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Sensing Affect: The Physiology and Philosophy of Feeling 1688-1840
Cambridge, May 2003

Faculty of English, University of Cambridge

Friday 2 May - Saturday 3 May 2003 at St John's College, Cambridge
External Observer: Professor Catherine Belsey, Cardiff University


Ambiguous, elusive, and often defying disentanglement, the interrelationships of
sensation, sensibility, emotion and cognition remain as challenging across modern
academic disciplines as they were during the long 18th century. Our understanding
of affect (passion, emotion, feeling, mood, illness) is constantly reformulated,
taxonomized and theorized in fields of knowledge as diverse as aesthetics,
philosophy, literary studies, psychoanalysis, biology and neuropsychology. Affects
stand at the crossroads of body and mind, the conscious and the unconscious, the
communicable and the incommunicable, and draw the very notion of the boundary into
crisis.  This conference invites contributions addressing eighteenth century and
Romantic attempts to conceptualize various modes of feeling; and the resultant
redefinition and shifting of mind / body boundaries and related controversial
binaries of the age (such as nature/culture, female/male, object/subject). Feeling
in this context is a wide-ranging and negotiable term, inflected by the age's
ideas about sensation, perception, cognition, imagination. Attempts to grasp
discursively perception or emotions -- in the arts (literary, plastic and
dramatic), philosophy and medicine -- were inevitably, fruitfully and often
subversively entangled with preconceptions about body, mind and soul, fuelling
ongoing inquiries into the seat of feeling, its nature and location in relation to
the body, and the anatomy of human subjectivity. Besides tackling the intersection
of bodies, minds and affects, the conference also aims to probe the link -- and
thus affectively transcend the boundaries -- between 18th-century and Romantic
formulations of feeling and the discourses of today's literary and cultural
criticism, aesthetics, philosophy, natural and social sciences.

Topics to be addressed might range from the nerves to the Sublime, from laughter
to torture: the mental, bodily and spiritual experience of emotions or states of
consciousness (love, desire, pleasure, pain, melancholy, fear;  thought,
imagination, perception); individual and fellow feeling (sympathy, compassion,
sentimentality); excesses of feeling (sensibility, madness, sexual passion,
religious or political enthusiasm); forms of disaffection or insensibility, and
alteration of feeling (violence, cruelty, drug-taking, delusion, anaesthesia);
feeling (affective and physical) and gender, national identity, imagination,
memory, trauma, history, ethics, rhetoric, aesthetics, culture, manners, ideology,
poetics, pathology.

This is a conference for graduate students researching the period 1688-1840.  All
papers will be given by students, with faculty members chairing sessions of
20-minute papers. Catherine Belsey will act as an external observer and will
comment on all the papers given at the conference. Although the conference is
hosted by the English Faculty, it is aimed at an interdisciplinary audience, and
welcomes contributions from students working in any relevant fields.

Please send proposals comprising the name and institutional affiliation of the
presenter, and a title with abstract (300-500 words) as a Word attachment
(preferred format) or hard copy by 31 March 2003. These and any further enquiries
should be addressed to Rebecca Barr (, Jesus College, Cambridge
CB5 8BL or Louise Joy (, Newnham College, Cambridge, CB3 9DF, UK.