March 2012

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Being in a Department of English Language and Literature, it is not surprising that most people, both within and outside of academia, assume that I work with English Literature. I do teach English Literature across the syllabus, but my own research as a Critical Theorist asks questions about assumptions held in all disciplines. For that reason, perhaps oddly, I do not have the same ideas about literature that some of the other organisers of this workshop may have: for me, all texts are analysable, and literature is not, for me, ‘richer’ or more ‘complex’ or more ‘creative’ or more ‘powerful’ by definition, even though I know it may be felt or assumed to be so for many readers, academic or otherwise, and in whatever discipline.

Vice-versa, also perhaps oddly, I also therefore read ‘scientific texts’, for instance, in the same way that I read ‘literary’ texts. I am above all interested in how, for me, any language, in any text, brings consequences with it, even when the writers of those texts did not intend this and may not be aware of it at all. Interestingly, this way of reading is often viewed as odd in both the sciences, social sciences and humanities, so that I sit somewhat to one side of all the disciplines while meddling in them all!

To give an example: in my book On Having an Own Child: Reproductive Technologies and the Cultural Construction of Childhood (2008) I considered how despite the large amount of writing on reproductive technologies (such as IVF, ICSI, surrogacy and so on) in a range of disciplines, the one issue almost never addressed is the question of what the child is that is desired through such technologies.

There are books and articles on genetic interventions or ‘designer babies’, but that is not my point. My question is what kind of child are reproductive technologies supposed to produce as opposed to the child of, for instance, adoption or fostering? The common and wide-spread reply is that people want a child ‘of their own’. But what does this mean? Nowadays, the assumption is often that ‘passing on your genes’ makes a child ‘your own’. But even if genetic links are assumed to make children inevitably ones’ ‘own’, then exactly how and why? To examine this issue I consider in the book writings from anthropology, especially on kinship, from psychology and gender studies, from philosophy and ethics and from genetics and medicine and law.

I neither seek to ‘correct’ the definitions in these fields of the child of reproductive technologies, neither do I seek to condemn them. But I do seek to demonstrate that there are many and various views, and that knowing this may help the many people engaged with these technologies, whether as prospective parents or medical professionals or therapists and counsellors, to be able to explore better their hopes for and assumptions about the child that they all seek to produce, and how and why.

Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, Professor of Critical Theory

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For many years I was reluctant to admit to strangers that I was a historian. This made getting a haircut a frequent source of torment: “Not working today?” the barber would ask. “No,” I’d reply in the forlorn hope of closing down the conversation. “What do you do then?” [Pause] “Erm …”. At this point, if feeling particularly adventurous, I’d ‘borrow’ an occupation from a friend or relation. The tangled web that ensued, however, was never, as Walter Scott warned, worth the trouble. (I still have nightmares about the time I found myself in a shop basement staring at an electricity meter and intoning, with as much authority as I could muster: “Yes, that’s working perfectly.”)

An honest answer, however, often brought its own difficulties, especially if someone asked what the book I was working on was about. For a few years the simplest answer to this question was ‘phrenology’. Most people understood the term – “Bumps on the head, isn’t it?” – but few could fathom why anyone would spend their time researching it. “So, is there any truth in it?” I was asked on more than one occasion (and not just by barbers, who might be expected to have had a better idea than most).

Implicit in the question, I’ve always felt, was a dual assumption: that the world (and the past) is neatly divided into the ‘true’ and ‘untrue’, and that the latter is useless and thus not worth bothering with. If one holds to this view, that ‘truth’ and ‘utility’ are the only guides to what is worth studying, historians really should be embarrassed about avowing their vocation, and not only to barbers but more especially to University administrators and government ministers (in the unlikely event that they deign to ask). For one of the key tasks of historians, and historians of science more than most, is precisely the study of what is ‘wrong’ and ‘useless’. Just after the Second World War the medical historian Walter Pagel (1898-1983), published a short manifesto for this activity. He called it ‘the vindication of rubbish’.

