reading notes for Romantic Machine, Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon by John Tresch, 2012.


The kinds of machines we use are bound with the ways we think about nature and the ways we know it. When our machines and our understandings of them change, so does nature, and so does our view of knowledge.

… steam engines, batteries, sensitive electrical and atmospheric instruments, improved presses and photography. These were “romantic machines.” Unlike “classical machines,” they were understood as flexible, active, and inextricably woven into circuits of both living and inanimate elements. These new devices accompanied a new understanding of nature, as growing, complexly interdependent and modifiable, and of knowledge, as an active, transformative intervention in which human thoughts, feelings and intentions – in short, human consciousness – played an inevitable role in establishing truth.

… they sought to create and control the tools that would lift them higher on the scale of being. For these reformers, this aspiration meant putting feeling, activity, and intelligence to work to bring humans into closer, less competitive association, to guarantee their subsistence and the flourishing of their environment. Their tools included physical sciences, instruments of production, and the media of communication.

[They] were seized by the passions, mystic flights, uncertainties, and obsessions of romanticism even as they sought new machines and rational sciences to let them know and act upon their environment. These individuals' attempts to orchestrate combinations of tools to reshape their milieu transformed their society and themselves.

… 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.

Taken as aids for externalising 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.

… machines and tools were sen as new organs modifying humans' relation to their environment.

New instruments and machines were theorised as extensions of human senses and intentionality, as fluid mediators between mind and the world, and as the ligaments of society; they appeared as transformative, even sublime devices. These devices were not the basis for a polarisation between the sciences and the arts; they inspired instead a strong sense of commonality and even identity among artists, philosophers, and scientists.

… 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 inspiree and guide a new political orientation: they formed the background both for a radicalised republicanism and for the birth of modern socialism.

… against the backdrop of a highly unstable social order, these individuals shared a forward-looking intention to change the social playing field; and to an extent that has been little appreciated, these “romantics” saw science and technology as a means of building a more just, free, and harmonious society.

… in the early nineteenth century, the distinction between a machine, as that which is moved by an external force, and an organism, as a system whose motive force is internal, often broke down. The exemplary machines of the romantic era, powered by steam, electricity, and other subtle forces, could be seen to have their own motive force within them; they were presented as ambiguously alive.

… machines were not exclusively associated with detachment, rationality, and fixity, but with the conversions, imaginative flights, and metamorphoses of the fantastic. They drew forth invisible powers, converted them, and put them to use. Unlike the classical machine, the romantic machine did not stand alone; it involved the active participation of the observer and articulated a spontaneous, living, and constantly developing nature; it produced aesthetic effects and emotional state.

… Enfantin argued that the origin of the arts and sciences lay in certain sensitive individuals' ability to empathise with the feelings and desires of nonhuman life and inert matter, a view he summarised by declaring: “We must follow the lead of the imaginary; there is a lesson to be drawn from the fantastic.” The investment of inert matter with sensation and spiritual powers resonated with romanticism's enthusiasm for folk tales and symbolism that imbued everyday life with a mythical dimension, orientations that contributed to what Cathy Were calls “prophetic modernism”, a recapitulative mode of history that looked to the past as a means of anticipating a more wholly human future.

The response to technology in this period thus confounded familiar oppositions: fetishism and scientific truth; magic and mechanisation' charisma and instrumental rationality. Walter Benjamin's discussion of “the aura” of a work of art offers insight to such doublings. In “The World fo Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” he spoke of the aura as a “nearness in a distance,” explaining the concept with reference to a poem of Novalis that described a landscape that seemed to look back at a human spectator. For Benjamin, such an encounter was the paradigmatic experience of aura: “the transposition of a response common in human relationships to the relationship between inanimate or natural object and man. In other words, “To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return.”

This was a version of the dream, expressed in Baudelaire's “Correspondances,” of nature as a temple whose living pillars murmur at us, a forest of symbols watching us with “familiar glances,” one also evoked in Gérard de Netval's pantheistic Vers Adorée: “A mystery of love rests in metal; 'Everything senses!' and everything acts on your soul.”

… machines themselves – rather than destroying aura or hastening the disenchantment of the world – were granted an uncanny power to animate the inanimate, to emancipate and spiritualise “vibrant matter.” The powers of technology triggered aspirations toward an intersubjectivity that would embrace more than just humans; they lent support to the view that all elements of the world would participate in a single, living, intelligent, and perhaps divine substance.

