Cultural Science Studies: Gillian Beer, Donna Haraway and Katherine Hayles

What are cultural studies of science? While the term “cultural studies of science” designates a stream of research within the broader field of social studies of science, there is no clear consensus about what work is associated with this term. Joseph Rouse has defined “the term broadly,” suggesting that it includes “various investigations of the practices through which scientific knowledge is articulated and maintained in specific cultural contexts, and translated and extended into new contexts” (Rouse 1992: 2). In 1994 Susan Squier identified “cultural studies of science” as “extending from the early work of Thomas Kuhn to more recent work by Latour and Woolgar, Keller, Rouse, Schiebinger, Haraway and others”; for Squier, Kuhn’s “new understanding of how science produces knowledge launched by … [his] Structure of Scientific Revolutions, with its two crucial notions, the scientific paradigm and the paradigm shift” (Squier 1994: 11) opened up this new trajectory within social studies of science. In 1996, Michael Menser and Stanley Aronowitz issued their “Manifesto” for cultural studies of science, declaring that cultural studies was “the name we give to the transformation of social and cultural knowledge in the wake of an epochal shift in the character of life and thought whose origins and contours we only dimly perceive” (Menser and Aronowitz 1996: 16). For Menser and Aronowitz, Kuhn was not the founding father of cultural studies of science. Rather, they regarded cultural studies as ushering in a new radical epistemology which highlighted and explored the contextuality of all knowledge claims (Aronowitz 1993: ch.7) and which was generated and sustained by poststructuralism, postmodernism, and cyberculture. They deemed this new epistemology as having the potential to transform the study of science and technology.

Although these commentators propose rather different visions of cultural studies of science, they come together in foregrounding contextualization as one 276 of its key features. Squier pinpointed what she regarded as distinctive about cultural studies of science research when she observed:

These scholars have illuminated the processes by which scientific fields as diverse as cell biology, primatology, and physics have constructed both the questions they ask and the artifacts they accept as facts in relation to the cultural and historical milieu. (Squier 1994: 115)

“Context” and/or “milieu” are key words for cultural studies of science, which revolves around the notion that scientific knowledge emerges from specific historical contexts and takes the historical embeddedness of science more seriously than some other forms of social studies of science. Hence, it is not surprising that cultural anthropology has also provided inspiration for cultural studies approaches to science. Its insights and methods have been employed in the study of Western culture and adapted to render aspects of that culture – including science – “strange” and “other” (McNeil 2007: 14–16).


Dorothy Nelkin

This strand of social studies of science has been characterized as a reorientation of the field, beginning in the last decades of the twentieth century, involving methodological borrowings, adaptations, and extensions from the humanities. Dorothy Nelkin, an influential analyst of science in the media, noted in 1996 that some humanities researchers and social scientists were “defining their work as cultural studies of science and bringing to bear their skills in interpreting narratives and discourses” (Nelkin 1996: 34). Squier offers a more elaborated account of the methodological features of the cultural turn within science studies: “science is thus opened up to the wide range of analytic and investigative practices appropriate to cultural studies, ranging from context, content, and discourse analysis to analyses of processes of production, dissemination, and consumption of scientific knowledge” (Squier 1994: 11).

Another related way of characterizing cultural studies of science is to see these as deriving from the recognition that science constitutes or generates a set of identifiable cultural forms (including, for example, texts and images) that can be subjected to cultural analysis. Cultural studies of science may undertake investigations of these phenomena, borrowing from conceptual and methodological repertoires developed in various fields of the humanities. For example, scrutinizing key scientific texts by applying established forms of textual analysis has proved fruitful in some cultural studies of science. Likewise, the conceptual and methodological repertoires provided by art history and film studies have been used to challenge and stretch the parameters of science studies by scholars such as Ludmilla Jordanova (1989), Giuliana Bruno (1992, 1993), and Lisa Cartwright (1995) (McNeil 2007: 17).

The foregoing account of diverse routes into cultural studies of science (see also McNeil 2007, 2008; Lykke 2002, 2008) provides some background to the rest of this chapter, which considers ways in which, beginning in the last decades of the twentieth century, encounters between literary studies and science studies have been staged within and helped to forge cultural studies of science as a distinctive strand of science studies. However, it may be useful at this point to draw out crucial features of cultural studies of science which are important in considering the dialogues between literary and science studies that I will explore below. First, the insistence on the cultural specificity of science and the alignment of science with other cultural forms undermines assumptions about the transcendental and universal nature of scientific knowledge. For many, this is the most challenging aspect of cultural studies of science. Second, cultural studies of science are oriented around the investigation of science in its context, although the form of such investigations has varied greatly.

