The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon

The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon

by John Tresch
     
 

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In the years immediately following Napoleon’s defeat, French thinkers in all fields set their minds to the problem of how to recover from the long upheavals that had been set into motion by the French Revolution. Many challenged the Enlightenment’s emphasis on mechanics and questioned the rising power of machines, seeking a return to the organic unity

Overview

In the years immediately following Napoleon’s defeat, French thinkers in all fields set their minds to the problem of how to recover from the long upheavals that had been set into motion by the French Revolution. Many challenged the Enlightenment’s emphasis on mechanics and questioned the rising power of machines, seeking a return to the organic unity of an earlier age and triggering the artistic and philosophical movement of romanticism. Previous scholars have viewed romanticism and industrialization in opposition, but in this groundbreaking volume John Tresch reveals how thoroughly entwined science and the arts were in early nineteenth-century France and how they worked together to unite a fractured society.

Focusing on a set of celebrated technologies, including steam engines, electromagnetic and geophysical instruments, early photography, and mass-scale printing, Tresch looks at how new conceptions of energy, instrumentality, and association fueled such diverse developments as fantastic literature, popular astronomy, grand opera, positivism, utopian socialism, and the Revolution of 1848. He shows that those who attempted to fuse organicism and mechanism in various ways, including Alexander von Humboldt and Auguste Comte, charted a road not taken that resonates today.

Essential reading for historians of science, intellectual and cultural historians of Europe, and literary and art historians, The Romantic Machine is poised to profoundly alter our understanding of the scientific and cultural landscape of the early nineteenth century.

Editorial Reviews

Jane Bennett
“In this fascinating and philosophically rich tale, Tresch re-invokes a world in which machines are not unnatural, dead mechanisms but vessels, affordances, ‘organs’ even, of nature’s expansive self-expression. These romantic machines and charismatic technologies could—and still do—draw forth invisible powers within materialities human and not. Tresch’s account of the ‘alchemical conjunction of romanticism and mechanism’ is itself a brilliant admixture of the history of science, nature-philosophy, and political theory. A wonderful and rewarding book.”
Jan Goldstein
The Romantic Machine is a boldly original and riotously interdisciplinary essay in the history of science that reinterprets romanticism for our own era. Situated within a dense fabric of political, moral, aesthetic, and epistemological concerns, Tresch’s early nineteenth-century ‘mechanical romantics’ reject human mastery over nature as the goal of science, opting instead for limited regulation and sustainable coexistence.”
Bruno Latour
“With The Romantic Machine, John Tresch fulfills the goal of most recent history of science: to show that when you follow scientific achievements you end up describing a whole culture, including its literature and arts. By proposing a new interpretation of post-Napoleonic Paris’s material culture, Tresch shows the fecundity of his notion of cosmogram as the foundation of a different historical anthropology, one that includes science and technology and is not led by any teleology toward ‘modernity.’ On the contrary, by reinterpreting romanticism, he shows how much we could learn from this early nineteenth century period for understanding our own contradictory cosmograms today.”
Choice - P. D. Skiff
“Recommended.”
Nineteenth-Century French Studies - Greg Kerr
“A work which brings into glittering relief the materials of scientific exploration in the early nineteenth century and reveals how scientists were, beyond the ostensible field of enquiry, profoundly engaged with the emotive, social and spiritual dimensions of their discoveries. . . . Of certain appeal to historians of science and scholars in popular culture The Romantic Machine . . . makes a distinct contribution to the study of technological thought, and gestures frequently towards the work of figures as diverse as Bergson, Deleuze, and Simondon.”
American Historical Review - Jeff Horn
“Tresch’s work contains many interesting and provocative insights. . . . [It] belongs in every research library.”
Reviews in History - Robert D. Priest
“Tresch offers something new and exciting to historians of nineteenth-century France. His effort will hopefully encourage other innovative perspectives on the relationship between the arts and sciences.”
Brooklyn Rail - Courtney Fiske
“Illuminating a spectrum of heterodox approaches grouped under the umbrella term ‘mechanical romanticism,’ Tresch makes an insistent and compelling case for why the current cultural impasse between science- and creative-types is far from inevitable. In this vision, sound science need not transpire without a lyrical core, while efficiency need not obviate moments of effusive, ecstatic connection.”
Centaurus - Helmut Muller-Sievers
“Tresch’s book restores to machines the dignity of wonder, of experimentation, openness, and beauty. It does so without neglecting the inexorable logic of material components, of thermodynamic laws, and of scientific axioms, and without blindness for the social and economic forces to which industrial machines will be subjected. The Romantic Machine not only describes utopian science and technology, but is itself a messenger from a utopia where technical objects regain their language and become agents in the complex history of nineteenth-century culture.”
Metascience - Robert Fox
“This is one of the rare products of our field that can be recommended with confidence to readers yet to be persuaded of the centrality of science and its applications in the fashioning of Western literate culture. It is a fascinating book and a must for anyone seeking to get to grips with the complex, knotty roots of modernity.”
Technology and Culture - Theresa Levitt
“Tresch’s focus on specific material objects is immensely rewarding; through them, he is able to uncover an entire world that rejected the binary of living/mechanical that we have come to see as inevitable.”
French Studies - Benjamin B cle

