Aesthetic Materialism: Electricity and American Romanticism

Aesthetic Materialism: Electricity and American Romanticism

Aesthetic Materialism: Electricity and American Romanticism

Aesthetic Materialism: Electricity and American Romanticism


Aesthetic Materialism: Electricity and American Romanticism focuses on American romantic writers' attempts to theorize aesthetic experience through the language of electricity. In response to scientific and technological developments, most notably the telegraph, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century electrical imagery reflected the mysterious workings of the physical mind as well as the uncertain, sometimes shocking connections between individuals. Writers such as Whitman, Melville, and Douglass drew on images of electricity and telegraphy to describe literature both as the product of specific economic and social conditions and as a means of transcending the individual determined by such conditions. Aesthetic Materialism moves between historical and cultural analysis and close textual reading, challenging readers to see American literature as at once formal and historical and as a product of both aesthetic and material experience.


Of all the scientific terms in common use, perhaps no one
conveys to the mind a more vague and indeterminable sense
than this, at the same time that the user is always conscious
of a meaning and appropriateness; so that he is in the posi
tion of one who endeavors to convey his sense of the real
presence of an idea, which still he cannot himself fully grasp
and account for.

—Elizabeth Peabody, “The Word 'Aesthetic'” (1849)

Thus, Elizabeth Peabody opens Aesthetic Papers, one of the first American volumes to use the word in its title. Most famous for publishing Henry David Thoreau's “Resistance to Civil Government” (“Civil Disobedience”), Aesthetic Papers emphasizes the very problem of defining its chief term, a word everyone understands and uses, according to Peabody, with his own sense of “appropriateness.” This problem remains central to the debates over aesthetics and, in particular, the ideologies and politics of aesthetics, in the wake of the “linguistic,” “historical,” and “cultural” turns in literary criticism. Peabody's description of the problem points to the difficulty of defining a kind of experience that, seemingly by definition, is beyond definition, that is a “real presence” but merely “an idea.” In addition to this constitutive difficulty, the problem of defining aesthetics has at least two related dimensions: distinguishing different historically specific ideas about aesthetics and differentiating the various topics sometimes grouped under the term, including aesthetic objects, aesthetic judgments (or values), aesthetic theory, aesthetic experience (or effects), aesthetic attitude (or: function), and aesthetic practice.

Over the last few decades, dominant academic literary criticism has analyzed, demystified, and dismissed aesthetics largely by de-historicizing and . . .

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