Thermal Science Meets Prosody

Thermodynamic Rhythm: The Poetics of Waste

by Ewan Jones

Illustration from John Tyndall, Sound: A Course of Lectures (London, 1867)

 

The essay begins:

Toward the end of 1858, Herbert Spencer was feeling out of sorts. His malaise surfaces in an undated letter written around that point to a close friend, the physicist John Tyndall, whom Spencer had recently seen. “That which was new to me in your position enunciated last June, and again on Saturday,” Spencer states,

was that equilibration was death. Regarding, as I had done, equilibration as the ultimate and the highest state of society, I had assumed it to be not only the ultimate but also the highest state of the universe. And your assertion that when equilibrium was reached life must cease, staggered me. Indeed, not seeing my way out of the conclusion, I remember being out of spirits for some days afterwards. I still feel unsettled about the matter, and should like some day to discuss it with you.

It is difficult to behold Spencer’s dismay without a modicum of vindication. From at least as early as Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought (1955), which connected his evolutionary sociology to a variety of more or less totalitarian twentieth-century worldviews, our culture has been accustomed to regard Spencer’s remarkable celebrity as one more Victorian faute de goût. Yet where Spencer’s notion of equilibrium (“the ultimate and highest state of society”) sought to balance the economic laws of supply and demand, or competing class interests, the second law of thermodynamics (to whose consequences his letter refers) identifies it rather with the inexorable cooling of the universe into dispersed entropic heterogeneity. However bleak that eventuality appears, we might at least derive consolation from the fatal compromise of Spencer’s teleology.

Yet Tyndall’s revelation did not simply spell the end for Spencer’s syncretic philosophy, as Bruce Clarke supposes in a rather summary treatment of the letter just mentioned. Rather, it instigated a sustained attempt to reconceive the very notion of the biological or social system. One concept proved singularly significant in this regard: rhythm. That term had already proven pivotal for Spencer, underpinning his influential 1857 essay “On the Origin and Function of Music”; from late 1858 on, however, he would brandish it as a sort of talisman. His First Principles of a New System of Philosophy (1862) enlisted it in an attempt to salvage some notion of regularity through (rather than despite) variation: “It will be seen,” wrote Spencer, “that rhythm results wherever there is a conflict of forces not in equilibrium”; in a footnote to the same passage, he elaborates, “After having for some years supposed myself alone in the belief that all motion is rhythmical, I discovered that my friend Professor Tyndall also held this doctrine.”

Only in 1873, however, would Spencer return directly to the dispiriting second law, engaging in an exchange of letters with James Clerk Maxwell, to whose credentials Tyndall had earlier appealed. The debate hinges on the best way to account for the kinetic motion of gases, which Maxwell was in the process of investigating. Spencer, who was always a popular expositor and synthesizer rather than a true experimentalist, suggested that his own philosophical concept of “the instability of the homogenous” might usefully describe what Maxwell had termed “agitated” fluctuations. Even molecules whose paths diverged significantly from the overall distribution within a stationary container could, Spencer continued, be described as “rhythmical,” to the extent that we could measure divergence itself.

Maxwell demurred. On 17 December 1873, he responded to Spencer:

If, as I understand the word rhythmic, it implies not only alteration, but regularity and periodicity, then the word “agitation” excludes the notion of rhythm, which was what I meant it to do. . . . A great scientific desideratum is a set of words of little meaning—words which mean no more than that a thing belongs to a very large class. Such words are much needed in the undulatory theory of light, in order to express fully what is proved by experiment, without conceding anything which is a mere hypothesis.

Maxwell’s desire for linguistic hygiene is quite justifiable: no one wants a concept of rhythm capacious enough to include everything, and thereby nothing. Yet the language game over “agitation” or “rhythm” masks a serious question: to what extent can we measure divergence? Such questions still hold purchase for any attempt to measure the probability distribution of stochastic processes or turbulent flow. We can replay the same thought in a metrical key: to what extent can a given poem tolerate inversion, syncopation, or disappointed expectation before such deviations abolish the pattern or norm from which they spring? My analogy is purposefully leading. For although thinkers such as Gillian Beer, Michel Serres, and Bruce Clarke have traced at length the broad cultural (and literary) response to the second law of thermodynamics, we have yet to grasp the extent to which the specter of entropy engaged the concept of rhythm in general, and the practice of poetic rhythm more specifically.

