Book Review – Twins Talk: What Twins Tell Us about Person, Self, and Society, by Dona Lee Davis

This book review was originally commissioned by American Anthropologist and an edited version will appear in the journal soon.

Herself a twin sibling, Dona Lee Davis has interviewed identicalCover (monozygotic) twin pairs to demonstrate the performed and negotiated quality of twin identities in a society largely organized by, and structured for, singleton expressions of self and sibling experience. With chapters organized around broad themes – ‘Twinscapes’, ‘Talk’, ‘Performance’, ‘Body’, ‘Bond’, ‘Culture’, and ‘Twindividuals’ – Davis weaves her own experience of being a twin and of attending conferences such as the International Congress of Twin Studies into material gathered through her interviews with 23 twin pairs at the annual Twins Festival at Twinsburg, OH. She is open about the pleasurable complications of describing herself a ‘native’ (p. 33) alongside her twin informants, claiming a level of access to her subject that those born without a direct experience of the life-long condition of being a twin would struggle to fabricate. Davis’ affective, autoethnographic proximity to her interviewees is at once an engaging and revealing feature of this book. Consequently, her presentation of twinship is entangled in the desire to supplement an outsider’s with an insider’s perspective: to provide a record of twin personhood that has been collaboratively ‘voiced’ into anthropological significance, alongside the analytic desire to bring coherence to and amplify those voices beyond the economically and politically specific time and space of their festival origins.

Despite aiming to ‘normalize twinship’ (p. 7), the gestationally and experientially exclusive position adopted by Davis is one that serves to extend the long and complex history of phenomenological mystery, exoticism, and categorical indistinction attributed to twinship in canonic works of ethnography (Rivers 1906; Evans-Pritchard 1936; Lévi–Strauss 1964; Turner 1969; Peek 2011) and in broader works of sociology and cultural theory (Schwarz 1996; Stewart 2001; Bacon 2010; Viney 2014). The difference is that while these works are largely concerned with how singletons have defined twins, Twins Talk focuses on how twins co-produce ‘self’ and ‘identity’ within and without the twin dyad. Perhaps it is necessary that Davis locates twins at numerous cultural and psychological ‘faultlines’, with the insider-outsider structure of the author’s analytic position made symmetrical with the ambivalently distributed identities that it brings to light. Davis concludes that she and twins are counterhegemonic subjects, able to refuse dominant notions of body or selfhood determined by Western individualism.

Twins Talk seeks to listen to how pairs talk their way through interpersonal relationships; performing the complex ‘self work’ (p. 8–9) of narrativised becoming that are structurally occluded by biomedical research projects. This contrast finds traction through the selective ways that Davis approaches biomedical twin research as a field replete with what she calls ‘blindspots’ (p. 101, p. 170): the failure to speak about twins in terms that recognize an expanded and expansive sense of autonomy and personhood. She is particularly critical of researchers who use the language of the instrumentation or thingliness of twins, to stress the primacy of genes and genetics to twin identities, for example. By taking the controversial and idiosyncratic work of Thomas J. Bouchard and David Teplica as exemplary, Davis suggests a view of contemporary twin research dominated by a crude scientism that ‘exists above and beyond culture’ (p. 173). This largely ignores the rich culture of dissent that has left a 140 year-old tradition of using twins in medical research no more internally consistent or univocal in content than ‘anthropology.’ Though Davis makes passing reference to the novel, postgenomic epistemologies, technologies and methods that have revolutionized twin research in the last 10 years (Bell and Spector 2011; van Dongen et al 2012), a frustratingly one-sided battle emerges between a malevolently blunt genetic determinism on the one hand and Davis’ benevolently sophisticated conception of culture on the other. We are not told why approximately 1.5 million twins should volunteer to be treated as ‘zombies or performing monkeys’ (p. 37) or for the alienation, misrepresentation, and reductiveness that Davis complains are endemic to twin research in the life sciences. It might be telling that these feelings are scarcely registered among her interviewees. More needs to be understood about why twins volunteer for health research, how molecular and molar relations can or cannot come into the public domain, and why twins continue to be used to explore an incredible range of traits, behaviors, and diseases.

