VICTORIAN CONTINGENCIES: EXPERIMENTS IN LITERATURE, SCIENCE, AND PLAY by Tina Young Choi, Reviewed by David Sweeney
 


VICTORIAN CONTINGENCIES: EXPERIMENTS IN LITERATURE, SCIENCE, AND PLAY
By Tina Young Choi
(Stanford, 2022) xi + 246 pp.
Reviewed by David Sweeney on 2022-04-06.

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In October 1918, René Dujarric de la Rivière, a French Army doctor, had himself injected with a flu patient's blood that he had passed through a bacteria-straining Pasteur-Chamberland filter. His goal was to get sick, which he promptly did. From this result, Dujarric concluded that the flu could not be caused by a bacillus, as the then prevailing medical consensus held, but must instead be the effect of a so-called filterable virus. Neither Dujarric nor anyone else at the time had a clear understanding of what a filterable virus was. Too small to be observed directly prior to the development of the electron microscope, viruses were then what émile Roux (adapting a concept from Baruch Spinoza) called "êtres de raison": beings of reason whose existence in the dim outlands of human understanding could be supported only by conjecture and indirect effects (Laura Spinney, Pale Rider [2017] 184). Dujarric's experiment made an important contribution to the emerging science of those beings of reason. But it was also just a happy accident. Flu is not transmissible via blood transfusion, and Dujarric just happened to catch the flu from a different vector at the luckiest possible time.

What if he hadn't? It might not have made much difference to science or history, as Dujarric wasn't the only one experimenting with Chamberland filters in 1918. But then again, a null result might have increased medical uncertainty at a pivotal moment, and the history of the 1918 flu is fraught with invitations to counterfactual speculation. Laura Spinney's popular history of that pandemic, Pale Rider, suggests that among its contingent effects might be numbered historical events as disparate as the timing of Indian independence, the outbreak of World War II, and the presidency of Donald Trump. Who knows what Timeline we might all be on now but for Dujarric's serendipitous encounter with a filterable virus?

I found myself indulging this particular counterfactual speculation as I read Tina Young Choi's excellent new book: a literary and intellectual history of contingency that culminates in an account of Victorian efforts to understand the molecule, which was then another unobservable being of reason. Victorian Contingencies joins a growing body of scholarship on the transformative effects of statistics and probability in the nineteenth century. While this area of inquiry was initially defined by an interest in how statistical probabilities underwrote the power of the normative (as in Michel Foucault's Security, Territory, Population [2009] and Ian Hacking's The Taming of Chance [1990]), more recent studies reflect a fascination with how probability opened up thinking about possibilities that were remote or unrealized. The importance of these outliers and counterfactuals has been taken up in relation to topics such as alternate histories (Catherine Gallagher's Telling It Like It Wasn't [2018]), gender (Michael Tondre's Physics of Possibility [2018]), and ethics (Andrew Miller's On Not Being Someone Else [2020] and Jesse Rosenthal's Good Form [2017]). Victorian Contingencies builds on this work while also broadening its scope. Choi's book does not link probability to a particular field of scientific inquiry or a particular set of literary forms or generic effects. Rather, it traces the fortunes of contingency as an idea and a formal strategy across a wide variety of domains and genres: life insurance, board games, biology, mechanical calculators, optical toys, novels, and illustrated children's books.

Contingency appeared everywhere in Victorian life, Choi shows, and yet in forms that promised to contain its destabilizing force. Her signal example is life insurance. Once an exotic financial product akin to gambling, insurance became a widespread middle-class investment. As it did so, the rapidly growing insurance industry issued pamphlets and advertisements warning Victorian readers of the uncertainties that attended their every step: the stray shot at your hunting party, the Typhus pathogen in the flea you don't know is on you, the cart bearing down on you in the street as you walk to your clerking job. But if the insurance industry's "rhetoric of contingency" (25) menaced readers with the hidden risks surrounding them at all times, it did so to entice them by promising to manage contingency by anticipating it and guarding against its consequences.

