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INTRODUCTION: IMPONDERABLE MATTER

In studying this Fourth state of Matter, we seem at length to have within our grasp
and obedient to our control the little indivisible particles which, with good warrant,
are supposed to constitute the physical basis of the universe. We have seen that in
some of its properties Radiant Matter is as material as this table, whilst in other
properties it almost assumes the character of Radiant Energy. We have actually
touched the border land where Matter and Force seem to merge into one another,
the shadowy realm between Known and Unknown, which for me has always had
peculiar temptations. I venture to think that the greatest scientific problems of the
future will find their solution in this Border Land, and even beyond; here, it seems
to me, lie Ultimate realities, subtle, far-reaching, wonderful.

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William Crookes, Radiant Matter (1879)

In an 1852 article in Household Words, Henry Morley insists,

We are in the present day upon the trace of a great many important facts relating to
the imponderable agencies employed in nature. Light, heat, and electricity are no
longer the simple matters, or effects of matter, that they have aforetime seemed to be.
New wonders point to more beyond.1

In the article called New Discoveries in Ghosts, Morley refers to a widely


accepted concept within the Victorian physical sciences to posit evidence of the
existence of ghosts: imponderable matter. Morley goes on to cite the work of
Austrian chemist Baron Karl von Reichenbach, who claimed that an imponderable substance, which he called odyle, is emitted by all forms of matter in the
universe and resembles light, heat and electricity. Odyle, according to Morleys
reading of Reichenbach, can be perceived by certain people he calls sensitives
and is generated among other things by heat, and by chemical action. It is generated, therefore, in the decomposition of the human body.2 Reichenbachs
experiments with sensitives, who claimed to be able to see light coming from
graves, led Morley to claim, in plain words I do believe in ghosts or, rather
spectres only I do not believe them to be supernatural.3

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Morleys belief in ghosts (and, indeed, Reichenbachs, and that of many


Victorians) requires not as he acknowledges a belief in the supernatural.
Rather, it necessitates the existence of imponderable matter. At once ghostly and
material, imponderable matter was a concept central to the Victorian physical
sciences. Many physicists believed that light, heat, electricity and magnetism
were forms of imponderable matter. In his 1839 Elements of Natural Philosophy, Golding Bird explains that most natural philosophers believe that the space
between bodies is filled with some form of imponderable matter, which is
700,000 times less dense than air; and that its elastic force, as compared to its
density, must be, at the lowest estimate, 490,000,000,000 times greater than that
of air.4 This nearly weightless and highly elastic substance was, according to Bird
and many natural philosophers, responsible for the propagation of light and
heat and many other thermal phenomena. He explains,
The subtle and invisible forms of ethereal matter, when caused to assume a vibratory
or undulatory movement with sufficient rapidity, produce a peculiar set of phenomena, whose effects are known by the terms of light and heat; effects of vast importance,
for without them nature would be dead to us, its beauties no longer apparent, and this
world a cheerless waste.5

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Imponderable matter, then, was for the Victorians invisible, undetectable, yet
the very fabric of the cosmos. It could explain simple phenomena such as the
transmission of light and heat, and it could provide physical explanation for
what once seemed supernatural.
British natural philosophers shifted their focus from mechanics to imponderable or ethereal matter or fluids during the second half of the eighteenth
century in order to explain electrical, optical and magnetic phenomena. These
substances were not like other kinds of matter or fluids because they were
believed to be weightless and undetectable. Imponderable matter was thought
to be composed of particles with repulsive forces. Eighteenth-century theories of
imponderable fluids were based on a theory of ether that Newton had proposed
in his 1717 Opticks to explain, for example, gravitational attraction. As Cantor
and Hodge note, although Newton constructs several different, even incompatible theories, on his main account ether consisted of very minute particles that
(1) repelled one another, and (2) repelled and were repelled by particles of gross
matter.6 Larry Laudan points out that imponderable fluid theories were pervasive during the latter half of the eighteenth century:
In the 1740s alone, there were at least half a dozen major efforts to explain the
behaviour of observable bodies by postulating a variety of invisible (and otherwise
imperceptible) elastic fluids [B]y the 1770s, ethereal or subtle fluid explanations
were very widespread among natural philosophers [S]uch explanations invariably
violated the prevailing epistemological and methodological strictures of the age,

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strictures that would not countenance the use of theoretical or inferred entities
to explain natural processes.7

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, then, the physical sciences in Britain
were increasingly dependent upon the theoretical rather than the empirical, and
the invisible rather than the detectable, as imponderable matter theories became
central to the study of mechanics.
Although these theories were widespread among natural philosophers, as William Thomas Brande demonstrated in his 1819 A Manual of Chemistry, detection
of imponderable matter was understood to create considerable difficulty:
Of the substances belonging to our globe, some are of so subtle a nature as to require
minute and delicate investigation to demonstrate their existence; they can neither be
confined, nor submitted to the usual modes of examination, and are known only in
their states of motion as acting upon our senses, or as producing changes in the more
gross forms of matter. They have been included under the general term of Radiant or
Imponderable Etherial Matter, which, as it produces different phenomena, must be
considered as differing either in its nature or affections.8

