Monday, 17 September 2012

'Moving Towards Science in the Long Nineteenth Century: A Postgraduate Symposium': Conference Report

12 September 2012, The Literary and Philosophical Society, 
Newcastle upon Tyne

‘Moving Towards Science’ was the first event hosted by the North East Postgraduate Research Group for the Long Nineteenth Century (NENC).  We were privileged to receive funding from the British Society for Literature and Science (BSLS), as well as support from each of the major north-east universities.  Additionally, we were delighted to host the event at the Literary and Philosophical Society, Newcastle upon Tyne, a venue that complemented the fundamental aims of the symposium. 

Just as we were interested in exploring the reasons why literature and science came to be studied alongside each other, the Lit & Phil can claim extensive connections to both disciplines.  Founded in 1793 as a centre for intellectual inquiry, it played host to several ground-breaking scientific experiments, such as George Stephenson’s miners’ safety lamp in 1815, and Joseph Swan’s discoveries in electricity.  Indeed, the lecture theatre at the Lit & Phil was the first public room in the world to be lit by electric light in 1880, with Newcastle itself being the first city to have a fully-lit highstreet.  In addition to these scientific affiliations, the Lit & Phil has attracted membership amongst prominent literary figures, including Oscar Wilde, Edith Sitwell and John Betjeman.  We were privileged to hold the symposium in its beautiful building, dating from 1825, and many delegates enjoyed a brief tour of its intellectually-stimulating library.

The symposium opened with the first of our three keynote presentations, each representing one of the funding north-east universities.  Although nineteenth-century in focus, NENC were interested in both the origins of inter-disciplinary approaches to literature and science, and the ways in which major developments in this area during the nineteenth century continue to be relevant in contemporary studies.  As a result, we were delighted to welcome Professor Jennifer Richards, who specialises in early-modern literature, and Dr. Anne Whitehead, senior lecturer in contemporary literature and theory, from Newcastle University.  Chaired by Leanne Stokoe (Newcastle University), Anne opened the presentation with a discussion of how science, particularly medicine, relates to literary concerns in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  She drew attention to studies into how the general practitioner incorporates ideas of empathy and self-reflection into medical practice, and remarked that this is of particular relevance to psychoanalysis and mental health.  Anne observed that this is a major research interest of hers at the moment, and the connections she drew between the relationship between doctor and patient provided a thought-provoking opening for both general discussion and the symposium as a whole.

Taking up these arguments, Jennifer began by re-orientating the questions that Anne had raised about how science perceives literature, into an exploration of the ways in which literature was viewed by physicians in the sixteenth century.  Introducing us to a range of medical writings from this period, she drew attention to instances in which scientific rhetoric could be aligned with literary preoccupations.  This enabled us to examine the relationship between physician and patient from an alternative perspective; rather than identifying how science could embrace literature, Jennifer explored how the medical humanities in the early modern period could be seen as intrinsically literary at their heart.  As a result, it was not so much that early modern physicians incorporated literature into their discourses, but that literature, as Jennifer reminded us, was a broad term that could impact upon the ways in which scientific innovations themselves took shape.  Both opening keynotes thus provided invaluable insights from historical periods that framed our nineteenth-century focus, and as the day went on, illuminated some fundamental intersections between different epochs, as well as different disciplines.

Our first postgraduate panel was entitled ‘Live Wires: Language and Science in Circulation’, and was chaired by Harriet Briggs (Newcastle University).  What followed were three stimulating papers, all linked by ideas on intersection and interconnectivity between literary and scientific discourses.  The first paper was given by Rachel Dunn (Durham University), which discussed the contributions of John Dalton and Joseph Priestley to the teaching of science and grammar in Dissenting academies.  Although famed for their scientific achievements, Rachel introduced us to how both men approached the teaching of grammar from the perspective of literary usefulness.  Our second paper was by Iain Watts (Princeton University), who provided an engaging presentation on the subject of scientific correspondence in the early nineteenth century.  Focusing upon how theories relating to galvanism were conveyed between London, Paris and America, Iain explored the ways in which blockades during the Napoleonic period restricted, but did not necessarily prevent, the dispersion of scientific news.  Our final paper was given by Jessica Evans (University of Salford), who drew some fascinating connections between literature and the body in early nineteenth-century periodical writing.  Focusing upon Leigh Hunt’s Reflector, Jessica suggested that the diseased mind and body mapped onto the ways in which reformers viewed political and socio-economic turmoil during the 1810s.  This relationship between literature and science, and the mind and physicality (in terms of politics, discovery and even geography), inspired some rewarding questions and discussion.

