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

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

James Brooke-Smith
University of Ottawa

1.        One of the central questions of Romantic media studies is precisely how to conduct such studies in relation to a historical epoch that lacked our own concepts of medium and media. Many scholars have pointed out that it was not until the later nineteenth century that these concepts emerged in their characteristically modern forms—that is, medium as a technological channel of communication, and media as an abstract noun that denotes both a plurality of mediums and a general domain of social production (Elliasen and Jacobsen 65; Guillory 322; Kittler 5-6). This is not to say that Romantic authors failed to engage with the wider media ecology within which their works circulated—the ubiquitous printed word, the oral forms of balladry, conversation, sermon, and public lecture, the optical telegraph, the postal service, various forms of engraving and image making—but rather that the conceptual and rhetorical means at their disposal were different from our own. Kevis Goodman, for instance, has shown how debates about media and mediation in this period were often conducted in the georgic, the literary mode traditionally devoted to representations of agricultural labor and technology (8). What Goodman’s genealogy reveals is the conceptual breadth of early discussions of media. Writers in this period operated with a wide-ranging conception of “medium” that denoted many different states of “in-betweenness”: the natural and social environments through which objects and information travelled; the organs of perception by means of which those objects were rendered sensible to human observers; and the technological prostheses by which humans extended their capacity to send and receive information. In this earlier dispensation, the media concept did not refer exclusively, nor indeed primarily, to the technological channel of communication; rather, it included that channel within a wider network of actions, vessels, and environments that stood between physically distant points.

2.        My aim in this essay is to show how two very different early nineteenth-century writers, William Wordsworth and Charles Babbage, did media theory in the absence of a technological media concept. My argument hinges on the role played by mathematical analogies within this media-less media studies. The two examples on which I focus are 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” (436), and Chapter 2 of Babbage’s Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, in which he uses the mathematical structure of the difference engine as a model for the divine first cause. The central point that I want to make is that Wordsworth and Babbage use number in order to think nature and medium as discrete yet inter-connected objects. Indeed, we might even say that in these passages number itself mediates between nature and medium; number both separates and connects what were increasingly seen over the course of the nineteenth century as two distinct realms. We can thus read these passages as moments in the longer history of the articulation of the medium as a technological channel of communication, one that stands out and apart from that wider range of actions, vessels, and environments that are “in between” physically distant points.

3.        As we shall see, both authors use mathematics in order to imagine an ideal medium that approaches the condition of immediacy. For Wordsworth, this medium is poetry (coupled with the ascesis of geometrical form); for Babbage, it is the computational machinery of the difference engine.  [1]  Numerous scholars have identified an idealist bent within early nineteenth-century mathematical discourse. Daniel Cohen has shown how early nineteenth-century mathematicians cast mathematics as a conduit between the sacred realm of divine truth and the profane world of matter (15). Mathematical notation was thus seen as a uniquely capable mediator that disclosed within the natural world essential truths that emanated from sources of order and design that were metaphysical or divine in nature. Alice Jenkins has described the role played by Euclid’s Elements within early nineteenth-century liberal education as a means of teaching students to reason “in an abstract realm removed from sensory perception, a process of . . . anti-reification” (270).  [2]  In both contexts, mathematics served as an ideal language, ideal both for its parsimony and elegance, and also in the sense of its resting upon metaphysical foundations that exceed the material substance of nature. Drawing upon these associations, Wordsworth and Babbage deploy geometry and arithmetic as aids to reflection, conceptual tools that help to clarify the otherwise turbid media of poetry and industrial machinery, the first dependent on the material technology of the printed book, and the second associated within early nineteenth-century scientific discourse with a reductive, anti-religious materialism (Secord 52).

