a Library publication

Library Catalog No. DTB1990
(reissued 21 August 2012)

An Early Challenge to the Precepts and Practice of Modern Science: The Fusion of Fact, Fiction, and Feminism in the Works of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623–1673). PhD diss. University of California, San Diego, 1990. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1990. 9023994.
(Item 9 of 12: Chapter 6)
by Deborah Bazeley
e-Copyright © 2004–2016 < >
see also Part 1: Editor’s Introduction for Library Cat. No. DTB1990


Chapter 6

Concluding Remarks

With the benefit of hindsight and the questionable legacy of the New Science project full upon us, we are finally ready to hear the voice of Margaret Cavendish raised in protest.

Cavendish’s early denunciation of New Science methodology as the paradigm for scientific knowledge-seeking is echoed today in strikingly similar terms by “postmodern” feminists. Sandra Harding’s astute commentary on the inadequacy of modern physics as a model for all science evokes similar feminist themes to those articulated far less coherently by Margaret Cavendish three centuries ago. In lieu of physics, Harding proposes “a critical and self-reflective social science” as model (Science Question 43–48).

Indeed, Cavendish’s early outcry over a gendered science resonates now in increasingly sophisticated form. Joseph Glanvill’s seventeenth-century notions of the scientist as an “improved masculine spirit,” and of the scientific enterprise as a rite of machismo (see A.3.5), still plague us today. As we enter the 1990s, commentary proliferates in the mass media concerning the impending shortage of technologists in the United States: demographics alone dictate a dire need for women and people of color in technological fields of endeavor. Nonetheless, the inherent sex, race, and class biases of industrialized science continue to block the mass entry and acceptance of women (and non-white, non-upperclass males) at all levels.<1> In addition to the endemic male-female division of labor perpetrated in the schools and laboratories, scientific institutions further disfranchise women with a reliance on gendered symbols, methods, and thinking in the service of gendered interests and motives.<2>

Rote exclusion of “the Woman in us” and around us continues to exact a heavy toll. We forget (largely because we are not told) that women probably invented technology — agriculture and many of its specialized tools, pots, utensils, textiles, fire. We forget too that women were traditionally the medical experts and healers in Western societies. We bypass “the great women” inventors, many of whose discoveries were proclaimed and/or appropriated by men: for example, Rosalind Franklin, whose unpublished crystallographic images of DNA provided the means for describing its double helical structure, for which the self-promoting James Watson, along with Crick and Wilkins, won the Nobel Prize. And in writing the history of science as the story of individual heroes, we render invisible the masses of women and men whose labors, skills, and ideas enable (if not produce) the technological and scientific discoveries we so revere.<3>

Now estranged from their earlier role as the “mothers of invention,” women are presently controlled by alien technologies.<4> Because the mass of women no longer participate in technological design, our society abounds with “producing techniques which are appropriate to male needs and male bodies, not to female ones. Even when techniques are intended to be used by women ... it is clear that women’s needs and priorities are not incorporated into the design process” (Arnold and Faulkner 49). This can only retard our technological advance.

Our scientific inquiry is also encumbered when alternative methods and directions of advance grounded in women’s labor are stifled or disallowed.<5> A poignant proof of this surfaces in the documentary Dolphin that aired over the Public Broadcasting System in 1988. Dolphin describes “an enlightening encounter” between a scientist (Dr. Horace Dobbs, Director of International Dolphin Watch) and a female dolphin (named Jean-Louie) — an encounter which instructed Dobbs more in the inadequacy of his own methods than it did in dolphin behavior. In particular, the scientist’s need for dominance and control over his subject of inquiry proved counterproductive since Jean-Louie demanded reciprocity in the relationship between man and dolphin: she insisted on teaching in exchange for being taught, on controlling in exchange for being controlled. As traditional models of scientific inquiry backfired on Dobbs one after the other, he finally, after discussion with a female crew member, replaced appeals to “logic” (associated by Dobbs with his “maleness”) with appeals to “sensuousness” (associated by Dobbs with dolphins in general, and female dolphins in particular). From this point, inquiry proved fruitful, and Dobbs learned from Jean-Louie the value of a sensing approach in understanding the dolphin’s very different experience of reality (e.g., the “music” produced by the rattling of an anchor chain; the jacuzzi effect created by waves crashing on jagged rocks; the infinite varieties of “play” conducted in an underwater environment). An entire at-sea research operation was expended on this important — but for “the Woman in us,” an intuitive — conclusion. Had Dobbs first approached Jean-Louie by “thinking feelingly” (ecofeminist terminology), he would have been far more productive in his research.

