Raymond Williams, Industrialism, and Romanticism, 1780–1850

Jon Mee (The University of York)

Christine MacLeod’s study of the early nineteenth-century struggle over the memory of the inventor James Watt identifies Raymond Williams with a "catastrophist" view of the Industrial Revolution (11). She sees Williams as the origin of a powerfully influential idea that "culture" in its modern sense(s) developed as the humane ethical alternative to industrial capitalism as an irreducible tragedy. "Nothing celebratory," writes MacLeod, of "‘the new industrial society’ emerges from beneath this condemnatory weight: it is crushed out of the record" (12). Certainly, in Culture and Society (1958), still probably his most widely read work, Williams did claim that culture in its modern sense "came into English thinking in the period . . . of the Industrial Revolution" (viii). Little wonder that the book is popular among Romanticists. Although his aim may have been to describe the evolution of this idea of "culture," rather than advocate it as an antidote to what he called "industrialism," the Industrial Revolution as a kind of fall recurs even in later works like The Country and the City (1973) and Marxism and Literature (1977). The writing on "industrialism"—the term, tellingly enough, he adopted from Thomas Carlyle—often seems to elide contradictions that might provide the objects of an immanent critique. One does not have to celebrate "industrialism" to see that varieties of late eighteenth-century radicalism, for instance, had a complex dialectical relationship to nineteenth-century liberalism.

My own current project concerns the "culture" of improvement in the manufacturing towns of the early phases of the Industrial Revolution, but not in any sense of the word understood by the "culture and society" tradition. Instead, I want to test the possibility of adapting post-Latourian network analysis to attempt a "redescription" of a phenomenon that ranged across the domains of literary, scientific, and technical invention, but without losing sight of emergent forms of domination (Latour 226). "Culture"—in the tradition MacLeod identifies with Williams—has tended to place itself outside these historical processes, but the cultural materialism of Williams’s later career lends itself to an immanent critique of contradictions revealed within them. Immanent critique, in the sense associated with the critical theory of Adorno and the Frankfurt School, operates by revealing "the contradictions of claim and context, to transform legitimations into emancipatory weapons" (Antonio 338). More than Adorno’s characteristic pessimism perhaps, or his Hegelian sense of totality, the later work of Williams may help provide an understanding of this culture of improvement as something more complicated than the objectivist reflection of epochal relations. It might be treated not as anterior to the development of industrial capitalism, nor without contradictions as it morphed into an aspect of the dominant culture, but instead as "part of the material social process itself" (Williams, Marxism 60). In this regard, the characteristic concern with immanence in Williams—at least in his later cultural materialist phase—helps navigate between the tendency to formalism in Bruno Latour’s network theory and the epochalism of late Marx (Jones).

In a belated commentary on Culture and Society, Williams regretted its neglect of William Godwin because, he said, his book had been blind to English radicalism’s "insight—even if from a rather simplified rationalist point of view—that you could reform character by environment, that all kinds of error and injustice should be seen in a social perspective, and then also in its encounter with a more complex experience at the point where its formula broke down" (Politics and Letters 123). The idea of the reform of character through environment was a key aspect of Industrial Enlightenment,

Mokyr (2009) and others who use the idea of an "Industrial Enlightenment" have not tended to explore these aspects of the technical thinking they see as part of a cultural approach to the Industrial Revolution, but they underpinned ideas about the reorganization of the workforce found in the Kennedy and Baines Jr. texts discussed below.

not least in the elaboration of work-time discipline, but this thread was not followed by Williams. Instead his discussion took the now-familiar route of discussing state repression in the 1790s. Much of the literary and cultural criticism devoted to the Romantic period, including my own, has focused on this political story rather than on the Industrial Revolution’s materialist interest in reshaping human character. When the idea of industrial transformation as a kind of revolution started to appear in the 1820s, it was often to suggest that the Industrial Revolution represented a paradigm shift for the possibilities of human progress at least equal to the effects of French Revolution, and even the earlier transformative impact of print, often appropriating a language of reform from the 1790s in the process.

This essay explores the usefulness of cultural materialism to assist with an account of this historical process, not least by drawing attention to the way it worked its way through networks formed in and between the industrial towns. Places like Manchester remain more or less invisible in the literary geography of Romantic-period scholarship. True, individuals associated with the region, including Anna Barbauld, her brother John Aikin, and their friend William Roscoe, are increasingly written about by scholars (James and Inkster; White). There is even a developed scholarship now on the literary productivity of the oppositional culture of Rational Dissent to which the trio above belonged, but this work rarely follows through on the way its values could transmute into forms of dark materialism within the historical process, freedom of enquiry turning into a resistance to curbs on industrial exploitation, and ideas of reshaping human character through reformed institutions producing instead "laboratories of virtue" (Meranze). My version of immanent critique contains a geographically literal understanding of the way that anxiety about and even criticism of industrialization emerged within this networked territory (as well as beyond it). This development gives the sense of the ambiguities as a constitutive part of the "structure of feeling" articulated in relation to the lived experience within these locations, forms that remained "in solution," to use Williams’s characteristic metaphor. In his later use of his most famous phrase, where it usually appears as the plural "structures of feeling," Williams applies it to groups shaped into "cultural formations." As the editors of this volume point out in their introduction, his previous emphasis on social experience in solution develops into a sense of "the complex relation of differentiated structures of feeling to differentiated classes" (Marxism 134). The formation I discuss in this essay only uneasily precipitated into something like liberal ideology, itself never without its ambiguities and contradictions, or into literary genres like the industrial novel, including Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848), a novel deeply imbricated in the networks described here. Contrary to the binary of Romanticism and industrialism that implicitly informed Culture and Society, the more nuanced idea of structures of feeling found in late Williams allows us to see the writing that emerged in and around the Manchester cotton boom between 1780 and 1850 as part of a complicated relationship between residual, emergent, and dominant formations that developed as the middle class came to know—incompletely—its own power. My approach takes from Williams his sense of hegemony as something that needed to be "continually renewed, recreated, defended, and modified" (Marxism 112). The work of writing the "transpennine enlightenment" (Mee and Wilkes) as it territorialized a new domain of industrial progress was a practice that continually disclosed possibilities of resistance through its own unstable contradictions and conflicts.

