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.

What Do Nanquan and Schrödinger Have Against Cats?

“It is with a certain trepidation that I broach the topic of Buddhism and quantum physics,” writes Buddhist scholar Robert H. Sharf in the “Field Notes” section of our new issue.

He goes on:

There is, of course, already a large literature on the subject, propelled in part by two popular books that appeared in the 1970s: Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism and Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics. But there were many more in the decades that followed, including Amit Goswami’s The Self-Aware Universe: How Consciousness Creates the Material World, Evan Harris Walker’s The Physics of Consciousness: The Quantum Mind and the Meaning of Life, as well as new offerings by Capra and Zukav. Despite, or perhaps owing to, the appeal and commercial success of these books (The Tao of Physics has appeared in forty-three editions and twenty-three languages), this area of scholarship has acquired a rather tawdry reputation among scholars. The critical concern with these books is not, however, what one might suspect. It is not that the authors lack an adequate understanding of quantum physics. Rather, the problem is their naïve and facile grasp of Asian philosophy. Continue reading …

ROBERT H. SHARF is D. H. Chen Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, as well as Chair of the Center for Buddhist Studies, at the University of California, Berkeley. He works primarily in the area of medieval Chinese Buddhism (especially Chan), but he also dabbles in Japanese Buddhism, Buddhist art, Buddhist philosophy, ritual studies, and methodological issues in the study of religion. His essay was originally prepared for the conference “Buddhist Beasts: Reflections on Animals in Asian Religions and Culture,” held at the University of British Columbia, April 20–22, 2018.

Affect in Music

Music Lessons on Affect and Its Objects

by Roger Mathew Grant

The essay begins:

Picture it: East Prussia, autumn, 1814.

I had been spending some time in the country there, and on quiet nights with moderate winds I used distinctly to hear long, held tones, which would begin to resemble a deep, subdued organ pipe, then also the vibrations from the ringing of a muffled bell. I often could discern precisely the deep F and the striking C a fifth above it, and often even the E-flat a minor third above that also sounded, so that this piercing seventh chord, in the tones of the deepest lamentations, filled my chest with an innermost penetrating melancholy, and even horror.

These words belong to Lewis, a central character in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s story “Automata.” In this tale, Lewis describes a fantastical encounter with the overtone series, or the “chord of nature,” as it was then called. The sounds of this natural phenomenon overtake him, producing in his body a sympathetic resonance—a sudden, gripping, visceral reaction that he cannot explain.

The critical term for the type of experience Lewis relates is affect. Twenty-first-century theorists describe affect as corporeal, immediate, and nondiscursive. Affect is said to relate conditions of feeling that cannot be adequately captured with the tools of language. Affect theory has recently benefited from a huge resurgence in interest among humanists and social scientists, and whether the apex of this new popularity has already passed or is yet to come, it’s safe to say that affect has not always attracted the attention it does today. As the story typically goes, critics have recently favored affect theory in their search for alternatives to the focus on discourse that characterized the linguistic turn. But this narrative is not exclusive to the twenty-first century; it is also the story of a less well-known movement in intellectual history that occurred in the middle decades of the eighteenth, when debates on music created a fundamental transformation within aesthetic theory.

Affect has a long and rich intellectual heritage, and its relationships to the objects that are said to generate it have been anything but uniform. In early modernity, the affects—or the passions, as they were also called—were important components of an elaborate semiotic system that explained the impact of aesthetic objects. Today, by stark contrast, affect is often explicitly opposed to theories of the sign and of representation; theorists construe affect as a matter of subjective reception that is fundamentally objectless or nonintentional, occasionally even contrasting affect with ideology. The narrative traced in this article draws attention to an earlier moment during which affect was slowly separated from representations of aesthetic objects, and it illustrates the central and surprising role that music played in this separation.

Unfolding two parallel transformations within affect theory’s history, I endeavor to highlight formal features of affect theory that we have been given to repeating. I also aim to draw the history of affect theory into conversation with another, equally vexed archive: the history of music theory. Affective experience and musical sound have created similar problems for theorists. Both are said to act on the body in a material fashion that can be explained with a certain degree of specificity, and yet both are also said to produce transformations within us that exceed and overspill linguistic or rational containment. Music theory and affect theory, I will suggest, have much to teach each other.

Music scholars have not completely neglected the early modern turn to affect within music theory; it used to be called the Affektenlehre, or the “doctrine of affections.” But work on this phenomenon came to a halt in the 1980s, when George Buelow and others decided that its documents contain too many internal contradictions to be considered a cohesive doctrine. Buelow was correct about this, but he underestimated both the importance of those thorny, contradictory treatises and the scope of the intellectual movement they represent. The Affektenlehre was bigger and messier than we had previously thought, and it is now more pertinent to our contemporary discourse than we could ever have imagined. The time has come for a careful reconsideration of this vital and challenging intellectual moment.

