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Posts Tagged ‘nineteenth century’

I’ve just cut the below from my Flatland chapter because it doesn’t fit with where it’s going any more. There is plenty more to be said on Flatland’s evolutionary concerns beyond this narrow focus on Galton, but I really enjoyed writing this and watching the liberal theologian give the eugenicist a proper kicking. This also fleshes out a remark in the previous post.

One focused target of Flatland’s satire can be drawn out from the first part of the text. As a theologian, Abbott was likely to have become aware of Francis Galton during the ‘prayer-gauge debate’ of 1872 which Galton joined in the pages of the Contemporary Review: this debate over attempts to scientifically measure the effectiveness of prayer was, after all, the ‘sensation of the season’.[1]  As an educator, Abbott could scarcely have failed to have followed the prolific Galton’s pronouncements on nature over nurture throughout the 1870s when the statistician’s research privileged the hereditary transmission of mental and moral characteristics.

Galton was then, as now, most associated with the theory he would neologise in Inquiries into the Human Faculties (1883) as eugenics, ‘the science of improving stock’.[2] Rosemary Jann has noted ‘the voice of the eugenicist’ in Flatland and others have described the context for Flatland’s particular version of geometric evolution.[3] Listening closely for this voice and recording its utterances not only beds Flatland into contemporary social and intellectual concerns but also points to a direct identification of Galton.

A Square describes a society that is an evolutionary hierarchy. As he explains: ‘It is a Law of Nature with us that a male child shall have one more side than his father, so that each generation shall rise (as a rule) one step in the scale of development and nobility.’ (F, 7) At the lower echelons are female Flatlanders, straight lines, figures more one-dimensional than two-, with no interior angles to measure. The lower and middle classes are triangles: sharp isosceles are workmen and soldiers, the middle-class are equilaterals. The professional and gentlemanly classes are squares, such as the narrator, and pentagons. The nobility begin with hexagons and ascend through all polygons. At the very apex are the priestly class, circles, or at the very least figures with so many sides that they approximate circles.

A professional such as A Square feels pity and contempt for the ‘degraded condition’ (F, 8) of the Isosceles class who ‘can hardly be said to deserve the name of human figures, since they have not all their sides equal’ (F, 8). Fortunately for the Isosceles, a Lamarckian hereditary transmission of acquired characteristics means that focused self-improvement and careful selection of breeding partners combine to give a gradual increase in internal angles over the generations.

Lower even than Isosceles are Irregular figures who display no equality of sides. A Square informs us that ‘”Irregularity of Figure” means with us the same as, or more than, a combination of moral obliquity and criminality with you, and is treated accordingly’ (F, 24). This elision of moral and physical characteristics chimes directly with Galton’s study in Inquiries, in which he writes that ‘the innate moral and intellectual faculties are so closely bound up with the physical ones that these must be considered as well’ (IHF, 3). In Flatland, indeed, interior angle correlates directly with intellectual capacity: ‘the family brain was registered at only 58°.’ (F, 16)

Rosemary Jann has located the timbre of Galton’s arguments in A Square’s observation on ‘the extraordinary fecundity of the Criminal and Vagabond classes.’[4] In Inquiries Galton dealt with criminals and the insane in a brief chapter in which he gave his support to this popularly held Malthusian idea: ‘the criminal population […] is well-suited to flourish under half-savage conditions, being naturally both healthy and prolific’ (IHF, 43). It should be noted, though, that Galton diverged from Malthus’s conclusion that prudent men would check their fertility, arguing that the lower classes could not be relied upon to practice prudence.

Other eugenic motifs of Flatland appear remarkably prescient. The Sanitary and Social Board, responsible for certificating equilaterals, draws on the mid-century concern of social reformers with public hygiene and demographics to anticipate the concept of racial hygiene, coined by Alfred Ploetz in 1905, and taken up in eugenic discourse of the early twentieth century. The notion of eugenic certification itself anticipates with unerring accuracy the future trajectory of Galton’s thought: his unpublished utopian novel Kantsaywhere, discovered by Karl Pearson in his papers after his death, envisaged an even more advanced eugenic certification system in which those failing to achieve grading were segregated and prevented from reproducing.[5]