There is no doubt that Twins Talk is an invaluable record of a particularly voluble minority of festival-going twins who are willing, eager, and capable of presenting themselves as talking twins, sympathetic to their biographies being raised to anthropological significance. Davis has worked hard to translate the specificity of her talking partners so that their experience may resonate among those voices that have not been recorded in this study. ‘There is one thing twins know how to do,’ she says, developing a metaphor introduced by one set of her talking partners, ‘it is to interchangeably lead and lean while sharing the stage’ (p. 27). Yet the presumed heroism of transforming silence into speech ought not be at the cost of understanding why some twins prefer not to talk, neither leading nor leaning nor even identifying themselves as “twins” above all else, and before all others.

References

Bacon, Kate 2010 Twins in Society: Parents, Bodies, Space and Talk. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Bell, Jordana T. and Tim D. Spector 2011 ‘A Twin Approach to Unraveling Epigenetics.’ Trends in Genetics 27, 3. 116–125.

van Dongen, Jenny, P. Eline Slagboom, Harmen H. M. Draisma, Nicholas G. Martin and Dorret I. Boomsma 2012 ‘The Continuing Value of Twins in the Omics Era.’ Nature Reviews Genetics 13. 640–653.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E 1936 ‘Customs and Beliefs Relating to Twins Among the Nilotic Nuer.The Uganda Journal. 230-238.

Lévi–Strauss, Claude 1964 Totemism. Translated by Rodney Needham. London: Merlin Press.

Peek, Philip M. Ed 2011 Twins in African and Diaspora Cultures: Double Trouble, Twice Blessed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Rivers, W.H.R 1906 The Todas. London: Macmillan.

Turner, Victor 1969; 1997 The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure Piscataway, NJ: AldineTransaction.

Schwartz, Hillel 1996 The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles. Zone Books: New York.

Stewart, Elizabeth A 2003 Exploring Twins: Towards a Social Analysis of Twinship. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Viney, William 2014 ‘Curious Twins.’ Critical Quarterly 53.2. 47–58.

 

‘Curious Twins’ – Critical Quarterly, Volume 56, Issue 2, pp. 47–58

My paper, in a special issue of the journal Critical Quarterly, is now available (£) online. The essay came about through my doctoral research with Steven Connor, who left The London Consortium for Cambridge in 2012. Thanks to Joe Brooker for convening the event and editing the resulting collection, Weather Reports.

Abstract The meaning and significance of human twins is shaped by a wide range of disciplinary perspectives, many of which employ twins to test a variety of hypotheses about who or what we are. Whether twins are viewed as physical anomalies, religious miracles, or scientific marvels, criteria can be identified according to which they are separated from those born alone. This article attends to the ways in which twins are differentiated and shows how they have been used as living evidence or proof that supports sociological, religious, and scientific practice. By collating examples taken from the humanities, the social and biomedical sciences – with particular attention paid to works of social anthropology and molecular biology – William Viney seeks to articulate both the differing scales by which twins become distinct objects of research and how this sense of scale affects the extent to which they are understood as active, formative agents in those research endeavours, used to substantiate, clarify and inform. The wider aim of this article is to understand the dynamic means by which twins are drawn into and sustain explanatory narratives that extend far beyond the twin relation, taken to be generative objects in the formation of new knowledge. By tracing the exceptional cultural life of twins across different fields of inquiry we can better understand the utility of sustaining particular, exclusive human groups, both as an experimental means and as the evidential ends of research practice.

Neuroscience and Social Science: Experimental Imaginations

This podcast was developed through Pod Academy – an open access podcasting initiative based in London.

This podcast is about the relations between the social sciences and the neurosciences, and what it might mean to do interdisciplinary work between these areas. Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard, two social scientists interested in stepping outside the bounds of social-science methods, and especially experienced in engaging with neuroscientific experiments, offer a new way of thinking about collaboration between the social- and neuro-sciences. They call their approach ‘Experimental Entanglements’.

Research on the brain, as well as the widespread dissemination of this research, has significantly shaped our understanding of what it is to be human in the 21st century. Indeed, many facets of human life that were, for much of the twentieth century, primarily understood through tNeuroartRaymond Tallis has, in contrast, argued that it poses the gravest of intellectual threats. Indeed, Tallis is far from being the only one to have worried about the reductive and potentially anti-humanist tendencies of the neurosciences.

