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Margaret Cavendish’s Anthropocene Worlds

Critical responses to Cavendish tend to emphasize her “oppositional” and “unsystematic” approaches to natural philosophy. This article argues that Cavendish was not only more systematic than critics have suggested, but also that her approach to understanding the natural world anticipated some of the central questions of the anthropocene age. This article reads Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666) and Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy (1666) alongside Bruno Latour’s recent writing on the anthropocene to recover Cavendish as an important contributor to modern notions of the anthropocene.

The portmanteau word “anecdata” describes—often ironically, if not pejoratively—an instance of passing off personal experience or anecdotal knowledge as “data” in support of a claim. This usage presupposes that one cannot make a legitimate claim without the support of statistically relevant data gleaned from controlled experimentation. In other words, the term mocks the idea that information narrated from personal experience tells us something of value. In drawing this distinction between “anecdata” skimmed from the narration of what one has experienced and “data” collected from controlled experimentation, we are, of course, setting methodological standards for knowledge production. More subtly, however, we are making an important metacritical claim about what kinds of information we will accept as knowledge. Anecdote may provide useful (if not wholly reliable) knowledge in a number of situations—such as which clerk to avoid at the local DMV, which professor to seek out for your seminar on the novel, or which cities are most pedestrian friendly. However, this is obviously not the kind of knowledge that Thomas Sprat called “Real Knowledge” in the opening of his History of the Royal Society (1667): knowledge that arises from “very many considerable Experiments” that give “undenyable Proofs” of their usefulness.1 Sprat’s phrase—“Real Knowledge”—is a telling example of how experimentation emerged in early modern England not merely as a series of methodological challenges to some of the conventions of natural philosophy, but also, crucially, as a rhetorical challenge to what kinds of information counted as knowledge. In other words, Sprat’s phrase, “undeniable Proofs,” reflects not only a methodological distinction, but also the ways in which “proofs,” as such, resist metacritical challenges to the methods by which they were derived (“undenyable”).

Sprat’s language of “Real Knowledge” arising from “undenyable Proofs” likely sounds familiar to the contemporary reader in what many are now calling the age of the Anthropocene, which Timothy Clark has described as “that moment in the history of the earth at which humanity’s material impact and numbers become such that the set of discrete [End Page 49] and once unconnected individual acts across the globe transmogrifies itself into an entity that is also geological and climatological, transgressing given distinctions between human and inhuman.”2 As Clark’s definition suggests, reflections on the Anthropocene have focused, from their ecological roots, on humanity’s relation to global climate change, a significant if not definitive aspect of which has been the rhetorically charged dialectic between the proponents of scientific fact (“Real Knowledge”) and the journalists and quasi-humanist “skeptics” who treat the question of anthropogenic climate change as a debate. Given the abundance of writing in a variety of disciplines on climate change as a metonym for the Anthropocene, I would like instead to call attention to that other fundamental and also rhetorically charged characteristic of the Anthropocene cited by Clark, the blurring of “distinctions between the human and inhuman.”

In this essay I turn to the work of seventeenth-century writer and philosopher Margaret Cavendish to show how two of her writings—Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy and The Blazing World, published together in 1666—speak to the problem of anthropomorphism. Cavendish is relevant here, in particular, because her writing challenged the Royal Society’s vision of “Real Knowledge” in ways that illustrate the importance of Restoration-era epistemology for the epistemological questions raised by anthropomorphism and the Anthropocene today. Bruno Latour has recently framed the problem of anthropomorphism as a conflict between our tendency to anthropomorphize natural phenomena and the scientific tendency to “deanimate” them, to view nature as “objective,” “devoid of any form of will, goal, target, or obsession.”3 Latour is skeptical of the idea that such “deanimation” is the most accurate way of understanding the relationship between humans, agency, and nature. Cavendish’s work, I will argue, anticipates Latour’s questions about agency in the Anthropocene age, providing an epistemological challenge to deanimation. Further, Cavendish’s critiques of experimental science help us situate deanimation within the epistemological and rhetorical traditions of experimental science.

What I will refer to in this essay as Cavendish’s “anecdata” is a collection of examples from Observations and The Blazing World that constitute the very kind of anthropomorphizing of natural phenomena identified by Latour as a necessary understanding of nature, given what he views as the impossibility of “withdrawing goals from ‘physical’ actors in nature” (A 10). This tendency of Cavendish to frame her understanding of the natural world in terms of anecdotes about and analogies to her lived experience—and thus explicitly to grant “human” qualities to “objects” in nature—was not only a problem, in Cavendish’s time, for “Real [End Page 50] Knowledge” as Sprat defined it. It is also a feature of her writing that has led contemporary critics to read her, wrongly, as an unsystematic, unmethodical, and unrigorous writer and thinker.4 Further, as post-Enlightenment science has embraced the conception of knowledge that Sprat used to describe the fruits of early modern experimental science, along with the related urge to deanimate scientific concepts—in Latour’s words, to pretend to “a deanimated world of mere stuff”—so Cavendish’s understanding of nature as animated, and as comprehensible in anthropomorphic terms, has been made to appear yet more ridiculous (A 7).