The following sections review three key contributions in the development of cultural studies of science. These works are highlighted because they have been highly influential, and also because each of the researchers considered below has realized distinctive enactments of cultural studies of science which probe the relationship between literature and science.

Gillian Beer: Darwin’s Plots, Narrative, and Argument

Although there had been studies of Darwin’s influence on literature and even studies of the literary influences on Darwin previous to the appearance of Darwin’s Plots in 1983, Gillian Beer’s book exceeded these in offering a complex exploration both of the literary embeddedness of Darwin’s theories and of the impact of those theories on the late nineteenth-century English novel. As Beer herself emphasizes and as George Levine has noted, Darwin’s Plots demonstrated that “the cultural traffic ran both ways” (Beer 2009: 5; Levine 2009: xii) between Darwin and English literature. Beer made a strong claim: she contended that Darwin’s theories could not be understood without reference to the literary culture in which he was immersed and from which he drew in formulating his theories in On the Origin of Species of 1859. Offering much more than a study of influences, it is Beer’s full engagement with the textuality of The Origin of Species and her comprehensive tracing of its relationship to literary context that makes her book a landmark in the cultural studies of science. Three important aspects of her treatment of The Origin are her detailed studies of its language, readership, and narrative form.

Beer contends that “how Darwin said things was a crucial part of his struggle to think things, not a layer that can be skimmed off without loss” (Beer 2009: xxv), and she devotes Part I of her study to Darwin’s language. Her rich array of observations includes comments on “the element of address” and the conversational mode of Darwin’s text, which conveyed “the work’s imaginative history” (61). Her careful reading across the various editions of The Origin enables her to speculate suggestively about the “struggles” (62) Darwin encountered in “precipitating his theory as language” (47). For example, she considers difficulties linked to the anthropomorphism of language and his attempts to disentangle his theories from the dominant framework of natural theology. Beer provides much more than a gloss on Darwin’s linguistic style; she regards Darwin’s language as integral to his evolutionary theory: “it was essential to his project that it should be accepted not as invention, but description. His work is, therefore, conditional upon the means of description: that is upon language” (46). Beer’s rigorous study of Darwin’s language thereby became a powerful form of cultural studies of science.

Another dimension of Beer’s engagement with the textuality of The Origin is her attention to issues of readership. She acknowledges that Darwin wrote “to the confraternity of scientists but with the assumption that his work would be readable by any educated reader” (41). She notes that, in opting for accessible language, Darwin secured a wide readership while precipitating disparate appropriations of his terms. She later labels this “multivocality” and traces the revisions from the first edition, in which his language was “expressive rather than rigorous” (32–33), suggesting that Darwin tried to rein in interpretations of his text. Nevertheless, the “need to please his readers as well as unsettle and disturb them” was as important to Darwin as it was to Dickens (35). Aware that Darwin was an “omnivorous reader,” Beer shows that he considered himself to be “reading” the physical world, and that such reading becomes not just a matter of language and syntax, but of narrative (27, 39): “Reading The Origin … involves you in a narrative experience” (3). In fact, it is Beer’s adept exploration of Darwin’s narrative modes which yields a rich picture of the “two-way traffic” between literature and his writing. She detects the influence of Carlyle and Dickens in Darwin’s striking mode of narration, characterized by its capacity to bring his readers to the “brink of finding out” (43) the mechanisms by which the natural world evolves.

Through detailed study of Darwin’s text, Beer demonstrates “the degree to which narrative and argument share methods” (xx, 34). This constitutes an important insight for cultural studies of science, which renders narrative analysis a valuable resource for science studies. But she carries this further in showing the affinities between literary fiction and Darwin’s mode of theorizing. She points out that Darwin “displays, categorises, and argues, but does not expect to contain the working of the world in his mind, or ever fully to understand them,” then observes that “It took a hundred years for Darwin’s projections, his ‘fictions’ or theories, to be thoroughly authenticated empirically”; The Origin is “a polemical book, a work which drives through fiction and observation to achieve a condition beyond fiction” (46). While Beer is adamant in the Preface to the second edition of her book that she is not claiming Darwin’s theory is fiction, she has shown that Darwin’s narrative form operates as fiction and that appreciating this is crucial for understanding his text, his theories, and the response to them.

