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.
Later the same day, on Panel 6, Sara Clayson (Open University), Alistair Brown (University of Durham) and Robin Stoate (University of Newcastle) explored the untenability of the human subject in literature and film, through deformity and race, the ‘posthuman’ in science fiction, and the development of AI as malevolent and opposed to humanity. Their presentations prompted lively discussion of further topical links, such as the man-machine opposition in terms of world terrorism and the gendering of technology. After such a hugely satisfying intellectual feast, after dinner our host Sharon led a convoy of thirsty academics to the university pub, where discussions continued late into the evening – and it was still only the first day!
On Friday, Panel 9 concentrated on representations of multi-dimensionality, starting with Laurence Davies (University of Glasgow) on spiritualism and the ‘fourth dimension’ in the fictional writing of H. G. Wells, Balfour Stewart and the physicist P.G. Tait, as manifestations of the fin-de-Siecle fascination with the closeness of alternative dimensions to our own. Elizabeth Cornell (NYC Jesuit University) built on Laurence’s insights by way of Faulkner’s ‘idiot’ character Benjy, who has no sense of time, as a foundation for analysing the obstacles inherent to literary representations of time and relativity. The time-space focus of both papers proved to be directly relevant to the afternoon’s remarkable plenary, from physicist Frank Close (Exeter College, Oxford). As part of his discussion of the ‘nothingness’ of anti-matter, Frank exhibited the real-world applications of scientific theory, whereby he and his team are currently attempting to recreate and record the process of the Big Bang. Like Helen Small, he emphasised the vital role of art in science and vice-versa, by suggesting that to have only the latter would mean describing Beethoven’s music solely in terms of wave or particle movements.
With such a profound precursor, Panel 14’s subsequent focus on fairies and the imagination assumed an almost surreal air. Drawing on Arabella Buckley’s writings and illustrations, Melanie Keene (University of Cambridge) examined the place of magic in teaching nineteenth-century children about natural sciences, making the everyday world strange and alien, with fairies personifying invisible forces of nature. Children also acted as a focal point for Katharina Boehm (King’s College, London) in her study of the influence upon Dickens’s writing of his association with the Victorian paediatrician John Eliotson. The panel’s explorations of imagination, science and memory were completed by Greta Perletti (University of Bergamo), who discussed representations of problematic memory and hypermnesia in the works of Charlotte Bronte and Dickens.
On the final day of the conference, we were privileged to be present at Steven Connor’s erudite and entertaining plenary, in which he traced the development of x-rays and their association with vision and magic. His talk encapsulated much of the conference’s preceding concentration on the centrality of perception in science and literature, representations of human faculties and their power, and what Steven described as ‘fantasies of the illimitable’.
The intrepid panellists challenged with undertaking the conference’s last sessions included those on panel 19, where John Bryden (University of Leeds) presented his findings on robotics and dance/performance and how they challenge traditional scientific narratives. Nasser Hussain (University of York) followed this up with an equally stimulating and interdisciplinary explication of Christian Bok’s innovations in sound poetry, and the cutting-edge potential of biological data encryption within poetic forms. Elizabeth Throesch (York St John University) concluded the discussions with insights on the manipulation of spatial narratives in Henry James’s work, transcendental materialism and ‘extra-representational space’.
Heading home on the train, I watched the rain strike against the window. Some drops kept themselves separate while others linked briefly together, but almost all chased each other in steady and parallel, horizontal ‘lanes’ across the glass. Suddenly, however, a swift course of water would dash diagonally across all the rest, drawing those around it towards itself as it forged its new and unexpected channel. It struck me as particularly apt: a metaphor not only for the conference but also for the BSLS itself, where dramatic and powerfully innovative diagonals cut across existing understandings to pursue new channels of knowledge.