Notes Reading Notes

Two Cultures?

By F.R. Leavis, 1962

Leavis was an influential literary critic during the mid-20th century who Wikipedia describes as “dogmatic, belligerent and paranoid” in his late career. This is the text of a high profile lecture given at Cambridge in 1962, where Leavis attempted to demolish Snow’s The Two Cultures.

The accompanying notes on the broader historical and critical context of the lecture by editor Stefan Collini are an invaluable aid in understanding its significance.

On the surface, the aggressive, sarcastic, mocking tone of the lecture appears to be an ad-hominem attack on Snow and his self-confident authority. But Leavis insists he’s going after something more significant than the reputation and standing of a single person. His piqued style serves to highlight the difficulties in giving a fair hearing to views that are dissident and highly critical of cliché and shared cultural assumptions:

In such cases, it is the whole mechanism by which celebrity is transmuted into authority that needs to be exposed. It is hard to see how this can be done without giving offence to those who themselves have colluded with or been the beneficiaries of that process. — Collini, Introduction

Reading this with a modern perspective, there is a significant underlying point that still resonates today. The main substance of the the rejoinder to Snow challenges the unquestioned assumption that the blind pursuit of economic growth and ‘progress’ should be the overarching goal of science, society and technology. When analysed from this perspective, Snow’s argument presents a garbled understanding of the rise of consumerism and materialism and utterly lacks historical coherence.

What for—what ultimately for? What, ultimately, do men live by? — Page 68

But I will come to the explicit positive note that has all along been my goal (for I am not a Luddite) in this way: the advance of science and technology means a human future of change so rapid and of such kinds, of tests and challenges so unprecedented, of decisions and possible non-decisions so momentous and insidious in their consequences that mankind—this is surely clear—will need to be in full intelligent possession of its full humanity (and ‘possession’ here means, not confident ownership of that which belongs to us—our property, but a basic living deference towards that to which, opening as it does into the unknown and itself unmeasurable, we know we belong). I haven’t chosen to say that mankind will need all its traditional wisdom; that might suggest a kind of conservatism that, so far as I am concerned, is the enemy. What we need, and shall continue to need not less, is something with the livingness of the deepest vital instinct; as intelligence, a power—rooted strong in experience, and supremely human—of creative response to the new challenges of time; something that is alien to either of Snow’s cultures. — Page 73

These problems are still significant today in the context of thirty years of neoliberal supremacy and the contemporary political obsession with the relationship between STEM education and economic growth (are Malcom Turnbull and the architects of the ‘Ideas Boom’ aware that their platitudes are almost a direct reproduction of Snow’s original exhortation to “rethink our education”?).

It was by coincidence that I came across Leavis’s lecture, not long after reading Getting Square in a Jerking Circle by Luke Carman, which takes aim at the contemporary thought leadership of arts administrators in Australian writing. Fifty years later, reflecting on The Two Cultures controversy, I can see the same fractal-like elements of outraged, baffled and dismissive reactions to Carman’s piece, all which entail a similar misunderstanding of the importance of style as the original reactions to Leavis’ lecture. You don’t have to agree with everything in a fiercely polemical attack or jeremiad to appreciate the meaningful function of hyperbole and incendiary criticism, but such appreciation of style seems to be alien to our contemporary thinkpiece and hot-take driven literary culture.