2. Dark Star Crashes: Classical Thermodynamics and the Allegory of Cosmic Catastrophe

Bruce Clarke

Cosmos and Commodity

Allegories fluctuate between obsolescence and the critique of obsolescence. Allegorical structures are typically in transit to obsolescence: they produce even while they resist the obsolescing of the materials they preserve. Thus the profoundly allegorical tenor of Baroque and other emblems of ruin or superannuation—memento mori such as the broken remains of an archaic statue or a defunct commodity like a 386 desktop computer. There is always something anachronistic about allegory. Its generic bric-a-brac results from the overlapping and clash of distinct temporal phases or cultural eras. Counter to symbolist techniques, which seek to collapse time in instantaneous fusions of multiple meanings, allegory operates by means of temporal montage. The spatial stratification or segmentation of allegorical levels often represents an archeology of distinct historical periods. Allegorical temporality is discontinuous time. In allegory some temporal dissonance, some historical clash of past and present, present and future, generates a layered text often intended to neutralize or harmonize that dissonance, to recuperate an obsolescence. In the modern technoscientific period, for which the present is already obsolete, the allegorical anachronisms of science fiction typically establish a significant dissonance between images of the present and the future.

Walter Benjamin’s critical readings of modern society perform an allegorical decoding of the mythic image of time. Benjamin credits allegory with restoring irreversible time to cultural forms, aligning nature with history rather than myth. In The Dialectics of Seeing, Susan Buck-Morss reconstructs Benjamin’s Arcades project as a critical system that pivots on the conceptual relations between social myth and critical allegory: "It was the Baroque poets who demonstrated to Benjamin that the ‘failed material’ of his own historical era could be ‘elevated to the position of allegory.’ What made this so valuable for a dialectical presentation of modernity was that allegory and myth were ‘antithetical.’ Indeed, allegory was the ‘antidote’ to myth."

In the 1850s, the laws of thermodynamics as well as the theory of evolution introduced irreversible time into the scientific description of physical and biological systems. The dissipative transformations of energy and the progressive metamorphoses of species now marked the performance of the world-system over time and marked it as a system in time, as Norton Wise further specifies, a system extracted from repetitive/cyclical time into linear and progressive time. Today we view the arrival of irreversible time within thermodynamics as bringing physics closer to the actual workings of open and far-from-equilibrium systems, thus as an advance over the generalized temporal reversibility that functioned within the regime of Newtonian dynamics. But at first, thermodynamic time came forward precisely as mythic rather than historical time. An apocalyptic concept of heat death—the ur-form of "energy crisis"—arose as a deterministic outcome of the mechanics of energy laws. Hypothetical thermodynamic causality was troped as a universal and seemingly imminent mythic fate. An engraving in Camille Flammarion’s La Fin du Monde depicts the stark human meaning of heat death. [Figure 1]

Victorian thermodynamic prophecies of a universe evacuated of vitality by mechanical dissipation were founded on proverbial Western concepts of temporal linearity, fruition, and summation followed by apocalyptic cessation. Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers have commented on this mythic aspect of thermodynamic time in the nineteenth century: "the specific form in which time was introduced in physics, as a tendency toward homogeneity and death, reminds us more of ancient mythological and religious archetypes than of the progressive complexification and diversification described by biology and the social sciences." Irreversible time emerged in science simultaneously in the historical form of random evolutionary transitions and the mythic or phantasmagoric form of certain, imminent heat death. For Benjamin, however, the burden and the benefit of irreversible time determine a new cultural ethic—it makes human history into a matter of fabrication rather than fate. Benjamin’s practice depends on seeing nature not as mythic predetermination but a temporal and technological construction, something we make as it makes us.

