Kieran M. Murphy, Electromagnetism and the Metonymic Imagination

Kieran M. Murphy, Electromagnetism and the Metonymic Imagination (Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 2020) 192 pp. $69.95 Hb, ISBN: 978-0-271-08605-7

In his fascinating comparative study on electromagnetism and metonymic organization, Murphy argues for a reframing of “the electric age” as the electromagnetic age. After Hans Christian Oersted’s 1820 discovery of a link between electricity and magnetism, the nineteenth century ushered in what Murphy calls a new era of electromagnetic thinking. While trends in scholarship rely on either electricity’s or magnetism’s contributions to the production of imaginative forms of reasoning, severing the connection between these two phenomena forecloses the opportunity of studying electromagnetic analogies that began to redefine aesthetic and physical domains. Scientists and authors alike mobilized this electromagnetic movement, which accumulated empirical evidence supporting a post-Newtonian shift in worldview and culminated in Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity in the early twentieth century.

Murphy contends that the reconceptualization of electromagnetism and its impact on nineteenth century literature has been obscured by the abrupt rise to prominence of Einstein’s relativity theory, which reinterprets Michael Faraday’s electromagnetic induction to form the basis of a new, non-Newtonian model of physics. The visual representation of chains and magnetic contiguity, Murphy argues, can be traced from Faraday’s and Maxwell’s scientific diagrams all the way back to Plato’s Ion, the touchstone for a “remarkable empirical model [used] to make sense of difference and relation within a vision of the cosmos where everything is not only metaphorically but also metonymically connected” (11). The Platonic tradition of magnetic contiguity set the foundation for the epistemological metonymic shift that occurred in the nineteenth century.

The entire book is dedicated to the discovery of electromagnetism and its development into “Romantic machines,” a term coined by John Tresch in his monograph The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology After Napoleon (2012). Such Romantic machines combined the enlightenment values of mechanism and detached objectivity with Romantic characteristics like organicism and unity of natural forces. Electromagnetism and the Metonymic Imagination is organized around three such examples: electromagnetic chains, induction apparatuses, and automata.

Murphy begins with a chapter on “(Electro-)Magnetic Chains,” noting that electricity and magnetism are two distinct phenomena linked by “a metonymic power that connects through difference” (26). Analogies used to bridge distinct domains through shared influence were employed by the pre-Socratics to investigate epistemological and metaphysical ideas. Murphy traces this tradition to Edgar Allan Poe’s “magnetoesthetics,” a term used to codify the ethos of cognitive probing through magnetic concatenation. Poe was one of the first literary figures to apply electromagnetism to the service of generating new ideas and organizing knowledge. In his mesmeric tales, we find the concatenation and metonymy that marks electromagnetism, rather than the metaphoric continuity of Anton Mesmer’s magnetic fluid. In Poe’s detective fiction, ratiocination became an “inductive apparatus” that encouraged readers to solve mysteries through inductive reasoning.

As he turns to inductive apparatuses, Murphy reveals an isomorphism between electromagnetic induction and inductive reasoning. After Faraday’s electromagnetic inductive apparatus, scientists applied the technique of electromagnetic contiguity to reconceptualize and reframe traditional Newtonian figurations of space and time. Murphy contends that Honoré de Balzac, who was fascinated by “sympathies” that contradicted these traditional Newtonian concepts, pioneered a literary movement for which Emerson is already well-known: a “Faradayan wave” whose spirit also guided Einstein towards the discovery of his theory of relativity. Murphy situates Balzac alongside Faraday, Maxwell, and Einstein to demonstrate how electromagnetic contiguity provided scientific and literary thinkers with a fresh empirical framework to generate new knowledge.

In general, Murphy argues that the critical trend has been towards deemphasizing electromagnetism in favor of focalizing the technologies that employ it. The book’s last core chapter therefore discusses a notable exception to this trend: Villiers de L’Isle Adams’s L’Eve Future, “where electromagnetic interactions as well as technologies are central to the narrative and its mediation of life and cognition” (83). In fictionalizing an automaton that explains how to convincingly imitate a living being, Villiers ironically critiques the philosophical tradition of explaining living things as self-moving machines. Murphy explains that interest in magnetic polarity at the turn of the nineteenth century motivated the research of Naturphilosophie and eventually led to Oersted’s revelation that electricity and magnetism were connected. The electromagnetic and occult elements that contribute to Villiers’s representation of a convincing electromagnetic animal demonstrate that the bourgeois model of clockwork living beings is too reductive. Rather, “the machine does not just come after the living: it is also situated in the space where life and death are metonymically linked” (117).

Electromagnetism and the Metonymic Imagination concludes by extending the book’s argumentative threads into an examination of the intellectual climate of the twentieth century, which shifted drastically in the wake of Einstein’s relativity theory. Specifically, Gaston Bachelard used that shift to signal a “new scientific spirit” originating not just in Einstein, but in the metonymic thinking of Faraday, Ampère, and Maxwell. Bachelard noted that scientific revolutions occur through “epistemological breaks,” rather than by continuous accumulation of knowledge (122). Electromagnetism was key to this insight, Murphy explains, because it “unveiled a relation of contiguity that caused profound and connected change in literary and scientific practices… [offering] a fresh way to explore puzzling relations between object and subject, mind and matter, life and death” (134). A younger contemporary of Bachelard, Julien Gracq later studied electromagnetic induction as the fundamental image of André Breton’s aesthetics.

Murphy contributes to ongoing studies on the “electric age” by convincingly demonstrating how electromagnetism drove conceptual and enduring changes in literary and scientific practices. Electromagnetic thinking, including the application of metonymic relations, revealed new ways of ordering and investigating the world. His comparative approach synthesizes electromagnetic analogies across discipline, genre, and national specificities. This book will therefore be of interest to scholars specializing in a variety of fields, including nineteenth-century science and literature, history of science, and science studies.

Kameron Sanzo, University of California