My objective in this essay is not only to take Cavendish’s “anecdata” as an example of how we can rethink the human/inhuman distinction that the Anthropocene complicates anew, but also to recover Cavendish as a writer and thinker who was more systematic—more methodological—than critics have acknowledged. As Cavendish was the only woman to publish writing on natural philosophy in the seventeenth century, the critical tradition has tended to define her contribution to natural philosophy largely by the phallocentric logic of what she is not.5 For this reason, I will begin by situating Cavendish in this oppositional context before discussing the ways in which her “anecdata” are worth considering. I do so not, as has become common, to portray her as an iconoclast in her own historical moment, but rather to justify her relevance to ours.

Cavendish in Opposition

Much has been made, rightly, of Cavendish the antiexperimentalist; and, as I have suggested, much writing on Cavendish has been couched in terms of her oppositional tendencies and aversion to method. For example, Lisa T. Sarasohn has argued that Cavendish believed her ability to establish herself as a serious natural philosopher was largely tied to her ability to rhetorically outmaneuver the experimentalists of the Royal Society (NP 150). While Cavendish’s “singularity” of character—her eccentric manner of dress, her apparent “madness”—has also been a scholarly focal point, discussions of her brand of natural philosophy emphasize less her originality than her “ridiculous” or “idiosyncratic” responses to the various methods of experimental science.6 Jay Stevenson dubs her an “anomalous champion of randomness”; Brandie Siegfried deems her vision “decidedly contrapuntal”; Erin Webster places her in opposition to Descartes; and Sylvia Bowerbank portrays her as disorganized in relation to the “craftsmanship and order” of her male contemporaries.7 [End Page 51]

Importantly, these oppositional readings of Cavendish are justified by Cavendish’s combative approach to natural philosophy, which Siegfried pithily identifies as “self-consciously female, yet aggressively masculine in ambition and capability.”8 Cavendish herself wrought an image of her male contemporaries as “boys playing with toys,” tinkerers at best, and, at worst, as arrogant distorters of truth who posed a serious threat to society (NP 152). She even described experimentalism and its attendant manipulation of nature as a brutal act of uncivil people, represented perhaps most prominently in her description of the various types of “beast-men” in The Blazing World. After the Empress of Cavendish’s fictional world interrogates the bear-men—lens-wielding subjects who represent the Blazing World’s experimental philosophers—the Empress feels the need to quarantine the experimentalist bear-men for the health of the state. Cavendish writes, “The bear-men being exceedingly troubled at her Majesty’s displeasure concerning their telescopes, kneeled down, and in the humblest manner petitioned that they might not be broken; for, said they, we take more delight in artificial delusions, than in natural truths … The Empress at last consented to their request, but upon condition, that their disputes and quarrels should remain within their schools, and cause no factions or disturbances in state, or government” (TBW 142). Sarasohn has observed that Cavendish’s choice of anthropomorphized bears as representatives of experimental science is significant in light of the fact that bear-baiting shows were a form of public entertainment in early modern Europe (NP 165). The bear-men, in this sense, allow for a view of experimentalism as not only a bumbling exercise more concerned with “artificial delusions” than truth, but as a sideshow that captivates audiences not with substance, but with demonstrations of awe and spectacle. Cavendish affirms this view in Observations, referring to experiments as “artificial,” and instruments of experimentation as “pretty toys to employ in idle time,” mere objects of entertainment.9

From these brief examples we can observe that Cavendish’s opposition to experimentalism—both in Observations and in her fictional portrayals in The Blazing World—is rhetorically crafted to undermine masculine pretentions about the intersection of knowledge, certainty, and authority. Farcical representations of boyish affinities (“pretty toys”: bear-men asking a maternal figure for permission to play with their telescopes) assist in linking Cavendish’s anti-experimentalism with her self-conscious bid to be taken seriously, despite her gender and concomitant educational background. These jabs portray a society so modishly captivated by male scientific tinkerers that society itself appears immature and frivolous. That Cavendish’s gender largely precluded her participation in what she understood as the spectacle of experimentalism was a boon to her [End Page 52] anti-experimentalist rhetoric, an occasion to demur politely, if not also mockingly, “like a lady.” As she writes in Observations, “But that I am not versed in learning, nobody, I hope, will blame me for it, since it is sufficiently known, that our sex being not suffered to be instructed in schools and universities, cannot be bred up to it” (O 11).

Cavendish’s strategy of opposing experimentalism with gender-conscious discourse to further her cause as a female philosopher against the male-dominated Royal Society was, however, more than rhetorical, and indeed more than oppositional. As critics, we often feel compelled to stop and admire Cavendish’s rhetorical flourishes. By the time we get to her substantive critique of experimental science—particularly her views on the complex and in some ways enigmatic nature of intelligent matter—we may thus be inclined to see her contribution to natural philosophy as one side of a duel against a less honorable opponent, rather than as an interrogation of nature itself.10 However, Cavendish’s understanding of the problems of perception and experimental certainty was both acute and, I will argue, coherent, as was the anthropomorphic approach to natural philosophy she favored instead.

