By Paul Gilmore
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Extra info for Aesthetic Materialism: Electricity and American Romanticism
Instead, as Iwan Morus has argued, debates raged over the exact nature of electricity, creating a “heterogeneity of electricity”: “The fluid had a variety of different uses. ”3 While electricity’s power was increasingly harnessed and understood, it remained a mysterious force or substance, used to explain a variety of equally mysterious phenomena. ”4 Beginning with considerations of electricity in the eighteenth century as a force permeating the universe, as the life force itself, or as the nervous fluid, scientific and popular, residual and emergent, understandings of electricity challenged a Newtonian worldview of the universe, the mind, and social reality consisting of discrete particles in motion.
Such hypotheses would continue to appear in the work of even some of the leading thinkers on electricity throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Bridging the spiritual and physical worlds, by providing a materialist understanding of a dynamic or divinely designed universe, electricity seemed, if not identical with the source of nervous impulses or not the prime source of life itself, to supply a ready substitute for both. As a number of historians have argued, Newtonian mechanical physics provided a vital paradigm for eighteenth-century theories of the mind, political systems, and art.
Yet this distinctively romantic view of art as potentially enabling insights into the complex field unifying self, nature, and God grew, in large part, out of the scientific and technological developments of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As a number of literary and cultural historians over the past decades have demonstrated, romantic writers frequently drew on scientific insights into the natural world and evoked the imaginative, world-changing possibilities of technology. Similarly, historians of science have shown how a number of leading scientists were deeply influenced by romantic ideas concerning the unified nature of the universe and its forms of matter and force and the romantic emphasis on the importance of perspective.