Enlightenment Utopias, Fall 2014

literary thought experiments of the 17th and 18th centuries

Discussion: Millennium Hall

by Patrick Smyth, PhD

  1. “Hares and all sorts of game likewise abound here; so that with the help of a good dairy, perhaps no situation ever more amply afforded all the necessaries of life.” Consider Millennium Hall from the perspective of an eighteenth-century improver such as Repton. How are the grounds emblematic of “improvement” in this period? How do they attempt to improve on improvement?
  2. “… so that instead of feeling the pain one might naturally receive from seeing the human form so disgraced, we were filled with admiration of the human mind, when so nobly exalted by virtue, as it is in the patronesses of these poor creatures …” Consider depictions of disability in Millennium Hall. How are the disabled servants and “dwarfs” instrumentalized? Are there parallels between depictions of the disabled and depictions of women?
  3. What genres does Millennium Hall draw on outside of the Utopian tradition? Consider the novel in light of the gothic and the pastoral. What genre conventions are visible in Millennium Hall, and which are only present in vestigial form?
  4. Consider Millennium Hall from the perspective of later movements driven by women, such as suffrage, temperance, and feminism. How does the novel prefigure these movements?
  5. “Humble piety rendered her indifferent to circumstances which she looked upon rather as snares than blessings, and like a person on the brink of a precipice could not enjoy the beauty of the prospect, overawed by the dangers of her situation.” Beauty in the novel is, more often than not, a danger rather than a blessing. What function does beauty serve? How does it influence the heterosexual and female platonic relationships in Millennium Hall?
  6. “As the ladies’ conduct in this particular was uncommon, I could not forbear telling them, that I was surprised to find so great encouragement given to matrimony by persons whose choice shewed them little inclined in its favour.” What is the role of matrimony (and heterosexual relationships in general) in Millennium Hall? If the novel is a condemnation of marriage, why does Scott defend the institution in certain passages? (”We consider matrimony as absolutely necessary to the good of society …”)
  7. “If we had been inclined before to fancy ourselves on enchanted ground, when after being led through a large hall, we were introduced to the ladies … [O]ne was drawing figures, another a landscape, a third a perspective view, a fourth engraving, a fifth carving, a sixth turning in wood, a seventh writing, an eighth cutting out linen, another making a gown, and by them an empty chair and a tent, with embroidery, finely fancied, before it, which we afterwards found had been left by a young girl who was gone to practise on the harpsichord.” How do eighteenth-century conventions of female accomplishment legitimate the proceedings at Millennium Hall? What images—classical, Christian, mythological—serve to introduce the ladies? What is the atmosphere at the Hall, and what influences sustain it?

Reconceiving the Enlightenment

by Patrick Smyth, PhD

At the outset of “The Concept of Enlightenment,” Horkheimer and Adorno present a brief statement as the fundamental premise of the movement:  “Knowledge obtained through such enquiry would not only be exempt from the influence of wealth and power but would establish man as the master of nature” (1). This is a fair summary of the Enlightenment’s fundamental value proposition, encapsulating the two main promises of the period: increased equality and material improvement. The unifying concept of the Enlightenment, and the tool by which these ends were to be achieved, was Reason, and Horkheimer and Adorno use Bacon’s heavily gendered language to represent this driving force: “Therefore, no doubt, the sovereignty of man lieth hid in knowledge. …  [N]ow we govern nature in opinions, but we are thrall unto her in necessity: but if we would be led by her in invention, we should command her by action” (1).

Up to this point, Horkheimer and Adorno have presented the Enlightenment on its own terms, situating it with words from a pre-Enlightenment thinker that are clear, if somewhat unflattering. Immediately following, however, they make an interesting rhetorical move:

Knowledge, which is power, knows no limits, either in its enslavement of creation or in its deference to worldly masters. Just as it serves all the purposes of the bourgeois economy both in factories and on the battlefield, it is at the disposal of entrepreneurs regardless of their origins. … Technology is the essence of this knowledge. It aims to produce neither concepts nor images, nor the joy of understanding, but method, exploitation of the labor of others, capital. The “many things” which, according to Bacon, knowledge still held in store are themselves mere instruments: the radio as a sublimated printing press, the dive bomber as a more effective form of artillery, remote control as a more reliable compass. What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings. Nothing else counts.