Following a brief coffee break, our second panel got underway, entitled ‘Home and Abroad: Investigation, Objectification, Popularisation’ and chaired by Sarah Lill (Northumbria University).  The first paper was given by Jayne Winter (Newcastle University), and explored the ways in which science was depicted in ancient folk traditions.  Focusing upon the work of John Brand, who wrote extensively on antiquities in the 1810s, Jayne introduced us to how the act of studying the origins of poetry in ancient civilisations produced its own kind of discourse.  In his efforts to catalogue this process, Brand’s work results in a staggering accumulation of information, in which appendices and footnotes become as significant as the text itself.  This compelled us to consider whether such an approach could be seen as updating the ancient idea that literature was itself the expression of how humanity perceived the world and its surroundings.  Our second paper was by Lara Atkin (Queen Mary), which focussed upon how Southern African ‘Bushmen’ were perceived by curious spectators in London during the 1840s.  Lara explored how these depictions of indigenous races encapsulated nineteenth-century ideas of nationhood and ‘Britishness’.  However, she also offered the interesting reading that, rather than dismissing such attitudes as racist by modern-day standards, these reactions are valuable for what they reveal about contemporary curiosity and social preoccupations.  Once again, both papers sparked some interesting discussion, particularly on the subject of national identity and how this translated into literary terms.

After our lunch break, during which several delegates enjoyed a brief visit around the Lit & Phil, we were delighted to introduce our second keynote speaker, Dr. Peter Garratt, who is senior lecturer in English Literature at Northumbria University.  His presentation was chaired by Nicole Bush (Northumbria University).  Opening with a theme that built upon the intersections between different literary periods in our first keynote address, Peter discussed how the figure of the scientist in Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday (2005) encapsulates modern-day attitudes about the relationship between science and the art of reading.  Focussing upon how one of its main characters undertakes a reading of Matthew Arnold’s 'Dover Beach' (1867), Peter considered the ways in which it is possible for scientists to identify the ‘beauty’ in Arnold’s poem in the twenty-first century.  This theme operated as a skilful point through which to introduce us to Victorian attitudes to literature and science.  Drawing upon Cora Kaplan’s argument that McEwan deploys Victorian ideas for contemporary ends, Peter suggested that this notion of an effortless interaction between literature and science is not as clear-cut as is immediately supposed in nineteenth-century literature.  For example, he drew attention to how Arnold regarded literature to speak more to society than science, which he associated purely with facts and calculation.  In contrast, John Ruskin rejected simplified models of literature and science, connecting his literary criticism to studies of Darwinism and geology. 

This led into a discussion of a term in modern-day criticism that is viewed with caution by Peter’s funded project in this area: ‘Literary Darwinism’.  Suggesting that this concept derives from Darwin’s metaphor of ‘open fields’ for exploring the relationship between science and literature, Peter offered a more nuanced approach.  He drew attention to how this term inspires attack and counter-attack among modern-day scholars, particularly in terms of the ways in which harmony between nineteenth-century literature and science cannot be easily mapped onto contemporary thought.  He contrasted the notion of universality in knowledge expressed, for example, in Percy Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry (1821), with the modern-day term ‘consilience’, which he sees as relating more to themes in the study of literature and science, than the disciplines themselves.  This represents, he suggested, a confusion between epistemology and ontology.   Peter thus concluded that it is perhaps useful not to reject the idea of a relationship between nineteenth-century literature and science, but to be more cautious in imposing this harmony upon modern-day perceptions of the disciplines.  In other words, the elements that are less easily aligned with each other in both areas can be seen as  most useful to literary critics, hence the title of his paper – ‘Against Consilience’.

These ideas about whether literature and science should be accepted as compatible disciplines provoked some fascinating discussion, which led us into our final panel.  This was entitled ‘Motion and Form: Connections and Interplay between Art and Science’, and was chaired by Beatrice Turner (Newcastle University).  The first paper was given by Olivia Reilly (Oxford University), which introduced us to how notions of musicality in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘The Eolian Harp’ (1796) could be viewed along scientific lines.  Exploring how presentations of rhythm and music in the poem relate to Newtonian theories on sound waves , Olivia suggested that there is a case for arguing that contemporary science influenced Coleridge’s poetic composition.  However, she posited that these elements also uphold Coleridge’s views on how the mind’s secondary imagination was subject to the transcendental inspiration of the primary (or divine) imagination. 