Most chilling are the stentorian tones of the eugenic principle in Flatland policy. Irregulars are frequently destroyed and ‘the diminution of the redundant Isosceles population [is] an object that every statesman in Flatland constantly keeps in view.’ (F, 17) For a reader familiar with Galton’s biography more personal attacks might have been discerned in Flatland’s text. Certainly, had Frances Galton been a Flatlander, his lot would have been unhappy. Galton had failed to gain a degree from Cambridge, having suffered a breakdown in the run-up to his exams. In Flatland

the condition of the unsuccessful minority is truly pitiable. Rejected from the higher class, they are also despised by the lower. They have neither the matured and systematically trained powers of the Polygonal Bachelors and Masters of Arts, nor yet the native precocity and mercurial versatility of the youthful Tradesman. The professions, the public services, are closed against them; and though in most States they are not actually debarred from marriage, yet they have the greatest difficulty in forming suitable alliances, as experience shews that the offspring of such unfortunate and ill-endowed parents is generally itself unfortunate, if not positively Irregular. It is from these specimens of the refuse of our Nobility that the great Tumults and Seditions of past ages have generally derived their leaders; and so great is the mischief thence arising that an increasing minority of our more progressive Statesmen are of opinion that true mercy would dictate their entire suppression, by enacting that all who fail to pass the Final Examination of the University should be either imprisoned for life, or extinguished by a painless death. (F, 22)


[1] The Prayer-Gauge Debate, ed. by John O’Means (Boston: Congregational Publishing Society, 1876), p. 3.

[2] Inquiries, 17

[3] Rosemary Jann, ‘Introduction’ in Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. xvii.

[4] Jann, ‘Introduction’, p. xvii.

[5] See Karl Pearson, Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton (1930), vol IIIA, pp. 414-424.

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I’m giving a talk at the ICA on Thursday night as part of the Strange Attractor curated series under the auspices of Nathaniel Mellors’s Ourhouse exhibition. Details and tickets here. This is in conjunction with an essay that appeared in the latest issue of the truly wonderful Strange Attractor Journal, where I’m in highly esteemed company, particularly that of Alan Moore who obviously has Hintonian pedigree himself:

Hinton in From Hell

Hintons in From Hell: James tells Gull about Charles

The talk will be a more informal fleshing out of the stories told there, an account that deals primarily with Charles Howard Hinton. It’s a real luxury to have a bit more time than the customary 20 minute slot to talk about this material and to a different audience too: an artistic setting is something of a homecoming for Hintonian higher space, after all.

In May I’m giving a paper at a 19th Century Maths and Literature colloquium in Glasgow. Again, I’m going to focus on Hinton, and this time specifically on the cubes. From the intial schedule it looks as though there are no fewer than four people presenting fourth dimension-related papers so this promises really lively discussion. Very exciting.

In the course of putting together the talk at the ICA I’ve been looking at various animated gifs representing various projections, cross-sections and unfoldings of tesseracts. I’ll post links to a selection of these in short order.

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While on the subject of publishing contexts at the end of 1884, and before edging further into Flatland and dealing with content…

It has become customary to connect Flatland to the work of Charles Howard Hinton, and the connections between Edwin Abbott and the author of Scientific Romances have been explored in some detail by a number of writers (Banchoff, Stewart, Valente). Developing the case made by Banchoff in 1990, that ‘Hinton lies at the centre of a web of intellectual, mathematical and social influences’, Ian Stewart argues that ‘the similarities between Hinton’s 1880 article [‘What is the Fourth Dimension?’] and Flatland are far too great to be coincidence’ and that ‘the circumstantial evidence that they probably did meet – or that, at the very least, Abbott was strongly influenced by Hinton’s ideas – is considerable’.

Extrapolating the publishing history of Hinton’s work clarifies one such connection. Hinton’s ‘What is the Fourth Dimension?’ had, as noted, been first published in 1880, but to a very limited audience; indeed, to an audience so scant that it failed to sustain The University Magazine, the ailing journal in whose last number the essay appeared (originally the monthly Dublin University Magazine, The University Magazine had been renamed in 1878, and reduced frequency of publication from monthly to quarterly from June 1880, before finally closing at the end of 1880. Hinton’s mother-in-law Mary Boole had been a frequent contributor).

By the end of 1880 Charles Howard Hinton was working as assistant science master at Uppingham College (one of the connections made by Banchoff: Abbott’s lifelong friend Howard Candler, to whom Flatland was dedicated, was mathematics master at the same school). He was not a novice to publishing, having edited a collection of his father’s work, Chapters on the Art of Thinking and Other Essays, published by C.K. Paul & co in 1879, but ‘What is the Fourth Dimension?’ was his first published work under his own name.

It was reprinted in slightly expanded form in 1883 in the magazine of Cheltenham Ladies College, where the author had worked as assistant master from 1877 to 1880. Once again, it is safe to assume that the school magazine had a limited audience, although precise figures are not available. Stewart’s speculation that Edwin Abbott’s acquaintance with the headmistress Dorothea Buss in the 1880s was another potential point of contact between Abbott and Hinton seems more tenuous than the Candler link. What is clear from both the titles in which Hinton’s essay first appeared – a magazine hoping to appeal to a core student readership, and the magazine of a school – is that its author considered it a pedagogical piece. An instructional essay for students it is likely to have remained were it not for Abbott’s book.

