Intellectuals, science, and the English Channel

Something Todd Swift said pointed me to an article in the Guardian about the lack of public intellectuals in Britain, written by Agnès Poirier, a French journalist working in London. It’s worth reading just for the culture-clash exhibited in the comments.

I noticed that the unspoken assumption, from both sides of the argument, was inevitably that an intellectual is a philosopher, a cultural theorist, a littérateur and not, for example, someone like Richard Dawkins.* So I started digging around for this quote from C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures:

I remember G. H. Hardy once remarking to me in mild puzzlement, some time in the 1930s, “Have you noticed how the word “intellectual” is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition which certainly doesn’t include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me? It does seem rather odd, don’t y’know.”

The point being, of course, that Hardy was a mathematician, Rutherford (no relation), Eddington and Dirac were physicists and Adrian was, Wikipedia informs me, a physiologist. Three of them won Nobel prizes. I remember being very struck by that quote when I first read it, and I still think Snow’s basic point about the wilful scientific ignorance of those in the humanities is a good one, even if some of the other things he says in the essay don’t stand up very well. Indeed Wikipedia led me to an essay by Roger Kimball titled “The two cultures” today, published in 1994 in the New Criterion. Kimball does an excellent and largely deserved demolition job on Snow’s essay, but in the process demonstrates exactly the depressing indifference to science that Snow was complaining about.

Snow’s argument operates by erasing or ignoring certain fundamental distinctions. He goes to a literary party, discovers that no one (except himself) can explain the second law of thermodynamics, and then concludes triumphantly: “yet I was asking something which is about the equivalent of Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?” But, as Leavis notes, “there is no scientific equivalent of that question; equations between orders so disparate are meaningless.” The second law of thermodynamics is a piece of specialized knowledge, useful or irrelevant depending on the job to be done; the works of Shakespeare provide a window into the soul of humanity: to read them is tantamount to acquiring self-knowledge. Snow seems blind to this distinction.

“A piece of specialized knowledge, useful or irrelevant depending on the job to be done”. It just makes me want to cry. An insight into the fundamental workings of the universe reduced to a tool, a mathematical spanner, something of no possible interest to anyone who doesn’t need it to do a job. An indirect and second-hand insight into ‘the soul of humanity’ meanwhile is of such obvious value that it apparently goes without saying.

Such arrogance. Not just the intellectual arrogance that is willing to dismiss physics as just a tool for getting jobs done, but the arrogance to assume that ‘self-knowledge’ is of more value than the attempt to understand everything that exists. This isn’t an argument, it’s just an assertion of self-importance.

And yes, I do know that scientists are sometimes just as arrogantly dismissive of the value of the humanities. For the sake of even-handedness, and because it amuses me, here’s a quote from Dirac: “In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it’s the exact opposite.”

* Just a note to say that when I wrote this, Dawkins hadn’t yet published The God Delusion; he did write articles about atheism but was primarily known as a writer about evolutionary theory.


One of the things that seems odd to me about Ron Silliman’s legendary (post)Avant/SoQ dichotomy is that trying to claim ownership of a country’s cultural heritage, trying to shape a national canon, feels like an essentially conservative impulse. The idea of a national tradition of radical poetics seems self-contradictory, like the Maoist idea of continuous revolution. I don’t think there’s actually a logical contradiction, but there does seem to be some conceptual tension.

I was going to use this observation as the starting point for a whole post about America’s relationship with its cultural heritage, but on balance I think that’s an exercise best left to the reader.

Bob Denver & Americana

Bob Denver, the star of Gilligan’s Island, has died. Gilligan’s Island is one of those bits of Americana which feel familiar but I actually know entirely via hearsay. It’s one of the most frequently used pop culture references in other US pop culture – they mentioned it on House just last night – but I’ve never actually seen an episode because I don’t think it’s been shown on British TV in my lifetime (ever?).

Similarly, when I went to the US I felt it was very important to eat a Twinkie, to try and find out what it was about this confectionary that made it iconic. Answer – well, it’s certainly different. Bizarrely artificial and liable to send you into diabetic shock. The O. J. Simpson trial was odd, too. The whole thing was covered in detail in the UK news, partially because they tend to follow big US news stories anyway, and partially because the moment he was chased down the freeway on TV, it was a great story. But somehow, the whole point of the thing was missing; the premise of the story was that a Very Famous Man was accused of murdering his wife – but in a country where few people care about American football, he wasn’t actually famous before the trial. He’s famous now, but famous for being accused of murder.

more middlebrow

Perhaps the difference between the US and the UK is simply that, over here, being an intellectual has never had any social cachet.

middlebrow again

A post at Whimsy Speaks alerted me to some more web chatter on the middle-brow, including a NY Times column on the subject.

What startles me is that so much of the commentary (in, for example, the post and comments at Pandagon), is quite clearly aimed at the idea of a socially aspirational category, not an intellectual one. So Jonathan’s examples of Starbucks and Target, which I just thought were an odd quirk of his, turn out to be quite typical. Martha Stewart is cited. If Starbucks is middle-brow, presumably my home-ground Ethiopian Yirgacheffe is high-brow. A high-brow cup of coffee. Hmmm. What they really mean is presumably that Starbucks is middle class.

And yet Americans still refer to the British as class-obsessed. Martha Stewart seems to me to be a good example. I’ve never seen anyone who is has so openly built a career on stoking people’s social insecurities and then selling them the cure; and I can’t actually think of a comparable British personality. There are hundreds of programmes on TV about improving your home and garden, what to wear, and what to eat, but none of them seem to have that stifled, buttock-clenching aura of gentility. Which isn’t to say that the UK is a snob-free haven, just that the American self-image on matters of class is sometimes a little skewed.

I really shouldn’t be attempting US cultural commentary, of course – I just don’t know the country well enough.

Jonathan Mayhew on ‘middlebrow’

Jonathan has been commenting on the middlebrow. But his blog doesn’t allow anonymous comments and I don’t have a blogger account.

I found Starbucks and the designer teapot peculiar examples (not that I know the teapot or teapot shop in question). For me, low/middle/highbrow implies a specifically intellectual judgement. The relationship between your taste in coffee and your taste in literature seems strained to me – it makes it more into a judgement of someone’s social class. Or urbanity. Perhaps the word he’s looking for is ‘sophisticated’ rather than ‘highbrow’.

That’s not the same thing as saying that we are all differently-browed in different areas. I have low-to-middlebrow taste in films, but fairly highbrow taste in literature, and it seems reasonable to make the comparison. My taste in coffee seems a quite different subject.

I also think his description of the middlebrow as ‘addressed to a wider audience that wants to “improve itself”‘ is patronising and misguided. My sense is that the middlebrow audience just enjoys art at a particular level of accessibility and intellectual content. The idea that people watch Pride and Prejudice on the telly because they want to ‘improve themselves’ seems ridiculous to me. Rather, they’ve found the level at which they find art to be enjoyable. Two disclaimers: I don’t think that level is determined by intellectual capacity but by their priorities and tastes. And I don’t think that high-brow art is always better than middle-brow or low-brow art.

[publishers apparently have a category called ‘faux-brow’. Like The Girl in the Pearl Earring, which is romantic fiction, but with a historical, arty theme and a more expensive cover.]

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