4.        But this process of “anti-reification” does not entail a complete de-materialization of the medium. Simon Jarvis has suggested that for Wordsworth, “verse itself is a kind of cognition, with its own resistances and difficulties” (4). In making verse his medium of thought, however, Wordsworth inevitably sees the world as a kind of poem. The “resistances and difficulties” of verse can refer both to the torqued metrics of the poet’s “philosophic song” (Jarvis 3) and to the inherent “bias” that accompanies the use of any specific medium (Innis). Babbage, too, sees the universe through the lens of the medium in which he models it. Selecting the difference engine as his ideal form, Babbage produces a computational universe that unfolds from the infinite iterations of a single, divine algorithm. Let it be clear, however, that my aim in highlighting the co-constitutive relationship between medium and nature is not one of demystification or debunking. My intention is not to scold Wordsworth and Babbage for their blindness to the productive powers of the medium, but rather to demonstrate the ways in which they imagine a condition of immediacy that is immanent to the natural world that poetry and computation mediate. Within Wordsworth and Babbage’s media-less media theory, immediacy consists not in standing outside of mediation, but rather in producing locally bounded mediations that embody general principles of order and design that operate at the scale of the cosmos as a whole. Immediacy consists in a felicitous and seamless ordering of parts and wholes, rather than a view from nowhere. I turn in the final section of the essay to a consideration of the implications of Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory for both the history and future of media studies. Latour argues that, “Euclidean space is itself the object of media studies,” and formulates a methodology that seeks to account both for the deductive rigor of mathematical thinking and for its media dependence (“Where is Res Extensa?”).

5.        Book Five of The Prelude marks a moment of transition from the author’s youthful interaction with the natural world to his adolescent interaction with the world of books, a transition that signals both a growing maturity and a newly mediated relationship to nature and knowledge. It is at this juncture that Wordsworth includes the dream vision of the survival of poetry and geometry, as represented by the allegorical figures of a shell and a stone, of a catastrophic flood that wipes all traces of human history from the face of the earth. I read this passage as an allegory of remediation, in which Wordsworth appraises different media in virtue of their capacities to encode, transmit, and store knowledge. Indeed, the frame narrative that precedes the dream is animated by Wordsworth’s fantasy of an as-yet-inexistent medium that would bypass the materiality and fragility of the printed book. “Why hath not the mind,” he asks, “Some element to stamp her image on / In nature somewhat nearer to her own” (435). This mind-like medium, built not from pulped rags, ink, and glue, but from the reified substance of thought itself, approaches the conditions of immateriality and immediacy and hence escapes the noise and distortion that are the inevitable products of all material channels of communication. Wordsworth’s imagined medium suggests telepathy or spiritualism, a form of disintermediation that joins mind with mind across historical generations.

6.        And yet Wordsworth’s vision of natural immediacy is itself encased in multiple layers of mediation. The narrative of the shell and the stone is a passage of reported speech, a tale told to the author by his friendly interlocutor. But this is merely the tip of the mediatory iceberg: this is an oral conversation, recorded within the medium of a printed book, framed by the author’s musings on the desirability of immediate and immaterial communication, that describes, via allusions to Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton, and Descartes, the survival of a catastrophic flood by poetry and geometry in virtue of their instantiation within the very medium of nature itself, a shell and a stone. The passage embodies what Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin call the “double logic of remediation” (5). For Bolter and Grusin, immediacy is always the product of hypermediacy, or the incorporation of old media forms as the content of a new technology: text on digital screens, radiophonic voices on television sets, ballads and bards in Romantic print culture. We see this “double logic” in the multiple layers of mediation that wrap around Wordsworth’s allegorical vision. Wordsworth’s dream of immediacy is framed within, indeed, enabled by, a narrative framework that draws attention to its own hypermediacy.

7.        It is within this context that Wordsworth deploys the analogy between poetry and geometry as “the knowledge that endures.” Both mathematics and poetry serve within the passage as vehicles for immediacy; they serve a minimalist impulse to practice a form of mediation that replicates as closely as possible the ideal forms of nature itself. The counterpoint to this minimalist impulse is Wordsworth’s well-documented distaste for the maximalist outpourings of the popular press, those all-too-numerous “frantic novels, sickly and stupid German tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse” that he scorns in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (599). By pairing poetry with the allegorical figure of the shell, Wordsworth identifies the zero degree of inscription required to encode, communicate, and store knowledge. The involuted curlicues of the shell’s organic form exist at the very interface between revelation and inscription, nature and medium. This is true both phenomenologically and mathematically. Theresa Kelly has noted that the mathematical structure of Wordsworth’s shell-poem is that of a logarithmic spiral or golden section (572). The shell-poem is thus fractal and infinite: its spiral pattern expresses the same formal properties at different levels of scale, ad infinitum. Moreover, the infinity of the shell-poem survives alongside the closed and perfect mathematical form of the stone-circle. The stone and the shell are thus twinned figures of one and infinity, indestructible unity and an open-ended, yet formally patterned proliferation. In their rigorous simplicity and minimalist design, the shell-poem and stone-circle gesture towards a means of encoding and storing knowledge that escapes the contingency of technological mediation and is instead inscribed within the ideal language of nature itself.

