Monday, 14 May 2012

Bridging the Gulf

All ready to bridge that gulf

This Saturday marked the end of a long, significant process for 3 of us Keelites (Katie McGettigan, Emilie Taylor-Brown and I)- it was our first organised conference: Two Cultures or Co-evolution? Science and Literature 1800-present. 

It probably wasn't the easiest topic to pick for our first one; we were determined that it be truly interdisciplinary, and so were not only grappling with the organisational issues inevitable for this kind of event, but found ourselves in the very practical process of 'bridging the gulf.' Our keynotes comprised of two literature professors (Prof. David Amigoni of Keele University and Prof. Sharon Ruston of the University of Salford) and one microbiologist (Prof. Joanna Verran of Manchester Metropolitan University); a good start in bridging that gulf, we thought. The papers engaged with a phenomenal breadth of topics; the three panels took us from Romantic to contemporary literature, from England to Australia, from astonomy to neurology. Our delegates and keynotes can't be thanked enough for the quality of the papers, and the range of discussion generated from them. Two things did stand out however: one a discernable thread through all the papers, the other a fiery roundtable discussion.
Delegates arrive in the Claus Moser Research Centre, Keele University.
Note the sciencey statue in the middle of the humanities building.
The two cultures already at work!

That the first surprised me may be a sign of being too conditioned by propaganda from the likes of Google and Apple, and my deep love for the BBC Science web page: if someone mentions 'science', I think of newness, progression, development. The papers, from Professor Ruston's keynote (on Frankenstein and natural history) in the morning onwards, shared a vocabulary of destruction and degeneration. Our first panel title, 'At what price progress?', seemed to be answered by an overwhelming consensus that progress has come at a cost to individuality and social identity. Stella Pratt-Smith's paper, 'Technology and Civilization: the Questionable Progress of 19th-century Prowess', explored the representations of electricity as it began to enter into everyday life. What struck me most was that her discussion of its enabling (almost superhuman, by one personification) qualities was situated among reflections that it simultaneously 'invalidated' and 'invalided' the user; if electricity could take over, what need for the individual? The Wallace and Gromit-style house of inventions thus assumes a sinister, controlling role (electricity as the evil penguin, perhaps). Ann Loveridge's paper on vivisection continued this language of dehumanization, and Christine Chettle's examination of Gwendolen Harlow's loss of selfhood, which adopted the language of Lacan's 'mirror-stage' theory, likewise looked at the non-human side of Gwendolen; her reflection, not her person. Rebecca Bitenc suggested that representations of dementia suggest a 'struggle against dehumanization and Chris Mourant's discussion of the image of the disembodied eye on the poster for the First International Hygiene Exhibition (think the eye of Sauron with less fire) continued to complement this theme; this eye, at the intersection between Victorian and Modern society, looks Janus-like across the de-individualisation processes of both eras. Grace Halden's discussion of the 'apocalyptic imagination' in cold war literature took these dehumanizing readings out of the text, and suggested that the death of the self was intertwined with the death of the reader; in the twentieth century, it is not only the characters who lose their autonomy, but the readers too.

The second stand-out aspect was most obvious in the round table discussion, although several of the papers anticipated it; that is, the practicalities of bridging the gulf between Snow's 'two cultures'. Thomas West's discussion of J. H. Prynne's Wound Response interrogated Prynne's use of scientific language within his poetry, and concluded that Prynne used it playfully, deliberately mocking the gulf. It was a point emphasized by Professor Verran's keynote, and, indeed, by several of the delegates during the final discussion; Professor Verran confessed that, the first time she attended a literature class the word 'trope' seemed something quite alien (cue laughter from literature delegates, all guilty of over-using the word in seminars at some stage). Prynne's deliberate (mis-)use of scientific terms highlights the ways that language itself can widen the gulf; every delegate could nod in sympathy at the suggestion that projects have remained in some way incomplete because of the seeming impossibility of learning about something from 'the other side'. A sense of mutual bitterness was apparent; Adam Palay's suggestion that, for Humphry Davy, poetry was a thing of youth and science one of age could perhaps be translated to the evident feelings of the humanities delegates. The sense that we are often made to feel that projects with something scientific about them are more valuable (not least because they are the ones which attract the most funding) was palpable, and so the sense that something purely literary was a thing of youth, but not of 'serious' academics. On the other hand, the scientists felt unfairly pigeon-holed as an unimaginative bunch, with little creative flair and poor social skills. Both groups felt that they were in some way mocked or derided by the other 'culture'. Both, however, agreed that it is down to us - maybe starting with academics - to change that, and that, of course, is what this conference was trying to do.

Mark Taylor's paper perhaps provided the most suitable metaphor: the two cultures (mental and vertebrael states in that paper) must be balanced, else there can only be a 'mob state'. At the moment, it seemed clear, we do feel trapped in that 'mob state', neither side fully comfortable with accessing the other. Events like this highlight the way that, even if 'incomprehension' is mutual, so too is the desire to overcome it - and, moreover, that we have no excuses for continuing not to do so.

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