Essay: Julian Meyrickon the Two Cultures debate

Two Cultures (Again): Revisiting Leavis and Snow

Those whose tastes run to regular survey of social media, and who enjoy experiences in a lighter vein, may be familiar with the YouTube character, Dog of Wisdom. This brownish, cartoon canine, usefully lighter than air, spends his time sitting on a cloud shaped like a snowball moving slowly through the summer sky. There he meets another dog, darker in colour, out for a joy ride in a monoplane. After a certain amount of phatic exchange, in which the two dogs express mutual enjoyment at their fortuitous, high-altitude encounter, the small brown dog asks Dog of Wisdom what wisdom he has to impart. His answer is striking, and I think resonant. ‘If your ball is bigger than your mouth,’ says Dog of Wisdom, ‘it’s not yours’.

Our mothers would say, ‘if your eyes are bigger than your stomachs’, ‘if your reach exceeds your grasp’. There are a number of folksy maxims to remind us we are ecce homo, that there are limits to our strength and insight. No doubt here is a lesson for everyone. But it is especially relevant to those for whom having an opinion is a job of work, and by expressing it, aspires to be influential on the course of public life in a more than passing way. For these people, those we dub the intelligentsia, Dog of Wisdom’s caution is particularly pithy. What Dog of Wisdom is trying to say (to take up the role of animal psychologist for a moment) is that when we find ourselves embroiled in a problem that is beyond us we must relinquish ownership of the solution, at least in part. We must ask for help. And that help will bring a perspective that takes the problem out of its original register of understanding.

An example is going to the doctor. We have a pain in our side. It hurts. We live with the pain for a while, explaining it in ways typical of non-medical people. We lifted something too quickly. We lay down on something too hard. When we go to a doctor we get a different view. We have a solid, crystal mass of calcium oxalate in our lower urinary tract – a kidney stone. We still have pain. We may even retain our explanation for it. But we now have the diagnostic resources of the Western medical establishment. The ball has been shared. Henceforward it will be a joint effort, us and the GP collaborating on the problem together. This is the force of Dog of Wisdom’s advice. If we try to hold on to our ball despite an inability to pick it up, the consequences could be serious, perhaps fatal.

In this essay I talk about two dogs who tried to grasp one of the largest balls around: the relationship between the arts and the sciences. This quickly inflated to ‘the meaning of life’, a spheroid of almost unimaginable girth. In 1959, the novelist and physicist C.P. Snow delivered a public lecture at Cambridge University called ‘The Two Cultures’, which soon appeared in book form as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. The thrust of his argument was that there are two intellectual domains, the arts and the sciences, which are mutually oblivious and insular. However, art’s ignorance of science – the villain of the piece is the ‘the literary intellectual’ who presides over something called ‘traditional culture’ – is more profound, and in words that have been quoted endlessly since, Snow makes this point:

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare.

Snow’s lecture was influential, if by that we mean that it put into words what many people already believed. It was published and republished, set on the schools’ curriculum, widely discussed. It was generally agreed that what he said about the neglect of the sciences was challenging but accurate. It caught the ear of government at a time when the British university system was under review, and Britain reeling from the trauma of the 1956 Suez crisis and the collapse of its imperial ambitions. I mention these events because there is a tendency when discussing the Two Cultures debate to see it as happening on a plane devoid of historical detail. When we talk about the arts and the sciences we must not think of somniferous official reports, full of diagrams and small-font tables. We must think of men and women and fragile lives; of hopes, fears, loves and aversions. Of reason and its limits. If we ask ‘what is the role of the arts and the sciences’, we can only mean what is their role for us, now?  This is the question as it appeared to Snow and his interlocutor, the literary critic F.R. Leavis, who in a public lecture of his own in 1962 polemically denounced everything the scientist said. If we want to understand the debate, we must tip the context back in, see Snow and Leavis as people, look at what happened to them – which was terrifying in both cases – and then ask what relevance it all has for us today.