And yet, beyond such debates, it is increasingly clear that the more that scientists experiment on and with the human brain, the more it becomes clear that our brains, and the experimental and intellectual practices that attend to them, are bound up in cultural, semiotic, bodily, societal and aesthetic ‘webs’. The current situation in cognitive neuroscience – with techniques such as functional neuroimaging available in ever more sophisticated forms – is ripe for a new level of interdisciplinary engagement.

In the last few years, both Callard and Fitzgerald have participated in a number of explicitly designed ‘interdisciplinary’ ventures that have attempted to bring neuroscientists and social scientists together. The European Network of Neuroscience and Society (ENSN) and the Volkswagen Foundation’s European Platform for Life Sciences, Mind Sciences and the Humanities are two of these. Indeed, Fitzgerald and Callard first developed their approach of ‘experimental entanglement’ in a workshop held at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, which they co-designed, and which was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. In this podcast they reflect especially on the opportunities and constraints offered by such ‘interdisciplinary’ ventures. They counter a model in which social scientists and neuroscientists simply ‘interact’ with one another, secure in their own disciplinary arenas, and instead propose a much more complex and awkward practice of ‘experimental entanglement,’ in which to collaborate both in and beyond the neuroscientific laboratory.

NeurotrypchThe podcast touches on existing experimental collaborations. Fitzgerald discusses his research in the Urban Brain Lab at King’s College London, which focuses on the overlap between sociology and neuroscience in questions around city life and mental health – and asks what a shared investigation across these disciplines can and should look like. Callard discusses her on-going collaboration on the brain and mind ‘at rest’ with neuroscientists and psychologists. For much of the twentieth century, psychologists were heavily preoccupied with studying how people respond to external tasks, which made it harder for scientists to bring together biology, psychology and culture to get at what the brain, mind and body are doing when they are ‘at rest’ (i.e. not responding to an external task).

In contrast to usual social scientific interest in effects, ethics, or outcomes of the neurosciences as such, Fitzgerald’s and Callard’s collaborative approach focuses on the ‘experiment’ as a space of creative intervention – and it uses the concept of ‘entanglement’ to current bureaucratic and academic fixations on ‘engagement’ and ‘dialogue’. What could experimental practices look like in the twenty-first century, they ask, in which so-called neurological knowledge and so-called sociological and cultural knowledge tumble over one another in a way that ultimately makes it hard to distinguish one from the other?

Their programmatic statement about such an approach is available, Open Access, in the journal Theory, Culture & Society (‘Social Science and Neuroscience Beyond Interdisciplinarity: Experimental Entanglements’). They are authors of the forthcoming monograph Rethinking Interdisciplinarity across the Social Sciences and Neurosciences (Palgrave). From October 2014, Fitzgerald will participate in, and Callard will be Group Leader of, the inaugural project in The Hub at Wellcome Collection, working with neuroscientists, artists, social scientists and humanities scholars to develop experimental entanglements that are focused around rest, busyness and exertion at the scales of the brain, mind, body, organism and city.

Animate Twins, Molecular Things

I presented this paper to the Centre for Critical Theory at University of Nottingham. Many thanks go to Andy Goffey for the invitation.

I’d like to open a conversation about animacy, matter, and the molecular status of twins, to question what it is that makes urgent the peculiar exigency of twins, the sense that they are both with ‘us’ and against ‘us,’ and so throwing doubt over what sort of ‘us’ is being claimed and where that relation is being located. I would be truly grateful for any comments or recommendations you might have, anything that you feel seems important or germane, but equally, I’d like to invite an intellectual mercy killing if you think that I’m going seriously off the rails.

In what follows I’d like to provide a commentary on Mel Chen’s work on ‘animacies’, a concept that relates to, describes, and can help challenge hierarchies of agency, awareness, mobility, and liveness, to patrol the distinction between what is ‘alive’ and ‘dead.’ Chen argues a scale of animacy has supported normative concepts of ‘the human’ since, at least, Aristotle’s De Anima, and continues to regulate “gradations of lifeliness”[1] from inanimate, ‘dead things’ – minerals, stones and other non-sentient objects – constitute a zero-degree of agency – through to vegetables, smaller insects and non-vertebrates, to larger animals, mammals, children, women, and finally Man as a maximally agentive figure. Animacy stratifies Nature according to liveness, purpose, and sentience over which humans assume privileged access.

