Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Disciplinary Hybridity in Shelley's Adonais

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Disciplinary Hybridity in Shelley's Adonais

Article excerpt

Research programs in science studies - as well as more general programs in women's studies and cultural studies - have for the past two decades testified to a dissatisfaction with traditional disciplinary boundaries in the academy. At the same time, negative reactions to these interdisciplinary forays, most notoriously in Paul Gross's and Norman Levitt's Higher Superstition (1994), indicate the intense significance of such boundaries from the standpoint of many scientists. Included on Gross's and Levitt's enemies list is anthropologist of science Bruno Latour who has analyzed the nearly imperturbable cultural architecture supporting the ideal of scientific purity, that is, the conception of science as purged of cultural bias, a condition built into our very notion of science. Latour sees disciplinary purity as part of the deep structure of modernity, built into the pulse of modern common sense. But he points out more emphatically that this purity comes under increasing pressure from the mixture of disciplinary activities that constitutes everyday life, despite the effacement of this mixture from the way that we consider either science on the one hand, or the humanities on the other.

Latour is significant among interdisciplinary advocates because he communicates the simultaneous power of assumptions maintaining disciplinary purity and the quotidian frequency of disciplinary crossover, of disciplinary hybridity. This approach to modern culture as double-visioned, although it depicts science as a social practice rather than the accumulation of truths about reality (a perspective eliciting the wrath of Higher Superstition), also properly emphasizes the extraordinarily agile intransigence of seemingly contradictory activities. As Latour sees it, the ideal of scientific objectivity, and more generally, the purifying processes of modernity itself, is too deeply rooted in the way we think for us simply to imagine ourselves out of them. If we are to alter modern disciplinary formation, we must understand modernity as a capacity to live two lives without combining them, to think in disciplinarily purified terms and yet act in terms of disciplinary hybridity at the same moment. Hybridity is hidden in plain sight, in the very extremity of disciplinarity.

In a similar way, I will argue, Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley came closest to an interdisciplinary poetry - a scientific literature in the fullest oxymoronic sense - from within poetry, specifically in one of his most hyperbolically literary works, his elegy on John Keats, Adonais (1821). My focus on this poem derives in part from the fact that it is an elegy, that is, that it treats death, the site of the most extreme divergence between scientific and humanistic understanding. In this essay, I will first elaborate Latour's notion of disciplinarity, introduce some recent interdisciplinary developments from within science that might contribute to undermining modernity's double vision, and then present a deliberately anachronistic reading of Adonais, a reading, I argue, that takes up the spirit of Shelley's struggle in the poem to overcome the modern disciplinary categories by which he was imprisoned. My interpretation is anachronistic insofar as it is a reading that could not have existed for Shelley himself. Adonais, however, invites this interpretive license: Shelley incites us to assemble new cultural formations where human and natural significance can be thought together, a synthesis of what we now call science and the humanities.

Possibly only now can we read Adonais as "anti-modern," because we live in the twilight of modernity, and linger on the verge of a "posthumanism." The fact that such phrases have meaning in the humanities but as yet no scientific value, testifies to a barrier uncrossed. True interdisciplinary thought remains impossible, and attempts at it unearth only a fractured logic. In We Have Never Been Modern, Latour sketches an example of such fracture in the peculiar asymmetry found in the definition of "modern":

Modernity is often defined in terms of humanism, either as a way of saluting the birth of"man" or as a way of announcing his death. …

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