To critique pernicious interweavings of social mythology and scientific ideology, Benjamin developed a "modern form of emblematics," which Buck-Morss graphs upon two conceptual axes (170). At the intersection of these thematic coordinates stands the commodity in the form of a dialectical image. Benjamin surveyed the modern cultural field through the scope of the commodity to reveal the material subtexts of mystified meta-narratives such as "progress," "social evolution," and "the new." The dialectical images of modern commodities circulate through three interlocking discursive dimensions—myth, nature, and history—divided between axes of consciousness (waking and dream) and reality (nature in time) and sorted into the "axial fields" of natural history, mythic history, mythic nature, and historical nature. Each field possesses what we can call an emblem and a mode. Natural history’s emblem is the fossil, its mode the trace; mythic history’s emblem is the fetish, its mode the phantasmagoria; mythic nature’s emblem is the wish image, its mode the symbol; and historical nature’s emblem is the ruin, its mode allegory per se. Plotted on these axes, Benjamin’s Arcades project explores the cultural dreamwork of the modern ideological dialectic between the cosmos and the commodity.

I will use Benjamin’s map of the phantasmagoric commodity to read some of the interplay between science and myth in the early cultural elaboration of the laws of thermodynamics. Dialectical images populate influential nineteenth-century discourses that circulated with the authority of science while troping nature precisely as a commodity. Phantasmagoric descriptions are clearly visible in the early discourses of physical energy. For instance, British physicist Balfour Stewart wrote in The Conservation of Energy, "Energy may be like the Eastern magicians, of whom we read that they had the power for changing themselves into a variety of forms, but were nevertheless very careful not to disappear altogether. . . . It is necessary to penetrate the various disguises that our magician assumes before we can pretend to explain the principles that actuate him in his transformations." Stewart retails this trope of metamorphic agency to expound the first law of thermodynamics, which asserts that the sum of energy in a physical transaction is conserved throughout its transformations. Whether potential, kinetic, chemical, atomic, mechanical, radiant, or thermal—the qualities of energy alter without loss of absolute quantity. In 1874 Stewart co-authored with another eminent Victorian scientist, mathematical physicist P. G. Tait, The Unseen Universe or Physical Speculations on a Future State, which contains further mythic analogues of energy’s metamorphoses. "We see that whereas (to our present knowledge, at least) matter is always the same, though it may be masked in various combinations, energy is constantly changing the form in which it presents itself. The one is like the eternal, unchangeable Fate or Necessitas of the ancients; the other is Proteus himself in the variety and rapidity of its transformations." The law of energy conservation comes forth in Stewart and Tait as classical patriarchal ideology. Virile energy is reified in opposition to dull feminine matter as an occulted, potent, and conserved presence that manifests itself in metamorphic guises—from vital sun to luminiferous aether to chemical effect to electromagnetic dynamism to thermal flows to dead pools of entropy—without loss of substance or essence. Especially in its bourgeois cultural applications, the discourse of thermodynamics produced allegories of capital that exemplify Marx’s famous analysis of the metamorphosis of commodities. We note that anything metamorphic—energy, life, the soul—can function as an analogue of the commodity. Through the "theological niceties" of the commodity, metaphors of money in circulation mime the energies of the natural world as well as powers of the supernatural world.

Within the axial fields of Benjamin’s dialectical coordinates, the cultural allegories instigated by the natural sciences fluctuate among various mythic and historical positions. The discourse of evolution developed into an allegory of industrial society, as the fossil or trace of natural history is transferred to the obsolescence of used goods and outmoded ideas. Commodity fetishism marks the phantasmagorias that unite scientific ideas to social demands, that translate material into mythic history. Wish images circulate as symbols of a mythic nature transfused in modernity by the awesome new divinities of the heat engine and the electrical dynamo. And the emblematical ruin of historical nature returned in the iconography of entropy, heat death, and crashing comets. In our culture, the discursive products of science inevitably enter into the allegorical dialects of commodification. The fantastic moralizations of energic or entropic catastrophe show that scientistic prophecies of disaster are always local rhetorical manipulations. One advocates the doom that most advances one’s ongoing situation.

