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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Postgraduate Diary: The Perils of Interdisciplinarity

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

I remember an embarrassing moment in a second-year tutorial on Chaucer, when the tutor asked our group if anyone knew the dates of Shakespeare's birth and death. Though we all had a good general idea, none of us knew them precisely (for the record, it's 1564-1616), and we all felt humiliated before the lecturer's contemptuous glower. Albeit in a more congenial environment, when on Monday nights my girlfriend and I settle down to watch University Challenge, as questions about English Literature start issuing from Jeremy Paxman, apparently directed caustically at me in my living room, my girlfriend's gaze settles on me in expectation of an answer. Often, I get them right; but a significant proportion of the questions I, supposedly an expert in my discipline, get wrong.

I naturally feel some angst at this, but then re-reading C.P. Snow's influential book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution again yesterday cast my ignorance in a different, more amenable light. Snow, angered at the scorn his literary colleagues showered on scientists’ limited reading habits, demanded that literary critics explain the fundamental second law of thermodynamics. Having recently read Hans Christian von Baeyer's excellent, accessible and entertaining history of the law, Heat Disperses and Time Passes: The History of Heat, I am confident that I could rise to Snow's challenge. I wonder, however, whether my second year Chaucer tutor could; I suspect not.

My tutor implied by his question that no self-respecting English student could know his subject unless he had the dates of the births and deaths of its famous figures at his fingertips. But as English department prospectuses proudly proclaim, studying English literature is not about accumulating raw knowledge but about inculcating the ability to interpret and debate the aesthetic and cultural values of texts. By extension, is there any reason why I should be ashamed of knowing little about the biography of Shakespeare, and quite a lot about the second law of thermodynamics, when my area of research starts with Darwin and runs to contemporary literature, exploring the relationship between sciences and arts? For every University Challenge question I get wrong on literary topics, I possibly get another on scientific history and theories correct. I suspect that for the average Chaucerian scholar, focused on the pre-Englightenment period, this would, understandably, not be the case. Though I would not go so far as to say I am proud not to have known the year Shakespeare was born, I am certainly not ashamed that I know more about one of the fundamental laws of the universe than I do about the details of the most important figure in English literature. Nevertheless, whether sitting in my English department or in my sitting room, the need to assert the value of possessing areas of knowledge drawn from different disciplines is one of the problems of being engaged in interdisciplinary work.

The other danger is less subjective. I realised the other day, as I elbowed my way through the library packed with revision conscious undergraduates, that you know you are engaged in cross-cultural work when a trip to collect books leaves your thighs feeling like they have climbed Everest, as your borrowings take you from the basement (English literature) to the middle (science) and top (social science) floors and down again. I wonder if Health and Safety have been informed of the special physical exertions facing those whose work straddles the two cultures?

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Posted by Alistair at 9:24 am

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