The American critic Lionel Trilling, in his commentary on the debate called Snow and Leavis ‘alike as two squares’: ‘[Both have] a strong sense of quotidian actuality and… a quick dislike of the frivolous and merely elegant… A young person of advanced tastes would say that if ever two men were committed to England, Home and Duty, they are Leavis and Snow’. This is both true and false. Leavis was born in Leicester in 1895, Snow in Cambridge in 1905.  Those 10 years and 70 miles are perhaps as acute a division in English social history as it is possible to get.  It means Leavis turned 21 in 1916, the year of the Battle of the Somme. He was a stretcher-bearer in the first world war, and was marked – how could he not be? – by the debacle of that blood-soaked conflict. Throughout his critical career, he demonstrated an unremitting hostility to the English ruling class and its cultural pretensions. A word that recurs in his critical writing is ‘inward’. The way of the heart, is for Leavis the image of life, which is why an appreciation of poetry and literature is central to existence and material prosperity an adjunct to it. Snow, by contrast, turned 21 in 1926, the year of the General Strike. His youth was governed by what he described in Science and Government (1961) as ‘the most ferocious and deeply felt politics’, the titanic struggle between Fascism and Communism. He was a civil servant during the second world war, a science administrator, and developed as keen an interest in government – he coined the phrase ‘the corridors of power’ – as Leavis was violently repulsed by it. Thus, though from a class perspective, the two men are similar – Snow the son of a choirmaster, Leavis the son of piano seller; both self-made scholarship boys – from the point of view of the twentieth century, with its huge, destructive events, they were stamped in different moulds. Both grappled with the crisis of modernity but for Leavis this was a problem of soul, of refining our moral feeling for ourselves, and each other. For Snow it was a problem of action, of what we should do, individually and together, to remake the world around us.

The Two Cultures debate has no right or wrong conclusion. That is, while there are right and wrong things in it, the scope, shape and intensity of the exchange permits no final verdict. It is about beliefs, outlooks, potential, promise, what my father used to call in an admonishing way ‘character’. It is about contingency, about what could happen next in human affairs; and here we must remember than Snow and Leavis saw nuclear war as imminent, so the future was not a matter of driverless cars and shaving breakthroughs, but a stark and threatening void that required filling to head off the worst. About the future there is, necessarily, no proof. We must leverage what we know to imagine what we don’t. The climate of strenuous demonstration of benefit typical of university research today is hobbling. It is impossible to run projects ranging across values, methods, aims and discourses, unless we acknowledge outcomes need to be loosely defined when asking educated people to work from the creative centre of their being. If Christopher Columbus had been forced to apply for a government grant citing the latest cartographic data, the Americas would have been discovered a good deal later. The maps were a blank. There is much that we don’t know and, even in these days of carbon dating and psychometric testing, much we can’t, or can’t know yet. Under these circumstances, it is possible to be fruitfully wrong and unproductively right. I want to say: it is more important to be true than correct, if we understand by the word ‘truth’ that world-disclosing understanding that comes in the wake of statements of the most profound kind wherein we see things that not only are the case, but that will be, or could be the case. We see the future in the present, and so achieve not only knowledge but foresight. To do this we have to leap beyond the evidence, but not in shallow pundit fashion. We must risk our reputations, pushing forward into the dark river of impending time, to press out a hopefully bright fate. This is what Snow and Leavis both do. The question is not whether what they said is right in narrow fashion, but if it is true an expansive one. Which bits are true? Which bits do we want to be true? And if we acknowledge them, how must we act? A truth always has consequences – demands and fidelities. It requires a response. An act of listening is an act of implication. Snow and Leavis pay their public, which includes us, their future public, this respect: they believe that what we think matters. For both men, holding an opinion is at the centre of life, especially when confronting things that might ask us to change our minds.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Two Cultures debate went viral at time when this was a technically difficult and politically perilous thing to do. It split English-speaking readers, more supporters on Snow’s side than Leavis’s, but the latter’s more pugnacious. It was translated into a dozen languages, including Hungarian and Polish. It also went on for a long time; over ten years, a fire that re-started every time it looked like spluttering out. As Snow’s reputation as a public figure declined, and Leavis’s critical approach to literature was crushed by the juggernaut of structuralist theory, the red thread of the Two Cultures debate continued to spool. It didn’t even end with their deaths, Leavis in 1978, Snow in 1980, and both lectures were republished, with introductions by the intellectual historian Stefan Collini and extensive media coverage, in 1993 and 2013 respectively. The context, force, and intent of the debate may have passed like a nautical cyclone, but the words ‘two cultures’ remain, an unsinkable wreck. Even when people don’t know the specifics, they sense the implication of division in our way of life, and know that it is not good. This darker set of coordinates is about power and status and what Trilling icily calls ‘politics of a quite ultimate kind’.