Pagel’s approach was the antithesis of what we might call popular histories of science. In these accounts, often written by scientists themselves, knowledge is marching ever onwards in a straight line, with each generation (to mix our metaphors) standing on the shoulders of earlier giants, in their progress towards a more truthful understanding. Oddities, such as phrenology, take their place in such accounts, but only as party-pieces to be laughed at and thus confirm our own superior understanding. Pagel, by contrast, coined his phrase while exploring the relationship between alchemy and naturalism in the Renaissance. Rather than dismiss such ‘non-progressive’ elements in the history of science, Pagel argued that an understanding of alchemy and magic was essential to understanding Renaissance medicine and chemistry.

The justification for studying phrenology was slightly different. What interested me (and earlier historians) was the manner in which phrenology’s model of the brain – especially the notion of cognitive localization – mapped onto broader social and economic changes in Victorian society, and how this related to its success and popularity. In part, what we argued was that phrenology is a good example of how the success of a science is determined less by its inherent (or ahistorical) ‘truth’, and more by its explanatory power in a definite set of social relations. Phrenology’s theory of the brain, and thus human nature, that is, was popular because it was compatible with the new industrial capitalist economy and the values of free market economics. A study of phrenology, therefore, both aids our understanding of Victorian Britain and provides a historical perspective through which to view contemporary claims about the modularity of the mind, in neuroethics and brain imaging, which have been labeled the ‘new phrenology’.

Underlying my work, and that of other historians of science, are two assumptions that, I suspect, practicing scientists will find uncomfortable. The first is that the distinction between ‘science’ and ‘pseudo-science’, associated with the philosopher Karl Popper, is unhelpful and invalid. Alchemy, phrenology, magic, and a host of other oddities all deserve to be taken seriously in the history of science. Second, that the ‘realist’ assumption that we should unquestioningly accept today’s science as ‘objective’ and ‘true’ is unsustainable in the face of historical evidence. There are so many cases of theories that were empirically successful in their own day but are now believed false – one historian (Larry Laudan) listed 30 in a range of different disciplines and eras – that there seem good grounds for assuming the historical contingency of any scientific ‘truth’. The atomic theory of matter, after all, could go the same way as phlogiston (the non-existent chemical thought to be released during combustion, prior to the discovery of oxygen) theory.

These, I concede, are difficult and contentious topics that cut to the heart of both the self-image of science and the work of humanities scholars. They are not, perhaps, suitable topics for the barber’s chair but they will, I hope, form part of our discussions at the Cultivating Common Ground workshop. And if biologists prove no more receptive to my ideas than barbers, I am well practiced in steering the conversation around to where I’m planning to spend my holidays.

 

Dr David Stack

Reader in History

 

 

Our Cultivating Common Ground workshop will be held at the University of Reading’s Whiteknights campus on Wednesday 18 July.

There will be a full day of activites, with refreshments provided.

More details to follow.

If you are professionally interested in biology and would like to participate or receive further information, contact Nick Battey (n.h.battey@reading.ac.uk).

Nick Battey, Professor of Plant Development at the University of Reading

Why cultivate common ground between biology and the humanities? For me, it’s all about sharing skill: they (humanities) have abundance in the areas of analysis, expression, creativity; we (biologists) have subject matter: the wonders of the natural world, the ever-increasing depth of biological understanding. I see enormous opportunity for subjectivising this biological material, by which I mean that scientific knowledge is a starting point, a template on which to build personal knowledge. As William James wrote, ‘so long as we deal with the cosmic and the general, we deal only with the symbols of reality, but as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term.’

Take migration and the things that neuroscientists, physiologists, ecologists and conservation biologists have found out about it, for instance in the Monarch butterfly.