8.        I want to stress at this point, however, that Wordsworth is far from naïve about the possibility of immediate and immaterial communication. Even within the structure of the dream, he draws attention to the ineradicable presence of the printed book. The Arab horseman who warns Wordsworth’s sleeping friend of the impending flood acts as both mystagogue and demystifier. He presents the stone and the shell to the dreamer, but in the same breath he also explains that the stone and the shell are allegorical symbols for Euclid’s Elements and “something of more worth”—a book of poetry (436). The Arab horseman, or “Semi-Quixote” as Wordsworth dubs him, draws our attention to the peculiar two-in-one logic of allegorical representation. The dreamer tells Wordsworth that: “I wondered not, although I plainly saw / The one to be a Stone, the other a Shell, / Nor doubted once but that they both were books” (437). Thus Wordsworth encapsulates within the diegesis of the dream the “double logic” of remediation, the way in which immediacy acts as a regulative ideal within new media practice, yet remains inevitably out of reach—“something evermore about to be” (464). It is this double logic that renders the form of the allegory essential to Wordsworth’s media-less media theory. Allegory is a mode of representation that is capable of bypassing the law of the excluded middle. Under the generic conditions of allegory, the statement “X AND not X” is admissible. The stone and the shell are the pure unmediated language of nature AND they are technological artifacts created under the conditions of print capitalism. Indeed, we seem to experience this very same logic—or perhaps illogic—every time we sit down to read a book. The object before us is a material artifact composed of pulped wood, ink, and glue, or, if you’re already using the Kindle, silicon chips, copper logic gates, and electronic ink, AND it is a window onto a rich and absorbing sensory experience that transports us into a different world. Wordsworth’s allegory, as I say, both separates and connects nature and medium. It uses a mode of representation that is adequate to the “double logic” of remediation, the two-in-oneness of nature and medium, immediacy and hypermediacy, organic form and technological construction.

9.        Celeste Langan highlights a similar dynamic in her discussion of the relationships between print, orality, and the “glamour” or magic practiced by the necromancer, Michael Scott, in Walter Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Langan points to the connection between the “audiovisual hallucination” of the reading experience and the “impoverishment of the senses” inherent within the technology of print (62). Following Friedrich Kittler, Langan insists that it is the relative sparsity of the visual information encoded upon the printed page, coupled at the turn of the nineteenth century with the newly normative practice of silent reading, which acts as the support for the sensory richness of the imagined “content” of the text (and by extension the interiority of the reading subject). In short, it is precisely the blankness of the orderly rows of printed marks that enables the simulated phantasmagoria of the reading experience. Langan’s analysis provides a clue as to the specific virtue of geometry within Wordsworth’s allegory of remediation. Geometry, of course, functions by a rigorously productive “impoverishment of the senses.” Geometrical reasoning—and in particular the medium of the geometrical diagram—subtracts extraneous detail from the visual field in order to render a schema that encodes only the most essential and useable (computable) features of the phenomenon. When Wordsworth places geometry and poetry side-by-side as his ideal media forms, he suggests a specific kind of relationship between the bare bones of the stone-circle and the complex, non-linear structure of the shell-poem. The poem may be “something of more worth,” but it nevertheless remains an expression of mathematical principles that are consistent across both forms. Just as for Langan the “glamour” of literary simulation emerges from the flat “grammar” of the printed text, so too for Wordsworth the rich complexities of poetic form emerge from—and remain ontologically consistent with—the minimal structures of Euclidean geometry.

10.        We can situate the passage of the shell and the stone alongside numerous examples from the poem of what I’d like to call Wordsworth’s “elementary media aesthetics.” Before I offer a brief sketch of some of these moments, I first want to unpack what I mean by this. The term “elements” has a genealogy as rich and complex as that of “medium.” Its historical usage encompasses everything from the letters of the alphabet, to the foundations of a scientific field, a pedagogical manual or textbook, earth, air, water, and fire, the contents of the periodic table. In each of these cases, “element” denotes something foundational, the minimal units beyond which analysis cannot proceed, the very building blocks from which complex systems are composed. And yet the term can also refer to the larger system that those units collectively make. One of the chief significations of “elements” is the weather systems—rain, wind, storms, fronts, etc.—that produce the total climate or environment in which we live. “Elements” refers across the boundary between micro and macro. Hence, I use the term “elementary media aesthetics” to signal the way in which Wordsworth’s account of mediation is premised upon a specific relationship between part and whole, or medium and nature. At the heart of Wordsworth’s elementary media aesthetics is a model of how localized and particular practices of mediation can embody the general patterns of organization that constitute the “one Surpassing Life” of the cosmos as a whole (454).

