Victorian science


So, I found this year’s NVSA conference both incredibly entertaining and (somewhat surprisingly) moving.* This is also not to imply, of course, that NVSAs are not usually entertaining (or moving). But this one seemed to be even more so than usual. People really seemed to be going all out, particularly insofar as they created presentations that were truly multimedia in nature, and being — intimidatingly — good at it. By the end of the conference, one of my friends was like, “whoa, we really have to learn Power Point” — and he’s probably right.** But speaking for myself, at least, the challenge isn’t really learning the technical side of Power Point, but rather thinking in a more “digital” way — and I’m not sure Twitter counts.***

Beyond that, though, there were dinosaurs (and standard queer affect questions about dinosaurs) and moldy archives and cookbooks and streets — not to mention the White House-approved (no really) magic show at the banquet. These things make me of good cheer.**** Of course, these are also the parts of this conference — and any conference, really — that are the “you had to be there” moments, the ones that, well, don’t make it into the archive in the same way, the ones that maybe escape the system.

But of course these moments where we were or weren’t there are, arguably, all an archive ever really is — and our systems are always running to catch up with experience. And I think this is what I’m trying to get at when I say that the weekend was surprisingly moving, perhaps even poignant… this common thread, running through so many of these papers, so many of the efforts and projects that were represented here… this desire just to make things make sense. And all the lost possibilities that come with those efforts to arrange, understand, systematize, save, study, respond… remembering that all of those things that seem in retrospect to be so inevitable–how we organize archives, or even that we *have* archives, for instance–might not have been so at the time. (There are other stories, too–the divergence of anthropology and literary study, the time before we could conceive of dinosaurs, and so on…)

Bernard Lightman kicked off the Saturday keynote by stressing the commonalities between scientific and religious thinking–reminding  us, at least implicitly, that these two fields arose in some ways to deal with the same set of human needs: to explain and to want to be consistent, to reassure ourselves about the nature of reality, to be able to, well, make sense.  There’s something compelling (to me) about the struggle to organize experience (while also figure out how to read discontinuites, the gaps in the record–and also how to read among different mediums–the laptop and the printed page, the writing tablet of memory, even). There seems to be a real hopefulness in setting out to, say, rationalize the principles of political science according to that of geometry, to embark upon the project of distilling the best that has been thought and said.

Some of this, incidentally, is no doubt why I’ve been drawn back to strategic formalism lately, and even to some extent religion. I did have occasion to interrogate my relative lack of interest in Victorian science (save, of course, for the relatively narrow area of medical science’s debate over the signs of death). I was challenged especially by Vanessa Ryan’s talk on Herbert Spencer as a figure whose emphasis was on movement and function, not so much “what is this” but “what does this do”? I came away from that panel wondering if this sense of function is part of what still seems to be missing for me in accounts of new formalism–almost as if this is the thing that would make it really new–being able to apprehend movement as it moves, to respond to impermanence from impermanence.  And this turned out to be a version of the question I wanted to ask Veronica Alfano on Sunday before we ran out of time (and did ask her later on): if we put these short poems of Symons, these “moments” and “flashes” in motion on something like the zoopraxiscope, then what are we reading?

Perhaps another one of the questions of the weekend (in my mind) was communicability, how information is packaged and passed on, how it becomes “real ground.” From what some of the archival historians said, it almost seems like something becomes the “real ground” by not being intentionally archived… I was haunted by Paul Saint-Amour’s talk on archives and the fossil record, which raised this question of the accidental registry and problematized the very meaning of human agency (at the very least). This took on a more materialist (and Gothic) dimension in Christopher Keep’s talk on the Victorian “archive crisis” of the 1840s, the point at which it came to light that the records that secured the power of the British state were literally rotting away in basements or being sold off for 8 pounds per ton to fishmongers and jelly-makers (even though some of the paper was, as Keep put it, “too decayed even for the jelly-makers”). However, it’s clear that not every government is keeping up with its archival responsibilities, even today.

And then there’s the fragility of both system and archive: does it disintegrate if you touch it or bring it into the light? Is the magic gone if you can get your head around it? Can you laugh at the silliness but still admit later on, “I don’t know how he did that”? Marjorie Stone projected an image of Browning’s empty writing portfolio, complete with doodles and some transcribed lines from EBB. These aren’t usually the materials I work with, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make me feel something.