“John Tresch, in this beautifully written and masterfully researched book, tackles the age-old gap between romanticism and science, and succeeds in bridging a divide that is so long-established that it has become the basic template for many researchers in the field. . . . [A] major tour de force.”
French Studies - Benjamin Bâcle
“John Tresch, in this beautifully written and masterfully researched book, tackles the age-old gap between romanticism and science, and succeeds in bridging a divide that is so long-established that it has become the basic template for many researchers in the field. . . . [A] major tour de force.”
French Studies - Benjamin B�cle

“John Tresch, in this beautifully written and masterfully researched book, tackles the age-old gap between romanticism and science, and succeeds in bridging a divide that is so long-established that it has become the basic template for many researchers in the field. . . . [A] major tour de force.”
Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies
"Erudite and engaging. . . . Tresch’s study has the potential to transform how we understand the nineteenth century. The wide range of 'machines' at work in this study as well as the cultural arguments it makes also means that this study reaches far beyond any narrow definition of the history of science and technology."
French Studies - Benjamin Bâcle
“John Tresch, in this beautifully written and masterfully researched book, tackles the age-old gap between romanticism and science, and succeeds in bridging a divide that is so long-established that it has become the basic template for many researchers in the field. . . . [A] major tour de force.”

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780226812229
Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
02/06/2012
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
472
File size:
13 MB
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This product may take a few minutes to download.

Read an Excerpt

THE ROMANTIC MACHINE

Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon
By JOHN TRESCH

THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-81220-5


Chapter One

Introduction

Mechanical Romanticism

HOPELESS ROMANTICS AND SOULLESS MECHANISTS

Both romanticism and mechanism have defined the modern world. Creators, dreamers, and nature-lovers have confronted—or run from—hardheaded realists and rationalizers. Technophiles, bureaucrats, and scientific fundamentalists, on the other hand, have tried to ban emotion, individuality, and fantasy from the serious work of learning about nature. In this constantly reformulated battle, perhaps you have joined your voice to those who call out for more creativity and spontaneity, raging against mechanization and standardization. Or you may have nodded your assent to those who plead for better data and technological fixes, shinier equipment and starker rationality, less superstition and feeling.

Or perhaps you see this as a false opposition. If so, you might have found yourself at home among the protagonists of this book, in Paris before 1848: a time and place when romantic aspirations shaped mechanical sciences and industry and when new discoveries and devices intensified organic and artistic visions. In diverse but overlapping projects, emotion and aesthetic experience were valued on a par with technical and rational mastery; individuals and entire movements set themselves the task of remaking society and the natural world with the help of new machines.

