Romantic Numbers

"Number, Medium, Nature: Wordsworth and Babbage Compose the Universe"

This essay examines how William Wordsworth and Charles Babbage used mathematical analogies in order to imagine an ideal medium free from the distorting biases of the printed book and industrial machinery, respectively. The argument focuses principally on the episode of the shell and the stone in Book Five of The Prelude, in which Wordsworth pairs poetry with Euclidean geometry as “the knowledge that endures,” and Chapter 2 of The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, in which Babbage uses the mathematical structure of the difference engine, a forebear of the digital computer, as a model for the divine first cause. By way of a conclusion, the essay considers the relationship between Wordsworth and Babbage’s “media-less media theory” and recent work on mediation, including the actor-network theory of Bruno Latour, which posits a non-dualistic relation between medium and technology, on the one hand, and nature and society, on the other.

April 2013

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"Of Tangled Webs and Busted Sets: Tropologies of Number and Shape in the Fiction of John Galt"

In a provocative passage in his novel Annals of the Parish, John Galt figures the massive social and economic transformations in late eighteenth-century Scotland by way of an image of a “great web of commercial reciprocities,” each part acting on every other. A prescient and, today, fairly standard illustration of global connectivity, Galt’s “great web” also corresponds with the idea of a set of all sets whose paradox Bertrand Russell would expose in the early twentieth century. While Galt’s novel proposes no formal solution to this paradox, it does attest to ways in which literary texts, and literary form itself, negotiated complexities associated with the idea of modernity during Scotland’s Romantic period. This becomes more evident when we compare Galt’s narrative with a short story he wrote more than a decade later. There, Galt once again implicitly takes up the figure of spinning (or, here, stitching) and mathematics, but this time with the effect of evoking an idea of geometry as a more seamless connection between the world as we theorize it and as we actually experience it. Galt’s work thus opens a window onto the relationship between mathematical and literary form in the long eighteenth century, and onto the diverse ways in which each domain modifies our understanding of the implications of the other.

April 2013

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"Lyric Mindedness and the 'Automaton Poet'"  [1] 

This essay examines how the figure of an “automaton poet” served as a testing ground for Romantic-era arguments about the mind’s internal structure, first and foremost in Coleridge’s assertion that poetry is an activity unassailable by the materialist science of nerves, fibers, and organs. The poet must not be made into an automaton, Coleridge argues, precisely because poetry “brings the whole soul of man into activity,” and thus resembles the undifferentiated or domain-general nature of consciousness itself. I then turn to a different Romantic-era argument—one that implicates Walter Scott, the phrenologist George Combe, and the posthumous specter of Robert Burns—which embraces automatic poiesis for modeling cognition in terms of domain-specific abilities like “tunefulness” or timekeeping.

April 2013

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"Afterword: Body, Number, Rank, Measure: Romantic Reckonings" "Romantic Number(s) Set 2"

McLane’s essay responds to the prompts offered by Savarese, Earle, and Broglio in their inquiries into “Romantic Number.” She notes a productive oscillation between quantitative and qualitative accountings—between the uncountable “mass” in Broglio and “mere countability” (to quote Earle) in Earle and Savarese. Teasing out the implications of their work for a discourse on measure, she invokes recent work on precarity and the common.

April 2013

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"Afterword: Emergent Complexity and 'The The': Making Romanticism Count" "Romantic Number(s) Set 1"

McLane’s essay responds to the prompts offered by Wickman, Levinson, Brooke-Smith in their inquiries into “Romantic Number.” Using The Jackson Five’s song “ABC” as a kind of ludic case, she draws forth the logic of counting vs. matching, the status of order and seriality, the utility of set-theory for thinking romanticism; she notes as well the increasing interest of scholars in emergent complexity. A final detour through Wallace Stevens mediates her reflections on the status of “the one” and of deixis itself in Romanticism and its afterlives.

April 2013

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"Romantic Number(s): A Brief Introduction"

The six essays in this volume offer a range of mediations prompted by the volume’s title. These essays explore older and newer logics of “matching” and “counting” and “measuring” (whether statistical, geometric, or otherwise un/calculable); they register as well an upsurge in interest in formal-language, neurocognitive and medial-historical approaches. These essays invite us to think “bodies,” “multitudes,” and “subjectivity” along different axes. They ask us to think about the (romantic) one, the (romantic) proper name, quantity, and quality; they invite us to reflect on the status of poetry and measure, about the work of the novel as totalization, about models of mind, about calculuses of populations and food. Ranging through Wordsworth, Scott, Malthus, Babbage, and Galt (among others), this volume points to new directions in romanticist thinking while reconstructing the complexity of romantic-period thought.

April 2013

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"Notes and Queries on Names and Numbers"

This essay explores problems of reference raised by Wordsworth’s short lyric, “She dwelt among th’untrodden ways.” The critical angle comes from a) analytic models rarely consulted by readers of Wordsworth (e.g., Gottlob Frege’s “On Sense and Reference,” John Stuart Mill’s System of Logic), and b) inter-texts new to the scholarship on the Lucy poems (e.g., Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” and Gertrude Stein’s lecture, “Poetry and Grammar”). The goal of the inquiry is to illuminate the workings of both zero and one (understood as singularity rather than exemplarity) in Wordsworth’s poems.

April 2013

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"Ranking and Romantic Lyric"

The seminal motif of Romanticism’s critique of capitalism is sympathy for losers. Like poetic successors such as Keats, Adam Smith has the implicit good faith to acknowledge that the commodity form is total and consequently that sympathy must be immanent, must follow a consumerist logic of its own. Keats’s poetic response to this impasse introduces a formally more intricate sympathetic economy that might be termed “romantic ranking.” Rather than either reifying capitalism’s losers, or impossibly pretending to escape such reification only in order to reify failure as such, such ranking entails a second-order standard of comparison. Beyond the question of mere winning or losing it hinges on the subversively distinct question of the relative effectiveness of several instances of failure, subversive because this latter question stands paradoxically to mobilize texture of normative failure as a new mode of communication. The inherently provisional conclusions of comparative ranking stand to preserve the particularity of this texture while allowing it to circulate socially.

April 2013

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