Engaging the Unknowable: Modernism, Science, and Epistemology
My dissertation is situated at the intersection of modernism, print culture, and early-twentieth-century post-Newtonian physics, namely relativity theory and quantum theory. I investigate the ways in which the emerging concept of the unknowable—loosely defined as that which is beyond knowledge but maintains an influence on what can be known—catalyzed a cultural reorientation away from Victorian notions of positivism and progress and toward those aspects of reality that resist knowledge. Although a great deal of critical attention has been paid to modernism’s epistemological uniqueness, scholars are only beginning to acknowledge that concurrent revolutions in physics both reflected and influenced modernists’ conceptions of history, subjectivity, and aesthetics. Scholars such as Gillian Beer, Michael Whitworth, and Mark S. Morrisson have demonstrated that print and popular culture provided crucial avenues through which scientific ideas were disseminated in British society. Furthermore, their research has shown that modernist authors not only read popular science material but also published their work alongside articles about science in a variety of magazines, journals, and newspapers. Building on these connections, I show that books and periodicals served as platforms for dialogue and ideological exchange between science and literature as both disciplines increasingly recognized and grappled with the pervasive influence of the unknowable.