11.        In The Prelude Wordsworth uses the term “element” to denote each of the key terms that I have used in this paper: number, medium, and nature. In the dream vision, Wordsworth identifies the stone-circle as a figure for Euclid’s Elements, the founding document of geometry, the art and science of applying number to nature. As we have already seen, moreover, in the framing passage that precedes the dream vision, Wordsworth asks “Why hath not the mind / Some element to stamp her image on / In nature somewhat nearer to her own.” In this case, the term serves as a placeholder for the absent media concept; element here refers to the reified substance of thought, the vehicle or medium in which the author seeks to encode and communicate knowledge. And lastly, in the opening book of The Prelude, Wordsworth uses the term to indicate the transcendental forms of reason and imagination that govern the growth of the poet’s mind. The author claims special access to “general truths which are themselves a sort / Of Elements and Agents, Under-Powers, / Subordinate helpers of the living mind” (379). In this latter instance, “elements” refers to the monumental unity of Man and Nature, the forms of intuition and imagination that bind the human mind together with the foundational structures of the natural world.

12.        When we weave these strands together, we find that number, and in particular, geometry, occupies a central role within Wordsworth’s elementary media aesthetics as part of a foundational thread of order and pattern that is repeated at each stage of The Prelude’s developmental narrative. While the larger structure of Wordsworth’s poetic project lies outside the scope of the present essay, I would nevertheless like to offer a brief sketch of some of the key moments of elementary mediation in the poem. These passages are elementary in three senses: first, they focus on the inscription of the simple spatial forms that are the foundations of geometry; second, they occur in a state of juvenility, either within the life of an individual or the life of a race or civilization; and third, the message or content of the inscription is impressed upon the very surface of nature itself.

13.        In Book Six, Wordsworth borrows from the 1764 travel narrative, An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the life of John Newton, for his description of a ship-wrecked sailor who salvages a copy of Euclid’s Elements and whiles away his time on a desert island by drawing geometric diagrams in the sand. The description of the stranded sailor is presented in the context of Wordsworth’s account of his own mathematical study at Cambridge and his “Indian awe and wonder” at the pure and crystalline forms of Euclidean geometry (454). In both cases—the shipwrecked sailor and the awe-struck undergraduate—geometry transports us to the early stages of the mind’s development. The stranded sailor is thrown back into a state of nature; his plight places him temporarily on the same scale of civilization that Enlightenment anthropologists ascribed to the primitive tribes described in travel narratives such as Newton’s. Moreover, the young author’s sense of “Indian awe and wonder” at the formal ratios of Euclidean geometry evokes what Alan Bewell has called the “anthropological vision” at the heart of Wordsworth’s poetic project (ix). The aim of the work was to produce what we can now identify as a fractal history of the human imagination; that is, a history of the imagination as it passes through the same patterns of development both at the level of the individual mind and at the level of the human race as a whole. The undergraduate’s “Indian awe and wonder” replays at the level of the individual the early history of human civilization, the first discovery of geometric reasoning in the ancient world. Rather than occupying discrete ontological planes, part and whole, individual and species, past and present are inter-fused with one another. Geometry is thus “elementary” not only in that it marks the first stages of mankind’s scientific education, but also in that it is present as an abiding structure within the development of each individual mind. Like the spiral of the shell-poem, it recurs at different levels of scale.

14.        We see a similar association of geometry and the mind’s juvenility in the closing book of The Prelude, where Wordsworth describes the archaeological remains on Salisbury Plain:

‘twas my chance
To have before me on the downy plain
Lines, circles, mounts, a mystery of shapes
Such as in many quarters yet survive,
With intricate profusion figuring o’er
The untilled ground, the work, as some divine,
Of infant science, imitative forms
By which the Druids covertly expressed
Their knowledge of the heavens, and imaged forth
The constellations. (577)

15.        The “lines, circles, mounts, a mystery of shapes” that Wordsworth sees embedded within the landscape do not, in this case, express the mathematized spatial forms of Euclidean geometry; rather, they mark an even earlier stirring of the rational sense of number and proportion within the mind of pre-literate, Iron Age tribes. The “infant science” of Druid astrology recalls the “Indian awe and wonder” that Wordsworth experienced as an undergraduate. In each case, the author describes the spatial and mathematical elements of human reason as they recur in different stages of history.

