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NASSR 2019 Panel: Elemental Technologies. Reviewed by Ben Blackman

Wednesday, December 11, 2019 - 16:19

Romantic Elements

North American Society for the Study of Romanticism

Chicago, Illinois

August 8-11, 2019

North American Society for the Study of Romanticism
Chicago 2019
Panel: “Elemental Technologies"

  • Chair: Nicholas Halmi (Oxford University)
  • Andrew Barbour (University of California, Berkeley), “Blake’s Industrial Revolutions”
  • Jennifer Yida Pan (University of Chicago), “Elemental Technology in Romanticism, or forms of hinging”
  • John Mulligan (Rice University), “Romantic Data: Knowledge Discovery in the Herschel Archive”

Reviewed by Ben Blackman (University of California, Davis)

By now, the notion that Romanticism and technology are antithetical, or even unrelated and contained within separate spheres of the total human experience, has been, and continues to be, thoroughly debunked, as illustrated by this fruitful panel at NASSR’s 2019 meeting in Chicago. Recent books by Mark Coeckelbergh and John Tresch, unambiguously titled New Romantic Cyborgs: Romanticism, Information Technology, and the End of the Machine (MIT Press, 2017) and The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology After Napoleon (University of Chicago Press, 2012), respectively, allude to the unabashed fusion of Romanticism and technology. Tresch describes how machines in early nineteenth-century Paris were figured not as cold, lifeless, and impersonal technology but were rather understood as “aids for externalizing and expressing the self.” As he puts it, “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” (3).[i] So too do these panelists illustrate technology’s (and machines’) capacity to draw forth hidden forces. Put simply, if we want to understand our own moment on the edge of the third decade of the twenty-first century, a moment shaped no less by Romanticism than by the Industrial Revolution, it would be a loss to understand the machines and technologies that emerged from—or perhaps more accurately, engendered—the Industrial Revolution as simply opposed to the concurrent literary and artistic movement whose popular tenets tend to prioritize feeling, nature, the individual, and the relations between. Aptly titled “Elemental Technologies,” this panel offers a convincing contribution to answering the capacious question at the heart of this year’s conference: what are the elements of Romanticism? 

Andrew Barbour’s paper, “Blake’s Industrial Revolutions,” elucidates how William Blake was thinking through the Industrial Revolution that was unfolding around him. Responding to E. P. Thompson’s contention at the end of his seminal work, The Making of the English Working Class (1963), that the Romantic tradition and the Utilitarianism that ran through and structured industrial capitalism had failed to “come to a point of junction,” Barbour suggests that Blake perhaps did more work to join these two traditions than Thompson had initially conceived. And the stakes are high in such a re-reading: Thompson posits that in these traditions’ failure to find congruity, “something was lost,” yet “how much we cannot be sure, for we are among the losers” (832).[ii] For Thompson, the version of the world wherein Romanticism and Industry unfold in harmony is one that is forever lost to the realm of alternate history, a world that may be apprehended on an abstracted scale, but whose subtleties remain out of reach. Winners and losers inhabit different histories, which is to say, they inhabit different realities. Yet by developing what he calls an “industrial poetics,” Barbour posits that Blake is able to capture this alternate history by, in Barbour’s words, “prefiguring the conditions of possibility for post-capitalist industry.” What does the Industrial Revolution look like when its gears and cogs are unhooked from the exploitative and alienating practices of industrial capitalism? What work can these machines do outside the accumulation of capital? Utopian in nature, these questions speak to Blake’s critique of industrial machinery, often encapsulated in the image of “dark Satanic Mills” in “Jerusalem.” Yet, Barbour suggests that we read Blake’s critique of machinery not as a totalizing rejection of the Industrial Revolution so much as a rejection of machinery’s relation to capitalism. Blake’s attention to rotary motion—what he called “wheels within wheels”—which sits at the foundation of industrial labour contains a utopian, socialist potential in its independence from external combustion. This type of motion is not “artificial” like the movements of other machines but is in fact natural. In his figuration of mechanical movement, Barbour argues, Blake recovers the possibility of a socialist machine—one not married to the structures of capitalism—that was lost under the rise of an industrial modernity that operates on the logics of Marx’s labor theory of value. This reading of Blake suggests that what was lost is not lost forever. As Barbour puts it, “Blake’s industrial poetics might be understood to work towards a vision of machinery beyond capitalism that moves the reader to imagine what radical forms machinery might take.” 

