To scholars of Idealism and Romanticism, the years leading up to 1800 are known as a time of bold system-building and poetic experimentation. In this talk, I focus on a less-explored aspect of the same time period: where self-described “technologues” tried and, by their own admission, failed to come up with a theoretically sound account for the science of technology. Their sense of failure sprang from an inability to manage proliferation of technical terms, from a lack of consensus on the basic divisions of technology (including whether the fine arts should be included under its umbrella, with aesthetics as an “auxiliary science”), to unsuccessful attempts at constructing technological systems.
This talk examines technological thinking and speaking from the ground up. It begins with the problem of language before asking to what degree the failures of technological theories, with their incomplete gestures towards completion and perfection (Vollkommenheit), are themselves interesting and instructive as increasingly elaborate attempts to build conceptual frameworks. I begin with a brief meditation on Leibniz’s Unpresuming Thoughts on the Use and Improvement of the German Language (c. 1697), with its reflections on technological words, before diving into the late eighteenth-century quagmire of technological writing, drawing upon examples from Beckmann, Lamprecht, Cunradi, Walther, and others.
Jocelyn Holland received her Ph.D. in German Studies from Johns Hopkins University in 2003. She spent the first part of her career in the Department of Germanic, Slavic, and Semitic Studies at UC Santa Barbara before joining the California Institute of Technology as Professor of Comparative Literature in 2018. Her book publications are German Romanticism and Science: the Procreative Poetics of Goethe, Novalis, and Ritter (2009), Key Texts by Johann Wilhelm Ritter on the Science and Art of Nature (2010), and, more recently, Instrument of Reason: Technological Constructions of Knowledge around 1800 (2019). She has also co-edited special journal editions on such diverse topics as the concept of equilibrium around 1800, the aesthetics of the tool, theories and technologies of time-keeping, the role of the Archimedean point in modernity, and most recently an MLN edition on the concept of the anomaly in modernity with Joel Lande. Her current projects include a compilation of personal essays and translations that trace emerging theories of technology in the eighteenth century as well as an essay volume on the concept and material conditions of joining, also in historical perspective.