Biological Discourses: The Language of Science and Literature around 1900

A two-day conference at the University of Cambridge, 10-11 April 2015

The decades around 1900 are a crucial period for the impact of biological thought on the intellectual cultures of the western world. The impulses of Darwinism were taken up by intellectuals, writers and artists from the 1860s onwards, and both Darwinian and anti-Darwinian currents of thinking exercised a powerful influence on the intellectual climate of the early decades of the twentieth century. It was a period that saw major developments in cell biology and the establishment of genetics as we know it, the movement of medical science and psychiatry beyond mechanistic conceptions of illness, and the emergence of psychoanalysis and sexology as new disciplines. “Biological Discourses”, a student-led conference to be held in Cambridge on 10-11 April 2015, is part of a collaborative venture between the Cambridge Department of German & Dutch and the Institute for Modern Languages Research, London, investigating the interplay and the forms of mediation between literary and biological discourses in that period.

The conference builds on the substantial body of research literature that has evolved in the last few decades both in English and other languages on the ‘hermeneutic potential’ of Darwin’s thought (Gillian Beer) and the interrelationship between biological thought and literature and the visual arts more broadly. Recent work has also brought out the senses in which the historical emergence of such biological terminology as ‘heredity’ and ‘genealogy’ should be seen as part of European cultural history (e.g. Sigrid Weigel, Genea-Logik (2006); Staffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, A Cultural History of Heredity (2012)). Key issues relating to these and other strands of inquiry were reviewed at an initial workshop hosted by the collaboration partners in London in March 2014. The conference in April 2015 is intended to provide an opportunity to explore certain of those issues more closely, homing in particularly on the processes and potentials of mediation between biological science and literature, and to extend the inquiry to countries beyond the German-speaking world. The themes on which the organisers particularly wish to invite contributions are these:

  • What kinds of relationship do we see between the discourses of biological science and literature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? Are there senses in which we find them sharing models, metaphors, and elements of each other’s discourse?
  • How are developments in biological and medical thinking reflected in the print media of the time, both verbally and visually?
  • How are the emerging discourses of sexology and psychopathology reflected in the literary writing of this period, and what insights arise from comparisons between writings of the early 20th century and the critical perspectives of the present day (e.g. gender theory)?
  • How do the developments in biological thinking inform the world-views and ethical values of western societies in the period, and what evidence of this do we find in literary and other writings?
  • To what extent do we find the discourse of German writings on biological issues taken up and developed in other European languages, and with what implications?

Proposals (no more than 500 words please) should be sent to by 30 November 2014.

Professor Jay Labinger (California Institute of Technology) is visiting the Oxford English Faculty to speak on “Metaphoric vs. Literal Uses of Science: Entropy as Time’s (Double-Headed) Arrow in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia and other Recent Literature”. His talk will be at 2 p.m. in the Faculty Senior Common Room on 20 October.

Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies at Birkbeck
Birkbeck College, University of London
July 16-18, 2015
Deadline: January 9, 2015

“The Arts and Feeling in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture”

Keynote Speakers: Professor Caroline Arscott (Courtauld Institute of Art, London); Professor Tim Barringer (Yale University); Meaghan Clarke (University of Sussex); Professor Kate Flint (University of Southern California); Professor Michael Hatt (University of Warwick); Professor Jonah Siegel (Rutgers); Alison Smith (Tate Britain)

“She saw no, not saw, but felt through and through a picture; she bestowed upon it all the warmth and richness of a woman’s sympathy; not by any intellectual effort, but by this strength of heart, and this guiding light of sympathy…” (Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun, 1860)

This conference will explore the ways in which nineteenth-century authors, artists, sculptors, musicians and composers imagined and represented emotion and how writers and critics conceptualized the emotional aspects of aesthetic response. How did Victorian artists represent feeling and how were these feelings aestheticized? What rhetorical strategies did Victorian writers use to figure aesthetic response? What expressive codes and conventions were familiar to the Victorians? Which nineteenth-century scientific developments affected artistic production and what impact did these have on affective reactions?