Williams and "Industrialism"

MacLeod’s judgment of Williams’s "catastrophism" draws on Stefan Collini’s account of the myth of the village laborer in the historiography of the British Left (11). Collini notes that in the 1940s and 50s Williams was trained as a tutor in the adult education ethos steeped in the idea of "culture" as a response to the economism associated with the Industrial Revolution and the tragic loss of communal village life (107–8). In The Country and the City, as Collini concedes, Williams positioned himself as "a trenchant critic of precisely that kind of ‘ruralist nostalgia’" (95). What he retained from his training was a tendency to identify the Industrial Revolution with the emergence of a new kind of society totally dominated by "industrialism": "His larger ambition was to extrapolate from the notion of culture as ‘a whole way of life’ to provide a more inclusive and enabling conception which would encompass forms of working-class organization and solidarity," Collini rightly notes, but "in so doing, he in effect tied the emergence of the concept of culture itself to the great rupture in English history which marked the arrival of a ‘new civilization’ at the end of the eighteenth century" (108). From this perspective, Williams’s lifelong struggle against abstraction in Marxist theory let itself down by losing a proper sense of contradictions within the society that produced "industrialism."

A lack of curiosity about those contradictions that were immanent to "industrialism" was exacerbated in Culture and Society by the structural decision to orchestrate key chapters around a series of "contrasts" (see the essays by Favret [link] and Gilmartin [link] in this volume). Although this strategy allows for some sense of the mutual implication of utilitarian and Romantic ways of thinking, the binaries obscured the complexities within the emergent power of the industrial classes. Williams later regretted his sense of the heroic status of figures like Edmund Burke and Carlyle, but, even then, reiterated his praise for Carlyle’s grasp of "fundamental changes within the labor process itself [and] the relations between human society and the non-human physical environment" (Politics and Letters 105). In the original rather unsatisfactory chapter on “The Romantic Artist” in Culture and Society, "literature" is defined in terms of a critique of economic rationalism in ways that understate, for instance, some of the political conservatism of this articulation in its time found in authors like Robert Southey (Connell 265–73). Furthermore, and more relevant to my argument here, Williams ignores critiques of economic rationalism from within the historical process he names "industrialism." The Country and the City, for all its skepticism about "ruralist nostalgia," retains a melancholy strain attached to the fate of the English village. There is an acknowledgement of progressive possibilities in the new urban experience, primarily identified for Williams with the emergence of the popular press and the spread of literacy, but this note very quickly modulates into a critique—quite right in itself—of Marxist celebrations of "mastery" over nature (Country 37).

To note the lack of any real engagement by Williams with the diversity of writing emerging from the manufacturing towns is not to dissent from this point about mastery over nature, but his chapter on "Change in the City" is instructive in terms of the blind spots noted by Collini and MacLeod. It appears to end by opening out to a sense of the vitality of urban change beyond London. Quoting percentage statistics for urban growth in the manufacturing towns between 1821 and 1841, Williams notes that they eclipsed London in the sheer rate of increase: "The industrial cities were something different again. Though still in their early stages they announced, even more decisively than the growth of capitals, the new character of the city and the new relations between city and country" (Country 152). One might expect some account of the cultural aspects of this momentous change, but the next chapter, “People of the City,” is focused on the old critical chestnut of Dickens and London. The closest Williams ever really gets to engaging with the cultural side of "industrialism" is in his various treatments of Elizabeth Gaskell, but these never really progressed beyond his sense of "the intensity of the effort to record, in its own terms, the feel of everyday life in the working-class homes" (Culture 121). Collini (108n38) finds it telling that Williams chose William Cobbett and his attacks on the "Seigneurs of the Twist, sovereigns of the Spinning Jenny, great Yeoman of the Yarn" as his author for the influential Past Masters series (qtd. in Williams, Cobbett 37). One implication of this choice is that within the emergent formation of "industrialism," to modulate MacLeod’s claim, there seems to be nothing that could be called "culture." In this regard, Williams would seem to come close to the kind of "‘epochal’ analysis" that Marxism and Literature very deliberately distinguished from his later cultural materialism (121). Against epochal analysis, my aim is to develop recent network theory’s concern with "the pattern of recurring links," both interpersonal and across "institutional organizations," most obviously here the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society (DeLanda 56, 66). I map a conflicted territory of improvement that shaped an emergent voice of opposition to aristocratic hegemony and fed directly, not least via the conflicts within the constituency of Protestant Dissent, into contradictions of the kind Williams hinted at in his analyses of Gaskell’s fiction.