II. Intelligent Matter, “Anecdata,” and the Anthropocene

Two elements of Cavendish’s contributions to the literature and philosophy of science make her absence from studies of the Anthropocene particularly striking. The first (to which I will return) is that The Blazing World is fundamentally a text about imaginative worldmaking, the figurative construction of a new world made not by God nor by nature in the abstract, but by Cavendish, who notes in her preface that while she “cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second,” she can be “authoress of a whole world,” “Margaret the First” (TBW 224, 124). Cavendish’s Blazing World is not the pre-Anthropocene world of nature’s dominion over humankind, the mighty ocean, or the 1755 Lisbon earthquake forcing humans to question their relationship to God and nature, nor is it the science-fiction fantasy of humankind achieving mastery over nature, as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). It is rather the proto-Anthropocene world of Cavendish’s ecotourist protagonist, the Empress, rather naively modifying or reformulating the natural order of the anthropomorphized “beast-men” she encounters in the Blazing World—but with the aim of progress, of course. In this way, Cavendish’s worldmaking blurs the distinctions between the human and inhuman, the natural and the constructed. [End Page 53]

Second, Cavendish was a proponent of intelligent matter in a time during which natural philosophers had begun to think about atoms as “dead” components of a “machine-like” natural world.11 In contradistinction to this emergent understanding of matter as the inert object of force (“force” being a term that Newton employed descriptively without a scientific explanation of its character or origins; that is, without “animating” force), Cavendish described matter as self-moving and possessing self-knowledge: “First, it is to be observed, that matter, self-motion, and self-knowledge, are inseparable from one another, and make nature one material, self-moving, and self-knowing body” (TBW 137). This self-moving, self-knowing, intelligent matter is, for Cavendish, “the only cause and principle of all natural effects” (TBW 18).

If we consider Latour’s grappling with the question of anthropomorphism in his recent meditation on the Anthropocene, the relevance of Cavendish’s views on intelligent matter becomes clear. As Latour writes, “This is why it makes no sense to accuse novelists or scientists or engineers of committing the sin of ‘anthropomorphism’ when they ‘attribute agencies’ to what ‘should have none.’ It is just the opposite: if they have to deal with all sorts of contradictory ‘morphisms,’ it is because they try to explore the shape of those unknown actants. Before those actants are provided with a style or a genre, that is, before they become well-recognized actors, they have, if I dare say it, to be brewed, mashed, and concocted in the same pot” (A 12). Latour acknowledges here that the idea of “giving” agency to or imposing agency upon “inanimate” things is not a flaw or a failure, but a necessary way of exploring and making comprehensible that which we have no prior knowledge of. For example, to see a volcano erupt for the first time, without knowing how or why, and to say it “spits” is simply a step toward understanding the eruption by rendering the volcano’s actions analogous to something already understood. Cavendish committed just this “sin” of anthropomorphism in her description of intelligent matter, and she did so during a time in which, as Carolyn Merchant has observed, scientists had already begun the project of deanimating matter. Latour, too, traces this seventeenth-century deanimation process in an examination of Newton’s semantic pivot from the metaphysical (angels move matter) to the physical (force moves matter). Questioning the epistemological premises behind Newton’s pivot, he concludes that “one of the main puzzles of Western history is not that ‘there are people who still believe in animism,’ but the rather naive belief that many still have in a de-animated world of mere stuff” (A 7). Cavendish’s writing on intelligent matter thus offers a model for exploring the status of relations between the human and the inhuman that have been raised by the discourse of the Anthropocene, [End Page 54] as it relies neither on the kind of dualism that demands a distinction between humanity and matter (nature is “one material, self-moving, and self-knowing body”), nor on an image of God or of angels to set matter in motion. In this sense, Cavendish’s work unwittingly anticipates contemporary debates.

Such a view of intelligent matter lays the conceptual groundwork for what becomes, throughout much of The Blazing World and Observations, the description of natural phenomena in the form of “anecdata,” or as observations related and filtered through lived, human experience. As one of several examples of Cavendish’s anecdata, we can consider her discussion, in Observations, of how the striking together of flint and steel produces sparks. Referencing Robert Hooke’s explanation of flint sparks in Micrographia (1665), Cavendish writes: “Some learned writers of micrography, having observed the fiery sparks that are struck out by the violent motion of a flint against steel, suppose them to be little parcels of either the flint or the steel … but whatsoever their opinion be,” she retorts, “to my sense and reason it appears very difficult to determine exactly how the production of fire is made, by reason there are so many different sorts of productions in nature, as it is impossible for any particular sort of creature to know or describe them” (O 53). Cavendish is quick to reason that merely observing the phenomenon of sparks flying from striking these two materials together is not enough to conclude as the micrographers have, because such experiments cannot account for “so many different sorts of productions in nature.” As Cavendish claims repeatedly in Observations, reason, not observation, is what leads to the best understanding of natural phenomena: “Our sensitive perception patterns out an animal, a mineral, a vegetable, etc.; we perceive they have the figure of flesh, stone, wood, etc. but yet we do not know what is the cause of their being such figures: for, the interior figurative motions of these creatures, being not subject to the perception of our exterior senses, cannot exactly be known” (O 175).

Cavendish goes further in her examination of flint sparks with an anthropomorphic method of reasoning her way through the problem of how flint and steel produce fire, a form of reasoning that actually leads her to a more precise and accurate conclusion than the micrographers. Hypothesizing that if the sparks are indeed pieces of flint or steel, then they are pieces that have undergone a temporary transformation through the striking of the two materials together, Cavendish invokes the example of flesh, which, “being bruised and hurt, becomes numb and black, and after returns again to its proper figure and colour” (O 54). To describe her hypothesis and to explain the brevity of a spark’s burning period—that a spark is material converted into fire before flaming out [End Page 55] with “no fuel to feed on”—she compares fire’s need for “nourishment” with “seeds of corn sown into the earth” and the respiration, feeding, and evacuation of humans and animals (O 53–54).

