THE TWO CULTURES TODAY
Now, in 1970, we are experiencing a major scientific breakthrough. The new physics, relativity, and the astro – physical theories of contemporary science had already been realized by the first part of this century. Now, in the latter part, we are arriving, with the help of the electron microscope and other new tools, at similar achieve –
merits in biology, biochemistry, and all the life sciences. Important discoveries are made yearly by small, scattered work teams all over the United States, and in other countries as well—of the magnitude of dna in genetics, or of Urey and Miller’s work in the early fifties on the origins of life. Full mastery of the reproductive process is in sight, and there has been significant advance in understanding the basic life and death process. The nature of aging and growth, sleep and hibernation, the chemical functioning of the brain and the development of consciousness and memory are all beginning to be understood in their entirety. This acceleration promises to continue for another century, or however long it takes to achieve the goal of Empiricism: total understanding of the laws of nature.
This amazing accumulation of concrete knowledge in only a few hundred years is the product of philosophy’s switch from the Aesthetic to the Technological Mode. The combination of “pure” science, science in the Aesthetic Mode, with pure technology, caused greater progress toward the goal of technology—the realization of the conceivable in the actual—than had been made in thousands of years of previous history.
Empiricism itself is only the means, a quicker and more effective technique, for achieving technology’s ultimate cultural goal: the building of the ideal in the real world. One of its own basic dictates is that a certain amount of material must be collected and arranged into categories before any decisive comparison, analysis, or discovery can be made. In this light, the centuries of empirical science have been little more than the building of foundations for the breakthroughs of our own time and the future. The amassing of information and understanding of the laws and mechanical processes of nature (“pure research”) is but a means to a larger end: total understanding of Nature in order, ultimately, to achieve transcendence.
In this view of the development and goals of cultural history, Engels’ final goal, quoted above in the context of political revolution, is again worthy of quotation:
The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and have hitherto ruled him, now comes under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real conscious Lord of Nature.
, Empirical science is to culture what the shift to patriarchy was to the sex dialectic, and what the bourgeois period is*to the Marxian dialectic—a latter-day stage prior to revolution. Moreover, the three dialectics are integrally related to one another vertically as well as horizontally: The empirical science growing out of the bourgeoisie (the bourgeois period is in itself a stage of the patriarchal period) follows the humanism of the aristocracy (The Female Principle, the matriarchy) and with its development of the empirical method in order to amass real knowledge (development of modern industry in order to amass capital) eventually puts itself out of business. The body of scientific discovery (the new productive modes) mast finally outgrow the empirical (capitalistic) mode of using them.
, And just as the internal contradictions of capitalism
і must become increasingly apparent, so must the internal
S contradictions of empirical science—as in the development of pure knowledge to the point where it assumes a life of its own, e. g., the atomic bomb. As long as man is still engaged only in the means—the charting of the ways of nature, the gathering of “pure” knowledge-^to his final realization, mastery of nature, his knowledge, because it is not complete, is dangerous. So dangerous that many scientists are wondering whether they shouldn’t put a lid on certain types of research. But this solution is hopelessly inadequate. The machine of empiricism has its own momentum, and is, for such purposes, completely out of control. Could one actually decide what to discover or not discover? That is, by definition, antithetical to the whole empirical process that Bacon set in motion. Many of the most important discoveries have been practically laboratory accidents, with social implications barely realized by the scientists who stumbled into them. For example, as
recently as five years ago Professor F. C. Steward of Cornell discovered a process called “cloning”: by placing a single carrot cell in a rotating nutrient he was able to grow a whole sheet of identical carrot cells, from which he eventually recreated the same carrot. The understanding of a similar process for more developed animal cells, were it to slip out—as did experiments with “mind-expanding” drugs—could have some awesome implications. Or, again, imagine parthenogenesis, virgin birth, as practiced by the greenfly, actually applied to human fertility.
Another internal contradiction in empirical science: the mechanistic, deterministic, “soulless” scientific world-view, which is the result of the means to, rather than the (inherently noble and often forgotten) ultimate purpose of, Empiricism: the actualization of the ideal in reality.