Jennifer Yida Pan’s paper, “Elemental Technology in Romanticism, or forms of hinging,” isolates the figure of the broken hinge in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759) in order to theorize what she calls “elemental technology.” For Pan, elemental technologies are “technologies that are whole in themselves, but also components of more complex technologies.” The hinge offers a case in point: it is a contained technology with its own mechanism and its own history. The hinge, a relatively simple technology that connects two solid objects and allows for a limited angle of rotation between them, is thousands of years old and has undergone relatively little change to its fundamental structure. The hinge can just as easily be found in a medieval bridge as it can on the International Space Station. Pan’s paper is not primarily interested in offering a comprehensive definition of technology, though; for that, we might look to Bernard Stiegler, who, drawing on Martin Heidegger, suggests technics as a “process of externalization” (Heidegger) that pursues “life by means other than life” (17).[iii] To be sure, Pan’s own understanding of technology is not antithetical to Stiegler’s definition, especially if we understand literature also to pursue “life by means other than life.” Pan understands technology to operates on two registers simultaneously: the material and the conceptual. Elemental technologies like the hinge or the spring (I imagine the wheel might also constitute an elemental technology), set as it is in its most simple form, allows for more direct access to a technology’s conceptual dimension. One effect of this theorization, particularly relevant for readers of Romantic literature, is that we can view literature as a technology, and thus can begin to deconstruct the relations between its parts and its wholes via a technological lens. This is not simply a metaphor for literary analysis; rather, it is the real presence of technological objects in literature that alert the reader to the way the contents of its conceptual register shape and are shaped by the rest of the text. In an excellent close reading of Tristram Shandy, Pan illustrates how the broken parlor hinge becomes a mediator of conceptual work, rotating around the literal and the figurative (“…as cleverly as our government has been turning upon its hinges…”) in the same way that it mechanically rotates objects around its bearings. Framing the literary hinge as technology is particularly generative for the tension it creates between its literary and technological histories, a tension that brings literature and technology closer together. The hinge, as previously noted, has changed little since its invention, whereas its figurative use has evolved over a few centuries from “to bend” to “to depend on.” These histories are concurrent, though not always congruent. The conceptual register of an elemental technology, it seems, is more malleable than its material counterpart, an idea that is perhaps unsurprising in the wake of Pan’s assertion that a technology’s concepts are often subsumed under the representation of those technologies. In attending to technology’s figurative presence in literary texts, Pan interrogates the line between what is literary and what is technological while challenging the notion that the figurative is ever fully distinct from the real. 

John Mulligan’s paper, “Romantic Data: Knowledge Discovery in the Herschel Archive,” considers the aesthetic significance of the abstract Romantic sciences. Here he focuses on cosmology, which as the study of the history and structure of the universe necessarily requires, from our mere human perspective, degrees of abstraction in order to turn its data into apprehensible (and perhaps applicable) knowledge. Mulligan turns his attention to the siblings William and Caroline Herschel, early cosmologists working in the late eighteenth century. Having performed some of the first large scale analyses of the night sky, the Herschels collected enormous amounts of data, much more than they could reasonably handle. It took Caroline decades to process it. As a way at least partially to understand the Herschels’ unmediated engagement with a vast quantity of data that astronomers today might feed directly into a computer for processing, Mulligan built a computer program that simulates the idealized view William had as he looked into an eighteenth-century sky, allowing us in the audience to experience, through technological means no less, an eighteenth-century perspective in a visual register. The simulation is, by Mulligan’s own account, neither particularly exciting nor interactive. Aiming to explore the aesthetics of boredom, this project advances visualization as a mode of knowledge production and transmission, subsequently reclaiming the visual through boredom as opposed to overloading the visual channel with information. What kinds of knowledge comes through the frame when the frame is utterly boring to watch? Furthermore, what happens when what does come through comes through in the form of big data and challenges traditional methods of rationalization? Interacting with the simulation leaves us, like the Herschels, with a partial knowledge that satisfies some kind of thirst for totality while it simultaneously, in Mulligan’s words, “breeds paranoia.” Mulligan’s project teaches us that to watch is not always the same as to see, demonstrating the potential for Romanticism’s cosmological abstractions to open up new ways of framing, and thus, of knowing. 

The Q&A revealed an audience that had picked up on a number of productive lines of thought that I suspect will serve these panelists well in the development of these projects, alongside anyone else interested in the literary, philosophical, and historical entanglements of Romanticism and technology. Nicholas Halmi, the chair of the panel, made the excellent observation that technology in these readings appear to have emancipatory as well as coercive aspects. Perhaps no literature better attends to this point than science fiction, which has long drawn on technology’s oscillating potential for good and evil as an organizing motif of its genre. For me, Halmi’s observation concretizes how conversations on the relations between Romanticism and technology would no doubt benefit from engaging with histories of science and speculative fiction. We do not generally read William Blake, for instance, as a writer of science fiction, yet Barbour’s reading of Blake’s speculative figuration of a “post-capitalist industry” may spur us to think twice. At the very least, Blake begins the work of speculative world building. After all, in debates around the origins of science fiction, Romanticism is frequently advanced as its primordial soup (Frankenstein being the soup’s biggest noodle). In conjunction with terrific, recent work on Romanticism and science, science fiction may prove a fertile resource for these panelists and others. Other topics of note included the concept of skeuomorph and its role in successive technologies, the purpose of the sublime, non-instrumental technology, and human computers. As products of Romanticism and the Industrial Revolution ourselves, this panel begins to illuminate how the reciprocity between literature and technology continues to inform our own late capitalist, literarily precarious, data-saturated moment. 




[i] Tresch, John. The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology After Napoleon. University of Chicago Press, 2012.

[ii] Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. Vintage, 1963.

[iii] Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus. Stanford University Press, 1998.