Phantasmagoric Speculations

The laws of thermodynamics prime the socioeconomic figures that pervade French astronomer and author Camille Flammarion’s La Fin du Monde of 1894. Anticipating by a century 1998’s comet-catastrophe spectacles Deep Impact and Armageddon, Flammarion’s fictionalized popularization of Victorian cosmology imagined that in the semi-advanced world of the twenty-fifth century, a monster comet is discovered on a collision course with Earth. A scientific colloquium is convened in Paris to debate possible effects, which didactic device allows Flammarion to offer a seminar on later nineteenth-century theories of geological and cosmological evolution, especially as these sciences envisioned possible modes of physical catastrophe bringing life on earth to an end. Once the comet passes without irreparable damage, humanity evolves toward an "apogee" of cultural and spiritual development, a sensuous utopia cut short only by the inexorable processes of geological and solar entropy.

Flammarion’s vivid but obsolete prophecies underscore the ironies that develop from the modern scientific revision of time-narratives. La Fin du Monde strove to synthesize scientific positivism and bourgeois spiritualism, only to fracture that synthesis by trying to hold the apocalyptic determinations of classical thermodynamic revelations within a parallel positivist discourse of utopian social prophecy. Both the apocalypse and the utopia are now defunct. Nevertheless, the specter of a cosmic collision between the earth and a killer comet provided vivid emblematic cover for a number of urgent sociopolitical contents. In this section I will trace the ways that this fin-de-siècle apocalypse provides a phantasmagoric cosmic mediation for a series of worldly phenomena—war, revolution, and political economy.

To begin with, La Fin du Monde is fairly explicit about the martial connotations of the impending threat. At first Flammarion’s comet appears like "an army of flaming meteors" (Omega 167). [Figure 2] But it is sufficiently gaseous that "the main body of the celestial army" (177) passes by without causing a total devastation. Moreover, despite some momentary damage, the comet’s ultimate effect is beneficial, reinvigorating: "this cataclysm did not bring about the end of the world. The losses were made good by an apparent increase in human vitality, such as had been observed formerly after destructive wars; the earth continued to revolve in the light of the sun, and humanity to advance toward a still higher destiny" (185). Flammarion’s similes underscore La Fin du Monde’s ideological drive, despite its manifest critique of standing armies, to justify capitalist economies of war by positing the dialectical necessity of militarism as a negative moment leading to a future evolutionary transcendence of war altogether. The losses of combat and the expenditures demanded by war economies are recuperated and rationalized through a wishful reading of dynamical regimes in which sudden bouts of destruction yield a creative restructuring at a higher level of development.

Fables of impending destruction by colliding planets can also mask the direct collision and fiery clash of political regimes in a social revolution. Flammarion develops the world of the twenty-fifth century as the progressive aftermath of a series of revolutionary transformations, beginning with "the great social revolution of the international anarchists who, in 1950, had blown up the greater portion of [Paris] as from the vent of a crater" (Omega 9). Flammarion’s own political attitude is discernible as a fairly positivist, scientized form of libertarian liberalism. To abolish the military and purge the state bureaucracy once and for all, Flammarion tells us, "a radical revolution was necessary. From that time on, Europe had advanced as by magic in a marvellous progress—social, scientific, artistic, and industrial. Taxation, diminished by nine-tenths, served only for the maintenance of internal order, the security of life and property, the support of schools, and the encouragement of new researches. But individual initiative was far more effective than the old-time official centralization" (194-95). The passage of the comet is the last in a series of revolutionary preparations and the final catalyst for humanity’s higher-evolutionary development.

At the beginning of the narrative, however, Flammarion also treats the emergence of the comet in its aspect as news, that is, as a doomsday media item hyped by the popular press, and as a modern telecommunicated disaster, reported more or less in real time. The charge of the extraordinary colloquium at the Parisian Institute is to separate vulgar misunderstanding and media misinformation from a properly scientific grasp of the situation. Like "Wall Street Week" pundits predicting the coming year’s movement of the Dow Jones average, the Parisian experts engage in studied debate about the impending comet’s effects. The first speaker reassures the audience that the world will not be utterly destroyed by the comet, and illustrates his confidence with the following declaration: "I confess that if the Bourse was not closed, and if I had never had the misfortune to be interested in speculation, I should not hesitate today to purchase securities which have fallen so low" (Omega 43). However, he is abruptly interrupted in a tendentious fashion: "This sentence was not finished before a noted American Israelite—a prince of finance—editor of The Twenty-fifth Century, occupying a seat on one of the upper steps of the amphitheater, forced his way, one hardly knows how, through the rows of benches, and rolled like a ball to the corridor leading to an exit, through which he disappeared" (Omega 43-44). Figure 3 subtly depicts this "prince of finance" as a Prince of Darkness. As he rolls out of the domed meeting hall, the tails of his frock coat spread out to suggest the wings of a fallen angel embarking on a devilish scheme. Dashing down like a diabolical fireball, this Luciferian manipulator personifies the evil comet looming overhead. He wings away to Chicago by airship to place his new acquisition of scientific intelligence into timely motion. Capitalizing on the information that the comet crash will not be globally fatal, he causes the stock markets to be reopened and buys up shares whose price has crashed in mistaken anticipation of the cosmic catastrophe.