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In an 1816 lecture on radiant matter, Michael Faraday similarly claimed,

Assuming heat and similar subjects to be matter, we shall then have a very marked
division of all the varieties of substance into two classes: one of these will contain
ponderable and the other imponderable matter. The great source of imponderable
matter, and that which supplies all the varieties, is the sun, whose office it appears to
be to shed these subtle principles over our system.9

What is remarkable about these theories of imponderable matter is that they


were prevalent in a scientific climate dominated by an empirical imperative.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, many natural philosophers believed
that the various forms of imponderable matter that had been theorized earlier
were really just a single form of imponderable matter: luminiferous ether. In an
1865 Fortnightly Review article, The Constitution of the Universe, prominent
physicist John Tyndall asks, Are the stars themselves hung in vacuo? Are the vast
regions which surround them, and across which their light is propagated, absolutely empty?10 Tyndall, like many scientists of his day, believed that the space
between the stars was not empty, and claimed that luminiferous ether was an
interstellar medium that fills space and conveys light. In the same article, Tyndall
describes the ether, insisting, The notion of this medium must not be considered as a vague or fanciful conception on the part of scientific men. Of its reality
most of them are as convinced as they are of the existence of the sun and moon.11
He goes on to claim that the ether has definite mechanical properties:
It is almost infinitely more attenuated than any known gas, but its properties are those
of a solid rather than of a gas. It resembles jelly rather than air. This was not the first

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conception of the ether, but it is that forced upon us by a more complete knowledge
of its phenomena. A body thus constituted may have its boundaries; but, although
the ether may not be coextensive with space, it must at all events extend as far as the
most distant visible stars. In fact it is the vehicle of their light, and without it they
could not be seen. This all-pervading substance takes up their molecular tremors, and
conveys them with inconceivable rapidity to our organs of vision. It is the transported
shiver of bodies countless millions of miles distant, which translates itself in human
consciousness into the splendour of the firmament at night.12

Tyndall is concerned here with the material properties of this invisible and
undetectable medium. Scientists believed that the luminiferous ether subtended
radiant energy and governed phenomena such as the movement of light across
space. Although luminiferous ether could not be confirmed empirically, the substance, claimed scientists, was the medium responsible for the propagation of
light and heat and could explain the interaction between two objects separated
in space. Nineteenth-century physics especially dynamics, the science of force
and motion often depended on what could not be observed, and Victorian
physicists were particularly at ease with non-empirical methods of enquiry and
concepts such as imponderable matter. The ether came to stand as a model for
the interaction between other kinds of material and immaterial phenomena.
In his 1855 The Principles of Psychology, Herbert Spencer used the concept of
imponderable matter as an analogy for the relationship between mind and body.
A materialist of the cruder sort, Spencer claims, can elevate Matter to a level
with Mind13 by suggesting that the relationship between matter and mind is
analogous to that between matter and imponderable matter:

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That the ether so extreme in tenuity that we can scarcely represent it to ourselves as
having materiality, is nevertheless composed of units which move in conformity to
mechanical laws, is now a common-place of science. Hypothetically endowing these
units with momenta, and assuming that in each undulation their courses are determined by composition of forces, mathematicians long ago found themselves able not
only to interpret known properties of the light constituted by ethereal undulations,
but to assert that it had unobserved properties; which were thereupon proved by
observation to exist. Far greater community than this has been disclosed between the
ponderable and the imponderable : the activities of either are unceasingly modified
by the activities of the other. Each complex molecule of matter oscillating as a whole
nay, each separate member of it independently oscillating, causes responsive movements in adjacent ethereal molecules, and these in remoter ones without limit; while,
conversely, each ethereal wave reaching a composite molecule, changes more or less its
rhythmical motions, as well as the rhythmical motions of its component clusters and
those of their separate members.14

For Spencer, imponderable matter provides a model for all other undetectable
phenomena, including the working of the human mind. Moreover, imponderable matter is characterized by its ability to invisibly influence and be influenced

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by ponderable matter. Likewise, in his 1876 entry for Ether in Encyclopedia


Britannica, James Clerk Maxwell claims of the ether that the interplanetary
and interstellar spaces are not empty, but are occupied by a material substance
or body which is certainly the largest and probably the most uniform body of
which we have any knowledge.15 The main role of the ether, he claims, is as a
medium of physical interaction between distant bodies.16 The ethers function
is to connect all matter in the universe.
Scholars have thus begun to note that the physical sciences of the early nineteenth century were far less empirical than has been historically claimed.17 The
theories of imponderable matter that were inherited from the previous century
and developed by Victorian scientists represent an important strain of scientific
thinking that was theoretical rather than empirical. Daniel Brown notes,
Physics and mathematics became increasingly dependent upon the imagination during the early to mid-Victorian period. Such hypothetical entities as the luminiferous
ether, the energy principle, the electromagnetic field and the irreducible parts of
atoms and molecules became staples of physics at this time, each marking a shift from
positivist experiment to a priori analysis and speculation.18

