Biological Perspectives in 21st-Century Literature and Performance

Symposium n°1: New Scales

June 7, 2019


Institut du Monde Anglophone, salle 16

5 rue de l’école de médecine

75006 Paris


Organisation: Liliane Campos et Pierre-Louis Patoine, avec le soutien du groupe 19-21 (EA 4398 PRISMES) et de l’Institut universitaire de France




9.00 – 9.15: Welcome


Session 1. Chair: Pierre-Louis Patoine


9.15 – 10.05:   Josie Gill (University of Bristol): ‘Pharmacogenomics, Racial Medicine and Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt’

Respondent: Kerry-Jane Wallart (Sorbonne University)


10.10– 11.00:  Pieter Vermeulen (University of Leuven): ‘Depopulating the Novel: Nonscalability and Population at the End of the World’

Respondent: Catherine Larose (CNRS, Environmental Microbial Genomics)


11.00 – 11.20: Coffee break


Session 2. Chair: Liliane Campos


11.20 – 12.10: Ben de Bruyn (Maastricht University): ‘Ecosystem Modeling: Scales, Populations, Reservoir 13

Respondent: Sarah Bouttier (École Polytechnique)


12.15-13.00:   Eric Bapteste (Sorbonne University – CNRS): ‘Nested Evolution, Reticulate Evolution, Sideways Evolution: Jumping Across the Scales of Life’

Respondent: Frédérique Aït-Touati (CNRS – EHESS)


13.00 – 14.30: Lunch break


Session 3. Chair: Kirsten Shepherd-Barr


14.30-16.00:   Frédérique Aït-Touati (CNRS – EHESS), Eliane Beaufils (University of Paris 8), Liliane Campos (Sorbonne Nouvelle University – IUF):

Round-table: ‘New biological scales in contemporary performance’


16.00 – 16.15: Coffee break


Session 4. Chair: Dan Rebellato


16.15 – 17.05: Sophie Musitelli (University of Lille – IUF): ‘Still Life and Vital Matter in Gillian Clarke’s Poetry’

Respondent: Marc Porée (Sorbonne Nouvelle University / ENS)


17.10 – 18.00: Derek Woods (Dartmouth College): ‘Fungoid Life: The Novels of Jeff VanderMeer’

Respondent: Pierre Cassou-Noguès (University of Paris 8)


18.00: Drinks




‘Pharmacogenomics, Racial Medicine and Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt

Josie Gill (University of Bristol)

In 2005 the US Food and Drug Administration approved a new drug called BiDil, designed to treat heart failure in the African American population. The first ever ‘ethnic drug’, BiDil was supported by doctors and geneticists, and by the Association of Black Cardiologists, who saw the advent of the drug as placing a much-needed focus on the health of black populations. Tested only on ‘self-identified’ African Americans, BiDil’s creators acknowledged that race was used a proxy for an unknown genetic marker. However, the promotion and marketing of the drug obscured this fact, encouraging the public to view BiDil as a black drug in ways which made race appear biologically real. This paper examines how the racialization of medicine is satirized in Colson Whitehead’s 2006 novel Apex Hides the Hurt, in which the novel’s protagonist, a nomenclature consultant, names a new range of plasters designed to match the skin-tone of their wearers. Using one himself after he stubs his toe, the plaster hides a more serious infection and he eventually goes on to have the toe amputated as a result. Whitehead’s novel addresses how the market driven personalization of medicine along racial lines relies not on biological explanations of race, but on the multiple ways race is signified in language; how race operates as a ‘floating signifier’ (in Stuart Hall’s terms) in bioscience, enabling the scientific creation of racial meaning and its exploitation. The protagonist’s illness is caused by his acceptance of this form of racialization, and his recovery is only possible when he addresses the historical causes of pain and illness in the African American population.