While the micrographers are fairly accurate in their assessment of flint sparks, Cavendish’s assessment turns out to be more precise, and to be rendered with more descriptive language. As we know, a spark is a product of the oxidation of an iron component of steel, which certainly could be explained, in Cavendish’s terms, as an “alter[ation of] some of [the] natural corporeal figurative parts” of steel, or a “metamorphosis” of some of steel’s “looser parts,” namely iron, a pyrophoric material that reacts with oxygen by burning (O 53–54). Further, although this chemical reaction is brief, a mere flash before the eyes of those relying primarily on observation to determine what is happening and what has happened in the experiment, Cavendish is able to reason that the chemical transformation of the iron shaving is multistage (“like as flesh, being bruised and hurt, becomes numb and black, and after returns again to its proper figure and colour”) (O 54).

By contrast, Hooke’s description of flint sparks acknowledges the separation of iron particles from steel as a consequence of the blow of the flint and the generation of heat that causes the particles to combust, but it makes no mention of the “metamorphosis” or interstitial nature of the iron particles as they are chemically altered by oxidation.12 Likewise, Hooke’s account describes the act of putting iron shavings from a flint strike and iron shavings passed through a candle flame under his microscope to compare them, but, observing that they look almost identical as products of combustion, it does not elucidate the different processes by which these particles have undergone change. A series of illustrations accompanies Hooke’s account, along with descriptions of “Globules,” “Substance,” “Balls,” and “Surface” referring to these illustrated figures, the effect of which is to give Hooke’s account of what he calls “this odd Phenomenon” a sense of removedness.13 In describing what he sees, he avoids words whenever he can refer his readers to an illustration and steers clear of anthropomorphic descriptions.

Importantly, then, Cavendish’s anecdata—her anthropomorphizing of the particles by narrating her experience with bruises, planting, and eating—lead her to an investigation not of what sparks are in the static or definitive sense of the experimentalist micrographers’ understanding, but of how sparks come to be. Whereas the micrographers move from experiment to conclusion about what they have observed, Cavendish summons through narrative a greater number of interrelated “anecdata points”—on bruising, planting, eating, excreting—with which she can reason through the production of flint sparks by understanding particles as, in some ways, humanlike or lifelike in their behavior. [End Page 56]

Observations is full of this kind of reasoning from anecdata, the consequence of which is the curious melding of human and inhuman qualities. In one instance, Cavendish compares the “particular parts and actions in an animal body” with “workmen employed in the building of a house … [who] do all the work and labor to one and the same end, that is, the building of the house. … Every one may have some inspection and perception of what his neighbor doth; yet each having his peculiar task and employment, has also its proper and peculiar knowledge how to perform his own work: for, a joiner knows best how to finish and perfect what he has to do; and so does a mason, carpenter, tiler, glazier, stone-cutter, smith, etc.” (O 176). Here Cavendish resists the tendency to think of organisms like machines composed of “dead” atoms. She does so by anthropomorphizing each component of bodily function, attributing agency to the parts that animate the whole. Further, she describes the individual agents within the body as possessing “peculiar knowledge,” not simply a coglike function, but an understanding of “how to perform his own work.” Cavendish’s vision of animated matter in this passage is made possible by the anthropomorphic mode in her thinking and writing, the ability to use experiential knowledge to animate, rather than deanimate, natural phenomena about which she and her contemporaries had little prior knowledge.

In another passage, Cavendish tells the story of her encounter with a butterfly larva to enter into a detailed discussion of reproduction:

I will only give my readers a short account of what I myself have observed: When I lived beyond the seas of banishment with my noble lord, one of my maids brought upon an old piece of wood, or stone (which it was I cannot perfectly remember) something to me which seemed to grow out of that same piece; it was about the length of half an inch or less, the tail was short and square, and seemed to be a vegetable. … After some while I found just such another insect, which I laid by upon the window; and one morning I spied two butterflies playing about it.

(O 61)

From her observation of the butterflies “playing about” the caterpillar (emphasis mine), Cavendish reasons that butterflies come from caterpillars. These descriptions of natural phenomena are precisely the kind of anthropomorphizing for which contemporary proponents of “objectivity” chastize novelists, science journalists, and scientists themselves in their various descriptions of the natural world. Cavendish’s butterfly story is itself a story of animation, both of her apprehension of how this vegetable-like form on a piece of wood or stone became animated—an insect—and then reanimated into a butterfly, and of the ways that narration and anthropomorphizing animate the concept of [End Page 57] butterfly reproduction for Cavendish. Indeed, as Latour writes, “it is difficult to follow the emergence of scientific concepts without taking into account the vast cultural background that allows scientists to first animate them, and then, but only later, to deanimate them.” As Observations demonstrates, Cavendish is comfortable with the animation of scientific concepts, so much so that piecemeal and anecdotal knowledge about the human experience becomes for her a way of reasoning through what experimentalists wanted primarily to observe (A 7). As Peter Dear has shown, one of the most important social elements of the experimentalist community was a focus on description over causation, which was crucial for avoiding “socially-disruptive disagreements”; yet Cavendish, again, was willing to venture into the realm of causation not only because she was bold, but partly because she imagined matter as animated, as having self-knowledge and will, and thus as capable of engendering a narrative of cause and effect.14

