By Paul Gilmore
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Additional resources for Aesthetic Materialism: Electricity and American Romanticism
Even before the development of more commercially lucrative uses for electricity, it seemed to provide a natural defense of the unimpeded flows of commerce and ideas. This understanding of electricity as a kind of physical general equivalent linked up with the interest in sensibility, in the innate, embodied basis of taste, in imagining humankind as sharing an essential capacity to feel, not simply on an emotive or physical level, but in a realm linking the two with reason and morality. As Jacques Rancière has recently argued, this more universal distribution of the sensible, “the system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience,” demarcates the emergence of the distinctly modern aesthetic regime.
This is essentially what Jerome McGann describes as romantic ideology. ”31 Rather than “reveal the contradictory forces which human beings at once generate and live through, and . . provide the reader, both contemporary and future alike, with the basis for a sympathetic and critical assessment of those forces” (121), the British romantics, Coleridge and Wordsworth in particular, but Byron and Percy Shelley as well, responded “to the age’s severe political and social dislocations . . [by] reach[ing] for solutions in the realm of ideas” (71).
The political implications of this materialism are further emphasized in a passage first published in The Friend in 1809 and reproduced almost verbatim in Biographia Literaria. ” Soon thereafter, “the detestable maxims and correspondent measures of the late French despotism had already bedimmed the public recollections of democratic phrensy; had drawn off to other objects the electric force of the feelings which had massed and upheld those recollections; and that a favorable concurrence of occasions was alone wanting to awaken the thunder and precipitate the lightning from the opposite quarter of the political heaven” (7:1:199).