The opposition between romanticism and mechanism is abundantly familiar, thanks in part to histories of ideas from the first half of the twentieth century, such as Lovejoy's Great Chain of Being and Whitehead's Science and the Modern World, with its key chapter "The Romantic Reaction." According to these influential works, romanticism brought with it a new conception and experience of the self, accentuating emotion, expression, aesthetics, and purposeful action. Romanticism saw all of nature as united through an underlying living force and through archetypal forms. Humans themselves were part of nature's incessant growth and development, which manifested in creations of artistic and philosophical genius. The human imagination and senses played an active role in shaping phenomena and creating a "second nature." Art and philosophy sought to raise audiences beyond individual consciousness into participation in a wider whole. Politics itself appeared as an art: land, language, and birth were melded together, laying the ground for both nationalism and a vibrant cosmopolitanism.

The varied, at times contradictory, tendencies of romanticism have frequently been summed up in a single term: organicism. Romantics used notions associated with the processes of life-growth and holism, circular causality, and the productive struggle and harmony between polarities-to characterize poems, persons, nations, and the cosmos. More bluntly, the term organicism has been defined as the opposite of mechanism. Put forth influentially by German thinkers clustered in Jena at the end of the eighteenth century, this opposition oriented much of the intellectual life of the subsequent two centuries. As a refusal of the rationalism of the Enlightenment and as a protest against the emergence of a cold and fragmented scientific and industrial order, romanticism has been defined as "that attempt, apparently doomed to failure and abandoned by our time, to identify subject and object, to reconcile man and nature, consciousness and unconsciousness." "Hopelessly romantic," we say, of someone who wants life to be like a novel, a roman: someone childishly addicted to intense passions, unable to yield to hard realities and common sense. If romanticism rallies around hearts, spirits, and the vital pulse of living things, it is at the same time the enemy of reason, matter, and machines.

In contrast to romantics, promoters of machines and mechanism have been seen as pursuing detached, rational analyses of nature's objective properties. Against the celebration of individual freedom, they hold to an all-embracing determinism; against the nostalgic flight to nature, they relentlessly construct artificial improvements; against organic holism, they analyze and reduce. According to many interpreters, this has been all to the good. In the history of science, for example, there is a recurrent assumption that a field's progress can be measured by the extent to which its phenomena are treated "mechanically," implying a removal of teleology and metaphysics, and the extent to which its procedures are performed by mechanistic algorithms or repeatable experiments. This narrative of scientific progress overlaps with the view that measures a society's degree of civilization by its use of machines.

Yet the very "inhumanity" that has made machines a standard for progress and the model for the well-governed state—their supposed uniformity, efficiency, and lack of emotion—has also made them targets of hostility. A machine has no feelings, no soul; it lacks the growth, flexibility, and freedom attributed to life. Mechanistic science proceeds by decomposition and analysis, separation and distinction; it kills what it studies. A set of oppositions has thus emerged in which those who mourn the disenchantment of the world and the unweaving of rainbows confront those who embrace the adult, real world of facts, laws, and objects:

Romanticism Mechanism

emotion, will, passion reason spirit matter sensation, color, feeling mass, motion, number moral, personalized nature amoral, impersonal nature freedom determinism wholes (synthesis) parts (analysis) retrograde, nostalgic progressive, forward-looking organisms machines

Any number of cultural and disciplinary clashes—from the "dissociation of sensibility" and the "two cultures," to the "science wars"—have taken place along this fault line. Yet as accurate as this opposition may be as a description of certain intellectual skirmishes and posturings, it has obscured important features of the intellectual and political landscape of modernity, leading us to misunderstand both romanticism and mechanism as well as the manifold cases in which they were entwined.

