Reflection by David Coombs

Michael Tondre’s The Physics of Possibility is a beautifully written literary and intellectual history of how Victorian thought was transformed by probability during the roughly three decades leading up to the 1874 founding at Cambridge of the Cavendish Laboratory, the first university-housed experimental physics laboratory in Britain. Departing from landmarks of existing scholarship that have focused on how this probabilistic revolution shaped the modern understanding of norms, Tondre is interested in the way deviation from an average appeared to the Victorians not as a contingency to be managed or eliminated but rather as a potentially desirable alternative to the actual, as, in other words, a possibility. Playing a crucial role in this history was the Victorian novel. Mid-Victorian intellectuals were transitioning from an epistemological understanding of probability (as simply reflecting an observer’s uncertainty) to an ontological understanding of probability (as reflecting a fundamental indeterminism at work in the world). Tondre’s book shows how the novel’s provisional claims to truth made it a crucial resource for probabilistic thinking during that moment.

The Victorian novel absorbs counterfactual possibilities through the distortion of its diegetic frame, fragmenting the plot by incorporating within it the unrealized possibilities that the actual course of events at once excludes and depends on. While Tondre pursues a range of such formal distortions, he returns insistently to the way that probabilistic thinking led Victorian novelists to reconceive of character as “a field of possibilities departing from classical norms of formation” (4). Taking narratives of character formation for its particular focus, The Physics of Possibility thus traces the way that probabilistic thinking opened up space within the Victorian bildungsroman to critique gendered norms of development and to envision alternative ways of being in the world.

Counterfactual narratives encourage us to imagine the world otherwise. Tondre suggests that “dreaming becomes a more insistent desire—becomes a demand—when alternatives to the given come to seem materially immanent” (27). But who makes these demands, and under what conditions? Catherine Gallagher’s Telling It Like It Wasn’t is clearer on this point than The Physics of Possibility. Alternate histories, she suggests, “might begin by looking at individuals, but they almost always become more permanently focused on changes in collectivities[,]…might-have-been nations and peoples, other versions of our common lives against which we might measure our actuality and through which we might define the norms and limits of our communal characters.”[1] The collective protagonist in counterfactual narratives of the two organizing historical events in Gallagher’s book—the U.S. Civil War and the Nazi invasion of Britain—is the nation, and once readers have imagined that nation otherwise they can bring to bear the tools of the citizen (coalition building, the courts, and so on) in order to realize a given alternative. The mid-Victorian bildungsromane that Tondre examines (Middlemarch is the exception here, for obvious reasons)do not feature such clearly identified collective protagonists.

It struck me in reading this book, though, that The Physics of Possibility does itself feature something like a collective protagonist: Victorian intellectual culture. As the book traces the transformative effects of probabilistic thinking across a wide variety of domains, it paints a picture of Victorian intellectual life as surprisingly open and networked, permitting ideas to move and develop fluidly rather than clearly originating in one privileged field. This model of intellectual culture is more pre- than inter-disciplinary, and the founding of the Cavendish laboratory that frames the book signals the rise of a more specialized approach to knowledge that would henceforward inhibit such free exchange. The fate of Tondre’s collective protagonist, that is, is to perish in the face of an emergent disciplinarity. That kind of disciplinarity has, in literary studies especially, now itself come under new kinds of pressure, and the risks and rewards of interdisciplinarity are an urgent topic for our field.[2] Under conditions of early twenty-first century austerity, the collaborative, more equitable relations between Victorian literature and science presented in Tondre’s book can take on some of the tantalizing sense of alternative possibilities that is intrinsic to counterfactual narratives. The Physics of Possibility, then, is an important, insightful book not least for the ways it might allow us in literary studies to imagine our own disciplinary future otherwise.

[1] Catherine Gallagher. Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2018, 14.

[2] Jonathan Kramnick’s discussion of the administrative history of current notions of interdisciplinarity is a crucial resource here. See his Paper Minds: Literature and the Ecology of Consciousness. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2018, 17-36.

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