Friday, January 06, 2006

More on Anthropomorphism and Poetry

There was an interesting objection to my post yesterday at the Valve, along the lines of "do you really think that scientific and poetic thinking can be complementary?" Poetry -- most poetry -- keeps its subject under a certain amount of intentional ambiguity, while the aim of scientific experiment (cutting open the jumping bean) must always be to demystify.

Though I can't fully answer Rich's objection, it made me think of Ted Hughes' short poem, "The Jaguar," which is available here. I'll just quote a few lines here:

But who runs like the rest past these arrives
At a cage where the crowd stands, stares, memerized,
As a child at a dream, at a dream, at a jaguar hurrying enraged
Through prison darkness after the drills of his eyes

On a short fierce fuse. Not in boredom -
The eye satisfied to be blind in fire,
By the bang of blood in the brain deaf the ear -
He spins from the bars, but there’s no cage to him

More than to the visionary his cell:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.

It’s possible to read Hughes’ poem as demystifying the "caged" jaguar, challenging our human-centric understanding: the jaguar doesn’t know what a cage is, and will never know. Hughes is getting us to see the world as (he presumes) the jaguar sees it, and as such is testing the limits of cognition. The poem can be read as complementary to the aims of science, in that it aims to get us to understand the jaguar's "being" as it really is, and not as simply a grumpy human-like thinking being that is gawked at by children, behind bars, in a zoo. To think of the animal as angry at its status, or bored, is to think metaphorically.

On the other hand, maybe not. Though the poem demystifies, when Hughes uses words like "freedom" and "anger" he also retains some level of anthropomorphism, and through anthropomorphism, metaphor. He probably couldn't successfully take us into the being of the jaguar in writing, or via any representation at all (the only way to really do that would be to become the jaguar).

What I was after in my previous post is the idea that scientists are as dependent on metaphor (especially the metaphor of anthropomorphism) as we are. They are, of course, not dependent on it when they are actively performing experiments; that is something else, and it doesn’t make sense to see it as connected to poetry at all. But the rest of the time, it seems to me that the attempt to comprehend and theorize requires metaphors.

If we grant that science depends on metaphors, it might also be possible to think of poems as doing something complementary to science: it might be possible to say from a linguistics point of view that a certain kind of poetry might perform conceptual tests on our understanding of what objects are in and through language. I think Hughes' poem attempts something like that, and succeeds in a very limited way.

* * * *
As an example of a discussion of anthropomorphism within science itself, here are some comments by a computer science professor at UT-Austin:

Let me first relate my experience that drove home how pervasive anthropomorphism is. It took place at one of the monthly meetings of the science section of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, where we were shown a motion picture made through a microscope. Thanks to phase contrast microscopy . . . it is now possible to see through the microscope undied cultures of living cells, and that was what they had done while making this motion picture. It showed us - somewhat accelerated - the life of a culture of amoebae. For quite a while we looked at something we had never seen: I can only describe it as identifiable bubbles with irregular changing contours, slowly moving without any pattern through a two-dimensional aquarium. To all intents and purposes it could have been some sort of dynamic wallpaper. It was, in fact, rather boring, looking at those aimlessly moving grey blots, until one of the amoeba in the centre of the screen began to divide. We saw it constrict, we saw in succession all the images familiar from our high-school biology, we saw the centres of the two halves move in opposite directions until they were only connected by a thin thread as they began to pull more frantically at either end of the leash that still connected them. Finally the connection broke and the two swam away from each other at the maximum speed young amoebae can muster.

The fascinating and somewhat frightening observation, however, was that at the moment of the rupture one hundred otherwise respectable scientists gave all a sigh of relief: “at last they had succeeded in freeing themselves from each other." None of us had been able to resist, as the division process went on, the temptation to discern two individuals with which we could identify and of which we felt - more in our bones that in our brains, but that is beside the point - how much they “wanted” to get loose. A whole pattern of human desires had been projected on those blots! Crazy, of course, but such is the pervasive and insidious habit of anthropomorphic thought.

I thought this was interesting because Prof. Dijkstra makes it a point to describe the amoebae without any anthropomorphism at all in the first paragraph, and it’s purely abstract -— like looking at wallpaper. Then one of the other scientists in the room creates a human plot... and suddenly, it’s possible to “understand” it.

Whether or not I'm on the mark about the relationship between science and poetry, it's somewhat gratifying to see that scientists are interested in the problem of anthropomorphism as well.


Blogger Kumar said...

Dr. Singh:

I quite agree that metaphor is central to science. As I commented earlier on your blog (at excruciating length), biologist's use of metaphors of 'functionality' is quite productive.

But such use of metaphors isn't limited to biology. All of science is metaphorical given that models in science are necessarily not perfectly isomorphic with nature (or else they wouldn't be models). Indeed, some philosophers of science have profitably mined this sort of argument. As an example, Mary Hesse's work on the connection between models and metaphors is quite old (dating to the late '70s), but still quite relevant.


1:30 PM  
Blogger brimful said...

I just wanted to share this with you. The best conversation I ever had with a professor at university was the question of whether of light is a particle or a wave, because I was young at the time and needed a black and white explanation. His response: "The problem here is language. We lack the right word to describe the phenomenon."

Maybe it's my hard-wired scientist brain, but that felt poetic to me. And science would have never lured me had it not been for the use of metaphor.

1:51 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

That's right -- I forgot about that discussion (Antonin Scalia and the problem of "intentionalism"). That time you were debating my friend and colleague Tyler Curtain.

And Brimful, that's a cool story. I would be curious to see more of your thoughts and experiences on this sometime (BTW I liked your post on antibodies awhile back -- interesting about the hypervariable region tied to the constant region... I also liked the "nuanced" antibodies!)

2:13 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

Hello Amardeep, interesting thoughts. I have continued the discussion on my blog. Hope you'll have more responses.

4:25 PM  
Anonymous Martin said...

We assume anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism to be separate entities, ideas, tropes, BUT, wher, for example, a poet (or scientist) appropriates an object from the external world (an objective correlative as Eliot called it)surely the very act of humanising that object de facto makes it anthropocentric.

Is anthropomorphism a subset of anthropocentrism?

Is it a clash of vestigial classifications, Cartesian duality V the Heisenberg Principle. ('You cannot detach the observer from the observed')?

Answers on a postcard, please.


4:59 AM  
Anonymous AB Ender said...

Maybe the nay sayers ought to read the theoretical physicists before they make rash statements about anthropic priniciples. Try "The Cosmic Landscape: String theory and the illusion of intelligent design" by Leonard Susskind , one of the most talented and influential theoretical particle physicists(don't let the title fool you it is a very clever play on words).

4:25 PM  
Anonymous ab ender said...

Seed: The Future of Science...Is Art?: "To answer our most fundamental questions, science needs to find a place for the arts.

This world of human experience is the world of the arts. The novelist and the painter and the poet embrace those ephemeral aspects of the mind that cannot be reduced, or dissected, or translated into the activity of an acronym.
by Jonah Lehrer • Posted January 16, 2008 07:11 AM"

10:46 PM  

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