The theory of anything

Tuesday, 13 October 2009 — 5:43pm | Insights

For the one or two of you wondering where last week’s book review was: no, it’s not the usual truancy. The book I read for last Wednesday was The Two Cultures, the 1959 lecture by C.P. Snow about the drifting specializations of the sciences and the humanities, specifically (but not exclusively) in the context of Cold War Britain.

Coincidentally—or really, by no coincidence at all—the undergraduates in my department are studying the text along with the bilious response by the literary critic F.R. Leavis, and the university is hosting a fiftieth-anniversary public lecture on it tomorrow. So I’ve decided to defer my review, as there’s really no talking about a book like this while burying one’s head in the sands of time and pretending the mountain of scholarly discussion about it didn’t take place. It will not appear tomorrow, though, as this week a book of a rather different sort has demanded urgent attention and jumped the queue, and that book’s author is also scheduled to speak tomorrow.

This is all very exciting.

I bring up Snow, at any rate, because of a personal observation I have made about academic specialization. It is this: people don’t believe me when they ask me what my interests are, and I blithely answer, “Everything.” No, seriously, I am interested in Everything. (Okay, so maybe we can do away with a few of the postpostcolonial identity theorists, but they haven’t much use for taxonomy anyway.)

Now, “What do you specialize in?” is common enough as a social question for studious types to get acquainted, and I don’t have a suitable replacement to propose. That tells us something, though, doesn’t it? It tells us that despite the best binary or ternary efforts to, as they say in this country, mind the gap, Everything is still far from good standing as a favourable subject. Well, in my prelapsarian undergraduate innocence I learned a great deal about Everything (though not nearly as much as I learned about Nothing). I liked it, you know. It came bundled with promises of a fruitful and not-at-all-paradoxical career as a professional dilettante.

I am beginning to realize, though, that I can’t quite call it Everything, because among scientific folks especially, that simply invites confusion with an interest in that holy grail of physics, the Theory of Everything. What an unjust misrepresentation it would be, then, to so haughtily dub myself a specialist in Everything when Nothing could be further from the truth. What should I call it, then? I’m not sure, to be honest. Anything is possible.

(Ah, much better; I’ve gotten the French out of my system.)

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