Without denying risks posed by unchecked technological development, the message of balance between human activity and the demands of nature found in the forgotten futures of the first half of the nineteenth century offers a helpful point of comparison for today's ambivalent – often apocalyptic – views of science and technology.

We live in a world of technically enabled connectedness that offers both nightmares (enhanced surveillance, relentless global warfare, accelerated consumerism, and environmental destruction) and utopian aspirations (new alliances among global multitudes, new techniques of expression and discovery, biotechnology, and green development). The constellation before 1848 in many ways prefigures today's “new” mergers of nature and machine.

Rethinking technology meant rethinking the basis of the social bond and the order of the universe and, potentially, living very different lives. Updated to the present, mechanical romanticism suggests that even if solutions must be small and local, they require a conceptual and aesthetic frame that is deep and wide.

… the detailing of possible worlds which may be of use – in a new historical juncture marked again by transformative technologies, along with the failures of high modernity and an atrophied sense of progress – in conceiving of futures still to come.

Part 1

The interaction between electricity and magnetism has been seen as a “monster” in the sense discussed by anthropologist Mary Douglas: an unclassifiable anomaly falling outside of cultural categories.

Ampère designed ingenious and delicate experimental devices that allowed him to feel his way (tâtonner) in the realm of the invisible. These machines were continuation of the central notion of his epistemology: that knowledge of both the self and the world emerges through the experience of resistance.

In discussions of early electromagnetic research, a similar notion of “exploratory experimentation” has been developed by Friedrich Steinle: this is research that does not seek to confirm or reject hypotheses, but simply to become familiar with a phenomenon and its extensions.

… when faced with complexity, the researcher turned (…) to the open-ended process of indirect synthesis. [Ampère] explained: ” The necessity of changing methods is all the more obvious when it is a question of finding the explanation of a phenomenon that nature offers in all of its complication. There, where the givens are by their very existence more complicated than the results we seek, direct synthesis becomes inapplicable, and it is necessary to take recourse either to direct analysis if possible, or to indirect synthesis, to feeling around (tâtonnement) and explanatory hypotheses.“ While tâtonnement may be translated as “trial and error” and may include speculative reasoning, the word's root meaning of tactile testing – feeling one's way around – resonates (…) with Ampère's notion of knowledge as arising from resistances between the wall, the muscles and external objects.

[Ampère] was feeling his way around the invisible, devising experimental apparatus to capture, redirect, and thus come to know the properties of electromagnetism.

Repetition trains us to add our own habitual judgements and motions to exterior objects – in fact to transport our own activity into them. As a result, we live in a world shaped by our routines of perceiving and judging, most of which escape conscious control.

Maine de Brian considered the wilful “self” (le moi) to be the noncorporeal starting point for all experience. Nevertheless this “primitive fact” can be known only through the “inner sense” of muscular resistance that one feels in trying to move some part of the body. (…) Maine de Biran's philosophy involved a perpetual search for a “resting point” to end the incessant movement he observed in his thoughts and feelings. In the years before his death in 1824, Maine de Biran's introspection became a quest for direct knowledge of God, a reality that surpasses individual identity: a philosophical method became spiritual practice. (…) While his thought has long been associated with Cousin and “spiritualism,” its emphasis on embodiment and compatibility with technology suggests that his philosophy, and that of many of his successors, would be more fittingly characterised as a physiospiritualism.

For Ampère, knowledge and its tools were technologies that modified both inner sensations and the external world.

Knowledge was shifted from pure reflection and unchanging categories into sites that were open to observation and physical manipulation, whether in the internal realm of introspection (as exemplified by Maine de Biran's increasingly mystical meditations) or in bodies, signs, instruments, and machines (…)

“It was an ineffable and profound music,
A fluid oscillating incessantly around the world,
An in the vast skies, renewed by its tides,
It rolled onward, expanding its infinite orbits
Till it reached the depth in which its flux was lost in shadow,
Along with time, with space, with number and form.

Like a second atmosphere, scattered and overflowing
The eternal hymn cloaked the whole flooded globe.
The world, enveloped in this symphony,
As it sailed through the air, sailed through harmony.
Lost in thought, I listened to those harps of ether,
Immersed in this voice as if in a sea

And in this great concert, which sang day and night
Every wave had its voice and every man had his cry.”