Alongside the bourgeois preoccupation with managing risks, Christian providentialism also shaped the Victorian understanding of chance. Choi's first case study here is Charles Babbage, who began his career as an actuary for the Protector Life Assurance Company. Choi shows how Babbage's unbuilt computer prototype, the Analytical Engine, grew out of his early actuarial work. Babbage's designs aimed to anticipate chance, enabling the Analytical Engine to adapt to unexpected discontinuities in its data sets without requiring human intervention. For Babbage, the Analytical Engine was a model for understanding what Choi claims was a central concern for nineteenth-century science: "the status...of chance within a providential worldview" (39). God, no longer a watchmaker but a programmer, set the world to run in such a manner that it could adapt to contingent events.

From the vantage of the early twenty-first century, Victorian notions of providential adaptability and the bourgeois capacity to manage risk appear heavily freighted with a rueful irony. Among the other reasons for our own widespread fascination with contingency, surely part of its allure stems from the precarity of the present. While the severity of storms and droughts, for example, make them statistically likely to occur only once in a century or millennium, they have lately been striking far more often. Seen in this light, Victorian bourgeois investment practices and providentialism, as well as the nineteenth-century realist novel itself, with its (arguably) formal commitment to a quasi-Aristotelian version of mimetic probability, are not just wrong but culpably so. By making risk seem manageable, they helped create what Amitav Ghosh calls the great derangement, which has set us all up for catastrophes such as those driven by climate change.

Nevertheless, we can learn from the Victorians. While Choi's book limits its scope to the nineteenth century, it also helps to show how for all their supposed complacency, the Victorians had a complex relationship with uncertainty that anticipates some aspects of our own. If they conceived of possibility as "a foreclosed space, not so much an open-ended freedom as a range, a defined distribution, a finite system," Choi argues that for them, that finite system nonetheless worked by throwing predictable or established outcomes into doubt, even if only momentarily (6). Consider the crucial role of contingency in Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830-1833). As Choi shows, Lyell argued that the earth's surface is the product of uniform laws acting gradually over vast time scales. But to test this gradualist theory, Lyell posits hypothetical scenarios that, like catastrophes, dramatically rearrange the existing geography of the earth. He asks his readers to imagine what the earth would become if, for example, Italy and Mexico sank into the sea, or if every living thing in the western hemisphere was destroyed. These thought experiments, Choi argues, show that for Lyell earth history "might best be understood...not from the grand perspective of an omniscient, teleologically driven retrospection, but from the many moments of chance awaiting excavation from within the framework of a historical retelling" (61).

The same is true of the history recounted in George Eliot's historical novel, Adam Bede (1859), whose narrator pauses repeatedly to mark the workings of contingency: to note how plot-events that seem predetermined by generic conventions and character also result from chance meetings and occurrences. These moments of contingency do not alter the novel's already determined histories, and Choi suggests that contingency ultimately works to shore up and consolidate, rather than unsettle, the moral economy that finally rewards or punishes its characters. Nevertheless, by prompting the reader to recognize fleeting moments as nodes of multiple diverging paths, Adam Bede is said to train the reader in "a new means of inhabiting the self, through a subjectivity necessarily oriented toward an undetermined future and given shape through a complex narrative framework" (86). The novel, that is, prompts its readers to understand themselves as akin to characters in an unfinished story, each moment of which is densely layered with possible trajectories that might ultimately rearrange their sense of the whole.

If contingency in the realist novel often served Victorians as a method of serious self-reflection and cultivation, it was also a method of play. Surveying board games, toys, and illustrated books, Choi shows how chance was taken up as a formal strategy in entertainments marketed primarily to children. Board games are her most striking graphic example. In Romantic-era games like The Mansion of Bliss (1822), players move along a linear-spiral path of moral progress toward a central point of domestic happiness. By contrast, Victorian games favored branching networks and spatial complexity. In The Cottage of Content or Right Roads and Wrong Ways (1848), the destination is--ironically?--toned down and moved from the center of the board to its periphery. Similarly, in the New Game of Wanderers in the Wilderness (1844), players move their pieces across a continental map of South America. These games enabled Victorian children to practice navigating spatial contingencies--the unexpected obstacles and shortcuts that intrepid travelers encounter in moving through a complex landscape--in ways often modeled on newly salient British practices of global travel and colonial adventurism.

While noting this connection and citing scholarship on it, Choi largely subordinates geopolitics to epistemology. Here, as throughout the book, Choi analyzes contingency as a way of knowing in two different senses. For her, contingency functions as an idea and speculative method, but also as a form of presentation exemplified by visual forms like maps, picture books, and optical toys.

