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Kinematics of the Nineteenth Century
By Helmut Müller-Sievers
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
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The nineteenth century abounds in cylinders. Locomotives and paper machines, gasholders and Yale locks, sanitation pipes and wires, rotary printing presses and steam rollers, silos and conveyor belts, kymographs and phonographs, panoramas and carousels, tin cans and top hats—each of these objects is based on the cylindrical form, and each could be—and some have been—the starting point for a comprehensive interpretation of the epoch's culture. To state it in the form of a necessary condition, without the cylinder the Industrial Revolution, and the culture it brought forth, would be unthinkable.
How can we account sufficiently for this proliferation of cylindrical objects and processes? The answers given in the following pages are at the same time obvious and recondite, factual and metaphysical, technical and historical. In their most basic form, they amount to the proposition that cylinders allow the isolation, transmission, conversion, and application of rotational and translational (straight-line) motion in machines. The displacement of translational motion is necessary to do work; but since machines and mechanisms are (like their makers) finite, this motion has to be "returned." Translational motion has to be forced into reciprocating and rotational motion, while rotational motion has to be forced and anchored by straight guides and frames. The cylinder embodies both translational motion along its axis and rotational motion around its wall. Because every point on the cylinder's wall is equidistant from its central axis, the wall's surface is intrinsically flat and thus can impart the all-important motion of rolling.
On these bare kinetic explanations rests a vast edifice of historical and metaphysical dimensions. Philosophical speculation in the West begins with the dispute about the reality of motion as the elemental distinction between being and nonbeing. The genealogy of the cylinder reveals the opposition of rotational and translational motion as one of the starkest conceptual oppositions in Western metaphysics, one that until the Scientific Revolution and beyond was tantamount to the distinction between divine and human, perfect and imperfect, rational and irrational qualities.
This opposition—and the fact of its forced reconciliation in the cylinder—arises from an absence that for all its simplicity still is stunning: nothing on earth rotates. Nothing in our life-world turns continuously around its own axis, least of all parts of our own bodies. That is why rotational motion is always forced, technical motion, and that is why the question of technics on its most fundamental level equals the question of whether and how to force continuous rotation. It is the epochal achievement of nineteenth-century machines and their cylindrical components to have made rotation universally available, and at the same time to have brought to light the limits of technics: it begins where the body ends. The machines born in the nineteenth century are not sufficiently understood as tools, they are not monstrous "projections" of human organs into the world. Rather, they disrupt the imaginary continuity of nature and human being and introduce with their motions a literally "inhuman" element into the world. The negotiation of the limits between human and inhuman motion is going to be the subtext of most of the object descriptions that follow.
Before exemplifying these propositions and looking more closely at the various cylinders that populate the nineteenth century we may do well to probe into the relations between rotation and translation, freedom and force, inhumanity and technics at the outset of the age of machines, and to set them in a historical frame that encompasses their theological, philosophical, and aesthetic dimensions. A singular and visionary text written at the inception of the cylinder's epoch will be our guide.
* * *
In 1810, Heinrich von Kleist published an essay entitled "Über das Marionettentheater." It recounts an accidental conversation between the narrator and the primo ballerino of the local opera house, Herr C. When the narrator finds him watching the performance of a puppet theater in the public gardens, C. professes to be fascinated by the puppets' movements, and in the course of the conversation he outlines his idea that only a fully mechanized, unconscious body could be truly graceful. Both interlocutors go on to relate examples of the interference of consciousness with the grace of human motion, but it is Herr C. who most passionately advocates the elimination of all subjectivity from dance, going so far as to liken the goal of full mechanization with the return to paradise.
The text appeared, in four installments, in Kleist's own Berliner Abendblätter, one of the early daily newspapers in Germany still printed on hand-operated presses that could perform only translational up-and-down movements and on paper produced sheet by rectangular sheet. While the slowness of this process was the reason for the slight volume of the paper—not more than six to eight pages per edition—the Prussian censors made sure that the content consisted mainly of trivial police reports, epigrams, and Kleist's seemingly innocuous anecdotes. There was to be no news that could foster unrest among the citizens, no opinion piece that would directly address the oppressed state of city and country. After the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and the subsequent trauma of French occupation, the governor of Berlin had justified strict censorship of the press with perhaps the most famous order in the German language: "Ruhe ist die erste Bürgerpflicht" (Rest is every citizen's first duty).
