Writing a Cosmos: European Literature and Popular Astronomy, 1890-1950 (CfP)

deadline for submissions: 
October 15, 2019
full name / name of organization: 
Christoph Richter

By the turn of the twentieth century, the ‘new astronomy’ had developed into a proper scientific discipline, with its own sets of instruments, its own journals, its own jargon, and its own interpretative authority. With the acceleration of new discoveries and insights into stellar phenomena, the emerging mass media ensured that this astronomical knowledge fascinated an even wider audience in the late 19th and early 20th century. At the same time, literature across Europe responded to the fascinating astronomical developments in a variety of modes, styles, and genres. From science fiction stories in penny magazines and didactic stories in boys’ papers to high modernist fiction and avant-garde poetry, many authors aesthetically imagined the starry night that had been scientifically laid out by astronomers. While some of the more highbrow responses to the new astronomical discoveries and innovative physical theories such as relativity theory and quantum theory as well as the response of new “science fiction” have already been extensively studied by literary critics, the larger fictional engagement with the expanding astronomical knowledge awaits further exploration.

This two-day symposium wants to reflect on the many different literary responses to a universe that had been newly imagined and interpreted by astronomers between 1890 and 1950, so as to gauge the role literature played in mediating astronomical knowledge and exploring new ways of imagining the cosmos. The conference aims to arrive at a better understanding of the convergences between physical, cultural, and literary practices that developed around the new astronomical discoveries between 1890 and 1950. It homes in on writings from different registers—highbrow, avant-garde, middlebrow and more popular forms of literature—as well as on writings from various European cultures and languages, in order to determine how European literature of the modernist period reflects on astronomy as a stimulus and transformative force in fiction. The conference invites papers that address such questions as the following …

  • how did advances in astronomy shape central literary concerns,
  • how was astronomical knowledge narrated in (popular, middlebrow, highbrow) fiction,
  • how did literature participate in the dissemination of astronomical literature in the wider cultural field,
  • how was the astronomical imagination legitimized in the process of knowledge production,
  • how did literature comment on the epistemological status of both astronomy and fiction?

Topics might include (but are not limited to) …

  • literary representation of stellar phenomena
  • convergences between the sciences and cosmological resp. stellar tropes
  • notions of the cosmos in relation to literary form and genre
  • theories of constellations as a poetological concept
  • astronomical fiction across Europe with a comparative approach
  • transnational/-cultural dissemination of astronomical knowledge
  • extraterrestrial life debates in literature
  • well-known and lost authors of popular fiction
  • and vision as a key metaphors in astronomical fiction
  • key figures of the history of astronomy and their literary resurgence (Copernicus, Galilei, Brahe, etc.)
  • ...

This symposium is part of the larger research project Literary Knowledge, 1890-1950: Modernisms and the Sciences in Europe based in the research lab MDRN at the University of Leuven in Belgium. Please send an abstract (350 words max) and a short bio (250 words max) in the same file to Christoph Richter (christoph.richter@kuleuven.be) by October 15th. The presentation of papers should not exceed 20 minutes. Accepted applicants will receive an email confirming their participation by the end of October. We would like to encourage scholars at all stages of their career to consider sending a proposal. A selection of papers will be published in a peer-reviewed journal.