The Physics of Possibility: Victorian Fiction, Science, and Gender.
Michael Tondre's The Physics of Possibility traces the relationship between novels and statistical thinking in the Victorian period. It does so to explore how they together configured the real not as a question of what is but rather, and more tantalizingly, what might have been. Taking as its point of departure Henry James's likening of novels to "loose baggy monsters," The Physics of Possibility offers "a revised history of the novel" wherein "what was once deemed bad form"--narrative disruptions and digressions, occlusions and abandonments--is in fact "a meaningful legacy of fiction," rife with "expansive ethical and political aims" that do not abide organicist models of narrative form (1). Tondre revivifies this legacy and its aims by reading for "ensemble effects," or "moments that break the diegetic frame of a plot" in order to tarry with the conditional, the possible, the might have been (11). These moments mark critical "deviations from the coherence of a fictional world," conjuring instead "a composite of different possible plots imagined at a given fictional moment or location" (11). To read for ensemble effects is in some sense to read for ghosts--for the strange alternovels that flicker into view in moments of narrative irresolution and indirection, when narrative "nonhappenings" take forceful if not also fleeting shape (26).
As Tondre notes, "ensemble" connotes simultaneity and thus a thinking of the present as a landscape of presents in dynamic formation (26). By the end of the nineteenth century, the word also connotes "statistical ensembles," or "versions of a physical system, each expressing a possible state of affairs at a given moment" (11). This shift coincides with a broader cultural reconfiguration underway during the Victorian period: namely, the reconceptualization of chance as neither strictly subjective nor objective--as "something more than an illusion" and yet "less than a plain fact" (7). Such irresolutions were the focal point of what Tondre calls the "physics of possibility": "a conceptual legacy" (19) wherein various thinkers--including Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, John Herschel, Henry Maudsley, and James Clerk Maxwell, among others--attempted to statistically "approximate the condition[s]" of the real and the alternatives with which it teems. Reimagining norms not as fateful determinates but potentially realizable fictions, Victorian scientists "cultivated" with their novelist contemporaries a set of "common techniques of representation" (2). Together, they tell a story about statistical data that departs from familiar narratives of biopolitical control. Along the way, these disciplinary crossovers also reveal how novels do science. As Tondre puts it, "latent scientific irresolutions... had singular importance in literature and as literature" (25). If Victorian scientists were unable to put the unresolved relationship between the real and the possible to rest, novelists took over from there, turning to fiction for what it does best: thinking beyond and outside the "prepositional logic of science" to "pose ideas without prescribing truth claims, invite multiple perspectives on what had seemed self-evident, and question what went without saying" (25). Tondre thus attends to the ways "fictional aesthetics are adept at reimagining" (rather than "simply reifying") "historical realities" (2). This, Tondre argues, is the "lost promise and ameliorative potential" of the Victorian novel (60): it never produces "a single composite claim of truth" (73), preserving instead the ethical potentiality of "stand[ing] outside" or in multivalent relation to "the present" (66).
Crucial to the ethics of Tondre's argument is his engagement with queer theory. The Physics of Possibility tracks alternatives to the organicist telos of the Bildungsroman, exploring how Victorian novels deviate from this norm to noninstrumentalist ends. Reminding his readers that "Victorians conceived of character as a field of possibilities from classical norms of formation," Tondre tracks "a tradition of realism couched in the conditional or subjunctive mood," which tends toward failed formation and its "altered futures" (4). Eve Sedgwick's notion of reparative reading--as well as Elizabeth Freeman's and Heather Love's respective refusals of the present--inform Tondre's focus on protagonists in the grip of subversive irresolution. These characters' failures to launch productively denaturalize the marriage plot and problematize biological essentialisms, showing how the Victorian novel's "postindividualist" leanings reconfigure "developmental ruin" as a "recuperative" unmaking of "the given" (17). Emergent in ruin are worlds whose claim upon the so-called real is paradoxically dependent upon their capacity to unhinge it--to loosen its apparent and coercive singularity.
Tondre traces these emergent worlds across four chapters, each of which is organized around a probabilistic problem and its working through across the bounds of discipline. The first chapter picks up where Tondre's luminous introduction leaves off, sketching key developments in Victorian thinking about chance and probability so as to trace the discourse of negated potential, especially as it is developed in George Meredith's The Ordeal of Richard Feverel. The second chapter--arguably the best of the four--explores how Wilkie Collins's Armadale (and sensation fiction more generally) explores and exploits the unwelcome realization that sensation is not fast but slow; that it is traced with "residues of the past" (62); and that it raises the specter of "a world gone while we apprehended it" (62). Whereas some Victorian thinkers pathologize this sense of "postponement" as "a masculine failure to act" (69), Collins's Midwinter refigures "the problem of arrested development" such that "postponement emerges as an alternate strategy of living," a way to resist an otherwise totalizing and hegemonic sense of the present (86). The third chapter explores the crossovers between non-reproductive lifeways in evolutionary theory and Charles Dickens's representation of "sexual failure" as integral to "communal regeneration" (109) in Dombey and Son, while the final chapter tracks George Eliot's modeling of transhistorical affinity and readerly discovery by way of thermodynamic diffusion in Middlemarch. In a conclusion that looks backward and forward at once, Tondre shows how the narratives of historical rupture--such as that between Newtonian and modernist cosmologies--cover over a crucial "Victorian interregnum" that has remained lost to criticism for too long.
The Physics of Possibility is rife with avenues for future inquiry. Even as it is primarily concerned with the Victorian novel, its argument resonates in exciting ways with recent work on the rise of the novel, broadly speaking, as well as formalism and statistical realism. One avenue for future inquiry involves how the Victorian novel's "lost promise" intersects with matters of empire. Tondre briefly gestures to these questions in his reading of Armadale, where he argues Midwinter's "dark skin and biracial heritage" "inde[x]" what remains otherwise "implicit in the reader's affective experience": namely, whether "Britain might escape its larger legacies of bloodshed and overseas despoliation" (90). Whereas Tondre's formulations emphasize the utopianism of the "what-if," I wonder about the limitations of potentials "sculpted" around norms (2); about whether or not we must think in terms of norms in order to think beyond them; about which histories might be obstructed and who might escape whom; about less Utopian possibilities, such as collusions between speculative "alternatives" and, say, imperial fantasies of lost white worlds. How the Victorian novel answers these questions--and to what political ends--remains to be seen. The results could be by turns devastating and insurgent. The Physics of Possibility makes a crucial contribution on this front by illuminating the conditional historicism necessary for asking such questions and seeking their answers.
DEVIN M. GAROFALO, University of North Texas