This book explores numerous such cases in one pivotal setting: Paris in the uncertain interval between the fall of one Napoleon and the rise of another. At that time, debates about the impact of technology were at the center of cultural and political life. While some expressed wariness or even hostility toward machines, others embraced them; and many did so with attitudes and ideas usually associated with romanticism. Taken as aids for externalizing and expressing the self, machines drew forth virtual powers and brought about conversions among hidden forces; they could be used to create new wholes and organic orders, remaking humans' relationship to nature and renewing nature itself. Romantic themes guided research across scientific fields, as shown by recurrent scientific interest in development, conversion, and metamorphosis; in reflections about phenomena as the interface between the mind and external objects; and in a new attention to the aesthetic, emotional, and subjective aspects of knowledge. At the same time, artworks and popular spectacles used new and elaborate techniques to produce powerful emotions and lifelike effects and often took the demiurgic powers of science and technology as their central themes. In many cases, the encounter between mechanism and romanticism fed into a thorough re-imagining of the system of government, the distribution of the fruits of labor, and the proper relationship between humans and the earth. For the loose association of individuals whom I call the mechanical romantics, science and technology appeared not as the enemies of the human, but as integral components—both tools and actors—in the creation of a "second nature."

One point shared by these diverse projects was an interest in protean, weightless, invisible fluids. These "imponderables" were in turn closely related to the concept of the "milieu," or the totality of substances surrounding an organism and forming its "conditions of existence." In English, the term refers primarily to a social setting, but in the French writings discussed here, it also had connotations relating it to biology, spatial location, and physics. In the late eighteenth century, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck—who coined the term biology—spoke of milieus, referring to the material elements that sustained and contributed to the transformation of living things, including light, heat, electricity, and magnetism. Milieu was a central concept both in Alexander von Humboldt's global mapping of environments and in Balzac's "natural history of society," with its "physiology" of salons, newspaper offices, and opera loges. Despite the central role the term milieu came to play in biology—as a precursor to the twentieth-century concepts of "ecological niche" and Umwelt—Georges Canguilhem traced its origins to classical mechanics, specifically to Newton's concept of the ether as the medium of transmission for light. Milieu thus had a doubled spatial implication: it referred to the life-sustaining envelope surrounding an individual (like its synonym atmosphere) as well as, going back to Newton, a sense of linear emanation, as the space connecting two entities: the "milieu," or place in between. It is thus a term of both connection and separation. Further, because it was applied both to the fluids and ethers of physics and to the nutritive environment of organisms, it was a link between scientific fields that were being pulled apart by specialization. In addition, the milieu was increasingly the level at which projects of reform and transformation were aimed. Rather than acting directly upon an organism, an individual, or a society, change was sought through alterations to its surrounding environment.

Lamarck also famously argued that changes in the milieu led organisms to develop new habits to satisfy their needs. The use and disuse of organs changed their size and configuration and even produced new ones—a view elaborated in the 1820s and 1830s by Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, with support from the Naturphilosoph Lorenz Oken's concept of organogenesis. This book shows that a decisive shift in the conception of nature in the first half of the nineteenth century expanded this view of an ongoing process of natural production and adaptation to include human technology: machines and tools were seen as new organs modifying humans' relation to their environment. At its grandest scale, what we might call a technological Lamarckism saw human industry as a natural expression of the development of the earth itself.

A law of progress was seen to be at work in shaping not only organisms but also geologic formations, governments, and ideas; the widest frame for this historical, even evolutionary understanding of nature and society was set by the "nebular hypothesis" that described the origin of the solar system as the successive condensation of a cloud of nebular gas. On earth, humans could contribute to this development at multiple levels: by remaking the landscape and altering nature's material order; by framing and arranging phenomena and concepts; and through the activity of perception, conceptualization, and imagination. At each of these levels, the modification of nature was aided by machines, eroding the dichotomy between natural and artificial. New instruments and machines were theorized as extensions of human senses and intentionality, as fluid mediators between mind and world, and as the ligaments of society; they appeared as transformative, even sublime devices. These devices were not the basis for a polarization between the sciences and the arts; they inspired instead a strong sense of commonality and even identity among artists, philosophers, and scientists. In the 1830s and 1840s, romantic genius was alive and well and living in Paris-surrounded by machines.

