When tasked with writing about that most significant of terms—science—the mind stumbles to contain its conceptual expanse. But as I considered the many potential tacks for this essay, my mind kept coming back, as it often does, to those songs that, in the course of a few minutes, get right to the heart of the matter. Songs that conjure the biopolitics, the abstractions, and algorithmic imperatives that have made their way in, that broach the force of numbers and the sway of enumeration and offer a fleeting glimpse of the searing presence of systematicity both within and without. Science, as the children’s song would have it, has become a “a part of our everyday lives.”

*   *   *

An animal howls in the night, a synthesizer begins its rhythm, and a sole voice chants, “a-coo-a, a-coo-a, a-coo-a-coo / It’s cold outside.” In Laurie Anderson’s “Big Science” (1982), the hero’s journey begins with a mother’s rote warning: “Don’t forget your mittens.”

The fairy tale set-up. Curiosity in tension with filial deference. Intimations of a monstrous encounter.

The narrator then steps outside the comforts of home and asks the first person she meets for directions—“Hey Pal! How do I get to town from here?” This stranger is not innocent, we soon learn, for this stranger has things on his mind, schemes for deeds yet known. A perfect world in which each and every person has voluntarily chosen to take the measure of things from a distance.

The stranger, as it turns out, has a plan. His directions are indistinguishable from the new world under construction, a world with shopping centers, freeways, a sports complex, a drive-in bank, and mountains so that the “characters” have something “to fall off of.” Soon, no directions will be needed as all will be incorporated into a construction site for a celestial city spanning out into the celestial suburbs.

“You can’t miss it,” says the stranger after a noir-ish pause. The narrator moves on in her wide-eyed innocence. She is, at first, taken aback by these glorious visions but is soon at ease with the scene. “This must be the place,” she confirms. A new world is being born in the “cold outside”—a complex of Golden cities and towns—a strange twist on Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627) in which the people read signs emblazoned with “Hallelujah” and live by the haunting dictum, “every man, every man for himself.”

In this clever origin story of “big science” and how it assumes its largesse, Anderson figures the beginning of techno-modernity in these United States as a mélange of curiosity, dread, and political desire, aided and abetted by a rugged sense of individualism and a movie camera to capture it all. “Let’s roll the film / Big Science / Hallelujah / Every man, every man for himself.”

Upon arrival, when the eyewitness to the creation of the universe steps back from it all she once again encounters the stranger who had set it all in motion. “Howdy stranger. Mind if I smoke?” Far away from home, old injunctions no longer apply. A new world is being born. Permission has been granted.

And he said:
“Every man, every man for himself.
Every man, every man for himself.
All in favor say aye.”

Such freedoms, particularly as they undergird what Max Weber called the secular vocation of science, are not unfounded. Nor are they unwelcome in this age of climate denial and retrenchment into various forms of political and religious patriarchy. Such freedoms, however, do not always cut progressively, as in Grinderman’s “Go Tell the Women” (2007), yet another mythic rendering of science—here an invocation of the end (and ends) of the grand project of knowledge rather than the beginning—that, according to singer Nick Cave, looks “at modern man in an ironic way” and judges him to be “morally bankrupt.” Over a moaning violin and peppy guitar, a voice—weary, defeated, defensive—declares:

We done our thing
We have evolved
We’re up on our hind legs
The problem solved
We are artists
We are mathematicians
Some of us hold extremely high positions

The men are seemingly in charge. Yet this monologue of progress has begun in hindsight. After the triumph of the “human” but just before the evacuation. For,

We are tired
We’re hardly breathing
And we’re free
Go tell the women that we’re leaving

The women, the listener is left to conclude, have not prioritized an approach to truth that would yield an objective result and demonstrate, for all involved, a consensus immune to personal whim and subjective dismissal. For as these truths accumulate and consensus is achieved, a new found clarity—defined as the only freedom that inevitably matters—is born in the moment of life’s exhaustion. So when the order arrives, it is as if the gendered directive were an afterthought and not that which conditioned, from the beginning, the present end-time scenario. For as the narrator later admits, the whole Western ideal of contractual rights as the guarantor of women’s equality with men was a sham to begin with, a cover for sexual violence and desperate tribalism in the name of science’s self-authorizing authority:

All we wanted was a little consensual rape in the afternoon
And maybe a bit more in the evening . . .
. . . We are scientists
We do genetics
We leave religion
To the psychos and fanatics

The triumph of Enlightenment, here, is not merely death, but the consummation of the death drive. For over the course of the narration the weariness persists and intensifies. Yet the voice remains steadfast. Doubt diffuses as the certainties of nihilism set in. The crisis is considered only long enough for the narrator to return to a form of original sin, that is, the privilege of his biology and the difference that his sexual difference makes.

But we are tired
We got nothing to believe in
We are lost
Go tell the women that we’re leaving

In the listless repetition of his command, even the narrator seems to doubt whether the women will even receive the message to pack up let alone give a shit when they do.

Just as the order, itself—to convey a message to “the women”—arrives exhausted, so, too, does a tragedy of the secular age—an inability to question our immanent frame despite THE FACT THAT WE KNOW IT’S IMMANENT AND THAT IT WILL SOON KILL US ALL. Indeed, one begins to sense that the situation evoked in “Go Tell the Women” is not simply one of moral failure or an unwillingness to come to terms with and provide terms for an accelerating descent. On the contrary, the situation seems little more than an embrace of death itself as comforting certainty to counteract the indeterminacies of gender, race, and democratic authority.

Every man for himself, indeed.

For even after the strategies of representation that undergird secular order are abandoned by the narrator, even after a moment of fleeting honesty about the dialectics of our Enlightenment, there remains his need to conjure the difference of sex:

We done our thing
We’re hip to the sound
Of six billion people
Going down
We are magicians
We are deceiving
We are free and we’re lost
Go tell the women that we’re leaving

*   *   *

These songs, of course, are neither scientific nor thorough in their excavations of the problem at hand, and may even fail to move anyone to reconsider what they understand to be science either in its idealist or pragmatic formulations. But these songs do capture something about science and its rhythmic influx into contemporary life. They capture something about science as it is understood, practiced, promoted, and criticized, something that remains difficult to isolate and measure in the laboratory or field site. For percolating within the bent narrations of Anderson and Cave is the outrageous conceit that science (as a method) has become indistinguishable from the structures of power in which science (as a habitus) operates. The world ushered in by this method does not lend itself to analysis. Hence, one must bend one’s narration to even suggest that science is so big, so blindly biased, and so excessively authoritative that it is has become a danger to itself—despite whatever tangible benefits have accrued in its favor. Science, or more precisely, the categorical imperatives of science, have become ecological confounds of the most pressing kind. Their discursive presence lives within and outside the laboratory. These presences are not strictly material nor do they necessarily announce themselves in the measured (and measurable) language of mathematics.

Which is to say that both of these songs capture something about what it is like to be living in these end times, in what might be called, more precisely, the last days of the cybernetic. For the difference between humans and machines, including the desire to overcome that difference, has long been sacralized and transgressed, poeticized, debated, and deployed. A flexible yet stubborn humanism has undergirded many agendas within the natural and social sciences for the past generation. But these are different times. The arrogance is lifting, or perhaps being lifted for us. For who amongst us can deny that now is the time before the difference between human and machines becomes utterly forgotten and written over, effectively erased by the desire to make whatever is human fungible to everything else in the world?