Many of the figures mentioned in the final section of my essay played a role in the struggle to have James Watt commemorated in Westminster Abbey, a struggle—finally successful in 1834—that MacLeod identifies with the articulation of a middle-class identity very different to the account of the national imaginary in Linda Colley’s Britons (1992). Colley sees two decades of war confirming the grasp of an aristocratic elite on power, especially consolidated around the figure of the Duke of Wellington (MacLeod 92). The contrast between Watt, as a hero of invention, and Wellington was a key aspect of "culture" in the Romantic period that finds no place in Culture and Society. Nor is it much discernible anywhere in the many literary studies of the 1810s and 20s. The complex structure of feeling that gave affective power to the campaign to install Watt’s statue in Westminster Abbey is not reducible to "industrialism," as, for instance, MacLeod’s account of the role of working-class agitation on the matter shows. My own account here doesn’t pursue this particular aspect of the campaign, but instead looks at the emergent insurgency against aristocratic hegemony that in its earlier formulations took "invention" to be a quality common to the poet and the engineer. My next section looks at this idea in relation to John Aikin’s account of the transpennine enlightenment in the region around Manchester.

John Aikin in the Transpennine Enlightenment

John Aikin’s Description of the Country for Thirty to Forty Miles round Manchester (1795) was published two years into Britain’s war against revolutionary France, but it was devised earlier, as a published call for subscriptions from 1793 indicates (Proposals). This dating matters, as it suggests that Aikin’s project originated in a period when an optimism about general improvement was more sustainable than after the political polarization of the war years had bitten more deeply, only a few years later. MacLeod sees in Aikin and in his collaborations with his sister, Anna Barbauld, the emergence of a structure of feeling that precipitated around the figure of Watt (166, 170). Certainly, Aikin’s Description of Manchester retained an authority for later texts much closer to the ideology of "industrialism" as defined by Williams, like Edward Baines Jr.’s A History of the Cotton Manufactures (1835), although even there the dark turn in the transpennine enlightenment was not without its contradictions. More striking, perhaps, is the fact Aikin’s book made its way into first volume of Marx’s Capital (1867), probably via the intimate knowledge Engels had of the antinomies of Manchester liberalism (Seed 20). The copy Marx used is still on display in the window seat of Cheetham’s Library in Manchester where he worked on Capital.

Marx used Aikin’s book in his account of the transition in the social life of the manufacturing classes between what Marx called the "age of manufactures" and "modern capitalism": ‘Even in the early part of the 18th century, a Manchester manufacturer, who placed a pint of foreign wine before his guests, exposed himself to the remarks and headshaking of all his neighbors. Before the rise of machinery, a manufacturer’s evening expenditure at the public house where they all met, never exceeded sixpence for a glass of punch, and a penny for a screw of tobacco. It was not till 1758, and this marks an epoch, that a person actually engaged in business was seen with an equipage of his own. "The fourth period," the last 30 years of the 18th century, "is that in which expense and luxury have made great progress, and was supported by a trade extended by means of riders and factors through every part of Europe." (Marx 594–95; the phrases in quotation marks are from Aikin, Description 182)’ Marx makes the "rise of machinery" the basis for the transformation of social life of the middle classes. He quickly moves to describe that transformation in terms of a will to capital accumulation: ‘Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets! "Industry furnishes the material which saving accumulates." Therefore, save, save, i.e., reconvert the greatest possible portion of surplus-value, or surplus-product into capital! Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake: by this formula classical economy expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie, and did not for a single instant deceive itself over the birth-throes of wealth. (595)’ Here is the "industrialism" of Williams, but what Marx doesn’t quite do is identify Aikin with this epochal gospel. Rather, he suggests that Aikin inhabits a qualitatively different space and time: "What would the good Dr. Aikin say if he could rise from his grave and see the Manchester of today?" (595).

Aikin is now primarily remembered as Barbauld’s brother. They collaborated on various literary and educational projects, but he could hardly be claimed as an advocate of "culture" in any binary opposition to "industrialism." A Description of Manchester is explicitly a celebration of the development of the Manchester textile industry and the spirit of technical innovation he saw in it, "absolutely unparalleled in the annals of trading nations" (3), but in a way that subscribed to a practical project of "improvement" that did not define these developments as at odds with an idea of "genius" incorporating forms of artistic endeavor. Although the cotton manufactures provide the putative focus of Aikin’s volume, it is transport and communications that really seem to fire his imagination. Canals, bridges, and aqueducts loom large as media of "internal communication" (117), not least because they had allowed information for his volume to reach him in London from across the region. Freedom of communication is a key refrain of the book, whether of technical innovations or a more general circulation of knowledge. Suspicious of court and aristocracy, the volume downplays the region’s old families and big houses. Aikin was certainly invested in the idea of the flat network promoting the circulation of commerce in goods and ideas against inherited vertical hierarchies. Where he differed from the accounts of this phenomenon given recently by economic historians like Margaret Jacob and Joel Mokyr, discussed below, was in his reservations about the moral implications of the capital accumulation Marx saw as powering the rise of machinery. Nor was Aikin comfortable with the idea of his communication network as mastery over nature.

