Dr Sarah Dillon, Faculty of English



Biographical Information

I read English at Clare College, Cambridge, graduating in 1998. I went on to gain an M.A. in Philosophy and Literature from the University of Warwick in 1999 and a D.Phil. in English from the University of Sussex in 2004. I taught at the University of St Andrews for eight years, from 2006-2014, first as a Lecturer and then Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Literature. I joined the Cambridge Faculty of English in 2014, where I am now a Reader in Literature and the Public Humanities.

I am a member of the Faculty of English's Contemporaries research group and the interdisciplinary Cambridge Centre for Film and Screen. I am the General Editor of the book series Gylphi Contemporary Writers: Critical Essays and serve on the editorial boards of C21: Journal of Twenty-First Century Writing and Fantastika.

I have held leadership positions as Director of the Cambridge AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership, as a Programme Director at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, and as Chair of the British Association for Contemporary Literary Studies


BBC Broadcasting and Partnership:

In 2013 I was selected as an Arts and Humanities Research Council & BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker and thereafter have broadcast regularly on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4. I co-created, wrote and presented the documentary series Literary Pursuits on Radio 3 from 2016-2019, and the Close Reading feature on Radio 4’s Open Book from 2014-2016. I also brokered and manage the University of Cambridge's partnership with the BBC on the National Short Story Award, and with the BBC and First Story on the Young Writers' Award and Student Critics' Award.

Details of all my public and media activities can be found on my website and blog.

 Email: sjd27 [at] cam.ac.uk


Research Interests

I am a feminist scholar of late twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature, film and philosophy, with a research focus on the epistemological function and role of fictional narratives, on interdisciplinarity, and on the public humanities. My work takes place at sites of intersection and interconnection, between disciplines and fields (literary theory and criticism, literature and science studies, science fiction studies, film studies, continental philosophy, feminist theory and criticism), and between sectors (academia, media, and government). I locate my work at such sites in order to analyse, theorise and perform the specific modes of thought and knowledge offered by literature and cinema, and the humanities more broadly.

In addition to my individual research, I have received funding awards for collaborative research projects from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Society, the Templeton World Charity Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. I am currently co-PI, with Dr Richard Staley (History and Philosophy of Science), of a University of Cambridge Mellon Sawyer Seminar - 'Histories of Artifical Intelligence: A Geneaology of Power' (May 2020-July 2021). 

The Palimpsest: Literature, Criticism, Theory (London: Bloomsbury Academic: 2007) 

The topic of my first book, The Palimpsest (based on my doctoral thesis), arose out of my interest in interrelationality. Palimpsests are interdisciplinary objects, both literally and figuratively - in fact, the palimpsest is itself a figure for interdisciplinarity, for the productive violence of the entanglement, interruption and inhabitation of disciplines in and on each other. In The Palimpsest, I focus on the relationship between literature, criticism, theory and philosophy, with each chapter interweaving theorisation of the concept of the palimpsest (via thinkers such as Abraham and Torok, Butler, Derrida, Genette, Heidegger, Kristeva and Riffaterre), with close readings of literary texts in which the metaphor figures, including works by Thomas De Quincey, Arthur Conan Doyle, D.H. Lawrence, H.D., Umberto Eco and Ian McEwan. The book investigates the palimpsest's structure and logic in order to develop a theory of palimpsestuous relationality, and in order to demonstrate how this provides a conceptual structure for thinking anew about history, subjectivity, temporality, textuality and sexuality. 

Deconstruction, Feminism, Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018)

My second book, Deconstruction, Feminism, Film (delayed due to having children), continues the methodological and intellectual interests developed in The Palimpsest. Here, I interrogate the interrelationship between the fields indicated in the book's title: deconstruction, feminism, and film. I do so through a dual feminist methodology of critique and generation, which aims to balance careful elaboration of the possibilities Derrida’s work offers to feminist and film thought, with detailed critique of his thinking about gender, sexuality, film and the visual. The book's general philosophical work is performed through singular close readings of key visual texts linked to deconstruction: Ken McMullen's Ghost Dance (1983), Joanna Callaghan's Love in the PostFrom Plato to Derrida (2014), Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman's Derrida (2002), and Marie Franc╠žoise Plissart’s photonovel Right of Inspection (1985). I place these key deconstructive visual texts within their cinematic as well as philosophical contexts. I do so in order to theorise and perform the possibilities of a contemporary deconstructive feminist film critical practice, as well as to offer new feminist theories of spectatorship, realism vs artifice, narrative, adaptation, auto/biography, and the still. 