Flammarion’s text provides a skewed but acute analysis of media manipulation, the ways that the public traffic in scientific assertions—for instance, hasty announcements of cloning success like Dolly the sheep—can impinge on a market economy. "As in other days," Flammarion informs us, "the monasteries had accepted bequests made in view of the end of the world, so our indefatigable speculator had thought best to remain at his telephone, which he had caused to be taken down for the nonce into a vast subterranean gallery, hermetically sealed" with "special wires uniting . . . the principal cities of the world" (Omega 178). From this occulted command-center the devilish market-and-media manipulator makes a further fortune off the comet affair. At first, responding to an unverified local report, headlines in The Twenty-fifth Century declare, "Death of the Pope and all the bishops! Fall of the Comet at Rome!" (177). When it turns out that the Vatican has been unharmed, the wily editor provokes further circulation by cynically converting the correction of misinformation into an act of divine intervention: "Great Miracle at Rome!" (181).

In the bourgeois economic allegory at stake in these passages, the crucial connections are those among energy, capital, and catastrophe. For the ominous comet looms over this story like the threat of a stock-market collapse over a mismanaged or over-heated economy. Indeed, capital investment is that to which (financial) catastrophe can occur—and in the form precisely of a crash, the collision of high prices falling back to earth, as "ruined" speculators jump to their deaths out of high windows. And just as certain thermodynamic moralists bank on the "impending heat death of the universe"—that is, on some train of reasoning based on the imminent possibility of some universal entropic catastrophe—one can capitalize on a stock-market crash, especially on the mediated perception that such a crash is "impending." And yet, the market generally "revives" after a crash, as in these cosmic collision scenarios, the momentary devastation clears the ground for a utopian future.

Within La Fin du Monde the stock-market affair is a bit of social satire leavening the heaviness of the narrative’s other apocalyptic themes. Flammarion demonizes the Jewish tycoon with a scenario of cynical exploitation. "Speculation" is explicitly presented as the corrupt capitalistic device of playing on manufactured perceptions, especially on expectations of the future. In the comet’s aftermath, with the dissolution of the military in the onset of a more perfect society, Flammarion explains how "men perceived that the military system meant the maintenance of an army of parasites and idlers, yielding a passive obedience to the orders of diplomats, who were simply speculating on human credulity" (Omega 189, my italics). Through the Jewish tycoon and the international diplomat, Flammarion defines and demonizes a culture of destructive speculation, developed to paranoid length by details such as the subterranean stronghold in telecommunication with minions located in military/industrial capitals. But this satire actually bites the author back by revealing—through the projection of his daemonic double, the "American Israelite"—the structure of his own rhetorical manipulations.

The ideological alarm associating Jewish financiers with market capitalism and media corruption, however, centers on the term "speculation" in a way that also frames Flammarion within his own stereotypes. For the entire scenario of financial speculation emerges in tandem with the comet’s impending and actual collision with the earth, which is itself produced by an act of fictive speculation, the very "futuristic vision" that holds this narrative in the grip of thermodynamic images of catastrophe coined earlier in the nineteenth century. In the phantasmagorias of thermodynamic apocalypse that emerged in the 1850s and 60s, entropy came forward as the uncontrollable aspect of physical systems, historically concurrent with other modern anxieties over the control of capital, material resources, ethnic minorities, and subject populations. The initial notion of thermodynamic entropy was charged at its inception by the cultural stresses of imperialism and industrial capitalism, and then elaborated by later narratives providing a paranoid view of present social relations extrapolated into a speculative future.