- Victor Hugo, When One Hears on a Mountain, 1829

New techniques of combining data into striking visual images allowed [Humboldt] to chart the changes in average temperature across the globe and changes in vegetation in different milieus. With the beautiful images accompanying his texts and the evocative language that filled them, he sought to format and diffuse the sciences to the widest audience possible. His hope was that exposing readers to the pleasures of nature and the mentors of the sciences would contribute to moral and political reform.

Humboldt lived the slogan of Friedrich Schlegel: “All art should become science, and all science should become art.”

Humboldt did not perceive the machines he used to make readings of natural phenomena as the antithesis of the human, organic, or natural; the best way to know the world was to multiply mediations and observers, not to eliminate them. The kind of “freedom” pursued in the Humboldtian regime of observatory science, and the version of “objectivity” it realised, implied interdependence, shared labor, mediation and community – notions closely aligned to the republican ideology of his French colleagues.

… Kant argued that extrinsic relations among organisms, such as the complementarity of the sexes, or the interactions between an organism and its habitat, encouraged the search for interconnections among the various domains and empirical laws of nature…

Art and science, activities undertaken in the world of sensuous particularity but whose results were universally communicable, prepared humanity for the cosmopolitan rule of free reason and perpetual peace.

Schiller took up and developed Kant's reflections on instrumentality and means and ends in practical terms; his view of autonomy implied connection with other humans and linked “pure form” with sense and inclination. In focusing on the movement, exchange, and activity taking place in this intermediate realm, he also brought readers' attention to concrete practices and materials.

[Schiller] asserted a fundamental tension between the passive “sense drive”, the empirical world with its desires and impressions, on one hand, and, on the other hand, the active “form drive” which concerned abstraction and eternal principles in science or in art. Between the two was the “play drive,” which relished the mere appearance of things – the autonomous [self-standing] “scheme Schein” or beautiful appearance, detached from the desire either to possess an entity or to freeze it in the form of timeless knowledge.

Here the aesthetic was a specific psychological state balanced between opposed forces, combining “melting beauty” with “energising beauty.” (…) an experience of freedom no longer required humanity to depart from the world of senses. “We need, then, no longer feel at a loss for a way which might lead us from our dependence upon sense towards moral freedom, since beauty offers us an instance of the latter being perfectly compatible with the former, an instance of man not needing to flee matter in order to manifest himself as spirit.” (…) “Once man is inwardly at one with himself, he will be able to preserve his individuality however much he may universalise his conduct, and the State will be merely the interpreter of his own finest instinct. ”

For Schiller, freedom (and the morality that was founded upon it) could not exist in the absence of active relations with others. In this exchange of recognising gazes, a phenomenology of mutual and reciprocal self-possession, freedom was given to others and received back from them, implying ownership and being owned – as in Russeau's social contract, where each gave himself to all and received the others back.

“Autonomy,” Selbständigkeit, was the name he gave to this balance between the universal or objective and the particular or subjective.

Humanity paid a heavy price for the extreme specialisation of the modern disciplines: “Once the increase of empirical knowledge, and more exact modes of thought, made sharper divisions between the science inevitable, and once the increasingly complex machinery of State necessitated a more rigorous separation of ranks and occupations, then the inner unity of human nature was severed too, and a disastrous conflict set its harmonious powers at variance. ” (…) Yet the solution to science's intensification of social and internal divisions was not an escape from all social bonds, nor a flight from science or technology into either an idealised state of nature or a subjective state of reverie. Instead, the aesthetic state would take science out of its austere and self-enclosed abstraction; science had to humanise itself.

“At the touch of the wand [of taste], the fetters of serfdom fall away from the lifeless and the living alike. In the Aesthetic State, everything - even the tool which serves [auch das dienende Werkzeug] - is a free citizen, having equal rights with the noblest' and the mind, which would force the patient mass beneath the yoke of its purposes, must here first obtain its assent.” - Schiller

The result would be a kingdom in which the means (the instruments) were also ends; this kingdom included humans and all of nature, along with the material mediations - art, tools, language - that shaped and articulated the relations among its members.