16.        These passages share with the allegory of the shell and the stone the minimalist impulse to practice a form of mediation that approaches the condition of nature. As in Plato’s Meno, the shipwrecked sailor scratches his Euclidean diagrams “with a long stick upon the sand” (171). He impresses abstract geometric forms into the pliant and amorphous stuff of nature itself. The Sarum druids arrange blocks of stone upon a flat plain and carve markings into the ground. Once again, the natural world is the medium upon which they impress the abstract forms of their “infant science.” We can place the sand-diagram and the Druidic stone-circle alongside the shell-poem and the Euclidean stone-circle as further instances of Wordsworth’s elementary media aesthetics, which imagine a localized, terrestrial mode of inscription that is capable of embodying the formal ratios and patterns that govern the cosmos as a whole. Indeed, Wordsworth is at pains throughout the poem to differentiate this reverential appreciation of geometric form from that “false secondary power” that projects man-made taxonomies onto the external world (398). He installs geometry alongside poetry as an essential, indeed, an elementary part of human knowledge, an abiding form within the unfolding histories of both individual and species.

17.        I want now to make an abrupt turn to Charles Babbage, mathematician, engineer, radical utilitarian, and hence surely one of the least Wordsworthian figures of the early nineteenth century. And yet in his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise Babbage engages with the same question of the relationship between number, medium and nature that Wordsworth addresses in Book 5 of The Prelude. Where Wordsworth seeks to ground medium in nature, however, what emerges from Babbage’s text is a picture of nature itself as a kind of medium, not only as suggested by the familiar natural theological trope of the book of nature, but in this case as modeled by Babbage’s groundbreaking difference engine, an early forebear of the digital computer.

18.        Babbage wrote his treatise in order to correct what he saw as the unwarranted exclusion of mathematics from the field of natural theology. At the heart of Babbage’s argument is the proposition that it is mathematically and logically possible that all of the vast complexity to be found in the universe could be the product of a single law implanted within the fabric of the cosmos by the divine first cause. This was important for Babbage as it would perform two related functions within debates about natural theology. First, it would establish mathematics as a valid source of knowledge about God’s creation. And second, it would obviate the need for divine interventions or miracles in order to explain radical ruptures within the order of nature, such as the cataclysmic flood that Wordsworth describes in Book Five of The Prelude. Instead of the result of miraculous intervention or divine tinkering, the irruption of difference within nature could be explained as the product of a single mathematical law that contained within itself nested layers of emergent complexity.

19.        And yet we can also read Babbage’s treatise as media-less media theory in the manner of Wordsworth’s allegory. Of course, Babbage includes none of the elaborate apparatus of frame narrative, reported speech, literary allusions, and allegorical tropes, but in the figure of the difference engine he focuses his attention on what we can now clearly identify as a new media technology. The elaborate thought experiment through which he leads his readers serves the additional purpose of isolating this new medium as distinct from, yet intimately connected to, the natural world; indeed, so intimately connected that it fosters a speculative, yet rigorous form of mathematical knowledge about that world.

20.        Babbage guides his readers through a series of arithmetical calculations performed by the difference engine. First, he prompts us to imagine the machine crunching through the natural numbers, from one to two to three to four to five, etc., etc., all the way up to 100,000,001 (Bridgewater Treatise 34). Of course, we do not need to clearly and distinctly imagine each step of this calculation. Once we recognize that the process is orderly and consistent (N + 1), we can leap forward in our minds to one hundred million and one. At this point, however, rather than following the cogs’ progress according to the same formula, Babbage instructs us that the machine now clicks to 100,010,002, then 100,030,003, then 100,060,004, then 100,100,005, etc. (N + [the triangular numbers {10,000}]). The machine now calculates according to what seems to be a new formula, until, after 2,761 further iterations, it unexpectedly leaps forward again . . . and again . . . and again (Bridgewater Treatise 36). In short, the machine appears to be both simple and complex, mathematically regular yet also productive of sudden leaps of difference that create new plateaus of mathematical form.

