By Paul Gilmore
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Additional info for Aesthetic Materialism: Electricity and American Romanticism
While Coleridge’s romantic electricity illustrated an eternal law of structure and opposition that should be replicated in a traditional hierarchical society, spiritualists’ more sentimentalized telegraph revealed a vast egalitarian spiritual union. In both cases, however, the individual experiences of historical forces, social stratification, and lived bodily (sensuous, aesthetic) existence were sublimated in favor of the universal truth they suggested—either the universal law governing all relations or the reduction of human life and differences to a spiritual equality.
It also has important political consequences, for it ennobles and empowers all of humankind: “This rapid progress of knowledge . . extends itself not this way or that way only, but in all directions, [and] will . . be the means, under God, of extirpating all error and prejudice, and of putting an end to all undue and usurped authority. . ”14 As historian James Delbourgo century—to reincorporate ideas of free will and Christian theology with an emphasis on a mechanically determined physical world.
15 While electricity suggested the possibility of a divine presence in a physical and political world governed by Newtonian mechanics, the drive to understand and control electricity simultaneously underscored the competing intentions of humanism. 16 By the end of the eighteenth century, then, electricity simultaneously could represent both a divine force beyond humankind’s control and the human capacity to use God’s gifts to perfect himself. Coleridge’s Electricity and Romantic Ideology In deploying electricity as a metaphor in his earlier poetry, Coleridge drew on these two meanings, connecting a scientific understanding of electricity with a political-spiritual utopianism; after his conservative turn, however, he would reject such revolutionary and material understandings and posit electricity as simply revealing a complex universal law.