Peter Middleton, Physics Envy: American Poetry and Science in the Cold War and After

Peter Middleton, Physics Envy: American Poetry and Science in the Cold War and After (University of Chicago Press 2015) 272 pp. $45 Hb. ISBN: 9780226290003

Peter Middleton’s most recent book Physics Envy: American Poetry and Science in the Cold War and After charts a compelling map of the evolution of a literary engagement with science between the 1940s and 1960s that is likely to leave an impression on both literary scholars and scientists willing to chance a leap across what Bruno Latour identifies as Modernity’s Great Divide between the social and the natural world. In relation to the book’s title, two caveats are in order: readers with the expectation of encountering a psychoanalytic grounding for the specific inferiority complex Middleton calls ‘physics envy’ – a term traced independently to American poet David Antin and biologist Joel Cohen – will be disappointed. Likewise only marginal attention is paid to the geopolitical predicaments of the Cold War and their impact on both American sciences and humanities. The strengths of Middleton’s comprehensive study of the intellectual climate at the interstice of physics and poetry lie in its meticulous unfolding of how some of the most esteemed American postwar poets have responded to what was perceived as a scientific monopoly on knowledge and authority in making sensible claims about the world. His concentration on works by Muriel Rukeyser, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Jackson Mac Low, Rae Armantrout, George Oppen, and Amiri Baraka is motivated less by the identification of metaphor migration on the content level from the sciences into the arts than by the search for an equivalent of scientific methodology on the level of poetic form.

Circumventing the exhilaration of space exploration and disillusioned portrayals of post-apocalyptic disaster characteristic of the imagination of science-fiction writers from the Golden Age to the New Wave, Middleton zooms in on the epistemological struggles of quantum mechanics, the high energy setups in experimental particle physics, and the unified field metaphor in quantum electrodynamics (QED). As he reveals, by surveying a wide range of correspondence, lectures, and published commentaries by heavyweights that range from Robert Oppenheimer and Murray Gell-Mann, to Erwin Schrödinger, Willard J. Gibbs and Hans Bethe, physicists have entertained conflictual attitudes toward poetic language that oscillate between humbled appreciation and stark disavowal. The first two chapters of Physics Envy chronicle both sides of this exchange by mapping the paths of poets who have written about physicists (most notably Rukeyser’s biography of Willard Gibbs and Louis Zukofsky’s translation of Rudolf Kayser’s biography of Albert Einstein) and widely read physicists who have not been shy to employ tropes usually reserved for the realm of literary language (e.g. Schrödinger’s What is Life?, Gell-Mann’s borrowing of ‘quarks’ from James Joyce). As Middleton writes, '[s]cientists made references to "poetry" when they needed to illustrate knots of difficulty in their attempts to communicate the character of esoteric mathematical or experimental data' (57) while poets were exploring 'the idea of the poem as itself a site of experimentation' (47).

Arguably at the heart of Middleton’s analysis of the resonances between science and poetry with respect to both epistemology and aesthetics lies his reading of Charles Olson’s manifesto 'Projective Verse' (1950). Its advancement of a strategy of poetic production that Olson calls ‘composition by field’ takes its cue from the ubiquitous invocation of force fields in modern physics and encourages poets to conceive of their work as ‘high-energy constructs’ – sites of inquiry analogous to the experimental setups of particle physics. The poetic form is here to be understood as a mirror of content and ascribed an epistemological status equivalent to that of the scientific method. Exemplary is a perceptive reading of Olson’s 'The Kingfishers' in which Middleton effectively draws out how the poet manages to capture his object within a complex textual apparatus of diverse and sometimes incommensurable frameworks of knowledge and perception. In what amounts to an impressive achievement in historiographical analysis, Middleton himself reconstructs a web of elucidating connections not only among the Black Mountain Poets (Olson, Creeley, Duncan, et. al.), but also in the light of their resonance with other key contributors to ‘field thinking,’ from Willard J. Gibbs’ ‘phase space’ and Willard van Ormand Quine’s ‘conceptual schemata,’ to Kurt Lewin’s ‘psychological field theory’ and architect Kevin Lynch’s ‘legible city.’

The amount of critical attention devoted to the role of the popular science magazine Scientific American (1948-) provides a key to the time- and site-specificity of Middleton’s focus of interest. His concentration on a postwar US-American context is convincingly grounded in a genuinely American view on science proficiency as a corollary of democratization. As he quotes from a report on science education delivered by President Eisenhower: 'a democratic citizenry today must understand science in order to have a wide and intelligent democratic participation in many national decisions' (198). With justified hesitations about the glorification of scientific knowledge as the ultimate arbiter of truth, especially with regard to its extension into sociobiology and the sinister reappearance of eugenic rhetoric throughout the 1950s and 60s, Middleton heralds Olson, Rukeyser, Duncan and co. as the true heirs of the American mind. As vital contributors to modern epistemological paradigm shifts, the poets discussed in Physics Envy are placed in a lineage that leads from Emerson, Whitman, and Melville, to Henry Adams and Leo Marx. They become spokespeople of the kinship between American science and a uniquely American construction of the nature/culture divide that has its roots in the mythopoetics of 'the Westward movement of scouting, exploration, traffic with the natives, first settlements, raids and massacres, exploitations, [and] scientific observations' (90).

Physics Envy will undoubtedly be received as an invaluable resource to scholars interested not only in the entanglements between poetry and science but also in American literary history and the rise of postmodernity. In its vivid and thoroughgoing establishment of a dialogue between poets and physicists, Middleton’s book complements the cultural cartographies introduced in, most notably, Cecelia Tichi’s Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America (1987), David E. Nye’s American Technological Sublime (1996), and Daniel Albright’s Quantum Poetics: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and the Science of Modernism (1997). Published at the dawn of a sea change in American politics that is currently raising justified fears of the delegitimization of both the sciences and the humanities, Physics Envy stands tall as a reminder of the ways in which scientific and artistic inquiries into the relationship between humans and the world make up the very force that articulates what could be understood as a genuinely American field.

Moritz Ingwersen, Trent University, Ontario