Literature and Science, Oxford

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“The Syndrome Syndrome”: Diseases and Disorders in Contemporary Fiction

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On October 31 Dr James Peacock (Keele) will deliver a paper at 4.30pm in Seminar Room B @ the English Faculty. His title is _“The Syndrome
Syndrome”: Diseases and Disorders in Contemporary Fiction_. This paper is part of the American Literature Research Seminar which Lloyd Pratt and Michèle Mendelssohn co-convene.

After the paper, there will be drinks in the Faculty and dinner at a new(ish) Indian restaurant called 4500 Miles from Delhi: http://4500miles.co.uk/oxford/
All are welcome to join. No need to book ahead.

“The Syndrome Syndrome”: Diseases and Disorders in Contemporary Fiction 


Week 3, Thursday 31 October 430-6 PM in Seminar Room B @ the English Faculty.
(Please note the change of venue from our usual location at the Rothermere American Institute)

This paper begins with the simple observation that contemporary culture, including literature, is peculiarly preoccupied with neurological and psychological conditions. The emergence of what one might call the “syndrome syndrome” in contemporary British and American fiction is seen as symptomatic of wider concerns about the relations between literature and science, mind and body (or brain), individual and social, and the human and “post”-human. Since the syndrome by definition posits some kind of biological causality, it seems to offer an alternative to the distinctively postmodern preoccupation with cultural determination. The current literary preoccupation with neurological and psychological conditions presents us with a new and distinctive form of trauma literature, one concerned less with psychoanalysis than with the physical and evolutionary status of human beings. Although there is a sense that writers’ interest in such conditions is consistent with postmodern thought in problematizing the notion of a unified subject, the syndrome syndrome may also return us to ideas of origin, of a genetic moment. As well as embodying the past in the present, then, the sufferer might also represent a bridging point between the individual and the social, fostering the sense that private symptoms have public ramifications – or that social contradictions have individual consequences. In some sense, the “syndrome syndrome” enables us to see the emergence of a “post-postmodern” concern with authenticity, history and politics. At the same time, however, the fascination with syndromes may well be itself symptomatic of a culture in which social and historical contradictions are displaced into individual bodily or psychic experience. The paper touches on these issues, and finishes with a brief case study of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn, narrated by a reluctant detective with Tourette’s Syndrome.

James Peacock is Senior Lecturer in English and American Literatures at Keele University. His publications include monographs on Paul Auster and Jonathan Lethem, as well as articles on contemporary American fiction, Quakerism in American literature, and The Clash’s collaboration with Allen Ginsberg. He is currently completing an AHRC-funded research project called Brooklyn Fictions: the Contemporary Urban Community in a Global Age. “The Syndrome Syndrome”: Diseases and Disorders in Contemporary Fiction.

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