Schiller had moved from a vertical relation to a horizontal one; from a hierarchical to an egalitarian model' from a linear, mechanical causality, to a reflexive, circular, organic causality. The subjective individuality of all entities had to be preserved within the beautiful appearance of the work of art, the logical interconnections established in the scientific “tableau,” the objective apparatus of the state.

Just as Schiller found in the Juno Ludovisi a combination of melting and energising beauty, so did Humboldt praise the “soothing yet strengthening influence” of natural observation.

Like other scientists and engineers of his period, Humboldt placed a heavy emphasis on the development of new instruments and observational apparatus to measure and reduce differences of perception. His research depended on an embarrassment of devices for registering a huge range of phenomena: chronometers, telescopes, quadrants, sextants, repeating circles, dip needles, magnetic compasses, thermometers, hygrometers, barometers, electrometers, eudiometers. These instruments were not understood as transparent means of registering nature “in itself.” Like Schiller's “fine art,” Humboldt's instruments were the concrete media occupying the milieu, the “halfway-place” between the mind and the world: the concrete locus for the fusion of sense and intellect.

In several experiments, the main site of inscription and observation, and another link in the chain, was his own body - with welts and blisters as proof of his wholehearted commitment to science. Furthermore, his correspondence repeatedly testified to the extraordinary care he took with his instruments. He typically identified them by the patronymic of their makers and went to great lengths to assure their well-being; his most cherished compasses, barometers, and sextants were discussed with the same ehtusibastic affection as his dearest friends. His letters of introduction written on behalf of his human protégés often followed equally solicitous letters on behalf of instruments. Even in the midst of inquiries about friends and their families, there was hardly a single letter in his correspondence which did not mention an instrument of a meteorological observation.

Instruments that made good travelling companions - those that were small, light and versatile - were favoured, like the portable barometer that could be fitted onto the head of Humboldt's walking stick.

Humboldt's instruments not only extended his senses, heightening his perceptual faculties and submitting sensory phenomena to mathematical scaling; they were embodiments of his relations with others and his place in the natural and social world.

The well-tempered instrument, like a reliable but spontaneous human, oscillated within a specific range of values, passive in receiving, active in transmitting its phenomena.

Just as freedom, for Schiller, could only emerge in reciprocal exchange with other beings, so the objectivity of the Humboldtian tool demanded cooperation with a highly skilled and patient human. The observer had to gain the instrument's assent by entering into a dialog, “playing” with it, becoming familiar with its limits and habits. Humboldt's letters and travel reports were filled with accounts of awkward moments at the beginning of his relationship with an instrument and his joy at learning to cooperate successfully with it. Making good measurements meant knowing and adjusting to an instrument's particularities.

The law might be the same for all; yet as Schiller argued, the law was only a law of freedom if it adjusted to the living particularity of the individual, whether a person or a machine.

The aim of Humboldt's physics of the earth was to map the patterns of global systems of natural forces, charting in its local detail and its particular interactions “a general equilibrium which reigns among disturbances and apparent turmoil,” the result of an infinity of mechanical forces, vital powers, and chemical attractions balancing each other out.

While “Cosmos” undeniably participates in its era's projects of imperial and industrial expansion, it can also be read as an argument against the madness of seeing human autonomy as liberation from all restraint. Instead it advanced a view of freedom-in-connection that applied to all beings, the effect of whose actions reverberated throughout the system.

Within England's strict class hierarchies, the division between the labouring body and the knowing mind was mapped onto the division between a class of labourers and a managerial and ownership class, a division that “dehumanised” labourers by associating them with and replacing them by machines. However, a different epistemological tradition also runs through the history of science, one that came back into focus in the age of the romantic machine. According to this tradition, the actions and experience of knowers, along with their tools, were celebrated as the necessary conditions of knowledge. In place of disembodiment and transparency, this craft-centred view emphasised the body of the artisan and the transformations that labour and instruments brought forth. An important moment in this tradition was Renaissance alchemy; as Pamela Smith has argued, Paracelsus legitimated his claims by referring to his long experience and his patient labour with herbs, metals, and instruments. Craft knowledge and embodied experience were given even greater legitimacy in the programmatic works of the keeper of the seal, Francis Bacon, who, in his protracted crusade against the “Idols of the Theater” worshipped by the scholastic systems-mongers, argued repeatedly that sensory experience and active testing of the world by means of perfected tools of observation and experiment were the only way to advance learning.