III. Observation and Anecdata

Here I should note that I describe what Cavendish is doing in these examples as “anecdata” primarily to differentiate her method of anthropomorphic reasoning from the given, accepted, observational qualities of “data” as the term matured throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I do so because this distinction further explains Cavendish’s methodological departure in terms that are useful for how we think about the human/inhuman distinction in the Anthropocene age. As Daniel Rosenberg explains, “In seventeenth-century philosophy and natural philosophy, just as in mathematics and theology, the term ‘data’ functioned to identify that category of facts and principles that were, by agreement, beyond argument.” For Rosenberg, “data” thus takes on a heavy rhetorical function in the early modern period, a function similar to Sprat’s “Real Knowledge.”15 By the time we get to Joseph Priestley’s usage of the term “data” in his Essay on a Course of Liberal Education for Civil and Active Life (1765), we see Priestley arguing for the solution of “practical problems” partly by “the help of data with which experiences and observations furnish us.”16 “Data,” then, occupied the realm of the unquestionable (from its Latin etymology, that which is “given”) until it occupied the realm of the experiential and observational, while Cavendish’s anecdata involved both questioning and reasoning through observations—well before Priestley’s 1765 usage—by allowing for the animated or anthropomorphic qualities of natural phenomena. [End Page 58]

Nevertheless, while Cavendish was writing, the enterprise of experimental science was very much a work in progress, with methodological standards developing continually and in sometimes conflicting fashion throughout the ambiguous period we identify as the scientific revolution.17 This is to suggest that, although we have a more definitive sense today of the experimental methodologies that grew out of those employed in Hooke’s Micrographia or described in Sprat’s History of the Royal Society—and we live and operate in an episteme in which methodological distinctions between “scientific” and “unscientific” investigation are more thoroughly developed—understandings of “data” in the early modern period leave us room to differentiate Cavendish’s anecdata from the experimental or observational understandings of “data” that developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The latter understandings of “data” form the foundation of our contemporary usage, which now connotes both that which is rendered from scientific experiment and that which is given, beyond argument. Today, “data” is also meant to be beyond ideology, and thus explicitly removed from the experiential or anthropomorphic qualities that Cavendish’s anecdata allowed for.

As we can see, “data” implies a degree of certainty, either because of its roots as a term for unarguable givens or from its association with observation as a reliable way of knowing the natural world. Akin to the rhetorical certainty implied in “data,” particularly as the term gained currency in the eighteenth century, the idea of mastering nature through knowledge derived from experimentation sidesteps fundamental questions about the reliability of human observation and the in/ability of the scientist to step outside of nature in attempts to control and manipulate it. Here we return to Clark’s human/inhuman distinction—or the blurring of that distinction—as a central characteristic of the Anthropocene: the idea that humans cannot simply extract ourselves from nature so as to rise above it, nor can we understand nature entirely as other, as separate from humanity and human effects. Cavendish saw this notion of holding dominion over nature through experimental knowledge not only as a form of arrogance, but also as kind of misprision, a failure to recognize that human observations of nature are always mediated by the mysteries of nature itself, among which are human observers and the problem of objective observation (NP 158). Like Descartes and Hobbes, Cavendish shared a “suspicion of experimental philosophy,” and was deeply skeptical of the value of experiential knowledge over reason, as well as any claims of “objective certainty regarding the external world.”18

For example, when Cavendish’s Empress of the Blazing World asks her bear-men, “notwithstanding their great skill, industry, and ingenuity in experimental philosophy,” to construct lenses that can magnify [End Page 59] or demonstrate mysteries of nature that confound observation, the bear-men are not only incapable of doing so, but also incapable of recognizing the broader incompatibility of their methodologies with such a request: “They could yet by no means contrive such glasses, by the help of which they could spy out a vacuum, with all its dimensions, nor immaterial substances, non-beings, and mixed-beings, or such as are between something and nothing; which they were very much troubled at, hoping that yet, in time, by long study and practice, they might perhaps attain to it” (TBW 145).

The Empress witnesses the experimentalist bear-men offering a catalogue of possibilities for explaining the nature of celestial bodies, though with a crucial difference: unlike the Empress’ comfort with uncertainty—“I am not able to determine”—the bear-men struggle to relate their various perspectives to one another because each insists on the certainty of his own observation (TBW 133). Their observations through telescopes “caused more differences and divisions amongst them, than they ever had before; for some said, they perceived that the sun stood still, and the earth did move about it, others were of opinion, that they both did move; and others said again, that the earth stood still, and the sun did move; some counted more stars than others; some discovered new stars never seen before; some fell into a great dispute with others concerning the bigness of the stars” (TBW 140–41). As the bear-men continue to argue with one another and make apologies for the failure of their instruments to render a common or relatable understanding of what they observe, the Empress loses patience. Tellingly in this example, the bear-men seeing different things in the same image undermines the value of empirical observation. Whereas the Empress observes new forms and phenomena in the Blazing World and compares them to like experiences from her own world to make sense of what she witnesses, the bear-men observe celestial details one degree removed from their own sensory organs—through telescopic lenses—and without the methodological flexibility to recognize what Latour might call their common culture, that which would allow them to generate comprehensible traits for new and unknown phenomena. “If their glasses were true informers,” reasons the Empress, “they would rectify their irregular sense and reason” (TBW 141). While the Empress’s methodology enables her to relate information from memory to what she perceives in the present, the bear-men struggle to integrate contextual knowledge with what they observe through their telescopes, positioning themselves, like Hooke in Micrographia, as distant observers of the abstract mechanics of nature.

