Teaching “Science Writing and Communication” this semester at Clemson has been a great experience with an awesome group of students who come primarily from Biological Sciences.
The piece above is Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. The tank is nearly 18 feet long and houses an actual shark suspended in formaldehyde. As the cheeky title hints, this work permits one to safely engage danger, fear, and vulnerability. This quasi vicarious thrill is secured for indefinite contemplation, access, and retrieval; it is a hyperbolic preservation also seen in the critical manuscript, which affords control found through apparent distance, acquisition, and catalog. The work came to define several themes for the course, but primarily the aesthetic relationship scholars have with information born out of reflective composition of texts reporting on what Latour calls “direct confrontation with the world.”1
Throughout the semester, I’ve argued conceptual artists have priceless insights to offer students in the sciences, namely insights on the relationship between sensibility and intelligibility. We’ll be positing art works not as alternatives to so called “traditional” forms, but revealing how each might be similar to the other while remaining different. The overlapping material and affective capacities of arts practices and writing seem to me crucial affordances for science writing curriculum design. Specifically, they make the aesthetic encounter we have with any object or “text” more palpable and apparent. The word and the letter, the pH test, and the chi-square analysis—not unlike pigment or pixel— are media constituting an aestheticized relation with “content.” What is involved here is nothing less than an existential effort of rhetors to get along in the world—to variously secure, entertain, enhance, or conserve professions and lives in the long term.
1. Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 30.