Following the Science?

by Graham Huggan

The German Association for Postcolonial Studies (GAPS) is one of the liveliest around, and I’ve been lucky enough to participate in several of their conferences. The latest of these (May 2021), hosted by the University of Oldenburg, focused on the relationship between science, culture, and postcolonial narratives. Since COVID appeared on the scene, I’ve attended several online conferences, always with a certain sense of trepidation. How should we gauge audiences we can’t see? And how, when our turn comes to present, should we deal with questions, half-formulated in the first place, that suddenly appear – and that demand equally instant responses – in the chat?

Luckily GAPS is a friendly crowd, whether visible or not, and the 2021 conference was no exception. The timeliness of its debates in pandemic times could hardly have been greater, while the quality of the presentations, stretching (as the postcolonial field does) across a wide range of disciplines and subjects, was high. What was especially pleasing given this range was the recognition of common ground, which was based on a series of key questions. If science and culture are acknowledged as being enmeshed, what particular entanglements apply to postcolonial societies and cultures? To what extent are science, and the various historical discourses and practices associated with it, embedded in the colonial project? How can different knowledges and knowledge systems – also different kinds of narratives – be brought to bear upon the powerful edifice of (Western) science today?

The question I would have added to this is: to what extent are humanities scholars (who make up the vast majority of the membership of GAPS) scientifically literate? I’m certainly aware of my own painful lack of scientific literacy despite decades working on nominally scientific topics, latterly those associated with biology and ecology in the context of doctoral training programs (in Extinction Studies) and international collaborative research grants (such as our own Corridor Talk). What claims can humanities scholars such as myself make about scientific issues that we don’t properly comprehend and, as a result, inadvertently distort or over-simplify? And if critique is the one of the basic methods of humanities scholarship, what right do we have to be critical of scientific discourses and procedures when we only have a limited understanding of the science in the first place?

Kew Gardens by Kotomi via flickr

Maybe this is being unfair – and maybe, in another respect, it’s part of the mythology of capital-S “Science” that postcolonial critics among others, even if they lack formal scientific training, should make it their business to contest. This was probably the position taken by most of the presenters at the conference, several of whom talked authoritatively about the entanglements of science and colonialism, science and racism, and science and indigenous knowledge, which (Western) science sometimes ignores or subordinates but to which it is not necessarily opposed.

I came away from the conference feeling slightly less anxious than before, and certainly better informed about, e.g., the antinomies of colonial botany, or the destructive consequences of (data) mining in the Global South. I also came away, not for the first time, feeling both exhilarated and conflicted by the prospects of interdisciplinary work of the kind (as in Corridor Talk) that cuts across conventional arts and sciences boundaries – exhilarated by the creative opportunities it offers through, e.g. storytelling and the analysis of narrative, but conflicted by the intellectual and institutional shortcuts that it sometimes, though not necessarily, entails.

Detail from Frankfurt Palmengarten. Photo by Katie Ritson.

N.B. My presentation, “What’s in a colony? Scattered speculations on invasion science, eco-narrative, and the misuses of alien species” will be coming out as part of the conference proceedings next year (2022).

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