The two essays are roughly the same length, each taking about an hour to read.  The most outrageous statements, those from which their reputation ensues, can be found in their first pages. Collini makes the point – and it’s a shrewd observation about how public debate works –  that if Snow and Leavis were more measured, the essays would improve in scholastic validity but no one would read them. Their hubristic exaggeration is affronting, but handy, as when we blurt out something drunkenly at a party that is factually false, but emotionally true. As they go on the authors sober up. The essays become, if not more moderate, then more accurate. Snow and Leavis operate at a high level of generalisation: terms like ‘science’, ‘the literary culture’, and ‘the West’ are left nebulous to permit the widest possible interpretation. So they both say things that are jaw-droppingly stupid. We now know that Snow’s assessment of Soviet scientific superiority is way off-beam. Leavis’s denunciation of Snow’s fiction is so rabid it raises doubts about whether he actually read any. And it’s wrong. If the Strangers and Brothers novel series is not great literature, it was nearly good enough to win Snow a Noble Prize. The airy dismissal, with dollops of hearsay and stereotype, is the preferred approach of both men, designed to impress non-experts listeners with the expertise of the speakers – without furnishing solid ground for their opinions.  Snow condemns all nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists as ‘politically wicked. Didn’t the influence of all they represent bring Auschwitz that much nearer?’. Leavis attacks Snow’s ‘panoptic pseudo cogencies’, his show of knowledgeableness and ‘the emptiness beneath [his] ignorance’.

For all the murk and bile, however, there is a clarity and courage to both essays. When the bravado is stripped away, we find two visions laid out, one in which science and technology save the world, the other in which culture and language make it worth saving. For Snow, scientists are not just the skilled workers we need the most, they are the embodiment of human progress. They are optimistic, extrovert, sociable, egalitarian and the same the world over, from Penzance to Panjin. They have, Snow says, in a phrase that drives Leavis mad with fury, ‘the future in their bones’. For Leavis, by contrast, it is cultured people the world requires, whose first concern is their own national culture, and the mastery of the language of that culture. Unlike scientists, they are not of a type, but will nevertheless exhibit the spiritual discernment, responsiveness and care with words that Snow, laboured and meretricious, does not. Thus opposed, the two essayists glare at each other across a wasteland of mutual ill-regard.

Yet this is only the beginning of the debate’s significance. For both men are dealing with internal conflicts of their own. If we look closely we can discern not two cultures but four.  For Leavis, there is a split between high and popular art, for Snow a line between pure and applied science. To follow the Two Cultures debate as it plays out over the years is to witness these axes of discomfort for both men. Snow sometimes worships, sometimes impugns pure science, and his hero, Ernest Rutherford. Leavis hates popular culture, but must acknowledge it when it achieves what he considers rigorous critical standards, as it does in the novels of Charles Dickens.  Snow comes out strongly for applied science, and for industrially applied science at that. But this is cast within a horizon of what he calls ‘social hope’, and in a later, and to my mind superior essay, Government and Science, he praises the attitude of pure scientists and cautions against what he calls ‘the euphoria of gadgets’, the reduction of science to an instrumental obsession with useful things. Meanwhile Leavis contends with a rising tide of middlebrow culture and post-war Britain’s spiritual impoverishment. He does not want to turn back the clock. He is not a Luddite, though that charge is levelled. He tries to draw a distinction between Snow’s despised ‘traditional culture’ and his own ‘cultural tradition’. In this way, each man struggles with his own demons and their positions converge to an extent that makes them sound remarkably similar:

The advance of science and technology means a human future of change so rapid… of tests and challenges so unprecedented, of decisions and possible non-decisions so momentous and insidious in their consequences, that mankind…. Will need to be in full intelligent possession of its humanity… and power… of creative response to the new challenges of time.

