Romantic technologies and mechanisms

It is a critical commonplace that Romanticism opposed the organic to the mechanical, and the visionary to the technological. This collection explores and nuances this proposition by juxtaposing nine objects. They range from a pocket-watch that came to embody a Romantic critique of Enlightenment scientific materialism through to an automaton designed to dehumanise the black revolutionaries of Haiti. They speak of the Romantic desire to find new ways of seeing deeper and further into the natural world, whether in search of new aesthetic experiences (the Claude glass) or new scientific knowledge (Herschel’s giant telescope). They memorialise Romantic investigation into new modes of listening, whether to the rhythms of the human body (the stethoscope) or to inaudible, imagined music (Beethoven’s ear-trumpets). They evidence the ways in which the period’s scientific materialism could feel optimistically continuous with the poetic and metaphoric (Davy’s eudiometer). Or, conversely and paradoxically, how an evening of ‘ghostly conjurations, optical illusions, and scientific curiosities’ could stage science as problematically and yet comfortingly opposed to all things immaterial. Taken all in all, these objects speak of growing anxiety about the status of the human. Did humans really just amount to materialist mechanisms, horrifyingly akin to automata, regulated by machines from timepieces through metronomes to cotton-mills? Or were humans to be understood more properly as composed of affections, virtues, reverie, dream, memory, and vision? And if so, how were these aspects of the human to be expressed and valued? A question that might well seem even more urgent two hundred years or so later.

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