Workshop on ‘The Experiment’

An event generously funded by the Research Institute for Media, Arts and Performance (RIMAP) at the University of Bedfordshire (

Date: June 8th 2015
Venue: Humanities Seminar Room 1, Stephens Building, Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London SW7 2EU
Time: 11:30-6 (Turn up from 11 for coffee if you can)
Oganisers: Dr Alice Barnaby (; Dr Gareth Farmer (

This workshop will bring together scholars from across the sciences and the humanities to discuss questions such as:

  • What does it mean to experiment?
  • How do different disciplines conceptualise and practice experiment, and how they account for the role of the experimenter?
  • In what ways are ideas of experiment historically specific?
  • How far does the experimental model or framework of science since the enlightenment preclude creative discovery?
  • How do different concepts and practices of experiment balance the procedural with the innovative?
  • Is experiment our only way to “fend off [the] madness and chaos” of the world? Our only way of truly living?

Workshop Abstract
Experiment, from the Latin, experimentum, from experīrī to try, to test. Experiment involves trial and error and testing the limits of knowledge. It can be a deeply serious business as well as a creative and fun exploration resulting in successes and failures. Visionary poet and painter William Blake began his prophetic text, “All Religions Are One” with a voice crying in the wilderness. Its first words are the argument: “As the true method of knowledge is experiment the true faculty of knowing must be the faculty which experiences.” Blake’s infamous distrust of the “mind-forg’d manacles” of reason and his concomitant faith in knowledge accrued through experience would be tested in his poetical and prose works. He may have distrusted the cold experiment of Isaac Newton, but his writing and painting experimented with and tested the limits of his claims. Louis Pasteur was aware of the life-altering nature of experiment when he insisted of his discovery of micro-organisms that, “[n]ever will the doctrine of spontaneous generation recover from the mortal blow struck by this simple experiment.” And filmmaker David Cronenberg extended the struggle between chance and rational processes implied by Pasteur to all life. “Everybody’s a mad scientist”, he stated, “and life is their lab. We’re all trying to experiment to find a way to live, to solve problems, to fend off madness and chaos.” Experiment is not just the domain of the rationalist, but a vibrant, imperative, calamitous and necessary thing we all do, in the lab, in our creative work and throughout our lives.

Experiment and experimentation are, then, of central importance to both the sciences and the humanities. Such a statement appears to be self-evident and also seems to imply a degree of shared understanding about the idea and act of experimentation: experiments are ways of asking new questions and discovering new knowledge.  Yet, to a literary critic experiment implies self-consciousness about form and style; to a biologist experiment means testing a hypothesis and submitting results to the wider community for validation. But, as Pasteur, Jenner and and Fleming demonstrate, one biologist’s mould may be another’s penicillin. On closer inspection, any sense of disciplinary, let alone interdisciplinary, consensus about this term breaks down. Given this lack of commonality, what did Blake learn from Newton? And what can we learn from each other about the role and function of experiment and its relationship to the production of knowledge?




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