The cost in humanity is particularly high to the scientist himself, who becomes little more than a cultural technician. For, ironically enough, to properly accumulate knowledge of the universe requires a mentality the very opposite of comprehensive and integrated. Though in the long run the efforts of the individual scientist could lead to domination of the environment in the interest of humanity, temporarily the empirical method demands that its practitioners themselves become “objective,” mechanistic, overprecise. The public image of the white-coated Dr. Jekyll with no feelings for his subjects, mere guinea pigs, is not entirely false: there is no room for feelings in the scientist’s work; he is forced to eliminate or isolate them in what amounts to an occupational hazard. At best he can resolve this problem by separating his professional from his personal self, by compartmentalizing his emotion. Thus, though often well-versed in an academic way about the arts—the frequency of this, at any rate, is higher than of artists who are well-versed in science—the scientist is generally out of touch with his direct emotions and senses, or, at best, he is emotionally divided. His “private” and “public” life are out of whack; and because his personality is not well-integrated, he can be surprisingly conventional (“Dear, I discovered how to clone people at the lab
today. Now we can go skiing at Aspen.”) He feels no contradiction in living by convention, even in attending church, for he has never integrated the amazing material of modem science with his daily life. Often it takes the misuse of his discovery to alert him to that connection which he has long since lost in his own mind.
The catalogue of scientific vices is familiar: it duplicates, exaggerates, the catalogue of “male” vices in general. This is to be expected: if the Technological Mode develops from the male principle then it follows that its practitioners would develop the warpings of the male personality in the extreme. But let us leave science for the moment, winding up for the ultimate cultural revolution, to see what meanwhile had been happening to the aesthetic culture proper.
With philosophy in the broadest classical sense—including “pure” science—defecting, aesthetic culture became increasingly narrow and ingrown, reduced to the arts and humanities in the refined sense that we now know them. Art (hereafter referring to the “liberal arts,” especially the arts and letters) had always been, in its very definition, a search for the ideal, removed from the real world. But in primitive days it had been the handmaiden of religion, articulating the common dream, objectifying “other” worlds of the common fantasy, e. g., the art of the Egyptian tombs, to explain and excuse this one. Thus even though it was removed from the real world, it served an important social function: it satisfied artificially those wishes of society that couldn’t yet be realized in reality. Though it was patronized and supported only by the aristocracy, the cultured elite, it was never as’detached from life as it later became; for the society of those times was, for all practical purposes, synonymous with its ruling class, whether priesthood, monarchy, or nobility. The masses were never considered by “society” to be a legitimate part of humanity, they were slaves, nothing more than human animals, drones, or serfs, without whose labor the small cultured elite could not have maintained itself.
The gradual squeezing out of the aristocracy by the
new middle class, the bourgeoisie, signalled the erosion of aesthetic culture. We have seen that capitalism in, tensified the worst attributes of patriarchalism, how, for example, the nuclear family emerged from the large, loose family household of the past, to reinforce the weakening sex class system, oppressing women and children more intimately than ever before. The cultural mode favored by this new, heavily patriarchal bourgeoisie was the “male” Technological Mode—objective, realistic, factual, “com – monsense”—rather than the effeminate, otherworldly, “romantic idealist” Aesthetic Mode. The bourgeoisie, searching for the ideal in the real, soon developed the empirical science that we have described. To the extent that they had any remaining use for aesthetic culture, it was only for “realistic” art, as opposed to the “idealistic" art of classical antiquity, or the abstract religious art of primitive or medieval times. For a time they went in foi a literature that described reality—best exemplified by the nineteenth-century novel—and a decorative easel art: still lifes, portraits, family scenes, interiors. Public museums and libraries were built alongside the old salons and pri – vate galleries. But with its entrenchment as a secure, even primary, class, the bourgeoisie no longer needed to imitate aristocratic cultivation. More important, with the rapid development of their new science and technology, the little practical value they had for art was eclipsed. Take the scientific development of the camera: The bourgeoisie soon had little need for portrait painters; the little that painters or novelists had been able to do for them, the camera could do better.