For Chen, understanding the racialised, sexualised and abelised political ecologies that can feed off and maintain the animacy scale helps to “trouble the binary of life and nonlife [to give a clearer] way to conceive of relationality and intersubjective exchange”.[2] The failures, breaks, and contradictions between the animate and inanimate reveal how the scale of animacy “must continually interanimate in spite of its apparent fixedness”[3] – hence, her book is called ‘animacies’ on the understanding that other practices, epistemologies, and ontologies are possible.

Ok, so how do twins fit in? And this, perhaps, is my main point, fittedness doesn’t quite cover the specific and often contradictory forms of mobility that twins achieve along this unstable cline, a mobility that is neither ‘culturally’ or ‘naturally’ directed, but articulates itself through the numerous ways that twin bodies can, do, and might matter.

There are a number of ways that twins may interanimate across and along the animacy hierarchy – from a sense of incongruent codependence, to adult infantalisation, to the ableist logic of extrasensory communication to the dis-ableism of infant language impairment. But I’ll focus the rest of this paper on the use of twins in the natural sciences, especially in psychology, genetics, and epidemiology, where they are thought of and make explicit ‘things’; people whose agentive powers both plunge down the animacy scale through their instrumentalisation as and proximity to laboratory materials, animals, and tools – ‘the non-human’ – and projected up the animacy scale, for being a powerful investigatory community generating, to quote one twin researcher “unique insights […] simply by acting naturally”[4]. Their every life event, decision is resonant with scientifically universal information ­– their bodies are used to stabilise and articulate new vital locations, processes, and therapeutic possibilities.. This is “knowledge and insight for everyone,” to quote one leading epidemiologist, “not just for twins”[5] It’s this particular animation of twins that I’d like to focus on for the rest of this paper and I hope to have time later to consider whether there’s a materialism of twinship that permits us to look at relations and intersubjective exchange in a different light.

***

So: twin things. Those born together in a single gestation first entered studies of heredity, genetics, and then a wide range of allied fields and subfields, through Galton’s biometric analysis of “nature and nurture”– a phrase first coined in relation to his twin studies of the mid 1870s. Guided by depth biology Galton hoped to discover the mechanisms that allowed twins to “keep[…] time like two watches, hardly to be thrown out of accord except for some physical jar”[6] From Galton we can trace the long process that has scientifically en-thinged twins – recruited them as evidence and material, imagined and treated as tools in order to animate new theories of life, development, and disease. Over 1.5 million twins and family members now participate in research worldwide, measured for a huge variety of physical and behavioural traits.

Chen, whose academic background is in comparative linguistics, argues that “language users use animacy hierarchies to manipulate, affirm, and shift the ontologies that matter the world”.[7] With this in mind, consider the status of twins when researchers like Nancy Segal refer to her research participants as “a powerful investigatory tool”[8] or as “living laboratories”[9] Twins matter, but particularly as they serve as efficient, exploratory and contingent tools. Robert Plomin describes his studies of identical twins who differ for a given phenotype as “a sharp scalpel for dissecting non-shared environmental effects from genetic effects.”[10] Twins are ‘technical things’ absorbed into experimental systems and used to bring to light and make matter the epistemic objects that comprise molecular processes.[11] Returning to the animacy scale, I think this use of twins problematizes both the inanimate, stone-like inertia of ‘the thing’ and the spatial and temporal integrity of its all-powerful human antagonist. However, I’m not sure that Chen’s work gives satisfactory guidance when she argues that “when humans are blended with objects along this cline, they are effectively ‘dehumanized’ and simultaneously de-subjectified and objectified”.[12] She uses a distinction between object and subject that finds sustenance in Martha Nussbaum’s claim that objectification occurs whenever “one is treating as an object what is really not an object, what is, in fact, a human being.”[13] Twins, however, are not only treated as or “blended” with things, but are experimental bodies understood as a complex assemblage of cell lines, gene expression levels, methylation sites, and microbial communities, to name just a few kinds of ‘matter’ that twin research has tried to articulate. Somehow, twins remain human twins, realised in and through and perhaps despite their thingliness.

