Romantic Cyborgs

2002; paper 2009

Romantic Cyborgs

Authorship and Technology in the American Renaissance

Klaus Benesch

Amherst/Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002, 256 pp., cloth, $ 34.95. (paper, 2009)

Romantic Cyborgs adds a new perspective on the development of professional authorship in America and the extent to which literary authors were affected by the evolving technological environments of the nineteenth century. For writers of the American Renaissance, technology often figured as a powerful engine of social change that increasingly antagonized the material aspects of literature (the actual production and marketing of the book) and the artistic composition of the literary text itself. In response to the growing antagonism between authorship and technology, Romantic writers conjured up cybernetic mirror-images that allowed for the broader assessment of a basic conflict of modern society: the ongoing challenge of technology and the establishment of the individual as a self-reliant, autonomous subject. These biomechanical images helped to construct a hybrid identity that reconciled new modes of technological production with older, more organic models of professional writing.

Applying poststructuralist and psycho-analytical theory to the study of antebellum American literature, Romantic Cyborgs shows how major writers such as Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Whitman, and Rebecca Harding Davis came to grips with contemporary technological paradigms. Literary critics have long regarded the rejection of technology as a distinguishing feature of American Romanticism. In contrast with this type of criticism, Romantic Cyborgs questions the notion that the most distinctive characteristic of American Romantics is their technophobia. Although fraught with tension, the relationship between professional authorship and evolving technology reflected a pattern of adjustment rather than opposition, as writers sought to redefine their place within a culture that increasingly valued the engineer and the scientist. In the end, the study argues, Romantic literary discourse is marked as much by admiration for the technological as by strains of resentment and cultural anxiety about its negative effects. 

Romantic Cyborgs provides both wide-ranging discussions of nineteenth-century American technology and new insights into the work of major Romantic writers. If the postmodern Cyborg is an imaginary foil onto which we project the imponderable consequences of our electronic future, it may also serve to learn more about the writer’s symbolic search for identity during this formative period of American literature. As such, the image of the Romantic cyborg prefigures in important and previously unacknowledged ways the modernist and postmodernist sensibilities that follow.