CHHS research seminar + English Department (online) – Dr Doug Battersby, Dr Louise Benson James, Dr Sarah Daw

On the 6th of October the CHHS co-hosted a research seminar with the English Department.

Dr Doug Battersby presented his paper ‘The Novel and the Heart’. In his talk, Battersby introduced his Marie Curie Global Fellowship project, “The Novel and the Heart: 1840–1940,” which will be carried out at Stanford University and the University of Bristol. The heart is perhaps the single most important trope in Western literary culture, widely exploited by writers to explore questions about authenticity and self-knowledge, virtue and ethical commitment, emotion and embodiment, illness and health, and volition and sexual desire. Such questions became the central preoccupation of literary fiction in the Victorian and modernist periods, and it is therefore not surprising that the heart features prominently in numerous canonical works, from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) to James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). But whilst previous interdisciplinary studies have shown how the heart’s cultural meanings have changed dramatically from the Medieval period onwards, these studies have not extended beyond the mid-19th century and have explicitly set the novel form aside as less worthy of interest than poetry, with its apparently more intuitive connection to cardiac rhythms. Battersby’s project will examine how representations of the heart in novels by canonical British and Irish writers evolved in dialogue with scientific and medical understandings of the organ specifically and the body generally.

Dr Louise Benson James presented her paper ‘Intracorporeal Narratives: Reading Internal Biology in Women’s Literature, 1880s-1930s. This paper introduced Benson James’ Marie Skłodowska-Curie project at Ghent University, entitled ‘Intracorporeal Narratives: Reading Internal Biology in Women’s Literature, 1880s-1930s’. The project examines British and American women’s fiction for its depictions of internal anatomy: organs and systems, circulatory, nervous, reproductive, and digestive, to analyse how women’s writing communicates bodily experiences and depicts the ‘intracorporeal’, narrative journeys through concealed and invisible organs. Benson James questioned: how do visualisations of the body’s insides and internal workings change through time? Does literature reflect medical developments and discoveries, for example echoing the shift from the nervous to the hormonal body? How are metaphors employed to aid us in visualising these systems and parts: the nervous system as a network of vibrating strings, hormones as postal packages or chemical messages, the sperm and egg as static and kinetic, the biological clock? Benson James is interested in the persistent desire to find a physiological rationale, to map pain internally, even when that pain has an emotional or psychological source. The project also explores how changing conceptualisations of the body interact with gendered notions of pathology and disorder. Comparing fictional texts to medical writing and advertising of the same era, it will track the development of and interaction between the medical understanding of the internal body, communication in the public realm, and exploration in literature.

Dr Sarah Daw presented her paper ‘Imagining the (Eco)Future: Ecotopian Thought in an Age of Climate Breakdown’. ‘Ecotopian’, or ecologically-ideal, visions of humanity’s future in the Anthropocene are a negligible presence within contemporary British and North American climate change discourse, particularly in comparison to the abundance of apocalyptic and dystopian depictions of the future. Apocalyptic narratives of the future are increasingly prevalent in contemporary discourse, as the climate crisis becomes ever more acute and rises further up global news agendas. There is also mounting evidence that, in the years since ecocritic Lawrence Buell argued that apocalypse constitutes the “single most powerful master metaphor that the contemporary environmental imagination has at its disposal”, far from promoting action and engagement, apocalyptic framing actually works to compound inaction and avoidance. However, despite the growing body of ecocritical work demonstrating the problems arising from the prevalence of apocalyptic imagery and thought within environmental writing, relatively little critical attention has been paid to its antithesis – depictions of ‘ecotopian’, or ecologically ideal, futures. This talk introduced Daw’s Marie Curie Global Fellowship research on ‘ecotopia’, which investigates the presence and absence of ecotopian visions of the future within contemporary climate change writing across disciples. In order to contextualise this new research, Daw outlined the Cold War history of modern environmentalism, considered the contemporary influence of this mid-century history, and discussed the lack of critical attention to ecotopian writing and thought within the field of ecocriticism.

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