Closing the gap between our cultures is a necessity in the most abstract intellectual sense, as well as in the most practical. When those two senses have grown apart, then no society is going to be able to think with wisdom. For the sake of the intellectual life… for the sake of the western society living precariously rich among the poor… it is obligatory for us… to look at our education with fresh eyes. We have very little time.

The first is Leavis, the second Snow, but the quotes are interchangeable. The reason lies not in any deference to each other’s acumen – if anything the two men dislike each other more as the debate goes on – but because the arguments are not really opposed. They are complementary. Or, to put this in a more telling way, both men grasp that in the second half of the twentieth century, and in the millennium beyond, science and art are intertwined in a tight double-helix such that it is impossible to separate technological advance from cultural impact, cultural process from technical device. It is Leavis, who talks about ‘the experimental-creative front’ and includes both the arts and the sciences. It is Snow who worries about the means by which ‘the good human capabilities of the West can get into action’. If we weren’t so mesmerised by the phrase ‘Two Cultures’, and if our two protagonists, like old dogs, were less caught up in a display of barking, we would see their shared understanding of the involute complexity of the modern world. The authors have different starting points, priorities and tones of address. But they do not have radically dissimilar views of what is happening around them. It is this perhaps that drives their animosity. They see the same problem but cannot agree the solution. They cannot pick up their ball. Yet neither can they share it.

Before going on I must do two things. I must put myself in the frame. I am a theatre director by background and experience. Three years ago, when appointed a Professor at Flinders University, I joined a research team trying to help arts organisations to demonstrate the worth of what they do to governments. I quickly saw this was one of a dense set of closely-connected issues that characterise contemporary society, one marked by hyper-specialisation in education, distanced communication media, and bureaucratic resource provision. The problem of evidencing art’s benefits became the problem of assaying culture’s value – which became the problem of understanding value per se. I did not choose this ball. No dog in their right mind would chase after it. But once you see it, you see it everywhere. In our struggles with political extremism, post-industrialisation, gender equality, renewable energy, regional instability, child abuse, there it is: the question of value or final ends.  It is strongly in the minds of Snow and Leavis. Indeed it is the driving force behind their debate. The relationship between art and science is an interesting water cooler topic. The purpose of art and science is another conversation entirely. The coarseness of Snow and Leavis is fuelled by an angry sense of urgency. For both men, the crisis of modernity is a crisis of value, and the biggest question of all can no longer be put off. What for – what ultimately for? asks Leavis. What, ultimately, do [we] live by? These words throw down a fundamental challenge. They make a query about final ends and press it with probing insistence. ‘Sceptical yet unyielding’ is how Stefan Collini describes Leavis’s tone. You find it in everything he writes. His judgements may be wrong, narrow, arbitrary, contrived, or weird – and they frequently are. But the process by which he arrives at them is exemplary in strenuous effort and passionate commitment to clarity of moral idea. For Leavis, art matters because life matters, and in the words of his historical inspiration, Matthew Arnold, art is criticism of life.  To read a great novel is to engage a discussion on the purpose of human existence. What for – what, ultimately for?

I also want to roll with the conceit of the aerial view, to talk in a general way about science and art without feeling a need to qualify, except or precisely define. With this ungainly binary one can cheekily subsume all other disciplines to explore the contemporary division, particularly in university education, which is where Snow and Leavis had their biggest impact.

