Twentieth Century and Contemporary Literature

The Twentieth Century and Contemporary Research Seminar is a forum for scholars to present research on aspects of literature and culture in this century and last. While the seminar serves as a testing ground for new ideas that push against the expectations of period and discipline, it is also home to our lively community of postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers, providing a valuable resource within the Faculty.

If you have any questions please contact the current convenors - Juliette Bretan ( and Lauryn Anderson ('

Tuesday 9th May, 5pm-7pm - English Faculty Room, SR24

Rebecca Beasley 'Cold War (British) Modernism'

This paper will investigate the familiar argument that modernism was a creation of the Cold War. Set out first in the 1970s by the art historians Eva Cockroft, Jane de Hart Mathews, Max Kozloff, Cecile Shapiro and David Shapiro, and developed and popularised by Serge Guilbaut in 1983 and Frances Stonor Saunders in 1999, this argument proceeds from the fact that modernism, particularly in the form of abstract expressionist painting, was in Guilbaut’s words, ‘enlisted by government agencies and private organizations in the fight against Soviet cultural expansion’. More recently, Greg Barnhisel has significantly expanded our knowledge of modernism’s role in the Cold War, detailing the extent to which the CIA, the State Department, and their allies directly and indirectly deployed a variety of media and cultural institutions as weapons of pro-Western propaganda. But how applicable is this argument to modernism in Britain? The paper will trace instances of the transfer of that argument to the British context, and argue that these have misrepresented both British modernism and its first critics.

Tuesday 23rd May, 5pm-7pm - English Faculty Room, SR24

Siddharth Soni 'Wittgenstein, between the Novelist and the Machine'

The paper opens in 1984, when the computer-generated novel ‘The Policeman’s Beard was Half-Constructed’ was met with equal parts dread and fascination, renewing endemic fears within the humanities of the annihilation of the narrative by the ideological and cultural ascendancy of numbers. Paranoid claims about the replacement/corruption of narrativity by the pervasive rise of the algorithm are everywhere. With increasing complexity, it is feared, the computer will 'code-break', among other things, the novel, and thus industrialise the production of prose literature. Within the literary humanities, rebuttals have taken many convincing forms, but here I propose a different way to look at the problem. What exigencies, I ask, might thinking about ‘synthetic’, ‘prosthetic’, ‘artificial’, ‘algorithmic’ or ‘modelled’ language, bear upon the task of the critic? What does a faithful engagement with algorithmic creativity as a cultural formation look like? One place to look, I propose, is the work of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and its forgotten influence, as scholars like Lydia Liu have shown, on the language philosophy of Margaret Masterman, and on the significant legacy of the Cambridge Language Research Unit (CLRU). Here lies a generative historical debate on the ‘computability’ of language, which offers, to me, to a framework for an examination of what I believe is a crucially under-examined category of criticism—composition, or the technological processes by which fiction is composed.

Tuesday 20th June, 'Contemporary Writers' Readings' - Victoria Adukwei Bulley