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Indeed, the many imponderable theories of the late eighteenth century were
unified during the beginning of the nineteenth century, and became central to
Victorian physics. The development of thermodynamics and the wave theory, in
particular, depended upon the luminiferous ether.19 Bruce Clarke claims,
When the laws of thermodynamics were first formulated in the 1850s and 1860s, the
concept of physical energy arrived already attached, like a Siamese twin, to another
scientific hypothesis positing the universal presence of a subtle ethereal medium
The discourse of the ether memorializes an instance in institutional science in Europe
and the United States invested heavily in the substantial reality of a purely theoretical
construction.20

Nineteenth-century physicists inherited empiricism from their eighteenth-century counterparts, but they also inherited (and, in turn, developed and extended)
theories of imponderable matter. These non-empirical theories became the core
of Victorian physics.
Theories of imponderable matter were employed to resolve a number of problems within the physical sciences. Donald R. Benson claims that ether theories
became important because of three anomalies encountered by nineteenth-century
physicists. First, the wave theory of light described light as moving in wave motions
in a medium rather than as particles moving in empty space. Second, basic matter, commonly conceived at the beginning of the century as solid and ponderable
atoms, was progressively transformed into less and less ponderable and localized
sets of vibrations. Finally, the development of non-Euclidean geometries, which
constituted a theoretical challenge to received assumptions about absolute space,

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and from the failure of all attempts to verify the existence of such space empirically.21 Benson makes important connections between ether theories and Victorian
notions about matter and space, which this book extends under the heading of
imponderable matter. That is, the space between empiricism and idealism a
space nicely represented by the paradoxical term imponderable matter was a
central concept deployed in a number of areas of the Victorian physical sciences.
Imponderable matter became not just a concept for solving problems in
physics, but also, I show, a concept that was employed in social and economic
discourses. I am not suggesting here a sort of unidirectional influence of science
on other areas of culture. Rather, I follow scholars such as George Levine, who
have argued that science is a shared, cultural discourse that works within the
culture and responds to its exigencies.22 This kind of reciprocal influence of science and art has been established by scholars such as Donald R. Benson, who
posits an integrated culture in which science and art are complementary enterprises, both of them significantly shaped by and at the same time giving shape to
common cultural fictions and assumptions.23 N. K. Hayles has similarly argued,
[S]urely one must say that both literature and science are cultural products, at once
expressing and helping to form the cultural matrix from which they emerge. Rather
than assume a horizontal model, where influence travels from science to literature,
I envision a vertical model, with both science and literature emerging from underlying forces at work within the culture generally. To understand their isomorphism,
especially in instances where direct influence is unlikely, is to begin to understand the
parameters shaping the culture as a whole.24

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Imponderable matter, I argue, was thus both a theoretical construction within


physics, and a heuristic employed to discuss and understand the material conditions of Victorian capitalism and its abstractions. Because by definition
imponderable matter is not subject to empirical discovery, it became a model for
the invisible and only partially material forces that were understood to govern
both physics and economics.
Paradoxically, as ether theories became more scientific in the nineteenth
century, they also seemed to be able to provide ways of speculating about supernatural or mystical concepts. Experimental scientist and spiritualist, William
Crookes, from whose 1879 essay on radiant matter the epigraph to this introduction is taken, describes imponderable matter as a border land, a shadowy
realm between known and unknown.25 The theories also provided physicists like
Balfour Stewart and P. G. Tait, who sought to reconcile their religious beliefs
with their scientific endeavours, with scientific language for discussing ideas of
the afterlife.26 Imponderable matter thus leant scientific credence to concepts
such as mesmerism, telepathy and spiritualism. Put another way, imponderability was a useful tool for responding to cultural exigencies both within the
physical sciences and in other areas of thought. As Benson explains,

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Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, it was the ether fiction which
enabled physics to cope with pressing anomalies concerning radiant energy, the
basic constitution of matter, and the measurement of motion, anomalies reflecting
a general crisis over the nature of space which would eventually lead to relativity and
quantum physics.27

