Dave's Update: Why should the sciences and humanities converse?
Why should the sciences and humanities converse? Since I began co-teaching an interdisciplinary course on HIV/AIDS at Davidson College with a colleague from the English Department, I’ve been asked that question more than once. The answer requires some background.
My collaboration with Dr. Ann Fox, professor of English at Davidson College, began when she was co-curating an exhibition entitled Re/Formations: Disability, Women, and Sculpture. One of the featured artists was Nancy Fried, a survivor of breast cancer, who created a series of sculptures of her post-mastectomy body. When this exhibition opened, I was teaching an undergraduate genetics course, in which the students and I explored the molecular biology of breast cancer. We investigated the identification of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes and examined the biochemical pathways in which the associated proteins were involved. We took a very reductionist look at breast cancer.
As part of this unit, I had the students visit the exhibition. After talking with Ann about the sculptures, they saw breast cancer from a very different perspective. Breast cancer was no longer just genes and mutations and biochemical pathways. All of a sudden, there was a human side to the molecular details. This holistic view deepened their understanding and appreciation of the topic. This holistic view, I believe, helped them think critically not just about breast cancer, but also about other topics that we discussed in class.
Increasingly, we are faced with complex problems that require complex solutions. Whether it is climate change, poverty, or human rights issues, we need to view today’s most pressing problems from multiple perspectives. I’m not sure exactly what Charissa and I will discuss during our residency, but I do know that our conversations will help me give my students a broader picture of science. In turn, they will be better able to address the problems of today and tomorrow.
So why should the sciences and humanities converse? We can’t afford not to.
Charissa's Update: On Holism: Critical Thinking in Biology, Art, and Architecture My interlocutor microbiologist Dave Wessner uses the word “holistic” in his blog entry. The word comes up when Wessner refers to his collaboration with Dr. Ann Fox, professor of English and co-curator of the 2009 exhibition Re/Formations: Disability, Women, and Sculpture at Davidson College’s Van Every/Smith Galleries. The holistic approach – that disease is at once part and whole, reducible in the lab and fully lived in the art gallery – sets in relief connections otherwise unseen.
I am fascinated by Wessner’s invocation of critical thinking here as a product of the holistic approach. Before getting to this, allow me to share a little bit about my work and the role of holism and the holistic strategy therein.
The word “holistic” guides my overarching approach within the history of biology in art and architecture, in that my work is holistic: it bridges science and the humanities. I am an art and architectural historian, theorist and critic working on the relationship between biology and art, looking in particular to the role of biological systems, cybernetics, and the interface between life and the machine within modern and contemporary art and architecture.
My next two books, Art as Organism: Biology and the Evolution of the Digital Image (Jan. 2016) and the Routledge Companion to Biology in Art and Architecture (Sept. 2016), coëdited with the media artist Meredith Tromble, are holistic in that they develop infrastructure for greater discourse between the fields of biology, genetics, neuroscience, contemporary art and architecture, and the history of art and architecture. These books build on my first book Automotive Prosthetic: Technological Mediation and the Car in Conceptual Art (2014), which recasts contemporary conceptual art in terms of technology, the cyborg, cybernetics, and General Systems Theory. Holism is also at the core of my next research project focusing on the interaction between a group of artists, architects, designers, embryologists, evolutionary biologists, and theoretical biologists in 1930s England.
I am part of a vibrant community of artists, architects, and historians working on the role past and present of biology within art and architecture. One of our banner heads is “complexism,” a fantastic neologism and idea invented by artist and colleague Philip Galanter at Texas A&M, College Station. In sum, complexism names the application of complex systems to disciplines of the humanities. My work is, by and large, an exercise of complexism. It replaces linear causality with emergent causality. I look to the role played by science and technology in the realm of art and architecture over the last century. I like how complexism does not completely dismiss teleology, but opens a way to replace the progressive, straight-lined sense of the term with an organismic and biologistic take. One understands the working function of any given system, whether scientific or artistic, in terms of a network of forces rather than looking to an element singly on its own.
Our shared conundrum within this community has been the question of criticality. How does complexism, viz. holism, rethink criticality for the humanities? This is a large and daunting query, which I continue to work through. But I think Wessner’s citation of critical thinking by way of art-and-science practices starts to pave the way. We see that critical thinking for his students came through the empathy demanded by artistic representation of scientific subject matter. Art makes science a matter of facts and empathy, hard evidence and what the Austrian theoretical biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy called “happy intuition”.
So, science gleans feelings of empathy for life from art. What does art gain from science? Many things, only two of which I will name here.
First, science recalibrates the diverse fields of art – from art history to contemporary computational art. It opens new territory for the inspiration of artistic creation and historical interpretation. There is new art to make; there are new histories to write! Second, science offers a new mode of utility to art. By no means do I wish to reduce art to blunt utility, much less utilitarianism. As an historian and theorist I do not shy away from the possibility that art my have a function in the world. Function is our key word in this final instance. Organismic functionalism introduces to the realm of art new modes of utility – both reducible and irreducible in nature. Whether or not this constitutes a mode of critical thinking remains to be seen.