Science and Literature in the British Enlightenment

Jenny Davidson
Aug 27, 2018 · 11 min read

Tita Chico: Five questions with Jenny Davidson

Tita Chico is Associate Professor of English at the University of Maryland and author of The Experimental Imagination: Literary Knowledge and Science in the British Enlightenment (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018).

JMD: Shapin and Schaffer’s idea of “virtual witnessing” has been incredibly influential in a number of different disciplines, including but certainly not limited to eighteenth-century British literary studies. Your book sets out to offer a critique and clarification of that concept that I found incredibly interesting and suggestive. Can you say a little bit more about what you see as the strengths and limitations of their formulation, and what your book suggests instead?

TC: “Virtual witnessing” and, I would add, the subject position of the “modest witness” are perhaps Shapin and Schaffer’s most significant theoretical formulation, which, as you rightly say, has influenced myriad disciplines and modes of critique. Laura Miller’s wonderful Reading Popular Newtonianism, which we discussed last week, joins the chorus of responses by turning away from the theatricality of scientific production to its reflection in printed texts and their reception.

Shapin and Schaffer come to their ideas through the historical pressures early naturalists withstood to assert that studying the natural world in a close, detailed way was not utter madness, which many contemporaries believed was the case. Margaret Cavendish in The Blazing World imagines fainting at the sight of vermin magnified under a microscope, begging the question of what utility such observations could possibly serve.

So I think that it is important to remember that the twinned concepts of reliability and objectivity were at the core of what early natural philosophers were doing.

In that sense, Shapin and Schaffer’s account richly attends to the mechanisms that natural philosophers utilize to present their findings in ways that eventually lead to our commonsensical notion of scientific objectivity, one that persists in our own moment — although the idea of scientific objectivity is being politicized and weaponized by the far right (I talk about this in Public Seminar).

The problem was this: only so many Fellows would be in the rooms of the Royal Society watching Robert Hooke experiment on the microscope or the air pump. Only so many people could observe and validate an experiment. “Virtual witnessing” bridges the spatial and temporal gap between the immediacy of scientific experimentation and its acceptance as fact.

“Virtual witnessing” is a literary technology: an experiment is represented in a text for others to read and to corroborate. This is a reason for the Royal Society’s active publishing program, including its scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions, and Hooke’s Micrographia, with its richly detailed engravings of the subvisibilia. The point is that if others read and agree, then the experiment or observation (these are keywords for early scientists) is valid.

Especially notable to me, as a literary critic, is the literariness of “virtual witnessing.” For Shapin and Schaffer, literary means realism, a claim that misunderstands the aesthetics and history of literary form, and that also assumes literary forms are stable and even transhistorical. The realism of Shapin and Schaffer is the realism of the 19th-century novel.

Shapin and Schaffer impart a framework that begins to consider the literariness in experimental knowledge production. I think that Shapin and Schaffer’s “virtual witnessing” relies on a conception of the imagination that cannot account for the fact that imaginative thinking occurs in the domain of the fictional, even though their own language emphasizes that the reader’s imagination is where this all takes place.

Ultimately, they do not adequately account for the workings and possibilities of the figurative language that describes — and, more radically, constitutes — experimental knowledge production.

Literary knowledge makes scientific knowledge possible. The protocols of Boyle, Hooke, and other Royal Society members are the work of what I call the experimental imagination.

JMD: I’ve found that although my interest in science and literature is deep and wide-ranging, I’m sometimes put off by the orthodoxies of the science and technology studies field that dominates a lot of work in the history of science. What was your experience, as you worked on this book, of negotiating the disciplinary norms and intellectual preferences of the associated fields that your work touches on?

TC: Early in the writing and thinking about this project, I gave a talk on microscopy’s minute particulars and was later approached by a physicist who wanted to know if Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes worked. I had answers. The instrument was notoriously difficult to manipulate, such that Henry Baker eventually published a rather misleadingly titled book, The Microscope Made Easy. And Robert Hooke expressed tremendous frustration that the Royal Society’s interest in microscopy waned in the 1680s and that the instrument had become a “plaything” for ladies.

But the question “does it work?” speaks to an implicit belief that the history of science is a narrative of progress, with failures cast aside in the hunt for successful innovation. This approach also understands the scientific revolution as the sine qua non epistemological innovation of the long eighteenth century, which, to my view, is an impoverished sentiment.