It’s for this reason that I find Chen’s animacy scale or cline both incredibly useful but also rather linear, her discursive approach too narrow for the range of practices that I take to doubly en-thing twins – practices that not only render them technical objects in contemporary genomic research – beings that are measured, sampled, computed, and ‘shared’ as part of a globally-configured experimental apparatus – but also providing the evidence for what Nikolas Rose has characterized as the “molecularization of vitality”; which, with and among other things, decomposes, anatomizes, manipulates, amplifies, and reproduces “tissues, proteins, molecules, and drugs […] to be regarded, in many respects, as manipulable and transferable elements or units, which can be delocalized – moved from place to place, from organism to organism, from disease to disease, from person to person.”[14]

Here the role of animacy forces a set of ethical, epistemological, and ontological decisions that, for me, makes a critical medical humanities approach to twins necessary and possible – should twins be defended against instrumentality, safeguarding an autonomous, lively, unique, unbreakable and free ‘human’, or, can we break with the scales of anthropocentric privilege since, doing so, pursues the more difficult and critical – as in urgent or decisive – and certainly more risky task of understanding how and why twins come to matter in different ways and at different times.

***

If animating twins permits a recalibration of what it means to instrumentalise bodies conceived at a molecular scale, then I join those who are keen to challenge the strict partition between a human inner and non-human outer – to perforate “the exclusionary zone made of the perceptual operands of phenomenology”[15], and, by dismissing its correlationist accessory, which thrives through a plural multiculturism set against a static mononaturalism, I take the study of twin animacies to open up different, transcorporeal, transobjective socialities. Mel Chen’s characterisation of molecular intimacy is, I think, somewhat problematic, based as it is on physical absorption and assimilation: “When physically co-present with others, I ingest them. There is nothing fanciful about this. I am ingesting their exhaled air, their sloughed skin, and the skin of tables, chairs, and carpet of our shared room”.[16] I am both wary of the notion of physical co-presence being valorised and relied on here but also of how Chen’s human-nonhuman assemblies bare some similarity to Jane Bennett’s attempts to elevate “the shared materiality of all things”[17] to stress how each human is “a heterogeneous compound of wonderfully vibrant, dangerously vibrant, matter.”[18]As in Chen’s analysis, this vital materiality finds its force in accommodating and absorbing what is foreign. Bennett writes: “Vital materiality better captures an ‘alien’ quality of our own flesh, and in so doing reminds humans of the very radical character of the (fractious) kinship between the human and the nonhuman. My ‘own’ body is material, and yet this vital materiality is not fully or exclusively human. My flesh is populated and constituted by different swarms of foreigners”[19] We might characterize some of this object-oriented thinking as operating under what Chen calls the “xenobiotic”[20] where the argumentative thrust of these new ontologies, which borrow so much from molecular biology, follow particular trajectories of inclusion as they extend agency into the world by locating the nonhuman within.

***

To revive Chen’s description of the animacy scale and apply it to her own interanimations, I want to ask in what way does focusing on particular kinds of vibrant things “manipulate, affirm, and shift the ontologies that matter the world”? What, after so many years of humanistic, anti-essentialist broadsides against molecular biology, are we to make of the genetic matter that co-ordinates the somatic identity of twins in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? Because, if there is one question same-sex twins are asked by strangers it is this: identical or non-identical, monozygotic or dizygotic? This is gene talk through and through and it’s how twin bodies matter between molar and molecular scales. Despite the informatic metaphors of gene action – where ‘codes’ and ‘scripts’ are ‘read’ and ‘translated’ – ­Barry Barnes and John Dupré remind us that “DNA is stuff, and we are able to relate directly to it and gain knowledge of it as such–where to find it, how to separate it off, how it behaves as material, and so forth […] DNA is indeed a tangible material substance.”[21] Through twins and the research in which they participate, that tangibility has been made possible. And its on this basis that, in my approach to twinning, I want to resist the absolute collapse of the inner and outer, the rather lava-lamp-like materialism of the xenobiotic, since one does not become a twin in the same way one becomes infected or toxic; twinship may share something in common with concepts of biosociality, biological or genetic citizenship, but not in the same way that all of these terms have become tied in the STS and sociology literature to the circulation of “disease, disfigurement or disability”[22], what we might think of as the ‘proper terrain’ of biopolitics. No, I think the animate matter of twins makes another perspective possible; one that does not let the molecular elide the molar and one that does not over- or undermine the physicality of genes, but one that opens up the thingliness of specific people whose animate identity is internally-external, materially distributed within and between bodies.

