Report by Stella Pratt-Smith
The third annual conference of the British Society of Literature and Science was hosted at Keele University and organised by Sharon Ruston and her team with just the right combination of exceptional efficiency and friendliness. Within the gold and gilt Victorian splendour of Keele Hall’s Salvin Room, Helen Small (Pembroke College, Oxford) launched the conference with a discussion of ‘The Function of Antagonism’. Addressing the question of what impact science might have on the ‘unlovely combination of triviality and self-aggrandisement’ perceived in today’s humanities studies, she stressed the vital role of science, its methodology and certainty, with the humanising effects of the arts in evaluating everyday truth and values. In doing so, she set a tone of philosophical yet relevant and urgent enquiry for the subsequent panels and questions.
With an ambitious twenty panels taking place in less than three days, the range of topics, authors and perspectives presented was truly extraordinary. On the first day alone, in Panel 2, Jason Hall (University of Exeter) led a panel on mechanised versification, by which programmers and computers have probed fundamental poetic forms and processes. He was followed by Heidi Kunz (Randolph College, Lynchburg, VA) who publicized the hilariously purple prose of ground-breaking, American author Augusta Jane Evans and the ways in which she borrowed scientific rhetoric to promote new depictions of nineteenth-century womanhood. The interrelationship of nineteenth-century science and poetry was pursued further by Gregory Tate (Linacre College, Oxford), who explored Tennyson’s view of the mind’s basis as physiological, ‘a random arrow from the brain’, and how this outlook emerges ultimately as an argument for an unchanging soul.