Storylistening: Narrative Evidence and Public Reasoning, co-authored with Claire Craig (London: Routledge, forthcoming 2021)

This forthcoming book arises out of collaborative thinking with Claire Craig about the relationship between literature and the humanities, and public discourse and decision-making. It is fed by my intellectual interest in interrelationship and interdisciplinarity and in how and why stories function and matter, as well as by the knowledge gained from my public work - primarily my broadcasting - through which I have been researching in practice how the humanities contributes to public life beyond academia. With this book, we make the case for the value of attention to stories, and the importance of understanding their functions and effects, in the context of high-level decision-making and policy-making. The book identifies five functions of stories – empathy, identity, modelling as mimesis, modelling as anticipation, and persuasion – and demonstrates how literary and other narratives function in this way in relation to four areas of public decision-making and reasoning where decisions are strongly influenced by contentious knowledge and powerful imaginings: climate change, the economy, nuclear power, and artificial intelligence. We argue that the task of taking stories seriously is urgent now, as recent political events have exposed the limits of technocratic evidence, and aim to create the conditions in which the task of listening to stories is possible, expected and becomes endemic. In doing so, we wish to extend the range of ways in which literature contributes to human flourishing through its capacity to make available to public reasoning alternative forms of thought and knowledge.  

Literature and Artificial Intelligence: Narrative Knowledge and Applied Epistemology (in preparation)

In this book, my interest in interdisciplinarity and interrelationality is explored by attending to the relationship between literature and artificial intelligence, specifically natural language processing and speech recognition technologies. I explore the role of literature in a field which one of its founders, John McCarthy, wished to call ‘applied epistemology’, rather than AI. The book uses the conjunction of literature and AI to pursue in this specific context my interest in the epistemological value of literature, in particular its different episteme in contrast to analytic philosophy (with which AI is closely aligned) and science. The book is structured around a series of case studies, from Turing to the present, in which a specific literary text has intersected in demonstrable ways with AI research. Pairings include: Turing’s 'Computer Machinery and Intelligence’ (1950) and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872); Joseph Weizenbaum’s ‘ELIZA – A Computer Program For the Study of Natural Language Communication Between Man and Machine’ (1966) and George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913); as well as paired works by Daniel Dennett and Richard Powers, and Marvin Minsky and Harry Harrison. Through detailed exploration of these case-studies, I aim: to create a geneaology of interactions between literature and AI; to provide new close readings of literary texts in light of their interaction with AI research; to demonstrate the way in which literature, and literary critical thinking, operate as forms of knowledge; and to explore, through literature and literary criticism, philosophical questions that the development of AI poses, in particular in relation to the nature of gender, the human, human-machine interaction, and creativity.


Areas of Graduate Supervision

I am interested in supervising graduate students working on twentieth and/or twentieth-first century literature, flm or culture, who share any of my research interests and who combine close reading with theoretical literacy. I am currently supervising doctoral projects on the aestheticisation of failure in contemporary cultural theory and production, and on fetishism, gender, race and sex robots. Previous doctoral projects supervised have investigated: the speculative archive in African American literature, culture and history; queer young adult fiction; Ian McEwan and phenomenology; sex in contemporary literature; William Gibson and the gestalt; literature of the anthropocene; and contemporary dystopian fiction. 


Selected Publications


- authored

Storylistening: Narrative Evidence and Public Reasoning, co-authored with Claire Craig (London: Routledge, forthcoming early 2021) 

Deconstruction, Feminism, Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018)

The Palimpsest: Literature, Criticism, Theory (London: Continuum, 2007)

- edited

AI Narratives: A History of Imaginative Thinking about Intelligent Machines, co-ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020)

Maggie Gee: Critical Essays, co-ed. (Canterbury: Gylphi, 2015)

David Mitchell: Critical Essays, ed. (Canterbury: Gylphi, 2011)


Journal Special Issues:

‘Imagining Derrida’, Special Issue of Derrida Today 10:2 (2017), ed. with John Schad. 


Journal Articles:

'The Eliza Effect and its Dangers: From Demystification to Gender Critique’, Journal for Cultural Research 24.1 (2020). Available here.

