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Occult gender regimes: Polarity and Thermodynamic bodies – I

“Star and nerve-tissue are parts of the system-stellar and nervous forces are correlated. Nay more; sensation awakens thought and kindles emotion, so that this wondrous dynamic chain binds into living unity the realms of matter and mind through measureless amplitudes of space and time.”
Edward Youmans, 1869, The Correlation and Conservation of Force

This post will examine the arrival of thermodynamics in the nineteenth century and consider its wider cultural impact – in particular how it was used to reinforce gender regimes. Scientific pronouncements in the nineteenth century were tremendously influential, not only due to the link between science and technological advancement and achievements, but also due to the belief that the universe was inherently lawful. Faced with changes in religious belief and social unrest both at home and abroad, many diverse groups in Victorian culture had a vested interest in articulating a universal set of laws applicable to any facet of society, and led to an increased enthusiasm for classification, codification and the quantifiable measurement of various “social forces” and ailments. The nineteenth century drive to classify and regulate bodies, be they individual or social – is apparent in a diverse range of disciplinary practices, from mental health, the regulation of labour, the various “social hygiene” movements and the emergence of sexology, to the classificationary regimes applied to the management of colonial subjects such as fingerprinting, eugenic interventions, or the classification of entire Indian tribes as “hereditary criminals”.

(NB: I have also argued in the ordering-machine series that this impetus to order and categorise the world – to produce a total knowledge system – also underwrote much of nineteenth century occult theory.)

The birth of energy physics
Nineteenth-century physics saw several important developments which would have far-reaching consequences. During the early decades of the century, several breakthroughs occurred which moved physics towards a grand, unified theory. In 1806 Sir Humphrey Davy announced that electrical force was responsible for the molecular structure of matter. Advances such as Joseph Fourier’s mathematical theory of heat, the wave theory of light (which proposed that light was propograted by the vibrations of ether); Faraday’s experiments in the early 1830s established the relationships between magnetism and electricity all contributed towards the unification and convertability of “forces”. In 1824, Sadi Carnot provided an analysis of the circulation of heat between hot and cold bodies in terms of the operation of steam engines – allowing the emergence of a unified approach to heat, electricity, and magnetism:

“The concept of energy provided the science of physics with a new and unifying framework and brought the phenomena of physics within the mechanical view of nature, embracing heat, light, and electricity, together with mechanics, in a single conceptual structure”.
(Harman, 1982)

The term “thermodynamics” was coined by Sir William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) in 1854. In 1865, Rudolph Clausius stated the two laws as:

(1) “The energy of the universe is constant. The first law implies that energy can be neither created nor destroyed. In a closed system, though energy may change forms, the total energy is always conserved.”


(2) “The entropy of the universe tends towards a maximum. “Entropy” is the term given to the measure of disorder in a system. The second law thus implies that in a closed system, energy always changes to increasingly less orderly, less usable forms.”

The two laws of thermodynamics had an extraordinary impact on nineteenth century culture, giving rise to, as Anson Rabinach points out, “a new vision of social modernity”. Its universal principles were widely applied to the rethinking of work in terms of labour power, to economics, medicine, psychology, etc. Freud took the energetic model into his expositions of sexuality; Marx too was heavily influenced by the idea of labour power as a quantifiable force. The universal power of energy appealed to materialists, romantics, and those seeking the scientific validation of scripture alike.

the Human Motor
“The animal body therefore does not differ from the steam engine as regards the manner in which it obtains heat and force”
von Helmholtz, (quoted in Rabinbach, p61)

As nineteenth century physics advanced, it generated new metaphors for the body, so that the view of the previous century of the body as l’homme machine – in which the body was essentially mechanistic and engineered, was replaced by that of the “Human Motor” – an engine regulated by internal principles (including internal, self-motivation), with its own internal fuel reservoir, and converting that fuel into heat and thence into physical work. There was a great effort to quantify, measure and intrumentalise the body’s energies, in the hope of achieving perfection. As a motor, the human body was frequently compared to a steam engine, sometimes with the brain acting as an “engineer” – and “nerve force” came to occupy a kind of middle ground between the insubstantial mind, and the forces of nature. The anatomist John Cleland pondered the possibility that “thought and physical energy are mutually convertible.” Other scientists were skeptical though, and preferred to avoid the relationship between mind and matter. Thomas H. Huxley famously declared that “We are conscious automata” arguing that changes in consciousness were caused by “molecular changes in brain-substance”.