Some of these butterflies migrate across North America, from as far north as Canada to Mexico, every autumn, to come to roost in a relatively small area in highland Mexico. The following spring they return north, feeding on Asclepias (milkweed) and from it gaining protection against predators by accumulating toxic compounds produced by this plant. The butterfly life cycle means that several generations pass during the annual migration, so navigation is presumably innate rather than learned. Navigation involves the use of a sun compass, wind currents and possibly a light-dependent magnetic compass, plus some form of local navigation mechanism (olfactory?) to ensure return to the same region of pine forest in Michoacán, Mexico every year.

Also discussing biological migration (this time in swallows) is Richard Garnett in the TLS, 1969. (See Defoe and the Swallows). I think this is a masterly example of how to ‘write something up’; the style exemplifies one of the things the humanities have to offer.

Cultivating common ground is, for me, about finding ways to combine these approaches and skills.

The workshop on 18 July is a way to explore how this might be achieved. We will discuss humanities work relating to biology. We will see how biologists react, what opportunities they see, where difficulties (and perhaps mutual incomprehension) lie. We will produce a summary analysis of the topic and the workshop, with the aim of cultivating the common ground shared by biology and the humanities. We hope to generate teaching ideas, novel research, and deeper knowledge; whatever transpires it will be an unusual and stimulating experience. A collaborative research programme on ‘migration’ could be an outcome…..

More by Nick Battey

Paul Hatcher and Nick Battey, 2011. Biological Diversity: Exploiters and Exploited. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester. http://www.amazon.com/Biological-Diversity-Exploiters-Paul-Hatcher/dp/0470778075

http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/exploiters-and-exploited

Nick Battey, 2002/2003. Plant Culture: Thirteen Seasonal Pieces. Journal of Experimental Botany 53/54. Pdf/Follow the link to the thirteenth (December) seasonal piece: http://jxb.oxfordjournals.org/content/54/393/2597.full.pdf+html

More on Monarch Butterflies: Pdf by/link to Reppert, S. M. et al., 2010. Navigational mechanisms of migrating Monarch butterflies. Trends in Neuroscience 33, 399-406.

Nick Battey, Professor of Plant Development at the University of Reading

Cultivating common ground is, for me, about finding ways to combine the approaches and skills of two cultures (biology and the humanities) which have a lot to offer each other.

The workshop on 18 July is a way to explore how this might be achieved. We will discuss humanities work relating to biology. We will see how biologists react, what opportunities there may be, where difficulties (and perhaps mutual incomprehension) lie. We will produce a summary analysis of the topic and the workshop, with the aim of cultivating the common ground shared by biology and the humanities.

We hope to generate teaching ideas, novel research, and deeper knowledge; whatever transpires it will be an unusual and stimulating experience.

More by Nick Battey

Paul Hatcher and Nick Battey, 2011. Biological Diversity: Exploiters and Exploited. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester. http://www.amazon.com/Biological-Diversity-Exploiters-Paul-Hatcher/dp/0470778075

http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/exploiters-and-exploited

Nick Battey, 2002/2003. Plant Culture: Thirteen Seasonal Pieces. Journal of Experimental Botany 53/54. Follow the link to the thirteenth (December) seasonal piece: http://jxb.oxfordjournals.org/content/54/393/2597.full.pdf+html

 

John Holmes, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Reading

After six years as their Treasurer and Book Reviews Editor, I have just taken over as Chair of the British Society for Literature and Science. There is a lot of interest in biology among literature scholars, working on topics from how plants and animals are represented in literature to the evolution of literature itself. Cultivating common ground offers us a chance to share some of that interdisciplinary work with the people who do the research within the discipline(s) of biology itself, to see what biologists make of what literature scholars and historians have to say about biology, and how we can work together to further collaboration from both sides.