The timing, format and re-editing of Hinton’s essay for publication by Swan Sonnenschein in November 1884 suggests very powerfully a commercial response to Flatland, whose first edition of 1,000 copies had been sold within a month of publication. What is the Fourth Dimension? (italics will henceforth be used to distinguish between the pamphlet and the collected essay) came hot on the heels of Abbott’s book as a part-issue, a format suggestive of a rapid publishing response: as the entry for ‘Serials and the Nineteenth Century Publishing Industry’ in the Dictionary of Nineteenth-century Journalism notes: ‘The principle motivations underlying the rise of serial publications were speed and economy.’ (Brake, Demoor eds, 2009: 567) There is also considerable evidence in the archives of Swan Sonnenschein that Hinton did not yet have enough completed work for a book.

Should there be any doubt concerning the opportunistic nature of the 1884 re-publication of Hinton’s essay on its third go round the block, its new title and subtitle surely settle them. It has been suggested by Rudy Rucker that the subtitle Ghosts Explained was added by the canny publisher, aware of the Zöllnerian hypothesis and its currency in spiritualist groupings. But surely the title of the series, Scientific Romances, is even more suggestive of commercial expediency? Hinton’s first ‘romance’, after all, was not even fiction, but a pedagogical exposition answering its own question in terms that only began to hint at the visionary hue of the psychological metaphysics that would follow. Stylistically, it owed more to the popular science writing of Tyndall than it did to Stevenson, but the content was evidently particularly amicable towards Flatland and the market was demonstrably keen on dimensional romances in November 1884.

It seems highly likely, then, that the chosen designation of ‘romance’ would have identified Hinton’s work to the readership to whom it was most likely to appeal: recalling Stevenson’s definitional account, a young (?), masculine, domestic (British) readership. The subject matter of geometry would further limit the audience to those educated in mathematics.

Darko Suvin’s obsessive historical materialist categorisations of the readerships of early SF precursor texts are interesting here, not because I would like to categorise Hinton’s work in such a way, but because in identifying a social proximity between the authors of proto-SF, scientific non-fiction and the readers of both, outside of mainstream circuits, he speaks directly to the textual hybridity of Hinton’s work: ‘Indications from the textual system point to one of those groups comprising mostly upper-middle and middle class males with special interest in politics, religion and public affairs in general. This is a circuit very close, perhaps even identical, to that of the bourgeois nonfiction reading – which would explain the intertextual closeness to SF of such nonfiction genres as the social blueprint, the political tract, the predictive essay, even the semi-religious apocalypse.’ (Suvin, 1983: 403)

This also, however, creates an interesting tension. I find myself wanting to argue that savvy publishing nouse helped to make the fourth dimension a subject of discussion in social groupings beyond specialist mathematicians and spiritualists.  If the readerships of texts such as Flatland and What is the Fourth Dimension? are as socially narrow as Suvin suggests, however, do they really introduce the arcania of higher space to a broader audience? I think the answer to that question probably lies, in part, elsewhere: it’s what these texts do with the subject, as well as to whom they tell it, that catalyses interest.

Finally, a word or two on that canny publisher, William Swan Sonnenschein. Sonnenschein built his list in the early years (ca. 1878-1882) around books for children, educational texts or theoretical work concerning education policy. There was also a focus on German language translations, such as Grimm’s Teutonic Myths. Both arose naturally from the publisher’s family background: his father was a German-born mathematics teacher. Although Sonnenschein described himself as a liberal, he was closely connected socially to a number of Fabians and socialists, publishing both the first English translation of Marx’s Capital and George Bernard Shaw’s Unsocial Socialist in 1887. (Stepniak, exiled Russian revolutionary, was apparently often to be encountered taking tea chez Sonnenschein).

The Swan Sonnenschein list also always included philosophy, and the publisher was a member of the first Ethical Society in the late 1880s. Commissioned to write a history of the firm’s precursors by George Allen and Unwin in the 1950s, the historian F. A. Mumby wrote: ‘Throughout his life Swan Sonnenschein was a remarkable blend of other-worldliness and business acumen; a man of wide erudition whose interests were quickly roused by the simplest human problems’. Combining education, mathematics, philosophy and literature, Swan Sonnenschein was a highly appropriate home for the esoteric and hybrid work of Hinton.

So, some further lines of research worth pursuing with regard to dimensional romance: its roots in pedagogy and a progressive, broadly socialist, political subtext. Onwards and upwards. Or, as Flatland has it, Upward, not Northward.

