Thursday, 21 January 2010

One culture? Snow melts away

I withdrew Two Cultures by C. P. Snow (left) from the library the other day. I was curious about a book (originally lecture) I'd heard so much about in my lifetime, especially during 2009 which was the fiftieth anniversary of its first publication. Reading it, though, was a cringe-inducing experience: it's basically a mind-numbingly simple contention, undeveloped and unsupported, voiced in a breezily vapid, implicitly exclusive, we're-all-at-Cambridge tone. His contention is that Britain's world-class scientists don't know much about the arts, and Britain's most sophisticated arts specialists don't know much about science, and this is a bad thing. Why this should be a bad thing, he doesn't say. It doesn't seem to occur to Snow that mastering nuclear physics or the history of the middle ages is such an immense and difficult task that it leaves no time for certain other pursuits. In the late 1950s and 1960s, as Terry Eagleton says, Oxbridge scholars still employed people to enter the room they were sitting in and turn a switch located next to their ankles; had Snow known that a time would soon come when many academics would do their own laundry, he might have despaired. You wonder also what he thought about the state of the average academic's marriage or the quality of his/her child-rearing. Instead, he seems to assume that academics have virtually infinite amounts of time on their hands, and that if they don't bury themselves in intellectual pursuits outside their specialism then this is due only to a silly and, for some reason, harmful prejudice of theirs.

Still, however vacuous and worthless the original piece is (and its fame and success ram home really how bankrupt British post-war intellectual life was), it sparked off thoughts related to digimodernism. Snow divides up the world into factual and fictive domains: the former is epitomized for him by the physical sciences and the latter by literature. He wants chemists to read Dickens and literature dons to know about Boyle's law. It might be argued, from a digimodernist perspective, that this separation, this gulf, has been healed under the auspices of digital technology. You might say that our sense of the actual world beyond us is derived from and generated by blogs and Wikipedia and Facebook and Twitter, while our fiction is dominated by videogames and videogame-derived CGI or post-CGI films like Avatar. Television and radio are reformulated in the direction of Web 2.0; narrative is reshaped according to the modes of the Internet. This unity of fact and fiction under digitization is, from one angle, the whole argument of Digimodernism.

In this case, the intellectual areas regarded by Snow as central would be marginalized in favour of the digital or the digitized. You might expect to see universities closing down their Chemistry or Physics departments from lack of take up, along with their classics or modern languages or classical music or theology departments. Literature would increasingly be studied in the form of film or videogames or television or the Web. The campus would turn away from the physical sciences and the pre-digital humanities, and embrace instead subjects like media studies, IT, Web development...

It's obvious that something of this sort has happened and is happening. It might be premature though to talk of a new unified culture emerging under digitization, not least because its fictions, at least so far, are so comparatively weak. For Snow, fiction means David Copperfield; for digitization, it means Grand Theft Auto. But if the digimodernist hypothesis is correct, this is broadly the path we're heading along.


  1. Errr...Snow's views have been held by many other people (George Steiner, for example), and there's nothing wrong with the idea that artists should be in touch, even at a basic level, with contemporary ideas in science, etc. Snow will probably still be read after Digimodernism has been pulped. Which is not to knock your book, but it's based on a fragile premise of the type one would expect from someone born in Oxford who supports Manchester United.

  2. Yes, the view is reasonable in principle, and not unique to Snow - that's why I was interested in reading the book. It's the book which is terrible in itself.

    Err - I support Manchester United? Whatever gave you that idea?

  3. Damn - my close textual analysis of Digimodernism was obviously based on a false premise; it appears you are not a supporter of Man Utd, fortunately.
    I've never read the Snow book, and accept that it probably has little to say.
    Also, I entirely retract my negative comment in respect of the pulping of Digimodernism - I am warming to its ideas more and more!