‘Depopulating the Novel: Nonscalability and Population at the End of the World’

Pieter Vermeulen (University of Leuven)

In the Anthropocene, concerns over overpopulation are back with a vengeance. Recent discussions on the impact of demographic growth resonate with the earlies intervention of Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) and the Ehrlichs’ Population Bomb (1968), even if these earlier works’ emphasis on food security has been replaced with a focus on ecological footprints, carbon emissions, and the threat of global pandemics. Such discussions inevitably slip from the domains of ecology and biology into more ethically and politically fraught terrain, where such concerns inevitably take on more sinister biopolitical connotations. Environmental ethicist Patrick Curry has pointed to a taboo on talking about “the P-word” and used the term “overpopulation denial,” while ecocritic Greg Garrard has noted the failure of environmental literary studies to talk about the rescaling of the human population. For Garrard, it “is not the world without us,” which is such a prevalent part of the Anthropocene imagination, “that calls for new artistic forms, but the world with far fewer of us.”

My presentation reads the popular genre of post-catastrophe fiction as an engagement with the challenge of rescaling human population. If such fictions imagine sustainable post-catastrophe futures at all (Emily St. John’s Mandel’s Station Eleven is a case in point), the templates they develop are rigorously “nonscalable” (Tsing); they imply the superfluousness and disposability of a the vast majority of the existing world population. Taking my cue from Emily Steinlight’s recent argument in her Populating the Novel: Literary Form and the Politics of Surplus Life that the nineteenth-century Anglophone novel is animated by the Malthusian problem of how to manage “surplus life,” I explore how that mandate resurfaces in the twenty-first-century novel and generates a tension between political and biological perspectives. By analyzing a sample of post-catastrophe fictions, I investigate to what extent these works’ uneasy disavowal of the question of scale resonate with contemporary biological and ecological discourses, and to what extent the entanglement of biological, political, and formal issues are continuous with what Steinlight observes in nineteenth-century discourses on surplus populations.


‘Ecosystem Modeling: Scales, Populations, Reservoir 13

Ben de Bruyn (Maastricht University)

Participating in ongoing debates about scale and environmental change in twenty-first-century literature and culture (Clark, McGurl), this paper outlines a mode of ecosystemic reading based on recent theoretical insights as well as a set of relevant literary case studies. I will first consider research in environmental history before confronting David Herman’s account of narratology ‘at species scale’ (2018) with Emily Steinlight’s observations about the novel’s representation of populations rather than individuals (2018). Fleshing out these theoretical insights, I subsequently apply these insights to a series of novels from distinct subgenres, paying particular attention to Jon McGregor’s Costa Award-winning Reservoir 13 (2017). What happens if we do not read novels for their plot, character, or theme, but for their representation of fictional ecosystems?


‘The scales of life: writing challenges & opportunities’

Eric Bapteste (Sorbonne University – CNRS)

In this pragmatic talk, I will introduce some aspects of the biological complexity related to the notion of scales, and indicate where I feel this complexity offers some room for a creative writing, inspired from the biological world. I will start by recalling the diversity of heterogeneous spatial scales in biology, possibly hinting at the heterogeneous temporal scales of action associated with these various spatial scales. Then I will explain how biology usually translates spatial scales into levels of biological organization, and how evolutionary biology further translates these levels of biological organization into levels of selection. I will explain how these latter two kinds of levels could inspire literary writing, through the conflicts and descriptions of biological interaction networks, as well as the common ontology in biology these levels suggest.


‘Still Life and Vital Matter in Gillian Clarke’s Poetry’

Sophie Laniel-Musitelli (Université de Lille – IUF)

Gillian Clarke’s three most recent works, A Recipe for Water (2009), Ice (2012), and Zoology (2017), draw on new developments in biological and physical sciences to explore the mutual convergences and constant metamorphoses between organic bodies and inorganic matter. In her recent works, living and non-living bodies evolve and morph into one another through moments of emergence and disappearance, such as embryogenesis, metamorphosis, fossilization, as well as the formation and dissolution of rock and ice. Clarke’s poetry does not separate the vitality of organic bodies from the power of non-living matter to self-organize.