Yet it wasnt just in physics that this fiction was useful: What all nineteenthcentury ethers do have in common is a capacity to mediate between material and
immaterial whether the immaterial be spatial void, human consciousness, or
supernatural spirit.28 Not only did imponderability provide a way to make sense
of what appeared to be inconsistent in physics, but it also suggested to some
Victorians that the social and economic arenas might be governed by the same
forces forces that cannot be classified as either wholly material or immaterial.
Victorian Literature and the Physics of the Imponderable links non-empirical
concepts within nineteenth-century energy physics such as imponderable
matter to Victorian discourse about capitalist production and exchange. The
notion that there were forces at work that are undetectable but which are
responsible for governing both the physical and economic arenas is borne out
in the writing of Victorian physicists, fiction writers and political economists.
This book argues that the concept of imponderable matter served not just as
a way to solve problems in physics during the period, but also as a heuristic for
understanding a variety of economic issues, including the energy demand and
waste involved in industrial manufacture, the entropic decline of the lower social
orders under the capitalist system, the invisible connections forged in economic
exchange, the problems associated with imagining imperial spaces and economics and the dematerialization of value in a credit economy.
This book argues that the story of the Victorians as steeped in scientific
empiricism, committed to materialism and devoted to literary realism ignores
important strains of thinking that privileged the spaces between the material
and immaterial in the physical sciences, social sciences and literature. Because
Victorian science so often has been understood in terms of the dominance of
empiricism, literary critics have tended not to recognize literary texts engagement with science when they deal with concepts of imponderable matter
concepts that are no longer part of mainstream science, but do have important analogues in todays science (the Higgs boson particle, dark matter or string
theory, for example). In effect, critical assessments of the ways that Victorian science was disseminated and popularized particularly in literature have been
limited by a narrow set of models of scientific methodology. This book recovers concepts of the imponderable in the Victorian physical sciences in order to
argue that Victorian writers explored and posited untenable physical models
for the structure and mechanism of the natural and social worlds. What was
called imponderable matter by Victorian physicists consisted of a set of con-

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cepts that were particularly suited to articulate Victorian values and concerns.
The fields of thermodynamics, mathematics and mechanics provided scientific
theories about an invisible world that cannot be directly observed or measured,
but that nonetheless was invoked to explain mechanical phenomena, including
ether, gravitation, electricity and gases. I show that writers of the period sought
to theorize and describe what could not be detected empirically, and I argue that
they used the language of the imponderable untenable paradoxes, undetectable realities, unseen forces to make sense of new experiences of modernity.
In doing so, they adduced the limits of empirical inquiry and pointed to the
speculative, and indeed, metaphysical elements of Victorian physics and economics. While Victorian physicists were theorizing ether, energy and entropy,
non-Euclidean space and atom theories, fiction writers were exploring imponderable social and economic phenomena: the limitlessness of energy demand, an
entropic social system, the credit and investment economy of the second half of
the century, the spatial distortions created by imperial economics and the invisible workings of capitalist exchange. By recovering imponderability in Victorian
physics and political economy, this book reveals that in the Victorian imagination a more fluid relationship existed between material and ideal, empirical and
speculative, realist and non-realist, than has traditionally been acknowledged.
Because physics claimed to explain the workings of nature as the result of
universal laws, the concepts popularized by Victorian physicists came to be understood as applicable to everything from the human body, to social relations, to the
economy. It has long been understood that during the Industrial Revolution economics drove scientific discovery.29 The impetus to improve the efficiency of the
steam engine, for example, is largely responsible for the formulation of the laws of
thermodynamics.30 There are thus concrete links between political economy and
the physical sciences during the Victorian era in terms of the demand for new and
better technologies. The concern of this book, however, is not how economics
drove scientific discovery, but rather how Victorian physics and political economy
provided analogues for and reciprocally influenced each other. I show that the
Victorian impetus to find universal laws made the relationships between physics
and social theories particularly fluid. While nineteenth-century science generally
has been understood in terms of the dominance of empiricism and the influence
of positivism, this book argues that Victorian scientists were also developing a
number of models of an invisible reality just beyond human perception. Concepts
within the physical sciences such as conservation, dissipation and energy, with
their attendant laws, were apt analogues for economic phenomena. Thus physicists and novelists alike analogized physical and economic imponderables.
Although Victorian literature was often in dialogue with the concepts of the
imponderable within Victorian physics, literary critics have tended to overlook
the literary engagement with scientific concepts that were more heuristic than

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empirical. Critics have long made connections between the novel, literary realism and the rise of empiricism.31 Caroline Levine, for example, describes the
mid-nineteenth century in Britain as
an intellectual context where scientists and philosophers of science turned to the
experimental method as the best model for the pursuit of knowledge. With its
pressure to restrain speculation and imagination, nineteenth-century scientific epistemology began to call for the very suspension of the self.32

