Special Topics in Literature: Gothic Science

ENGLISH 90S

Science is scary. Whether it is global warming, genetic modification, or pandemic disease outbreaks, experimental research evokes both hopes of social innovation but also Gothic fears of violating nature itself. Yet why do Science and the Gothic seem so inseparable? What do test tubes and dissecting tables have to do with fiendish curses and haunted houses? Is the concept of “Gothic Science” a contradiction in terms, or do both fiction and scientific require a mix of magic with empirical reasoning to achieve their effect? Though prior to the publica-tion of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818 Gothic literature typically explored “exotic” or “historic” settings of terror, together we will investigate why this genre subsequently used discoveries in chemistry, biology, and psychology to imagine aberrant, almost human forms of life.

In order to think about these issues, this seminar will examine the experimental origins of various monsters—ranging from Vampires to Zombies to Mutants. These are some of the questions we will consider in each meeting: How does the novel distinguish scientific truth from Gothic superstition and pseudo-science? What kind of knowledge, if any, does fiction provide us with? Do science and the Gothic fiction offer different or complimentary accounts of what it means to be human? In addressing these questions, we will attempt to understand why, during a period in which “reason” promised to overcome the last vestiges of false belief, science itself became the dominant way of imagining a world filled with mystery, magic, and monstrosity. By the end of the course, we should have a good idea of why “Gothic Science” has been, and continues to be, the preferred way of thinking about unknown forces within the world of nature, society, and ourselves.

Topics vary by semester, emphasis on development of writing skills. One course.