It can prove difficult to grasp the full extent of this conceptual transformation, in part because the notion of rhythm has become so essential a part of our conceptual armature that we struggle to imagine things ever having been different. Yet different they were. The word “rhythm” is in fact conspicuous by its absence prior to the nineteenth century: across the whole of Eighteenth Century Collections Online (which numbers more than 150,000 documents), only 257 texts contain the word “rhythm”; compare this to 6,854 texts that employ the word “metre,” despite the latter word’s appearing to have a narrower extension. This quantitative trend reflects qualitative differences: in keeping with the pattern, Samuel Johnson does not define “rhythm” in his Dictionary of 1755–56. He does, however, define “rhythmical,” and in rather striking terms: “Harmonical,” runs Johnson’s minimal gloss, “having proportion of one sound to another.” In the space of a century, then, definitions of the term have moved nearly full circle: from Johnson’s harmonious proportionality, we move toward Spencer’s conflictual disequilibrium.

This essay claims that the second law of thermodynamics plays a crucial role in this broader reconceptualization. It enumerates three broad, complementary responses to the specter of entropy, each of which recurrently engages with prosody: I call these rhythmical innatism, rhythmical transmission, and entropic rhythm. While they are distinct enough to be enumerated separately, several figures (such as Tyndall, Edmund Gurney, and Spencer himself) offer theoretical impetus to more than one designation. A great deal of this historical process occurs just as conceptual reformulation typically does: through propositional argument and discussion, over the course of which the word “rhythm” becomes increasingly central. Yet the most significant interaction between thermodynamics and verse rhythm, I conclude by arguing, occurs on the nondiscursive level of experience and prosodic technique: having charted the strange fascination with A. C. Swinburne’s poetry that several scientists share, I read his long poem Tristram of Lyonesse (1882) as an abundant, excessive instance of what we can call the poetics of waste. Continue reading …

In this essay Ewan Jones argues that the cultural reception of thermodynamics in the late nineteenth century reformulated the concept of rhythm in an attempt to manage, mitigate, or acknowledge the problem of waste. Having demonstrated an overlooked historical dialectic between the thermal sciences and prosody, he concludes by reading A. C. Swinburne’s Tristram of Lyonesse to demonstrate how rhythmical excess represents a positive expressive resource.

EWAN JONES is Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Downing College. He is the author of Coleridge and the Philosophy of Poetic Form (Cambridge UP, 2014) and is currently completing a second book on the history of the concept of rhythm in the nineteenth century.

Book Chat with David Marno

Join David Marno for a discussion of his recent book

Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention

Wednesday, Feb 7, 2018 | 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm
Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley

The seventeenth-century French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche thought that philosophy could learn a valuable lesson from prayer, which teaches us how to attend to, await, and be open for what might happen next. In his book Death Be Not Proud (Chicago, 2016), Marno explores the precedents of Malebranche’s advice by reading John Donne’s poetic prayers in the context of what Marno calls the “art of holy attention.”

The event is one in a series of lunchtime Book Chats sponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities at Berkeley.

After an introduction by Representations editorial board co-chair Niklaus Largier, Marno will speak briefly about his work and then open the floor for discussion.

David Marno, Associate Professor of English at UC Berkeley, has recently joined the Representations editorial board. He has published on religious and secular concepts of attention, on apocalypse as a literary and political figure, and on philosophy of history and comparative literature. His current project focuses on prayer in the aftermath of the Reformation.

A “Field Theory” of Poetry

Compositionism: Plants, Poetics, Possibilities; or, Two Cheers for Fallacies, Especially Pathetic Ones!

by Maureen N. McLane

The essay begins:

I adopt “compositionism” from the philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour, namely, from his “Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’” (2010). For poets and composers, “compositionism” might evoke thoughts of composing, making, arranging, wordsmithing, tune smithing—of poiesis itself. For botanists, compositionism might conjure the plant family Compositae (also known as Asteraceae, a vast group including daisies, asters, sunflowers). Latour, for his part, proposes “compositionism” as an “alternative to critique”: “It is time to compose—in all the meanings of the word, including to compose with, that is to compromise, to care, to move slowly, with caution and precaution.” I am agnostic about whether critique has “run out of steam”—though it may be increasingly beside the political and ethical point in precisely the ways Latour limns; but for the duration of this essay I would like to entertain compositionism along critical, as well as poetic and botanical, axes.