Literary realism thus has been understood as developing in tandem with scientific
empiricism. In The Realist Imagination George Levine traces a transformation of
Victorian realism in relation to changing attitudes toward empirical epistemology: from the stronghold of empiricism earlier in the century to its collapse at the
fin de sicle.33 For Levine, The epistemology that lay behind realism was empiricist, with its tendency to value immediate experience over continuities or systems
of order, and it was obviously related to the developments in empirical science as
they ran through the century.34 While George Levine and others are right to claim
a connection between realist literature of the period and scientific empiricism, the
tendency has been to overlook heuristic and theoretical scientific models in the
overwhelming focus on the biological sciences and realist literature. By looking
at the imponderability model that crops up again and again in Victorian science,
economics and literature, Victorian Literature and the Physics of the Imponderable
builds on recent critical work that calls into question the distinctions that have traditionally been made between science and pseudoscience, high realism and other
subgenres of the novel, and materialism and idealism within political economy.
I am not the first literary critic to focus on the interconnections of Victorian
physics and literature. Bruce Clarkes Energy Forms: Allegory and Science in the
Era of Classical Thermodynamics traces the concept of energy from the 1850s
through the 1920s in scientific and literary writing, in order to argue that allegorical models were applied in both arenas around the concept of energy as it
developed within classical thermodynamics. In Thermopoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science, Barri J. Gold reads texts from Tennyson to Dickens
in order to argue that Victorian energy physics and literature frequently engaged
with and influenced each other around concepts such as conservation and
entropy.35 Historians of science have also produced significant work that charts
the transformation and professionalization of the field of physics in England in
the nineteenth century. Crosbie Smiths The Science of Energy: A Cultural History
of Energy in Victorian Britain argues that the emergence of energy physics was the
result of the concerted effort of a group of northern British scientists to reform
physics, gain credibility for their programme and achieve universal marketability.36 In demonstrating the ways that scientists were motivated in their pursuits
by more than discovery, Smiths history reveals the influence of industrialism,

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religion and philosophy on the methodologies of Victorian energy physicists.


Iwan Rhys Moruss When Physics Became King traces the rise of physics in the
nineteenth century to a discipline that was widely believed to provide the key
to understanding the universe as a product of the mass mobilization of material
and social resources on an unprecedented scale.37 This work has demonstrated
how interconnected Victorian physics was with other contemporary discourses.
Victorian Literature and the Physics of the Imponderable builds on this important work by linking Victorian energy physics, literature and political economy
through the concept of imponderability. In demonstrating this link, I seek to
reconsider some of the ways we define and distinguish subgenres of the Victorian novel. That is, if Victorian physics could provide a language and mechanism
for the existence of ghosts, then we might (as I do in the following chapter) reevaluate the relationship between, for example, Dickenss work and mainstream
scientific concepts. I seek to extend the work of critics such as Richard Noakes
and Roger Luckhurst, who have demonstrated that science, pseudoscience and
interest in the supernatural were never distinct, but overlapped and reciprocally
informed each other.38 Still, literary criticism remains dominated by a focus
on the influence of the scientific naturalists on both Victorian literature and
culture.39 And although recent critics have done much to complicate our understanding of British empiricism in the nineteenth century,40 little attention has
been paid to the connections between Victorian literature and the speculative
physical sciences. This book examines Victorian theoretical physics in relation to
Victorian literature both within the realist tradition and in other subgenres of
the novel in order to extend definitions of Victorian literary realism and reconnect speculative elements within non-realist subgenres to mainstream science of
the period. That is, in tracing speculative physics in both realist and non-realist
traditions, I reassess such distinctions, extending instead the definition of realism
beyond that which has been imposed as a result of the critical tendency to privilege empirical science. Although the biological sciences have long been central to
Victorian studies, historians have begun to explore areas of science that were not
part of the empiricist programme. Bernard Lightman has recently noted,

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Effective opposition to scientific naturalism came from a group of scientists who


from the 1850s to the 1870s constructed the science of energy Scientific naturalists
and the Anglican clergy were not the only players in the contest for cultural authority.
North British physicists, neo-Hegelians, socialists, secularists, women, spiritualists,
and occultists drew on the credibility of scientific ideas to join the contest.41

This book seeks to bring this focus to Victorian literature.


The domain of the imponderable posited by Victorian physicists both physically real and impossibly ineffable was a space in which physical and economic
concepts often mingled in the popular imagination. This is evidenced in the writing

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of physicists, political economists and fiction writers. Scottish physicists Balfour


Stewart and P. G. Tait used ether theories and the concepts of thermodynamics
to posit an unseen universe coterminous with the visible world. In their hugely
popular The Unseen Universe: Or, Physical Speculations on a Future State (1875),
Stewart and Tait posit an afterlife based on ether theories. They claim that the laws
of thermodynamics indicate that although the visible universe will at some point
come to an end, there also exists an independent unseen universe. The two universes, Stewart and Tait argue, are connected by means of the luminiferous ether:
[W]hat we generally call ether may not be a mere medium, but a medium plus the
visible order of things, so that when the motions of the visible universe are transferred
into ether, part of them are conveyed as by a bridge into the invisible universe, and
there are made use of or stored up.42

