflections on and explanations of the mysteries of life, formally declaring the arrival of the third culture...These emerging new scientists, combining scientific acuteness with literary sensitivity, intervene in those areas traditionally guarded by the humanities scholars. In the age of the third culture, scientists also want to explore the meaning of life and its ultimate secret. More and more scientists write for the general public. Their works embody literary science writing, distinctly exemplifying the spirits of the third-culture: the exploration of the eternal mysteries of life through scientific probing.

HONG-SHU TENG is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, National Taitung University, Taiwan. 

Hong-Shu Teng's Edge Bio Page


Following the trend of literary science writing, more and more scientists in the frontline of new thinking write for the general public. Their works embody the spirits of the third culture: probing the eternal mysteries of life through science.

THE THIRD CULTURE: THE FRONTLINE OF GLOBAL THINKING

In his new book The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses published on June 12, Harvard history/literature scholar Kevin Birmingham points out that it was syphilis that caused the modernist maestro’s decaying eyesight and paralysis. When Joyce’s fans celebrate Bloomsday on June 16 in memory of Ulysses, Birmingham’s work offers them an uneasy glimpse into the novelist’s dark life.

That Joyce probably had syphilis was nothing new, because it had been rumoured since the writer’s lifetime. Mainstream critics and biographers largely ignore it perhaps because it suggests celebrity gossip.

Birmingham found from Joyce’s 1928 letters that the novelist received unusual injections made of arsenic and phosphorus compound. He further found that, at the time, there was only one little-known medication called Galyl that went with the description—a prescription specifically for syphilis patients.

Medical knowledge leads this history/literature scholar to present irrefutable proof to solve a mystery whose key lies beyond the reach of literature scholars. The case is arguably closed.

The importance of being ill

 

What is the fuss about the great writer’s illness? Didn’t the godfather of literary criticism, Derrida, tell us that "there’s nothing outside the text"? "Syphilitic Joyce": isn’t such a title only fit for tabloid headlines rather than an academic paper?

Take for example Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners, whose first story "The Sisters" introduces "paralysis" as the keyword to his work. The city of paralysis embodies the overall sickness of a nation. If the reader approaches such image only from the symbolic meaning, only half of the story is revealed.

"The Sisters" describes how a young boy copes with the death of a friendly priest. He visits the dead priest’s house, learns about the secret of his shadowy death from the sisters’ chatter, and finally encounters the paralyzed world of the adult.

From a medical perspective, "paralysis" in "The Sisters" depicts the clear and concrete symptom of a disease—syphilis—that brings about a deep sense of guilt in western society. In 1974, an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that when Joyce revised the story in 1905, he deliberately implied syphilis to be responsible for the priest’s paralysis. Moreover, as Joyce would have known, doctors at the time saw "paralysis" and "paresis" (general paralysis) as interchangeable terms. What Joyce had in mind was more than the symbolic play of the word: he knowingly inscribed the disgrace of a paralyzed nation in vivid descriptions of its tertiary syphilis sufferer. Only when literary study is infused with scientific perception can the "3P" orgy among priest, paresis, and paralysis be exposed.

Regrettably, crucial medical details in Joyce’s story elude most literature scholars who have been preoccupied with textual interpretation for a long time. Even psychoanalysis, the most "scientific" of all literary criticism, devotes its efforts to divulging the subconscious of the author and his text. Scientific interpretation of literature has long been treated as unorthodox, even detrimental to literary meaning. The publication of The Most Dangerous Book shows that time is finally ripe to incorporate scientific sensibility into literary study. Such effort may not be as dangerous as some literature professors might think.

Eclectic scope of the third culture

C. P. Snow, English novelist and physicist, found the continual opposition between science and the humanities alarming. In The Two Cultures, he forewarned of the conflict in disciplines, a division unfavourable to the cultivation and expansion of knowledge. When the book went into the second edition in 1963, Snow indicated the inevitability of integration, and predicted the coming of "a third culture."

After years of fermentation, the third culture finally yielded superior results in the 1990s. In 1996, John Brockman, American author and founder of the famous knowledge platform Edge.org, published The Third Culture, a compilation of top scientists’ reflections on and explanations of the mysteries of life, formally declaring the arrival of the third culture.

These emerging new scientists, combining scientific acuteness with literary sensitivity, intervene in those areas traditionally guarded by the humanities scholars. In the age of the third culture, scientists also want to explore the meaning of life and its ultimate secret. More and more scientists write for the general public. Their works embody literary science writing, distinctly exemplifying the spirits of the third-culture: the exploration of the eternal mysteries of life through scientific probing.

A prominent representative of this trend is the two-time Pulitzer prize winner E. O. Wilson, American biologist. His On Human Nature draws ideas from evolutionary biology to inspect humanity; Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge demonstrates the splendour of interdisciplinary synthesis. Wilson writes in the elegant style of an essayist, and argues in the wise tone of a philosopher, thoroughly illuminating the eclectic scope of the third culture.

Another notable emissary of the third culture is the English zoologist Richard Dawkins, whose acclaimed The Selfish Gene describes in novelistic details how to see life in the tiny grain of the gene. This modern classic in evolutionary biology is the canonical model for contemporary literary science writing. In The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins powerfully defends Darwinism in virtuosic persuasion that wins admiration from all sides of the debate.

Dialogue between science and the humanities

The third culture fosters the emergence of "the new humanist"—science-wise thinkers in the frontline of global thinking. American psycholinguist Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct; Portuguese-American neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error, examining body and mind via cognitive science; American physiologist Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, on the evolution of history and society: these eminent works of interdisciplinary study surpass the common category of popular science. The depth of writing makes these works "literature-like"; the complexity of their inquisition conjures up philosophical rumination. Their impact on global thinking is as substantial as prominent works in the humanities.

As English novelist Ian McEwan notes, since we live in the golden age of science, we must feel strongly about science issues. Science, like literature, seeks to understand human nature. Scientists and novelists, therefore, "should have a lot to say to one another." Deeply influenced by the third culture, McEwan writes many memorable works on science and humanity such as The Child in Time, Enduring Love, and Solar. Contemporary novelist Kazuo Ishiguro also responds to science in Never Let Me Go, which, dealing with human cloning, is as poignant as The Remains of the Day.

"We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born." This passage is not from Joyce, but from Dawkins’s Unweaving the Rainbow. This modern protégé of Darwin borrows Keats’s lines on accusing science of ruining nature’s beauty in order to reveal in turn the beauty in science and the aesthetics of scientific endeavours.

In contrast to the eloquent new humanist, traditional humanities scholars and authors are in danger of being marginalized. In May, English writer Will Self gave a talk in Oxford entitled "The novel is dead (this time it’s for real)," clearly echoing the predicament of contemporary humanities writers. Following the 20th Century legacy of public intellectuals like Edward Said, we must take the next step forward to encourage a new generation of 21st Century literary scholars to embrace science-wise knowledge in order to lead the humanities into participation in cross-boundary dialogues in the third culture. While science sparks the rainbow of knowledge, there must be clouds on both sides of the rainbow bridge that, however evanescent, await our attention, and need to be narrated.   

(Originally published in The China Times Book Review, June 21, 2014. Translated for Edge from Chinese by the author.)