The emphasis on labor compounded the activities of unskilled labourers, skilled “sublimes,” managers, planners and theorists into a single kind of thing, as so many different species of transformative work.

… the steam engine, as a cosmic symbol, supplanted a universe of timeless balance and equilibrium with one defined by history, activity, convention, combustion, waste, and eventually entropy.

If Enlightenment-era instruments were seen as passive and transparent, neutrally balancing inputs and outputs, the early nineteenth's century's labor theory of knowledge acknowledged and sought to account for the modifications introduced by the physical properties of instruments and the modifications brought about by the activity of observers.

The idea, familiar from romantic poetics and aesthetics, of the power of the imagination to make and remake the world was merged here with a profound experience and reflection on technology: machines were assistants in the process of making the invisible visible, constructing objects of knowledge, and framing the image of the world.

[Arago] cultivated the same descriptive, aesthetic approach to the skies as his Prussian ally developed in the study of the variations of the globe' like Humboldt, he presented science as an open-ended exploration and dialogue. (…) His ingenious experimental setups and instruments combined and redirected discrete techniques to fix on new phenomena; his cyans-polarimeter, a hybrid of telescope and polarimeter, quantified the degree of blue in the sky. (…) He presented his instruments as specific modes of mediation and interference which introduced friction and thus, in many respects, a deformation between the observer and the natural world. The deviation introduced by the instrument was not a hindrance to knowledge but rather its necessary condition: to learn about the primary object of study, one also had to study the modifications effected by this interface. Arago set his model of scientific sociability against the image of an echo chamber of frictionlessly obeyed commands and of a science that progresses through limited observations processed by unfeeling machines of reason. (…) Arago endorsed an image of machines that combined disciplined regularity with spontaneity and freedom. (…) Arago saw the fates of machines and of workers as inseparably entwined.

In Arago's view, instruments could be “autonomous” in a specific sense: they were disciplined and interconnected but at the same time spontaneous, active and free. His own conduct exemplified these values.

Rather than reproducing what the perfect, unbiased human eye would see, in this instance the daguerreotype registered invisible phenomena unfolding over time. The daguerreotype was presented by its first public supporter as another member of the family of Humboldtian geophysical instruments - another temperamental, site-specific, and networked tool for registering and mapping a specific range of phenomena, manifesting the invisible, dynamic connections among them.

A frequent claim about photography is that the image of nature it produces is in principle verifiable by simple comparison with the object as we see it with unaided eyes; yet such resemblance is necessarily incomplete, and strikingly so in daguerreotypes. Colours are altered, movement is lost, and a landscape is reduce to a few square centimetres. Though obvious, the point bears mentioning, since the fascination with daguerreotypes in the 1840s derived in part from their difference from the objects they represented: the difference between a three-dimensional, full-colour setting and a scaled-down, static, reflective, two-dimensional image. Even if certain proportions were maintained, the image was in fundamental ways a deformation. Similarly, Arago's hypotheses of its mode of action suggested not transparency but transmutation. To describe the operation he used language of activity, transformation and even vitality; he spoke of “the action of light,” “penetration” and a “sensing substance;” “the most feeble rays of light modify the substance of the Daguerreotype.” (…) this photogenic effect was indifferent to mimetic representation; it was a photochemical process whose interesting feature was its duration. (…) Rather than emphasise the rigid repeatability of the process or the sturdiness of its products, he compared the daguerreotype to lace and butterfly wings, the most fragile of artisanal and natural creations.

“When observers apply a new instrument to the study of nature, what they have hoped for is always insignificant compared to the succession of discoveries which the instrument originates. In this manner, it is only on the unexpected that one must particularly count.” -Arago

Machines were seen not as the negation of the human but as vital extensions of human activity, and thus they could be celebrated as part of labor's foundational role in a society increasingly organised around industry.

Much of the fascination for these romantic machines lay in their status as processes, as technologies of time and transmutation.

At the time of its introduction, photography was received as an instrument of science and art and as a technology of rationalised magic.

[Arago]'s allusion to “myriad new worlds” recalled pantheist strands of Renaissance cosmology and its promises of the metamorphosis and conversion of a prima material through secret techniques.