The idea that the energy is dissipating in the visible universe, but is ultimately
conserved in the ether of the invisible universe allows Stewart and Tait to reconcile the laws of thermodynamics with Christian eschatology.
Stewart and Tait not only employ energy physics to make an argument
for the afterlife, but they also distinguish the visible and invisible universes in
economic terms:

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[T]he tendency of heat is towards equalisation; heat is par excellence the communist
of our universe, and it will no doubt ultimately bring the present system to an end.
The visible universe may with perfect truth be compared to a vast heat-engine.43

The visible world operates on the communist model : it is dissipative rather


than accumulative. But the invisible universe operates on capitalist principles
energy or capital is stored. In The Conservation of Energy (1873), Stewart draws
another analogy between the thermodynamic transformation of energy and
capitalist economy, in which potential energy is capital and kinetic energy is
the act of spending ones capital:
[Energy of position] may be compared to money in a bank, or capital, [energy of
motion] to money which we are in the act of spending; and, just as, when we have
money in a bank, we can draw it out whenever we want it, so, in the case of energy of
position, we can make use of it whenever we please If we pursue the analogy a step
further, we shall see that the great capitalist, or the man that has acquired a loft y position, is respected because he has the disposal of a great quantity of energy, and that
whether he be a nobleman or a sovereign, or a general in command, he is powerful
only from having something which enables him to make use of the services of others.
When the man of wealth pays a labouring man to work for him, he is in truth converting so much of his energy of position into actual energy, just as a miller lets out a
portion of his head of water in order to do some work by its means.44

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Stewarts physical laws are made to correspond to industrial capitalism: oligarchical privilege has given way to a system in which power and respect are afforded
to those who accumulate capital and pay labourers for their work. Stewart goes
on to present a somewhat darker version of the universe and the dissipation of
energy in which the sun becomes a failing capitalist:
[I]t necessarily follows that he [the sun] is in the position of a man whose expenditure
exceeds his income. He is living upon his capital, and is destined to share the fate of all
who act in a similar manner. We must, therefore, contemplate a future period when
he will be poorer in energy than he is at present, and a period still further in the future
when he will altogether cease to shine.45

Stewart refers here to the heat death of the universe the law of increasing
entropy (which I explore more fully in chapters two and three). He again suggests that appropriate economic activity is capitalist, because it is accumulative
rather than dissipative. For Stewart and Tait, then, capitalist relations provide
the language with which to explain invisible physical forces such as the movement of thermal energy.46 Yet, this connection does not simply work in a single
direction: rather, energy physics also supplies language for Stewart and Tait to
promote certain kinds of capitalist behaviour.47
While Victorian physicists were using economics to explain physics, Karl
Marx was theorizing the commodity in terms of imponderability. In an oftquoted passage from the first volume of Capital (1867), Marx describes the
commodity in both material and immaterial terms:

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The form of wood is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table
continues to be wood, an ordinary sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a
commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands
with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its
head, and evolves out of its brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were
to begin dancing of its own free will.48

Much has been made of this passage. Most notably, in Specters of Marx Jacques
Derrida offers a long rumination on Marxs table, which he claims is an example
of the many spectres that appear in Marxs writing:
The commodity is a thing without phenomenon, a thing in flight that surpasses the
senses (it is invisible, intangible, inaudible, and odorless); but this transcendence is
not altogether spiritual, it retains that bodiless body which we have recognized as
making the difference between specter and spirit.49

Derridas point in tracing the spectres in Marx is to show that [h]aunting


belongs to the structure of every hegemony,50 but his distinction between spectre and spirit is useful in relating Marxs commodity to the imponderable matter
of Victorian physics. For the commodity is at once material and immaterial; it is
spectral rather than spiritual.

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Peter Hitchcocks sketch of commodification, referring to Marxs description of the commodity, recalls many of the terms used by Victorian scientists to
describe luminiferous ether:
Marx underlines that what is left is the human labor power expended to produce the
commodities: human labor has actually accumulated in the commodities, but not as
a human, but only as a ghost (the ghost of objectivity). To put it still more bluntly, the
nature of commodities is the nature of ghosts What seems like a mixed metaphor
or an oxymoron, a congealed or jellied spirit (like ectoplasm), is the necessary conjuration of the spirit of capital : for what remains, remains to come back.51