More by John Holmes

Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009) http://www.euppublishing.com/book/978-0-7486-3940-3

http://downloads.royalsociety.org/audio/Holmes.mp3

Science in Modern Poetry: New Directions (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012) http://www.liverpool-unipress.co.uk/html/publication.asp?idProduct=4074

 

David Stack, Reader in History at the University of Reading

I find myself thinking about science an awful lot. Not only because my area of history cannot be understood without an appreciation of the power and place of science in Victorian society, but also because science, in all its manifestations, does so much to shape my working life. I’m as content as the next technophobe not to worry about how the computers and search engines that increasingly facilitate my research actually work. It is less easy to ignore, however, the way in which models and structures developed for the natural sciences increasingly shape the day-to-day experience of working in a university. Higher education spending is now primarily directed towards ‘big science’, and as a consequence the funding and management of non-science departments – winning grants, making ‘impact’, the dreaded REF – increasingly apes models developed for the sciences.

But do my colleagues in the biological sciences, I wonder, reciprocate? Do they care what we do in the humanities? Do they think that there might be value in the literary and historical study of their discipline?  I hope so.

I’m not convinced it is desirable to cultivate common ground in the sense of some ill-defined interdisciplinarity, which too often implies the subordination of one discipline to another. (And in the meeting of multi-million pound science and the relatively poverty stricken humanities the deal is only likely to cut one way). But any initiative that enhances our mutual understanding, or at least reduces mutual misunderstanding, must be welcome.

What I hope we can cultivate is common ground where the sciences and humanities meet as intellectual equals, explore common themes, but also recognize the value of their distinct identities and contributions.

 

David Stack’s books include:

Queen Victoria’s Skull (2008)

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Queen-Victorias-Skull-George-Mid-Victorian/dp/1847252338

The First Darwinian Left (2003)

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-First-Darwinian-Left-Socialism/dp/1873797370/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_1

Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, Professor of Critical Theory in the English Department at the University of Reading

Although I am a Professor in a Department of English Language and Literature, I do not do the kind of work most people expect, and this is also why I am involved with Cultivating Common Ground. As a Critical Theorist I work across all disciplines asking questions of basic assumptions in any field. This means that I am not so much an interdisciplinary researcher as what is nowadays called a transdisciplinary researcher: the assumptions I question usually underpin a range of ideas in a range of disciplines which may otherwise seem quite different.
My primary (although not only) focus is the assumptions made in disciplines about childhood and gender. In this sense, I am not so much someone who cultivates common ground as someone who works on showing how the ground is already common, even where it does not seem to be. But this also means that the questions I ask are often seen to be very strange indeed, as no discipline sees them as self-evident or even as questions at all. Many people, whether academics or not, are very surprised indeed to hear that my latest (in press) article is on mathematics while the article I published before that was on how people think about childhood, gender and sexual identity in the Humanities and Social Sciences. I hope to bring to the workshop my particular perspective of not working with separate disciplines anyway, but with the common issues that underpin them all.

Karin Lesnik-Oberstein’s books include:

Children’s Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child, 1994, repr. 2000.
The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair, (editor and contributor), 2006.
On Having an Own Child: Reproductive Technologies and the Cultural Construction of Childhood, 2008.
Children in Culture, Revisited: Further Approaches to Childhood, (editor and contributor), 2011

 Francoise Le Saux, Professor of Medieval Languages and Literature at the University of Reading

One aspect of medieval culture that has always interested me is the absence of the strict compartmentalisation of knowledge we now live with.  Medieval manuscripts frequently gather side by side homilies, theological treatises, obscene tales, courtly romances, medical and veterinary tracts and pharmaceutical recipes; science and culture were part of a seamless whole, informing each other, and both core to the educational experience of the medieval scholar. From the twelfth to the sixteenth century, science was no less ‘scientific’ in its approaches than nowadays; it was equally based on theories formulated to make sense of facts established by observation, and explaining the ability to reproduce certain outcomes in the laboratory or the workshop.  In the absence of sophisticated technological aids (such as effective microscopes), these observations were flawed, and many of the scientific theories of the period are now dismissed. However, the Middle Ages present us with a useful model of integration of science within a wider cultural horizon, and I look forward to exploring in our workshop the tortuous road that led to the divorce between science and culture in the Modern period.