As my discussion of Shapin and Schaffer above indicates, historians of science are often not equipped methodologically to account for the literary. There are important exceptions, of course, which include historians such as Anita Guerrini, who flexibly yet powerfully moves across modes of interpretation. And historians of science such as L. J. Jordanova, John Christie, Sally Shuttleworth, Mary Jacobus and Evelyn Fox Keller were among the first to think about science in relation to literature.

Yet a literary critic’s perspective is vital to understanding the “literature” portion of that dyad. A lot of work on literature and science in the eighteenth century has focused on the novel, influenced in no small part by Ian Watt’s early contention that empiricism required and led to novelistic discourse. Helen Thompson’s recent Fictional Matter is an important challenge to the all-too-easy slide between science and the sort of realist novel Watt canonizes.

I also think it is important that twenty-five years ago Robert Markley and Ann Jessie Van Sant broke new intellectual ground by attending to what might seem to be a purely literary endeavor — the analysis of self-consciously literary language — as imbricated within and in relation to Enlightenment science.

Markley and Van Sant remind us that science is not merely a cultural studies context that reveals an increasing awareness of natural philosophy. Nor does it necessarily lead to the realist eighteenth-century novel. Instead, scientific discourse and thinking are vital partners in the literary articulation of aesthetic norms, ideals, and alternatives.

Rather than history of science per se, though I read and learn a lot from Lorraine Daston, Larry Stewart, and Margaret Jacobs, the work that is especially intellectually productive and provocative to me is what might be called theories of science studies. I’m thinking in particular of Karen Barad, Ian Hacking, Natasha Myers, Hasok Chang, and Sandra Harding. They make me think anew.

For example, Barad’s agential realism offers a respite from tired binaristic thinking that helped me see difference in James Thomson’s obliterating, Newtonian snowscapes, and Myer’s work on protein modeling looks at the scientist’s body in the production of knowledge, letting me perceive Boyle’s absent yet present hand at the air pump. The theory might seem to be quiet in The Experimental Imagination, but I could not have written the book without it.

The theoretical structure of my work is most visible in my keywords, literary knowledge, science, trope, and gender, which I use in Raymond Williams’ sense, as “significant, binding words in certain activities and their interpretation; they are significant, indicative words in certain forms of thought.”

JMD: One of the strengths of your work is that you don’t shy away from treating continental texts as well as British ones. I was especially captivated by your account of Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686) and its English adaptations by Aphra Behn and others. How do you integrate non-British texts into your teaching? Also, do you teach Behn’s Fontenelle, and if so in what context(s)?

TC: Thank you! When you delve into the archive of scientific texts, it is baldly apparent that this was an international community, and that science itself was a form of cosmopolitanism. Before the founding of the Royal Society, Abraham Cowley proposed an academy for natural philosophy in which the instructors would take turns traveling abroad to conduct research. And the Royal Society received experiments from natural philosophers in Europe, including Dutch naturalist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, who was inducted an “overseas member” of the Royal Society in 1680 for his work on microscopy. Peter Galison makes the point that science travels along intellectual and actual trading routes, connecting and transforming in way stations he calls “trading zones.”

To think about Britishness and Englishness necessitates thinking beyond the limits of those same borders.

As a scholar and teacher, I am housed in an English Department (and mine has a strong Comparative Literature program). But eighteenth-century British literature exists, for me, within a larger context, both in time (we are still living through and with the “Enlightenment”) and space. My convictions are based on the historicity of the print market and the commercial marketplace more generally, sites that promoted themselves as repositories of international wares, and the massive exchanges between and among countries and peoples. Mr. Spectator and even John Dyer in The Fleece may imagine London as the emporium of the world, yet even this claim requires a sense beyond provincialism.

Reading British literature in a wider global context is also part of my temperament as the daughter of an immigrant, as someone who has family living abroad and who spends time not in my “own” country.

In teaching, I include non-British texts by way of translation. By translation, I don’t mean a Penguin translation of Candide, but instead seventeenth- or eighteenth-century translations. This allows us to think about the print market that I mention above, and it also enables a consideration of what translation accomplishes and forecloses. In my undergraduate and graduate courses, for example, we read Galland’s Thousand and One Nights, Arab Stories Translated into French, which challenges us to think about the transmission of texts, stories, translation, and authorship, in addition to the thematic, formal, and ideological concerns these tales foreground.

I also teach Fontenelle, again, in period translation, and usually in graduate classes on literature and science. Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes, an explication of Copernican and Cartesian cosmology, was wildly popular, with four editions in three years and thirty-three more editions up to his death in 1757. As I discuss in The Experimental Imagination, Fontenelle shows up in unexpected places, including Melliora’s lap in Eliza Haywood’s seduction novel, Love in Excess. Melliora’s reading signals her intellectual and moral virtue at the moment she and D’Elmont first kiss.