21.        Babbage assures us, however, that the machine, both as simulated within the thought experiment and as a physical contraption sitting in his Walworth Road workshop, calculates according to a single, fixed formula. Each leap in complexity is the product of a single algorithm that expresses nested layers of order at extended scales of iteration. Having established this as a mathematical and mechanical possibility, Babbage extrapolates this logic to the scale of the cosmos as a whole. Babbage’s argument hinges on the commensurability of the operational logic of the difference engine with the order of nature itself. He is at pains to establish what he refers to as the maximum “degree of generality” of the difference engine (Bridgewater Treatise 97). In short, the machine serves as a scalable model of the universe, a computational crystal ball in which the mathematical patterns that underpin all natural order can be glimpsed in their nascent and incomplete forms. Reasoning from medium to nature, Babbage arrives at the proposition that all of the complexity to be found in the universe could, as a matter of logical possibility, be the product of a single mathematical law implanted within the fabric of reality by the divine first cause.

22.        Unlike The Prelude, with its acute awareness of the proliferation of media forms, the Ninth Bridgewater Treatise focuses primarily on the difference engine, with only a brief excursus on the role played by the invention of printing in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. If we glance sideways, however, to Babbage’s other great work, The Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, we discover the relevance of Bolter and Grusin’s “double logic” to his computational thought experiment. The Economy of Machinery and Manufactures is a sprawling catalogue of the new manufacturing technologies that were transforming Great Britain’s economy and society in the early-nineteenth century. Among the descriptions of iron smelting and pin manufactories, Babbage’s catalogue registers the proliferation of new media technologies that was part of the industrial revolution. The work contains extensive descriptions of the mechanical processes of engraving, the optical telegraph, the postal service, the difference engine, various forms of printing, and, in the self-reflexive coup de grace, a lengthy description of how the very book in the reader’s hands came into being. It is against the background of this capacious treatment of new industrial technologies that we should understand Babbage’s arguments in The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise. This account of the difference engine may be directed towards debates within natural theology, but it also makes the broader case for the epistemological viability of the new media technologies that were the product of Britain’s rapid industrialization (Secord 53). Babbage argues, in short, that machines can mediate the natural world in such a way as to reveal its foundational logic and structure.

23.        One of the most interesting features of the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures is the unfamiliarity of the taxonomic categories that Babbage uses to sort and sift the heterogeneous products of the industrial revolution. This should alert us to the fact that, just as the concept of “medium” was yet to assume its characteristically modern form, so too was the concept of “technology” in flux. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the modern use of “technology” in reference to machinery as an aggregate class to the middle of the nineteenth century (OED Online). Before this time, technology referred either to a treatise on the practical arts—that is, a book about what we would now identify as technology—or, in its earlier usage, the system of nomenclature for classifying subjects in the medieval university curriculum. Babbage’s treatise thus registers the fluidity of one of the key conceptual elements that would form the modern media concept at the end of the century.

24.         Babbage classifies mechanical processes according to the formal properties of the tasks they execute. He includes chapters on accumulating power, regulating power, the increase and diminution of velocity, extending the time of action of forces, exerting forces too great for human power, registering operations, and copying. After explaining the formal properties of each of these processes, he then proceeds to catalogue and describe particular instances as he encountered them on his factory tours. Thus the section “Of Copying” includes a startling array of manufacturing processes, including steel engraving, calico printing, printing from moveable types, casting in metal, production of bricks and tiles, glass seals, horn knife and umbrella handles, coins and bank notes, stamping buttons and nail heads, French cliché, tube drawing, lead pipes, and vermicelli pasta (Economy 69-113). Babbage’s criteria for classifying machines are emphatically not our own. Many of the items in the list are what we would now understand as media technologies, but at this early stage in the century, Babbage lacks the vocabularies of both “media” and “technology” that we would now use to separate these items from the baffling array of tools used for copying. We would not, I dare say, include vermicelli pasta, the printing press, and lead pipes within the same class of technologies.

25.         If we now turn back to the The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, we can see Babbage’s thought experiment as an attempt to demonstrate how the products of the industrial revolution could be valid sources of knowledge about the order and structure of the natural world. The difference engine does double duty both as a specific piece of machinery and as a conceptual vehicle for imagining the fundamental structure of the cosmos. It performs an analogous function to that of geometry within Wordsworth’s allegory: it distills from the morass of new media technologies their most essential and elementary functions. The ratio between the simplicity of the difference engine’s operational structure and the complexity of the computations it can perform articulates the promise inherent within machinery as such. It is a nice irony of history that, due to a combination of bureaucratic entropy and the imprecision of contemporary steel milling, the difference engine remained incomplete within Babbage’s life time; indeed, it was not until 1991 that Doron Swade and his team at the Science Museum in London managed to assemble a working version of the machine. The difference engine, like the quality of immediacy towards which it strove, remained from Babbage’s perspective, “something evermore about to be.”