Today the scientific ethos Snow predicted would become dominant across all levels of society is self-evidently so. The high standing of scientific research; the visibility of notable scientists; the huge audiences for science journalism; all this has catapulted the sciences to the forefront of the modern world’s image of itself. It is not just that the products of science are everywhere. It is that scientific terms and ideas have achieved such iconic force that they colonise all modes of understanding and rank them in respect to their apex status. In the same way that theology provided a master metaphor for intellectual inquiry in the medieval era, regardless of its actual theological content, so science fashions contemporary knowledge in its own attitude and shape. Once we strove to escape the world and become more spiritual. Now we strive to measure it and become more objective. For a quick glimpse of this turnaround you can dip into that classic of easy-read sociology, Anthony Sampson’s The Anatomy of Britain. In its first edition, published in 1962, there is a chapter called ‘The Scientists’. There they are: the blustery, beer-drinking, loud-music-loving science types Snow also describes, with chips on their shoulder from being kept out of positions of board room power. Sampson gives these figures for 1962: of 36 heads of Oxford colleges 2 are scientists; of 24 heads of Cambridge colleges 6 are scientists; of 31 Vice Chancellors (or their equivalent) 10 are scientists. Half a century later it is a different story. By my reckoning, of 38 heads of Oxford colleges 15 are scientists; of 31 heads of Cambridge colleges 17 are scientists; of 126 VCs of British universities at least 75 are scientists. And in Australia? When I last checked, of 38 VCs of Australian universities 24 are scientists.

This change, however, has not been accompanied by the wholesale social and economic improvements Snow predicted would occur in the wake of science’s ascendancy. War and famine stubbornly remain; global inequality has if anything got worse. The reason is not just because the scientific revolution has a way to go, but because problems of this type and scale are susceptible to technological solution only in part. In fact we face a new distortion. If Snow saw in the ignorance of his classics-trained leaders an inability to comprehend the industrial processes of the twentieth century, we can see today in our technology-obsessed ones an incapacity to grasp the cultural processes of the twenty-first. Life is not an output. Experience is not data. You can’t fix religious fundamentalism with an app. You have to unpick its distorted knots of thinking in a considered, critical, culturally apposite way.

As for art, if Leavis could see the vast spangled empire of digital entertainment now available at the touch of a button, he would no doubt climb out of the grave to punch Reed Hastings Jr, the founder of Netflix, in the mouth. Transistor radios and magazine reading have indeed taken over the world, as he said, and they have been joined by a thousand cultural pursuits of peculiar hue: bubble soccer, virtual reality gaming, Mexican wrestling, animal painting, stratosphere thrill rides, the complete works of Shakespeare in graphic novel form: the list goes on and on. If science is now on top, culture is what it is on top of, and the advent of social media has expanded our cultural choices to a degree unimaginable 25 years ago, when books came from bookshops and libraries, and the only way to get them was to physically take them down from a shelf.

Yet if the future has not transpired as Snow hoped, it has not panned out as Leavis feared. People still read – in greater numbers than ever before – and while the acme of cultural excellence is no longer the allusive poetry of T.S. Eliot or the passionate prose of D.H. Lawrence, some of us always wondered whether this wasn’t too narrow a conception to begin with. In today’s ‘whole way of life’ understanding of culture, high art is joined by popular art but the universe does not come to an end. What we face is an enlarged domain in which cultural processes tangle with economic, social and religious ones in ways that make problems both culturally weaponised and susceptible to cultural solution. In case anyone thinks this is drawing a long bow, let me give one example. In his famous study The Historiography of the Third Reich the renowned historian, Ian Kershaw, credits the TV series Holocaust, made in 1978, with changing the mindset of the entire German population in respect of its National Socialist past. He calls drama ‘the great simplifier’ and credits it with making accessible the moral core of a difficult debate about historical evidence and its interpretation.

Other problems fall into a category of the partly scientific/partly cultural: anthropogenic climate change, mass migration, and genome editing, for instance. The first is an environmental conundrum struggling for cultural credibility, the second a demographic upheaval with momentous resource implications, the last a scientific, ethical and cultural cocktail with indeterminate but profound consequences. In February, I attended the 2016 Science Communicators Conference in Queensland and heard scientists butt their heads, sometimes painfully, sometimes exuberantly, against a range of cultural issues. Consider these words:

Language is the freightway of ideas. It is the optic fibre our ancestors used to communicate to their descendants. [It is] the greatest civil engineering project of all time.
We needed language when we were making clothes out of bits of woolly mammoth. How much more do we need it when we are writing algorithms.

