Microscopic Imaginaries Conference


“Microscopic Imaginaries in 20th- and 21st-Century Literature”

Salle Athéna, Maison de la Recherche, 4 rue des Irlandais. 24/11/2023.

9h        Welcome

9h15    Patrick Armstrong (Cambridge University)


            Respondent: Catherine Lanone (Sorbonne Nouvelle)

10h00 Emma Felin (Oxford University)

“Microscopic Modernism”

Respondent: Aurore Clavier (Université Paris Cité)

10h45 Coffee and poetry break

11h15  Lisa Mullen (Cambridge University):

“‘News from the World of Neglected Dimensions’: War, fascism, and literature in Hugh Nicol’s Microbes by the Million (1939)”

Respondent: Patrick Armstrong (Cambridge University)

12h00 Cécilia Bognon-Küss (Sorbonne Université), Fleur Hopkins-Loféron (Sorbonne Nouvelle) and Liliane Campos (Sorbonne Nouvelle) :

“Microscopic Imaginaries in Popular Science” round-table

12h45 Lunch break

14h15 Teun-Joshua Brandt (Groningen University)

“Seeing the Unseen: Deep-Sea Microbes and the Ecological Imagination in Frank Schätzings Der Schwarm”

Respondent: Christina Heflin (Panthéon-Sorbonne)

15h      Rosalind Crocker (Sheffield University)

“Gothicising the Microbial ‘Other’ in Anne Roiphe’s An Imperfect Lens (2006)”

Respondent: Estelle Murail (ICP)

15h45 Shannon Lambert (Ghent University)

“Stuck in the Mud: Friction, Microbial Networks, and Citizen Science in Susan Gaines’ Accidentals (2020)”

Respondent: Christine Lorre (Sorbonne Nouvelle)

16h30 Coffee and poetry break

17h      Marco Caracciolo (Ghent University)

“Unraveling Bodies and Environmental Challenges in Contemporary Anglophone Fiction”

Respondent: Diane Leblond (Université de Lorraine)

17h45 Sarah Bouttier (Ecole Polytechnique), Jennifer K. Dick (Université de Haute Alsace), Catherine Larose (Institut des Géosciences de l’Environnement) and Dorothy Lehane (Litmus Publishing):

“Microbiology in Poetry” round-table

Scientific committee : sarah.bouttier@polytechnique.edu, liliane.campos@sorbonne-nouvelle.fr, caroline.pollentier@sorbonne-nouvelle.fr and sarah.montin@sorbonne-nouvelle.fr

This symposium is a BioCriticism event, organized thanks to the support of the Institut Universitaire de France and the Sorbonne Nouvelle (PRISMES laboratory).


9.15 Patrick Armstrong (Cambridge University): “Micro-Modernism”

Focusing largely on the works of British and Irish modernist writers, such as D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and Samuel Beckett, this paper explores modernist fiction in terms of microscopy, examining the complex and plural terrain of modernist thought and technique, for which the microscope serves as metaphor. Through an exploration of Lawrence’s representation of a specialised scientific mode of seeing in The Rainbow (1915), Woolf’s ambitious attempts to renew our perception of perception in The Waves (1931), and Beckett’s playful early fiction, which questions the reliability of the naked eye through close descriptions of the body, this paper argues that microscopic vision, and representations of optical prostheses, raise important questions about knowledge and its grounding in vision. Dislocating encounters with the microscopic are figured as thresholds between the human and the non-human, in ways that reverberate through modernist fiction. Concentrating, then, on microscopes and the unfamiliar microworlds they reveal, I illustrate a number of ways in which optical instruments had the capacity to change, displace and reframe ideas of what the world is like. By absorbing and redistributing the disorientating perspectives generated by microscopes, modernist fiction can be read afresh as an analogous optical instrument that reconfigures the boundaries of visibility. This paper aims to reveal a radical microscopical aesthetics for modernist prose – one defined by qualities of newness, atomism, unfamiliarity, and shock.