Thus, while Zoology offers a vision of metamorphosis inspired by new developments in cellular biology, (“It will (…) / dissolve, metamorphose, pupate and wait / for a rearrangement of its molecular being / (…) / the mask of death on its head from the moment of birth” (“Death’s Head Hawkmoth Caterpillar”, RFW, 58), Ice creates a parallel between metamorphosis and metamorphism: “Mountains spent time on it: / the slow settlement of silts, / mudstone metamorphosed to slate” (“Senedd”, I, 46). In Clarke’s poetry, living matter relies on the non-living: it does not only naturally revert to it, but also contains and embraces it. Hence a tropism towards fossilization and the “grace of bones / Eloquent in stone” (“Ichthyosaur”, Z, 27). Hence the depiction of the minerals at the heart of the living body (“Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Sodium / (…) / a mineral Latin in our blood, our bone”, “A Recipe for Water”, RPW, 20). Conversely, Clarke’s poetry also endeavours to reveal the imperceptible vitality of inorganic matter by registering its moments of change, “a difference in the pulse of things” (“Oestrus”, Z, 46).

References to optical technologies allow the poet to translate into percepts the secret life of the microscopic embryo in the depths of its mother’s body (in “Scan”, Z, 51), while geology and archaeology, “the Earth’s book of stone” (Archaeopteryx”, Z, 26), disclose the invisible work of time: “Oh, soon may science solve time’s mystery!” (“A T-Mail to Keats”, RFW, 17). To uncover “a vitality intrinsic to materiality as such”[1], poetic creation thus draws on the scientific imagination to alter the scales of space and time, revealing the shared metamorphoses in the mighty mountain and the tiny embryo, from the eons of geological eras to the brevity of a lambing season in Wales. Attending to the energies of nonhuman bodies and non-living matter is part of Clarke’s poetic commitment to a politics of nature, with poems dedicated to climate change such as “Glacier”, RFW, 34, “Polar”, I, 9, or “New Moon, Z, 112, to quote only a few.

In A Recipe for Water (2009), Ice (2012), and Zoology (2017), the vibrancy of poetic form captures the constant metamorphoses between the organic and the inorganic in ways which are not entirely accessible either to new materialist philosophies, nor to the sciences it first drew inspiration from. Its reflection on the materiality and memory of language uncovers and performs the vitality of organic and inorganic matter alike.


‘Fungoid Life: Mycoaesthetics in the Novels of Jeff VanderMeer’

Derek Woods (Dartmouth College)

My paper seeks to answer an important question: why are fungi weird? A very wide range of representations establish that this kingdom of life is associated quite strongly, especially in Anglo-American culture, with aesthetic categories like the eerie, strange, uncanny, trippy, queer, horrible, and disgusting. From the vantage of literary studies, the first line of inquiry to pursue is the “weird fiction” often exemplified by the work of H.P. Lovecraft. In this genre of fantasy and horror, some interest in fungi spans both the “old weird” and the new, for example in John Lloyd Urri’s novel Etidorpha; or, The End of the Earth (1895), and Jeff VanderMeer in City of Saints and Madmen (2001). Given the significant attention received by VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (2014) (including the adaptation of the trilogy’s first novel Annihilation as a film of the same title), the center piece of my study will be VanderMeer’s recent novels, which I read in the context of 1) scientific work in mycology and 2) the “nonhuman turn” in the field of literature and science. The nonhuman turn rarely turns to fungi, so exploring the specificity of its scales and images can open some new paths for a field that, despite its critique of Aristotelian metaphysics, tends to focus its research on humans, animals, plants, and non-living matter, leaving the fungal kingdom to haunt the outer edges of our discourse.




Frédérique Aït-Touati is a historian of literature and science, and a research fellow at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. Her books include Fictions of the Cosmos (2011), Le Monde en images (2015), and Terra Forma. Manuel de cartographies potentielles (2019). She was a fellow of the University of Oxford from 2007 to 2014, and now teaches at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and directs the Programme d’Expérimentation en Arts Politiques at Sciences Po University. Frédérique is also a theatre director, and has been artist in residence at the théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers since 2014. 