Neither Snow nor Leavis this time, but Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist. I was at the Conference to talk about the role of narrative in communicating the value of the arts. Dr. Finkel was talking about the same thing in respect of the sciences. The two domains may once have been kept apart. Now everything is pushing them together. We have to see that, and we do see that. But behaviour has not kept up with perception. Chronologically, the Two Cultures debate has been over for half a century. Psychologically it is still with us, a row that has lost its potency yet keeps its parties estranged, reason giving way to habit.

So what can we do about it? Artists and scientists spend most of their lives shoe-horning themselves into erudite specialisations, and the remainder deploring their self-chosen captivity and calling for wider consultation. This is the tidal tug of the contemporary knowledge economy and there is no easy fix that isn’t utopian, unaffordable or plain daft. Nevertheless, of all the places where the divide between the Two Cultures might be ameliorated, universities are the best fitted, and of all the balls that might be shared between two packs of dogs, research is the most obvious.  Research across the domains is undertaken, of course; not as often as it is called for, but it does happen. I want to observe the importance of fellowship, of a common feeling of respect for all those who labour in the intellectual field, regardless of discipline. At its most basic, this is expressed in the fact and act of friendship, and I have no doubt that had Snow and Leavis been on amicable terms the protracted hostility of their exchange would have segued into something more productive.

When I say ‘I have no doubt’, I mean there is a historical model readily available. Eighty years before Snow and Leavis, the poet and classicist Matthew Arnold and the evolutionary biologist, T.H. Huxley both delivered Cambridge lectures of their own, and engaged in a lengthy public discussion about whether the arts or the sciences should take precedence in Victorian education. Their arguments were no less uncompromising and heated than those of Leavis and Snow. The difference was that Arnold and Huxley were friends and were able to acknowledge each other’s abilities. It is hard for us to accept that life today, forever ‘going forward’, can be retrograde. To praise the past is be nostalgic. Yet as regards the mutual understanding of art and science, our opinions are probably less sophisticated and less accommodating than those of our great-grandparents. I haven’t been into a chemistry lab since I was sixteen years old, and I dare say there aren’t many biochemists who know what happens in a play development workshop. We don’t need to live in each other’s pockets, but we need to know enough to judge each other’s research, which often we don’t. The root of the solution involves flesh and blood and patterns of sociability. Imagine the pleasure as well as the profit that can stem from opening up our mental doors and windows. The pursuit of research excellence becomes asphyxiating when always conducted under narrow specialist conditions. This is something that Snow and Leavis both decry. The situation in the 1960s was already dysfunctional. We need trans-disciplinary research not only on equity grounds, but for reasons of adaptive redundancy, because we don’t know what will happen next in the curly pig’s tale of global development. The resource requirements of the two domains are obviously different. The cost of the UK’s Diamond Microscope is equivalent to half the annual budget of the Australian Research Council. But we need a balance, and a grant scheme targeted at research involving both domains. And we need projects that are open-ended and conducted on an equal-partners basis.

Before breaking out the tea cups and setting up lawn parties for artists and scientists to do together what they are good at doing separately – complain – I want to point out that each domain faces an internal hurdle, or danger that could scuttle the best attempts at collaboration if not fully acknowledged. I have spent long enough now moving between the arts and the social sciences to put forward a view. It is one brought to a point by Leavis and Snow who say the same thing albeit in a different way. It is about how both domains can better contribute to what Leavis calls ‘the third realm’, to a discussion about ultimate ends. This is pressing, and it is important that men and women of specialised knowledge speak up as voices of moral authority and do not allow themselves to be reduced to what in gangster movies is called ‘a mouth’. Experts are called for. But expertise must be harnessed to some wider vision of life if it is not to turn arcane and become an intellectual cul-de-sac.

