- Peter Swirski (Author)
Between Literature and Science: Poe, Lem and Explorations in Aesthetics, Cognitive Science, and Literary Knowledge. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Peder Anker (Author)
Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire. Harvard University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Eva Kushner (Author)
The Living Prism: Itineraries in Comparative Literature. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Rachel Poliquin
The Living Prism collects twenty-seven essays previously published or presented by Eva Kushner, each of which investigates Comparative Literature’s current role and responsibility “to serve all cultures in ways that will ensure and enhance their membership in the world system of literatures.” Kushner claims Comparative Literature is ideally located to negotiate the plurality of voices, the fragmentation and the epistemological doubt present in contemporary academic discourse. Its youth, experimental impetus and identity crisis have not impaired the validity of Comparative Literature, but rather have prepared its students to cope with our increasingly complex and multivocal “global village.”
Kushner calls for “de facto openness and diversity of the field of literary history,” methodological and epistemological flexibility, and most importantly dialogue among models of interpretation and among cultures, disciplines and theoretical approaches. She advocates typology as an alternative to classifications of discourse that imply a priori centres, hierarchies, preestablished models. Typology calls for “inductive research into literary relationships within a given culture set in a given socio-historical situation, and from there into relationships among comparable cultures existing under similar conditions, without positing a preconceived unity.”
Kushner posits the contemporary rereading of the early modern period as a model exhibiting certain exemplary impulses for literary history in general, enabling us to look for difference and heterogeneity by listening to voices that previously have been neglected, and confirming how much the rewriting of history is “avowedly a historical discourse of our own time.”
Taken as a whole, The Living Prism is somewhat dizzying in scope and aim. The essays admirably evince Kushner’s expansive knowledge of theory, literature and historiography, and it is precisely the author’s erudition that inspires and enables her vision for Comparative Literature. While her project is immensely appealing, its accessibility is limited somewhat to academics possessing a capacious scholarship similar to Kushner’s. Yet, despite its intellectual idealism, The Living Prism presents a positive vision of what scholarship could and should be as the humanities struggle to come to terms with diversity without losing communication and unity. We are rewriting and rereading, Kushner explains, “because we are rewriting and rereading ourselves as humans.”
Peter Swirski’s Between Literature and Science tackles the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Stanislaw Lem in a manner somewhat like an intergalactic voyage for traditional literary studies, periodically landing in philosophy of science, game theory, pragmatics, futurology, bitic literature, cosmology, template programming and computer cognition—since according to Swirski, only a “genuinely interdisciplinary analysis, sympathetic to the speculative freedom of literary fiction and the analytical rigour of science” is able to capture the full breadth of Poe’s and Lem’s cognitive projects. The six essays cover a lot of ground, but are held together by Swirski’s contention that literature, philosophy and science are “insepara- ble manifestations of the same creative human instinct.”
Chapter one investigates game theory in Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” For Swirski, game theory is a theoretical model of the reading process, and can therefore be extended to the larger “game” of literary interpretation, whereby the reader must be attuned to the author’s reflexive intentions; as such game theory accentuates the pragmatic side of aesthetics and can be used for resolving the problem of truth in fiction. Swirski next turns to Poe’s revolutionary epistemology in Eureka. Critics have focused on Poe’s superb rhetorical skills to gloss over enigmatic points in his theory and have taken the text’s inconsistencies, and misconceptions as evidence of Poe’s ignorance of philosophy. However, Swirski claims Eureka demonstrates an unequalled cognitive project, “testimony to the almost boundless fertility of its author’s philo- sophical imagination,” a treatise that privi- leges poetic intuition and inspiration over deductive and inductive methods of inquiry.
Swirski continues his focus on the limitations of scientific reasoning by examining Lem’s critic of epistemology in The Invincible, a futuristic adventure that pits scientists against the enigmatic Black Cloud on Regis III, a desert Earth-type planet abounding with unsettling mysteries. The scientists’ inability to adapt Earth-based patterns and their insistence on anthropomorphic models accentuate the insufficiency and inflexibility of scientific inquiry when encountering the alien: new and innovative solutions are not sought out and the contingency of all scientific models is not grasped.
In his last two chapters, Swirski embarks on an analysis of Lem’s “A History of Bitic Literature” (ï±ï¹ï¸ï´), which leads into a discussion of broader issues pertaining to computer thinking, learning, authorship and autonomy. If computers are able to spontaneously produce literature how do we need to redefine the limitations or largeness of authorship, authorial intention, literary meaning, and artistic creativity? What are the implications of computorship for academic communities, specifically literature departments? The answers to such interpretative and epistemological questions lie between literature, science and philosophy, and as long as fences continue to demarcate and divide these fields of inquiry, our increasingly sophisticated world of intellectronics, in which robots build robots, computers win chess matches, program and reprogram themselves, will remain opaque.
A century ago, ecology was likewise a new and nebulous arena of concerns, straddling economics and life sciences, botanical morphology and race relations, and struggling to establish a language and methodology. Ecology, Peder Anker explains in Imperial Ecology, was not a pacifist quest for edenic harmony but emerged from and for imperial social and environmental administration in the first decades of the twentieth-century, expanding beyond botany to economic policies, population settlement and social control. Ultimately ecologists’ success depended on their ability to demonstrate links between disciplines, entangling the aims of a national economy with an economy of nature, marrying environmental, economic, social, political and colonial management into a united discourse that engaged and acquired imperial patronage.
Anker effectively argues that the history of British ecology is best understood as a product of debate between two patronage networks: British mechanists who thought the economy of nature could and should be planned and South African idealists who believed nature’s economy was fixed. Anker crystallises the debate by focusing on the lives of a few highly influential scientists and politicians: their personal preferences, biases and disappointments, the technical limitations with which they struggled and the unprecedented and profound psychological impact of the world wars.
Imperial Ecology admirably displays Anker’s flair for biographical research, artfully evincing the significant and formative weight of individuals’ idiosyncrasies, capricious historical circumstances, and political agendas in shaping ecology’s maturation into a scientific discipline. A rightful winner of The History of Science Society’s Forum for the History of Human Sciences Prize, Imperial Ecology is history and history of science at its best.
- Wary of Angels by Marilyn Iwama
Books reviewed: Imprints and Casualties: Poets on Women and Language, Reinventing Memory by Anne Burke, The Elders' Place: Iniqnirit Qalgiat by Margo Button and Natasha Thorpe, and Jacob's Dream by Elizabeth Brewster
- Adventure-Packed Historical YA Fiction by Lynn (J.R.) Wytenbroek
Books reviewed: Clay Man: The Golem of Prague by Irene N. Watts, Medina Hill by Trilby Kent, The Battle for Duncragglin by Andrew H. Vanderwal, and Wounded by Eric Walters
- Deconstructing the Jesuits by Constance Cartmill
Books reviewed: Harvest of Souls: The Jesuit Missions and Colonialism in North America, 1632-1650 by Carole Blackburn
- Postcolonial Revisions by Wendy Roy
Books reviewed: Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists 1952-1966 by Margaret Laurence and Nora Foster Stovel and Imperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain by Peter van der Veer
- Awake to the Sacred by Laurie Aikman
Books reviewed: Faith and Fiction: A Theological Critique of the Narrative Strategies of Hugh MacLennan and Morley Callaghan by Barbara Pell, Devotional Poetics and the Indian Sublime by Vijay Mishra, and Divine Inspirations: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry by Robert Atwan, George Dardess, and Peggy Rosenthal
MLA: Poliquin, Rachel. Dissecting Disciplinarity. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #182 (Autumn 2004), Black Writing in Canada. (pg. 141 - 143)
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