On the other hand, the Blazing World’s worm-men, the category of natural philosophers that the Empress esteems best, understand [End Page 60] that observation is not enough to make sense of nature. Dwelling in the “bowels of the earth,” for which an “optic sense” akin to the sight wielded by those who live above ground is ineffectual, the worm-men deem the experimental philosophers’ microscopes capable of doing “but little good” underground (TBW 151). In so doing they demonstrate the rigidity of experimentalism and microscopy as methodologies not transferrable to certain areas of natural philosophy, and limited as such. The worm-men possess their own special sensory faculties instead of optical sight, a quality that, for Sarasohn, shows “that natural perception is not dependent on external senses or external instruments” (NP 168). Indeed, the worm-men rely on inner workings to gain knowledge of the natural world, a quality that reinforces the important role that Cavendish gives reason above observation in understanding nature.

Though the Empress meets each of the categories of beast-men with mixed reviews of their approaches to natural philosophy, Cavendish herself, appearing in the narrative in the guise of the character of the Duchess, eventually prevails upon the Empress to disband all societies of beast-man natural philosophers in order to avoid disputes and disorder (TBW 202). Here, in Cavendish’s fictional world, the Empress’s sovereign decree eradicates the messiness, dissent, confusion, and potential conflict of her subjects’ multiplicity of perspectives. The advice of Cavendish qua Duchess is to return the Blazing World to a monolithic state that has “but one sovereign, one religion, one law, and one language, so that all the world might be united as one family, without divisions” (TBW 201). In the second part of The Blazing World, the Empress instrumentalizes these disbanded schools of natural philosophers as tools of combat, transportation, and communication, according to their abilities to swim, fly, or move swiftly through the earth (TBW 213). She deploys other kinds of beast-men as actors in a farce (given their suitability for such a production), and in races and contests, as a means of entertaining herself and the Duchess (TBW 221, 223). We should note that Cavendish’s characters betray no qualms about repurposing the beings and resources of the Blazing World to suit their own ends and desires; they occupy a world in which, as women, they command far greater influence than they would in Cavendish’s England, such that the story of their immense impact in the Blazing World is both political and ecological, human and inhuman.

IV. World-Making and the Anthropocene

Published alongside Observations, The Blazing World as a whole provides a narrative with which to anthropomorphize Cavendish’s views on natural [End Page 61] philosophy as discussed in Observations. Readers arrive in the Blazing World by way of anecdote, a brief account of the Empress’s origins as a young woman gathering seashells on the beach when abducted to sea by a traveling merchant enamored of her beauty. The Empress’s fraught voyage to the Blazing World indicates from the outset what will be Cavendish’s persistent interest in interrogating and animating natural phenomena through narrative. Like Cavendish, the Empress copes with the novelty and uncertainty of her situation in a new and at times frightening world by anthropomorphizing its beastlike occupants and comparing them to the human occupants of the world from which she came. “Beast-men” is the term the Empress’s narration gives us, such that the conceit of joining human and animal figures in one being—as a demonstration of Cavendish’s philosophical opposition to dualistic rational-human/inert-matter distinctions—is not lost on readers. At first fearful of her new surroundings, the Empress allays her fear by “considering what dangers she had past,” encouraged by the (anthropomorphic) “civil[ity]” and “diligen[ce]” with which she has been treated thus far by the beast-men of the Blazing World (TBW 130). The different “complexions” of the Blazing World’s population are “not white, black, tawny, olive or ash-coloured; but some … azure, some of a deep purple, some of a grass-green, some of a scarlet, some of an orange-colour, etc.,” observations that the Empress employs to question the nature of pigmentation and color-perception. Her next catalogue offers possibilities: “Whether they were made by the bare reflection of light, without the assistance of small particles, or by the help of well-ranged and ordered atoms; or by a continual agitation of little globules; or by some pressing or reacting motion, I am not able to determine” (TBW 133). Similar to Cavendish’s comparisons between the production of sparks and the way bruised skin changes appearance in stages, the Empress recalls by way of analogy the human skin colors of her native world, compares them to those of the Blazing World, and offers a catalogue of potential explanations.

As these examples of the Empress and the beast-men illustrate, Cavendish’s characters in The Blazing World continually negotiate the human/inhuman distinction, whether in trying to understand anthropomorphized beings of a strange new world in terms familiar to the human inhabitants of the Empress’s native land, or in embodying anthropomorphism itself, as the beast-men do. But The Blazing World is also, for Cavendish as well as for the Empress and the Duchess, a narrative about worldmaking in addition to exploration of the world one occupies. In fact, The Blazing World, as science fiction, conflates elements of nature with elements of fancy, and does so in a way that raises curious possibilities for the role the imagination plays in translating an animated natural world into terms fit for human understanding. [End Page 62]