For artists, it is important that terms of critical discrimination and precisely-felt articulations about aims, methods and values remain a core commitment. Artistic creativity may be hard to put into words, and the cultural sector may now be the size of Jupiter, but the critical tools with which we assay it, judge it, and contribute to it, are vitally important to perfect. Here is Leavis:

It is in the study of literature… that one comes to recognize the nature and priority of the third realm, the realm of that which is neither merely private and personal nor public … [and] pointed to. You cannot point to a poem. It is ‘there’ only in the re-creative response of individual minds to the black marks on the page. But… it is something in which minds can meet… It gives us… the nature of the existence of English literature, a living whole that can have its life only in the living present, in the creative response of individuals, who collaboratively renew and perpetuate what they participate in – a cultural community or consciousness.

This is a beautiful and penetrating understanding of what culture is, and how it is us, living human beings, through whom it is transmitted. It steers a middle course between those dolts who, in their unfailing shallowness, talk about all culture as ‘subjective’, and those, equally depressing, who think it is a matter of canons and lists. I am not talking about quality, or not only about that. I am talking about sensibility, about developing a true sense of direction in respect of culture’s inner meaning and worth. I am talking about not collapsing the language of art into the language of marketing. I have lost count of the number of times I have switched off the radio or television when listening to an artist speak because I am getting, in effect, a version of their press release. Culture’s value is expounded but not communicated, since the stories are often narrow ones, and leave out the pain, struggle and risk of failure that is the central fact of artistic life. All that matters is projecting an image of success. We need a curmudgeon like Leavis to remind us that it is our striving for the highest standards that matters, not its validation by audiences or the media or indeed grant providers. They have their place, but it is not behind the wheel of a car which is ours to drive. If we think that what we do matters, we have to say why and how, and situate ourselves within a creative trajectory – Leavis would say a cultural tradition – that gives meaning to it. We have to think seriously of artists both dead and yet to come, and see that our place is in that generational procession. This is a particularly important task for Australian artists.

By comparison, scientists are on the upswing, but they face a world at once admiring of their skills yet selective in the accomplishments it will recognise. So it is imperative to cherish the spirit of disinterested inquiry. It is imperative not to collapse the language of science into the language of power and see science become a weapon in a struggle for economic ascendancy and entrepreneurial edge of the most brazen kind. I am not saying the domains of economics and politics are a deplorable stain on the virgin territory of scientific knowledge. I am saying that it is vital, if science is to contribute to a discussion of ultimate ends, that it is not reduced to a resource for making a fast buck. Science must not be equated with technology and technology with venture capitalism. This is to use science as intellectual scaffolding to prop up a contentious and partisan ideology. It is worth is far more than this, as Snow recognized – himself a one-time politician and private secretary in Britain’s Ministry of Technology – when arguing for more scientists in government not because of their ability to turn a profit, but because of their ability to discern the future.

I am not saying all scientists have foresight and no one else has… but if they have any trace of the capability, then their experience, more than any experience at present open to us, gives them the chance to bring it out. For science, by its nature, exists in history. Any scientist realises that [their] subject is moving in time, that [they] know incomparably more today than better, cleverer, and deeper [scientists] did twenty years ago. [They] know that [their] pupils, in twenty years, will know incomparably more than [they] do. Scientists have it within them to know what a future-directed society feels like, for science itself, in its human aspect, is just that. (Snow: 1961)