The daguerrotype balanced delicately among diverse segments of society and the every-growing family of geophysical instruments, as well as between humans and the shimmering phenomenal surface of nature. In its first frame it offered an image - precisely scaled down, yet singular, flexible and autonomous - of its presenter and the milieu out of which it developed.

Attentive to the contributions made by instrumental apparatus and the human senses to the production of phenomena, these researchers did not present knowledge as detached, inhuman, disembodied or static: instead they showed that human activity played an unavoidable role in the production of knowledge, whether that was in the practices of the workshop and laboratory, as emphasised in the “labor theory of knowledge” or in the action of the will, senses, and muscles…

Arago's promotion of the daguerreotype, revealed the harmony between the ambition to popularise science and romantic artists' quest to bring intense sensational and emotional experiences to mass audiences, as well as the reformist ends to which such experiences could be put.

Part 2

The fantastic mode in the arts took shape at a moment when the limits of the possible were being stretched; its scenes of animated matter, vibratory communication, lifelike machines, and eerie metamorphoses implicitly and explicitly referenced the scientific and technological transformations of its time. Rather than read the fantastic as a refusal of positive facts, it participated, along with the nineteenth century's confident new sciences, in a dialectic of doubt and uncertainty.

Just as the physical sciences created new devices to control light, heat, and electromagnetism, the fantastic arts were heavily invested in new technical apparatus to produce illusions and to bring about uncanny visual and auditory metamorphoses. To do so, in many cases they used the same technologies as scientists did.

Aesthetic experience required sense, activity and objects. Similarly, in France there arose at this time a set of theoretical discourses that addressed the technical and physiological basis of the arts and extraordinary experiences of all kinds. I give this minor tradition - which was never a self-conscious school, but which shared a set of concerns and sources - the paradoxical name of physiospiritualism.

(…) Maine de Biran's preoccupations stimulated reflections on the ways in which physical activity, habits, and external modifications - including, significantly, technical apparatus and drugs- could alter perceptions, judgements and experiences. (…) They emphasised the fragility and “artificiality” of perception, as well as the role of the perceived in creating the objects of sense.

Phenomenotechniques in the sciences were often the basis for technaesthetics in the arts. Hallucinations and illusions were objects of theories of perception, grounded in the active, embodied, and willing self, were used to understand both. Further, the imagery that recurred throughout the fantastic arts - reanimated objects, living machines, and dynamic, protean fluids - captured this period's ambivalent admiration for world-changing machines, as well as its metaphysical and political uncertainties.

Romantic poets sought to harness the power attributed to ancient ritual language, understood as both expressing and shaping the essences of things. This conception of signs as a physical force accompanied a conception of nature as fundamentally semiotic as well as subject to growth and alteration. Such potent language was associated with humanity's past; but, in accord with a recurrent romantic temporal structure, it was also seen as a capacity to which humanity might return.

The [printing] press was a more-than-human political power balanced between mind and matter, revealing the inadequacies of this world and preparing a new one.

The panorama was treated as a solemn, even sacred space, one that critics often compared to the grave; visitors were said to maintain a respectful silence throughout their visit. Like the Egyptian pyramids, it was a machine of reanimation, producing lifelike illusions out of inert matter. (…) Panoramas not only instructed the viewer but also transported the uplifting experience of untrammelled nature into the centres of civilisation, bringing about that transformation of the ordinary into the magical that was the goal of art.

“Here is an extraordinary mixture of art and nature, producing the most astonishing effect, so that one cannot decide where nature ceases and art begins.”

Presented as an example of up-to-date optical science, the diorama produced an “effect of nature” that lay somewhere between the painted screen, the lighting system, and the eye of the viewer.

Berlioz's orchestra left mere beauty behind; it opened sublime perspectives upon the violent immensity of prehistory in an auditory idiom. At the same time, his braggadocio about his innovations at the level of musical materiality testified to his faith in the demiurgic powers of the industrial age.

Like habits, or scientific instruments, or the sympathetic and repetitive pass of the magnetiser, in this view drugs were a technology that structured thought and perception.

Through the careful manipulation of light and sound within a strictly controlled environment, participants shared a technically produced, multisensory hallucination: collective experiences that hovered between the spiritual and the material, the imaginary and the concrete, the empirical and the transcendent.