Eric Bapteste is Research director at the CNRS. He works at Sorbonne University, where he co-supervises the Adaptation, Integration, Reticulation, and Evolution team. He is trained as an evolutionary biologist and a philosopher of biology, and he has authored three books, which aimed to describe various biological processes (gene transfer, competition, cooperation and biological interactions) to a non-academic audience.

Sarah Bouttier is a senior lecturer in English at École Polytechnique in Paris. After a PhD at La Sorbonne Nouvelle on D. H. Lawrence’s poetry and his representation of the nonhuman world, she taught and researched as a postdoctoral fellow at Stockholm University. She has been working on a monograph defining a poetics of the nonhuman encompassing a broad range of Anglophone poets of the 20th and 21st centuries and has published widely on modern and contemporary poetry.

Liliane Campos is a lecturer in English and Theatre studies at the Sorbonne Nouvelle and a research fellow of the Institut Universitaire de France. Her research explores ways in which contemporary novelists, poets, dramatists and performers engage with the images and discourse of biology. Liliane has published two books on science in contemporary theatre, and edited a special issue of Alternatives théâtrales about the work of theatre director Jean-François Peyret (2009). She has co-edited a companion to Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (PUR, 2011), an issue of Sillages Critiques (2014), a volume of essays on Living Matter / Literary Forms (20th-21st centuries) on fabula.org, and an issue of Epistémocritique about viruses and parasites in contemporary art and literature (2018).

Eliane Beaufils is assistant professor in theater studies at the University Paris 8. She studied German literature and civilisation at Sorbonne-University, as well as politics and sociology at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris. After her thesis on « Violence on Contemporary German Stages », she became assistant professor at the University of Strasburg and was invited to teach at Universities in Hamburg and Frankfurt. Her research fields comprise European contemporary theater and performance, mainly in relation to violence, war, poetry, resonance, and the meaning and means of criticality today.  Her most recent publications are with Eva Holling, Being With in Contemporary Performing Arts, Berlin, Neofelis, 2018, and with Alix de Morant, Scènes en partage, Montpellier, Deuxième Epoque, 2018. She started a new research project in 2018 on « Theater with regard to the Climate Future ». The first international conference of the project took place on the 14th of December 2018.

Pierre Cassou-Noguès is full professor at the philosophy department of Paris 8, and co-editor of the journal SubStance. His recent work explores the fictional basis of contemporary technology.

Ben De Bruyn is associate professor in comparative literature at Maastricht University, the Netherlands. He is the co-editor of Literature Now (Edinburgh UP, 2016) and the author of Wolfgang Iser. A Companion (De Gruyter, 2012), and has published articles on environmental fiction in journals including Critique, Textual Practice and Studies in the Novel. He is currently finishing his second book, entitled The Novel and the Multispecies Soundscape (Palgrave, 2019).

Josie Gill is a lecturer in Black British Writing at the University of Bristol. Her book BioFictions: Race, Genetics and the Contemporary Novel is forthcoming with Bloomsbury.

Sophie Laniel-Musitelli is Associate Professor at the University of Lille and a Junior Fellow at the Institut Universitaire de France. Her research focuses on the interactions among literature, the sciences, and philosophy in the Romantic era. She is the author of “The Harmony of Truth”: Sciences et poésie dans l’œuvre de P. B. Shelley (PUL-ELLUG 2012), and of several articles and book chapters on the relationship between scientific discourse and literary writing in the works of Erasmus Darwin, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Percy B. Shelley, and Thomas De Quincey. She has edited Sciences et poésie de Wordsworth à Hopkins (Etudes Anglaises 2011), co-authored Muses et ptérodactyles: La poésie de la science de Chénier à Rimbaud (Seuil 2013) and co-edited Romanticism and the Philosophical Tradition (PU de Nancy 2015) and Romanticism and Philosophy (Routledge 2015).

Catherine Larose is part of the Environmental Microbial Genomics group at the Ecole Centrale de Lyon (University of Lyon) and the Centre National de La Recherche Scientifique. She works on the chemical parameters affecting microbial community structures in arctic snow.