“Modern” art was a desperate, but finally self-defeating, retaliation (“epater le bourgeois”) for these injuries: the evaporation of its social function, the severance of the social umbilical cord, the dwindling of the old sources of patronage. The modern art tradition, associated primarily with Picasso and Cezanne, and including all the major schools of the twentieth century—cubism, constructivism, futurism, expressionism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, and so on—is not an authentic expression
of modernity as much as it is a reaction to the realism of the bourgeoisie. Post-impressionism deliberately renounced all reality-affirming conventions—indeed the process began with impressionism itself, which broke down the illusion into its formal values, swallowing reality whole and spitting it up again as art—to lead eventually to an art-for-art’s-sake so pure, a negation of reality so complete as to make it ultimately meaningless, sterile, even absurd. (Cab drivers are philistine: they know a put-on when they see one.) The deliberate violating, deforming, fracturing of the image, called “modem” art, was nothing more than a fifty-year idol smashing— eventually leading to our present cultural impasse.
In the twentieth century, its life blood drained, its social function nullified altogether, art is thrown back on whatever wealthy classes remain, those nouveaux riches —particularly in America, still suffering from a cultural inferiority complex—who still need to prove they have “arrived” by evidencing a taste for culture. The sequestering of intellectuals in ivory tower universities, where, except for the sciences, they have little effect on the outside world, no matter how brilliant (and they aren’t, because they no longer have the necessary feedback); the abstruse—often literally unintelligible—jargon of the social sciences; the cliquish literary quarterlies with their esoteric poetry; the posh 57th Street galleries and museums (it is no accident that they are right next door to Saks Fifth Avenue and Bonwit Teller) staffed and supplied by, for the most part, fawning rich-widows’-hair – dresser types; and not least the vulturous critical establishment thriving on the remains of what was once a great and vital culture—all testify to the death of aesthetic humanism.
For the centuries that Science climbed to new heights, Art decayed. Its forced inbreeding transformed it into a secret code. By definition escapist from reality, it now turned in upon itself to such degree that it gnawed away its own vitals. It became diseased—neurotically self-pitying, self-conscious, focused on the past (as opposed to
the futurist orientation of the technological culture) and thus frozen into conventions and academies—orthodoxies of which “avant-garde” is only the latest—pining for remembered glories, the Grand Old Days When Beauty Was In Flower; it became pessimistic and nihilistic, increasingly hostile to the society at large, the “philis – tines.” And when the cocky young Science attempted to woo Art from its ivory tower—eventually garret—with false promises of the courting lover (“You can come down now, we’re making the world a better place every day”), Art refused more vehemently than ever to ded with him, much less accept his corrupt gifts, retreating ever deeper into her daydreams—neoclassicism, romanticism, expressionism, surrealism, existentialism.
The individual artist or intellectual saw himself as either a member of an invisible elite, a "highbrow,” or as a down-and-outer, mingling with whoever was deemed the dregs of his society. In both cases, whether playing Aristocrat or Bohemian, he was on the margins of the society as a whole. The artist had become a freak. His increasing alienation from the world around him— the new world that science had created was, especially in its primitive stages, an incredible horror, only intensifying his need to escape to the ideal world of art—his lack of an audience, led to a mystique of “genius.” Like an ascetic Saint Simeon on his pedestal, the Genius in the Garret was expected to create masterpieces in a vacuum. But his artery to the outside world had been severed His task, increasingly impossible, often forced him into literal madness, or suicide.
Painted into a corner with nowhere else to go, the artist has got to begin to come to terms with the modern world. He is not too good at it: like an invalid shut away too long, he doesn’t know anything about the world anymore, neither politics, nor science, nor even how to live or love. Until now, yes, even now, though less and less so, sublimation, that warping of personality, was commendable: it was the only (albeit indirect) way to achieve
fulfillment. But the artistic process has—almost—outlived its usefulness. And its price is high.