That brings up a question of method that I’m not going to take up here, because with the footnotes and everything I’m way over even my usual word count. (And I didn’t even get to talk about Asmodeus, the spirit of systems, or most of the papers that people gave.) But if it makes sense to end on omissions, then this might be a good ending. It was also a rather light year for literature papers–though I did feel like there was a bit more poetry than usual. But, then again, there’s always next year.

More immediately, there is tomorrow, when I head up to Columbia for the Politics of Form conference.

Wow do I love Spring on the East Coast Victorian studies circuit. 🙂

*Here I insert the usual caveats. I missed the first day. I didn’t sleep particularly well. I drank too much coffee. This is all way, way, way out of my field. Infelicities in my reporting should not reflect poorly on the speakers. I am being unsystematic and my archive is highly incomplete.

**I tweeted a link to “In Xanadu Did Kubla Khan a Stately Power Point Decree” in McSweeney’s a couple days before I left and now feel like that was a hopelessly outmoded move on my part.

***Except if it does — which was part of the point that Devin Griffiths was making in his reconsideration of  Matthew Arnold’s project of distilling “the best that has been thought and said” as a project of “Tweeting the Bible.” (I will admit, by the way, to enjoying the part where the talk was interrupted by a tweet from @Mat_Arnold. And if that makes me a geek, so be it.)  

****I liked the magic show, okay? But I will try to cut down on the footnoting.

I’ve been meaning to do this post for a while now. I’m going to be blogging a lot more frequently, I’ve decided, to keep me going through my orals lists. I finished reading Flatland (1884) a few weeks ago, which isn’t on my orals, but hey, it’s c. 100 pages, which is a much more reasonable length than the average Victorian novel on my lists. I’ve recently finished a paper on how Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics actually dominated both scientific and popular discussions on the mechanics of evolution. (In keeping with frequent blogging, I’ll let my prose get as cumbersome as it wants.) Case in point from Flatland.

Flatland is about a two-dimensional society conveniently stratified by geometric phenotype. The narrator is “A. Square,” who is, I hope I’m not spoiling things for you, shaped like a square, the shape corresponding to the middle-class professionals of Victorian England. The more sides a Flatlander has, the higher they are in the social hierarchy, until the Priestly Circles. Descending the social hierarchy, the petty bourgeoisie are equilateral triangles, while the working classes are isosceles triangles, who are in turn ranked by the angle between their two equal sides, the with highly acute triangles being soldiers and rabbles. Women, naturally, are lowest of all, straight lines.

Since it’s a Victorian text, of course there’s progress involved. A. Square informs us, “It is a Law of Nature with us that a male child shall have one more side than his father, so that each generation shall rise (as a rule) one step in the scale of development and nobility.” But here’s the real Lamarckian bit:

With [the isosceles triangles] the Law of Nature does not hold; and the son of an Isosceles… remains Isosceles still. Nevertheless, all hope is not shut out, even from the Isosceles, that his posterity may ulitmately rise above his degraded condition. For, after a long series of military successes, or diligent and skilful labours, it is generally found that the more intelligent among the Artisan and Soldier classes manifest a slight increase of their third side or base, and a shrinkage of the two other sides. Intermarriages… between the sons and daughters of these more intellectual members of the lower classes generally result in an offspring approximating still more to the type of the Equal-Sided Triangle.

Rarely–in proportion to the vast numbers of Isosceles births–is a genuine and certifiable Equal-Sided Triangle produced from Isosceles parents. Such a birth requires, as its antecedents, not only a series of carefully arranged intermarriages, but also a long, continued exercise of frugality and self-control on the part of the would-be ancestors of the coming Equilateral, and a patient, systematic, and continuous development of the Isosceles intellect through many generations.

Probably modern readers would pay the most attention to the organized eugenicism so popular in the late nineteenth century–progress comes from “rational reproduction,” in Angelique Richardson’s words. But less obvious is the emphasis on acquired characteristics. I would argue that Abbott Abbott (gotta love Victorian cousin-marrying) and his readers would have seen “long, continued exercise” and “patient, systematic, and continuous development” as no less important to evolutionary progress. In other words, racial advancement depended upon the efforts of individuals during their lives as much as their choice of a good mate. This post has already taken me more time than planned, so just take my word for it that Lamarckianism wasn’t just a relic from pre-Darwinian science. Or check out Peter J. Bowler‘s work.