Skip to content

Response to Review of The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon

I am grateful to Robert Priest for this generous, thoughtful response to my book. I particularly appreciate his attention to mechanical romanticism’s ambivalence: both the metaphysical oscillations that could be provoked by lifelike machines, and the ways in which objects, ideas, and practices that aimed at goals of greater freedom and equality before 1848 were redeployed in the service of rigid hierarchies and social control after the coup of 1851. I have no doubt that comparable (if distinct) constellations of mechanical romanticism can be found elsewhere in the same moment, and other scholars – not least Richard Holmes, Norton Wise, and John Lardas Modern –  may be seen to be doing so in Britain, Germany, and the United States. Much more could be said about the ways in which individual lives reflected and reinterpreted these ideals at key political turning points, including after 1851; one of my current research questions (building on work by Naomi Andrews, Philippe Régnier, Patricia Lorcin, Michael Osborne, Nélia Dias and many others) investigates how aspects of this configuration were shaped by French colonial ambitions in Africa and elsewhere, and contributed to the ideology and infrastructure of the French empire. As for the daguerreotype’s connection to the labor theory of knowledge, my suggestion is that Arago saw this early form of photography as an active, modifying form of mediation; the daguerreotype did not passively and transparently record data, but actively ‘worked’ to generate its images of the world; given the transitivity between machines and living things in this period, this view aligned photography with the labor theory of knowledge of the engineer-scientists. As I owe a great debt to the work of Paul Bénichou, I am happy to think that my text might share with his at least the ‘busy’ quality the review identifies; as for whether the era itself induces a certain manic style, a glance at the pages of one of my source texts, Grandville’s Un autre monde (http://www.flickr.com/photos/bjacques/sets/72157622452294268/) may provide confirmation. I credit Isaac Tobin of the Chicago Press, whose design of the cover and format drew upon Grandville’s work (published and co-written by J. J. Hetzel, who later published the stunning red and gold editions of Jules Verne’s works) for bringing Grandville’s technaesthetics up to date.