For various ideological purposes Flammarion articulated some of the forms of mythic history and cultural paranoia induced by the initial discourse of thermodynamics—the notion that somehow the cosmos (as opposed to the economy operated by a particular political regime) is out to get us, perhaps by dooming us to a slow death of entropic fatigue, or else by hurling at us out of nowhere a fiery comet of vast destruction. In these equivocations on the act of speculation, financial, scientific, and fictional predictions typically produce an allegory of the present, a transformation that puts the present under threat of daemonic control by the future. The paradigmatic science-fiction of a speculative future necessarily re-presents the chaos of the present in the mode of allegory—as a totalized system—and this textual conversion of the present is then registered within the text of the future as a paranoia of control. In La Fin du Monde, allegory and commodification converge to promote and subvert Flammarion’s own brand of prophetic positivism, to enhance and collapse his own speculative holdings of intellectual paper, through phantasmagoric spins on the laws of thermodynamics.

Dark Star Crashes

Certain allegories of thermodynamics operated on the first as well as the second law to moralize the conservation as well as the entropic dissipation of energy. To revise T. S. Eliot’s modernist expression of entropic melancholy in "The Hollow Men," in some thermodynamic fables the world ends not with a whimper but with a bang. These more robust visions of destruction and ruin arose spontaneously from the imagery of competing energies and the contemplation of colliding masses. As Gregory Bateson has noted, "from the time of Newton to the late nineteenth century, the dominant preoccupation of science was with those chains of cause and effect which could be referred to forces and impacts." In tandem with heat death and other notions of energic fatigue, a separate register of thermodynamic catastrophe developed from speculations about the cataclysmic collision of cosmic bodies—asteroids, comets, planets, and stars. What happens when the kinetic energy resident within a physical system is suddenly dissipated in a chaos of disorderly fragments? In particular, what happens when massive bodies in extremely rapid motion hurtle into each other? If despite this sudden leap into higher entropic states, the sum of their energies of motion is conserved, where does that power go when the explosion is over? And what might these physical considerations have to do with modern hopes and fears over individual and cultural progress or survival? For some scientistic speculators, the first law of thermodynamics held out the promise of violent transformation rather than utter annihilation and thus salvaged creative hope out of entropic despair.

In La Fin du Monde and again in H. G. Wells’s "The Star," another tale in which a comet threatens to collide with the earth, it is implied that episodes of vast destruction can release more energies than they consume, repairing cosmic fatigue with new resources of power. In "The Star," a compact parable published in the Christmas 1897 number of the Graphic, the star that rises upon the world is not a herald of peace but a threat of destruction. The monster comet collides with Neptune, "and the heat of the concussion . . . incontinently turned two solid globes into one vast mass of incandescence" (646). Then the augmented projectile takes dead aim at Earth. Its malignant heat raises flood tides and typhoons that devastate the Pacific hemisphere, but a direct hit is averted when the moon interposes itself, takes the brunt of the impact and deflects the star, which then dashes on "the last stage of its headlong journey downward into the sun. . . . And as the storms subsided men perceived that everywhere the days were hotter than of yore, and the sun larger, and the moon, shrunk to a third of its former size, took now fourscore days between its new and new. But of the new brotherhood that grew presently among men, of the saving of laws and books and machines . . . this story does not tell" (654-55).