As presently construed, Western science is (as Cavendish complained) uncomfortably detached from the living world, unable to register its complexity, its mysterious fusion of chance and certainty. Wallsgrove attributes this in large part to the ideology of male supremacy (and its carryover in science) that, in order to justify the control of women for material benefits, despises “the one indisputable difference between men and women — the reproduction of human beings in women’s bodies,” and all else associated with caring and respect for life (232). There are strong grounds for this claim, especially when buttressed by close historical analysis.

The most negative outcome of science’s retreat from daily-life concerns has been its enslavement as an instrument of destruction (Stanford 9). In the distopian miasma fathered by Western technology, visions of nuclear holocaust terrorize small children. Our laboratories concoct virulent new lifeforms and shuffle the gene pool without a clue as to long-term consequences. We poison our planet, our atmosphere, and ourselves with the excesses of our technological know-how, and we don’t seem to know how to stop. The planet earth, once so vast and pristine, now seems small and fragile as we compete for dwindling resources. Some among us indulge alternating fears/fantasies of Gaia as an avenging force, ready to loose Armageddon in order to salvage the planet earth, but few of us (myself included) advocate waiting passively by to test the controversial Gaia theory. Instead, the sheer magnitude and political nature of our problems on earth impels a collective political response. The preferred Western formula for problem-solving — simply throwing more “high-tech” at every human dilemma — has proven ineffectual and costly (financially, environmentally, socially, psychically). It is high time to recognize the full implications of the technological as political. Government by so-called experts and technocrats must give way to informed public debate and public control. In the end, we must reinvigorate a democratically participatory technics.

It is a bitter irony of our age that in an increasingly technological culture, an anti-technology motif pervades popular consciousness (Gallagher). We the people feel alienated from and often hostile towards a scientific process that proclaims its purity and privilege as a factor of its distance from us. To neutralize the myth of estrangement, we must, like Cavendish, step outside the bounds of a technical discourse that deliberately obfuscates its origins in the social and political process. We must demand instead an ethical, reflexive rhetoric that readmits the human subject (“I” and “you”) at both ends of the discourse and describes all “facts,” “truths,” and practices as an ongoing process of choice.

Twentieth-century technical writing evidences the unfortunate culmination of New Science attempts to suppress copia. It is no longer customary or expected that technical writers make even passing obeisance to open-system rhetorical models. A positivist discourse long ago supplanted the open-ended structures of copia. Today, technical writing pundits counsel adopting an authoritative demeanour that avoids unnecessary qualification. According to Brogan, good technical writers: (a) favor the indicative and imperative moods over the subjunctive mood; (b) avoid making “open statements” which might provoke a reader to ponder alternative implications (e.g., “allusions” can frequently “raise a dangerous question”); and (c) favor “simple” words stripped of ambiguity and multiple meanings.

The dictates of efficiency in a market economy increasingly based on the manufacture and sale of information appear to sanction the pre-processed messages encoded in an analytical (subordinated) syntax. Workplace communications are now supposed to sell a message, quickly and effectively. Even that bastion of information transfer — technical writing — is now being touted (correctly) as a discourse of persuasion, with accompanying calls for efficiency in the delivery of conclusions and recommendations. Results, not their process of production, are the new-found focus of discourse. This yields a technical discourse that maintains an authoritative demeanor antithetical to the declared skepticism of science. Writes Namenwirth: the

... data and control experiments that underlie scientific “truth” are always limited (more often than not, just barely sufficient to make the conclusion plausible), the instrumentation and analytical methodology always approximate, and alternative interpretations abundant. The hypothetical, incompletely verified, continually evolving character of scientific “truth” is disguised by a veil of masculine authority. (23)

This in turn leads to a certain mystification of intellectual processes. The means by which particular human beings, with vested interests, construct official “reality” — and at the same time discredit competing realities — are masked from view (Wander 226). Free-wheeling dissent and open dialogue are discouraged. This sanctions passivity in readers, promotes conformance of opinion, and deference to experts.

In addition to our urgent need to demystify the process of scientific inquiry, new demands on the technical communicator, specific to our historical moment, stipulate a different paradigm for technical discourse.<6> Accepted writing models are simply inadequate in accommodating mass multilingual, multicultural audiences with diverse cognitive styles, reading styles, and information requirements and uses. Furthermore, the new interactive media of online documentation compels more active reader control over information processing, requiring equally new dialogic models of communication. Every user of an online document will soon have the potential to become its creator — customizing style, organization, and content at will, as is currently the case with “knowledge publishing” and “interactive fiction” software. “Hypertext” and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities now introduce a relational means for storing and retrieving information, demanding an imaginative reconceptualization by writers of a reading activity no longer restricted to the linear, sequential flow of words across the page. Online documentation means that technical documents need no longer be limited to a static presentation of text and images. In the not-too-distant future, the written word will intermix with animation, and eventually, even sound.