The conference will consider the historically specific ways in which feeling is discussed in aesthetic discourse. It will also, however, encourage reflection about the limits of an historicist approach for understanding the emotions at play in nineteenth-century aesthetic response and the possibility of alternative methodologies for understanding the relation between feeling and the arts.

Possible topics might include:

Languages of emotion (affect; feeling; sympathy; empathy; sentimentality)
Theories of feeling (psychologists; art critics; philosophers; authors)
The arousal of specific emotions (pain; joy; anger; grief; tenderness; anxiety; disgust) and the aestheticisation of the emotions
The physiology and psychology of aesthetic perception (Physiological aesthetics; empathy; the nervous system; head v. heart)
The arts and religious feeling (biblical painting; sacred music)
Artists, museum visitors and concert-goers in fiction
The gendering of aesthetic response
The codification of artistic expression
Museum Feelings (boredom; fatigue; the museum as a site of affect; the regulation of feeling)
Curating feeling
The art of feeling(how to feel the right thing in response to music, art, sculpture)
Feeling and touch
The role of emotion in ekphrasis; translating feeling
Proposals of up to 400 words should be sent to Dr. Vicky Mills at by January 9, 2015. Please also attach a brief biographical note. Proposals for panels of three papers are also welcome, and should be accompanied by a brief (one-page) panel justification.

For more information visit:

The reading group on Pseudo/Sciences of the Long Nineteenth Century is a collaborative venture between Newcastle University and the Literary and Philosophical Society. The group is open to scholars, students and researchers as well as members of the public with an interest in nineteenth-century science, pseudoscience and literature. For each session we read a combination of primary and critical material which is introduced by an invited guest. Topics range from phrenology and mesmerism to hysteria and Freudian psychoanalysis, from transcendental fiction, pseudoscience in ghost stories to the impact of scientific discoveries on art and literature. The group welcomes expression of interest from people who would like to present readings at one of the sessions.

The 2014-2015 programme begins on Monday 13 October when Dr Stacy Gillis from Newcastle University School of English will be considering ‘Sexual Desire, Transcendence and the Edwardian Novel’. Readings will be posted on the website where you will also find more information about the group and forthcoming events.

The tenth annual conference of the British Society for Literature and Science will take place at the University of Liverpool, on 16-18 April 2015. Keynote talks will be given by Professor Keith Barnham (Imperial College London), Dr Patricia Fara (University of Cambridge), and Dr Claire Preston (Queen Mary University of London).

The BSLS invites proposals for twenty-minute papers, or panels of three papers, on any subjects within the field of literature and science. In addition, ‘flash talks’ of up to 7 minutes on any topic are invited for a special plenary session. Other formats are also welcomed, but please email your suggestion to the organisers (via for consideration, well in advance of the submission deadline.

This year the organisers would particularly welcome proposals addressing the themes of light, optics, vision and colour, and proposals for papers, panels or roundtables on engaging the public with literature and science research. However, the BSLS remains committed to supporting and showcasing work on all aspects of literature – including comparative literature and European and world literatures – and science, medicine and technology.

Proposals of no more than 250 words, together with the name and institutional affiliation of the speaker, and a biographical note of around 50 words, should be sent in the body of messages (not in attachments) to Proposals for panels should include a separate proposal and biographical note for each paper. The closing date for submissions is Friday 5 December 2014.

The conference fee will be waived for two graduate students in exchange for written reports on the conference, to be published in the BSLS Newsletter. If you are interested in being selected for one of these awards, please mention this when sending in your proposal. To qualify you will need to be registered for a postgraduate degree at the time of the conference.

Accommodation: please note that those attending the conference will need to make their own arrangements for accommodation. Information on local hotels will be made available soon on the forthcoming conference website.

Membership: conference delegates will need to register as members of the BSLS (annual membership: £25 waged/ £10 unwaged). It will be possible to join the BSLS when registering for the conference online.

For further information and updates about the conference, please contact Greg Lynall ( A conference website will be available in due course.

A One Day Interdisciplinary Conference at the University of Warwick.