They proposed ecstatic materialisms and concretising spiritualisms that converged on the contact points between the inner and the outer worlds: instruments, fetishes, symbols and machines.

Just as artists' “creativity” mirrored the magical powers depicted in fantastic works, perceivers' internal organic movements, will, desire, and habits all actively inserted themselves into experience.

Going beyond publications and speeches, popular science of the 1830s and 1840s often aimed, as music and the opera did, to involve audiences in complete, fully embodied experiences.

(…) face to face encounters with nonhumans - exotic animals and new machines - prompted reflections about human nature, its powers of transformation, and its relation to the rest of the universe. These displays, whether of natural or of man-made creatures, were focal points for discussions in which understandings of the ultimate nature of reality wavered between materialism and spiritualism, pantheism and vitalism, and static and historical views of nature.

(…) Brussais used the notion of matter's intrinsic irritability as the basis for a militant assertion of the metaphysical continuity between humans and animals and between thought and matter.

For Serres, abnormality illuminated the norm; monsters became a “subject for meditation” on the perpetuation of species and the appearance of new ones.

Geoffrey (…) put forth a view in which nature was transformed over time both through its own internal processes and by the individuals who were part of it. In the latter view, technological modification - this atonement, this grasping, touching and penetrating of things by thought and hand - was seen as part of the universal tendency toward transformation, remaking the spectacle in which humans and all other organisms are players.

One of the ways in which Geoffroy's living, unified nature expressed itself was through organogenesis, the creation of new organs. Among these were human tools and machines, which could be applied back to nature itself to direct the course of its development. (…) machines were part of nature's growth.

Images of inert objects coming to life often involved a superimposition of modern technology and ancient beliefs. (…) in the early nineteenth century's patchwork of revived illuminism, automata could be seen as allegories for the infusion of spirit in the material world.

(…) as with many “books” of this period, subscribers would have the instalments bound once they had all been received.

As an inventory of ways of world making - a cosmogram of cosmograms - [un autre monde] showed how acutely this age felt the interdependence between the natural order, the social order, and the technical order. It revealed the close ties between romanticism's organic mutations, aesthetic ecstasies, voyages into infinity; and passionate dramas; technologies of production and knowledge; the media of steam, light, electricity and human labour; and the instruments these powers brought to life.

Grandville made machines both symbols and agents - both repulsive and endearing - of an open-ended, monstrous, sublime, and gleeful social metamorphosis.

Un autre monde was neither a condemnation of mechanisation nor a straightforward satire of the new and vocal social reformers attempting to remedy the ills of industrial society. Instead it affirmed the polymorphous, world-making potentials of new machines - their ability to serve as sources of oppression, liberation, creativity, inhibition, prophecy and absurdity.

Part 3

The New Christianity and the action of the priest would awaken the dormant powers of machines, nature and human relationships; individuals - human and otherwise - became autonomous through their participation in a vast organization that was the size of the world. Enfantin also turned increasingly to the question of female oppression and its domestic forms. As has been pointed out by Claire Goldberg-Moses and Naomi Andrews, and others, feminism and socialism were closely linked in the 1830s and 1840s; Saint-Simonian “predications” denounced the hypocrisy of bourgeouis marriage and the subordinate position of women, seeing feminine liberation as a crucial aspect of the society that was to come; women furthermore played an important and active role in the movement.

Enfantin spoke in this period of the “play” that forms social rites as means of experimentation and instruction: “Think of the Catholic mass and the play involved there! How much everyone learns from it!” The Saint-Simonians' rituals, according to Antoine Picon, were spectacles that realized in the present the future order of the world.

“Algebra and geometry will have been redressed in a living, poetic and religious character. May algebra at last take its place in moral life, so that the veritable infinitesimal era of the human mind, indicated by Leibniz, will have begun.” Calculus and descriptive geometry would be the “points of departure for the new sciences, divine motors, sublime instruments which place the intelligence of man into communion with time and space.”

The Saint-Simonians imagined a continuity between human-built technologies and the living order of nature. As jarring as it may sound to modern ears, this interpretation of technology was in harmony with their doctrine that matter and spirit were two modes of a single divine substance. The Saint-Simonians' pantheism was also expressed in a theory of “association”: each individual element expressed its freedom through its participation in a much wider whole, though its submission to “the Will of God: (as determined by self-appointed priests). Their arguments laid the groundwork for French socialism, while their actions built the infrastructure for French industrialisation. Thanks to labor, technology and love - fraternal and procreative - their technical networks were fruitful and multiplied.

