4e. The question of ethics in the recent depiction of science in literature

Researcher: Julia Boll

"I have traveled where no man has traveled," Victor Frankenstein exclaims in Nick Dear’s 2011 stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. "I wonder how far I can go. I can create people …! Living people! Look at me, I breathe the breath of God!’ (Dear 2011: scene 28). Later, when his research methods and personal behavior are criticized, Victor protests: ‘I am not mad! I have powers beyond your comprehension. How dare you call me mad!’ (scene 29). Shelley's Frankenstein is perhaps the most universally accessible and recognized cautionary tale about scientific responsibility and ethics, one that has been adapted and readapted for almost two centuries. But how do contemporary authors, now faced with all the grand possibilities, promises, successes, and failures of modern science deal with questions of ethics?

This project focuses on the ways that contemporary literature poses (or neglects) questions of ethics related to the production and implementation of scientific knowledge. Contemporary literary treatments of these philosophical aspects of science have received little or no attention, and we find only a handful of works that touch on related questions (e.g. Maniez 2012).

In the past, questions of ethics and science were often addressed in speculative fiction where science and its practitioners were off stage, so to speak, or present in the abstract. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go (2005), for example, explores the crucial ethical questions raised by research on human cloning, without ever mentioning genetics or introducing a single scientist. In this study, we turn to works in which the direct or indirect relationships between science and its research objects or subjects may come into play. These works allow us to examine what happens when the silent or neglected scientist acquires a voice or a research subject is given a human face; they lead us to question the nature of choice and the reach of responsibility for the other. To the extent that these issues are addressed across literary forms, we work comparatively, applying critical theory to novels, drama, poetry, and non-fiction prose. Our corpus will include a selection of science novels from the FMS database (e.g. Mendel's Dwarf, Brazzaville Beach (Boyd 1990), Long for This World (Byers 2005), State of Wonder (Patchett 2011) and Generosity. An Enhancement; plays, such as A Number (Churchill 2002), Copenhagen (Frayn 1998), The Effect (Prebble 2012), and 27 (Morgan 2011); and poems, such as The Darwin Poems (Ballau 2009), "By Kautokeino" and "Relict" (Burnside 2005, 2007).

The theoretical framework for this study draws on the work of the philosophers Emmanuel Lévinas (1969, 1998) and Kelly Oliver (2001). Lévinas introduces the notion of "face" as the factor that enables empathy with the other, a concept Oliver has developed into a theory of ethics that emphasizes the importance of witnessing—of enabling the other to form a subject’s identity by not only allowing for a voice, but also by witnessing the other’s act of speech. Cary Wolfe’s proposition to think "beyond humanism" (2009) will be useful, as will several studies on contemporary ethics and subjectivity (e.g. Braidotti 2006; Coole and Frost 2010).Oliver argues that there is an obligation to witness and to be witnessed, to both listen to and give testimony, from which she concludes that subjectivity and humanity may be regarded as a result of "response-ability" (2001: 90). She proposes that accepting the other’s subjectivity and recognizing the reality of others’ experiences even if they are incomprehensible to us might allow us to establish "the conditions of address-ability and response-ability that make subjectivity and human experience possible and ultimately ethical" (106).

The primary texts considered in this project give a voice to the object of scientific inquiry, and they recognize the scientist as a person and not as the sum of his or her work. They stress that the necessity of taking on responsibility towards the other must be inherent in the very definition of scientific progress. Oliver suggests that we "reconceive recognition from a notion of vision that emphasizes the … connections—interdependence even—between the visible world and vision, between the seer and the seen" in order to move "toward an acknowledgment of otherness" (221). In this sense, this literature has reached out to science—witnessing, and thereby creating the possibility for science and art to recognize each other. In bringing critical theory to bear on literature that provides not only portraits of a current state, but also visions of potential states, we hope to gain a broader understanding of the complex ethical responsibilities encountered by scientists, the institutions of science, and a society that is dependent on scientific progress.