'The Horror of the Anthropocene’, C21 Literature: Journal of 21st Century Writings 6.1 (2018), Special Issue: The Literature of the Anthropocene. Open access, available here

‘On the Influence of Literature on Science’, Configurations 26.3 (2018), Special Joint Issue with Journal of Literature and Science: State of the Unions (Part 2): 311-16. Available here.

‘Cinematic Incorporation: Literature in My Life Without Me’, Film Philosophy 19 (2015): 55-66. Open access, available here.

‘It is a Question of Words, Therefore’: Becoming-Animal in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin’, Science Fiction Studies 38.1 (2011): 134-54. Open access, available here.

‘Chaotic Narrative: Complexity, Causality, Time and Autopoiesis in David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten’, Critique 52.2 (2011): 135-62. Open access version, and link to official publication, available here.

‘Imagining Apocalypse: Maggie Gee’s The Flood’, Contemporary Literature 48.3 (2007): 374-97.

‘Palimpsesting: Reading and Writing Lives in H.D.’s Palimpsest’, Critical Survey, Special Issue: Modernist Women Writers Using History, ed. Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewllyn, 19.1 (2007): 29-39. Open access version, and link to official publication, available here.

‘Life After Derrida: Anacoluthia and the Agrammaticality of Following’, Research in Phenomenology 36 (2006): 97-114. Open access version, and link to official publication, available here.

‘Re-inscribing De Quincey’s Palimpsest: The Significance of the Palimpsest in Contemporary Literary and Cultural Studies’, Textual Practice 19.3 (2005): 243-263.


Book Chapters:

'Feminist Fiction and Forms of Empowerment', in Empowering Contemporary Fiction, ed. Ralf Hertel and Eva-Maria Schmitz (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming 2020).

‘Who Rules the World?: Reimagining the Contemporary Feminist Dystopia’, in New Feminist Literary Studies, ed. Jennifer Cooke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), pp. 169-181.

‘Artificial Intelligence and the Sovereign-Governance Game’, with Michael Dillon, in AI Narratives: A History of Imaginative Thinking about Intelligent Machines, ed. Stephen Cave, Kanta Dihal and Sarah Dillon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), pp. 331-54.

'Introduction: Imagining AI', with Cave and Dihal, in AI Narratives: A History of Imaginative Thinking about Intelligent Machines, ed. Stephen Cave, Kanta Dihal and Sarah Dillon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), pp. 1-21.

‘David Mitchell’, in The Routledge Companion to Twenty-First Century Fiction, ed. Daniel O'Gorman and Robert Eaglestone (London: Routledge, 2018), pp. 372-82.

‘English and the Public Good’, in English: Shared Futures, ed. Robert Eaglestone and Gail Marshall (Martlesham: Boydell and Brewer, 2018), pp. 194-201.

‘Derrida and the Question of “Woman”’, in Derrida and Queer Theory, ed. Christian Hite (Brooklyn: Punctum Books, 2017), pp. 108-130. Open access, available here.

‘Literary Equivocation: Reproductive Futurism and The Ice People’, in Maggie Gee: Critical Essays, ed. Sarah Dillon and Caroline Edwards (Canterbury: Glyphi, 2015), pp. 101-132.

'Beyond the Blue: The Sorrowful Joy of Gee’, with Caroline Edwards, in Maggie Gee: Critical Essays, ed. Sarah Dillon and Caroline Edwards (Canterbury: Glyphi, 2015), pp. 1-29.

‘“Talking about the same questions but at another rhythm”: Deconstruction and Film’, in The First Sail: The Cinema of J. Hillis Miller, ed. Dragan Kujundzic (Open Humanities Press/University of Michigan Online Publications, 2015), pp. 86-101. Open access, available here.

‘Introducing David Mitchell’s Universe: A Twenty-First Century House of Fiction’, in David Mitchell: Critical Essays, ed. Sarah Dillon (Canterbury: Gylphi, 2011), pp. 3-23.

‘Time for the Gift of Dance’ in Sex, Gender and Time in Literature and Culture, ed. Ben Davies and Jana Funk (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 109-131.



AI and Gender: 5 Proposals for Future Research, The Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, June 2019

Portrayals and Perceptions of AI and Why They Matter, The Royal Society, December 2018