Report 2 of the 2008 BSLS conference in Keele

Report by Melanie Keene and Jane Darcy

In late March, delegates gathered for the third annual conference of the British Society for Literature and Science in the magnificent surroundings of Keele Hall. Following previous successful meetings in Glasgow and Birmingham, over sixty participants, including plenary speakers, PhD students, professors, and poets, joined together to hear presentations on topics from computer-generated poetry to ‘lice-men and logarithms’, earthquakes and fairy-land.

In the opening plenary, Helen Small (Pembroke College, Oxford) went to the heart of the matter, setting the agenda for the rest of the conference: are the humanities and sciences still distinctly two cultures? The problem in the humanities, she pointed out, is its perceived irrelevance: could the answer lie in a coherent methodology which equated truthfulness with sincerity and accuracy? She asked whether literature is capable of giving a systematic account of science, exploring the question with revealing readings of poems by the immunologist, Miroslav Holub, and Nobel chemist Roald Hoffman.

The speakers in panel 4 explored ways in which eighteenth-century discoveries in natural philosophy shaped a number of literary texts. Darren Wagner (Saskatchewan) explored notions of pre-formation in Gulliver’s Travels. Greg Lynall (Liverpool) put a persuasive case for Richard Bentley’s 1693 ‘physico-logical’ sermons attacking atheism as the motor for Swift’s satire in A Tale of a Tub. Sam George (Hertfordshire) considered the writings of women botanists that tempered the account of botanical promiscuity in Erasmus Darwin’s Loves of the Plants.

On Friday morning Mary Noble (Princeton) discussed anthropological theories and marriage in relation to instinct, barbarism, and Jude the Obscure. Encarnacion Trinidad Barrantes (Open University, Ireland) then considered the scope of the scientific eye as she explored Oliver Wendall Holmes’ ‘medicated gaze’. Does science, as Holmes claimed, ‘delineate in monochrome?’ Helena Ifill (Sheffield) gave a fascinating introduction to the anatomisation and conflation of ‘natural’ and ‘ideal’ women in John Marchmont’s Legacy.

The benefits that attention to a nuanced history of science can bring to literary studies was apparent in panel 10’s pair of papers on geology, which urged scholars to move beyond the topics of investigation that originally defined our interdisciplinary field. For example, Adelene Buckland (Cambridge) claimed that an emphasis not on narrative grand theories but rather on the relative status of local and provincial expertise, on stratigraphical researches, and on material culture and practices, can tease out more complex interpretive frames for plots, characters, and descriptions; in this case bringing together the work and lives of Thomas Hardy and palaeontologist Gideon Mantell. In his presentation, Gowan Dawson (Leicester) hoped to ‘be fair’ to Richard Owen, moving beyond Darwinian obsession to an understanding of the relationships between serial publishing and the sequential scientific process of correlating parts to whole (thigh bone to model Moa) which formed the basis of Owen’s work. The managed monthly plot and the articulated skeleton could then themselves be fitted together.

In the day’s plenary Frank Close (Exeter College, Oxford) gave an engaging introduction to some aspects of astrophysics, and notions of nothingness. Asking why we can’t hear the sun, whether space really is empty, and demonstrating how not to winch a car out of an Irish dock, he gave his audience much to ponder. He revealed his own sources of inspiration, including childhood puzzles and the Rig Veda, and posited that we may all be here on ‘borrowed’ time and energy.

Alan Rauch (North Carolina) and Alice Jenkins (Glasgow) provided a relaxed hour before the conference reception and dinner, exploring how knowledge was communicated in the Romantic period through private subscription libraries and the Literary and Philosophical Societies.

On Saturday Stephen Connor (London Consortium) directed his own penetrating critical gaze to the subject of X-rays. Ranging amongst hair-removal treatments, ‘flesh made light’ photography, Punch’s graveyard humour, and even how Superman failed his medical for the US Army, his conception of ‘permeation’ as the defining characteristic of modernity led to an amazing array of topics. The dream of sensory augmentation and transparency, he concluded, was only achieved through visible images and objects: a ‘multi-dimensional thinking’ about familiar reality. More generally, his talk provoked us to consider our own use of prepositions in ‘seeing through’ subjects: should our field be literature and science, science as literature, or science through literature?

This was followed by poetry readings from Deryn Rees-Jones and Helen Clare on ‘signs around a dead body’, the creatures that lurk in murky tanks at the back of biology labs, or why the world might have ended on Helen’s wedding day. Particularly striking were the ingenious strategies used in composing these works – from e-mail surveys of friends’ feelings for snow to quite literal and intricate interweavings of lines.

A couple of minor points: access to paper abstracts, either in printed form or online, would be a great help , as would inclusion of participants’ email addresses on the delegates list.

Overall, sincere thanks are due to Sharon Ruston for her impeccable organisational skills, and to everyone at Keele for ensuring events ran so smoothly. We look forward to next year’s conference in Reading, and to the rumoured theatricals…

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