Karin Lesnik-Oberstein

Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein

Dear All,

At the workshop ‘Cultivating Common Ground’ the break-away group on critical theory (close textual analysis) led by Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein discussed how a grounding paper for the study of ‘mirror neurons’ in neuroscience could be critiqued through both scientific approaches but also through textual analysis of underpinning assumptions in the language of the theories and experiments. Interestingly, the group found, there turned out to be overlap between the science and the textual analyses in both what they critiqued in the paper and how.

Karin has continued to write critiques of neuroscience based on this close textual analysis (several are awaiting publication) and is now going to give an invited paper on how ideas of childhood and ideas of neuroscience are linked at the following symposium:

Depsychologizing/deneurologizing modern subjectivity?

One-day symposium and book launch Psychologization and the Subject of Late-Modernity (Jan De Vos, Palgrave 2014)

Ghent, Belgium, 8 January 2014

What does it mean to become the (neuro)psychologist of one’s own life? If something is not working in our education, in our marriage, in our work and in society in general we turn to the (neuro)psy-sciences. But is the latter’s paradigm precisely not relying on feeding neuro-psychological theories into the field of research and action? Isn’t therefore, psychology not always already psychologization, and is, concomitantly, neuroscience not always already neurologisation?

This one-day symposium brings together psychologists, psychoanalysts, philosophers and educationalists to reflect on the centrality of the (neuro)psy slope of modern subjectivity and its consequences for critique. The closing event of the day is the book launch of Jan De Vos’s book Psychologization and the Subject of Late Modernity (Palgrave, 2014).

There is a new AHRC website gathering together all the information on their ‘Science and Culture’ awards and projects, including our project on this blog. See at: http://www.sciculture.ac.uk/projects/exploratory-awards/the-value-of-the-literary-and-historical-study-of-biology-to-biologists/

Karin Lesnik-Oberstein

One of the things we discovered while working on the Cultivating Common Ground project is that even many people who have an interest in considering Biology (or Science) and Humanities from inter- or transdisciplinary perspectives are often unaware of the wide and long-standing range of organisations who engage in this kind of thinking, so I thought it might be helpful to post here the links that we gathered (participants of the workshop already have these links). The links here are all as far as possible specific to Biology and the Humanities:

The British Society for Literature and Science

The British Society for the History of Science

The British Society for the Philosophy of Science

The International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology

The London Interdisciplinary Discussion Group

The Public Communication of Science and Technology Network

The Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts

Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, University of Reading

The workshop for ‘Cultivating Common Ground’ took place on Wednesday July 18th 2012 in the Henley Business School on Whiteknights campus of the University of Reading. The organisers of the project (project lead Professor Nick Battey, RA Dr Rachel Crossland, co-investigators Dr David Stack, Professor Francoise Le Saux, Dr John Holmes and Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein and presenter Dr Paul Hatcher) were joined by thirty-two participants, most of whom are practising academic biologists, but also several teachers of biology, museum and research institute staff and interdisciplinary humanities and social sciences researchers.

The workshop proved to be a very lively and positive event: there was throughout a sense of enthusiastic engagement and thought. The workshop was divided into several sections: first there was a morning introduction from Professor Battey, followed by presentations from each of the four co-investigators on their specific areas of expertise. The presentations were then responded to through group-discussions based on five pre-set questions. After a break for lunch Dr Paul Hatcher introduced and presented two short natural history films on parasitoids, one from 1931 and one more contemporary one, to see what responses these might elicit in the light of the humanities. After this everyone departed to join one of four break-out groups that had been signed-up for earlier on the day: either a group thinking about interdisciplinary research-proposals, led by Professor Battey and Professor Le Saux, or a group on how humanities might be used in natural history museum curating, led by Dr John Holmes and joined by the Director of the University of Reading’s Cole Museum of Zoology (where that break-out group also took place), Dr Amanda Callaghan, or a group on teaching an interdisciplinary science and humanities module, led by Dr David Stack and based on a module designed and forthcoming at the University of Reading, or a group considering analytic ways of reading led by Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, focussing on a critical reading of an article by Vittorio Gallese and Alvin Goldman on ‘Mirror Neurons and the Simulation Theory of Mind-Reading’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences2:12, December 1998, 493-501. The workshop then ended with a summarising of the day’s events by Professor Battey.

All in all, it was a most enjoyable and productive day with the exchange of many interesting and important ideas and questions, on which we will be reporting further here in the near future.

Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, University of Reading

 

My area of specialism, Critical Theory, asks questions about the consequences of assumptions across, potentially, all areas of research. In my case, I focus particularly on how certain assumptions about language and reading underpin claims made in bio/medical research. The core question for me is whether language is assumed to be a transparent ‘medium’ which describes or reflects or represents the world, or whether language makes the world. As a corollary to this, I examine whether/ how in bio/medical research, through an idea of language as ‘neutral’, the world is assumed as represented through that language, or whether/ how that world is read and what the consequences of that all may be. Examples of the focus my work has (had) include: (where/ how) does bio-medical research assume there are bodies that are represented? Or animals? Or children? Or nature? Or genetics?

Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein

If you are considering attending our workshop, or just interested in the areas we are addressing, then you might be interested too in reading two really brilliant and important articles on the relationships between Evolutionary Psychology and Literature, by Professor Jonathan Kramnick from Rutgers University in the USA.

I have been using Professor Kramnick’s work myself in a piece I am working on at present with colleagues on how people think about childhood and children’s literature and evolutionary psychology. Whether you agree or not with Professor Kramnick’s arguments, his pieces explain wonderfully what is at stake in the whole discussion and demonstrate how this debate gets some people very hot under the collar indeed!

In his articles (the second piece is a response to the critics of his first piece), Professor Kramnick explains how evolutionary psychology has recently (in the past ten or so years) started to engage increasingly with literature and art, trying to explain why and how literature and art are evolutionary adaptations. He then explores very clearly and carefully both what kinds of ideas of evolution are used in these discussions, as well as what ideas of literature and what the implications are on both sides.

Both articles can be accessed on the internet:

Jonathan Kramnick, ‘Against Literary Darwinism’, Critical Inquiry, Winter 2011.

Jonathan Kramnick, ‘Literary Studies and Science: A Response to my Critics’, Critical Inquiry, Winter 2012.

Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, Professor of Critical Theory

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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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.