With this passage, Horkheimer and Adorno carve a straight line through history, connecting the failures and shortcomings of the Enlightenment to the evils of their present moment. This stroke is universalizing and teleological—each present horror is coupled with an Enlightenment principle. Knowledge is paired with enslavement, and methodology with exploitation. The radio is a medium of unilateral control, and the airplane is nothing more than upgraded artillery. Finally, these marginal improvements—these “mere instruments”—are circumscribed, confined to two destructive and dehumanizing domains, the factory and the battlefield.

Having established this causal relationship between the Enlightenment project and modernity, Horkheimer and Adorno are able to distill this progression into a single axiom: “Enlightenment is totalitarian” (4). The horrors of 1947, including fascism, propaganda, and depersonalized murder, all stem from hubris, an overweening attempt by an inept Prometheus to steal the divine fire: “In face of the unity of such reason the distinction between God and man is reduced to an irrelevance” (5).

Unfortunately for the teleological arguments presented in “The Concept of Enlightenment,” history did not stop in 1947. While the previous decades had seen nuclear weapons and Zyklon B, the next enjoyed new antibiotics, antihistamines, and the polio vaccine. While the 30s and 40s saw new media used for oppressive propaganda, the 60s saw liberation fueled by LPs, LSD, and the pill.

Of course, our own time has its own set of horrors and wonders, and, in the balance, GoPro seems a poor trade for drone warfare. Yet it seems to me that Horkheimer and Adorno’s unalloyed condemnation of the Enlightenment is reductive. Technology, from teckne, means making or doing, and what technology enables, it enables for good and ill. Human nature, however, is constant. As Martin observes, “Do you believe … that hawks have always eaten pigeons when they have found them?”

Pneuma: From Magic to Mechanism

by Patrick Smyth, PhD

In my readings of utopian texts this semester I have been sensitive to the aesthetics of science—that is, our subjective perception of science and the means by which this perception colors our interpretation of the world. By the nineteenth century, a scientific aesthetic had become relatively fixed, partly due to the obvious physical presence of a number of disruptive technologies such as steam power, electricity, and applied chemistry. As we have seen, however, subjective perceptions of science in the seventeenth century were much more fluid. Depending on the observer, natural philosophy could be a social force that upheld fixed hierarchies, as in Bacon’s New Atlantis, or could facilitate a more disruptive epistemology, as in Cavendish’s Blazing World. This indeterminacy is similar to the unfixed quality we’ve observed in discourses about race from the period, and differs profoundly from the relatively fixed stereotypes about “projectors” and “antiquarians” that emerge in the eighteenth century.

One central concept that might serve as a locus for these general observations is air. Natural philosophy in this period is deeply concerned with pneuma, a Greek concept that meant “wind” or “sprit” and was often used to describe the breath, as in our modern “pneumonia.” Early modern texts approached air in ways that often conjoined the spirit, as in “numinous”—and the element of air, as in the case of the New Atlanteans being taken for “a land of magicians, that sent forth spirits of the air into all parts, to bring them news and intelligence of other countries.” A similar conception of pneuma is given in the interactions between Prospero and Ariel in The Tempest, published about sixteen years before New Atlantis. By the mid-1600s, Cavendish is still clearly influenced by these conceptions of early modern magic—most clearly in her interactions with “disembodied spirits”—but this portrayal of air and spirit is elaborately justified by the scientific theories laid out in her Observations.

Fundamentally, early modern science was as much about explicating spiritual phenomena as it was about exploring physical laws. Indeed, Cavendish and others explicitly conflate the two, contending that the spirit was a material entity. Most interesting to me, however, is the alteration that takes place between this period and the early eighteenth century. Swift strives to explode the validity of both science and spirit in Gulliver’s Travels—literally, in the case of the dog fatally subjected to inflation by a set of bellows and left to be resuscitated “by the same operation.”

For my paper, I intend to trace these conjoined concepts of spirit and air. I’ll also be drawing on Hook and Boyle’s (often gruesome) experiments with vacuum chambers and the investigations of van Helmont, the originator of the term “gas,” into pneumatic chemistry and vitalism. I haven’t nailed down the exact angle I’ll take, but I’m starting to get a sense of the means by which this conception of pneuma changed from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth century, and I’m looking forward to investigating further.





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