Monday, 15 October 2012

The Pub Scientist and the Landlords of Knowledge

Physicist and educator Richard Feynman once said that whilst mathematics was vital for an understanding of the world according to modern physics, there were many delightful things for which mathematics was unnecessary.[1]

Advocates of science today, in their media-pomp, can lose sight of the subtleties hinted at in Feynman's remark. Most issues in human affairs have multiple aspects: personal and emotional, intellectual and philosophical, social and economic. We may concentrate on any of these aspects to the exclusion of others, and various kinds of specialism - or selectivism - encourage this.

In a 2012 episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme The Infinite Monkey Cage entitled 'Art v Science' scientist-presenter Brian Cox scoffs a little too eagerly at the contributions of those brought in to represent "the arts".[2] Comedian Al Murray's suggestion that anyone can engage instructively with the natural world by 'taking a walk' is hooted at as though Murray is proposing an equivalence between 'a walk' and the intellectual edifice of the sciences. He isn't. He's only suggesting that an engagement with the natural world can yield insights, without them having to be authenticated as science. In another aside, Cox implies that art is definitively less useful than science because it is not 'based on reality'. It escapes him, apparently, that art must spring from the same reality as science, even if its outcomes are codified differently, or have different powers of affect.

Further implications of this kind of selectivism came to light for me recently in a discussion about what the definition of "art research" might be. I wonder if the very idea of seeking a definition for art research is a response to there seeming to be a clear definition of research in the sciences, where the qualitative nature of disciplinary advances can easily be taken for granted. Relatively few discussions are staged about how many outcomes of scientific research really are qualitative advances, as opposed, for instance, to increases in the data existing around a given phenomenon or problem (that is, quantitative advances which "bulk up" a particular discipline).

Artists and scientists subsist within what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called the social fields of art and science. Many such fields overlap in the wider social world. A scientist may be comfortable - and perhaps become a little smug - arguing for the kind of knowledge practice authenticated within his or her own social field: for example, a practice aimed at rendering the natural world as facts and information. But such an argument does not meet all the challenges of a social world constituted around emotional, economic and political relations, in which science must be legitimated. Perhaps advocates of science are impatient with this particular reality. It would partly explain the over-vigorous (and slightly mindless) way in which they can put down non-scientific engagements with wider reality.

On the other hand, whilst it can almost always be shown in an academic context that an artistic practitioner has employed the processes said to define research, demonstrating that insights have been gained, and made consensible is harder. The mythos of art incorporates the idea that subjective facts can be transformed into something of special value via the agency of an artist. But the question of whether or not this transformed thing constitutes an insight, or an element of a knowledge, is not settled. In artistic fields the gains related to core practices often remain ambiguous, to be contested, critiqued, authenticated, etc. by agents other than artists (and by other artists). The intricacies of these processes can seem mysterious or ridiculous in the wider social world.

Legitimating arguments made in public for selectivist practices (for instance, by citing their deeper connection with reaity or their efficacy as research) do not necessarily show us why certain territories are desired, competed for, and guarded. For artists and scientists, the continuance of their disciplines can be as important as the utility of anything they produce. Artists and scientists are seeking to live a certain kind of life, and this affects what they will or won't argue for, and the tactics they will deploy in advocating it.

[1] Richard P Feynman, Jeffrey Robbins, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (Cambridge, Mass: Perseus Books, 1999), p. 15.

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