The Industrial Revolution and the Limits of Rationalism (and Liberalism): Roots and Early Reactions

This is a companion piece to Chapter 18 in the textbook!

In the late 18th century, the Enlightenment finally began to bear some revolutionary fruit. The Americans bolted. The French overthrew their monarchy, but then promptly gained an autocratic little emperor named Napoleon Bonaparte, who was a major pain in the rear to Britain and the rest of Europe with his schemes to take over and Frenchify everything. And in Great Britain, the Industrial Revolution was spurred on by the twin engines of technical advancement and classical, laissez-faire economic philosophies (in which the government keeps its paws off of industry and the economy), which as we learned earlier, were based on private property and economic growth through free market economies. Though the advanced ideas of the age were bearing good fruit in some respects, we'll learn that there are limits to the benefits of rationalism and revolution, both socially and technologically speaking.

The authors of our textbook give the cottonweaving industry as an example of a business completely transformed by the industrial revolution, and it's a very good example. Add to the mix a British, patriotic rebellion against not only the old French fussiness, but also a distrust of the ‘new’ French imperialism brought on by the Emperor Napoleon, and you have the perfect expression of early 19th century british character - that ‘commercial patriotism’ I've mentioned before in class, a term coined by historian Linda Colley.

The rise of cottom - particularly muslin, a fine, long staple cotton weave - in eighteenth century Britain as both fashionable and practical fabric is attributable to a number of interconnected circumstances. muslin entered the european scene in the 18th century as an exotic, expensive, and politically-maligned import from India, yet entered the nineteenth century as a popular, multipurpose (it was useful as a cool windowcovering in summer, for example), and solidly English product.

Industrial advancements and market strategies allowed importing merchants and later, English cotton weaving businesses, to practically eclipse the native silk and woollen industries in the hearts and homes (and on the bodies) of English consumers.

In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when imported cottons were grown and woven entirely in India and other Asian countries, muslin (a fine, lightweight cotton fabric) was a rare and exotic status symbol (the muslin industry foreshadows nineteenth British Imperialism, as its popularity provides part of the impetus for British traders and trading companies in Asia to usurp existing systems of weaving and trading in countries like India by extablishing a permanent British presence.). Traders ordered extremely fine, beautiful fabrics to entice trendsetting ladies, and through them, the fad-conscious middle classes and lower gentry (much like the Wedgewood story I mentioned in class last time - the pottery manufacturer that pioneered door to door sales, and engineered a system of selling cheaper ‘off the rack’ items reminiscent of more expensive items publicly used by influential people).

The local silk industry saw the encroachment of the new cottons on their fashion hegemony, and put the clamps on parliament to pass legislation blocking the importation of the fabrics (the Spitalfields silk weavers actually rioted, spurring the market protection acts of 1720 and beyond). The silk industry and its friends (author Daniel DeFoe actually wrote several pamphlets decrying the probable effects of the cotton fashion fad on the English silk industry) did their darnedest to propagandize the foreign fabrics out of the market (seems silly, considering that silk wasn’t a truly native product, either), though the enforced scarcity of the coveted cottons made them all the more desirable (if it’s more expensive it must be better? It’s the same reason, ultimately, why silk got to be so hot in the first place!), and practically cemented their popularity for the next century. Muslin became the biggest British export in the early nineteenth century (surpassing even the truly native woollen industry), expanding at the expense of the established local industries.

Later, as the British companies established control over cotton production in Asia, and as the development of the spinning mule in the 1770’s made it more profitable to move the weaving to England, Muslin and other cottons became attainable fashion staples in Britain. While many fashion fads faded as broad ranges of people became able to afford them (some believe that high fashion was a calculated means of visually separating the classes), muslin stuck - took off, in fact - as it became more widely attainable. Why? Like the Wedgewood potterymakers, cotton weavers kept fashion-conscious consumers interested through intriguing and expensive flagship products, while making much of their money through the increasing buying power of the lower middle classes and working classes through “bridge lines” (it’s a lot like the fashion industry of today - the haute couture maintains the awed interest, allowing the companies to make a mint off logoed cosmetics and pret-a-porter lines).

But unlike Wedgewood, who produced the finished products on his own and relied on virtually no “for the masses” advertising, the cotton industry relied upon more than just the trend-setters as intermediaries - they relied upon A) seamstresses or “mantua-makers” to disseminate the latest fabrics and styles beyond the metropolis and beyond (which is similar to the travelling-salesman kind of marketing which Wedgewood experimented with), B) fashion plates and fashion journals (often published in conjunction with the cotton makers), and C) the new British “fashion-babies,” or clothing-model dolls, which modelled not only the latest fashions, but also actual samples of the newest fabrics. In this way, the cotton industry was able to actually preempt the trendsetters by setting the trends themselves (however nebulously)! More blunt advertisment was also used. In the early nineteenth century in particular, muslins were advertised specifically as fashionable substitutes for expensive silks. Silk-effect cottons were even produced to simulate - even surpass - the hand (or feel), colors, and candlelight reflectability of the uneconomical silk window hangings (sheen in low-lighting situations was very important, as subtle textures and colors just wouldn't show up well during the dark dinner parties of pre-gas and pre-electric Georgian England).