Jacques Ranciere has written the tragic-comedy of the crossed communication between the Saint-Simonians and the workers for whom they claimed to speak, showing how workers cherished a dream rather different from the “majestic” ambition of being defined by their work. Instead, Ranciere showed, the utopia for many workers was to cease to be defined by work, to have the time to write poetry; they wanted not to be fitted into a vast international hierarchy, but to organise their own local lifeways that might operate on a smaller scale.

While a “labor saving” machine in the hands of an unjust employer could pose a threat to those skilled workers it replaced, such a device, if collectively owned and deployed as part of a thoughtfully organised and democratically administered system of labor and consumption, could be a prophetic tool of liberation.

“Society is not a being, in the same sense as we are beings. Society is a milieu, which we organize from generation to generation to live there… Life is a multitude of relations between man and the different beings which co-exist with him in the world.” - Pierre Leroux

The practical and artisanal orientation of his philosophy reveals that along with the arts and the sciences, machines - like [Leroux's] pianotype - were inseparable from the incessant processes of natural development that shaped the human milieu. In his words, industry and art are “no longer nature left to itself,” but instead, “nature continued by man”; and mankind was “placed on the face of the earth in order to achieve the work that God charged him with finishing.”

Poetry is this mysterious wing which floats at will in the entire world of the soul, in this infinite sphere of which one part is colors, another sounds, another movements, another judgements, etc., but which all vibrate at the same time following certain laws, such that a vibration in one region communicates with another region, and the privilege of art is to feel and to express these relations, profoundly hidden in the very unity of life. For from these harmonic vibrations of the diverse regions of the soul there results a chord, and this chord is life; and when this chord is expressed, it is art; now this chord, expressed, is the symbol; and the form of its expression is rhythm, which itself participates in the symbol: this is why art is the expression of life, the repercussion of life, and life itself.” - Pierre Leroux

“The typographic case is nothing but a series whose movable units can serve indistingushably to reproduce all imaginable words.” - Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

The reformers immersion in the press-s logic of monthly, weekly or daily installments may well have helped form their series imaginings. “Series” was thus a foundational principle of historical sequence, epistemological order, social organization, and the temporality of mass communication.

“Human life is the knowledge, the sentiment, and the sensation that result from the co-existence of man and society. Suppress one or the other and life stops and disappears, like the image. … Man and society, even so, are just as distinct, just as independent as are our body and the mirror in which we look at ourselves. But it is the case that between the man and society, between society and the man, there is a mutual penetration by which they merge without ceasing to be distinct.” (Leroux) Society is a mirror that reflects the individual back to himself, creating the image in which he exists in a state of “mutual penetration.”

Society is a fluid entity halfway between a discrete individual and an independent collective body.

Leroux's concept of milieu was part of what should now be a familiar theme among the mechanical romantics, that of freedom-in-connection - of participation without submersion (…). Leroux expressed his metaphysics of the in-between by using the Leibnizian language of virtuality. He wrote, for instance, that each individual is “a real being in whom lives, in the virtual state, the ideal being called humanity.”

As Humboldt so vibrantly demonstrated, instruments revealed the individual components of a given ecological niche or milieu and made it possible to trace their harmonic interactions; they articulated the relation of part to a whole. For this reason, for Leroux, scientific instruments and experimental devises could be cosmic symbols, truly romantic machines…

The milieu nurtured an organism, standing between it and other beings; it was the medium of transmission of light, sound, and communication.

[Leroux's] philosophy has been recognised by his successors in socialist thought as an important source for the later ideas of anarchist cooperatives and mutualism. Further, his philosophy had implications not just for the relations between humans and the means of production, but between humans and nature; many of Leroux's ideas anticipate contemporary notions in deep ecology. Humanity's constitutive milieu was not only social but natural. A man's life, he believed, “does not belong to him entirely, and is not in him only, it is in him and outside of him; it lives… undivided, in his fellows and in the world that surrounds him.”


(still to type)

  • romantic_machine_notes.txt
  • Last modified: 2018-06-03 10:23
  • by nik