By Paul Gilmore
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Extra info 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.
Despite his lifelong antipathy towards the emerging market order, Coleridge’s electric figures of the 1790s grew directly out of these various connections. 29 In Biographia Literaria (1817), he dismisses the idea that electricity is the vital force as simply the latest manifestation of materialistic and mechanical associationist psychology. His attack on Hartleian associationism is central, in fact, to his famous conception of the esemplastic nature of the imagination. For Coleridge, the problem with associationism is that, despite attempts otherwise, it ends in a godless, meaningless, and deterministic view of the world 30 Idealist Aesthetics and the Republican Telegraph and humanity.
In the 1790s, Coleridge became friends with Sir Humphry Davy, the leading English electric scientist of the age, and was deeply engaged with both the mechanical associationist thought of David Hartley and Priestley and the radical politics of Priestley and William Godwin. Soon, however, Coleridge’s worldview would change dramatically. Where in his early career, Coleridge embraced revolutionary politics and explored a materialist understanding of the world and human consciousness, his later works consistently define truth as reflecting the ideal, mirroring relationship between consciousness and immutable natural laws.
Aesthetic materialism : electricity and American romanticism by Paul Gilmore