The chapters that follow thus trace a set of closely related transformations. There was a shift in the image of the machine from an idea of balanced, inhuman clockwork to a "romantic machine" exemplified by the steam engine and other technologies of conversion and transmutation. Concepts of mechanism and organism merged in several ways: mechanical processes were seen as the instruments of organic teleology; human technical innovations expressed nature's development; devices and machines fused with human actions, intentions, and perceptions. More broadly, a new concept of nature emerged, with the recognition that nature not only has a history but is subject to alteration by human technology. A new theory of knowledge also emerged: the sense organs and inner faculties of observers were seen to play an active role in the constitution of phenomena, as were devices of observation and experiment. As has been argued in recent discussions of scientific ideals, epistemology has an ethical dimension: many of the thinkers considered here advanced one form or another of an ethics that aimed at freedom through connection-with other humans, with the rest of nature, and with machines. Finally, these metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical shifts helped inspire and guide a new political orientation: they formed the background both for a radicalized republicanism and for the birth of modern socialism.

In short, what was at stake in these diverse projects was the emergence of a new cosmology: a new conception of the relationships between the domains of nature, social order, and human activity. To track these diverse shifts, my account focuses not on a vague Zeitgeist or episteme, but on the concrete and specific means through which actors presented the order of the cosmos to themselves and to their fellows. To do so they frequently created cosmograms—material assemblies using words, images, numbers, songs, stories, or monuments to convey the order of the universe as a whole. These were artifacts of different scales and genres, made of different materials; some aimed at faithful representation of the world as it was, and others were intended as propositions, guideposts, anchors, or even satirical jests indicating how the world ought to be. Among the examples I discuss are Ampère's classification of the sciences, Humboldt's views of nature, Grandville's Un autre monde, the Saint-Simonian temple, Leroux's L'humanité, and Comte's calendars. Although the cosmograms of this period reflected their creators' idiosyncratic life histories and intentions, and although they varied according to disciplinary and generic requirements, each of them insisted, in its own way, that nature was subject to human modification and that machines were going to play a central and beneficial role in its development; and each of them reflected an urgent, historically specific sense that all parts of the cosmos had to be brought together and represented in a single site, in order to focus and organize human activity and remake the world.

PARIS AS A CENTER OF CONVERSION

France might appear the least likely place to study the interweaving of romanticism and industrialization. After all, it was here that the most extreme tendencies of the Enlightenment had taken hold, in a hyperbolic rejection of faith and tradition that led to the bloody excesses of the Revolution; its neighbors often saw it as the center of materialism and rationalism. Such revolutionary attitudes were only intensified under Napoleon, an artillery engineer who arranged a chair for himself in the mathematics section of the National Institute of Sciences and Arts. In contrast, Germany is often seen as the source of both the romantic movement and crucial scientific and technical developments; likewise, England played the leading role in the industrial revolution, and its romantic poets have shaped our view of the movement. The intersections of romanticism, technology, science, and social reform in this period could be fruitfully explored in other national contexts, focusing, for instance, on Johann Ritter, Lorenz Oken, Novalis, Wilhelm Weber, and Friedrich Schelling; on Humphry Davy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Michael Faraday, Thomas Carlyle, and Mary Shelley; or, perhaps, on Joseph Henry, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Samuel Morse, and Edgar Allan Poe.

Yet the mergers of romanticism and mechanism that appeared in Paris were both distinct and distinctly influential. For Karl Marx, for Walter Benjamin, for any number of historians and historical actors, the arts, politics, and intellectual life of Paris were the template and the vanguard of modernity. It was here that key modern political categories and concepts were established, from individualism and socialism to "the working class"; where the notion of an artistic avant-garde was formulated; where new mass spectacles, forms of commercial consumption, and popular publishing in literature, journalism, and science took root; and where epoch-defining sciences and technologies arose, including electromagnetism, photography, quantitative experimental physics, and biological transformism, along with the landmark philosophy of positivism.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from THE ROMANTIC MACHINE by JOHN TRESCH Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John Tresch is associate professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

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