The latent conflict between speculation and presentation becomes manifest when Choi turns to James Clerk Maxwell's famous thought experiment with molecular sorting. Maxwell invented his "demon" (a term he himself resisted and did not like) to imagine the behavior of beings of reason. Unable to observe molecules directly himself, he endowed the demon with the kind of "perfect perception" that enabled it to sort fast from slow moving molecules by opening an aperture (hypothetically without performing any thermodynamic work) for the fast ones to pass into a separate chamber (173). But according to Choi, the demon has tended to distract us from the point of Maxwell's thought experiment. Ultimately, he cared less about the demon's miraculously fine perception than about exploring the limits of the normative emphasis on statistical regularities. What is implied, Maxwell's experiment asks, by the kind of outlier scenarios that strike our judgment as highly improbable and yet fall within the bounds of statistical possibility? Among those implications, Choi argues, was a revolution in epistemology whereby probabilities displaced experience as the ground of knowledge. At stake in Maxwell's experiment, we are told, was "a way of approaching the particular, not of knowing it directly through empirical observation or measurement but rather through the process of generating a fertile realm of possibility around it" (144).

Having shown how Maxwell's thought participates in the emerging paradigm shift away from Newtonian physics, Choi also identifies a similar project in Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876), which she reads as an experiment in "statistical realism" (175). Choi's suggestive readings point to some arresting parallels, such as her characterization of Gwendolyn Harleth as a kind of Maxwell's Demon; she and the Demon somehow arrange certain outcomes--like a thermal differential or, say, an abusive husband's accidental drowning--without actively making them happen. Choi shows how the narrator, as well as the characters, must accept insurmountable uncertainty about others' experiences and mental states but learn to respond to it by situating these objects within a range of possibilities. Here, then, we have a powerful case for seeing contingency as a speculative method driving new developments in nineteenth-century literature as well as science.

But as Choi emphasizes the speculative function of contingency, its formal function recedes in a way that leads her to overstate some of her claims. In Choi's account, Maxwell and Eliot rejected the empiricism of direct observation in favor of the "speculative, imperfect vision" offered by statistics and probability (147). But this claim narrowly identifies empiricism with a naïve faith in the certitude of manifest experience. Consequently, a certain Manichaeism creeps into her argument here. Glossing a passage in Daniel Deronda, for instance, she claims that "to acknowledge uncertainty [is] to admit that there is no such thing as an empirical transmission of knowledge [of others' mental states]" (169). But were that the case, what should we make of the idea that probability offers "a speculative, imperfect vision" of unobservable objects? Choi's metaphor here is telling, because it highlights the continuing relevance of observation and experience even for highly speculative modes of knowledge. Theoretical physics can't quite do without experimental physics, and the narrator in Daniel Deronda explicitly remarks--as Choi notes elsewhere in her argument--that our imaginative constructions of others' minds begin with observations of how they act. If beings of reason enforce on us the recognition that sensory experience is incomplete or indirect as a way of knowing, it doesn't necessarily follow that this way of knowing is invalid or non-existent. On this point Choi might have reckoned with studies such as Elisha Cohn's Still Life (2015), which shows how Victorians including Eliot reconceived perceptual experience in ways that accommodated or even valorized cognate forms of indeterminacy and uncertainty.

Even so, Victorian Contingencies is an impressively well-researched contribution to Victorian literary studies and the history of science. As it moves from the novel to science to entertainment and play, it offers its readers a fascinating survey of the manifold engagements with chance and uncertainty across the nineteenth century. For all its resolutely historical focus, Choi's book is also timely. In an epilogue, Choi suggests that part of this book's origins lies in her childhood memories of how her father, a professor at the Medical College of Virginia, would often drop by the intensive care unit on his way back from lunch. This early impression of an everyday acquaintance with "the contingencies of life and death" (184) to be found in an ICU resonates unsettlingly as we stagger uncertainly out of a pandemic that, despite all our determination to be done with it, refuses to end (184). Not least among its points of interest is that Choi's study of the nineteenth-century encounter with contingency is good to think with as we pick our way forward into a very chancy future.

David Sweeney Coombs is Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the English Department at Clemson University.


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