"Über das Marionettentheater" is uniquely concerned with the state of unrest. It seeks to articulate in deliberately provocative ways the relationship between motion, subjectivity, and redemption. To propose an exhaustive account of motion without any regard to subjectivity and theology had of course been the goal of Newton's science of rational mechanics since the late seventeenth century; and a century later, Pierre Simon Laplace (for a brief time Napoleon's minister of the interior) had succeeded in purging Newton's theory of its last metaphysical remainders, such as the apparent irregularities of planetary orbits that required God's redressing hand. Newtonian mechanics described a world in which all causes of motion were external to bodies and in which every motion, every change in motion, could be expressed in mathematical equations. Translated back into the realm of human history and community, the key concepts of rational mechanics—inertia, resistance, mass, collision, equation, revolution—could take on disturbing political overtones. The cult of reason before and during the French Revolution had all but deified Newton and had made ample, cross-cultural references to his achievements. After all, the emblematic mechanism of the terreur, the guillotine, harnessed gravity to do rationally what had hitherto been reserved for the extravagant demonstration of a sovereign's wrath.
It was not the least motivation of Friedrich Schiller's project of aesthetic education—conceived shortly after the guillotine's bloody reign—to exorcise the specter of such mechanical politics. Societies are composed of human bodies, Schiller insisted, and like all animal bodies they contain the principle of motion within themselves. What is more, human motion expresses a moral sense—sympathy—that mediates between the constrained mechanics of skeletomuscular motion and the unbounded freedom of the mind; it escapes all mathematical notations. The aesthetic effect of this moral mediation is gracefulness—the ineffable quality of human motion that represents in the world of moving bodies what beauty is for stationary objects. To move gracefully means to be in harmony with oneself, which in the gendered terms of Weimar Classicism meant to be a woman, or a man educated and graced by a woman. The outward representation of such harmony is dance. For Schiller, the remedy for a fractured and revolutionary society of colliding straight-line forces is the invitation to a dance in which individual and collective motions revolve around one another in a harmonious whole.
The thrust of Kleist's text against this fusion of motion, subjectivity, and grace—against the core convictions of Weimar Classicism—must have been easily detectable for readers in 1810. Herr C.'s argument that inhuman marionettes exhibit more grace in their motions than human dancers, that, in fact, every instant of reflection prevents gracefulness, aims straight at the center of Schiller's (and Goethe's) attempt to bridge the chasm between body and mind, to install aesthetics above mechanics. At the same time, however, Herr C.'s quest for grace in motion reintroduces into natural philosophy the very theological parameters that Newton and the Newtonians had sought to eliminate. When the two interlocutors equate the loss of grace with the expulsion from paradise, they shift the attention from the moral to the anagogical sense of the concept. In its theological context, grace in motion—Grazie or Anmut—is the sign of paradisiacal wholeness, an embodied reminder of the innocence that was shattered irrevocably by the desire for knowledge. Weimar Classicism, cheerfully proclaiming its own paganism, held that paradise was just a mythological name for a historical formation, namely ancient Greece, that its loss was the result not of sin but of a history of decadence decisively shaped by the Christian Church, and that regaining paradise was, at least in principle, possible through a reawakening of the aesthetic sensibilities of antiquity, such as the moral feeling expressed in graceful motion. The notion of Bildung, so often evoked in the context of nineteenth-century German pedagogy, expressed this hope for an individual and secular recuperation of grace. Kleist's Herr C. explores a radically different avenue to the restitution of grace: rather than promoting aesthetic education, he speculates that the return to grace will come as the result of a complete dehumanization and mechanization of motion.
This hope in the redemptive power of mechanical motion, then, was a broadside against Weimar Classicism, which, championed by Wilhelm von Humboldt and his Bildungs-reforms, had arrived in the Prussian capital just when Kleist published his short text. But the essay does more than polemicize, and what it does in addition is what makes it so interesting for our understanding of the future of mechanisms and their relations to culture and aesthetics in the nineteenth century—a future that is embodied in the cylinder and its kinematic properties. For unlike Romantic writers like E.T.A. Hoffmann or Mary Shelley, Kleist does not focus on the origin of motion or life in the puppets, nor does he marvel at their mimetic and illusory power. He does not mention the automata that delighted the eighteenth century before they began to haunt early nineteenth-century literature with their imitation of human consciousness and affectivity: he is solely interested in the spectacle of their motion. In the terms of nineteenth-century engineering, he focuses on marionettes neither as motors nor as tools but as transmissions. Discovering generalities in the transmission of motion is the purpose of nineteenth-century kinematics, a discipline as obscured by the awe of motors and the anxiety over mechanized tools as is the understanding of Kleist's text by the biography of its author and the speculations about its programmatic aim. The genealogy of kinematics as an independent discipline is the subject of the next chapter.
