Session 2E: Romanticism and New Sciences

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2E. Romanticism and New Sciences

Andrew Seaman (St. Marys): "Thoughts on the Implications of Chaos and Complexity Theory"
Ron Broglio (Florida): "(Thermo) Dynamic Transformation Countering Organic Growth"
Vicky L. Adams (Alabama): "Mary Shelley's Novels, Romanticism and Ecology"
John Greenway (Kentucky): "`Øersted's Acoustics and Danish Romanticism"

(Thermo)Dynamic Transformation countering Organic Growth
Ron Broglio
University of Florida

and Time,
Pleased with your triumphs o'ver his brother Space,
Accepts from your bold hands the proffered crown
Of hope, and smiles on you with cheer sublime.
--"Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways," Wordsworth

In the Romantic period, the Mechanical Age and its spatial structure give way to the temporal structure in the Age of Thermodynamics. As Michel Serres and Ira Livingston have observed, the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century marks a shift in technology from mechanics to thermodynamics. The Mechanical Age works with fixity or equilibrium and reversible processes. In contrast, the Age of Thermodynamics is concerned with circulation by reservoir, differences in temperatures, and irreversible temporal processes. With thermodynamics, the arrow of time moves decidedly forward transforming the materials it contacts and creating entropy in its wake. Technology shifts from the clock and a clockwork universe to the steam engine and (dis)order structured within local systems.

In an effort to move away from the familiar rhetoric that grounds Romanticism--organic growth, imagination, "spontaneous overflow of overpowering feeling," and primacy of individual creativity--I use thermodynamics to re-figure the Romantics. This other discourse scans and reads texts differently, discovering in texts combinations and possibilities elided by an aesthetics of selectivity established by the Romantic metaphor that subsume material into a transcendental and unifying spatial structure. In a thermodynamics, a temporal structure replaces metaphor with its spatial structure.

What emerges in the Age of Thermodynamics is the primacy of change. A burgeoning cultural sensitivity to temporal configurations takes precedence over spatial diagrams. Some of the seemingly non-sensical spatial configurations in Romantic poetry yield sense through a reading of their temporality. The language of thermodynamics provides a figure for reading the non-organic growth--the very revolutionary transformations of identity--at work in much of Romantic poetry. Aleatory characteristics of an object move outward in a vector relatedness to other elements in the text to disturb clear boundaries of object and subject identity. Tracing the aleatory paths of free floating attributes, we mark immanent local systems that disturb objective definitions of "things" as clearly defined objects. What is restored is the felt relatedness of experience as well as a strange wonder at the way objects combine and recombine.

Vectors are physical quantities that have spatial direction (ds) over time (dt). I use vectors as the traveling of a minute particular in a text and its contextual meaning across the field of a text from the standpoint of another minute particular through which it travels and which provides the vector's directedness. The notion of vectors takes seriously the idea that, as Nelson Hilton notes, words and textual details have their own plots. Not all the passages that would be considered "important" by the abstracting schema of reading images as metaphors have relevance to the convergence of vectors, and some of the "less important" passages take on new found value. The "noise" of the text--its inconsistencies, materials of production, history of production, stray marks, editorial instructions, etc.--becomes increasingly relevant for the production of meaning. Using vectors as a method for reading, we are able to map changing relations between textual units and changes in the units themselves. Series of vectors from different events in the text are brought to bear in the composition of any particular moment or space-time unit. Characters and objects can be considered as composite forms constituted by a nexus of surrounding objects and events. Agency develops not from characters but from a swarm of micro-agents, vector relations of textual units. Again and again, we see this sort of relatedness infect identity in the Gothic novel, in landscape aesthetics, and in visionary poetry of writers as different as Blake and Shelley.

Combining velocities, vectors, and the laws of thermodynamics, a reading according to transformations departs from the self-enclosed economy of the Romantic aesthetic and the organic "growth of the poet's mind" in order to discover irreversible losses and excessive expenditures that make possible the morphing of objects and subjects. Gone is the unifying trope of the metaphor; in its place is the disruptive aleatory points that move through subjects and objects causing irreversible losses and revolutionary transformations in identity.

