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The Two Cultures: still around

David Blackbourn writes in the London Review of Books about the German writer Hans Magnus Eisenberger:

But there are several preoccupations to which Enzensberger has returned. One is science and technology. Like left-wing intellectuals of an earlier period, but unlike most contemporary intellectuals of any political stamp, he follows scientific thinking and puts it to use in his work. There are already references to systems theory in his media writings of the 1960s, while essays from the 1980s onwards bear the traces of his reading in chaos theory.

For some inexplicable reason, catastrophe theory has been left off the list. Blackburn continues:

One of these takes the topological figure of the ‘baker’s transformation’ (a one-to-one mapping of a square onto itself) discussed by mathematicians such as Stephen Smale and applies the model to historical time as the starting point for a series of reflections on the idea of progress, the invention of tradition and the importance of anachronism.

Pseuds corner indeed. I can hardly blame a European intellectual who was born in 1929 for getting excited about systems theory, chaos theory, and the rest. Poets and novelists of all sorts have taken inspiration by scientific theories, and the point is not whether John Updike truly understood modern computer science or whether Philip K. Dick had any idea what the minimax strategy was really about–these were just ideas, hooks for them to hang their stories. All is fodder for the creative imagination.

I have less tolerance, however, for someone to write in the London Review of Books to describe this sort of thing as an indication that Enzensberger “follows scientific thinking and puts it to use in his work.” Perhaps “riffs on scientific ideas” would be a better way of putting it.

P.S. See Sebastian’s comment below. Maybe I was being too quick to judge.


  1. K? O'Rourke says:

    catastrophe theory has been left off the list?

    I don't have access to the link, but I did organize a course for creative people in marketing in the early 1980,s that had a session to be given by Rene Thom on catastrophe theory where he agreed to try to communicate the possible value of it in the creative process.

    Part of a summer program on semiotics at the University of Toronto. It was cancelled due to lack of interest (or poor promotion on my part – I did leave marketing soon afterwards)

    ps, Michele Foucalt also agreed to give one of the session on the understanding that I would not try to talk to him before or during the program. Did not undersatnd why at the time – I do now – distractions are distracting.

  2. Sebastian says:

    Andrew,this might not be well conveyed in the article, but Enzensberger is indeed an unusual case in how deeply he got involved in science and, in particular, mathematics.
    He has co-authored a (non scholarly) book on math that's well respected among mathematicians and he has given a keynote lecture at the annual meeting of the German Mathematical Association of which my dad – a mathematician highly skeptical of pop-popularization – is still speaking years after.