Such theories on whether the mind is active or passive were extended in the second paper, given by Helen Mort (University of Sheffield).  Engaging with M. H. Abrams’s seminal ideas on whether the poetic imagination is a mirror (simply reflecting experience) or a lamp (illuminating experience with its own insights), she outlined a shift  between viewing the mind as passive (as Coleridge suggested), to its being seen as active in nineteenth-century views of poetry.  However, Helen added to such concepts her belief that this dichotomy becomes complicated by modern-day studies of neuroscience, and studies into the complexity of the brain.  These themes on the relationship between scientific discovery and literary innovation culminated in the third and final postgraduate paper.  This was given by Avishek Parui (Durham University), and focussed upon the influence of neurology in Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness (1902).  Avishek introduced us to how Conrad incorporated nineteenth-century theories on synapses in the brain into his novel’s exploration of race and sexuality, particularly the ways in which dialogue and functions of speech (such as whispering) can be seen to mirror neurological transmissions between nerves.  His paper also explored how scientific studies contributed to now-outdated arguments on phrenology, and the ways in which these impacted upon ‘the other’ concealed within Marlow’s psyche in the novel.

After a final coffee break, we were privileged to welcome our final keynote speaker, Emeritus Professor David Knight, who specialises in the history of science at Durham University.  Chairing this session was Kate Katigbak (Durham University).  David’s paper focussed upon the relationship between literature and scientific institutions.  Taking as his inspiration Newcastle’s Lit & Phil itself, David delighted us with a lively and engaging history of other scientific institutions with literary affiliations, focussing upon the Royal Institution in London.  He began by mentioning that centres for intellectual inquiry amongst innovators and, crucially, Dissenters, was a northern phenomenon in the late eighteenth century.  Whilst Birmingham and Lichfield were home to Erasmus Darwin’s Lunar Society, and Manchester hosted Priestley’s experiments, the Royal Institution was not founded until 1799, and even then was host to upper-class members, something it shared in common with the Royal Society under its president Joseph Banks.   

A major focus of David’s presentation was the life and career of acclaimed chemist Sir. Humphry Davy, whose fearless practical experiments led to the discovery of new elements, as well as pioneering discoveries in agriculture, mining and tanning.  However, David also introduced us to the lesser-known fact that Davy was poetic in nature, filling notebooks with verse and scientific observations in equal measure. Particularly fascinating was his account of Davy’s friendship with the Lake Poets.  Not only was Coleridge an enthusiast supporter (and occasional participant) in Davy’s experiments, but both Wordsworth and Southey recognised his literary talent.  We were intrigued to learn that Davy proof-read the second edition of The Lyrical Ballads and was instrumental in founding The Athenaeum, and that all three Lake Poets believed that he could have been a promising writer, had his talents been channelled in an alternative direction.  This observation is significant in itself, as it raises questions about the fluidity between literary and scientific thought, and why it is that the two are so often polarised in modern-day society.  David also provided us with an interesting account of how the Royal Institution experienced its heyday during and shortly after Davy’s career, as it was central also to the careers of Michael Faraday, Davy’s assistant, and Davy’s cousin Edmund, who became a prominent scientist in his own right.  David’s paper prompted an enthusiastic discussion from our delegates, who were interested to hear more about Davy’s achievements and that of science in the institutions of early nineteenth-century London.

After an insightful, rewarding and intellectually-enriching symposium, we left the Lit & Phil with lingering thoughts about the wide-ranging impact of scientific discovery upon reading, rhetoric and literary form in the nineteenth-century.  Discussion was continued at our well-attended wine reception, hosted by The Living Room restaurant on Grey Street.  Dinner was held in the same venue amidst a relaxed and friendly environment, in which many useful contacts and points of network were made.  Overall, we were delighted by how well the first NENC symposium was received, and would like to thank all our keynotes, our postgraduate speakers, our sponsors and the Lit & Phil for their support for our event.  We are keen to maintain the extended research network that grew out of the symposium, and are currently compiling a mailing list of contacts.  We warmly encourage our speakers to let us know if they would like to be included in this.  Please email:

Leanne Stokoe, Newcastle University.  


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