With her heuristic rhetoric and alternative New Science project that continues to be much maligned for its honest commitment to “the Woman in us,” Cavendish is of relevance to us today. That relevance does not, however, mean pointing to Cavendish as some sort of model for a future feminist (or indeed any other kind of) science. Her particular combination of strengths and limitations is historically specific; it would be a serious mistake to try and transfer past practices to the present.

I believe that study of Cavendish offers us not answers, but needed ambivalences. Comparisons, as Cavendish herself held, are instructive: A is often rendered more “intelligible” by close comparison with B “since two opposite things placed near each other, are the better discerned” (Philosophical Letters 2). The marked similarities between our age and hers further justify such comparisons.

Cavendish wrote at a time of transition when traditional certainties were under fire. Old structures of learning and entire bodies of scholarship were under attack by a New Science movement spawned in the ferment of social breakdown and revolution. We too are embarked on a critical reassessment of previously unquestioned beliefs in progress, technology, and the American Way. Old certainties confront new realities and metamorphose in confusion — even as we reach for the reassuring platitudes of Ronald Reagan and the mythologies embodied in the American flag. Nothing is sure anymore — about ourselves, our families, our communities, our world.

For women, today’s changing economic realities bring quandaries similar to those faced by the women of Cavendish’s day. As Joan Thirsk remarks, the electronic revolution “could well return large numbers of people to occupations that can be carried on from home, possibly permitting a duality of occupations, reminiscent of circumstances in the early modern period. Such a return to a domestic economy, wearing a new guise” gives study “of the seventeenth century a greater immediacy in the 1980s than it had sixty years ago” (15). And with the imperial reach of Western science and technology, women throughout the Third World face similar battles over healing and ethnoscience to those lost by women of the early modern period when confronted by the hegemonic ambitions of the Philosophica Britannica, newly-rooted in Newtonian physics (see appendix A).

As we seek new ways of conceptualizing about ourselves in relation to each other and to the natural world, Cavendish’s failings should provide important insights. Her separatist solutions to problems of social oppression are (and were then also) untenable. Too, the democratizing tendency in Cavendish’s science, feminism, and discourse was always in the end blocked by her conservative politics and class interests. Her unwillingness to push subversive ideas to their logical solution — except in the realm of fantasy — placed serious limitations on her challenge to the status quo. For example, the Sociable Letters contains the following revelation about women in Stuart England:

... we are not tied, nor bound to State or Crown; we are free, not Sworn to Allegiance, nor do we take the Oath of Supremacy; we are not made Citizens of the Commonwealth, we hold no Offices, nor bear we any Authority therein ... and if we be not Citizens in the Commonwealth, I know no reason we should be Subjects to the Commonwealth....
(Sociable Letters 27)

But instead of pushing on with her train of reasoning, Cavendish at this point pulled back from the unsettling implications of a follow-on “therefore.”

In our own struggle for liberation, we must push at many of the same boundaries that Cavendish nudged forward. If we are to succeed in this, we will have to match an ability to learn from history with a little of Cavendish’s talent for imagined impossibilities.

Appendix A >>


1. On this point, see the analyses and statistics provided by Vera Rubin, Libby Curran, and Sally Hacker.

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2. See for example, Barbara Stanford’s autobiographical account in “Women and Science: Re-Naming and Re-Searching Reality.”

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3. Regarding women’s forgotten contributions to the development of modern science and technology, see Autumn Stanley, “Daughters” and “Women”; Margaret Alic; Marilyn Ogilvie; Susan Schacher; and Ruth Bleier, “Introduction.” Wendy Faulkner, Deirdre English and Barbara Ehrenreich, and Autumn Stanley (“Women”) each discuss women’s early role in Western medicine.

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4. On this point, see Zimmerman; also Arnold and Burr, and Bush.

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5. See, in particular, the seminal analysis by Hilary Rose (“Masculinist Realities”) where she argues that women’s labor — especially “caring labor” or “people work” — constitutes a material reality which structures a qualitatively different understanding of the social and natural worlds.

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6. An increasing number of commentators have begun to argue this point, buttressed by the back-to-rhetoric movement that now flourishes in academic (and some military-industrial) circles. Proposed new paradigms for technical communications range from the more conventional (e.g., data-based discourse repackaged as reader-/user-based discourse) to the more radical. Pearson calls for an industrywide switchover to the “feminine” mode of rhetoric. Chavarria, Euler, Kelley, Meiers, and Vest seek to implement a “high-tech/high-touch” model, stressing a “humanist” (versus mechanistic or behaviorist) approach whereby “high-tech” writing is balanced by human touch (e.g., empathy, interaction, and cooperation). Beyond repeated calls for techniques of “dialogue” (articulated in rather vague, albeit enthusiastic, terms), proponents of the new “high-tech/high-touch” paradigm offer little that is new.

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