With Keynote Addresses from Dr. Charlotte Sleigh and Dr. Kate Tunstall

Saturday 7th March 2015

There are around 800,000 species of insect. From the honey on our breakfast cereal, lice infesting our hair to cockroaches invading our homes: insects are, and always have been, implicated in our everyday lives. Insects were fashioned into jewellery, imprisoned in amber, eaten, dissected, collected, revered, reviled and fictionalised. From the sacred scarabs of Ancient Egypt, or the Renaissance dung-beetles used to symbolise Jesus Christ, to our modern systems of pest control, insect-human relations have been subject, and contributed, to the forces of human history. Our conference proposes to examine the pre-eminence of invertebrate life in the period 1700-1900, including literary, historical, linguistic and scientific perspectives. This subject offers a large scope for theoretical engagement, challenging conventional ways of thinking about human history and culture. In line with developments in the burgeoning field of animal studies and more generally in the environmental humanities, invertebrates have a lot to teach about some of the most burning questions facing scholarship today: what can these seemingly insignificant creatures tell us about man’s place in ‘nature’? What does it mean that the only species more successful than humans in colonising the planet are also those considered the most disgusting? This conference seeks to showcase the exciting research being carried out by scholars from diverse fields on the vast topic of insects and other invertebrate animals. It will be of relevance to, not just those working directly with invertebrates, but also to those carrying out projects that intersect, however briefly, with these concerns. Topics might include, but are not limited to:

- Invertebrates in literatures (insects as metaphors; as teaching tools)
- Insect ‘economy’ / insects and economy (e.g. in advertising)
- Natural History (taxonomic problems, collecting/collections, microscopy)
- Origins and spontaneous generation
- Disease (vectorism, book-worms, tooth-worms, death, medicine)
- Alternative foodsources, sustainability and eco-criticism
- Flea circuses, insects and performance
- Insect spaces (Uexkuell’s concept of Umwelt)
- The social lives of insects
- Insects as political criticisms

The organisers invite abstracts of 250 words for 20 minute papers. Abstracts, along with a short biography, should be sent to by 19th December 2014.

For further information please visit:

The ‘Exotic’ Body in 19th-century British Drama (Oxford, 25-26 September)

A full programme and registration details for this conference are now available. Click here to link to the conference page, and here for the booking site.

For further information contact Tiziana Morosetti.

British Society for Literature and Science
Symposium on Teaching

University of Westminster, Regent Street, London – 8th November, 2014


Literature and Science is currently gaining popularity amongst undergraduates, but opportunities for discussing how – and why – to teach it remain thin on the ground. This one-day symposium, led by the British Society for Literature and Science with support from Westminster’s Centre for the Study of Science and Imagination, is designed to help further that discussion.

We are keen to hear from as many different perspectives as possible, and therefore invite contributions from anyone with experience as a teacher, postgraduate teaching assistant, student, or administrator of an undergraduate course on (or containing elements of) Literature and Science, broadly defined.

For this event, we have adopted a different format from the standard academic twenty-minute conference paper, and will ask speakers to present in a more informal tone and for different lengths of time depending on the session. These shorter, less formal presentations will minimise preparation time for speakers as well as increasing discussion time for all participants.

With this low-preparation, discursive format in mind, we warmly solicit expressions of interest (not more than 200 words, including a brief biography and details of experience with Literature and Science teaching) from potential speakers. These should be sent to Dr. Will Tattersdill ( not later than October 10th 2014. Subjects we are anxious to discuss include, but are not limited to:

  • Why Literature and Science is worth teaching to undergraduates (and why it might not be)
  • Reflections on how, if at all, Literature and Science needs to be taught differently from other undergraduate programmes.
  • Particular difficulties encountered in convening a Literature and Science course, be they conceptual, administrative, logistical, or pedagogical.
  • Experiences collaborating with academic staff from other disciplines, including the sciences.
  • Student reactions to Literature and Science material, positive and negative.

We are committed to inviting contributions from those teaching literature and science across all historical periods, working across international educational contexts as well as within the British higher education system. There will be invited speakers as well as this open call, and current undergraduates will hopefully be among the delegates.