26.        It is striking that the phenomena that Babbage seeks to explain via media-mathematical analogy share the same formal structure as Wordsworth’s shell-poem. Babbage deploys his thought experiment in order to explain natural systems that leap between stable states via passages of seemingly inexplicable turbulence. The angular unconformities of geological strata, the phase shift from caterpillar to pupa to butterfly, the passage from aquatic to terrestrial habitats, the formation and extinction of species (Bridgewater 43-4): these are all non-linear processes that express emergent patterns of organization within the life-span of a single natural system. Like Wordsworth’s dream vision, Babbage’s thought experiment contains at its center an image of fractal organization: both the spiral of the shell-poem and the exfoliating algorithm of the difference engine repeat the same pattern at different levels of scale and complexity.

27.        What to make of this formal congruence is hard to determine. In lieu of a systematic explanation, I simply want to point out that Wordsworth and Babbage reason in different directions to arrive at similar conclusions. Wordsworth reasons from nature to medium. He casts his ideal media forms—poetry and geometry—in the allegorical garb of the shell and the stone. This serves as a means for Wordsworth to imagine a form of mediation that avoids what he sees as the disorder and alienation of commercial print culture. Nature is the unity, the one and the infinite, upon which he models his ideal mediums. Babbage, by contrast, reasons from medium to nature; he begins in his workshop, where he distils and universalizes the computational principles of the difference engine, then extrapolates to the structure of the cosmos as a whole. Wordsworth constructs medium from nature; Babbage constructs nature from medium. And yet in both cases, medium and nature display a foundational isomorphism, a common skein of fractal order, which is encoded within the vanishing language of mathematics. Poetry for Wordsworth, and computation for Babbage, become universal mediums, capable of embodying in the very form of their construction—iambs and trochees, on the one hand, cogs, gears, and digital bits, on the other—the elementary principles of nature.

28.        By way of a conclusion, I want to turn to a brief account of contemporary debates about media and mediation. Indeed, my interest in the question “how did Romantic-era writers think and talk about technological media?” is spurred in large part by the assumed relationships between nature and medium that characterize so much media discourse of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I am referring here to the model of nature and medium as fundamentally distinct domains that stand over and apart from one another. It is this model of dichotomous opposites that gives birth to and enables the arguments both for and against technological determinism that have been central to media theory throughout its history as a discipline. The late Friedrich Kittler stated the techno-determinist position explicitly: media, he claimed, “determine our situation” (xxxix). Kittler’s work does not lack for nuance, nor was he given to naïve generalizations about a pristine and autonomous Nature that suffers at the hands of an equally monolithic Technology. Nevertheless, the point that I want to make here is that this style of thought—that technological media can determine our situation—rests on historically formed assumptions about the relative autonomy of medium and nature. When we turn back to the Romantic period, however, those assumptions are yet to be fully formed. The boundaries between nature and medium are yet to be fixed. Within this more fluid arrangement, the techno-determinist debate is simply moot. It is only when technological media have been separated out from the raw materials from which they are composed—when, for instance, the digital computer is conceived independently of the silicon chips, logic gates, electron pulses, symbolic programming languages, plastic casings, legal frameworks, and learned cultural behaviors that are its constituent parts—that a given medium can be said to impose its logic upon society and culture. Taken instead as an array of component parts, the machine is re-absorbed into the complex ecology of interacting agencies and forces that traverse both nature and medium.  [3] 

