CFP : "Literary states of consciousness"

Call for papers

Literary states of consciousness

June 2nd, 2016

Institut du monde anglophone
Sorbonne Nouvelle University
5, rue de l’École de médecine, Paris

One-day conference organized by :
Sorbonne Nouvelle’s Science and Literature research group (
& Duke University’s Neurohumanities Summer School

From Rimbaud’s intent to develop into a Seer by renouncing the coherent and controlled self1 to Keats’ project of“bringing to the surface a vitality that liberated sensation from its usual subordination to action”2 ; from Nietzsche’s presentation of frenzy as a physiological condition for artistic behavior3 to Bergson’s insistence on intuition as a way of introducing an individual into "consciousness in general" through "unthinking sympathy"4 ; from the narrator of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu falling asleep and becoming what he is reading of (a church, a quartet)5 to T. S. Elliot’s view of the artist’s progress as a “continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality”6, literature and philosophy have repeatedly celebrated altered states of consciousness as ways of expanding the dimensions of experience and dissolving the limits of individual subjectivity.

During the last decades, cognitive neuroscience has begun mapping the wide and varied terrain of altered states of consciousness, trying to clarify the function of various neurotransmitters (endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, endocanabanoids), studying hypnotic and meditative trance, measuring the neurophysiological parameters of sleep, dreams and psychedelic experiences, or of the resting state default network.

We believe that interweaving these discourses and researches might generate new questions. For example, dopamine production has been correlated with reading emotionally intense texts7 but also with positive metacognitive appraisal8, which can occur when one finally “get” a complicated novel or poem. Would dopamine release, then, shape literary practices ? Are different types of text linked to different neurochemical profiles ? More generally, how does the reader’s oscillation between absorption and boredom, drowsiness and wakefulness influence literary interpretation and fictional experience ?

In his Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes : “Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no ; drunkenness expands, unites and says yes. […] To the poor and unlettered it stands in the place of symphony concerts and of literature.”9 By suspending the discrimination and hierarchization of sensation, literature and altered states of consciousness would thus both allow us to, in George Bataille’s words, “tear away being from the limits of a mind essentially preoccupied with insuring the judicious order of things.”10 Can we define such “tearing away” as a decoupling between attentional processes,11 or as a weakening of intermodal suppression,12 two phenomena we can witness in hypnosis ? As a de-synchronization of brain waves, a de-coordination of firing frequencies across brain regions ?13 As an aspect of sensory deafferentation ?14 Can we train readers to say “yes” to text while going beyond the “judicious order of things” ?

Finally, what are the ethics and politics of literary states of consciousness ? In the context of the fierce competition that characterizes our economy of attention, how can “literary states of consciousness” offer an alternative to the productivist and action-oriented cognitive style promoted by neoliberal ideology, and promised by the “performance enhancement drugs” marketed by the pharmaceutical industry ?15 These are some of the questions we would like to discuss during this one-day conference dedicated to literary states of consciousness.

This one-day conference includes a panel of students’ presentations from Duke’s Neurohumanities Summer School.

Abstracts (250 words) should be sent to before April 1st. The organizers will communicate the selection’s results within two weeks of submission deadline.


1. Arthur Rimbaud, 1871 (May 13), Letter to George Izambard, Charlesville.
2. Robert Mitchell, 2011, “Suspended animation, slow time, and the poetics of trance”, PMLA 126, p. 113.
3. Friedrich Nietzsche, 1889, "Skirmishes of an Untimely Man," Twilight of the Idols, paragraph 8.
4. Henri Bergson, 2006 [1938], La pensée et le mouvant, Paris, Quadrige/ Presses universitaires de France, p. 28.
5. Marcel Proust, 1913, Du Côté de chez Swann, first paragraph.
6. T. S. Elliot, 1919, Tradition and the Individual Talent, paragraph 9.
7. Rajendra D. Badgaiyan, Alan J. Fischman and Nathaniel M. Alpert, 2009, “Dopamine release during human emotional processing”, NeuroImage 47 (4), p. 2041-2045.
8. Gerald L. Clore, Jeffrey R. Huntsinger, 2007, “How emotions inform judgment and regulate thought”, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 11 (9), p. 393-399.
9. William James, 2014 [1917], The Varieties of Religious Experience. A Study in Human Nature, The Project Gutenberg Ebook, p. 376-377.
10. Georges Bataille, 2012, La Souveraineté, Paris, Nouvelles Éditions Lignes, p. 227.
11. Tobias Egner, G. Jamieson and J. Gruzelierc, 2005, “Hypnosis decouples cognitive control from conflict monitoring processes of the frontal lobe”, NeuroImage 27, p. 969-978.
12. Pierre Rainville, 2004, “Neurophénoménologie des états et des contenus de conscience dans l’hypnose et l’analgésie hypnotique”, Théologiques 12 (1-2), p. 26.
13. M. T. Kucewicz, M. D. Tricklebank, R. Bogacz and M. W. Jones, 2011, “Dysfunctional prefrontal cortical network activity and interactions following cannabinoid receptor activation”, Journal of Neuroscience 31 (43), online [].
14. Michael Winkelman, 2013, “Shamanism in Cross-Cultural Perspective”, International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 31 (2), p. 47-62.
15. Jérôme Goffette, 2012, “Dopage mental : l’anthropotechnie des psychostimulants entre réalité et fiction”, Épistémocritique 11, online [].