“You have converted me,” admits the Duchess (Cavendish) when she appears as a character in The Blazing World, referring to the Empress’s argument that though one can never enjoy a material world in its entirety, the imaginative construction of a world within affords the ability to “make what world you please, and alter it when you please, and enjoy as much pleasure and delight as a world can afford you” (TBW 186). Here the Empress’s argument is reminiscent of Yaakov Jerome Garb’s claim (noted by Clark) that it is a “fantasy that we can somehow contain the earth within our imagination.”19 Yet we can also observe in Cavendish’s preface to The Blazing World that it is not just the nature of the earth, but the Blazing World of imagination that the narrative sets out to describe:

Fancy creates of its own accord whatever it pleases, and delights in its own work. The end of reason, is truth; the end of fancy, is fiction: but mistake me not, when I distinguish fancy from reason; I mean not as if fancy were not made of the rational parts of matter; but by reason I understand a rational search and enquiry into the causes of natural effects; and by fancy a voluntary creation or production of the mind, both being effects, or rather actions of the rational parts of matter; of which, as that is a more profitable and useful study than this, so it is also more laborious and difficult, and requires sometimes the help of fancy, to recreate the mind, and withdraw it from its more serious contemplations.

(TBW 123–24)

Cavendish is careful in this passage at once to clarify the distinction between objects of fancy and of reason, and to assert that, nevertheless, both fancy and reason are effects of “the rational parts of matter.” More specifically, Cavendish refuses to separate fancy or imagination as “human” qualities from all other motions and qualities of matter in nature, even as she acknowledges a rhetorical difference between reasoning and imagining. Her diction—“to recreate the mind”—contains two meanings of “recreate,” one being to engage in fanciful thinking to relieve or divert the mind (“withdraw it from its more serious contemplations”), yet another being to recreate or create anew, the generative function of fancy or imagination.

Implicit in this language is the idea of fancy as worldmaking, drawing on what one knows from reason and animating it, such that reason and fancy go hand-in-hand as ways of producing new knowledge. Thus, fancy is not only necessary to divert the rational mind from its “more serious contemplations,” but also to animate or to give comprehensible form to that which reason apprehends in the exploration of nature—that which already acts and has meaning—but that we have, initially, no form to give in speech. Here again Latour, on the problem of animating or anthropomorphizing in the age of the Anthropocene, relates rather [End Page 63] closely to Cavendish’s description of the close relationship between fanciful worldmaking and inquiry into the nature of things. For Latour, “in other words, existence and meaning are synonymous. As long as they act, agents have meaning. This is why such meaning may be continued, pursued, captured, translated, morphed into speech. Which does not mean that ‘every thing in the world is a matter of discourse’, but rather that any possibility for discourse is due to the presence of agents in search of their existence. Storytelling is not just a property of human language, but one of the many consequences of being thrown in a world that is, by itself, fully articulated and active” (A 14).

For Cavendish, worldmaking is an act of fancy and of storytelling; yet it is also a performance of the reason-fancy dynamic that Cavendish discusses in her preface, and that Latour describes above as a struggle to articulate or translate the preexisting meaning of agents in the natural world. Cavendish’s fictional portrayal of herself, the Duchess, performs this dynamic in creating her own internal world within the fictional world that Cavendish has created. The Duchess first attempts to model her world on the ideas of Pythagoras, then Plato, then Epicurus, then Aristotle, followed by moderns like Descartes and Hobbes; she attempts, in other words, to articulate her imaginative world in the words and ideas of known philosophers (TBW 187–88). She aims to construct a world that does not force her to be “so puzzled with numbers,” so Pythagoras will not do; she grows impatient with the static immateriality of Plato’s Forms, and so rejects a Platonic framework; she feels her thoughts “staggering” and “tottering … as if they had all been drunk” when she frames her world according to Descartes, and moves on (TBW 187–88). After each attempt, she finds no satisfaction in basing her new world on each of these models, and resolves finally to make a world “of her own invention … composed of sensitive and rational self-moving matter” (TBW 188).

The text articulates for the Duchess “a world of her own invention,” but only out of or in relation to the common words, images, and knowledge of Cavendish’s seventeenth-century England, the world of “sensitive and rational self-moving matter” that Cavendish envisioned the earth to be. Crucially, the Duchess does not choose to make a world of philosophy or of abstracted forms, symbols, or ideas like the models she rejects, but instead a world of anthropomorphized matter, a foundational quality that renders humans and nature of the same cloth. As with all science fiction, the fantastical worlds constructed in one’s imagination only become coherent when expressed in fragments of common knowledge: Huxley’s flying cars in Brave New World are cars nevertheless, just like the purplish complexions of the beast-men in the Blazing World are only comprehensible to the Empress in terms of the skin colors of her native world. [End Page 64]

That the semiotics of science fiction works this way is not new; but that Cavendish chooses anthropomorphism in The Blazing World (and in Observations) as a distinct method for acknowledging and describing the ways in which nature is already animated is highly relevant to our contemporary studies of both the Anthropocene and Cavendish. Though one of the most formidable challenges for natural philosophers in Cavendish’s early modern England was to systematize experimentation such that experimental science could more reliably earn Sprat’s rhetorical claim to “Real Knowledge,” perhaps one of the most formidable challenges of the Anthropocene age is to rethink the kind of “Real Knowledge” that positions nature as an inanimate object in relation to the human subject, and thus to learn how to articulate our world as animated with us, not in opposition to us. As Cavendish’s fictional and philosophical anecdata illustrate, addressing this challenge requires us not merely to observe and describe, but also, crucially, to imagine the animated natural world that scientific inquiry opens up for us as a world with characteristics that are as much “human” as ours are “natural.”

