The Thermodynamics of Gender: Lawrence, Science and Sexism

By Wutz, Michael | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 1995 | Go to article overview

The Thermodynamics of Gender: Lawrence, Science and Sexism


Wutz, Michael, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


The ways that gender ideologies are encoded in literature and narrative configurations have long been concerns of feminist criticism. Recently, these concerns have also led to an investigation of the gender biases that inform other intellectual pursuits, and particularly the discipline of science. Donna Haraway, Evelyn Fox Keller, and Sandra Harding, for example, have shown how the ostensibly "objective" discourse of science - as well as much of the epistemological matrix of the Western world - bears the imprint of patriarchal authorship, mainly by reproducing inscriptions of gender in its models and texts. What remains to be explored, it would appear, is the three-way interaction between gender, literature and science, and what further encourages such an investigation is the current scholarly emphasis upon the way that changes in scientific theory are reproduced in changes in literary style and form.

The work of D. H. Lawrence lends itself to such an interdisciplinary investigation particularly well. Gender issues and the relationship between the sexes in his work have long been at the forefront of critical analysis (and have furthermore been invited by Lawrence's widely known statements on the topic); in addition, Lawrence evolved a lifelong and complicated relationship to the science and technology of his day. Following the largely anti-scientific esthetic of the British Romantics, for example, he located his narrative cosmos along the fault line of the organic and the mechanical, whereby the recuperative agency of the natural is almost always juxtaposed to the destructive effects of the technological. Because Lawrence believed that humankind's continued exposure to the rationalization and mechanization of the modern world engenders a condition of pure intellection that represses instinctual urges and desires - what he was fond of calling "blood-consciousness" - the Machine and Science in his world frequently operate as a threat to an almost prelapsarian Eden, as a figuration of the Fall: humankind's original sin.

Lawrence, however, was in his own way also interested, and positively so, in scientific and technological developments. He knew and approved of Einstein's Theory of Relativity because it confirmed his belief in the total interdependent connectedness of the universe: that "the whole thing hangs inevitably together," as he himself put it (Fantasia 11). Einstein also valorized his contention that "there is no [single] absolute principle in the universe" and that "everything is relative" (Fantasia 182), and Lawrence viewed Relativity as a theory that could transcend the rigid causalities of his scientific nemesis: logical positivism. Lawrence described logical positivism as "objective science" and as a "science of the dead world," and opposed to it his own "subjective science" (Fantasia 12). In contrast to logical positivism, where reality is registered through the conscious mind or through independent observation, Lawrence advanced the theory that reality can be apprehended directly through a series of symmetrically arranged centers on the body and that this reality can be confirmed by appealing to the intuition of others. Clearly, such a corporeal apprehension is, even by contemporary accounts, fantastic in the extreme. What is important, however, is that many of Lawrence's deeply-held beliefs, such as the relativity or flux of reality and the observer's participation in that flux, have much in common with the physics of the twentieth century. In the words of N. Katherine Hayles, while Lawrence was "ignorant of much factual knowledge about the new science," he "anticipated the spirit of its principal results" (86).

This essay continues in the spirit of such revisionist criticism and seeks to retrace the dialogic relationship between Lawrence's literary texts and the text(s) of science. Instead of focusing on the affinities between Lawrence and quantum physics, however, I would like to lay bare some of the points of intersection between Lawrence and the science that was most visible in his day, particularly in its industrial manifestation of steam engines and locomotives: thermodynamics. …

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