Beer then turns her analytical tables to show that Darwin’s theory transformed the design of narratives and the activity of narrating within British fiction of the late nineteenth century. The preoccupation with time and change which were at the heart of evolutionary theory, she contends, was also integral to the problems and, indeed, the form of narratives in novels. In Part III of Darwin’s Plots she explores how late nineteenth-century English novelists (especially Eliot and Hardy) “tested the extent to which” evolutionary theory could “provide a determining fiction by which to read the world” (2). George Levine praises Beer’s accomplishment in demonstrating “through both argument and enactment that the recognition of the creative and imaginative aspects of science does not in any way diminish the importance or distinctiveness of scientific work” (Levine 2009: xii). In insisting that Darwin’s language, his orientation towards his readership, and his narrative form were intrinsic to his evolutionary theory, Beer realized a powerful version of cultural studies of science. She shows, in Darwin’s case at least, that there is much to be gained by looking at scientific writing through the lens of literature, particularly fiction.

Donna Haraway: Science Fiction and/as Cultural Studies of Technoscience

From Frankenstein through to cyberfiction and beyond, science fiction has been the quintessential literary genre staging encounters between technoscience and literature. It has proved to be a powerful arena for writers’ and readers’ imaginative explorations of hopes, fears, and visions linked to technoscience. However, it is only recently that researchers have begun to explore its potential as a resource for science and technology studies. An avid fan of science fiction (particularly feminist science fiction), Donna Haraway has been an influential exponent of this trajectory within the field, forging her own version of cultural studies of technoscience which draws extensively on science fiction.

Haraway’s most widely circulated text is her “Cyborg Manifesto” of 1985. Although presented as a manifesto, in its writing and presentational style it borrows heavily from science fiction. Haraway welcomed the new feminist science fiction which proliferated in the 1970s and 1980s and hailed its authors as “our story-tellers exploring what it means to be embodied in high-tech worlds” (Haraway 1991: 173). Acknowledging their influence as “theorists for cyborgs” (173), she provides her readers with “an abbreviated list” of feminist science fiction books informing her essay. In the last section of the “Cyborg Manifesto,” Haraway turns to science fiction to conjure the cyborg as a challenge to late twentieth-century “myths of political identity.” Beginning with Anne McCaffery’s “pre-feminist” text, The Ship Who Sang (1969), she presents a brief review of “the cyborgs populating” the fiction of Joanna Russ, Samuel R. Delany, James Tiptree, Jr., John Varley, Octavia Butler, and Vonda McIntyre. For Haraway, science fiction is not only a powerful source of personal inspiration in her own writing, it also demonstrates the inadequacies of “universal, totalizing theory” (Haraway 1991: 179). Beyond this, she relishes it as comprising a rich vein of reimaginings of life with(in) technoscience, beyond and outside of the stifling dualisms of human/machine, nature/culture, animal/human, etc.

Having recommended science fiction as a valuable resource for critical cultural studies of science, Haraway draws on it extensively in her major study of the making of the twentieth-century science of primatology, Primate Visions (1989): “Both science and popular culture are intricately woven of fact and fiction” (Haraway 1989: 3), so she will “treat science as narrative” (5). This brings her to science fiction (which she designates “SF”) as “a territory of contested cultural reproduction in high-technology worlds”; it is this genre’s capacity for contestation in a high-technology context that appeals to her: “Placing the narratives of scientific fact within the heterogeneous space of SF produces a transformed field … so, in part, Primate Visions reads the primate text as science fiction” (5).

In turning to SF, Haraway invokes not only its modes of writing and conceptualizing the technoscientific world, but also its relationship to reading: “Conventions within the narrative field of SF seem to require readers radically to rewrite stories in the act of reading them”; she sees her “placing this account of primatology within SF” as an “invitation” to her readers to re-vision “the traffic between what we have come to know historically as nature and culture” (Haraway 1989: 15). More generally, Haraway frames her investigation of a specific “scientific discourse” as the analysis of “story telling within several contested narrative fields” (6). Her research entails pursuing and parsing diverse stories in and around primatology: the stories primatology has generated about the natural world, the life stories of those who have worked in this field, the stories told about the emergence and consolidation of this field of science, as well as the stories of primatology conveyed in museums and popular films.