Aaron R. Hanlon
Colby College
Aaron R. Hanlon

Aaron R. Hanlon is Assistant Professor of English at Colby College. His book project, The Politics of Quixotism, is a study of Don Quixote’s contributions to political theory, particularly to British and American exceptionalisms in the long eighteenth century. His latest work focuses on epistemological rhetoric in England, 1600-1800.


1. Thomas Sprat, The History of the Royal Society of London (London, 1667), 2.

2. Timothy Clark, “What on the World is the Earth? The Anthropocene and Fictions of the World,” Oxford Literary Review 35, no. 1 (2013): 5.

3. Bruno Latour, “Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene,” New Literary History 45, no. 1 (2014): 11 (hereafter cited as A).

4. Stephen Clucas observes several instances in which “Cavendish alludes to the unmethodical design of her writings,” as well as critical attention to these, in “Variation, Irregularity, and Probabalism: Margaret Cavendish and Natural Philosophy as Rhetoric,” in A Princely Brave Woman: Essays on Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, ed. Stephen Clucas (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), 201.

5. Lisa T. Sarasohn, The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish: Reason and Fancy during the Scientific Revolution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2010), 4 (hereafter cited as NP).

6. Sarah Hutton, “Margaret Cavendish and Henry More,” in A Princely Brave Woman: Essays on Margaret Cavendish, ed. Clucas (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), 161. Also, Londa l. Schiebinger notes of Margaret Cavendish that “the idiosyncrasies of her terminology baffled the translator” of Cavendish’s work in Schiebinger, The Mind Has No Sex?: Women in the Origins of Modern Science (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1991), 269. Kate Lilley’s introduction to The Blazing World refers to Cavendish’s spelling, punctuation, and stylistic choices as “extremely idiosyncratic,” attributing these to her lack of formal education in Cavendish, The Blazing World and Other Writings, ed. Lilley (London: Penguin, 1992), xxxiv (hereafter cited as TBW). Emily Smith uses “idiosyncratic” to describe Cavendish in notes 19, 30, and 39 in “Genre’s ‘Phantastical Garb’: The Fashion of Form in Margaret Cavendish’s ‘Nature’s Pictures Drawn by Fancies Pencil to the Life,’” in Early Modern Literary Studies 11, no. 3 (2006): 1-40. [End Page 65]

7. Jay Stevenson, “The Mechanist-Vitalist Soul of Margaret Cavendish,” SEL 36, no. 3 (1996): 527; Brandie R. Siegfried, “Anecdotal and Cabalistic Forms in Observations upon Experimental Philosophy,” in Authorial Conquests: Essays on Genre in the Writings of Margaret Cavendish, ed. Line Cottegnies and Nancy Weitz (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 2003), 59; Erin Webster, “Margaret Cavendish’s Socio-Political Interventions into Descartes’ Philosophy,” English Studies 92, no. 7 (2011): 714; Sylvia Bowerbank, “The Spider’s Delight: Margaret Cavendish and the ‘Female’ Imagination,’” English Literary Renaissance 14, no. 3 (1984): 393, 407. Bowerbank calls attention to the ways in which Cavendish’s opposition was gendered, observing that while a masculinized experimental science appears a coherent methodology (though it was not), Cavendish’s thinking and writing were, by contrast, brazenly disorganized. Focusing on what she reads as Cavendish’s “defiance of method,” Bowerbank was among the first to note that Cavendish’s “endlessly varied” writing—as opposed to the alleged “craftsmanship and order” of the philosophical writing of her male contemporaries—risks reinforcing problematic notions of “female” thinking and writing as fleeting and chaotic.

8. Siegfried, “Anecdotal and Cabalistic Forms,” 60.

9. Cavendish, Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy, ed. Eileen O’Neill (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001), 105 (hereafter cited as O).

10. Sarasohn quotes Cavendish in Observations on the idea of philosophical work as dueling: “I am as ambitious of finding the truth of Nature, as an honourable dueller is of gaining fame and repute” (NP 150).

11. Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980), 20. As Merchant writes, “the passivity of matter could … be incorporated into the new mechanical philosophy in the form of inert ‘dead’ atoms, constituents of a new machine-like world in which change came about through external forces.”

12. Robert Hooke, Micrographia: or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses: with observations and inquiries thereupon (London, 1667), 44–47, http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/HistSciTech.HookeMicro

13. Hooke, Micrographia, 44–47.

14. Peter Dear, “A Philosophical Duchess: Understanding Margaret Cavendish and the Royal Society,” in Science, Literature and Rhetoric in Early Modern England, ed. Juliet Cummins and David Burchell (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 130.

15. Daniel Rosenberg, “Data Before the Fact,” in “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron, ed. Lisa Gitelman (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), 20.

16. Joseph Priestley, An Essay on a Course of Liberal Education for Civil and Active Life (London, 1765), 144.

17. Denise Tillery, “Cavendish as Natural Philosopher: Gender and Early Modern Science,” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 28, no. 3 (2003): 201.

18. Tillery, “Cavendish as Natural Philosopher,” 201. Anna Battigelli, Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1998), 105.

19. Clark, “The Anthropocene and Fictions of the World,” 15. [End Page 66]