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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: confrontation between art and technology

Schmerl, Rudolf B.
[Editorial comment: who's afraid of fantasy?],   pp. [176]-[183] PDF (9.3 MB)

Page 178

quieter antagonism. Deeper, perhaps,
but quieter. After all, to attack something
without understanding the first thing
about it is somewhat precarious, especially
in the community in which so many
scientists and literary people hear
of one another: the University. It is safer
and much more pleasant to voice anxiety
only about the big questions - about
where we're all going (to hell, is the usual
implication), about where science is
taking us, about the disproportions
in support of the sciences, who are getting
too much, and the humanities, who
are being starved to death. Even starvation,
it turns out, is a matter of proportion.
It has seemed to me for some time
that the literary establishment is
unnecessarily defensive. (There are, of
course, several literary establishments,
as there are scientific ones, but the
precise taxonomy probably wouldn't change
my general impression.) That the
literary man sees himself as confined
to the slums and the scientist
as a resident of the opulent suburbs is
understandable. And the literary
man's notion of a Scientific Power
178      Structure, influencing his life
at every turn, often for the worse, probably
has some validity. But the slum
dweller is demonstrating his ability
to attract attention, if not to his
immediate problems, then to the way he
intends to share his plight with more
fortunate citizens. And the literary man,
similarly, has shown that his imagination,
his awareness of what exists and what
might therefore come about, can
penetrate the official versions of our
future and stir fears of far wider desolation
than any yet experienced in our country.
Of the several variants of fantasy,
the one of greatest interest to most
people seems to be, not surprisingly, the
one that attracts the greatest diversity
of contributors: fantasy about the future.
The alternative is usually fantasy
about far-away places, where most of
us don't expect to go. But we do think
that we'll get to the future, and we are
quite certain that it will be different from
the present. We have any number of
experts who spend much of their time
and our money telling us just how it will be
different and even what to do about it:
government officials who tell us that
we can look forward to ultimate
victory if only we will stop criticizing
them; investment counselors who tell us
that cities may go up in smoke but Wall
Street will go on forever; revolutionaries
who predict revolution and reactionaries
who prophesy reaction. Nevertheless,
there is no dearth of platitudes
about the constancy of everything
really important, about the eternity of
verities and the veracity of eternity. This
should allow us to have the best of
both worlds, the present and the future.
Living in the present obliges us to pretend
that we understand it, and paying people
to foretell the future obliges us to pretend
that we're getting our money's worth.
But we are not at ease. We are caught
between conflicting fantasies, and
the resulting uncertainty is terrifying.
What has emerged, more and more clearly,
in our experience with scientist-managers
over the last two decades is our own
confusion. If we look to science to
give us the ultimate weapon, the
impenetrable defense, Fortress America,
we find that the experts of this year
are the old fogeys of the next.
If we ask science to rid us of disease,
to save our children and comfort our
aged, we find that our resulting numbers
may pose a graver threat to our survival
than the bubonic plague. If we turn
to science for better living through
chemistry, we find that pesticides can
poison crops, detergents wash the
shores of many of our streams and lakes,
and the air over our cities is heavy
with noxious contaminants.
Scientists, of course, can be counted
on to chant, as they do endlessly, that
more research is needed; the rest of us may
feel that if only they would leave
bad enough alone, nature might still
recover from their onslaughts.
This is all unfair, of course, but in general
it is possible to view the prospects of
indiscriminate application of science to the
innumerable problems of our relationship
to our environment, and to each other,
with something less than unmitigated
enthusiasm. Are we freeing a portion of
humanity from tedious labor and
debilitating illnesses so that they can
cower in fear of the rest of
mankind? Are we lengthening life
without knowing what to do with it? What

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