Wells’s coy short story recapitulates in miniature the shape and detail of La Fin du Monde, the second part of which details a "new brotherhood" in a post-cometary futurity that carries the story of human progress forward to a final demise ten million years in the future. At first, however, La Fin du Monde opens upon a state of global lassitude induced by the rogue comet that has emerged from deep space on a collision path with the earth. "For more than a month the business of the world had been suspended" (Omega 11) as if under the paralysis of a death sentence: "The courts themselves had no cases; one does not murder when one expects the end of the world" (12). When the comet is just days away from impact, as the speakers at the Parisian colloquium debate the possible effects of the comet’s solid and gaseous elements, the first law of thermodynamics is repeatedly invoked in the particular form of the mechanical conversion of the energy of motion into heat. The President of the Astronomical Society reviews the basic science involved:

"The audience before me is too well informed not to know the mechanical equivalent of heat. Every body whose motion is arrested produces a quantity of heat expressed in caloric units by mv_ divided by 8338, in which m is the mass of the body in kilograms and v its velocity in meters per second. For example, a body weighing 8338 kilograms, moving with a velocity of one meter per second, would produce, if suddenly stopped, exactly one heat unit; that is to say, the quantity of heat necessary to raise one kilogram of water one degree in temperature." (Omega 57-58)

A moving body is typically brought to a sudden stop by colliding with an equal body moving with an opposite velocity. This detail of Victorian physics also inflects Wells’s "The Star," at two points. The first is Wells’s own didactic device, early in the story, for placing physical concepts before the reader: "The schoolboy . . . puzzled it out for himself—with the great white star, shining broad and bright through the frost flowers of his window. ‘Centrifugal, centripetal,’ he said, with his chin on his fist. ‘Stop a planet in its flight, rob it of its centrifugal force, what then? Centripetal has it, and down it falls into the sun!’" (647). Here the idea of the sudden arrest of planetary motion is conceived in its inertial rather than thermodynamic aspect. The latter consideration returns at the end of the story, at its second point of intersection with the first law of thermodynamics, which is applied now to a defunct phase of solar physics, the meteoric theory of solar energy. In the aftermath of the Star’s near collision with the earth, "the days were hotter than of yore" because the comet and the greater portion of the moon, having crashed into the sun, are conceived to have augmented not just its mass but also its energy, by the conversion of their mechanical energy upon collision into heat.

For these formulations of the first law in relation to solar energy, both Wells and Flammarion may have been indebted to the popular physical expositions of John Tyndall, professor of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution from the 1850s to the 1880s and an avid popularizer of leading scientific research. For instance, in the lead essay of his 1865 collection Fragments of Science, "The Constitution of Nature," Tyndall stated: "Acted on by [gravity], the earth, were it stopped in its orbit to-morrow, would rush towards, and finally combine with, the sun. Heat would also be developed by this collision . . . equal [to] that produced by the combustion of more than 5,000 worlds of solid coal, all this heat being generated at the instant of collision." In the solar physics of Tyndall’s time, decades prior to the understanding of nuclear energy, the sun’s steady rather than diminishing production of light and heat was accounted for in several ways. According to the meteoric theory, the solar system supplied the sun a constant infusion of rapidly-moving interplanetary matter. This meteoric source of fuel augmented an allied theory of solar condensation, in which the sun maintained its energy at an even level through the constant shrinkage of its radius. During the debate at the Parisian Institute it is eventually pointed out that, catastrophic comets aside, in all probability the world will end when, its internal and external fuel supplies exhausted, the sun burns out:

"The probable cause of the heat of the sun is the condensation of the nebula in which this central body of our system had its origin. . . . The temperature of this great day-star does not seem to have fallen any; for its condensation is still going on, and it may make good the loss by radiation. Nevertheless . . . the time will come when the circulation, which now supplies the photosphere, and makes the central mass a reservoir of radiant energy, will be obstructed and will slacken. . . . The brilliant photosphere will be replaced by a dark opaque crust which will prevent all luminous radiation. . . . The earth, a dark ball, a frozen tomb, will continue to revolve about the black sun, traveling through an endless night and hurrying away with all the solar system into the abyss of space. It is to the extinction of the sun that the earth will owe its death, twenty, perhaps forty million years hence." (Omega 107-10)

