Tutors Talk Books: Natalie Elliot
June 28, 2017 | By Samantha Ardoin (SF16)
“Tutors Talk Books” is a series of interviews with St. John’s College tutors. Here, we caught up with Natalie Elliot, who has taught in the undergraduate program since 2011 and is writing a book on Shakespeare’s poetic engagement with the scientific revolution.
Tell us more about Shakespeare and the scientific revolution.
When I got started on the freshman lab curriculum in my first year at St. John’s, I saw connections between the concepts Shakespeare takes up in the plays, and the concepts that we deal with in freshman lab. When I took a year off and was doing research at Indiana University, a colleague pointed me to some scholars who were working on this kind of material in King Lear. Their work made it clear that Shakespeare wasn’t just dabbling in scientific concepts that were circulating in the Renaissance. He was exploring deeply, even philosophically, the world of early modern physics.
I started to realize that Shakespeare is not just interested in Lucretius, but he is also interested in the whole complex of theoretical subjects that lie at the heart of the scientific revolution. For example, he takes up Copernican astronomy in Hamlet, and he plays metaphorically with new theories of germs in Romeo and Juliet. My book will show how Shakespeare understands the cultural significance of theories at the foundation of the scientific revolution, and explain how he shapes their reception.
Was this related to the research you were doing at Indiana University?
I was working on Francis Bacon at the time, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, who is also deeply engaged with early modern science. You may remember that at the end of the New Organon, Bacon talks about how we should write natural histories of things. Later, he writes some of these histories himself—he has one called the History of Life and Death. It’s a call to arms for medical science to survey all the ways we could understand the causes of death and decay, and be better at extending the life span. He says that medical science is faulty because it dedicates itself to curing diseases, not to extending life directly. He says that life extension itself should be a branch of medicine, and he suggests that if it were, we would actually achieve this goal more successfully.
Bacon is dedicated to this project, but he also knows that there will be moral fallout. In many of his other books he addresses the pitfalls of pursuing life extension. In one book, the Wisdom of the Ancients, Bacon rewrites ancient myths and adapts them to the future world that he is trying to envision and shape—and it is a world that embraces extended life spans. My research looked at Bacon’s myths to explain his teaching on how we live good lives with longer life spans.
Building off of the concept of life extension, what is transhumanism and what is its cultural significance?
Transhumanism captures the cultural push to go after technologies that aim to transform humans into a new form of the species that transcends our current physiological limits. In the theoretical world, opponents and advocates debate how much we should augment our bodies and brains, pursue life-extension technologies, or exploit genetic technologies. In the practical world it is a movement that enthusiastically embraces technological augmentation of all kinds. Many people are embracing it globally, and it gives us fascinating and significant new questions to ask about ourselves.
What should we be reading in order to explore ideas about transhumanism?
To get a sense of a range of thoughts from the extreme proponents, I recommend looking at the essays and projects of people like Nick Bostrom, Ray Kurzweil, and the organization Humanity+ (humanityplus.org). For critics and commentators, one can get a taste for the discourse in Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman and Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto. I don’t think that these thinkers are all profound, but they are all culturally significant; they often point to fascinating and pressing questions for us, and their projects can be great subject matter for our own thinking.
How has being a tutor influenced your ideas about political theory?
Before I got to St. John’s, I was interested in the relationship between scientific advancement and politics. For instance, when Bacon says we need to uncover laws of nature, it seems that part of what he’s doing is seeing nature as a domain in which we ought to extend political rule. Considering St. John’s math and lab curriculum in the context of politics made me think about the political world in a much broader way.
It also got much more complicated. We had an all-college seminar this past year on Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. I was paired with tutor David McDonald who challenged us at the outset to take Rousseau’s critique completely seriously, something that at least some of us were initially reluctant to do. We had a funny seminar where we shifted back and forth from taking Rousseau’s critique as though it is entirely earnest, and taking it as ironic. That seminar reminded me that we really feel the pull of his critique in both directions at St. John’s—we feel how incisive he is in showing the dangers of late modernity, and how brazen he is in envisioning a new future. What struck me was that in the closing paragraphs he seems to propose that we embrace something like a Baconian future. I want to understand more deeply what he is up to there, since it seems so strongly at odds with the rest of the text.
The other subject that really grew for me here was the battle between poetry and philosophy. St. John’s gives us a chance to read books without disciplinary boundaries, so I was excited to start to take literature and poetry up on their own terms. I was always suspicious about the hard distinction between poetry and philosophy, and I think that Plato gives us reason to be skeptical of it when he returns to the battle at the end of the Republic. I also think the battle is happening here, not just as a textual question, but in our campus conversations. We end up with people at the table who read literature only in categories from other philosophical texts, and then we have people who say that literary works have their own mode of thought that is distinctive and worthy of its own consideration.
Do you have any reflections on both teaching writing and the writing process?
I love to teach writing because I think that when we have to formulate something in writing, it deepens our thoughts. I love that process, and I love helping students experience this, too. If you teach writing elsewhere, you have to help students learn how to read and interpret well. It takes a long time to get people to read on a deeper level. But here, seminar helps our students become much deeper readers, so the challenge is figuring out what to do with those ideas, and to get them into a form without stifling the thinking, but also while making the paper effective. So, a writing class at St. John’s is a kind of dialectical graft of what people come to the table with, and getting those ideas into a form that allows them to get deeper into a book.
I also think that writing is a craft that requires a lot of practice—so in my class we focused on a single skill each week. I think it’s like practicing the piano. You can’t just play the thing you know in the same way and expect to get better. To improve you have to practice deliberately, and focus on something specific that you’re going to work on each day.
How has the Program at St. John’s changed your relationship to reading?
I think I realized much more completely at St. John’s that there are many kinds of things to read that we don’t normally think of as texts—we “read” bizarre experimental tools, and paintings, and music, and the appearances of other people. St. John’s has made me think about the activity of reading in a broader way.
It has also made me think about the relationship between friendship and reading. When I was in college, someone started a Facebook group called “I have more friends in books than in real life.” I think that this is true for a lot of people who love to read. But when I started to work here, I realized that a lot of people come here and find these other weird people called readers. And their connection to reading and to each other makes for remarkable kinds of friendships. Reading deepens our souls, and in some cases, it makes friendship possible where it might not have been before. This kind of possibility is fragile, but I think it is one of the most important things we seek. So now I try not just to find good books, but also good fellow readers, because they often turn into friends of the very best kind.
Natalie Elliot has been a tutor at St. John’s since 2011. In the summers, she has been writing a book entitled The Poet and the Scientists, where she explores Shakespeare’s poetic engagement with the scientific revolution. In the past, she has conducted research on early modern political thought, and published research on Francis Bacon's life extension project. Elliot holds a PhD in political science from the University of North Texas with specializations in political theory and philosophy. In addition to her appointment at St. John’s, she has also held research and teaching positions at The Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions, Indiana University’s Hutton Honors College, and Southern Methodist University