Sarah C Alexander, Victorian Literature and the Physics of the Imponderable

Sarah C Alexander, Victorian Literature and the Physics of the Imponderable (London: Routledge, 2015) 256pp. £95 Hb, £27.99 Mobi, £34.99 EPUB. ISBN 9781848935662

Sarah C. Alexander’s Victorian Literature and the Physics of the Imponderable is yet another valuable effort to rethink the issue of literature and science in ways other than that of the “Two Cultures” hypothesis. Arguing against “the story of Victorians as steeped in scientific empiricism, committed to materialism and devoted to literary realism” (7), Alexander joins other recent critical efforts to go beyond realist fictions and life sciences, exploring the constellations that make up the Victorian culture of science. She particularly reclaims the concept of “imponderable matter” (2), a theoretical construct that straddles the rift between the material and the immaterial, to challenge the reduction of Victorian science to empiricism. She also argues that such theoretical constructs provide the Victorians with “a heuristic for understanding a variety of economic issues” (7). Belief in the uniformity of nature makes it possible for the Victorian to employ physical models, which eventually prove untenable, to help them understand the increasingly abstract conditions of capitalistic production and exchange. Alexander’s book is a thought-provoking  investigation of how the language and tropes of the imponderable go beyond theoretical physics and mathematics to shape the literary imagination and politico-economic thought in Victorian England.

Victorian Literature and the Physics of the Imponderable consists of four chapters. The first chapter utilizes the luminiferous ether as a heuristic aid to rethink notions of connectivity in Dickens’s Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. Drawing on Herbert Spencer, Alexander links the ubiquitous connection by ether in space posited by Victorian science to the universal circulation of capitalist exchange. Arguing that “Dickensian coincidence … reflects a vision of a world that is delicately, invisibly and universally connected by the ether” (28), Alexander reads the spontaneous combustion of Krook in Bleak House as the event that most clearly reveals the connection between ethereal science and economy. Krook’s hoarding stymies circulation and disables connection. Only by his death is circulation restored and connection reestablished, providing “a physical solution to an economic problem” (32). But just as Krook’s fiery death leaves a greasy residue, circulation produces its own waste. Alexander then reads Our Mutual Friend in the light of reconnecting such waste to circulation. Here, the immateriality of ethereal connection provides a model for understanding the increasing abstraction of finance capitalism denounced by Dickens. As a result, “efforts to rematerialize and revalue what has been abstracted in the dust mound” (49) becomes morally laudable in the novel. The imponderability of ethereal physics then becomes “both a problem and a solution to urban ills” (50).

The second and third chapters both deal with the implications of thermodynamics for socio-economic thinking and literary imagination. The second chapter opens with how the Victorians apply the notion of residuum, the waste product of a process of work, to refer to the non-working poor. This connection between thermodynamics and economics allows them to “[naturalize] an economic system in which time is disciplined and labor can be exploited” (81). Alexander then explores how a similar entropic narrative functions in late-nineteenth-century slum novels by Émile Zola and Arthur Morrison, reading them as “a diachronic narrative of increasing waste and disorder” (53). She focuses on the significance of the clock in these narratives as a symbol of the commodification of time as well as a reminder of the irreversible unidirectionality of entropic time.

Chapter Three draws our attention to the literary utopias of late Victorian age, tracing how imagining alternative societies also means “disentangling capitalist production from the laws of thermodynamics” (85). She argues that Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race offers a negentropic solution in the form of the limitless and equally available energy of Vril, whereas Samuel Butler’s Erewhon envisions a society that considers the full thermodynamic significance of labor, and thus deliberately slows down its entropic death by forbidding the use of machines. Finally, William Morris’s News From Nowhere offers yet another way out of heat death by making time reversible. In all three cases, the challenge to the second law of thermodynamics also entails an economic reshuffling of the capitalist system of production and exchange.

The fourth chapter switches to a different set of imponderable concepts, non-Euclidean geometry and particularly multidimensionality, juxtaposing them with the increasingly destabilized space of the empire, whose empirical spatial transparency is increasingly challenged by the abstraction of imperial economy at the end of the nineteenth century. Alexander reads Edwin Abbott’s Flatland and Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford’s The Inheritors as novels that stage the imperial encounter in the heterotopiac space between different dimensions. The “relational rather than ontological” nature of imperial space undermines the empirical assumption that the imperial space is knowable and mappable (135).

In the epilogue, Alexander finds another example of “how imponderability was not just the stuff of fiction, but rather central to mainstream physics and economics” (139) by juxtaposing the late-nineteenth-century vortex theory of atoms with finance capitalism. The vortex theory that postulates matter as movement of ether employs the imponderable and fictive ether to account for the permanence of matter, which, Alexander argues, finds analogous operations in contemporary economical theory that also uses the fictive to locate permanence in increasingly symbolic financial speculations.

Victorian Literature and the Physics of the Imponderable successfully delivers its promise of the rich possibilities which are opened up once we look beyond the cultural twins of realism and scientific naturalism. However, these rich possibilities also constitute a challenge to the book itself. The plurality of concepts that are grouped under the term imponderability threatens to inflate this notion to bursting point: particularly, the material/immaterial tension embodied by the concept of ether does not readily lend itself to the imagining of an entropic universe. One does wonder whether what joins these concepts as well as the project together is not so much imponderability, the immaterial constitution of the material, but rather their shared distance from an empiricist version of Victorian science. At times, the book’s determination to tease imponderability out of the texts makes for difficult reading. Nonetheless, this book is a valuable reference to any student of Victorian literature and science.

Xiao Yizhi, Brown University