Within two years of the Paris publication, Sir W. D. Knight (Dublin, 1687), John Glanvill, a fellow of the Royal Society (London, 1688), and Aphra Behn (London, 1688) all published translations of Fontenelle. When treading the translations, my students and I compare passages to understand that Knight and Glanvill promote English nationalism and, in the case of the former, deride Fontenelle’s female readership. We also study how Behn uses the occasion to develop a theory of translation that proves her intellectual acumen and literary authority, even removing Fontenelle’s and including only her own name on the frontispiece.

JMD: This is your second monograph. How would you say that the experience of writing The Experimental Imagination differed from writing your first book, in any dimensions you care to address (motivation, research, writing, finding a publisher)?

TC: Let me begin by saying that I really loved writing my first book. Of course, there were the ups and downs, and it was written within the all-or-nothing context of getting tenure, but I had the great fortune to figure out some important things and share them.

Second books are different and, as a friend has said, hard. It is a time for ambition and there is the assumption that, having written one, you now know how to write another. More substantively, there are, perversely enough, institutional obstacles, which I mention well knowing what a privilege it is to have institutional security.

Tenure can paradoxically impede one’s focus on research, especially, as study after study shows, if you are a female academic. In other words, I was on a ton of committees, did a boatload of administrative work, and was working in ways that did not result in a line on my cv. To be clear, the systemic inequities I allude to are not on the individual level — it’s not just a matter of an individual ‘saying no’ to repeated requests for service and so forth — but exist on a larger, structural level of how some academic work is valued by universities and other is not.

To the writing of my second book. After finishing Designing Women, I was deep into microscopes, after stumbling upon a raft of poems at the Newberry Library that used scientific instrumentation, and deep into Richardson and Sterne, an unlikely pairing that few critics contemplate, save Tom Keymer, who has moved back and forth between them with great insight. From there, I wrote about the “minute particular” in Richardson and Sterne as evoking and modifying microscopy’s own “minute particular,” inspired especially by the work of Tom, Susan Stewart, and Mary Baine Campbell.

Yet I was also fascinated by science as a trope that migrates across genres and shapes subjectivities and forms of agency. Around this time, I discovered Susannah Centlivre’s play, The Basset Table, in which a young heiress converts her dressing room into a scientific laboratory, trading jewelry for flesh flies, enjoining her suitor to inspect not her beauty but the specimen under her microscope. For the character Valeria, practicing experimental philosophy offers her the possibility for self-determination, even if Centlivre curtails the implications by the play’s conclusion.

I was faced, then, with a book manuscript that seemed increasingly to be about two things — novelistic details and scientific epistemology, and science as literary trope. I made the difficult but necessary decision to cleave the details. (“I hope you cut the right half!” joked a friend.) That work exists in a cluster of articles on microscopy, Sterne, and Richardson of which I am very fond and proud.

Turning my attention to literariness and science opened up the research project I wanted to pursue, focusing on what science might have meant to an eighteenth-century readership and on the constitutive role of literary knowledge. Science could be conservative or subversive, but it relied upon literariness, not only to articulate scientific findings, but also to imagine itself into being altogether. This, I knew, was the story I wanted to tell.

For me, writing is always rewriting. I am indebted to the scores of friends and colleagues who listened to me and who read my chapters with universal insight and care. With every revision, and there were many, many, many, I came closer and closer to seeing the full important of my overall argument about the experimental imagination. I began a year-long residence as a Senior Research Fellow at the University of London’s School for Advanced Studies with a first draft in hand and spent that time immersed in the final stages of research at the British Library (usually at desk 226) and revision.

And then I was finished. I had the luck of Stanford University Press’s keen interest, and the process was smooth and swift, thanks to the smart and supportive Emily-Jane Cohen, Executive Editor. In this way a second book is so different: it isn’t a matter of if, but where.

I also want to add that there was a good chunk of time when I wasn’t writing this book because I was seriously ill and getting divorced and my eldest brother died. To say it was too much is thoroughly inadequate. Life has very rough edges. So my joy now is wide and deep: I am grateful that I was able to return to writing and that this is exactly the book I wanted to write. To have The Experimental Imagination making its way in the world is an incredible feeling.

JMD: What was the most surprising thing you learned during the time you spent working on this book?

TC: Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke hated each other!

Jenny Davidson

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Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Author of eight books (four novels and four books of literary criticism).