He could sound visionary when it came to hymning this system of improvement: "Manchester is, as it were, the heart of this vast system, the circulating branches of which spread all around it" (Description 3). His maps of the area—with their emphasis on vein-like roads, canals, and bridges—translate the geographical space around Manchester into the pumping heart of a renovated body politic. Given his wider political and religious affiliations in the 1790s, there seems a covert validation of middle-class values against the entrenched interests of London. In his political writing from this period, this tendency was much more explicit: "the middle class," he insisted in his Address to the Dissidents of England (1790), published after the failure to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts, were "the most virtuous, the most enlightened, the most independent part of the community" (18). "If this nation is ever to improve," he insisted, "or even if it is to retain, the freedom it possesses, to this class alone must it be indebted for the blessing," but this middle-class radicalism is only a muted presence in the Manchester book (Address 18). His private correspondence, edited by his daughter Lucy, show that various colleagues from the area had warned him against writing about his political opinions too explicitly (L. Aikin 159–60). Criticism of the slave trade and its role in the affluence of Liverpool was also relatively muted (Description 339), a factor picked up in another of Marx’s references to Aikin’s book (Marx 759).

In his account of Manchester, Aikin particularly celebrated "the wonderful self-instructed genius" James Brindley’s role in the construction of the Duke of Bridgewater’s canal as an example of "true inspiration, which poets have almost exclusively arrogated to themselves, but which men of original genius in every walk are actuated by, when from the operation of the mind acting upon itself, without the intrusion of foreign notions, they create and invent" (Description 112, 144). The judgment may sound like the displacement of humanistic values by useful knowledge, but to say only this much would underestimate Aikin’s concern with literary culture, broadly understood, witnessed, for instance, by his collaborations with his sister and his own volume of poetry published in 1791 by Joseph Johnson. Aikin was part of an important early formation associated with the Dissenters at Warrington Academy, where he was educated and his father was a tutor. This cultural formation celebrated commercial exchange, because it was seen as the underpinning of moral and cultural improvement, but he also worried that it might undermine these benefits though narrow pursuit of the profit motive. Like his friend the Liverpool banker and poet William Roscoe, who in the late 1780s gave a paper on the relative values of the arts and sciences at the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, an institution to which I’ll return, Aikin was alarmed at the idea of commercial self-interest breaking free from ideas of the public good. These reservations surface even in the paean to Brindley, who he described as an "enthusiast" for valuing technical innovation above the natural beauties of the rivers he built over: "the triumph of art over nature," Aikin suggested, "led him to view with a sort of contempt the winding stream, in which the lover of natural beauty delights" (Description 141). Against the notion of innovation as the product of mind acting upon itself, Aikin tended towards an idea of genius as a social process that ought, at least, to be oriented towards the general good rather than profit. Later his weighty General Biography (1799–1815) insisted on a meritocratic idea of genius that emphasized literature, technology, and science at the expense of martial heroism. When it came to the sources of "genius," its preface argued, there could be no "precise line" between "invention and improvement": all the "great discoveries," Aikin argued, are the product of "gradual advances given to them by successive improvers" (3–4). From this kind of perspective, ideas of individual genius were in a complex loop with an understanding of society and of the mind, not to mention roads, bridges, and canals, as material assemblages directed towards the public good.

Aikin’s Description was itself a material product of the networks he celebrated in that its information was gathered by informants from across the region. Among the key contributors to the volume, acknowledged by Aikin, was his friend Thomas Percival. Another literary physician, whose children’s books were also published by Joseph Johnson (himself originally from Liverpool), Percival had been publishing on the medical effects of the new factories and contributed this data, among other things, to Aikin’s volume (Description 219–20; cited in Marx 759). A Description of Manchester explicitly praised another example of the region’s collaborative enterprise in the form of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. Founded by Percival in 1781 with others associated with the Warrington Academy, including the chemist-apothecary Thomas Henry and the Unitarian clergyman Thomas Barnes, Aikin himself was vigorously involved from early on and contributed papers to the society even after he had left the region, including one—read in 1791—on the effect of reality in dramatic representations.

Historians of science have long debated the role of the Literary and Philosophical Society in the Industrial Revolution. For some scholars, it was understood fairly straightforwardly as a kind of think tank where scientific ideas were circulated among men of business for application in Manchester’s textile industry. In the 1970s an alternative perspective began to read the society’s role more in terms of the developing self-image of the middle classes. At the forefront here were Roy Porter and, especially, a classic essay by Arnold Thackeray on the "Manchester model" that effectively read the society as the cultural arm of Marx’s "historical mission of the bourgeoisie." Although Porter called for scholarship to pay attention to the word "literary" in the title of the society (25), his account was largely concerned with science as a form of cultural expression: the society was a means by which the rising middle classes performed their cultural hegemony through institutions of politeness. Thackray understood the literary and scientific interests of the society as primarily "ornamental": effectively an epiphenomenal institutional superstructure to a socioeconomic base.

