Sunday, October 11, 2009

Wood, Powers, fiction & science

The other day I read James Wood's recent New Yorker piece about the work of novelist Richard Powers. Many others have written many times about the many deficiencies of James Wood, who has ascended to top-dog position in the hierarchy of bourgeois literary critics, and I commend you to these commentaries, which are mostly written from a left angle. For my part, I'll add two thoughts about this latest Wood piece, on Powers.

One is that I sort of agree with one aspect of Wood's complaint about Richard Powers' novels, which I'd boil down in my own non-Woodian way to: they're brainy but heartless. Long on thought, short on feeling. At least with the Powers novels I've read, and to tell the truth I've stopped reading them for this very reason, I almost always failed to achieve any human connection to the characters. He didn't make me care about them. This is a huge failure of fiction to my way of thinking. But. I couldn't disagree more with Wood about the source of the problem. The problem is not that Powers is somehow too interested in scientific ideas, in technology and technological developments, in anatomy and biology and chemistry and genetics and evolution, too intent on exploring how we human animals, as agglomerations of cells, as loci of chemical reactions and electrical impulses, as hosts to millions of microscopic creatures, embody all this science. What a bunch of hogwash. Why in the world would such interest, such a fictional approach necessarily result in defective character development? Quite the contrary, I can imagine how it would, in a skilled writer's hands, enliven and bring new dimension to fictional characters. To me, there's little more fascinating than this stuff, and the challenge of incorporating it into vibrant, relevant fiction is one that I'm confident someone will rise to more successfully than Powers has. The problem with Powers' fiction, in my opinion, the reason it feels dead at its center, is, I think, that he fails to ground all the science in social reality and so all these ideas that should be terrifically exciting are never connected to the real life of this society in which his characters live. In a nutshell, he forgets the class struggle. He forgets that science and those who do science as well as those who are affected by what they do--all of it, all of us--are located inside class society. In this society, science is for profit. Ideas, inventions, research, none of it exists, at least not outside some thinker's head, except as it relates to the capitalist market. This is the missing element in Powers' fictions, I believe. Earlier, I said I've "almost always" felt unconnected to his characters. The one exception was the woman in his novel Gain who is dying of a disease caused by the products of a mega-corporation. In Gain, Powers alternates chapters between the history of the corporation and the story of this woman. In other words, in this book he does take explicit note of the role of the profit system. I'm guessing this is what made it come alive for me--well, every other chapter, anyway. I was fully drawn in to the chapters about the dying woman. I was bored and annoyed at the chapters about the corporation, but that's another story.

My second thought about Wood's New Yorker piece is a big loud yecch to the critic's condemnation of Powers for what Wood characterizes as "scientism." Is there a more reactionary word currently making the rounds of the establishment intelligentsia? One of those horrid neocons used it a while back in a New York Times Book Review piece about a book by, oh I forget whose book it was, Richard Dawkins or one of those types, and while there is much wrong with Richard Dawkins and his crew, and while they are fully in thrall to, their practice of science is shot through with, bourgeois ideology, I cannot abide an attack on Dawkins or anyone that rests on the assertion that too much science is a bad thing. That you can go overboard on all this science stuff. That objectivity, experimentation, rules of evidence, empirical study, an orientation to the material world is all somehow distasteful, unfair, mean to the rest of us who prefer to see and interpret the world through the gauze of emotion, sentiment, myths, dreams, superheros and so on. This word "scientism," this sneer from what we're supposed to understand to be the higher ground that would presume to claim for itself the ever so much more attractive title of "humanism" because, don't you know, it's much more humane to recoil at science's search for objective material explanations about the world we live in, I mean it just eckles me, as my dear old Yiddishe mammeleh used to say. The worst thing is that this word seems to be gaining popularity. I googled it and got 357,000 results. Among these are several definitions, all of which explain it more or less as the view that science is a preferable way to investigate and interpret the world than is mysticism, "faith," "spirituality," etc. Well my goodness, sounds eminently reasonable, especially when it's coupled with respect for those who prefer those other mystical approaches as in my experience it generally is, Dawkins et al notwithstanding, well my goodness then who could object to that? Lots of folks, it seems, neocon and liberal (i.e. literary idol Marilynne Robinson) alike, and here the master critic too; they're all joining in chorus to warn us against this ooh scary awful threatening new ism. Indeed, most of those 357,000 citations go to attacks on science and scientists for their allegiance to this most awful of crimes, this "scientism," this inhumane notion that science and not magic is the way to unlock the world's mysteries. Yecch and yecch again. And this James Wood character, this champion of the crusade against "scientism," the word itself a coinage whose every use functions as a smarmy slimy insult to the whole project of scientific inquiry, this is the guy to whom we're supposed to look for literary guidance?