A Foundling Theory Fund Update
Of the many moribund theories the FTF has been hard at work trying
to resurrect, probably the most immediately fruitful is that of phlogiston.
Phlogistic theory was an idea of Johann Joachim Becher, and was popularized
by Georg Ernst Stahl in the first quarter of the 17th Century. Phlogiston
is "the matter and principle of fire, contained in all metals and
combustible bodies, and given up in burning or calcination" (McCann
23-4). The more volatile or inflammable a substance, the more phlogiston
it contains, so asbestos would be nearly devoid of phlogiston, but gasoline,
or, at the time, coal, would be considered almost pure phlogiston.
In terms of cultural or literary criticism, then, phlogistic theory
could be applied to the calcinative or volatile qualities of a particular
character. The more volatile or willful--Jane Eyre, for example, or
Heathcliff--the more phlogistic the character might be considered. More
intriguingly, in order to deal with existing noticed transfers of weight
from combusted solids into combusted gasses, the creators of this theory
posited that phlogiston "on quitting one body [is] always united
with another" (Kirwan 3), so reactions between characters in which
the volatility or willfulness of one can cause that of another can be
said to be following phlogistic principles.
As always, the idea that a particular theory brushed aside by so-called
"progress" in the arts or sciences should be abandoned entirely
despite its outward wrongheadedness (in this case, by atomic theory
and oxygen) is absurd. Literary and cultural studies should in no way
feel bound by obviously patriarchal/hegemonic notions of progress. The
very linearity of progress exudes its phallic nature. Progress is the
last bastion, after all, of the Western colonial programme, and as such
must be subverted by theories othered by its inherent desire to dominate
Besides, phlogistic theory has much to offer. Consider, for instance,
that texts which have themselves had particularly volatile or inflammatory
receptions, The Rite of Spring, for instance, or The Last Temptation
of Christ, can be said to be phlogistic texts, disseminating their phlogiston
into the cultural climate or a particular node of the universal langue.
This is realized by the idea that to apply a theory with a criterion
of limitation or appropriateness for a task is itself an hegemony, a
sort of meta-theoretical game of divide and conquer.
Phlogiston, then seems to be nicely placed for a resurrection, eminently
fruitful, and appropriately esoteric.
The winner of the FTF scholarship for outstanding use of phlogistic
theory has yet to be announced, but the award-winning piece will be
published in the fourth issue of EastWesterly Review, scheduled to be
published November 1, 2000. Proceeds from our fund-raiser at iGive.com
will go towards the scholarship stipend for the next theory uncovered.
Kirwan, Richard. An Essay on Phlogiston and the Constitution of Acids (1724). 2nd. Ed. London: Cass, 1968.
McCann, H. Gilman. Chemistry Transformed: the Paradigmatic Shift From Phlogiston to Oxygen. Norwood: Ablex, 1978.
FTF Update at the 7th Annual