Among his many sallies, Latour observes in a footnote to his manifesto, “The redistribution of agencies is the right purview of literature studies” (489n25). Compositionism, then, might be one name for this mode of literature studies; it might also designate what literature—or rather poetry—has long undertaken. Latour’s compositionism notably aligns with some recent reflections on poetics—as when Marjorie Levinson draws on William Connolly, “defining agency as distributive across a very wide spectrum of life forms, including the inanimate ensembles woven into our everyday routines.” Or when Susan Manning (in her posthumous The Poetics of Character) proposed an analytic of “correspondence”—in her lexicon, a conceptual category allowing for the mapping of anachronic networks of rhetorical and ethical relations—and called for an “affective poetics based on principles of analogy.” Among other things, “compositionism” offers routes to take seriously challenges to anthropocentrism (including that unslayable dragon “pathetic fallacy”) without throwing out the anthropomorphizing baby with the anthropocentric bathwater.

Latour has long excavated and critiqued the division between human and nonhuman subjects he sees as central to “the Modernist Constitution,” from 1600 to yesterday, and he polemically endorses a kind of neo-animism the regime of modern science has long scorned. Here and elsewhere his work chimes with posthumanist, ecocritical, anthropocenically minded critics—from Timothy Morton on “the mesh” to Jane Bennett on “vibrant matter” to Anahid Nersessian on “the calamity form” to Levinson’s recent reactivation of Spinoza alongside new morphogenetic modeling. Rather than plunging into new or old materialisms, ecocriticisms, folds, spheres, meshes, or hyperobjects (inter alia), I would like to explore compositionism more locally in a poetico-botanical key, taking plants as one crucial node for thinking about new horizons for poiesis—both the making of poems and the theorizing of them. For as certainly as literature has long redistributed agencies, often violently, along planty lines—from Ovid’s metamorphoses to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “old root” that “was once Rousseau” in his “Triumph of Life”—plants have long been significant players in the fatally vivifying game of anthropomorphism and trope: not for nothing does John Ruskin begin his reflections “Of the Pathetic Fallacy” with the matter of a blue gentian.

Yet now that we seem to have arrived at a postnatural, posthuman/ist, posthistorical moment, it is worth wondering: are we postplant? I would say that in many ways I am preplant.

But, you may well say, your entire lifeworld depends upon your interactions, overt and covert, with plants: you eat them, wear them, breathe them, touch them, arrange them, pluck them, smell them, ingest them! You are indeed a plant codependent!

Pressed thus, one might want to consider the plant unconscious—a phenomenon not so complex perhaps as what Fredric Jameson called years ago the political unconscious but not unrelated. (Might plants have a politics? Might minerals? Or consider the recent granting of legal personality to the Whanganui River in New Zealand.) Plants have always been good to think with and good to think through; I would further suggest that plants have been thinking poetry for a long while—and continue to. And so I want to consider poetry as a mode of what the philosopher Michael Marder has called “plant-thinking”:

“Plant-thinking” refers, in the same breath, to (1) the non-cognitive, non-ideational, and non-imagistic mode of thinking proper to plants (hence, what I call “thinking without the head”); (2) our thinking about plants; (3) how human thinking is, to some extent, de-humanized and rendered plant-like, altered by its encounter with the vegetal world; and finally, (4) the ongoing symbiotic relation between this transfigured thinking and the existence of plants.

I will suspend the question of whether plants “think” and attend rather to Marder’s options 2 and 4, pursuing “our thinking about plants” and the “transfigured thinking” that might emerge, compositionally, symbiotically, when we think with poetry’s plants. Marder draws inspiration in part from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who in A Thousand Plateaus commanded us: “Follow the plants”! And one hears echoes of Deleuze and Guattari’s call for a “rhizomatic” thinking over and against “arborescent” thought—excessively rooted and hierarchized. And perhaps rhizomes offer one compositionist model for the composing and receiving of poems. Alive to the roots of and in language, one might stumble upon new linkages and new futurities: rhizomes in the tree, the composite in the apparently singular specimen, a plant within and without the self, the plant in the poem, the poet in the plant. Continue reading …

Invoking Bruno Latour’s notion of “compositionism,” this essay proposes a “field theory” of poetry, exploring the use and abuse of plants as one crucial node for thinking about poiesis. Core cases include the traditionary ballads “The Three Ravens” and “Barbara Allen,” with nods to romantic and contemporary lyrics. The essay also considers en route the pathetic fallacy in light of ongoing debates about anthropomorphism and personification, and concludes with a meditation on “nighing” as a mode of composition.

MAUREEN N. McLANE, Professor of English at NYU, is the author of two monographs on British romantic poetics, both published by Cambridge University Press, as well as My Poets (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), an experimental hybrid of memoir and criticism.  Her most recent book of poems is Some Say (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017).

