Worth a Read: F. R. Leavis (on C.P. Snow, technology and… Digital Humanities?)

I’m reading F. R. Leavis (of Scrutiny fame) at present–the book Nor Shall My Sword: Discourses on Pluralism, Compassion and Social Hope (1972, New York: Barnes & Noble[Harper & Row]) to be precise.

So many reasons you’d want read this. First: it includes the Richmond Lecture he delivered as a response to C.P. Snow’s 1959 Rede lecture that popularized the notion of ‘The Two Cultures’ and he LAMBASTES Snow, not without a certain dose of humor I would add; what Leavis considers to be Snow’s laughable career as a novelist, the fact that Snow could even think to talk about literature when he knows nothing about it, the first chapter alone had me in stitches–not that it’s written that way, but the criticisms are so direct and specific [perhaps personal] (and apt) that it is amusing to read.

But there are other reasons to read the book, which compiles several essays together and is not purely an attack on Snow. One of Snow’s statements (evidence for him of the split between two cultures) had been that literary scholars may not be able to describe the the second law of thermodynamics—to which Snow adds (as quoted from the 1959 Rede lecture) “yet I was asking something which is about the equivalent of Have you read a work of Shakespeares?”—but Leavis insists rightly that “There is no scientific equivalent of that question; equations between orders so disparate are meaningless.”

Of course in general terms, Leavis even agrees somewhat with the point that disciplines are alienated from one another (even as he criticizes the messenger), but phrases his critique in terms of the problems of specialization: “Unlike Snow, I am concerned to make it really a university, something (that is) more than a collocation of specialist departments—to make it a centre of human consciousness: perception, knowledge, judgment and responsibility.” Leavis is, as one can imagine, quite far from being the literary specialist he is wrongly accused of being (he had been accused of ‘literarism’).

And there are some interesting remarks on what would happen (many of the essays in the book are from the late sixties and early seventies) when the computer ‘re-structures’ (Leavis is skeptical of the term) education (as follows):

[BEGIN LEAVIS QUOTE] The conception—it hardly amounts to that but there’s nothing else—is what is given here: ‘Computerized teaching systems will make available the world’s finest teaching to any child within reach of a communications system.’ This is education; at any rate, it doesn’t occur to the essayist to go beyond this. The statement, of course (there are a number like it), has a context that extends the explicitness a little, and the context is what we have here (this statement, too, being driven home by a number on the same pattern): ‘These computing systems will form an interlocking network of information retrieval and processing systems well able to master the information explosion and the demands of any educational set-up.’ It will bring out the force an intention of the assumptions so confidently in possession here if I read out the two sentences that follow: ‘With this network established man will have passed from the industrial age into the cybernetic age, and will have to re-think his approach to education, employment, leisure and society at large. He will have to re-think his approach to education because the computer will gradually control all structured tasks, whether they be the production of goods or the carrying out of commerical procedures.’ The approach, it is plain, will impose, universalize and rigidify the implicit notion, crude and brutally uneducated as it is, of the reality: there will be no re-thinking, no thinking at all, and the possibility of the kind of thought made so desparately necessary (even on the essayist’s own account of the problem, though he doesn’t know what the most important phrases in it really mean) will be eliminated—eliminated as a conceivable influence on development. What ‘structured tasks’, for instance, are involved—could be, or should be—in the study of English literature? [END LEAVIS QUOTE]

Back to the notion of the two cultures:

In a way, Leavis is right to take issue with the term the ‘two cultures’–he insists that there is “only one culture,” although he did not mean (and clarifies this point in the book) that there is only the literary culture–although I think Snow’s general point and Leavis’s more informed and extensive critique might be combined (perhaps despite Snow) in revisiting the idea of the two cultures today, critiquing disciplinary alienation and emphasizing, as Leavis did, collaboration.

another great quotation is the following:

“I am not suggesting that we ought to halt the progress of science and technology, I am insisting that the more potently they accelerate their advance the more urgent does it become to inaugurate another, a different, sustained effort of collaborative human creativity which is concerned with perpetuating, strengthening and asserting, in response to change, a full human creativity—the continuous, collaborative creativity that ensures significance, ends and values, and manifests itself as consciousness and profoundly human purpose” […] “A very strong, persistent and resourceful creative effort, then is desperately needed—a collaborative creativity to complement that which has produced the sciences”

So the question is, how would Leavis’s position inform (if at all) the way we think about Digital Humanities as a collaboration between the humanities and the sciences?

3 thoughts on “Worth a Read: F. R. Leavis (on C.P. Snow, technology and… Digital Humanities?)

  1. I do not agree that Leavis is right about the 2nd law of thermodynamics. This law is as important to culture as Shakespeare’s plays. I doubt Leavis would have been able to explain this or other important scientific laws while Snow was a competent novelist. I have never understood Leavis’ hostility to Snow but I presume it comes from fear of ignorance of science or maybe jealousy of the breadth of Snow’s talents.

    • J Sykes might like to read Anthony O’Hear’s essay ”Two Culture’ Revisited’, published in ‘Verstehen and Humane Understanding’, Cambridge University Press, 1996. It may be available in full somewhere on the web.

  2. “Worth a Read: F. R. Leavis (on C.P. Snow, technology and Digital
    Humanities?) | urbanculturalstudies” was indeed a wonderful post.
    If only there was far more websites similar to this one in the actual internet.
    Regardless, thanks for your precious time, Deb

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