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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

British Society for Literature and Science Conference 2008: A Report

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Having attained funding to attend the recent British Society for Literature and Science conference in Keele in 2008, I had to write a short report. In the interests of dissemination, I've copied this below:

On the evidence of this, the third annual conference of the British Society for Literature and Science, those of us lurking in the borderlands between the sciences and the written word have now got a centrepiece to our academic year to match (rival?) the conferences populated by members of the older-established British Society for Philosophy of Science and the British Society for the History of Science.

Having attended the BSLS in Birmingham in 2007, I can report that around half the participants from that previous event had seen fit to return to the BSLS in Keele in 2008. Picking up conversations from where you left off (whether about research or more ephemeral topics) is always easier than starting them afresh, avoiding the inevitable preludes about where you are studying and what your field is - never straightforward with a mouth full of flaky pastries. Incidentally, anyone attending a conference at Keele is in for a treat: the catering is excellent, and the venue, a former country house with huge gardens, is astonishing. It's not unlike being given privileged access to a National Trust property, though beware that holding forth about Thomas Pynchon's latest novel is liable to get you some funny looks when your unwitting interlocutor is a suit of armour.

If I am finding it hard to maintain a serious tone in this report, it is perhaps because I had - dare one say this about an academic conference? - such a good time, and can only reflect upon it with good humour. There is a really collegiate feel to the BSLS, with academics and postgraduates (who comprised about a third of the 100 or so participants) mingling easily. Perhaps it is because the field of literature and science is so broad - here covering everything from Egyptian hieroglyphs to Victorian poetry-generating machines to errant artificial intelligences in film - that no one felt a sense of superiority, whilst everyone was aware that they may have something to learn from another period interest or junior colleague with an innovative perspective. Likewise, panellists generally seemed aware that they needed to make their papers accessible to others not necessarily within their historical or literary field, even if all shared an interdisciplinary methodology.

Plenary papers by Helen Small, on interdisciplinarity, and Steven Connor, on X-ray vision, were exuberant and provocative, though it is a shame that both speakers left immediately after their papers, without a chance to engage with panel sessions.

If I have one criticism, it is that a conference on literature and science was dominated by literary intellectuals (C.P. Snow would have grumbled). The intrepid, lone physicist who had come to Birmingham in 2007 had decided not to follow-up by coming to Keele. Because the third plenary speaker, the physicist Frank Close, left immediately after presenting (appropriately enough, he gave a paper on "nothing"), this meant that the only representative from within the sciences was a gentlemen who works in the schoolchildren's section of the London Science Museum. Rather than a mutual flow between science and literature, the traffic was all one way.

There was perhaps an unwarranted belief that studying science as represented in literature matters most, when potentially greater benefits might be gained from studying the value of literature for scientists. Some energetic contest about the relative value of literary and scientific approaches to knowledge would have offered a welcome balance. Though for anyone engaging with literature and science this is absolutely the conference to attend, any scientist with a peripheral interest in literature is likely to find themselves listening in from the sidelines. Likewise, any presenter hoping for feedback on their paper from scientists will be disappointed. The annual general meeting of the BSLS, which took place over lunch on the second day, did acknowledge the stiltedness; let's hope their strategies for engaging more scientists pay off in Reading in March 2009.

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Posted by Alistair at 11:04 am


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