It need hardly be said that any approach indebted to the cultural materialism of Williams is not likely to find this functionalist account sufficient. Writing from a very different perspective, the recent work of Margaret Jacob and Joel Mokyr avoid the class determinism of Porter and Thackray to return to a revamped version of the older model that closely linked the domains of scientific knowledge and technical innovation. Jacob and Mokyr make the development of the "first knowledge economy" the key factor in the early period of the Industrial Revolution. The contemporary European appetite for "useful knowledge" is decisive for them, refined by a broader Enlightenment faith in progress and commitment to dissemination that ensured that the rage for invention was sustained and developed. In their narratives of economic growth, networks and cultural institutions do play an important role. Although neither see the knowledge economy as a democratic event, they do represent it as sustained by relatively marginal figures constellated into flat networks committed to the distribution of useful knowledge. In this regard, their work shows some overlaps with Bruno Latour’s network theory, even if the references to his work in Mokyr’s Gifts of Athena are somewhat wary (61, 63). Jacob and Mokyr might well regard my own account as a Latourian redescription too far, but their work does retain a role for culture as the domain of these networks, including the odd mention, in Jacob’s case at least (105), of the importance of the "liberal arts" in the early years of the Manchester society. More generally, though, neither allows much of a role for the "literary" in sustaining even the idea of progress. Not that the domain of literary studies, for its part, has ever really taken up the challenge of thinking about the role of the "literary" in this territory, unsurprisingly since the disciplinary authority of the category of Romanticism, mediated in part by heavily partisan contemporaries like Thomas De Quincey, explicitly defined its keys terms—especially "genius" and "imagination"—against the role of networks and related institutions in literary production (Klancher 28–29). I’ll return to De Quincey, who grew up in the circles of the Literary and Philosophical Society, briefly at the end of this essay.

The knowledge economy described by Jacob and Mokyr was rather more conflicted than their account of flows of information around flat networks implies. Nor was it as unambiguously committed to capital accumulation. In order to develop the point, I will concentrate on a particular strain of debate concerned with philosophical materialism and relations between mind, matter, and machine that came out of the Manchester society. These debates were an immanent part of the complex process connecting Aikin’s golden vision of Manchester to the dreadful conditions described by Marx in Capital as the outcome of the gospel of capital accumulation. Part of the dialogue between scientific and literary matters at the Manchester society in the 1780s and early 90s were topics like imagination, taste, and genius. Recent studies in Romanticism, at least since Alan Richardson’s British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind (2001), have shown a renewed interest in such topics from a materialist perspective, but usually in ways that take the intellectual and literary issues out of the domain of changes in modes of production. Such issues were a hot topic in in places like Manchester, because, more than anywhere else, they revealed the possibilities of reshaping biological life through manipulation of the material environment, not least via the elaboration of work-time discipline. Perhaps the most obvious early example of the region’s interest in these issues were John Howard’s prison reforms, on which he had worked with Aikin—whom he also chose as his biographer—at the Warrington Academy (L. Aikin 63). Those reforms, which produced concrete changes to the architecture of prisons, and eventually, factories, were centered on emancipation from various forms of corporeal punishment associated with an unreformed aristocratic order, but the ideas of prisons as "laboratories of virtue," to use Meranze’s phrase in its original penal context, were to have their part in the dialectic of Enlightenment as the darker consequences of the new penitentiary system emerged.

In the 1780s and early 90s, though, what was constantly being fought over in the Manchester society was the extent to which the material processes of the body could entirely account for taste, imagination, and the principle of life itself. It was a topic at the heart of Aikin’s paper to the society on the reality of dramatic performances, for instance, but it became fraught in the debate on materialism between Thomas Cooper and his friend John Ferriar, on the one hand, and Thomas Barnes, on the other. In a paper given at the Manchester society in 1783, “On the Influence of the Imagination and the Passions upon Our Understanding,” Barnes had argued for a view of imagination as one of several mental modes that together made up the mind as—following Joseph Priestley here—"ONE UNCOMPOUNDED ESSENCE" (377). Cooper thought that the idea of different modes in one essence nonsensical: an attempt to preserve a place for "spirit" within the universe of Priestley’s Disquisitions on Matter and Spirit (1777). In his rebuttal of Barnes at the society, published as “Sketch of the Controversy on Materialism” in his Tracts (1789), Cooper insisted on the familiar materialist position that the source of life was organization acted upon by external stimulation. Cooper was supported by another literary physician, John Ferriar, in his attack on modern species of "immaterialism," as they both called it. Ferriar was working with Cooper and Percival at the time on wresting control of the Manchester infirmary from an entrenched Tory elite (Pickstone 406). Ferriar’s “Observations Concerning the Vital Principle” condemned the vitalism of the Scottish physicians John Hunter and Alexander Monro as a throwback to Platonism, but then followed up with a paper that rallied his friend Cooper for the mechanism of his version of materialism.

On the face of it, this Manchester debate anticipates the later dispute between John Abernethy and William Lawrence now routinely adduced as a context for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).

For an account of the Abernethy-Lawrence controversy, see Jacyna, whose survey omits any mention of the controversy in Manchester.

Cooper’s position is much like Lawrence’s materialism, but Ferriar’s position is harder to describe as he attacked both Abernethy’s hero John Hunter and distanced himself from Cooper’s certainty that the brain is the mind. The debate in Manchester was three-cornered and harder to read than the dispute between Abernethy and Lawrence. Where it did anticipate the later dispute was in the way it was picked up at the national level in terms of an ideological binary. The dispute—couched in amiable terms between Cooper and Ferriar themselves—was quickly seized upon by the anti-Jacobin campaign against "French" materialism. Cooper was its target: he had been named in Parliament by Burke for attending the Jacobin Club in Paris, but the debate also made waves in its own more sympathetic constituency of Rational Dissent. Hannah Lightbody’s diary for February 1788 contains an account of a tea-table discussion of "the dispute between Mr. Cooper and Dr. Barnes on Materialism" (14). A few days later her mentor, the literary physician James Currie—an honorary member at the Manchester society, later famous as the editor and biographer of Burns—restaged the dispute with "a very liberal defender of [Cooper’s] doctrine" (23). Hannah Lightbody later moved from Liverpool to Manchester and married the millowner Samuel Greg. She had encouraged her future husband to worship at a new Unitarian chapel in Mosley Street in competition with Barnes’s at Cross Street (Sekers 80). The new chapel adopted a liturgy created by Lightbody’s own minister in Liverpool. Priestley, who thought it more properly Unitarian, preached at the new chapel in 1791, and mocked Barnes’s jealousy at its success (Life 35, 109). Where these disputes about religious forms intersect with the debates on materialism is that the new liturgy more clearly parsed Priestley’s monism (which Barnes played down in his paper to the Manchester society to Cooper’s disgust). Debates around materialism and related doctrinal differences indicate some of the fractures forming around the doctrine of materialism in these networks. They also suggest something of what is lost in "epochal" accounts of the emergence of middle-class ideology. Attending in descriptive detail to the formation of networks in a Latourian manner coincides in this regard with the critique of the assumption that the social is "always formed" in the later work of Williams (Marxism 128). Williams denies dominant forms ever exhaust "all human practice, human energy, and human intention" (125). Redescribing the networks around Manchester can provide a sense of "new meanings and values, new practices, new relationships and kinds of relationships being created," in ways encouraged by his later cultural materialism, while still attending to emergent forms of domination (Williams, Marxism 123).

Six or So around Manchester

Among the most-quoted chapters of The Country and the City must be "Three around Farnham," which brings together the unlikely trio of Jane Austen, William Cobbett, and Gilbert White on the basis of their shared proximity to the leafy Surrey town (see the essays by Favret and Gilmartin in this volume). The choice of writers and location—in the rural home counties—is strange given the decisive role that Williams gives to the Industrial Revolution in his larger argument, but The Country and the City is suffused with a sympathy for "a precarious rural-intellectual radicalism: genuinely and actively hostile to industrialism and capitalism; opposed to commercialism and to the exploitation of environment; attached to country ways and feelings, the literature and the lore" (36). In this final section of my essay, I attempt a playful rewriting of the Williams trope that takes the Manchester cotton industry and the region territorialized by Aikin’s text as its locus. Selective and sketchy my account must be, but placing these writers—Robert Owen, Hannah Greg, John Kennedy, John Phillips Kay, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Thomas De Quincey—in relation to each other around industrial Manchester helps reveal the tensions and contradictions that emerged from within the structures of feeling to be found in A Description of Manchester.

Literary scholarship frequently identifies the industrial novel as the place where these contradictions emerged most glaringly, as Williams effectively does in Culture and Society, but Gaskell’s fiction inhabits the networked territory that produced Aikin’s book, with some of its contradictions only more apparent. As the biographer of Gaskell’s early life has revealed in great detail, she was a belated member of the networks that surrounded the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, including Hannah Lightbody Greg’s circle, and even lived in the house of the founder of its offshoot society in Newcastle, the Unitarian minister William Turner II, before her marriage (Chapple 351–70). As a child, Turner had been the dedicatee and recipient of an early poem of Barbauld’s— “Verses Written in the Leaves of an Ivory Pocketbook” —inscribed on a tablet. The poem has recently been read as a trope for the materialist psychology of these groups and their educational interests in the role of environment in shaping character (Wharton 31–33). In this regard, Turner stands as a link between the early and late phases in the evolution of this distinctive structure of feeling towards a broader cultural formation within middle-class liberalism: his career in many ways confirms the script written for him in Barbauld’s poem, not least in his encouragement of her interest in literary, scientific, and social issues in his daughter Mary Turner and in Gaskell.

I’ve already noted that celebrations of Priestley and associated branches of materialism have become a salient part of contemporary Romantic studies,

Richardson, Wharton, White and others have made significant contributions to this scholarship, which usually stresses the contribution of Rational Dissent.

often directed—implicitly or explicitly—against traditional accounts of the "Romantic Artist." The progressive aspects of these formations morphed into altogether darker shapes across a generation. This claim does not mean that this dark materialism always existed as the real meaning of this historical process. It certainly fed into versions of work-time discipline found in John Kennedy, and even into the parallelograms of paupers associated with Robert Owen, but what also remained was a hankering after the emancipatory promise of the project of improvement that might be described as residual. Perhaps this is nowhere more obvious than in the case of Robert Owen, whose participation in the debates on materialism at the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society is a routinely ignored part of his intellectual formation. By the account in his own Life of Robert Owen (1857), which is not entirely reliable, Owen was encouraged into the Manchester society because of his knowledge of the new industrial processes, but there are plenty of signs that he also engaged with its debates on philosophical materialism, not least his amusing account of a feisty encounter with Ferriar in a debate on "genius" which left the doctor blushing (37). Even prior to joining the Manchester society, Owen had been part of a small debating club where his friends had dubbed him "the reasoning machine—because they said I made man a mere reasoning machine made to be so by nature and society" (36). His dispute with Ferriar probably revolved around the doctor’s resistance to the mechanical determinism of Owen’s version of materialism glimpsed in these comments. None of the papers Owen gave at the Literary and Philosophical Society have survived, but a record of their titles exists (Fraser 37–38). They suggest there is some truth to Owen’s claims of a lifelong consistency to his belief in the doctrine of circumstance: “Remarks on the Improvement of the Cotton Trade” (November 1794); “The Utility of Learning” (December 1794); “Thoughts on the Connection between Universal Happiness and Practical Mechanics” (March 1795); “On the Origin of Opinions, with a View to the Improvement of Social Virtues” (January 1796). There seems a remarkable series here from practical industrial issues to questions of social virtue.

These ideas were elaborated in his time at New Lanark, outside Glasgow, into A New View of Society (1813) described by Williams in Culture and Society as "low rationalism" in their "social engineering," but "innovating in their humanity and kindness" (44–45). Williams didn’t notice the relation to the contradictions within the structure of feeling of Manchester materialism. In A New View of Society, Owen addressed the cotton manufactures on behalf of the "vital machines" they neglected in favor of the "inanimate machines" (5). His metaphor of "vital machines" suggests the persistence of a version of materialism closer to Cooper’s mechanistic determinism than, for instance, Ferriar’s idea of genius. Certainly, the mechanistic aspects of Owen’s thinking—its "low rationalism"—remained in force even as his ideas more generally developed towards the abolition of private property. Like the reformed prisons encouraged by Howard’s plans, Owen’s utopian factory settlements were "laboratories of virtue" that continued to manifest contradictions between the promise of human emancipation and definitions of life in terms of productive efficiency. Early on, at least, they attracted manufacturers who saw them as remodeling factory discipline on a benign basis. Hannah Greg encouraged her husband to introduce them to their colony mill at Quarry Bank, but he distrusted Owen (Sekers 167–68). Samuel Greg was probably wary of Owen’s irreligion based on their time together in Manchester’s textile industry and as members of the Literary and Philosophical Society. Of course, as Hazlitt predicted when he first reviewed A New View of Society, once Owen’s ideas developed towards a critique of private property, what support there was among factory owners evaporated, but even then, in Owen’s later utopian experiments, there remained a sense that the productive machine was a key measure of his ambitions for human being (Morris 122).

Owen’s position on the machine, especially the steam engine, took it to be a social evil primarily in so far as it encouraged capital accumulation into fewer hands and debased human labor into an easily expendable commodity. His ideas emerged onto the national stage at a period in the 1810s when Manchester’s manufacturers were also starting to think more broadly about the social effects of improvement, partly in response to calls for Parliament to intervene in the factory system on the questions of child labour and long hours. In 1815, the Manchester society hosted a paper from one of the town’s largest manufacturers, John Kennedy, who had worked with Owen there in the early 1790s (Owen 26). Kennedy’s “Observations on the Rise and Progress of the Cotton Trade” acknowledged the dangers of social dislocation in bringing workers from the country to the city, but presented work-time discipline as a compensation that offered a new punctual form of being. Margaret Jacob has recently used Kennedy as an example of the capitalist motivated by technical knowledge as much as by profit, but his paper isn’t so much about applied science as it is about forms of social being emerging from the new industrial process. This double vision, not entirely squared off in Kennedy’s paper, marks his place in a period of transition, as does his rejection of Malthus in his defense of poor relief in the next paper he gave to the society. Kennedy’s position has at least partly to do the maintenance of a pool of already-disciplined labour to await the recovery of the trade cycle, but there is enough revulsion at Malthus’s iron laws of nature to suggest the retention of Aikin’s moral vision of improvement from a manufacturer who still worshipped—with Hannah Greg and her husband—at the Unitarian chapel Priestley had visited back in 1791.

Kennedy’s first paper was advocating a future in many ways yet to come as well as redescribing the improvements celebrated in Aikin’s book. Kennedy praised the steam engine for allowing power to be taken into the towns—"instead of carrying people to the power, it was preferable to place the power among the people"—but the battle between water and steam was not to be decided for several decades, as Andreas Malm has shown (Kennedy “Observations,” 15–16; Malm 148). Kennedy presented the triumph of steam as the inevitable outcome of an internal logic of technical progress that partially elides his own self-interest. His essay is a conspicuous example of the "productive force" of writing as ‘"the application and development of a certain body of social knowledge" (Williams, Marxism 91), not a simple reflection of changes in factory production, but actively contributing to a new kind of technodeterminism that justified "industrialism" as a necessary and inevitable part of an emancipatory project of modernity. The generic indeterminacy of Kennedy’s writing, neither technical in Jacob’s sense, nor quite the condition-of-England essay later associated with Carlyle, suggests its relationship to "social experiences in solution" (Williams, Marxism 242).

