Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Bridging the Two Cultures: The Case of Science and Natural History Filmmaking

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Bridging the Two Cultures: The Case of Science and Natural History Filmmaking

Article excerpt


At Montana State University's Master of Fine Arts program in Science and Natural History Filmmaking, our goal is to re-invent these areas of documentary by admitting students with undergraduate science degrees and teaching them both production and film studies in an intensive three-year curriculum. In the course I teach, "Criticism and Theory: Science Studies for Filmmakers," I apply critical theory simultaneously to the study of science and film. There are two significant results: 1) teaching filmmakers using the tools of academic film studies can provide a conduit for the re-invention of a moribund practice such as the "blue chip" nature film; and 2) the disciplines of science studies and film theory, because they draw from the same critical theory substrate, have much more in common than has previously been written about in either the film or science studies literature. (1)


In his famous 1959 lecture, The Two Cultures, C.P. Snow detailed an institutional split between the sciences and the humanities, a formulation which has had a profound influence on contemporary intellectual life. The teaching of critical theory to graduate students with undergraduate degrees in the hard sciences who want to become professional documentary filmmakers offers a compelling site for re-considering how separate the humanities and sciences need be. I will explore the surprising affinities between the application of critical theory to science (the discipline of science studies) and film (the discipline of film theory). For example, the question of "privilege" as it has been developed in feminist and critical race film theory to grapple with white and male power becomes equally powerful when hijacked to analyze the institutionalization of science in the academy. Does "scientific privilege" aptly model why the United States federal government's National Science Foundation is keeping state research universities financially solvent while the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities are on life support?

In short, this essay proposes to highlight the wonderful pedagogical results of a true commitment to academic interdisciplinarity. Science disciplines are not equipped to examine themselves, as the appalling lack of scientists on this, and many other such enquiries into science's role in culture, indicates. (2) The discipline of science studies has not yet begun to theorize the relationship between its use of critical theory and that which goes on in film studies and what affect that theory would have on films that attempt to document science. Film studies to date has almost completely ignored the scientific roots and uses of film technology. This essay will report on my attempt to redress these shortcomings through a triangulation of three disciplines: science, film, and theory.

Before agreeing to speak at Oxford University, I had never read The Two Cultures. I have, however, lived my entire professional life in between them. I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Electronic Materials Engineering from M.I.T. as well as a Ph.D. in Film Studies. I want to argue today that, at the very least, my M.F.A. students' work represents a potential third interstitial culture, and at most, a deconstruction of the very concept forwarded by Snow at Cambridge 47 years ago.

The notion of a third culture to mediate the naive binarism of Snow's position is, of course, not new. Indeed, Snow himself addresses the possibility of "at least three cultures" (8)--he has in mind his "American sociological friends"--but "in the end [Snow] decides against" this position (9). Snow's decision is pure folly. The most productive response in this vein is that of Wolf Lepenies, who in 1985 published a book in German called Die Drei Kulturen, which was then translated into English in 1988 and published by Cambridge University Press, for some reason cornering the British market in science studies, as Between Literature and Science: The Rise of Sociology. …

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