Friday, 23 March 2012

Workshop report: Exploring Liminal States of Mind

‘Exploring Liminal States of Mind’: a one-day interdisciplinary workshop at Northumbria University, 16 March 2012


This one-day workshop was organised by Northumbria University’s Situating States of Mind research group, and drew together speakers from the fields of philosophy, literary studies and history. The workshop aimed to explore ‘in-between’ mental states, such as sleep, dreaming and the unconscious, from the medieval period to the nineteenth century.

The day opened with a panel entitled ‘Sleeping and Somnambulism in Medieval and Early Modern Europe’. Dr William MacLehose (UCL) spoke about the medieval understanding of sleep, which was informed by Aristotle’s Physical Works, and particularly on the medieval reading of states of sleep considered abnormal or pathological, even dangerous: somnambulism, incubus and nocturnal emissions. This was followed by Sasha Handley’s paper, ‘Sleepwalking, Sensibility and the Nervous Body’. Dr Handley (Northumbria) identified somnambulism as a source of fascination and speculation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and explored the broader significance of sleepwalking in terms of anxieties about  personal identity, imagination, transgression and volition.   She also discussed the desirability of somnambulism, linking this to the fashion for ‘nervous disorders’ and excessive sensibility during the Romantic period.

In the next panel, Tom Stoneham and Rachael Wiseman (York) gave presentations on ‘Liminality, Dreams and Philosophy of Mind’, opening up a philosophical discussion around sleeping and dreaming. Dr Wiseman, in thinking about the dream as something enjoyed while unconscious and subsequently reported, challenged us to think about the ontological status of dreams as experiences that must be communicated.  Professor Stoneham tracked the changing meaning of the word 'dream' across the 17th and 18th centuries, from a rhetorical term  to one that carried radical political meaning, and explored the parallel changes in the understanding of dreams from mechanistic phenomena to the play of imagination during reason's sleep.

After lunch Tony Williams (Northumbria) spoke about Peter Didsbury's poetry,  exploring the value of dreams as poetic material  and the ways in which Didsbury’s images attempt to replicate dream logic. Dr Williams proposed walking to and from work as a liminal state – temporally and geographically, and also between the private and public spheres – which provides opportunities for creative, productive thought. In ‘“Was it a vision or a waking dream?”: Romantic Explorations of Liminal States’, Dr Anita O’Connell (Northumbria) explored the work of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Hazlitt and Lamb in her discussion of dreams and reveries as creative processes, and the relationship between dreams and the imagination. Did Hazlitt’s lack of appreciation for the Arabian Nights stem, as Coleridge asserted, from his avowed inexperience of dreams? And what was the effect of opium on Coleridge’s very different experience of dreaming? Anita considered the dream as not just an idea, but an ideal, and the notion – played with for instance by Wordsworth – that what we imagine may be more perfect than the reality.

In the final panel, Sally Shuttleworth (Oxford) discussed childhood and the uncanny, and offered a critique of Freud’s theory of infantile sexuality. Professor Shuttleworth examined childhood fears and night terrors in light of James Sully’s Studies of Childhood and suggested that in dreams, as in childhood, we return to bodily supremacy. Finally, Dr Peter Garratt (Northumbria) examined ‘The Varieties of Unconscious Experience’, attending closely to Tennyson’s In Memoriam and the connection between sleep and death. The day closed with a roundtable discussion in which delegates thought about links in states of mind across the early modern to contemporary period covered by the workshop.

This was an interesting and well-run day, and thanks are due to the organisers, including Anita O’Connell. The range of papers was broad and provided an excellent opportunity to engage with scholarship from disciplines beyond English literature, particularly through the inclusion of the two philosophy papers which encouraged us to do some first-principles thinking about dreams as evidence of the uniquely self-reflexive human mind. However the interdisciplinary approach also highlighted something of a missed opportunity: several papers ventured into speculation about the neural state of the dreaming mind and the inclusion of a cognitive or neuroscience perspective could have enhanced some discussions. To take a specific example, Northumbria University is home to the Centre for Sleep Research, and their research into the cognitive, psychological and social causes of sleep/wakefulness patterns and disorders could have added challenging and valuable perspectives.

Finally, the idea of liminal states of mind was interpreted somewhat narrowly, with the majority of papers focussing on sleeping or dreaming states. Opening the interpretation up to include liminal states such as intoxication, madness and mental illness could have made for a richer discussion of what it means to be in a ‘state of mind’. Ultimately, however, this was an very rewarding event. The 'roundtable' format of each panel, small number of delegates and welcoming atmosphere, combined with excellent speakers and discussions, made for a fascinating day.

Harriet Briggs, Rebecca Tobin and Beatrice Turner (Newcastle University)

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