Essential Weekend Viewing: Kim Stanley Robinson at Duke, 1.29.10
“Science began as a Poor Clare. Science was broke and so it got bought. Science was scared and so did what it was told. It designed the gun and gave the gun to power, and power then held the gun to science’s head and told it to make some more. How smart was that? Now science is in the position of having to invent a secret disabler of guns, and then start the whole process over. It’s not clear it can work. Because all scientists are Galileos, poor, scared, gun to our head. Power lies elsewhere. If we can shift that power… that’s the if. If we can shift history into a new channel, and avoid the nightmare centuries. If we can keep the promise of science, a promise hard to keep.”
—Kim Stanley Robinson, Galileo’s Dream, p. 524-525
Kim Stanley Robinson’s outstanding talk at Duke last week, “Science, Religion, and Ideology,” is now up at YouTube and embedded below. It’s truly essential viewing, not only for his fans but for anyone interested in either science fiction or the Utopian possibilities of scientific practice.
I’m a little bit religious about Stan’s novels, which may come across in my nervous and unusually fidgety (even for me) intro at the start of the clips. (I’d have probably just cut myself out altogether, but Stan outplayed me by taking a line from my intro and turning it into a recurring hook for the talk.) A full audio podcast is up at iTunesU. (Warning: the link is public, but launches iTunes.) The video clips are each embedded below.
I’ve refrained from a full transcript, but it’s a highlight quotable talk and so I’ve put a rough take on a few especially quotable moments.
This talk was part of the “Competing Cosmologies” event I helped organize with Priscilla, Barry, and Kevin , and came off very well, if I do say so myself. Meeting Stan and Nisi Shawl was especially a thrill, as I love the work of both. Video of Nisi and Bruce Lincoln’s talks will be online in some form soon; Michael Taussig declined to be filmed this time around. (UPDATE: Podcast versions of the Shawl and Lincoln talks are now also up at iTunesU.)
I have some video from the other event Stan did while he was here with our “Ecology and the Humanities” working group; I’ll try to get a few bonus clips from that event up over the weekend. (UPDATE: Click here.) My capsule review of Galileo’s Dream, for those who are interested, is here.
…And I also want to argue in the rest of this talk, try to make the case as Gerry has pointed out, preempted me in a way, or given away the game: science is a Utopian project; it began as a Utopian project and it has remained so ever since, an attempt to make a better world. And this is not always the view taken of science because its origins and its life have been so completely wrapped up with capitalism itself. They began together. You could consider them to be some kind of conjoined twins, Siamese twins that hate each other, Hindu gods that are permanently at odds, or even just a DNA strand wrapped around each other forever: some kind of completely imbricated and implicated co-leadership of the world, cultural dominance—so that science is not capitalism’s research and development division, or enabler, but a counterforce within it. And so despite the fact that as Galileo says that science was born with a gun to its head, and has always been under orders to facilitate the rise and expansion of capital, the two of them in their increasing power together are what you might call semi-autonomous, and science has been the Utopian thrust to alleviate suffering and make a better world.
…And yet, at the time, in its own internal workings the scientific community was having to deal with Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, and the notion that human-to-nature = master-to-slave was being replaced by the notion that human-to-nature was more like parasite-to-host. And at that point there were shifts going on that basically come down to the birth of the ecology movement, because parasites kill hosts all the time. E. coli, for instance, is a parasite outbreak that can kill off its hosts. And in essence parasites have to be good to their hosts if they want their livelihood to continue.
…There was a person who wanted to do Feng Shui at the South Pole. The South Pole had never been Feng Shui’d.
…And yet within the sciences the rule seems to come out of one of the oldest proverbs in our language: enough is as good as a feast. And this I think the science community is a physiological fact: that enough is even better than a feast, because a feast makes you sick, whereas enough is enough. And I was talking to a group of scientists about this, and I must say the scientific community is very uncomfortable with this line of my talks—they don’t like this—but one of them said “Enough is a bad word. That’s a bad word in America. Enough sounds like not enough. You should change it to Goldilocks, where there’s too little, there’s too much, and then there’s just right. And what you want is just right. And you can easily have too much.”
So I thought, okay, Goldilocks. I’ll change it always and mention that it’s not only that enough is as good as a feast, but enough is just right.
…So there, to end, and this is the only time I’ll mention it, you get science as a religion. It’s a religion in the sense of religio, it’s what binds us together. It’s a form of devotion: the scientific study of the world is simply a kind of worship of it, a very detailed, painstaking, and often tedious daily worship, like Zen. So you can think of science as a religion, and a devotion to something you can easily regard as miraculous: the Big Bang, out of a single singularity, out of a geometrical point of infinite mass, that has a inflationary period where at 10^-33 seconds after the beginning of everything suddenly there was an expansion of 10^30 time. This is our current explanation of our universe; if that’s not sounding miraculous to you I don’t know what would sound miraculous.
…The notion that we are the most sophisticated culture ever, because we’re more sophisticated than the Victorians or the early moderns etc., we immediately think, “Oh, it’ll never get better than this.” But it only take a little bit of extrapolation to think that oh, we’ll be looking back at the 2010s and thinking “They had just discovered the laptop and lost their minds.” It’s like in the discovery of the telephone; for a while there there was the euphoria of the telephone, and everyone had to call everyone, and we’re in that kind of moment for the Internet—but eventually you get past these technologies and we’re just back to people doing things.
…Government is a site of contestation, science, in a way, is also, in terms of aiming it towards one or the other. If the biomedical budget was $700 billion and the defense budget was $5 billion—and there are countries in the world where that proportion obtains. In the social democracies of North Europe they don’t spend a whole lot of money on a defense budget and they do a lot of health research. So I don’t think I’m being unrealistic, I’m trying to describe the situation in a way that gives us things to do…