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  • Allegories of Victorian Thermodynamics
  • Bruce Clarke (bio)

I. Maxwell and Allegory

In The Crying of Lot 49, Yoyodyne engineer Stanley Koteks turns Oedipa Maas on to the existence of the Nefastis Machine—Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern spoof of nineteenth-century perpetual-motion engines and of their theological analogues, the ghostly claims of various Victorian spiritualists.1 In a sort of séance with the device, the operator of the Nefastis Machine uses telepathy with a Maxwell’s Demon to finesse the mechanical dissipation mandated by the second law of thermodynamics:

From a drawer he produced a Xeroxed wad of papers, showing a box with a sketch of a bearded Victorian on its outside, and coming out of the top two pistons attached to a crankshaft and flywheel.

“Who’s that with the beard?” asked Oedipa. James Clerk Maxwell, explained Koteks, a famous Scotch scientist who had once postulated a tiny intelligence, known as Maxwell’s Demon. . . . He went on to tell how the Nefastis Machine contained an honest-to-God Maxwell’s Demon. All you had to [End Page 67] do was stare at the photo of Clerk Maxwell, and concentrate on which cylinder, right or left, you wanted the Demon to raise the temperature in. . . . The familiar Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge photo, showing Maxwell in right profile, seemed to work best. 2

Transporting Maxwell’s Demon to the modern conceptual threshold between the sciences of energy and information by invoking the analogy between Ludwig Boltzmann’s statistical equation for thermodynamic entropy and C. E. Shannon’s equation for information-entropy, 3 Nefastis tries to explain to Oedipa how the dual dynamisms of entropy drive his machine. It operates, says Nefastis, by the literalization of a metaphor:

“Help,” said Oedipa, “you’re not reaching me.”

“Entropy is a figure of speech, then,” sighed Nefastis, “a metaphor. It connects the world of thermodynamics to the world of information flow. The Machine uses both. The demon makes the metaphor not only verbally graceful, but also objectively true.”

“But what,” she felt like some kind of heretic, “if the Demon exists only because the two equations look alike? Because of the metaphor?”

Nefastis smiled; imperturbable, calm, a believer. “He existed for Clerk Maxwell long before the days of the metaphor.”

But had Clerk Maxwell been such a fanatic about his Demon’s reality?

(p. 106)

The undetermined reality of the demon is precisely to the point. Nefastis is parodically un-Maxwellian, if not un-Victorian, in giving the demon a literal existence. Maxwell’s own attitude toward his physical models was more skeptical. The success of his science depended in part on his rhetorical sophistication in allowing hypothetical models to remain metaphors. 4 At the same time, Nefastis is [End Page 68] right: despite efforts to exorcise it, the demon still possesses virtual existence as an active scientific trope, a productive conceptual operator. William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, began a tradition of reification by naming as a “demon” the fictive intelligence that Maxwell had conceived in 1867 simply as a “neat-fingered being.” Maxwell was not entirely happy with this stark anthropomorphism, and in subsequent correspondence with others he attempted to demote the creature from intelligent to mechanical action. The simplicity of its function “reduces the demon to a valve,” he explained to Peter Guthrie Tait in an undated note; in an 1870 letter to John William Strutt the demon is “a mere guiding agent (like a pointsman on a railway with perfectly acting switches . . . ). I do not see why even intelligence might not be dispensed with and the thing made self-acting.” 5

Despite Maxwell’s skepticism, Thomson’s name “demon” was an inspired rhetorical choice. The demon’s position at a threshold between distinct spaces conforms to legendary traditions. As updated in literary theory, the daemonic in general is a mythopoetic code for uncertain intermediations—the uncanny or disruptive supplement, the noise or excess infecting or reorganizing transmission in matters of reason, cognition, writing, self-identity, desire, and so forth.6 Not an essential power but a differential effect, a knot or loop produced by and lodged within writing itself, tied into the text of any structural system...

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