Pierre-Louis Patoine is Assistant professor of American literature at Sorbonne-Nouvelle University (Paris III), and the author of a book on the role of the empathic, physiological body in the experience of reading (Corps/texte, ENS Editions, 2015). He has published articles on contemporary American literature, biosemiotics and literary neuroaesthetics and is co-editor of the online journal Epistemocritique (http://epistemocritique.org).

Marc Porée is Professor of English literature at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris.  As a romanticist, he has published numerous articles on the five major Romantic poets, co-authoring a critical study of The Lyrical Ballads (Puf/Cned 2013). He also writes on British contemporary fiction and/or poetry. He also translates (Lord Byron, Joseph Conrad, Thomas de Quincey, Ann Radcliffe, R.L. Stevenson).

Dan Rebellato is Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he teaches theatre, playwriting, and philosophy. His books include 1956 and All ThatTheatre & GlobalizationContemporary European Theatre Directors, Decades of British Playwriting: 2000-2009 plus numerous articles on modern and contemporary theatre. He is currently writing Naturalist Theatre: A New Cultural History and co-editing the Cambridge Companion to British Theatre since 1945 and the Cambridge Companion to British Playwriting since 1945. He is a widely performed and published playwright for stage and radio and his plays include Chekhov in HellStaticHere’s What I Did With My Body One DayMile End, Beachy HeadTheatremorphosisOutright Terror Bold and Brilliant and Emily Rising. He was lead writer on an award-winning adaptation of Emile Zola’s complete ‘Rougon-Macquart’ novel sequence for BBC Radio 4.

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr is Professor of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Oxford.  Books include:  Science on Stage:  From Dr Faustus to Copenhagen; Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett; Twentieth-Century Approaches to Literature:   Late Victorian into Modern, co-edited with Laura Marcus and Michele Mendelssohn; and Modern Drama:  A Very Short Introduction.  She is currently editing The Cambridge Companion to Theatre and Science.

Pieter Vermeulen is an assistant professor of American and Comparative Literature at the University of Leuven, Belgium. He is the author of Romanticism After the Holocaust (2010) and Contemporary Literature and the End of the Novel: Creature, Affect, Form (2015), and a co-editor of, most recently, Institutions of World Literature: Writing, Translation, Markets (2015) and Memory Unbound: Tracing the Dynamics of Memory Studies (2017). He is currently writing a critical introduction on Literature and the Anthropocene for Routledge’s Literature and Contemporary Thought Series, and co-editing a double special issue of LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory on contemporary literature and/as archive.

Kerry-Jane Wallart is a Senior Lecturer in postcolonial and transnational literatures at Sor- bonne University. She received the Jacqueline Bardolph Prize for her PhD on Derek Walcott in 2006. She has guest edited two issues of Commonwealth Essays and Studies (32.1, 2009, and 35.1, 2012), co-edited an issue of Revue de Littérature Comparée on Caribbean literature (364, 2017/4) and an issue of Wagadu on Jamaica Kincaid (19, 2018). She has recently completed a monograph entitled Writers as Performers where she introduces the notion of instanciation in order to re-think the opposition between the oral and the written in Anglophone Caribbean literature.

Derek Woods is a postdoctoral fellow in the Society of Fellows and the Department of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College. He is working on two theoretically-driven book projects. The first, entitled What Is Ecotechnology?, looks at the role of technology in the formation of the ecosystem concept and its cultural reception in twentieth-century Anglophone literature and film. The second, entitled Scale Critique, is a general study of the forms and concepts that mediate scales beyond human perception.



This symposium is organized by the “Sciences et Littérature” group of the Sorbonne Nouvelle, thanks to the financial support of the Institut universitaire de France and of “19-21 Modernités critiques” (EA 4398 PRISMES), and with the technical help of Apolline Weibel and Marion Clanet. To subscribe to our mailing list, please send an email to liliane.campos@sorbonne-nouvelle.fr or pierre-louis.patoine@sorbonne-nouvelle.fr.


[1] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham and London: Duke UP, 2010, xii.