[1] Chen, Animacies: Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), p. 167.

[2] Chen, Animacies, p.11.

[3] Chen, Animacies, p.30

[4] Nancy Segal, ‘Twins: The Finest Natural Experiment’, Personality and Individual Differences 49 (2010), p. 317.

[5] Tim Spector, ‘The Use of Twins in Research’. BRC Biomedical Forum, Guy’s Hospital, 9th January 2013.

[6] Galton, ‘The History of Twins as a Criterion of Nature and Nurture’, p. 574

[7] Chen, Animacies, p. 42.

[8] Nancy L. Segal, Born Together–Reared Apart: The Landmark Minnesota Twin Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012), p. 2.

[9] Nancy Segal, Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us About Human Behavior (New York: Putnam, 1999), p. 1.

[10] Robert Plomin, ‘Commentary: Why Are Children in the Same Family So Different? Non-Shared Environment Three Decades Later’,International Journal of Epidemiology 40 (2011), p. 587.

[11] For more on the distinction between ‘technical’ and ‘epistemic’ thing taken from Hans–Jorg Rheinberger, Towards a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube (Stanford: California University Press, 1997), pp. 28–29.

[12] Chen, Animacies, p. 40

[13] Martha Nussbaum, ‘Objectification’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 24. 4 (1995), p.257

[14] Nikolas Rose, The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), p.13, p. 15.

[15] Chen, Animacies, p.209

[16] Ibid.

[17] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), p. 13.

[18] Bennett, Vibrant Matter, pp. 12–13.

[19] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, p. 112

[20] Chen, Animacies, p. 208.

[21]­ Barry Barnes and John Dupré, Genomes and What to Make of Them (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2008), p. 64

[22] Rose, The Politics of Life Itself, p. 137.

“Twins and Doubles” – A Radio Programme on The Forum, BBC World Service

Lucky for me, my friend Lina Hakim has passed a link to this radio programme on the BBC, which features some tremendous guest speakers. The show is described in this way:

The Singh Twins are two sisters who are not only identical twins, but have created a successful career as a single artist. They will be telling us what it means to interpret the world through double vision. Also, psychologist Nancy Segal who has been studying identical Chinese twins separated at birth, and Nicholas Royle, a novelist and professor of literature, takes us into the unsettling world of doubles and alter egos in fiction.

I have not heard the Singh sisters speak before and found them to be fascinating interviewers. Nancy Segal’s new book, Born Together, Raised Apart (2013) gives an account of her work with the Minnesota twin study, receiving this rather tough response from Michael Rossi in the LRB. She provides some interesting arguments about why zygosity testing should be discounted for twins. Nick Royle, despite conflating the Freudian ‘uncanny’, ‘the double’, and other alter-egos with the biologically-specific phenomena of twinship (listen to how he historicises the double with respect to self-consciousness and Romanticism – hence ‘disturbance’, ‘dissonance’, ‘alienation’ – along with the technology of photography. Love how Segal takes him to task on this!). Royle was a tutor at Sussex while I was undergraduate there and prompted me to write a dissertation about Shakespeare’s twins, so I owe a debt to him and his book The Uncanny.

What Twins Can Teach Us

READ Research English At Durham

twins2How have twins been viewed throughout history? Why do twins continue to fascinate us today? In this research conversation, Will Viney outlines his new research project, which aims to show the different ways in which twins have been used as tools of thought in science, myth, and literature.

Your new research project is a cultural study of twins across history and through literature. What got you interested in studying twins?

