Upon hearing the news, James Buzard, head of MIT Literature, commented "Shankar Raman — the one member of the MIT Literature Faculty who is also an MIT alum — is a Renaissance man. As his current research on literature and mathematics suggests, he has a passion for knowledge and critical inquiry that embraces both the humanities and the sciences. He is exploring a time when the so-called 'two cultures' divide had not yet opened up, and he is modeling a way to bridge that divide in our own time. He's an inspirational colleague."
Raman's interests span a range of topics in late medieval and early modern literature and culture, with especial focus on colonialism, history of ideas and history of science. His teaching at MIT includes: science and literature, Shakespeare, Renaissance poetry and drama, literary theory, and postcolonial fiction. Raman received his PhD in English Literature (with a minor in German) from Stanford University in 1995, shifting fields after two S.B. degrees from MIT, in Electrical Engineering and Architecture, and an M.S. in Electrical Engineering from U. C. Berkeley.
The Levitan Prize in the Humanities was established through a gift from the late James A. Levitan, a 1945 MIT graduate in chemistry, who was also a member of the MIT Corporation and of counsel at the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom of New York City. The prize, first awarded in 1990, supports innovative and creative scholarship in the humanities by faculty members in the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.
"Before the Two Cultures"
Raman's Levitan-supported project focuses on the five mathematical domains that were either reinvented or emerged for the first time in Renaissance Europe: arithmetic, geometry, algebra, calculus and probability. It explores the rich and mutually sustaining relations between literary and mathematical cultures in a period during which the defining disciplinary borders of these fields — often seen as impermeable today — were only beginning to form.
His work demonstrates how mathematics and literature, together, became the crucial means for literate people to wrestle with questions of calculability and the rationality of belief in an increasingly uncertain world. Raman aims to do justice to both literary form and mathematical content, each having played a formative role in the creation of modernity.
Mathematics and literature as allied areas of knowledge
Teaching at MIT has impressed upon him, Raman says, the interdependence of mathematics and literature in their shared engagement with questions vital to who we are: To what degree are our actions calculable and predictable? How far is the world under our control? In “Before the Two Cultures,” Raman plans to tell the story of how literature unravelled the cultural implications of mathematics, and mathematics in turn shaped individual identity — revealing the reciprocal, transformative nature of these allied areas of knowledge.
Reflecting on literary and engineering research, he says, "I have always approached literature just as I had approached engineering: formulate the problem, figure out what is necessary to solve the problem, and finally work out a solution. The main difference, I suppose, is that in engineering the problems were to a large extent already defined for me in advance, whereas in literary studies formulating the problem appropriately seems to me by far the hardest task."
Earlier Works: Colonialism, The Lens of India, Shakespeare
Raman's first book, “Framing 'India': The Colonial Imaginary in Early Modern Culture” (Stanford University Press, 2002), investigates the relationship between colonialism and literature in 16th- and 17th-century Europe. It compares Portuguese, English and Dutch colonial activity to examine the role of India as a figure through which these diverse European powers imagined and defined themselves. The book argues for more complex, integrative models that take into account not only the very different historical conditions pertaining in different parts of the globe but also the variations among different European nation-states as they sought to establish their own colonial domains.
“Renaissance Literature and Postcolonial Studies,” recently published by Edinburgh University Press (2011), focuses on the interplay between the discovery of new lands and the rediscovery of old texts, describing the parallel emergence of colonialism and its critique. Raman is also co-editor, with Lowell Gallagher, of “Knowing Shakespeare: Senses, Embodiment, Cognition” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). From 2005 to 2010 he participated in “Making Publics: Media, Markets and Associations in Early Modern Europe, 1500 - 1700,” a major five-year interdisciplinary research initiative funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. His contribution to the MaPs project addressed the formation of mathematical publics, examining the conditions under which mathematical knowledge was produced and circulated prior to the emergence of mathematics as a professional discipline in the modern sense.
Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand