Thesis ID: CBB001567229

When Nature Begins to Write Herself---German Romantics Read the Electrophore (2010)


Pfannkuchen, Antje (Author)

Fleming, Paul
Levin, Thomas Y.
Ulfers, Friedrich
New York University
Fleming, Paul
Levin, Thomas Y.
Siegel, Elke
Ulfers, Friedrich
Ronell, Avital
Siegel, Elke

Publication Date: 2010
Edition Details: Advisor: Ronell, Avital; Committee Members: Fleming, Paul, Levin, Thomas Y., Siegel, Elke, Ulfers, Friedrich.
Physical Details: 232 pp.
Language: English

This dissertation sheds new light on Early German Romanticism while at the same time exploring a fresh look at the invention of photography. It has been called a mystery why the photographic process was only invented around 1839 since the technical prerequisites (camera obscura and awareness that silver salts darken under influence of light) were in place at least one century earlier. Why did no one try to put the two together sooner? And, after 1800, why were many experimenters working independently towards the same goal: to produce an inscription of light on a sensitive surface? The answer I suggest is that photography needs to be taken seriously as a product of Romanticism. And Romanticism, as I show in its Jena incarnation that makes this most obvious, was an experimental laboratory in which the sciences interacted with poetry and literature to produce the notion of a self-writing, self-expressive nature that then could inscribe itself back into the sciences. At the historical beginning of this investigation was the German scholar G. Chr. Lichtenberg who found in the 1770s dust-figures on his "Electrophore," a state-of-the-art instrument for electrical experiments. These "Lichtenberg figures," as they soon became known, were the first visual representations of electricity, as well as the first scientific illustrations that "printed" themselves automatically. The circumstance that something inherently invisible and ephemeral like electricity suddenly left a lasting trace intrigued the scientist Lichtenberg as it enabled him to better study his object. When his colleague, the acoustician E. F. F. Chladni transposed this process of self-inscription into the realm of sound, Romantic writers, especially those that were scientists themselves like J. W. Ritter and Novalis, embraced these figures as records of `nature writing herself.' This "Chiffernschrift," or secret written language, was seen as a key to the understanding of nature, a natural hieroglyph. As Romantic ideas spread throughout Europe, the concept of nature writing herself, in the absence of human mediation, electrified writers and scientists alike and made it conceivable to imagine `light writing itself,' - in other words, photography.


Description Cited in Dissertation Abstracts International-A 72/01, Jul 2011. Proquest Document ID: 815424240. “Sheds new light on Early German Romanticism while at the same time exploring a fresh look at the invention of photography.”

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Authors & Contributors
Holland, Jocelyn
Walls, Laura
Adams, Katherine
Jarrells, Anthony
Talwani, Pradeep
Henderson, Fergus
Llull: Revista de la Sociedad Española de Historia de las Ciencias y de las Técnicas
Ethics, Place and Environment
Perspectives on Science
History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Technology
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints
Johns Hopkins University Press
Science and literature
Science and art
Nature and its relationship to culture; human-nature relationships
Poetry and poetics
Ritter, Johann Wilhelm
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von
Lichtenberg, Georg Christoph
Kant, Immanuel
Darwin, Charles Robert
Time Periods
18th century
19th century
17th century
20th century
Great Britain
United States
Central Europe: Germany, Austria, Switzerland

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