As an identical twin I grew up as an object of other people’s curiosity. Much of this curiosity seemed to be levelled at our appearance – “oh you’re so similar!” or “oh, how disappointing you’re not more alike!” I started paying closer attention to how and why people are interested in twins and I soon realised that a likeness in physical appearance is just one among many reasons why twins are treated differently to those born alone.

For example…

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Twin Intimacies, at ‘Making a Scene: Networks of Intimacy’. London, 19th July 2013

I’ll be speaking at this afternoon-long symposium at The Institute of Psychoanalysis about why twins are often taken to represent particularly intimate relationships. We see this in classical myth, in the figures of the Dioscuri or ‘Heavenly Twins’, in studies which attempt to evidence inter-uterine sociality of twins, or this recent survey, conducted by the Twin and Multiple Birth Association, which argued that twin children are less likely to fight and have enhanced social skills. There’s added work to be done here since hit shows like Game of Thrones, and the prize-winning novels of Michel Tournier, John Banville and Pat Barker, all provide contemporary iterations, with a Classical precedent, that the closeness of twins might lead to sexually incestuous relations. And finally, there is the relentless interest in identical twins as representatives of a genetic community (a kind of molecular intimacy?) I do not want to arbitrate between these views but I only wish to to reflect on the persistent interest in twins as representing a paradigmatic form of identicality, emotional as well as physical, which stands distinct from ‘normal’ somatic, sibling, sexual or amorous relations. The full programme is pasted below; lots of other interesting talks in the offing.

Venue: The Institute of Psychoanalysis, 112a Shirland Avenue, London, W9 2EQ.
Nearest tube: Warwick Avenue (Bakerloo Line)
Price: £7.50, payable on the day.
Contact: Jennifer Cooke J.A.Cook[at]lboro.ac.uk.

Scenes of Intimacy, Edited by Jennifer Cooke, to be Formally Launched at the Symposium's Conclusion.

1.30 – 1.45 pm Arrival & registration

1.45 – 2 pm Jennifer Cooke, Loughborough University Welcome & summary of recent & current  work on intimacy in literature and theories of intimacy.
2 – 2.15 pm Catherine Humble, University College London Talking About Love in Raymond Carver
2.15 – 2.30 pm David Nowell-Smith, University of East Anglia ‘Doubting Affect’
2.30 – 2.45 pm Kaye Mitchell, University of Manchester The gender and politics of shame in contemporary (post-1990) literature
2.45 – 3 pm Christine Campbell, St Mary’s University College, Twickenham Consensual non-monogamous relationships such as polyamory and swinging from a psychology perspective
3 – 3.15 pm Mike Lousada, Sex Therapist  ‘Somatic Sexology – Towards a Humanisitic Approach to Sex Therapy’
3.15 – 3.30 pm Erika Kvistad, University of York Sexual power dynamics in the work of Charlotte Brontë

3.30 – 4 pm Tea, coffee & biscuits

4 – 4.15 pm Katherine Harrison, University of Southern Denmark ‘Transformations of Kinship: Re/mediations’ (sperm donor stories)
4.15 – 4.30 pm  Cécile Feza Bushidi, ‘Social Dance and the Politics of Intimacy: the Case of Mwomboko Dance’
4.30 – 4.45 pm William Viney, Durham University  ‘Twin Intimacies’
4.45 – 5 pm  Paola Baseotto, Insubria University, Italy ‘The Psychological and Emotional Impact of Plague in Early Modern England’
5 – 5.15 pm Helen Thomas, University College Falmouth Illness, disease and death in literary and visual culture
5.15 – 5.30 pm Ailsa Granne, King’s College London The intimacy of print: women writing between the wars
5.30 – 5.45 pm  Felcility Allen, Artist Begin Again: dialogic portraits project
5.45 – 6 pm Reina van der Wiel, Birkbeck, University of London ‘Writing Lives of Care: Intimacy, Ethics and Literary Form’
6 – 7 pm   Wine reception and launch of Scenes of Intimacy: Reading, Writing and Theorizing Contemporary Literature
7.30 pm Symposium dinner

All welcome but not included in conference price at The Warrington, 93  Warrington Crescent, Maida Vale, W9 1EH (10 minutes’ walk away).