Hitchocks description of capital evokes Tyndalls description of ether as resembling jelly. Moreover, his use of the term ectoplasm to describe commodification
evidences both the imponderables in Victorian economics and the connections
between Victorian physics and political economy. For the term ectoplasm originated with the Victorians and referred to a substance believed to emanate from
the bodies of mediums. Marina Warner explains, The concept of ectoplasm grew
out of Victorian physics and cognitive sciences and the post-Darwinian challenge
to traditional faith.52 Ectoplasm, Warner notes, offered a solution to the problem
of imponderables embodied a postulated prima materia and was investigated
in an effort to determine structure of the universe.53 Ectoplasm, then, like Marxs
commodity and like the luminiferous ether, yokes together the invisible and visible, the material and immaterial. These Victorian concepts posited physical and
economic systems that are structured by the interdependence of the material and
immaterial. That is, heat and light can be experienced empirically, but their movement through space depended upon the empirically undetectable luminiferous
ether. Likewise, Marxs commodity is both material and immaterial: the value
and labour inhered in it establish it as a form of imponderable matter.
Victorian Literature and the Physics of the Imponderable considers Victorian
fiction in terms of five imponderables that were central to Victorian physics:
luminiferous ether, the two laws of thermodynamics (the conservation of energy
and entropy), non-Euclidean geometry and vortex atom theory. Chapter one
argues that in Bleak House (18523) and Our Mutual Friend (18645) Dickens
brings together concepts in physics about the luminiferous ether with contemporary ideas about capital and value. In these novels Dickens creates worlds in which
physical and economic forces operate according to the same laws. Bleak House,
I show, reflects and transforms theories of luminiferous ether by setting forth a
vision of the world as infinitely and invisibly connected through the capitalist
system, which operates according to the physics of ether. Krooks spontaneous
combustion in the middle of the novel re-establishes the ethereal and economic
connection that had been suspended by his anti-capitalist activities. Our Mutual
Friend, I argue, explores the connections between ethereal theories of matter
(that is, theories in physics holding that matter is nothing more than ethereal

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motion) and finance capitalism. The novel considers the problems associated
with finance capitalism and the dissociation of economic value and material
production, by suggesting that material economic pursuits are the most moral
activity. The etherealization of both matter and value thus creates a moral imperative around efforts to rematerialize both, and which focuses on the citys dust
mounds. In analogizing ether, capital, matter and value, Dickens invests economics with physical determinism and charges physical law with moral imperative.
The development and popularization of the laws of thermodynamics during
the second half of the nineteenth century, chapter two argues, changed the way
that the Victorians conceptualized the slum. Focusing on Arthur Morrisons A
Child of the Jago (1896) and mile Zolas Parisian novel, LAssommoir (1872), this
chapter claims that novels about slum life (both in England and on the Continent)
that have been labelled naturalist employ the concepts of energy physics to depict
the economic system as a thermodynamic system that produces the underclass as
waste. The laws of thermodynamics not only posited the eventual heat death of
the universe, but also came to be associated with capitalist economy. It was at this
moment that Englands underclass was first called the residuum a term which
originally referred to the waste left after a thermodynamic process, as in a steam
engine. A Child of the Jago and LAssommoir describe a relationship between work
and waste that is entropic: in the heat sink of the slum, energy is converted into
waste rather than work. By extension, in the system of capitalist economy, the
underclass is the waste of the bourgeoisie waste that will only increase over time.
This chapter shows how thermodynamic science provided a way for Victorians to
reify their social and economic values as natural law. Morrison and Zola replace
the narrative of capitalist progress with entropic narratives, which emphasize the
paradoxes of the capitalist economy that creates both labour and waste, progress
and decline, diachrony and synchrony. While critics have tended to downplay the
influence of French naturalism in England, I show that Morrisons novel, like the
French naturalist novels, depicts a degenerating underclass whose fate is governed
not, as critics have generally claimed, simply by heredity, but by the universal law
of increasing entropy. Late nineteenth-century slum novels thus employed the
concepts of energy physics particularly entropy to make sense of the social
and economic situation of the urban poor. This is most clearly demonstrated in
the naturalist texts treatment of clocks as recurring objects that mark the forward
movement of time toward entropy, while simultaneously signalling economic
repetition, stasis and lack of narrative development. As such, clocks mark the intersection between thermodynamics and economics. The clock in these novels is both
a commodity (which never properly functions as such for the slum dweller) and a
symbol of a temporal system in which time is irreversible and entropy is increasing.
If Victorian naturalist texts registered an understanding of the slum as governed by thermodynamics, then utopian texts imagined ways of overcoming