Science fiction quite literally frames Primate Visions, since this long text not only begins with an introduction in which Haraway proposes to place her account of primatology “within SF,” but, as its title suggests, the conclusion – “Reprise: science fiction, fictions of science, and primatology” – rounds off the project through further engagement with science fiction. Haraway opens the chapter by deploying Isaac Asimov’s imaginary construct of the Second Foundation of 1953 to review the main themes of her study. She regards Asimov’s story as providing a particularly illuminating lens through which to read the activities of an important institution and phase in the evolution of primatology – the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences’ second Primate Project of 1983–84 (Haraway 1989: 370). However, in the final section of this chapter Haraway undertakes her most daring use of science fiction. Reversing her strategy of reading primatology as science fiction, she proposes instead to read science fiction as primatology. The last few pages of Primate Visions thereby become a kind of “what if” speculation, as Haraway presents a reading of the African-American Octavia Butler’s novel Dawn as if it were the “the first chapter for the text that might issue from the next primate year, The Third Foundation for the third planet from the sun at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences” (376).

Haraway’s extensive study of primatology, then, revolved around her tracing and interrogation of the multiple storytelling practices generated in and around it. In employing the literary trope of storytelling and unpacking narratives as they emerged not only on the field site, but also in textbooks, conference reports, autobiographies, museum panoramas, advertising, and films, Haraway challenged the conventions of the disciplines of history and social studies of science. Her foregrounding of science’s own practices of storytelling was itself an unconventional, if not irreverent, gesture within social studies of science. Moreover, her laborious analyses demonstrated not only that primatology was made on field sites, in textbooks, or by designated primate scientists, but that its making also required the exploration of diverse sites and disparate narratives. Simple origins stories were not adequate to the diffused making of this science.

Haraway’s turn to science fiction as the genre that inspired and shaped her project gave Primate Visions its radical edge. She challenged commonplace assumptions about the sharp divisions between science and fiction and demonstrated with rich empirical detail that “both science and popular culture” were “intricately woven of fact and fiction.” This not only justified her license in reading primatology as science fiction, but gave her the courage to read science fiction as primatology. Her use of literary, particularly science fiction, tropes enabled her to probe the assumptions and the imaginaries of an important twentieth-century science, but also to explore with her readers how it might be constructed otherwise.

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Katherine Hayles

Katherine Hayles: The Encounter Between Cybernetics and Cyberliterature

Katherine Hayles concludes the first chapter of her important cultural study of the emergence of information science by expressing her hope “that this book will demonstrate, once again, how crucial it is to recognize the interrelations between different kinds of cultural productions, specifically literature and science” (Hayles 1999: 24). How We Became Posthuman (1999) presents her analysis of three “waves of changes in cybernetics” – from 1945 to 1960, 1960 to 1980, and 1980 to 1999. Three chapters are devoted to each of these phases, and each phase is covered through another tripart structure, with an “anchoring chapter discussing the scientific theories,” followed by one tracing the applications of the theories, and a third considering literary texts “contemporaneous with” and “influenced by the development of cybernetics” (20–21). Although Hayles uses the language of “influence” in sketching the structure of her book, she is adamant that the “cross-currents are considerably more complex than a MAUREEN MCNEIL 282 one-way model of influence would allow,” citing a now familiar illustration of that claim: William Gibson’s Neuromancer’s vision of cyberspace anticipated the development of virtual reality (Hayles 1999: 21; see also 296, fn.39). She contends that literary texts “actively shape what technologies mean and what scientific theories signify in cultural contexts” (21). Moreover, at crucial junctures, the assumptions which inform scientific theories can be detected in related literary texts.

Hayles’s approach to science and literature underscores their cultural symmetry: “culture circulates through science no less than science circulates through culture” (21). She rejects any notion that literature simply reflects, illustrates, or explores the social and cultural implications of scientific theories and technological developments. This symmetrical framing enables her to juxtapose her own narratives about the key assumptions informing the three phases in the development of cybernetics with her readings of literary texts which explore these assumptions. Narrative is the critical linch-pin of Hayles’s project. Her tracing of specific phases of cybernetics and systems theory becomes an elaborate account of personalities, events, clashes, contestations, with diverse tracks and trails. Her analysis offers “complex interplays” (7) rather than a history, and she highlights moments when key assumptions of the field are contested. She offers a detailed, web-like narrative that clashes with the dominant, monolithic metanarrative “about the transformation of the human into a disembodied posthuman,” which she abhors.

She opens the field to scrutiny by fleshing out the linear story of progress and abstraction, drawing on a selected set of literary narratives that offer diverse textual enactments of issues in each of the phases of cybernetics. Hayles presents this double employment of narrative as a critical strategy: “shifting the emphasis from technological determinism to competing, contingent, embodied narratives about scientific developments is one way to liberate the resources of narrative so that they work against the grain of abstraction running through the teleology of disembodiment.” Foregrounding the “situated specificities of narratives” (22), through her dual strategy Hayles hopes both to unsettle technological determinism and to demonstrate the mixing of matter and information – “their inextricably complex compounding and entwinings” (22–23).

