Anna Henchman responds to Elspeth Green

I was excited to see Elspeth Green take up Michael Tondre’s arresting claim that “Maxwell’s demon paradox is itself a theory of realism, rooted in the tension between empirical observation and mass molecular tendencies.” Green suggestively thinks through what kind of narrator and narrative “work” might produce (or oversee?) this form of realism. She invokes Kenner’s idea of a half-conscious presence “slowly coming awake” arranging Ulysses. This in turn reminded me of the strange chorus of spirits who witness earthly events in Thomas Hardy’s epic-drama The Dynasts (1904-1908). Hardy’s spirits perceive human beings on the battlefield as nothing but “amorphous drifts, clouds, and waves of conscious atoms, surging and rolling together.” Having read Tondre on Maxwell’s application of the laws of probability to the behavior of molecules, I now see Hardy channeling Maxwell’s writings on atoms. Like the half-conscious “Arranger” Green discusses, the prime mover of The Dynasts is an “Imminent Will” that “works unwittingly / As one possessed, not judging.” The narrative structure of The Dynasts is an overlooked but fascinating instance of modernist experimentation. After reading Green and Tondre on Maxwell’s demon, Hardy now strikes me as thinking through how to narrate the behavior of large groups of things—collectivities—without either overemphasizing individual agency or using a “reductive ontological determinism” to gloss over erratic and contingent particularities. I also appreciate the way that Tondre thinks through the material consequences of abstract ideas—showing Maxwell inviting “listeners to join in a shared thought experiment: an alternative history of ideas, a world where Priestley’s ideas of ‘philosophical necessity’ never gained traction at all.”

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