In what follows I first elaborate the relationship between affect and the objects that induce it within the classic formulations of Baruch Spinoza and René Descartes. Tracing the lineage of this thought through eighteenth-century aesthetic theory, I demonstrate the crisis that musical tones created in failing to conform to the period’s prevailing aesthetic doctrine of imitation—the perceived failure, that is, of music to imitate any objects or create representations with any regularity. Within the critical quarrels that occurred during this tumultuous period of music theory’s history there emerged a new and much overlooked stage in the Affektenlehre. Certain eighteenth-century music theorists began to posit a mode whereby music aroused affect in listeners through sympathetic resonance. This theory of affective attunement, which reached its fullest elaborations in the writings of German Romantics such as Hoffmann, is closest to our contemporary, corporeal, nondiscursive understanding of affect. Drawing these two moments into conversation, I argue for a refraction of our current thought through earlier models of affect and a renewal of attention to the objects that generate affect in subjects. Continue reading …

This article places the recent turn to affect into conversation with a parallel movement that took place in eighteenth-century music theory. Because theorists in that period struggled to explain how music functioned as a sign, they began to propose an alternative, materialist theory of vibrational attunement in order to account for music’s affective power. By refracting contemporary affect theory through this historical antecedent, the essay argues for renewed attention to the objects in the world that generate affects in subjects.

Roger Mathew Grant is Associate Professor of Music at Wesleyan University and the author of Beating Time and Measuring Music in the Early Modern Era (Oxford, 2014). He is currently writing a book on the turn to affect within eighteenth-century music theory.

Glebova Essay Wins Prize

Warm congratulations to Aglaya Glebova, whose “Elements of Photography: Avant-garde Aesthetics and the Reforging of Nature” has been awarded the 2018 Emerging Scholar Prize by the Society of Historians of Eastern European, Eurasian and Russian Art and Architecture  (SHERA).

The prize jury praised the essay, calling it “highly innovative in its approach to the interpretation of a famously problematic episode in the career of Aleksandr Rodchenko: the work produced during his visit to the White Sea-Baltic Canal, one of the first Soviet forced labor camps, in the early 1930s.”

 

AGLAYA GLEBOVA is Assistant Professor in the departments of Art History and Film and Media, as well as the PhD Program in Visual Studies, at the University of California, Irvine. She is currently completing a book on Aleksandr Rodchenko and photography under Stalin.

 

Visual Form and the Beholder’s Share

“Reading-In”: Franz Boas’s Theory of the Beholder’s Share

by Whitney Davis

The essay begins:

Franz Boas (d. 1942) was born into an educated Jewish family in Westphalia in 1858; by 1888, at the age of thirty, he had settled permanently in the United States, in New York City. Today Boas is perhaps best known for his lifelong critiques of racialist theory and its concomitants in anti-Semitism and Nazism. He broadcast his arguments indefatigably from Columbia University (where he taught from 1899 until his death) into the public forum; one such statement was his memorable 1924 letter to the New York Times, “Lo, the Poor Nordic!,” in which he set out to refute Henry Fairfield Osborn (chief paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History), who was advocating the innate superiority of the “Nordic race.” By the 1920s, the German-Jewish immigrant Boas was writing with immense authority as one of the internationally recognized founders of American anthropology—that is, both of Americanist anthropology and of anthropology in North America (the United States and Canada; Boas did much of his fieldwork in the latter nation).

In this essay, I consider a somewhat neglected contribution made by Boas to the anthropology of visual culture and, more narrowly, to the methods and principles of art history—namely, his prescient theory of the beholder’s projection of verbalized meaning into visual form and symbolism. Boas worked out his ideas in relation to certain background intuitions about human seeing and image making in interaction with natural language. But they remained undeveloped, and they have not much been followed up beyond the specific ethnographic context in which they were formulated. Still, they remain suggestive from the vantage point of a present-day world art history. I will contextualize them analytically in relation to comparable but distinct approaches to the “beholder’s share”—a beholder’s active identification and interpretation of visual form and meaning, including the most basic matter of recognizing the things that might be depicted or symbolized in a conventionalized visual pattern. My aim is not only—not primarily—to provide an exegesis of Boas. Instead, I aim to frame and phrase his ideas—as I see them in their “best case”—in ways that give them the greatest interest and relevance for certain present-day concerns in the study of visual culture worldwide. Continue reading …