It should be clear that Leavis and Snow are concerned not simply with art and science, but with how these assist modern democratic societies craft an informed collective consciousness. Democracy doesn’t work if it isn’t accompanied by a third realm that is cohesive, respectful, educated, and open. By ‘open’ I mean ‘open-minded’ not ‘open-mouthed’. Public debate today often feels like the scurrilous exchange of congealed opinion. Even when it is right, it lacks truth. We have rules that govern the use of our road and rail systems, codes to guide how we eat, dress and greet one another. We have forgotten both rules and codes in public debate, and the abundance of tosh swirling around the internet makes it impossible to hold a disinterested discussion when matters of real importance raise their heads. The pluralism of democracy becomes polarizing and toxic, as Socrates warned 2500 years ago, and Edmund Burke that vastly intelligent conservative, in 1790. Without a well-functioning third realm we get not democracy, but an ejaculate of hidden agendas, inflammatory rhetoric, dog whistling, mudslinging, captain’s calls and backroom deals. We get Donald Trump, a man who represents democracy’s worst capacity to discredit itself, to go against its propensity for fair-minded decision making. The third realm operates as a check on these systemically anarchic features, keeping democracy in bounds at some points, urging it to new applications at other. What we are doing at the moment by our lack of care with it, has a cost. I am most aware of it, like Leavis and Collini, in a loss of word sense, a devaluation in what I have elsewhere called the semantic workings of the rhetorical economy. People talk and talk, trying to persuade others of the rightness of their view. They are unnerved when like water off a pain of glass that view slides out of collective consciousness without having achieved effective focus. How to get through, how to get through? I hear this all the time from those in the arts and, now, increasingly, from those in the sciences as well. So little of what is of real importance in both domains makes it through to public debate. A reductive instrumentalism has got hold of us like the black plague and doesn’t begin to address true value. It’s the lowest form of evaluation, the evaluation of exogenous effects, like judging your children by their exam results, or your partner by how well they cook or tidy the garden, utilitarianism run amok, subject to ever-shorter, short-term pressures. Our third realm is not full of clichés. It is a cliché. It’s not that we don’t want to talk in a meaningful way, but the rhetorical economy betrays our language, stripping our views of authority and cogency, our words turning to stone in our mouths.

I once accused Australia of being a country not of second-rate art, but of second-rate ideas about art, and I wonder if that sorry judgement can’t be extended to the sciences now as well (Meyrick 2013). To transcend this requires us to escape a mindset that turns all principled debates into ones about financial advantage. The business of Australian government is Australia, not business, and the desire to subject all forms of cultural and scientific inquiry to cost-benefit analysis has the effect, if not the intention, of jettisoning much of the tone, texture and deeper insight these domains have to offer. What is in the public interest is cast as self-interest, and removed from the zone of our common life which is presumed to have in it little more than economic necessity and criminal prohibition. Our relationship with art and science is thrown out like a busted knee-cap, the value of these domains drowned out by a never-ending dirge about their price, as if this were an unambiguous mark of their total contribution. We don’t have to know anything about the arts and the sciences to judge their worth. We just have to scan the barcode.

Enough! Enough. Whatever the future holds for us, the arts and the sciences, together, must take a leading role in how it is conceived and managed. The ball must be shared, if it isn’t to be lost altogether. The restoration of respect and understanding between the Two Cultures – or its collective acknowledgement, really, since I think this largely exists within individual hearts – is the first step to ushering in a broader conversation about ultimate values, about where we are headed as a community, as a nation, as a species. This was the debate that Leavis and Snow began over fifty years ago, but could not properly conduct. It is up to us to conduct it properly now.

This is an edited version of a lecture given at Flinders University on 16 March 2016 as part of the Flinders Investigators Public Lecture series.

Works Cited:

Stefan Collini, ‘Introduction,’ in Two Cultures  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. vii-lxxiii.
— ‘Introduction,’ in Two Cultures? The Significance of CP Snow (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 1-52.
Alan Finkel, ‘The Engineer Who Spells,’ Address to the Science Communicators Conference (Brisbane, 11 March, 2016).
F.R. Leavis. Two cultures? The significance of C. P. Snow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1962).
Julian Meyrick, ‘Does Culture Need Explaining?’ TEXT, 17/1, April 2013.
– ‘The River or the Boat? Art and Elitism in Australia.’ Griffith Review (February 2009), 67-77.
Ian Kershaw, The Nazi dictatorship : Problems and perspectives of interpretation (London: Arnold, 2000)
Anthony Sampson, Anatomy of Britain today (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1962).
C.P. Snow, The two cultures and the scientific revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959).
Science and government  (London: Oxford University Press, 1961).
The two cultures: And a second look  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964).
Lionel Trilling, Beyond culture : Essays on literature and learning  (London: Secker & Warburg, 1966).