The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon by John Tresch (review)
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Reviewed by
Tresch, John. The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012. Pp. xvii + 449. ISBN-10: 0226812200

From its opening distinction between the classical and romantic conceptions of the machine, John Tresch's tripartite study illuminates a key shift in scientific consciousness in the period immediately preceding 1848. According to Tresch, classical conceptions viewed nature in terms of discrete parcels of matter which the machine (typically, the balance, lever or clock) served in an impersonal manner to delineate and set in balanced proportion to one another; in the Romantic period, by contrast, technologies such as steam engines and batteries marked the emergence of a new understanding of nature as the interdependence of organic life and inanimate matter. The romantic machine required the input of frequently visionary or reformist operators who foresaw socially transformative applications of the device. This study surveys a myriad of such figures, amongst them André-Marie Ampère, who devised apparatuses for demonstrating the properties of electromagnetism; François Arago, who prophesied how the newly-invented daguerrotype would be brought into the service of aesthetics, politics and science, and Pierre Leroux, who envisaged a new system of typography the purpose of which was no less than to emancipate human thought. In focussing each chapter of this study on one of these figures and on their relation to a given "instrument," Tresch's stated aim is to not to define the contours of a particular Foucauldian episteme proper to the Romantic age, but to identify the concrete and specific means through which the Romantics came to develop their particular understanding of nature. The result is 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.

One of the focuses of the study is how discoveries which advanced knowledge of light and heat are repeatedly framed by reference to ethers, vibratory currents and weightless fluids. In view of this, the concept of milieu is brought to the fore, as it connotes both life-sustaining environment and a space of connection (or mi-lieu) between living things. Tresch argues that an additional sense can be distinguished: milieu as a connecting term between different fields of scientific investigation which were at risk of becoming separated through the specialization of knowledge. The book's first part describes the work of figures such as Ampère, Arago and Alexander [End Page 338] von Humboldt who operated in just such an open-ended field of enquiry. Of particular note is the consideration of Ampère's theory of tâtonnement, combining tactile exploration and speculative induction; this is one example of the book's many insights into a scientific climate in which affect-laden modes of perception and symbolic figuration had their place. Moreover, although the study takes as its focus the thriving state of science in Restoration and July Monarchy Paris, it is nonetheless committed to revealing complex transnational trajectories such as those which lead from Immanuel Kant to Friedrich Schiller in Prussia and onward to Humboldt in Paris.

A fertile strand of reflection throughout the second part is concerned with the fantastic, and the incorporation of the new technologies into popular spectacle. In zoological displays at the Jardin des Plantes and in the spectacular innovations of Giacomo Meyerbeer's operas and Eugène Robert-Houdin's Soirées fantastiques, contemporary scientific uncertainties were navigated, extended, and their implications developed for aesthetic ends. A particular strength of the book is the sensitivity it demonstrates towards the potential of the fantastic to excite both rational and mystical sensibilities simultaneously, and how it allows for the differentiated reception of such entertainments by audiences who were of spiritualist, rationalist or other persuasions.

The final part engages with the scientific component of utopian thought in this period. Although it is unfortunate that Tresch does not reflect more on the transition within utopian thought from classical and Enlightenment periods to romanticism, the book does nonetheless provide a framework through which the mystical or spiritual component of the...


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