Nerve force, from the 1860s onwards, seemed to hold out the promise for a new approach to health rooted in the scientific principles of thermodynamics. Health required the careful management and expenditure of energy, and those who spent their forces unwisely, suffered nervous exhaustion (the language of nerve force often uses financial metaphors). Nerve force was understood in terms of electricity, and bodily activities produced discharges of nerve force in the same way that a Leyden Jar discharges electricity. George Beard (see this post) drew a direct parallel between the nervous system and Edison’s electric light. Thinking was quickly judged to be the greatest drain on body energies, often to the extent that other activities were excluded – such as loving relationships or sports. Herbert Spencer asserted that “instense mental application … is accompanied by a cessation in the production of sperm-cells” and conversely, that “undue production of sperm-cells involves cerebral inactivity.” Pleasures too, had to be strictly regulated and moderated, on order to balance the energy cost involved. Degeneration and dissipation was also a threat, and anti-masturbation tracts often used the laguage of the energy economy, arguing that it contravened the need to conserve body energy for both self and nation.

The second law’s emphasis on dissipation and increase in entropy was, for some, a confirmation of the religious notion of divine purpose. In the 1850s, Lord Kelvin, in a series of public lectures and debates, raised the possibility of a cataclysmic cooldown – heat death” – which would eventually cause all life and evolution to cease. This was a shock to those who held the belief that progress was eternal. Kelvin and his colleagues viewed this “heat death” as the irreversible loss of energy that would reduce the Earth to a cold, lifeless rock and used the Second Law to argue against Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. Victorian anxieties over “heat death” and degeneration can be seen in HG Wells’ (1874) The Time Machine. The laws of thermodynamics were also combined with Darwinian evolutionary theory. Thomas H. Huxley’s writings on race (for example, Man’s Place in Nature) make an equivalence between evolution and social progress and empire, but also makes use of the second law in therorising how “unfit races” (i.e. savages) will inevitably disappear.

thermodynamics and gender
The “human motor” was implicitly male and caucasian (there was a widespread belief that heat led to low energy levels and as a consequence, idleness – and other vices – and that idleness was particularly associated with “primitive races” – I’ll be looking at this idea more closely in the series on shamanism and gender-variance). The principle of the first law of thermodynamics – energy conservation – was used to explain that the “energy” women expended in reproduction meant that they lacked the reserves for any other purpose. Herbert Spencer (1873) for example, claimed that there was a “somewhat earlier arrest of individual evolution in women than in men, necessitated by the reservation of vital power to meet the cost of reproduction.” Patrick Geddes’ and J. Arthur Thompson’s The Evolution of Sex (1889) argued that maleness and femaleness were differentiated down to the level of cellular metabolism. Men were thus active, energetic and variable, whilst women were sluggish, passive and conservative. Geddes was not in favour of women’s suffrage: “What was decided among the prehistoric protozoa cannot be annulled by Act of Parliament.” Similarly, in 1891, the psychologist Harry Campbell proclaimed that women were not only “less intellectual” than men, but that the “emotional and intellectual portions” of men and women are “somewhat in inverse ratio.” Although there were dissenters, notably the botanist Lydia Becker and Antoinette Brown Blackwell, who declared in 19870 “I find nothing in physiology which indicates that the woman’s intellect is organically inferior to the man’s intellect” and stressed the importance of environmental influences; the belief that thermodynamics and biology “proved” the inevitability of the “seperate spheres” of women and men was the dominant one. Darwin, Galton, and the influential physician Henry Maudsley for example, asserted that differences between the sexes were innate, and that education and environment have little effect (if any). The argument was extended further in biological terms, with the notion that women’s nervous systems were less well developed than men’s, as were their brains (see previous post). Also, it was frequently asserted that women’s (and savages) purported ability to withstand discomfort “stoically” was an indication of their “lower development”.

The law of energy conservation was also used to argue against women’s education. It was frequently asserted that, since the human body had a finite supply of energy which had to be carefully regulated, educating women would place them under undue “mental strain” which would be injurious to their health. A physician, T.S. Coulson, in discussing the dangers of education for women asserted: “If you use the force of your steam-engine for generating electricity, you can not have it for sawing your wood.” referring to the view that women’s bodies were biologically and energetically concerned with reproduction and nuturance, and nothing else. Similarly, William Acton (1857) argued that women were indifferent to sex and that this was entirely natural, in order to “prevent the male’s vital energies from being overly expended at any one time” whilst other medical men, such as Henry Maudsley, defined women entirely in terms of their “reproductive functions”. Not only was education a danger for women as individuals, but it also threatened the future development of the race, and there were frequent claims that women’s intellectual advancement would lead to them becoming “unsexed”, and uninterested in continuing the human species.

In the next post in this series I will examine how these ideas influenced occult thought – with particular reference to the novels of Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

Bruce Clarke, Energy Forms: Allegory and Science in the Era of Classical Thermodynamics (Univ. Michigan Press, 2001)
Barri J. Gold ThermoPoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science (The MIT Press, 2010)
Peter Harman, Energy, Force, and Matter: The Conceptual Development of Nineteenth-Century Physics (Cambridge University Press, 1982)
Patricia Murphy, In Science’s Shadow: Literary Constructions of Late Victorian Women (University of Missouri Press, 2006)
Anson Rabinach, The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (Basic Books, Inc. 1990)
Cynthia Eagle Russett, Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood (Harvard University Press, 1991)