10.00 Emma Felin (Oxford University): “Microscopic Modernism”

In his introduction to Marianne Moore’s Selected Poems (1935), T.S. Eliot described the poet as having ‘the fascination of a high-powered microscope’. Moore’s poetry, according to Eliot, ‘succeeds at once in startling us into an unusual awareness of visual patterns’—an awareness that many modernists attributed to the microscope and other technological apparatuses like the x-ray and the fluoroscope. Not only did modernist poets like Moore have practical experience with the microscope, but they also used the microscope as an analogy for their own ability to pierce through surface appearances. In 1913, for example, Filippo Marinetti announced his desire to ‘express the infinite smallness that surrounds us, the imperceptible, the invisible, the agitation of atoms, Brownian movements, all the thrilling hypotheses and all the dominions explored by high-powered microscopes’. Similarly, in 1919, Ernest Fenollosa announced that ‘thought deals with no bloodless concepts but watches things move under its microscope’. Even as sentiments like Marinetti’s and Fenollosa’s were commonplace among modernists seeking to perceive the imperceptible, however, many modernists resisted the reductionist tendencies of the microscopic imagination. Ultimately, by oscillating between the micro and the macro, modernist poets like Moore and Eliot portrayed the perceptual environment as a holistic phenomenon, incomplete without recourse into both interior makeup and exterior appearance.

11.15 Lisa Mullen (Cambridge University): “‘News from the World of Neglected Dimensions’: War, fascism, and literature in Hugh Nicol’s Microbes by the Million (1939)”

In 1939, Penguin published a ‘Pelican Special’ paperback by the Scottish microbiologist Hugh Nicol – then an assistant bacteriologist at the Rothamsted Experimental Station, specialising in agricultural chemistry. Microbes by the Million was an early experiment in popular science publishing; the ‘general reader’ was encouraged, in Nicol’s preface, to ‘get what amusement you can out of it’, and the author peppers his text with jovial asides, anecdotes, and cultural references to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, H. G. Wells, and Dorothy Sayers’s detective fiction.

On the surface, the conceit of the book is cheerfully anthropomorphic; bacteria are described as autonomous, opinionated entities with ambitions and plans, likes and dislikes. I will argue, though, that the subtext is sharply ecocritical, as Nicol promotes the idea of ecosystemic co-dependencies, explicitly deriding the ‘anthropocentric point of view’ which presents the teeming microbiome as alien, disgusting, or inimical to human safety. Alongside this critique of microbial alterity, Nicol emphasises the importance of experimental methodology and the rigorous quest for truth, expanding this, in an epilogue, from science to social and political policy: the alternative, he warns, is ‘the adoption of dogma, to challenge which is treason […] The latter condition is Fascism, by whatever name it is known.’

This paper will draw theoretically on the work of Haraway, Agamben, and Braidotti to consider how Nicol constructs a rhetoric – and an ethics – of radical microbial kinship. Placing his book within its historical and cultural context, I will argue that Microbes by the Million was a pioneering essay in political ecocriticism which foregrounded the microscopic perspective, not as a metaphor for social relations, but as fundamentally entangled with human destiny.

14.15 Teun-Joshua Brandt (Groningen University): “Seeing the Unseen: Deep-Sea Microbes and the Ecological Imagination in Frank Schätzing’s Der Schwarm”

Starting from the discovery of hydrothermal vents in 1977, the deep sea revealed a surprising abundance of life, challenging the belief that life could not pertain in the depths. Symbiotic relationships with chemosynthesising microbes enable many creatures to survive in these extreme environments. In the scientific imagination of the deep, therefore, microorganisms have emerged as main actants, weaving intricate networks of symbiotic relationships and powering the very fabric of the deep-sea ecosystem. However, popular perceptions still portray the deep sea as vast, desolate, and mysterious, perpetuating cultural fantasies and myths. Despite scientific evidence of its global importance, the deep is often overlooked in favour of more visible ecosystems like tropical rainforests. In the face of ongoing ecocide, it is crucial to incorporate knowledge of the microbial ‘unseen majority’ into our ecological imagination and challenge the ‘size bias’ (C. Cockel) towards larger organisms. This is particularly true when it comes to the deep, as a large-scale international deep-sea mining program looms, despite warnings of disastrous consequences. This paper examines three problematic narratives of the deep sea in the context of this anthropogenic ecocide: that of the deep-sea as a barren place, lacking any possibilities for life to thrive; as a place full of alien life, fuelling the imagination of monstrous creatures; and as the last wilderness on earth and the last frontier to be explored. It will be argued that the discrepancy between scientific knowledge and cultural narratives becomes very clear when it comes to literary narratives of the deep. What persists in deep-sea literature is the fear of the ‘fictitious’ and the ‘possible’. The Real, to engage with the conceptual framework articulated by Séan Harrington, remains largely ignored. Subsequently, I argue that Frank Schätzing’s novel Der Schwarm (2004) exemplifies a profound engagement with deep-sea worlds in the Anthropocene. It articulates the relevance of deep-sea ecosystems to the Earth system and positions the deep-sea microbe as an important actor in human lifeworlds instead of letting it reside at the fringes of the cultural imagination. Instead of recycling old storylines, the novel critically engages with prevailing problematic narratives and ‘updates’ the common imagery by integrating microbial worlds into the central thread of the story.

15.00 Rosalind Crocker (Sheffield University): “Gothicising the Microbial ‘Other’ in Anne Roiphe’s An Imperfect Lens (2006)”

Anne Roiphe’s 2006 neo-historical novel An Imperfect Lens concerns the 1883 cholera outbreak in Alexandria in Egypt, following the stories of real-life scientists engaged in identifying cholera bacteria for the first time. Focusing on different experiences of cholera in both extended descriptions and shorter vignettes, the novel presents a comprehensive account of contagious illness, examining the microscopic journey of cholera bacterium within the individual, as well as interrelational patterns of contagion through the city. In this way, Roiphe’s novel underscores one central tension of the epidemic; like all contagious diseases, once inside the body, cholera renders its sufferer both infected and infectious, making its host complicit in its expansionist endeavours.

            A neo-Victorian novel, Roiphe’s authorial context in the Twenty-First Century highlights the ways in which modern understandings of disease might be articulated self-consciously in historical fiction. Addressing the reader directly, Roiphe’s omniscient narrator looks often to anticipated developments in microscopy and epidemiology, offering a blurring of contemporary and historical discourses which highlights the tenuous status of apparent medical and scientific ‘progress’.

In this presentation, I will explore the Gothic resonances of the microbial ‘other’ in An Imperfect Lens. In particular, I will be focusing on the role of the microscopic narrative perspective as it acts to defamiliarize the body and imbue its interactions with other bodies with a heightened sense of threat. Drawing on Kelly Hurley’s reading of abhumanism, this paper will examine the novel’s depiction of contagion as ‘monstrous becoming’, with this convergence of the human and the microbial emphasising the ‘unhomelike’ relationality between self and other in the epidemic.

15.45 Shannon Lambert (Ghent University): “Stuck in the Mud: Friction, Microbial Networks, and Citizen Science in Susan Gaines’ Accidentals (2020)”

In Susan Gaines’ 2020 novel Accidentals, Alejandra Silva—a PhD student in microbial ecology—observes that when it comes to the microbial world, “species aren’t really the point. Their definition and significance is murky. More important are the communities, the functions” (158). In this paper, I take Gaines’ novel and its interest in nonhuman communities as a starting point to think through the range of actors and ecologies that make up scientific knowledge, considering both their functions and frictions. Across Accidentals, the figure of the marsh works as a bridge between science and society as well as the human and nonhuman. Through this lively space, the novel explores and condenses a range of “murky” epistemological and ethical questions. As we follow the characters into the mud of a marsh teeming with micro- and macroscopic multiplicities, we’re encouraged to attend to the small and ‘unseen’ parts of scientific practice and knowledge. More specifically, the paper asks: How we might consider epistemological practices such as science and citizen science from a multispecies perspective (Rautio et al. 2022)? I argue that, with its tangle of timeframes, characters, and species, Accidentals paints a layered or composite picture of science where knowledge practices are enriched and challenged through their embeddedness in multispecies communities, through being ‘stuck in the mud.’

17.00 Marco Caracciolo (Ghent University): “Unraveling Bodies and Environmental Challenges in Contemporary Anglophone Fiction”

Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker argue that the ecological crisis calls for a new imaginary of the body, one in which “our bodies are makers, transfer point, and sensors of the ‘climate change’ from which we might otherwise feel too distant.” This paper focuses on how the literary imagination may meet this challenge by staging a breakdown of the phenomenological body, its collapse into microscopic structures understood variously in molecular or atomic terms. I will look at a range of contemporary Anglophone fictions that foreground the unraveling of the human body to evoke, more or less directly or allegorically, a transcorporeal openness of the subject. Examples will include Michel Faber’s Under the Skin, Richard Flanagan’s The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, and Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible. I will explore three dimensions of this trope of bodily collapse: how it intersects with and complicates generic templates; how it tends to bring together microscopic phenomena and a cosmic or deep time perspective; and how it contributes to the overall affective progression of plot. That approach will highlight important continuities but also discontinuities in my case studies’ negotiation of the physical and experiential body in times of climate change.

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