Saturday, July 19, 2014

Commission on Science and Literature Inaugural Conference - Report

As the July sun baked the Athens streets, delegates attending the first conference of the International Commission on Science and Literature sheltered behind the doors of the Hellenic Research Institute, taking refuge in its (mostly) air-conditioned seats. We were there to hear papers on topics from plague to cyberpunk, given by presenters hailing from Austria to Australia, at an event which certainly lived up to its global billing, and to its wide disciplinary remit.

Listening to the talks, we met old favourites such as Charles Dickens and Emily Dickinson, but were taught to think of them in new ways: seeing, for instance, the Darwinian themes in Dickinson’s verses, as James Levernier emphasised; or, as Helen Goodman revealed, the layers of grief and masculinity in Dombey and Son. Ryan Sweet’s engaging tour of adventure fiction revisited some childhood classics, but from the novel angle of the history of disability: what was the significance of these particularly prosthetic pirates, from Long John Silver to Captain Hook?

Other talks focused more explicitly on discussions over what science and its practitioners and audiences could be: who could be involved, and in what ways? Gunhild Berg, for instance, analysed German portrayals of both magicians and men of science, demonstrating how fictional writing was used to challenge easy distinctions between the two. For Claire Jones, the gender of scientific practitioners formed the starting-point of her analysis, as she discussed anxieties over women’s laboratory research, introducing in particular a deeper consideration of The Call, a thinly-veiled biography of Hertha Ayrton.

The process and form of both science and literature were also key areas of analysis: Rachel Crossland fascinatingly explored how periodicals in the early twentieth-century reported on science ‘in progress’; in Will Tattersdill’s bravura analysis, the tricky generic categorisation of a marvellous monster story revealed the unstable nature of the literary, scientific, and physical forms under consideration in late nineteenth-century palaeontology. Clare Stainthorp, meanwhile, elegantly introduced the unified scientific philosophy of Constance Naden, looking in depth at her poetic output.

Some of the most interesting talks engaged closely with particular national contexts: Kostas Tampakis, for instance, revealed that it was not only the boundary between science and literature that was called into dispute by nineteenth-century Greek professor-poets but also national and natural boundaries: the scientific domain undermined, they argued, Ottoman claims to territory that was ‘naturally’ Greek. The French ‘anticipation’ fiction of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was also, as Valérie Stiénon, Christèle Couleau, and Claire Barel-Moisan demonstrated in their panel, drawn from specific Parisian journalistic and scientific anxieties of the day.

Claire’s paper on the delightful illustrations by Robida confirmed the importance of considering images and material forms of texts alongside their words. Indeed, historical predictions of what form the book might yet take was central to Valérie’s argument: would we soon be able to touch or even smell stories? A presentation by Fay Tsitou of her charming toy theatre show on the Greek language (and our many Greek terms for scientific objects and concepts), “τῆλε, τήλε…, tele…”, affirmed the effectiveness of multisensory approaches.

Overall, the truly international scope was the great strength of this event: the impressive range of topics but also the backgrounds of participants demonstrated the value of global comparison and connection. My particular thanks go to George Vlahakis and Kostas Tampakis as well as the rest of the organising team for their wonderful hospitality and lunch-wrangling. Watch out for news of the next CoSciLit event, scheduled for 2016.