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Some initial thoughts on Flatland. So, to begin at the beginning with the title page…

Many dimensions

Many dimensions

Strange that this has occasioned so little critical comment. Iain Stewart’s excellent annotated edition of the text locates the Shakepearean quotes (Hamlet, Act I Scene v, the appearance of the ghost, and Titus Andronicus, Act III Scene i), both of which are fairly obviously puns and perhaps only tangentially connected to their context. I’m intrigued by the illustration – is it a map? – of a nebulous mass, perhaps fog, perhaps clouds.

It might well be a map. Flatland, ‘a Romance of Many Dimensions’, was published in October 1884. As such it arrived not terribly long into the ‘romantic revival’ of the 1880s, inaugurated, according to most accounts, the previous year, with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Before that, in the launch issue of Longman’s Magazine in November 1882, Stevenson had given a theoretical outline of his fictional practice with ‘A Gossip on Romance’, advocating a robust, masculine, adventuring, fiction delivering a ‘kaleidoscopic dance of images’ and recalling books read in the ‘bright troubled period of boyhood’. Stevenson’s advocacy of romance has subsequently been read in opposition to Henry James’s championing of the interiorized, feminine and despicably foreign (!) realist novel.

This brief sketch is sufficient for now to give an idea of one aspect of the context into which Flatland arrived: while the descriptive term romance had been used in the title of many earlier nineteenth century novels, and even proto-SF novels – Edward Maitland’s An Historical Romance of the Future (1873) being an (the only?) example of the latter – when Abbott subtitled his book a ‘romance’, he connected it to a very current trend in fiction publishing. There was good reason for so doing: Treasure Island had been a bestseller. The inclusion on the title page of Flatland of a map would have underlined the connection to Treasure Island in particular.

Treasure Island

Treasure Island

So is it fog, or is it clouds? The text contains fog – common, apparently, in the temperate regions of Flatland – but the closing illustration repeats the nebulous illustration with more Shakespeare, this time from Prospero’s speech in The Tempest, Act IV, Scene i:

You do look, my son, in a moved sort,

As if you were dismay’d: be cheerful, sir.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

The baseless fabric of vision

The baseless fabric of vision

Thin air, then, and clouds. And I’d suggest that the classical scholar Abbott may also have had in mind an earlier passage of satire, from Aristophanes’ The Birds. In the following exchange the tyrannical Pithetaerus passes judgement on the geometer Meton in his attempt to enter Cloudcuckooland:

(Enter METON, With surveying instruments.)

METON: I have come to you…

PITHETAERUS (interrupting): Yet another pest! What have you come to do? What’s your plan? What’s the purpose of your journey? Why these splendid buskins?

METON: I want to survey the plains of the air for you and to parcel them into lots.

PITHETAERUS: In the name of the gods, who are you?

METON: Who am I? Meton, known throughout Greece and at Colonus.

PITHETAERUS: What are these things?

METON: Tools for measuring the air. In truth, the spaces in the air have precisely the form of a furnace. With this bent ruler I draw a line from top to bottom; from one of its points I describe a circle with the compass. Do you understand?

PITHETAERUS: Not in the least.

METON: With the straight ruler I set to work to inscribe a square within this circle; in its centre will be the market-place, into which all the straight streets will lead, converging to this centre like a star, which, although only orbicular, sends forth its rays in a straight line from all sides.

PITHETAERUS: A regular Thales!

Tools for measuring the air, indeed! This prompts a number of lines of thought. A bone of contention in discussions over higher space concerned its imaginary as opposed to its empirical nature. As an algebraic and then a geometric theory – in other words, as a mathematical construct – higher space remained comfortably ideal. With interventions from physics and Zollner’s catastrophic/catalytic misreading of four-dimensional space, the waters became muddied – or perhaps better to write that the airs became fogged. Was physical space actually four-dimensional?

Higher space existed in the interstices between the ideal and the empirical, as did the emergent sciences of mind, in which perception of space was a primary site of conflict. Abbott’s cloud, then, is thought, imagination, the higher space of mind in which the higher space of geometry existed, an analogue noted by William Spottiswoode in his 1878 address to the BAAS: ‘Or once more, when space already filled with material substances is mentally peopled with immaterial beings, may not the imagination be regarded as having added a new element to the capacity of space, a fourth dimension of which there is no evidence in experimental fact?’

As for Pithetaerus’s remark on Thales, this suggest routing discussions through Michel Serres, whose two essays on the origins of geometry consider the case of Thales and the discovery of mathematical analogy. But I believe that would justify another post entirely and this one already needs more work!

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