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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.1 (2003) 153-177
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Literary History against Newtonian Mechanics
Wai Chee Dimock
I take as my starting point an "obituary" Einstein puts at a dramatic turn in his "Autobiographical Notes," an obituary for Newton:
Enough of this. Newton, forgive me; you found the only way which, in your age, was just about possible for a man of highest thought and creative power. The concepts, which you created, are even today still guiding our thinking in physics, although we now know that they will have to be replaced. . . .
"Is this supposed to be an obituary?" the astonished reader will likely ask. I would like to reply: essentially yes. 1
An obituary for Newton is in order because relativistic physics is a "revolution" in Thomas Kuhn's sense: a shift in paradigm so profound that it remakes the protocol of the field from the ground up. 2 Tenets that were once ironclad are no longer so. No one would be able to say that "all of physics could be founded upon Newton's mechanics." 3
That revolution suggests one context in which to trace the "afterlives" of Romanticism, especially of Blake. Einstein's objection to Newton, [End Page 153] striking a blow that hits home, is nonetheless not the first on record. Blake's objection, not in the least temperate, has long been a salient fact in literary history. E. P. Thompson invokes it as a counter-Enlightenment, a tradition of London Dissent pitted against a mechanical psychology and epistemology; Donald Ault, Stuart Peterfreund, and Mark Lussier have made even stronger scientific claims on its behalf. 4 It would be misleading to speak of Blake as a forerunner of modern physics; it would be equally misleading to cordon him off from that development. For Blake has been transcribed, so to speak: by someone who has not read him, who is egged on only by their common opponent, and who, in turning modern physics against Newton, must do so in a language incomprehensible to the poet, perhaps abhorrent to him. Blake's battle has been fought and won by strange hands, on strange terrain.
In this essay I would like to reverse this odd development. Keeping in mind what objecting to Newton has done to the discipline of physics, I would like to ask what effects it might have on literary studies. If physics has anything to tell us, it is that Blake's arguments are worth revisiting: not for their historical interest, significant as that might be, but for what they have to say about the field of Romanticism as it now stands and as it contributes to the study of literature broadly defined. 5 What does it mean for literary critics to take Blake seriously, as physicists have taken Einstein seriously? If a quarrel with Newton has led to a paradigmatic shift in physics, a break with an once foundational ontology, how might it alter the grounds of literary studies? 6 The afterlives of Romanticism seem to me most consequential in this sense, as a diachronic challenge to what is currently normative: a noncompliance with the premises now governing the field, a noncompliance with the analytic coordinates now naturalized by practice. 7
It is interesting to look at Newton in this light, to see what premises govern his mechanics, what coordinates "ground" his laws, laws of motion celestial and terrestrial. These laws, as mathematical formalizations, are attempts to give a "geometrical account of motion." 8 They are attempts to describe temporal phenomena—the change of location in time—in terms of measurable units in space. This measurement of time by means of space is crucial to Newton, Alexandre Koyre suggests, for the ambition of his mathematical physics is nothing less than to "subject motion to number," 9 to harness temporal events to a quantified metric. This quantification cannot proceed on its own. It requires a prior relay: a subsuming of motion [End Page 154] by geometry, which is to say, a subsuming of temporal difference by spatial regularities. What results, Koyre goes on...