29.        What we can glean from our readings of Wordsworth and Babbage, I would suggest, is a salutary sense of the fluidity and contingency of the relationship between “nature,” on the one hand, and “medium” or “technology,” on the other. Rather than casting Wordsworth and Babbage in the familiar guises of the nostalgic organicist and the mechanical reductionist, we might instead register the ways in which their media theories dispense with the dualistic style of thinking that is the condition of possibility for the argument from techno-determinism. Indeed, in their attempts to think nature and medium together and apart, Wordsworth and Babbage seem to presage some of the most recent trends within contemporary media theory. New work within the field signals the emergence of a new way of talking and thinking about media that departs from the problematics of dualism and determinism that animated the field for so long. Bruno Latour, for instance, uses the term “mediator” in his actor-network theory to describe any element within a natural or social system that transmits force and thus helps to produce organizational structure (Reassembling the Social 39). Everything, for Latour, mediates. Microbes, natural laws, documents, instruments, laboratories, scientific theories, scientists, even the cultural abstraction of "Science" itself: these are all mediators that interact with one another to form the complex and hybrid systems of modernity. For Latour, the concept of the “mediator” helps to un-pick the hoary old binaries of nature-culture, subject-object, organic-technological, that have for so long formed the chief coordinates on the mental map of modernity. Latour’s work presents us with a newly expanded conception of what it means to mediate and what kinds of objects can perform this ubiquitous task.

30.        Latour has recently observed that, “Euclidean space is itself the object of media studies” (“Where is Res Extensa?”). Within this “compositionist” philosophy of science, geometry remains stubbornly local (“Compositionist Manifesto”). The uniformly extended, quantifiable, abstract space projected by Euclidean geometry is precisely that, a projection. This space exists only in specific mediums: Euclid’s long-lost parchment diagrams, the pages of printed books, chalkboards, notepads, digital models, and, we might add, stone-circles, shell-poems, and difference engines. Latour insists that it takes work to extend Euclidean space into the world, work that is accomplished not only in the minds of geometers but also in the media with which they compose the Euclidean universe. Reviel Netz, one of the chief sources for Latour’s argument, explains the central function of the diagram within Greek deduction: “each geometrical proposition sets up its own universe—which is its diagram” (32). Hence, what we see in Wordsworth’s allegory and Babbage’s thought experiment is the composition of portable universes. Indeed, both authors derive their media theory and their cosmology at the same time. Medium and Nature are co-constitutive: the organic form of the shell-poem helps to compose the “one Surpassing Life” of the Divine mind; the mechanical structure of the difference engine helps to compose the mathematical sublime of the computational universe. Babbage states of the difference engine: “my own views respecting the extent of the laws of Nature were greatly extended by considering it” (33). He thus acknowledges the essential role played by the medium (a role repeated for the reader in the form of the thought experiment) as a prosthesis for thought, an instrument that enables him to scale up within the structure of the universe. We can thus place the shell-poem and the difference engine alongside the Euclidean diagram, the invention of “zero”—from the Sanskrit, “sunya,” which denotes not an absence of number but an empty space on the counting tablets used in Indian mathematics, which is to say, the medium itself—and ultra-modern media such as cellular automata and stochastic computer models, as machines for extending and compressing scale.

31.        Both Latour and Netz insist, however, that the deductive rigor of Euclidean geometry is not diminished by the fact of its mediation. Latour’s expansive conception of the “mediator” is both more and less powerful than our previous model of the technological channel of communication. It is more powerful in the sense media technologies become part of a vastly expanded “universe of things,” to quote Shelley (120), that mediate. The printing press and electric telegraph, or, to use Wordsworth and Babbage’s chosen examples, poetry and the difference engine, sit once again alongside gravity, the human eye, mathematics, bridges, roads, and cities—in short, “everything that intervenes, enables, supplements, or is simply in between” (Siskin and Warner 5). But it is also less powerful in the sense that the technological medium ceases to be a uniquely privileged mediator. In contrast to Kittler’s claim that media “determine our situation,” within this new model technological media become simply part of the situation; they influence and are in turn influenced by the teeming range of objects and forces that comprise the complex systems of modernity.

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---. The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise. A Fragment. 2nd ed. London: John Murray, 1838. Print.

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---. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

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[1] See Ashworth and Schaffer for arguments about Babbage’s use of the difference engine as a means of embodying mathematical thought processes in mechanical form. While he does not refer to the difference engine itself, Eduardo Ortiz supports the view that Babbage sought to capture thought in mathematical form with his account of the influence of Condillac and the French “ideologists” on Babbage’s work on the differential calculus. For a contrary view, see Christopher Green’s argument against the view that Babbage believed the difference engine to embody “authentic mental powers” (35). BACK

[2] Jenkins also points out the curious status of Euclid’s Elements within nineteenth-century pedagogy as a work considered so elegant and concise in its formulations as not to require further mediation in the form of textbooks and primers for non-expert learners (269). BACK

[3] See Bennett for an extended account of “vibrant matter” and a discussion of how to assign agency and causation within complex techno-social-organic assemblages BACK