But Flammarion holds this momentary reversion to entropic rationales in check by placing it in relation to a long list of more or less plausible doomsday scenarios, with the effect of diminishing their overall shock value. And in the immediate event, the comet deals the earth a severe but not irreparable global blow: "the number of the dead was one-fortieth of the population of Europe" (184). So La Fin du Monde anticipates "The Star"’s simple structure of an averted cosmic threat that produces a spiritual transformation of humanity. The latter part of Flammarion’s lengthy didactic fable narrates our higher evolutionary destiny, the perfect mastery of material conditions. "Progress is the supreme law," the narrator declares, looking back upon a distant future when humanity "had risen . . . to the position of a sovereign who ruled the world by mind, and who had made it a paradise of happiness, of pure contemplation, of knowledge and of pleasure" (Omega 217). [Figure 4] The future shape of human biological and social evolution produces a dated catalog of unremarkable marvels: the "weather could be predicted . . . electricity had taken the place of steam" (Omega 197). These technological developments are overshadowed by biological mutations that over many millennia unfold new powers of perception: "the electric sense . . . the psychic sense." For millions of years humanity mounts evolution’s rainbow to reach a hazy "apogee" of sentient development. [Figure 5]

But now the world of the future is poised to fall back from its zenith. The time has come of inexorable physical decline brought on by the geological decrepitude of the earth. Many of the ecological disasters presented as physical hypotheses in the great comet debate of the twentieth-fifth century are now seen to come true. The first characters in the novel granted proper names are the last two survivors of the expiring posthuman race, Omegar and Eva, who are subjected to a humorously lugubrious apotheosis. One can sense the relief with which Flammarion disposed of this modicum of personal interest in order to proceed to the actual finale of his opus, the true end of La Fin du Monde, in his "Épilogue: Après La Fin du Monde Terrestre—dissertation philosophique finale." On the frontispiece of this final chapter, Flammarion’s illustrator has pictured the dark star of thermodynamic speculation. [Figure 6]

Flammarion brought his readers this far in order to assure them that science guarantees a new beginning after the end of the world. In the end, gravitation and the first law’s guarantee of the mechanical conversion of motion into heat outmaneuver the second law of thermodynamics. The very headlong momentum of the comets that had threatened the earth partakes of the cosmic dynamism necessary to make a new start. For even "a planetary corpse, a dead and frozen world . . . still bears . . . within its bosom an unexpended energy—that of its motion of translation about the sun" (272). The meteoric theory of solar energy is now reprised in terms of the energies latent in the fall of planets into the sun: "If the earth should fall into the sun, it would make good for ninety-five years the actual loss of solar energy. . . . The fall of all the planets into the sun would produce heat enough to maintain the present rate of expenditure for about 46,000 years" (275). In fact, Flammarion is transcribing a table of nearly identical information offered in the final pages of Tyndall’s magnum opus on thermodynamics, Heat: A Mode of Motion. A few pages before this table, Tyndall had made a strong statement of the meteoric theory’s positing of gravity over entropy:

Whatever be the ultimate fate of this theory, it is a great thing to be able to state the conditions which certainly would produce a sun,—to be able to discern in the force of gravity, acting upon dark matter, the source from which the starry heavens may have been derived. For whether the sun be produced, and his emission maintained, by the collision of cosmical masses—whether . . . the internal heat of the earth be the residue of that developed by the impact of cold dark asteroids, or not—there cannot be a doubt as to the competence of the cause assigned to produce the effects ascribed to it. Solar light and solar heat lie latent in the force which pulls an apple to the ground. (Heat 519-20)

Tyndall’s profession of cosmic optimism provoked a powerful counter-argument from some thermodynamic doomsayers who envisioned the end of the world as an utterly final event. In a passage of The Unseen Universe, Tait and Stewart replied directly to Tyndall’s materialist declarations: "If the present physical laws remain long enough in operation, there will be (at immense intervals of time) mighty catastrophes due to the crashing together of defunct suns . . . growing in grandeur but diminishing in number till the exhaustion of energy is complete, and after that eternal rest, so far at least as visible motion is concerned" (92). This "eternal rest" awards the second law cosmological precedence over the first law, at least to the limits of the "seen" or material world, in order to credit the "unseen universe" of divine agency with the ultimate responsibility for bringing material worlds into being.

