University of Toronto Quarterly - Summer 2012 Review by Richard J. Lane

As extracted from

New Canadian Fiction
Richard J. Lane
University of Toronto Quarterly, Volume 81, Number 3, Summer 2012, pp. 514-529 (Article) Published by University of Toronto Press
DOI: 10.1353/utq.2012.0035

In a lighter approach to an obsession with things – one that would appear to be the opposite of Jeff Mott’s epiphanic encounter with kitchen utensils – Harry Karlinsky utilizes the humble utensil to parody the misapplication of scientific knowledge, in this case, Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Creating a speculative biography and intellectual history in The Evolution of Inanimate Objects: The Life and Collected Works of Thomas Darwin (1857–1879), Karlinsky explores the relationship of science and culture, the role of misunderstanding and failure which paradoxically contributes to technological innovation and progress, as well as the importance of peer review in the process of maintaining scientific standards, and even the role of fame in driving the dissemination of ideas.

In this remarkable postmodern book, postmodernism’s theoretical underpinnings are also questioned as being inherently fraudulent or, at the least, under suspicion, suggesting in turn that the novel is a sort of fictional equivalent of Sokal and Bricmont’s critique of literary and social science theory, published in English as Intellectual Impostures  (1998 ). The parody by Karlinsky is effectively and comically written, with numerous witty asides and intellectual jokes, such as the fact that the fictional Thomas Darwin’s childhood is known about through the literature of scientific observation: ‘Charles Darwin was a loving and attentive father, but a child’s arrival was also an opportunity for the close scrutiny of a domesticated species of interest.’ The trauma that Charles theorizes was the source of Thomas’s later insanity – the son watching the father fall from his horse which subsequently rolls on him – satirically reworks Freud’s theories of childhood trauma and the primal scene, which in this case was an even earlier  fall by Charles from a child’s rocking horse. The key here is the slightly confusing statement – confusing on a first reading of the novel, that is – that ‘Charles acknowledged he had reflexively scanned the rocking horse for signs of terror, searching specifically for dilated nostrils.’ It is subsequently not clear whether Thomas is traumatized by the fall(s) or by the father’s obsession with scientific observation, an obsession that instinctively treats an inanimate object as one that is alive. Thomas’s transference in effect awakens his talent for philosophizing and theorizing, that shadow world symbolized by his childhood retreat into ‘repeated games of shadow puppets.’ Other strong influences on Thomas’s life include the theories of the collector Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, whose massive collection of anthropological and archaeological objects was donated to the University of Oxford in 1882 ; Karlinsky neatly blurs together fact and fiction in this instance, since Pitt Rivers did indeed believe in the ‘evolution' of objects, arguing that material objects developed across time from the simple to the complex. Thomas’s insight derives in the novel from attending lectures by Pitt Rivers: ‘Thomas had suddenly realized that his father’s theories could be applied to more than just successive forms of organic life. Thomas now had only one goal – to account for the origin and diversity of artefacts in a manner analogous to his father’s evolutionary theories on biological change.’ Amusingly, Thomas develops a theoretical paradigm for his project, based upon the incontrovertible fact that the design of eating implements – namely knives, forks, and spoons – has changed over time. Thomas undertakes ‘research’ based upon this paradigm, leading him eventually to that most important of British locations for the production of cutlery, the industrial town of Sheffield. Later in the novel, the reader learns that the main trigger that leads to Thomas’s flight from England, and subsequent incarceration for insanity once he gets to Canada, is a rejection letter from the editor of the scientific journal Nature . In other words, peer review in this instance filters out Thomas’s incorrect application of Darwinian evolutionary theory but also drives him mad. One cannot help but read echoes of the many fraudulent papers that have made their way into academic journals, perhaps none more famous than Alan Sokal’s ‘Transgressing the Boundaries:

Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’

published in Social Text  (1996 ). Other echoes in the novel are to some of the theorists – and theories – parodied by Sokal, such as Deleuze and Guattari’s theories of machine-based subjectivity. Thomas Darwin’s misapplication of the theory of evolution leads him in turn to speculate about the production of novel artifacts, regarding the expression of variation to be due to ‘spontaneous mechanical fusion.’ Thomas’s main error appears to be taking human action out of the equation, leading him to regard machines as organic self-replicating entities; his misinterpretation extends to his reading of satirical literature, in this instance Samuel Butler’s Erewhon  (1872 ), a novel in which autonomous machines are eventually banished from human society. The Evolution of Inanimate Objects  is raised to another level of complexity by the sympathetic reception of Thomas by the medical superintendent at Ontario’s London Asylum, Dr. Richard M. Bucke, described in the novel as another famous man who developed his own ‘idiosyncratic applications of Charles Darwin’s theories.’ Bucke’s theory of man’s moral consciousness evolving through time was not only influenced by Walt Whitman’s poetry but in turn suggests that Whitman himself represents a new stage in man’s moral nature, the title of one of his key books, published in 1879 . Known today primarily for his work Cosmic Consciousness  (1901 ), Bucke instituted many reforms in psychiatric care, including giving patients freedom from restraint, although Karlinsky parodies Bucke’s painful cure for ‘masturbatory insanity.’ The highlight of the parody in the novel, however, has to be Thomas’s experiments with forks and spoons as he attempted to prove how ‘hybrids’ are produced; even though ‘gestational’ periods are varied, however, he can find no evidence of the ‘penetration’ of a fork and spoon laid together in close proximity. In a diary entry, Dr. Bucke notes that Thomas has had ‘a most peculiar utensil’ confiscated from him, ‘a singular object, as if a fork and spoon had been laid end-to-end and then fused at their handles.’ The brilliant ambiguity here is that the reader does not know if this ‘peculiar utensil’ has been made or if it is indeed the natural offspring of mating cutlery. Even more amusing is the fact that the attendant who confiscates this intriguing child believes it is ‘an instrument for the pleasures of self-abuse.’ Opening The Evolution of Inanimate Objects  at virtually any page reveals a complex interplay of witty fact and fiction, yet the parody is not only humorous but carries with it an allegorical intent, since it is we who are also being parodied, the literary critics and theorists who would have read Sokal’s essay in all seriousness and pronounced it an excellent application of poststructuralist and postmodernist theory. Read allegorically, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects  carries an underlying message:

that the misreading and misapplication of paradigmatic scientific theories is not only problematic (and potentially insane) but also productive and useful, hinted at through reference to Henry Petroski’s books The Evolution of Useful Things  and The Evolution of Technology . Reviewing this novel, however, is a difficult task, because ultimately it is a finely crafted hall of mirrors, in which one is never entirely sure if it is one’s own reflection that is in fact causing much of the laughter