The literary texts Hayles considers are all “alternative” fictions. These include Bernard Wolf’s Limbo, which conjures a post-war society with reference to, but not restricted by, early cybernetic theory. For the second phase of cybernetics, Hayles turns to the now popular but previously marginal author Philip K. Dick, demonstrating that he was caught up with the questions posed by “second-wave” cybernetics, delivering visions of the shaky distinctions between humans and androids and problematic scenarios revolving around the politics of race, gender, and sexuality. In considering the most recent phase of cybernetics, Hayles selects Greg Bear’s Blood Music, Cole Perriman’s Terminal Games, Richard Power’s Galatea 2.2, and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Reading these texts as generating visions of the posthuman, she also sees them as reinstantiating forms of liberal humanism. Hayles’s study of cybernetics constitutes a distinctive cultural studies of science project with a powerful assemblage of science studies and literary studies. Literary texts are particularly important in “displaying the passageways that enable stories coming out of narrowly focused scientific theories to circulate more widely through the body politic” (Hayles 1999: 21). Her employment of narrative as a critical conceptual and methodological pivot enables her to revision the history of the development of cybernetic science, to draw on entangled, embodied enactments of its key issues in exemplary literary texts, and thereby to expose and critique the dream of disembodied information which, she contends, had come to dominate and orient cybernetic science.

Hayles’s explorations of the interrelationship between literature and information technoscience have continued. In the Preface to Writing Machines (Hayles 2002: 7), she refers to her “journey” from “traditional literary criticism” to the investigation of “technology from a literary point of view,” leading to the investigation of the materiality of literature. As part of this trajectory, Writing Machines is an experimental text probing the materiality of texts, a “robust and nuanced account of how literature is changing under the impact of information technologies” (19). A main thread of this experiment entails the analyses of exemplar texts representing three kinds of literature: an electronic “coterie” text (her term), a specialized art book, and a best-selling, printed novel. With her next book, My Mother Was a Computer (2005), Hayles retrospectively presents it, Writing Machines, and How We Became Posthuman as constituting a trilogy, which

arcs from mid-twentieth century to the present, a trajectory that moves from a binary opposition between embodiment and information through an engagement with the materiality of literary texts to a broadening and deepening of these ideas into computation and textuality. (Hayles 2005: 2–3)

In My Mother Was a Computer Hayles confronts the extension of computational technologies realized in the early twenty-first century and the related “claim that the universe is generated through computational processes running on a vast computational mechanism underlying all of physical reality,” which she calls the concept of “the Computational Universe.” She investigates the changes in subjectivity and reading practices linked to this pervasive computational turn, the “dialectical positioning of humans and artificial creatures” (Hayles 2005: 4–5). She proposes the term “intermediation” as a way of conceptualizing the “complex transactions between bodies and texts” and she identifies “different forms of media” with the penetration of computational technologies within developed countries (7).

Hayles’s trilogy comprises a fascinating exploration of the development of information technoscience. Particularly in the last two books, the project becomes a study of the changing nature of texts and literature as computational technologies have become increasingly pervasive. She extends literary studies beyond modern “classics” to include genre texts. However, her deployment of literature is ambivalent. As she pursues its material transformations in and through its interactions with computation technology, Hayles treats literature as a changing phenomenon. Nevertheless, this dynamic view of literature is somewhat in tension with her employment of it as a methodological touchstone in her investigations. She repeatedly uses her readings of key literary texts – drawing on what she sees as their capacity to generate “vividly imagined worlds” (Hayles 2005: 6) – to explicate assumptions, features, and problems of computational technoscience.

Source: Clarke, Bruce, and Manuela Rossini. The Routledge Companion To Literature And Science. London: Routledge, 2012. Print.


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——(1991) “A cyborg manifesto: science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: the reinvention of nature, London: Free Association Books, pp. 149–81.
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——(2002) Writing Machines, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. ——(2005) My Mother Was a Computer: digital subjects and literary texts, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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——(2008) “Feminist cultural studies of technoscience: portrait of an implosion,” in Smelik and Lykke 2008, pp. 3–15.
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——(2008) “Roots and routes: the making of feminist cultural studies of technoscience,” in Smelik and Lykke 2008, pp. 16–31.
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Categories: Cultural Science Studies, Cultural Studies, Cybercriticism, cybernetics, Digital Theory, Literary Theory, posthuman, Science, Technocriticism, Technofeminism

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