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the entropy law. Chapter three argues that the late nineteenth-century utopian
novel represents a growing understanding of the connections between capitalism and the second law of thermodynamics. The second law, which was first
articulated in the middle of the nineteenth century, states that in any closed
system entropy always increases. I argue that the utopian literature of this
period imagined worlds in which entropy might be overcome, thereby abating distinctions between social classes. I examine responses to the development
of the second law of thermodynamics, including those from physicists, economists and fiction writers, in order to show that from its initial development
the entropy law was understood as also describing an economic problem. Thus,
the development of the second law of thermodynamics engendered a number
of thought experiments both in the scientific community and in the literary arena that offered ways to overcome entropy. Both those who advocated
capitalism and those who supported socialism understood industrial capitalism
as essentially entropic. That is, while any economic system is reliant on finite
natural resources and human and machine labour, capitalist production came
to be understood as highly entropic because of the ways it is dependent on fossil
fuels, or coerced or forced labour. By the 1890s, I argue, within the context of
the socialist movement, the capitalist consolidation of time as value came to be
seen as a fundamentally entropic aspect of industrial capitalism.54 In order to
demonstrate the ways that late Victorians understood the connections between
the second law of thermodynamics and industrial capitalism, this chapter considers a range of responses to the entropy law, including those by physicists, such
as James Clerk Maxwell, and political economists, including Marx and Engels.
I also examine three utopian novels from the late nineteenth century Edward
Bulwer-Lyttons The Coming Race: Or, the New Utopia (1871), Samuel Butlers
Erewhon: Or, Over the Range (1872) and William Morriss News from Nowhere:
Or, An Epoch of Rest (1890). The first two parts of the chapter examine The Coming Race and Erewhon, novels that mark the beginning of the revival of interest in
literary utopias in Great Britain in the 1870s and which were immensely popular
at the time of publication. These literary utopias describe societies that are fundamentally capitalist but that transcend the entropic nature of their economic
systems either through imagining a negentropic55 energy source or limiting and
fairly distributing low entropy among their citizens. The final part of the chapter
reads William Morriss News from Nowhere as a socialist response to the entropy
law that depicts both humanity and the universe as essentially negentropic. Morriss utopia slows and at times even denies the entropic law of irreversible
time, thereby subverting the capitalist consolidation of time as value. These three
utopias, I argue, demonstrate the ways that imagining alternative societies at the
fin de sicle involved not simply reimagining social and economic relations, but
also disentangling capitalist production from laws of thermodynamics.

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Capitalist production was not the only economic concern that was understood in terms of the physics of imponderability. The fourth chapter explores
the ways that imperialism came to be associated with non-Euclidean geometries.
I read Edwin A. Abbotts novel Flatland (1884) and Joseph Conrad and Ford
Madox Fords The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story (1901) alongside the development of non-Euclidean geometries in order to argue that new conceptions
of space, including the possibility of a fourth dimension, were employed by
late Victorians to imagine and understand the spaces and economics of empire.
These novels imagine the imperial encounter as occurring within the space of the
fourth dimension, and in doing so they posit that imperial space is heterotopic56
and hyper-dimensional. H. G. Wells imagined the fourth dimension as a way to
travel through time in his 1895 novel The Time Machine, and Albert Einstein
cemented this notion of the fourth dimension with his general theory of relativity relativity in 1915. Yet, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the fourth
dimension was more often understood to be a spatial dimension that is invisible but coterminous with the three-dimensional space we perceive and inhabit.
These new possibilities for conceiving space, I show, seemed to apply to the
increasingly complex spaces of the British Empire. That is, they envision darker
and more complex imperial spaces than the common centre/periphery paradigm
by using the mathematical concept of the fourth dimension as a metaphor for
imperial spaces. The spatial concept of the fourth dimension resulted from the
development of non-Euclidean and n-dimensional geometries. Before the emergence of these new geometries, Euclids Elements had been the only geometry
for more than two thousand years. Nineteenth-century geometers challenged
Euclids fifth postulate by imagining curved spaces rather than Euclidean planes.
N-dimensional geometry, which was concerned with the number of dimensions
of space, developed alongside non-Euclidean geometry and was promoted by
Charles Howard Hinton and Hermann von Helmholtz, among others. The
new geometries destabilized traditional notions of space and, indeed, notions
of absolute truth, making a potentially infinite number of spaces possible and
suggesting the necessity of multiple epistemologies. While imperial spaces had
often been represented as transparent and mappable, The Inheritorsand Flatland
offer visions of the imperial encounter as non-Euclidean and hyper-dimensional.
These novels reject notions of colonized space as two-dimensional and envision
multiple, illegible dimensions, underscoring the limitations of empiricism to
reveal the social and economic dimensions of empire.
The development of the vortex atomic theory during the second half of the
century, the epilogue argues, represents a reversal in the relationships I trace
earlier in the book between physics and economics. While concepts of the
imponderable in physics had often been understood as describing universal laws
that governed everything from the movement of light to the human body to

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the capitalist system, late-Victorian atom theories paradoxically acknowledged


the fictive or symbolic as a means of establishing permanence. First theorized in
1867 by William Thomson, and developed by a number of other physicists over
the next thirty years, the vortex atom theory suggested a radically new structure
for matter, and emerged as Victorian capitalism became increasingly dependent
on finance and credit. The discourse around vortex atomic theory and finance
capitalism near the end of the century demonstrates the ease with which metaphysical questions were incorporated into late-Victorian physics and economics.
Vortex atomic theories and finance capitalism pushed physics and economics
into the realm of the fictive, and sought immutability in the symbolic. By the end
of the century, imponderable matter, the ineffable and suprasensual, had become
a source of physical and economic permanency.

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