Tyndall ranked the first law over the second, in order to maintain a secular materialist position in which matter itself, aided by gravity, is endowed with the ability to regenerate energy sources. He stated this position succinctly in his article "The Constitution of Nature." Extrapolating from the mechanical theory of heat to the dynamism of cosmic origins, Tyndall again affirmed: "In the attraction of gravity, therefore, acting upon non-luminous matter, we have a source of heat more powerful than could be derived from any terrestrial combustion. And were the matter of the universe thrown in cold detached fragments into space, and there abandoned to the mutual gravitation of its own parts, the collision of the fragments would in the end produce the fires of the stars" (7).

Flammarion extended Tyndall’s promise of a self-organizing universe into an oscillating eternity of creations and destructions, envisioning in more elaborate detail Tyndall’s intimation of the originary force of dark star crashes:

Long after the death of the earth, of the giant planets and the central luminary, while our old and darkened sun was still speeding through boundless space, with its dead worlds on which terrestrial and planetary life had once engaged in the futile struggle for daily existence, another extinct sun, issuing from the depths of infinity, collided obliquely with it and brought it to rest!

Then in the vast night of space, from the shock of these two mighty bodies was suddenly kindled a stupendous conflagration, and an immense gaseous nebula was formed . . . . [It] began to turn upon itself. And in the zones of condensation of this primordial star-mist, new worlds were born, as heretofore the earth was. . . . And these universes passed away in their turn. (Omega 284-87)


A consistent thermodynamic idiom of catastrophic and cataclysmic rhetoric runs from John Tyndall’s popular expositions of the early 1860s to Flammarion’s compendium of cosmological endgames and H. G. Wells’s scientific fables, and from there to broad dissemination in the cosmological imaginary of international modernism. For instance, the "Ithaca" chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) tells of "The appearance of a star (1st magnitude) of exceeding brilliancy dominating by night and day (a new luminous sun generated by the collision and amalgamation in incandescence of two nonluminous exsuns)." And again, in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s essay "On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters" (1923), creative thermodynamic catastrophe is updated for application to current sociopolitical upheavals: "Two dead, dark stars collide with an inaudible, deafening crash and light a new star: this is revolution." Joyce’s nova and Zamyatin’s vision of revolution have their sources in a specific recuperative Victorian moralization of the first law of thermodynamics in direct response to the heat-death scenarios elaborated on the basis of the second law. Spinning out of the cultural allegories constructed on these models of energy, the dark stars that rose over the discourse of classical thermodynamics heralded an explosive historical era driven in its economic and political transformations both by phantasmagoric specters of the entropic fates awaiting the world and its inhabitants, and by secular scientists’ positive promises that new life can always be created out of violent collisions.

In these scientistic images of a cosmos variously doomed to imminent or ultimate energic ruin, the world is subjected to the accidental breakdown or inevitable obsolescence that typically befall the industrial commodity. In anticipation of contemporary responses to periodic energy crises, recuperative scenarios are then concocted by which the world is recycled and so salvaged out of its own junk heap. Flammarion counters his own entropic phantasmagorias by projecting an economic wish-image onto the physical universe. In the fullness of eternity, the commodified cosmos is granted the transcendental capacity to maintain itself in perpetually productive circulation. This ultimate guarantee retroactively underwrites the hopeful saga of posthuman evolution toward an apogee of happiness narrated earlier in the text. Walter Benjamin addressed his critique of modernity precisely to such scientistic myths of evolutionary progressivism. "The phantasmagoric understanding of modernity as a chain of events that leads with unbroken, historical continuity to the realization of social utopia, a ‘heaven’ of class harmony and material abundance" did not represent history's telos; rather "this conceptual constellation blocked revolutionary consciousness like an astrological force" (Buck-Morss 95). For Benjamin, the truly malign or baleful influence wrought by the dark stars of classical thermodynamics are the discursive collisions of these allegories of cosmic catastrophe with modern society. And yet, that dark astrology marked the beginning of the conceptual transition of thermodynamic ideas from the cycles of mythic history to the self-organizing possibilities of irreversible time.

I would like to thank Linda Henderson, Paul Allen Miller, and James Paxson for their helpful comments on drafts of this paper.