Founding Theory Fund Update

Issue 3 * Summer 2000

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 and control.

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 will go towards the scholarship stipend for the next theory uncovered.


Works Cited

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.


Previous Updates

FTF Update at the 7th Annual Conference