It is true that the focus on kinematics in Kleist's text is hidden behind what seem to be traditional hermeneutic and moral concerns. When asked whether making marionettes dance requires artistry on the part of the puppeteer, Herr C. claims that there is a "center of gravity" in every motion and that the line traced by this center is identical with "the way of the soul of the dancer." To perfect the dance, then, the puppeteer—Kleist calls him "the machinist"—must place himself in the gravitational center of the marionette. This hermeneutic imperative of empathy is draped in mathematical language: the lines of motion, C. says, are either straight or of computable curvature, and the fingers of the puppeteer and the motion of the puppets are related "rather like numbers to their logarithms or the asymptote to the hyperbola." But this second-order grace is achieved by a sleight of hand. As Kleist—who once divided people into those who understand metaphors and those who understand formulas—knew very well, mathematical metaphors, conjoining algebraic precision and the vagueness of the "rather like" (etwa wie), are inherently contradictory. As failed metaphors—catachreses—such figures of speech at the same time open and attempt to cover over a conceptual gap. In Herr C.'s case, this gap appears earlier in his statement that every motion has a gravitational center. Within the basic parameters of Newtonian physics, only individual bodies, not motions, have a center of gravity: it is the imaginary, non-extended point in which, for the purpose of calculation, all of a body's mass is concentrated. The mathematization of motion in Newton's rational mechanics—and with it the possibility of attributing grace to unforced motion—is based on the assumption that bodies can at the same time be treated as nonextended points that trace out curves in the Cartesian coordinate system and as massive atoms that are subject to the law of inertia. This latter law—Newton's first law of motion—guarantees the continuity of motion; the geometrical inscription, on the other hand, allows for the calculation of its form. "Gravitational center of motion," then, is the catachresis that reopens what historians of science call Newton's great synthesis—his ability to treat discrete, massive bodies like continuous geometric shapes. In its attempt to cover up, the phrase brings attention to the abyss underneath the signal achievement of rational mechanics, the law of universal gravitation, by means of which the motion of physical entities is inscribed into the reversible and predictable grid of geometry.
Any endeavor to attack Newton's mechanics frontally would be quixotic, given its explanatory success and its consolidation and empirical verification throughout the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. But the bulk of that success—for example, the prediction of the return of Halley's comet in 1758—was based on the motion of bodies so distant in a space so vast that indeed they could be treated as imaginary point masses. But what explanatory and predictive power do the laws of motion have for bodies moving close at hand—for bodies that can exhibit grace to human eyes? There is, of course, the anecdote of the falling apple at Woolsthorpe that the Newtonians kept reciting to underscore the universality of gravitation; but aside from ballistics experts, who would routinely experience the free fall of objects, let only find their translational motion graceful? What can Newton's laws say about objects that do not simply fall but move nonetheless, such as wagon wheels, water pumps, pendulum clocks?
This is the point of Herr C.'s fascination with, and critique of, marionettes. In a double sense he interprets them as pendulums: first, because the puppet follows the hand of the "machinist" with the lag of a string pendulum such that the straight-line motion of the hand is translated into the lagging curve of the logarithmic or hyperbolic function; second, because the limbs of each individual puppet, "which are only pendulums," are not tied to "myriads" of strings and therefore follow the "gravitational center of the motion" in the puppet with a hesitation that inevitably results in "curves." For marionettes as pendulums, the law of gravity is literally suspended—they are "antigrav," as Kleist says—but the law of inertial motion persists. That persistence, and the lag that results from it, is precisely the reason for the marionette's imperfection: it grants an abode for the "last fraction of human volition"—later in the essay it is called "affectation" (Ziererei)—that threatens to interrupt the grace of motion. The only way to overcome this danger is to eliminate the effects of inertia as well, and that is exactly what Herr C. hopes for: "Yet he did believe this last fraction of human volition could be removed from the marionettes and their dance transferred entirely to the realm of mechanical forces, even produced ... by turning a crank." The instantaneous transmission of motion by a crank suspends the effects of gravitational and inertial forces; it is the—often overlooked—ideal in Kleist's anecdote. Herr C. believes that perfect grace can be embodied, not in marionettes, but in crank-driven mechanisms.
Excerpted from The Cylinder by Helmut Müller-Sievers. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
Part I: The Prehistory and Metaphysics of the Cylinder
2. The Rise of Kinematics
3. The Valuation of Motions
Part II: Cylinders of the Nineteenth Century
4. The Cylinder as Motor
5. The Cylinder as Tool
6. Kinematics of Narration I: Dickens and the Motion of Serialization
7. The Cylinder as Enclosure
8. Kinematics of Narration II: Balzac and the Cylindrical Shape of the Plot
9. Gears and Screws
10. Kinematics of Narration III: Henry James and the Turn of the Screw