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Week 1: Science, Literature, and Change

AnnaP's picture

“The truth about stories is that that's all we are ... The Nigerian storyteller Ben Okri says that .... 'if we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.’ ....”
            —Thomas King, The Truth About Stories

As a comparative literature major (that is to say, as someone who by and large enjoys the imaginary and its possibilities more than the strictly real), I became intrigued in our discussion about whether science or literature is most associated with change. I realized that part of my fascination with literature is its ability to imagine new realities, to help us more fully understand our limits and possibilities; conversely, I have always remained skeptical of science, concerned that what seems to many a neutral truth becomes in reality a harmful limitation that we place upon ourselves.

My skepticism with science deepened freshman year, when I read feminist critiques of science and did a research paper on intersexuality. I read a lot of Anne Fausto-Sterling’s contributions to science; she contests our very deeply-entrenched notions about having two sexes in a way that made me question what most science passes on to us as accepted truths. (For an interesting article she wrote about this, see While I realize that scientists are constantly revisiting their own practices, I think that a conscious shift from a pretended objectivity to a situated subjectivity still seems far away.

I have always been more comfortable with literature perhaps because it insists on its own subjectivity. Thus, I was surprised when, in class last Thursday, I found myself thinking that both science and literature are equally resistant to real change. There are certain scientific “facts” that seem to be givens, and despite science’s commitment to self-revision it seems as if some aspects of the scientific method (and its pretend neutrality) will never change. Yet in literature, one might say that literature suffers from a sort of stasis of its own in that what is being written and what is considered literature will change to some degree, but the literary canon seems to remain as monolithic as ever. (As a student of French, I’m thinking of the Académie française.)

I find these questions all too important considering Thomas King’s above quote; as someone who studies languages and is interested in the way language (re)produces meaning, I feel that we need to deeply examine both science and literature and that any radical change in these fields could ultimately lead to a very radical change in how we think and what we consider possible.



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