The first attempts to confront the modem world have been for the most part misguided. The Bauhaus, a famous example, failed at its objective of replacing an irrelevant easel art (only a few optical illusions and designy chairs mark the grave), ending up with a hybrid, neither art npr science, and certainly not the sum of the two. .They failed because they didn’t understand science on its pwn terms: to them, seeing in the old aesthetic way, it was simply a rich new subject matter to be digested whole into the traditional aesthetic system. It is as if one were to see a computer as only a beautifully ordered set of lights and sounds, missing completely the function itself. The scientific experiment is not only beautiful, an elegant structure, another piece of an abstract puzzle, something to be used in the next collage—but scientists, too, in their own way, see science as this abstraction divorced from life—it has a real intrinsic meaning of its own, similar to, but not the same as, the “presence,” the uen-soi” of modern painting. Many artists have made the mistake of thus trying to annex science, to incorporate it into their own artistic framework, rather than using it to expand that framework.
Is the current state of aesthetic culture all bleak? No, there have been some progressive developments in contemporary art. We have mentioned how the realistic tradition in painting died with the camera. This tradition had developed over centuries to a level of illusionism with the brush—examine a Bouguereau—that was the equal of, better than, the early photography, then considered only another graphic medium, like etching. The beginning of the new art of film and the realistic tradition of painting overlapped, peaked, in artists like Degas, who used a camera in his work. Then realistic art took a new course: Either it became decadent, academic, divorced from any market and meaning, e. g., the nudes that linger on in art classes and second-rate galleries, or it was fractured into the expressionist or surrealist image, posing an alternate
internal or fantastical reality. Meanwhile, however, the young art of film, based on a true synthesis of the Aes – thetic and Technological Modes (as Empiricism itself had been), carried on the vital realistic tradition. And just as with the marriage of the divided male and female principles, empirical science bore fruit; so did the medium of film. But, unlike other aesthetic media of the past, it broke down the very division between the artificial and the real, between culture and life itself, on which the Aesthetic Mode is based.
Other related developments: the exploration of artificial materials, e. g., plastics; the attempt to confront plastic culture itself (pop art); the breakdown of traditional categories of media (mixed media), and of the distinctions between art and reality itself (happenings, environments). But I find it difficult to unreservedly call these latter developments progressive: as yet they have produced largely puerile and meaningless works. The artist does not yet know what reality is, let alone how to affect it. Paper cups lined up on the street, pieces of paper thrown into an empty lot, no matter how many ponderous reviews they get in Art News, are a waste of time. If these clumsy attempts are at all hopeful, it is only insofar as they are signs of the breakdown of “fine” art.
The merging of the Aesthetic with the Technological Mode will gradually suffocate “pure” high art altogether, The first breakdown of categories, the remerging of art with a (technologized) reality, indicate that we are now in the transitional pre-revolutionary period, in which the three separate cultural streams, technology (“applied science”), “pure research,” and “pure” modern art, will melt together—along. with the rigid sex categories they reflect.
The sex-based polarity of culture still causes many casualties. If even the “pure” scientist, e. g., nuclear physicist (let alone the “applied” scientist, e. g., engineer), suffers from too much “male,” becoming authoritarian, conventional, emotionally insensitive, narrowly unable to under
stand his own work within the scientific—let alone cultural or social—jigsaw, the artist, in terras of the sex division, has embodied аД the imbalances and suffering of the female personality: temperamental, insecure, paranoid, defeatist, narrow. And the recent withholding of reinforcements from behind the front (the larger society) has exaggerated all this enormously; his overdeveloped “id” has nothing left to balance it. Where the pure scientist is “schiz,” or worse, ignorant of emotional reality altogether, the pure artist refects reality because of its lack of perfection, and, in modem centuries, for its ugliness.
And who suffers the most, the blind (scientist) or the lame (artist)? Culturally, we have had only the choice between one sex role or the other: either a social mar – ginality leading to self-consciousness, introversion, defeatism, pessimism, oversensitivity, and lack of touch with reality, or a split “professionalized” personality, emotional ignorance, tiie narrow views of the specialist