By the time James Phillips Kay—another infirmary doctor—joined the Literary and Philosophical Society in 1829, the pressure on the manufacturing sector from working class organization and from Tory radicals had ratcheted up in ways that intensified a felt need to justify the narrative of "improvement" that Kennedy was adapting from Aikin. With Edward Baines Jr. and others in the region, Kay represented a vein of provincial opinion active in favour of political reform prior to 1832, but, unlike some middle-class radicals, one reluctant to interfere in the functioning of the factory system. First elaborated in a paper given to the society shortly before its publication, Kay’s Condition of the Working Classes (1832) isolated the "social" as a specific zone of intervention in the name of physical and moral health (Poovey 7). Early on in his pamphlet, Kay acknowledges the psychological and moral effects of the division of labour but quickly elides them in an attack on the moral contagion of Irish migration. This contagion, Kay suggests, has sapped the ability of the native workmen to manage the kind of transition to work-time discipline Kennedy described as the gift of the industrial system. A tendency towards abstraction described in Mary Poovey’s analysis of Kay’s "social body" looks like a reification of the medical materialism of the 1790s. Indeed, the medical historian John V. Pickstone contrasted Kay with Ferriar specifically around this issue of abstraction. Where Ferriar’s medical materialism operated with a sense of a biosphere inhabited by owners and workers alike, their fates necessarily entangled, Phillips Kay’s "social body" is a domain of observation and intervention for the scientific observer that comprised literacy, moral education, and domestic economy. This sphere was granted a position abstracted from the commercial system and its consequences, not unlike the position, structurally at least, "culture" occupies in the "Culture and Society" tradition, although rarely offering its working-class subjects the pleasures of the imaginative arts.

Kay and his collaborators in the newly founded Manchester Statistical Society, Kennedy and the sons of Hannah and Samuel Greg among them, refused to concentrate on questions of production and employment—as government enquirers had asked—and focused their investigations into social poverty on religion and education. Earlier literary physicians, including Ferriar and Percival, had shown an interest in using data provided by parish records as the basis of social enquiry, but they did not shy away from a critique of the factory system. In the Statistical Society, Phillips Kay and his friends turned to methods of social quantification as part of a campaign against the reduction of working hours. Political economy was preserved as an inviolable separate sphere in the Statistical Society. Nevertheless, as Cullen pointed out, these categorical distinctions rarely survived unshaken their encounters with the suffering they proposed to solve (106–10). Raymond Williams once suggested that the Statistical Society was an institution that linked Gaskell with Engels (Politics and Letters 116–17). Engels certainly admired—with reservations—Phillips Kay’s Condition of the Working Classes and Gaskell mixed in the same Manchester intellectual milieu (Selleck 73, 272). In many ways, it ought to be regarded as a late intervention in a remarkable range of writing generated by medico-literary debates on materialism that emanated from the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. Questions about the origins of "life" and the fate of the body, especially the bodies of the urban poor, were given urgency on the front line where technological innovation was reshaping human being and the global ecology. They were not simply circulating knowledge across flat knowledge networks. These networks shaped and responded to questions about power, progress, and emergent forms of social life.

Even towards the end of his career, Raymond Williams still read Romanticism as a form of resistance "to the socially repressive and intellectually mechanical forms of a new social order" (Marxism 50). Now, though, he gave more attention to the dangers of "a necessarily selective and self-defining area" aligned with "a metaphysics of subjectivity and the imaginative process" (Marxism 15). One influential statement of this "metaphysics" is to be found in Thomas De Quincey’s distinction between literatures of knowledge and literatures of power staked around a contrast between Watt’s steam engine and Wordsworth’s poetry (De Quincey 10:48). In one version, De Quincey traced his revelation of Wordsworth’s poetic power to a moment within the networks I have been describing (2:123–29). He contrasted the power of "connexion" wielded by the Roscoe circle with his own personal conversion experience. This foundation myth was implicitly reinforced in his autobiography by various sallies against the pretensions of Roscoe’s friend Thomas Percival. De Quincey’s selective definition of Wordsworth’s literary "power" involved the repression of debates about, for instance, medico-literary matters that would have made his binary look artificial, to say the least, especially in the context of the debates about literary genius described earlier. These received a late iteration in John Ferriar’s Essay towards a Theory of Apparitions (1813). Ferriar’s idea of the imagination outlined there was materialist enough to provoke Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine to declare its "decided anti-ferriarism" in the very issue it launched its famously scathing attack on Keats ( “Phantasmagoriana” 595). Ferriar’s essay has recently gained attention from scholars of Hogg and Scott (Faubert; Ferris 62–69). It deserves attention in its own right as part of the "forming and formative processes" of this period of transition into Marx’s machinery age (Wiliams, Marxism 128). In this spirit, as part of "the multiplicity of writing" (146), texts like Aikin’s Description of Manchester and Phillips Kay’s Condition of the Working Classes might also repay analysis by Romanticists. Such analysis might reshape our understanding of terms like "literary" and "culture" beyond the definitions offered by the "Culture and Society" tradition. Attending to their development in this context might also tell us something about the "new spirit of capitalism" (Boltanski), its current investment in flat networks as productive and liberating products of modernity, and related narratives of the development of new forms of technology as the necessary future of the human being supposedly freed from its past.

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1. Mokyr (2009) and others who use the idea of an "Industrial Enlightenment" have not tended to explore these aspects of the technical thinking they see as part of a cultural approach to the Industrial Revolution, but they underpinned ideas about the reorganization of the workforce found in the Kennedy and Baines Jr. texts discussed below. [back]
2. For an account of the Abernethy-Lawrence controversy, see Jacyna, whose survey omits any mention of the controversy in Manchester. [back]
3. Richardson, Wharton, White and others have made significant contributions to this scholarship, which usually stresses the contribution of Rational Dissent. [back]