Bergamo’s Poetry

The Blacksmith’s Feet:

Embodied Entextualization in Northern Italian Vernacular Poetry

by Jillian R. Cavanaugh

The essay begins:

How does one know if poetry is good? While there are many ways to answer this question, and as many arguments arising in response to each answer, here I take a linguistic anthropological approach to discuss the production and evaluation of good poetry and good poets—specifically vernacular poetry and poets—as social and cultural processes. I want to undertake, in other words, a cultural poetics or ethnopoetics, explicating a culturally specific structure of evaluation that depends on local understandings, practices, and values. Such projects have a long history in anthropology, at least since Franz Boas’s Introduction to the Handbook of American Indian Languages, which included an investigation of poetry as part of anthropological inquiry, and Edward Sapir’s writing on the anthropological importance of portraying a group’s aesthetics, or their “feel” for the rightness or wrongness of fit of form to function. To consider poetry as a social practice is to consider the local aesthetics within which such poetry comes into being, is evaluated, and circulates. As such, it necessarily means to consider the social positioning of genres as well as social groups, since any local aesthetic practices and standards are built upon connections across genres, environments, texts, speaking contexts, types of speakers and listeners, and modes of evaluation particular to a group.

This analysis focuses on the particular connections that are grounded in bodies, the bodies that appear in poetry and the bodies that produce poetry, as well as how these two categories may or may not align. Briefly, bodies enter into and engage with texts—they write, perform, evaluate, and listen to them—in culturally specific ways that are the intertwined processes of embodied entextualization. How bodies and texts are connected is embedded within local aesthetic systems, such that evaluations of good and bad poetry will at least in part be based on which bodies produce and encounter texts, how bodies are portrayed in texts, and how these two categories may or may not align with each other as well as with culturally specific aesthetic standards about bodies. Continue reading …

Piero-ScuriVernacular poetry is generally evaluated according to culturally specific aesthetic standards, what anthropologists call ethnopoetics. This article offers embodied entexualization—the culturally specific ways bodies are incorporated into as well as produce texts—as a means for analyzing how ethnopoetic systems reflect social and political histories and contexts. The poetry of the northern Italian town of Bergamo, and specifically a poem by a locally celebrated poet, Piero Frér, provides an illustrative case.

JILLIAN R. CAVANAUGH is Leonard and Claire Tow Research Professor at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is a linguistic anthropologist whose research centers on language, food, value, and the construction of meaning.

Shelley’s Lucretianism

Growing Old Together: Lucretian Materialism in Shelley’s “Poetry of Life”

by Amanda Jo Goldstein

Goldstein’s essay, published in Representations 128, explores Percy Shelley’s The Triumph of Life as a strategic revival of Lucretian poetic science: a materialism fit to connect the epochal, romantic interest in biological life to the period’s pressing new sense of its own historicity. Shelley mobilizes Lucretian natural simulacra to show how personal bodies produce and integrate passages of historical time, exercising a poetics of transience that resists the triumphalism characteristic of both historiography and vitalist biology in the post-Waterloo period. Representing aging faces as mutable registers of the “living storm” of a post-Napoleonic interval, The Triumph depicts the face-giving trope of prosopopoeia as the unintended work of multitudes—demonstrating a nineteenth-century possibility of thinking biological, historical, and rhetorical materialisms together.

faces

The Triumph of Life was made famous,” says Goldstein, “in late twentieth-century criticism, for the way its ‘disfigured’ faces allegorized the verbal and material violence inherent in figuration as a function of reparative reading. In this article, however, I attempt to show how The Triumph’s last lines pointedly cease to construe figuration as a principally verbal or cognitive process at all. The neglected ‘new Vision’ (434) with which Shelley’s poem breaks off instead urges readers to review the scene of life that The Triumph of Life has been showing all along, but this time under changed philosophical and poetic premises about the relation between life, matter, and trope. For Shelley summons a very old poetic science to achieve his ‘new Vision,’ pointedly depositing the poem’s speakers and its readers in the midst of a closely adapted scene from Lucretius’s classical materialist epic, De rerum natura (c. 55 BCE). This ancient atomist scene construes the sensation of ‘Vision’ itself as a mode of figuration and a feature of material transience.” Read more …

AMANDA GOLDSTEIN is Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University. She is the author of essays on Herder’s poetic empiricism, Goethean morphology, and William Blake and the present-day revival of Lamarckian evolutionary theory.