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  • The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon by John Tresch
  • Benjamin Bâcle
The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon. By John Tresch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. 467 pp., ill.

John Tresch, in this beautifully written and masterfully researched book, tackles the age-old gap between romanticism and science, and succeeds in bridging a divide that is so long-established that it has become the basic template for many researchers in the field. Tresch focuses on French scientists, artists, and thinkers active between 1815 and 1848 who had a penchant for both and who saw no problem in marrying them together — quite the contrary. Their activity ran counter to the institutional, though waning, scientific culture of the time, dominated under Bonaparte’s rule by Pierre-Simon Laplace, who promoted a mechanistic, essentially Newtonian approach to physics. While Laplacean physics was primarily concerned with fixed, absolute relations between separate phenomena, Tresch’s Romantic scientists, or scientific Romantics, under the more or less direct influence of the German idealists, but also of indigenous developments such as that he ingeniously refers to as Maine de Biran’s ‘physiospiritualism’, were interested in the transformative and dynamic qualities of these phenomena, the texture of the milieu in which they interacted, as well as in the specificity and even the personality of the tools used to study them. The book is divided into three main parts, the first of which centres on three key figures of the Parisian academic scene who contributed to giving science back its sense of unity — in material, geographical, and social terms: [End Page 568] André Ampère, who brought together light, heat, electricity, and magnetism in electromagnetism; Alexander von Humboldt, with his international community of experimenters who sought to understand the planet’s symphony-like activity through instruments that would extend the natural bodily organs; and François Arago, who endeavoured to diffuse scientific knowledge and promote the daguerreotype as a means of revealing the invisible forces at work in visual experience. The second part examines the ways in which artists and composers used the most advanced technology to produce startling impressions on the audience’s minds. And the third part gives an account of projects of sociopolitical and even religious reform, attributing a crucial role to engineering and industry. Tresch’s early nineteenth century is a world where the organic and the artificial merge, in a constant effort to relate to nature as a living whole. While the typically Romantic emphasis on diversity in unity is permanently reiterated, one may wonder where the lone, asocial Romantic hero has gone. Similarly, in view of Tresch’s considerations on the dryness of Laplacean physics and on the evolution of scientific research after 1848, one may argue that the line of the Romantic–scientific dichotomy, instead of being permanently blurred, has merely been shifted, and that there is still a domain where romanticism will forever fear to tread. Still, these are but trifles in the face of the major tour de force that this work represents. It is particularly suited to historians of science and to specialists or students in the philosophy, literature, culture, and art of the period, but it can equally be recommended to anyone interested in the complex relationship between mind, sense, and matter.

Benjamin Bâcle
University College London


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pp. 568-569
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