The moderns confused products with processes. They believed that the production of bureaucratic rationalization presupposed rational bureaucrats; that the production of universal science depended on universalist scientists; that the production of effective technologies led to the effectiveness of engineers; that the production of abstraction was itself abstract; that the production of formalism was itself formal. We might just as well say that a refinery produces oil in a refined manner, or that a dairy produces butter in a butterly way! The words ‘science’, ‘technology’, ‘organization’, ‘economy’, ‘abstraction’, ‘formalism’, and ‘universality’ designate many real effects that we must indeed respect and for which we have to account. But in no case do they designate the causes of these same effects. These words are good nouns, but they make lousy adjectives and terrible adverbs. Science does not produce itself scientifically any more than technology produces itself technologically or economy economically.✧ Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern
Isn’t electricity a mysterious thing? Wasn’t it Benjamin Franklin who tied a key to a kite? We live in such a mysterious universe, don’t we? Some people say that science clears up all the mysteries for us. In my opinion it only creates more!✧ Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie
Amanda’s frivolous banter not only insinuates but also declaims a persistent reality, one that springs tenaciously from a devision of knowledges that springs from a modern bias. The conviction that comprehension and control of nature is a kind of revelation which remains unrelated to the understanding of human life, especially as it unfolds in day-to-day routines, obscures our imbrication with the very forces which have threatened us, and forced us to adapt, whinge, and pray to be delivered from for most of our frenetic history. To be sure electromagnetism is mysterious, as all action at a distance is mysterious; as light is mysterious, and the energy which drives all the motors of action. More, the mysteries of our universe do not collapse in the face of modelling and control, but multiply, and present new questions to replace the ones predictably answered. As a flippant toss of phrase isn’t what she’s saying eerily apropos? To point out that there is an outside and an inside to human experience—that the world continues to threaten and bamboozle us despite our research and inventions—is an indisputable truism; but is it not also something that genuinely needs to be contended with, not just when the lights burn out, but when we feel complacent and at ease with the idea of a “safely” manufactured environment, even though there is nothing to mediate between any bit of matter or energy, anywhere, that is not natural. Mystery remains nature’s default.
And the triumph of empiricism is jeopardized by the surprising truth that our sense data are primarily symbols.
♦ Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key
If the labours of men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the poet will sleep then no more than at present, but he will be ready to follow the steps of the man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of science itself.
♦ William Wordsworth, “Preface to Lyrical Ballads“
There must be a sense of play for poetry to work. There must be room amongst the litter of factive objects to dart; to squirm; to roll. After all, the empirical world was pulling at a similar cord to that of literary creativity in Wordsworth’s day. The science of oxygen and revolution were eerily contemporaneous: both materialized out of the same age of investigation and irrepressibility. A similar boldness as that which enabled Lavoisier to isolate molecules of air also led to the regime that would eventually sever his innovative head. The poets and the scientists were both treading uncertain ground, and asking daring questions, about what made the world the way it appeared, what moved and drove it in diurnal course. How exciting that we live now, when both still work towards that end, but we simply know more; and how disquieting to know that what we know, now, privileges us to much the same sum total of practical insight, as then.
How we imagine is the key. Poets sleep in the spaces between galaxies now; between an electron and a nucleus; climbing the ladder of DNA between proteins. The implications of vision are conjoined with physical enterprise in a way that inspires both the writer and the lab technician. There is poetry in everything, just as science can be brought to bear on every iota of phenomena. Where do we come from? This question signatures every project of inquiry. Let’s all play.