Basing his essay in part on Boas’s book Primitive Art (1927), Whitney Davis considers the Boasian theory of the beholder’s share in constructing the significance of visual form and in interpreting its meaning. Boas’s analysis of what he called “contradictions” between his indigenous informants’ exegeses of form lay at the heart of his conclusion that individual agents “read-in” to form some of the most crucial aspects of social experience that are most salient and specific to them. “Reading-in,” Davis argues, is the verbal speaking of visual “seeing-as,” and it infuses visual form with the diversity and particularity of a speaker’s grammatical choices undertaken within their natural human language(s). This model might now seem self-evident. At the time, however, it opened up the possibility of an “anthropology” of art and, to an extent as yet unrealized, the possibilities of its sociology and history. The essay evaluates Boas’s model in relation to other well-known accounts of the beholder’s share in art history, philosophy, and elsewhere and concludes with a discussion of the uptake of his idea in the “structuralism” of Roman Jakobson and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

WHITNEY DAVIS is Pardee Professor of History and Theory of Ancient and Modern Art and Chair of the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is Visuality and Virtuality: Images and Pictures from Prehistory to Perspective (Princeton, 2017).

 

New Issue, Representations 144

NOW AVAILABLE

Number 144, Fall 2018

WHITNEY DAVIS 
“Reading-In”: Franz Boas’s Theory of the Beholder’s Share

ROGER MATHEW GRANT 
Music Lessons on Affect and Its Objects

EWAN JONES
Thermodynamic Rhythm: The Poetics of Waste

JULIÁN JIMÉNEZ HEFFERNAN 
The Stamp of Rarity: Ancestrality and Extinction in Daniel Deronda

KATHRYN L. BRACKNEY 
Remembering “Planet Auschwitz” During the Cold War

Plus:

FIELD NOTES 
Robert H. Sharf: What Do Nanquan and Schrödinger Have Against Cats?

Upcoming in Representations 145, a special issue, Visual History: The Past in Pictures, edited by Daniela Bleichmar and Vanessa R. Schwartz: Billie Melman on the archaeological site of Ur between the two world wars, Randall Meissen on Francisco Pacheco’s Book of True Portraits, Evonne Levy on eyewitness accounts and the Renaissance media revolution, Allan Doyle on Géricault and the production of visual history, and Aaron Rich on role of the Hollywood “research bible” in creating cinematic recreations of the past. With an introduction by the editors. (Coming in February.)

Diciplinarity and Hoaxes

Michael Clune weighs in on

The Bizarro World of Literary Studies

in the Chronicle of Higher Education, posted on October 26:

The crumbling of disciplinary boundaries wasn’t simply visited on literature departments from above. The rot began within. Progressive humanists like myself have largely ignored this history, for fear of giving more ammo to the corporatizing goons. But unless we get honest about our past, our impassioned defense of our disciplines will conceal a hollow core. If our case rests on the suppression of the evidence against us, it will shatter with each new blow.

Michael Clune is professor of English at Case Western Reserve University and writer of creative nonfiction. His essay Orwell and the Obvious appeared in Representations 107.

Data and Literature

Modeling Perspective and Parallax to Tell the Story of Genre Fiction
Ted Underwood
Thursday, November 8th, 2018
5:30 pm – 7:00 pm
Townsend Center, 220 Stephens Hall (Geballe Room), UC Berkeley

In this talk Ted Underwood will use science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and the Gothic to explore the advantages of an approach that asks data science to contribute to the humanities by adding perspectival flexibility, rather than sheer scale. Underwood trained predictive models of these genres using ground truth drawn from various sources and periods (19c reviewers, early 20c bibliographies, contemporary librarians), in order to explore how implicit assumptions about genre consolidate or change across time.

Ted Underwood teaches in the School of Information Sciences and the English Department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He was trained as a Romanticist and now applies machine learning to large digital collections. His most recent book, Distant Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change (University of Chicago, Spring 2019) addresses new perspectives opened up by large digital libraries. Underwood’s contributions to Representations include Theorizing Research Practices We Forgot to Theorize Twenty Years Ago and Stories of Parallel Lives and the Status Anxieties of Contemporary Historicism.

The Monster, Horror, and “Notoriously Weird Things”

A few gems from our archive to ease the candy hangover:

 

Diana Reese. A Troubled Legacy: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Inheritance of Human Rights

Adam Lowenstein. Living Dead: Fearful Attractions of Film

Carol J. Clover. Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film

Joseph Jonghyun Jeon. Neoliberal Forms: CGI, Algorithm, and Hegemony in Korea’s IMF Cinema