John TreschThe Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon

University of Chicago Press, 2012

by Carla Nappi on September 5, 2014

John Tresch

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[Cross-posted from New Books in Science, Technology, and SocietyJohn Tresch’s beautiful new book charts a series of transformations that collectively ushered in a new cosmology in the Paris of the early-mid nineteenth century. The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon  (University of Chicago Press, 2012) narrates the emergence of a new image of the machine, a new concept of nature, a new theory of knowledge, and a new political orientation through a series of chapters that each use the work of a single figure to open up a world of romantic machines.

Part 1 of the book looks at the work of physical scientists whose model of precision experiment and math was transformed by an encounter with romantic philosophy & aesthetics, and introduces the electro-magnetic work of physicist André-Marie Ampère, the instrumental practices of Prussian geophysical researcher Alexander von Humboldt, and the labor theory of knowledge in relation to the instruments of astronomer and politician François Arago. Part 2 looks at the impact of technology on theories of the self and the human, focusing on the fantastic arts and public spectacles featuring new discoveries in optics, mechanics, and natural history. (Readers will find lively discussions of dioramas, hallucinatory opera, symphonies, museums, magic shows, and expositions, here.) Part 3 treats the utopian thinkers and engineer-scientists of the late Restoration and the July Monarchy, looking at religiously-inflected social technologies of conversion, communication, and temporal coordination in the work and thought of Saint-Simon and his followers, printer and literary critic Pierre Leroux’s work and theories, and Auguste Comte’s instruments of thought and paper. It is a rich, elegantly argued work that offers not just a history of science and technology, but also a tracing of the roots of some contemporary continental philosophy, as well.

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