"(Thermo)Dynamic Tranformation countering Organic Growth" develops from previous work, including "Vectors, Trajectories, and Difference in Reading Blake" presented at The Society of Literature and Science conferences in Pittsburgh in 1997 and a similar talk presented at the SLS this year at Gainesville, Florida. Additionally, "(Thermo)Dynamics of Transformation" draws from a reading of Wordsworth and the arrow of time presented as "Topographies of Defiance in Selected Wordsworth Landscapes" at the American Conference on Romanticism in Athens Georgia in January of 1998.

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Øersted's Acoustics and Danish Romanticism
John Greenway
University of Kentucky

The humanists' approach to science has produced a good bit of heat in recent years, heat glossed as the "science wars." But interdisciplinary approaches to science have produced some light as well, and I hope this presentation illustrates the collaboration of literature and science as opposed to the confrontation of literature with science. Here, we will trace the early history of an experiment and see its incorporation into romantic scientific theory and its subsequent evolution into artistic image and literary metaphor.

Specifically, we will deal with the then-startling results of Ernst Chladni, when in 1787 he drew a violin bow across a resin-covered plate and noticed complex regular patterns emerge. His Entdeckungen ,ber die Theorie des Klanges began experimental acoustics. In Denmark, the young Hans Christian Ørsted, fascinated, wondered what these were figures of? Ørsted is not much known outside of Scandinavia, save to scientists as the discoverer of electromagnetism in 1821. In Denmark, however, Ørsted was the genial mentor to a generation of writers and artists, most notably Hans Christian Andersen, who appears later in our story. Much as Coleridge says he attended Humphry Davy's Chemistry lectures "for the metaphors," Ørsted's now-obsolete scientific language gave Danish literature of its "Golden Age" a realism we no longer recognize.

As Ørsted began his break with Henrik Steffens and the Schelling-inspired Naturphilosophen over their lack of experimental rigor, the Chladni figures (as they became called) exhibited for Ørsted experimentally verifiable metaphors for the inner beauty of Nature's divine Reason. In his own Experiments on Acoustical Figures, done in 1804, Ørsted concludes that "Beauty is a secret message from the world's innate coherence. Seeing it is the greatest delight of our spiritual existence." By 1811, in his First Introduction to the General Theory of Nature, Ørsted gives Chladni the credit for showing that the making visible of Nature's invisible order transcends the limited resources of Newtonian mechanics and its faith in mathematics (Ørsted, who coined the term "thought-experiment," distrusted mathematics that could not be expressed conceptually).

Chladni figures became a central metaphor for Ørsted^÷they appear in the center of C.A. Jensen's 1842 portrait of Ørsted, with the by then famous compass needle and battery off to the side. But, through Ørsted, they became a central metaphor in his friend Adam Oehlenschlo/ooger's Aladdin (1806), a tour de force of romantic exuberance that has nothing to do with Disney. A knowledge of Ørsted's theory of acoustics, however, gives an insight into the most puzzling scene in the play. The author uses Aladdin's final comprehension of these figures in the desert sand to make a profound point about the relationship between intellect and understanding.

This relationship between intellect and understanding troubled Ørsted as well, and he continuing interest in acoustics expressed this concern. European literature owes Ørsted at least one debt: he convinced his morose friend Hans Christian Andersen to quit writing silly tragedies and to publish his Tales told for Children. Andersen picked up his friend's concern and his related theories of acoustics, giving them literary form in The Bell (1846). Reading the story from a modern perspective, we miss Andersen's poetic intent entirely, but to appreciate the story we need to assimilate a now-obsolete scientific theory.

Kierkegaard said that Ørsted in his serenity of insight reminded him of a Chladni figure, and I suppose Ørsted would have agreed. Ørsted saw the natural philosopher and the artist on complementary paths, for "the world drawn by the poet, with all its freshness and daring, must after all obey the same laws that our spiritual eye discovers in the real world." The figures in the resin gave Ørsted an outward and visible sign of their coherence.

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Last updated May 26, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell