The Body and Pseudoscience in the Long Nineteenth Century Conference

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The conference took place on Saturday 18 June 2016 at Newcastle University. It was launched by Dr. James Mussell, Leeds University, who gave the keynote presentation on ‘Print Presence in the Electrical Age: Oliver Lodge and the Pseudoscience of Media and Mediation’. This focused on the way Lodge negotiated the pseudoscientific spaces of late nineteenth and early twentieth century culture, looking at the complementary relationship between body and spirit, form and content. Although Lodge believed in the uniting potential of spirit, this rested on the properties of matter as exemplified in his publication, Raymond (1916), which was his way of keeping his dead son alive. This stimulating presentation set the scene for a day that considered the different ways that the scientific and pseudoscientific were negotiated through the body.

The interdisciplinary nature of the conference was evident by the mix of papers from English Literature, Art History, History of Science, Philosophy and the Wellcome Library. The first panel of the day, ‘Scientific Credibility and the Human Body’, included papers on the pseudoscientific treatment of ‘milk leg’, Victorian fad diets, and the literary representation of ways in which phrenology and physiognomy were used to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor. These papers addressed issues of how the body was read in the nineteenth century and the different ways in which scientific ‘truths’ emerged. The panel, ‘Affective Responses to the Visual’, considered the intellectual exchanges of the worlds of art and fiction with science, highlighting the problem of ascribing meaning to visual changes in the body as well as the dynamic of the visual and the verbal in the pursuit of sympathy. ‘(In)Corporeality and Nineteenth-Century Forces’ was a panel comprising papers on the representation of mesmerism in periodicals and in fiction and William James’s experiments with anaesthesia. These papers emphasised the slippery nature of what was deemed ‘scientific’ or ‘pseudoscientific’ and how the latter contributed to knowledge about the human mind and body. The final panel, ‘Medical (Pseudo)Science: Mind and Body’ explored the hinterlands of chemistry and medical science in Edith Nesbit’s short stories and the ‘science’ of phrenology as a tool for self-improvement, raising questions about the role of the mind and body in the construction of scientific knowledge.

The plenary session was led by Dr. Edmund Richardson, Durham University, with a case study of the famous nineteenth-century medium, Daniel Dunglas Home. This generated lively discussion on the distinction between the scientific and the pseudoscientific, and why so many eminent scientists were prepared to risk their reputations in the search for knowledge and truth. That nineteenth-century pseudoscience remains a fruitful area of research suggests that it can still contribute to discourses on knowledge of the self through reading the body.

 

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