New ways of conceptualising the relationship between science and literature, thanks to The Toast.
Thursday, November 27, 2014
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Our final meeting of term will be held on Monday 1st December in the Newnham Terrace Upstairs Seminar Room at Darwin College. We will be reading the following texts, to conclude our series of sessions on the brain, as well as holding our usual end-of-term party:
- Greg Egan, "Permutation City", Prologue and Chapters Two and Three (also available in the University Library)
- David Chalmers, "The Singularity: A philosophical analysis".
Another very successful meeting of the Reading Group, where the warmth and wit of the conversation hopefully offset the rather chilly conditions of the room!
Liz and Robin gave thought-provoking introductions to our two set readings. First, Liz detailed further biographical background to the 'Dickens of the ghetto', Israel Zangwill, whom most of the Group were encountering for the first time. Thoroughly enjoying his short story, I'm sure it won't be the last we read of his writings, however. In particular, Liz drew attention to Zangwill's self-aware commentary on the position of writers, on the dangers of genius, and on the references to and mimicry of both realist and sensation fiction of the late nineteenth century. Through his description of one particular invention, its subsequent commercial and social applications, further development, and effects (potentially fatal) on purchasers, Zangwill was able to provoke consideration of the very nature of memory itself, not to mention identity. Liz also drew on a fascinating analogy with the recently-widespread publishing technology of electrotyping, and wondered whether this was one influence on the story's rather elusive memory-removing mechanism.
Robin followed with his introduction to the extract by Wells, usefully reminding us of key connections and experiences in his life, as well as pointing out his many non-fictional pieces that are not as well remembered as his science fiction writings. He discussed in particular how Wells' technological determinism provided one influence on these proposals for a universal encyclopaedia; a repository of human knowledge fit for the global age of the automobile and aeroplane. Once again, Robin drew on a helpful analogy to a contemporary publishing project, this time the development of card indexing systems in libraries, and the Dewey Decimal System, another attempt to itemise and organise pieces of knowledge, under curatorial care. Whilst he warned us against easy identifications between such proposals and the current state of the internet and its wiki-projects, he also showed us the trailer to a recent film, 'Google and the World Brain', which drew such comparisons.
The following discussion was rather inexpertly captured in my sketchy notes, but dealt both with close readings of the texts in question, as well as pondering wider considerations of personhood and morality, knowledge and information. We talked, for instance, about the history of attempts to determine the precise physical location of memories within the brain, connecting back to the discussions of phrenology in our first meeting, as well as to neurology, biochemistry, and medical scanning technologies. We thought about the metaphor of the clearing house, present in both texts, and the need to filter or suppress memories: when to retain and when to discard memories, and can this be a conscious process? What happens if you were to acquire someone else's memory? Does this become your experience and identity - would you think you are another person, or be another person? What about non-human entities given memories - how are they to be viewed, ethically? All of these being debates, of course, that will continue in our discussions next fortnight, when we will be accompanied by mince pies and mulled wine as we go beyond the brain...
Tuesday, November 11, 2014
The Oxonian Review is looking for short reviews (1000-2,000 words) of recently published work or essays (also 1000-2,000 words) on new developments in the field for our special issue on Literature and Science, which will be published on 8 December 2014. If you are interested in writing a review, please e-mail the Editor-in-Chief, Laura Ludtke (firstname.lastname@example.org). The Oxonian Review can easily request a review copy of the book for you.
Monday, November 10, 2014
Friday, November 07, 2014
Wednesday, November 05, 2014
Christina Koning, author of the novel Variable Stars about the life and work of astronomer Caroline Herschel, will give a public talk at 7.15pm on 12th November at the Institute of Astronomy, Madingley Road. This is part of the usual programme of Public Open Evenings, and if weather permits will be followed by an opportunity for star-gazing.
Tuesday, November 04, 2014
Our third meeting of term will be held on Monday 17th November from 7.30-9pm in Newnham Terrace First Floor Seminar Room at Darwin College (please note change of venue from previous sessions). All welcome!
We will read and compare two discussions of memory and the brain: let me know if you have trouble accessing either of these links:
- Israel Zangwill, ‘The Memory Clearing House’, in The King of Schnorrers (1893), pages 183-204.
- H.G. Wells, World Brain (1938), pages 45-62.
Last night witnessed the second meeting of the Michaelmas 2014 Science and Literature Reading Group, as we gathered for a thorough dissection of Thomas Willis and his writings on the brain.
Lizzie Swann gave a marvellous introduction to Willis himself and his posthumous reputation, the selected passages (English translations of his renowned earlier Latin writings), as well as wider cultures of seventeenth-century religion, philosophy and medicine. In particular, she analysed the rhetoric and language deployed by Willis as he struggled to translate his experimental practice into verbal descriptions. Willis claimed at the outset that he would base his writing on 'Nature and ocular demonstrations', yet suffused his prose with classical and Biblical allusion, and with myriad metaphors, from honeycomb to helmet. Just as different bodily theories could be discerned in Willis's writing, including Aristotelian sensory 'species', Paracelsian iatrochemistry and Galenic humours, so too were both the practices and objects of dissection likened to a series of more familiar analogues. Both wit and knives could be sharp. Lizzie characterised these as falling into two broad categories, the more pastoral, fluvial, agricultural or arboreal 'exterior' metaphors, and the more architectural 'interior' metaphors. She asked us to consider how rigorously, then, Willis upheld his commitment to first-hand observation; whether his religious beliefs were apparent and represented in the text; and the relationship between practices of dissection and visual and artistic skills.
The discussion took up these themes, to discuss in particular the marked use of metaphor throughout the text, and its varied figuring as model or metanoia, to point up similarity or difference, or as part of a more general debate over the metaphorical language of 'handling' subjects. Was this something that was part of a contemporary commitment to empiricism and virtual witnessing, we wondered, or a common way to think with and about books, or even inherited from older, classical sources? The multisensory world and practices of the dissecting room was another strand of the discussion; as was the relationship between soul and 'animal spirits', where they were located, which creatures owned them, and how they moved around: was it via Willis's favoured hydraulic imagery? Other early modern attempts to poetise the body, as well as comparisons between the microcosm and macrocosm, body and body politic, were also commented upon in the varied discussion, and I for one certainly left with much food for thought.