Many of us teach literature and science on our own initiative, coping individually with both the joys and challenges raised by the endeavour. This is an important chance to consolidate those experiences and build strategies – and collegial networks – which will continue to drive the field forward at its grass roots: undergraduate teaching.

Cian Duffy (St. Mary’s)
Allyson Purcell-Davis (St. Mary’s)
Janine Rogers (Mt. Allison)
Will Tattersdill (Birmingham)
Martin Willis (Westminster)

The call for papers for the interdisciplinary conference on AGEING: HISTORIES, MYTHOLOGIES, TABOOS at the University of Bergen in January 2015 closes on 1st September. To see the details, click below

Bergen Ageing conference cfp

The Poetics of Knowledge

University of Bern, 5-7 November 2015

One very common narrative about Victorian Britain is that it was an age of ground-breaking scientific discoveries: Charles Lyell significantly extended the age of our planet; Charles Darwin forced a rethinking of the origins and development of life; Michael Faraday and James Maxwell Clark paved the way for modern physics; Non-Euclidean Geometry changed the way mathematicians measured and formalized the world; Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace laid the foundation for computing. The list could be expanded at leisure, as scientists made and remade the various fields in which humans have tried to make sense of the natural world. Both the individual discoveries and the underlying myth of scientific progress they allegedly add up to have repeatedly been analysed in narratological terms; Misia Landau (1984), and more recently David Amigoni and James Elwick (2011) have identified the narrative premises common to most scientific accounts of the past. Historians of science, Landau argues, are keen to speak about discoveries and innovations in the form of a meaningful sequence of origin, development and purpose, a structure of beginning, middle and end reminiscent of conventional narratological definitions of the plot in a work of fiction. Others, like Gillian Beer in her seminal study Darwin’s Plots (2009), have pointed to the way in which scientists themselves clothe their discoveries in narrative garments and how the plots they develop are both influenced by narrative tradition and in turn find their way back into literary narratives.

With this conference we would like to explore an alternative perspective. Instead of concentrating on the narrative character of scientific discourse, we want to explore its poetic side. Our aim thereby is twofold. First, we want to look into the historical and philosophical reasons for the predisposition against non-narrative forms of scientific literature and investigate poetic structures and elements in earlier scientific as well as literary texts that run counter to this alleged predominance of narrative. Based on this, we want to explore nineteenth-century literary works which use scientific ideas and language in non-narrative, and in particular poetic, forms. Relevant questions in this context include, among others, whether there is a fundamental categorical difference between narrative and poetic explorations of science in literature, how the noticeable bias for the former reflects social, political, cultural and economic conditions of the time, and whether gender becomes a relevant factor in the choice of poetic or narrative form.

To explore these and other related questions, we invite contributions which address the following topics:

  • Literary Theory and Science: Narrative and poetic structures in scientific discourse and accounts of scientific discovery. A theoretical and analytical framework for the analysis of poetic texts dealing with scientific issues.
  • Poetic Knowledge vs. Narrative Knowledge: Epistemological implications of poetic and narrative frameworks of knowledge, cognitive preconditions and consequences.
  • Scientific Domains and Poetic Voices: Exemplary analyses of non-narrative works of literature engaging with the scientific discourse of the time.
  • A Muted Tradition?: Examples of poetic texts addressing scientific issues prior to the nineteenth century.
  • The Two Cultures: Accounts of the rivalling discourses of Science and the Humanities in the nineteenth century. Debates about their role in education and their respective cultural relevance.
  • Gendered Forms?: The role of gender in establishing different forms of scientific discourse and literary engagements with science.

Abstracts (300-500 words) of 20-minute papers should be sent to or by 1 March 2015. Please include your name, academic title, affiliation, e-mail address as well as a short biographical note (100 words, approx.). We welcome contributions by junior researchers. Finished papers will have to be submitted by 30 August 2015. Every presenter will be asked to provide a brief response (5-7 min) to one paper. There will be the possibility to organise child care if needed. Please get in touch with the organisers for more information if you would like to take advantage of this service.

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