Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

From Electrical Matter to Electric Bodies

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

From Electrical Matter to Electric Bodies

Article excerpt

"The ... great merit possessed by Schelling," Hegel wrote, "is to have pointed out in Nature the forms of Spirit; thus electricity, magnetism, & c, are for him only external modes of the Idea" (3:542). Electricity here functions as the medium of synthesis between Nature arid Spirit; moreover, Hegel praises Schelling for naming electricity as the very externality of the idea. What allows electricity to leap across the divide between nature and consciousness, and what are the implications of this for thinking about bodies? For that matter, what gives electricity the power to ontologize the rational tool of Hegelian synthesis itself? To answer such questions, I start with 18th century electrical materiality, how it was conceptualized as matter, and then consider what electricity could do for bodies and how.

In the 18th century, electricity was endowed with a capacious but ultimately incoherent materiality, shifting initially from a fire (sparks associated with electricity were called electrical fire) to a fluid to an imponderable fluid. Kant called Benjamin Franklin a "modern Prometheus" (Delbourgo 3), and Mary Shelley made this the subtitle to Frankenstein. As if fire were not capacious enough, in the novel she also refers to the electrical fluid (Robinson 66). Similarly, Joseph Priestley, electrician, seller of electrical devices, and polymath, in his 1769 Familiar Introduction to the Study of Electricity defined electrical matter simultaneously as fire arid fluid. He submitted that electricity was "that subtle fluid which is supposed to be the cause of all those appearances which are termed electric. It is sometimes called electric fire, and sometimes ether" (82-3). Those who purchased his electrifying machines automatically received copies of his Familiar Introduction to the Study of Electricity (Schofield 228). Since fire and fluid and ether are potentially self-cancelling, what prevents Priestley and Shelley from seeing contradiction in the forms of electrical materiality? Fire, ether, and fluid indicate forms of materiality that deliver intelligibility but without dictating logical consequences: they offer the placeholder for materiality, rather than materiality itself. (1) By thinking about electricity as a "cause," moreover, Priestley converts its essence from an effect that might just be an appearance to an essential cause.

But electricity was considered a special kind of fluid, an imponderable fluid. Imponderable simply meant that it was unweighable, and one must admire the creation of a category of such paradoxical, even literary, matter as immeasurable materiality. While imponderability could indicate epistemological modesty (Heilbron, Imponderables, 17), it also granted electricity powers of immanence: lurking behind this subtle materialism was nothing less than the very hand of God. Hovering between a spiritual wonder and a rational curiosity (Delbourgo 8), electricity, on the one hand, promised an end to the division between spirit and matter, and, on the other hand, threatened to dissolve into incoherence. Its material status, therefore, was always a monstrous form of protest against the category division itself, and such protest was further masked by the fact that one imponderable, electricity, could always shade into another, say, heat or caloric or light through analogy. Napoleon believed humans to be the product of the imponderable fluids of the atmosphere, and that after death, they would be returned to ether (Helibron, Imponderables, 16).

My interest here is in how these protests of incoherence kept from being heard or seen. Because 18th century treatises on electricity detailed the sensuousness of electricity, often lavishing attention on its acrid or sulphurous smell, metallic taste, and cracking sounds, electrical materiality seemed self-evident. This emphasis on electricity as a sensuous experience helped to link a particular experience with the Aristotelian notion of experience as how things happen in nature. …

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