Skip to content

The Enlightenment Engine

This is the abstract to my dissertation project (completed August 2010) The Enlightenment Engine: Aesthetics, Technology, and Pure Poetry in the Long Eighteenth Century:

One of the most durable aspects of the Romantic legacy is the notion that poetry represents a creative and personal expression of a “glowing imagination.” However, I argue that this Romantic and expressivist ideal obscures poetry’s dependence on technical craft and smoothes over its modern origins in a logic of machinery. The Enlightenment Engine, as a historical and theoretical study, attempts to revive the notion of the poem as techné—a tool, device, or craftwork episteme—by reading the eighteenth-century concept of “pure poetry” against the “Romanticizing” tendency of its interpreters to conscript it into a poiesis model of poetry—a transcendentally oriented episteme. I argue that to think through the newly reenergized dialectic of poetry/technology we return to the conceptual dialectic poiesis/techné and trace it back through twentieth-century literary criticism and aesthetic debates to the Enlightenment’s ambivalent theory of “pure poetry.” I principally study the clash of epistemological values that underwrite this conceptual divide through four permutations: literary studies after the advent of New Media studies and digitally born literary objects; the legacy of Joseph Warton’s “pure poetry” in twentieth-century criticism; “pure poetry” and the limits of the human-machine in their eighteenth-century intellectual context; the experimental work of William Collins’s Odes; and the epistemological intersection of Christopher Smart’s poetry and the cabinet of curiosity. Thus the twenty-first century demand that the humanities account for the implications of technology in the human life-world echoes the Enlightenment’s preoccupation with the epistemological value of poetry configured as an aesthetic technology.