Beyond this, the emerging industrial ‘cotton economy’ in Britain became an issue of national identity. As muslin and other cottons became more popular and the English cotton industry flourished, the fabric became a national symbol. It was not only a relatively inexpensive alternative to silk, but also a fabric with characteristics and properties wholly different from silk. This made muslin (and other cottons, though muslin came to reign supreme) uniquely suited to the very practical English character and lifestyle. Muslin lent itself well to simple yet elegant and practical fashions and home decorations, which sharply contrasted the expensive, ornate, and silk-dependent mid-18th and century French styles so resented by many Englishpeople as degenerate symbols of the enemy nation. That mistrust of overblown, royal and aristocratic French fashion also spilled over into France itself, with the revolution. The simple muslin look, symbolizing the stirrings of revolution in France, was, ironically, introduced to the French court in the 1780s by Marie Antoinette. Due to the grudgingly accepted custom (of both nations) of adapting styles from accross the channel, it’s likely that this chemise de la reine ('the queen's chemise') was an adaptation of the relatively simple, more sensible English styles (though others contend that it was an adaptation of hot-weather fashions worn by French and English colonials in the sweltering West Indies). Later, during the Napoleonic Wars, simple, classical muslin frocks (though influenced by Imperial French interest in neoclassical lines, the English made them their own) became a sort of fashionable security-blanket , providing a constant moral support in a time of national crisis. Muslin also became a huge British export - a new signature product! - in the nineteenth century, when technology made mass production possible.

In Britain, the relatively subtle social progression allowed neoclassicism, with its restrained, honest brand of Greco-Roman sensibility, to linger on into the nineteenth century. The novel, which had become sort of the quintessential ‘Age of Reason’ artistic contribution by the Brits, continued on throughout the English Regency (George III was sick and crazy, so his son, who would become George IV, ruled as the prince regent) through the widespread popularity of Jane Austen’s novels of manners. A favorite author of the prince regent himself, her stories involved the quiet, relatively isolated social worlds of the non-moneyed British middle class. her ‘bits of ivory,’ as she called them, were clean, light, bright, and sparkling pieces of work, with neat, satisfying happy endings (unless you’ve read Mansfield Park, which I found rather unsettling), which alluded only indirectly to the troubles of the age, including the British antislavery debate and the Napoleonic wars. We talked a bit about Pride and Prejudice already - what typifies the world of the Bennets? Balls, marriage, officers! But is it just frivolous? Or is there a statement? Life’s rough for women with no money in society. Charlotte Lucas protects her future by marrying icky Mr. Collins. In real life, Austen never married. She received a proposal from Hariss Bigg-Wither (a friend's brother), which she initially accepted, then quickly rescinded. Why do you think a woman like Austen might have changed her mind like that? Which do you think is worse? Living at Chawton Cottage with your mum and sis and writing your books? Or being some baboon’s wife? What are the concepts of freedom at issue here, and how do Jane Austen's decisions play into Mary Wollstonecraft's view of how a woman should be able to live her life? Does a moneyed match and financial solidity make you happy (the character Charlotte Lucas seemed to think so, as she was 27, the oldest in a large family, had no real fortune, and didn't expect to to find a better match...)? Or true love, as in Lizzy's and Jane's situations? Or independence, as in Austen’s own case?

In some ways, Austen’s works straddle eras, particularly her Sense and Sensibility, whose two heroines, the Dashwood sisters, like Wagner and Faust in Von Goethe’s play, Faust, exemplify two contrasting mindsets - Elinor Dashwood, restrained, neoclassical, and ruled by sense; and Marianne Dashwood, the impetuous, romantic, completely emotion-driven younger sister. Ultimately, however, Austen’s final analysis comes down in favor of the moderate path - too much sense can keep you from happiness, while too much sensibility, or emotion, can cause you pain, and almost death! In Marianne's case, a dramatic broken heart makes her ill to the point where her health takes a huge dive, while Elinor's silence regarding her feelings almost precludes her an opportunity to pursue true love. It's the old Apollonian ideal, again - nothing to excess!

Beginning in the late eighteenth century, proponents of ROMANTICISM sought to smash through the cold, unfeeling, overly moral and serious nature of neoclassicism, which they felt was totally out of touch with real human nature. Dedicated to emotional and intuitive means of approaching the world, romanticism rejected the geometric smoothness of neoclassical architecture and well-manicured, symmetrical gardens, instead finding comfort - or at least immense interest - in the untamed beauty of more natural surroundings. More, this cultural and intellectual movement recognized humanity's limits, particularly when pitted against the wilder aspects of the natural world and the inevitable passage of time.

In Great Britain, romanticism was also escapism, allowing a small respite for those who hated the industrial revolution’s effects on society and on the natural peace of the agricultural British countryside. British romantic painting in particular vaunted natural, pastoral subjects. For some Europeans, romanticism was a reinforcement of nationalistic tendencies and a sort of patriotic expression of traditional ethnic traditions, while for others, it became a badge of nonconformity and a reinforcement of revolutionary principles. And for a few, it was a bit of both. But no matter what the stripe of one's romanticism, it was still a movement closely tied to the middle class, who as a group had the money and education/leisure to immerse themselves in the intellectual and lifestyle aspects of the movement.

Romantic literature is often considered to be rooted in the emotionalism of Jean Jacques Rousseau, one of our core Enlightenment thinkers whose ideas, obsessions, and methods of approaching life set the stage for romantic values. In his autobiography, called Confessions, he wrote,

“I felt before i thought...I had no idea of the facts, but I was already familiar with every feeling. I had grasped nothing...I had sensed everything. These confused emotions which I experienced one after another did not warp my resoning powers...but they shaped them after a special pattern, giving me the strangest and most romantic notions about human life, which neither experience nor reflection has ever succeeded in curing me of.”

The English romantic POETS included Lord Byron, or George Gordon. This moody, crazy, incestuous type romantic hero (yes, he is widely-regarded as having an affair with his half-sister, Augusta, which produced a child), traveler of ancient lands, and idealist wrote in his Don Juan:

“I want a hero an uncommon want, when every year and month sends forth a new one, till after cloying the gazettes with cant (triteness), the age discovers he is not the true one. Of such as these I should not care to vaunt, I ’ll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan.”

Keats and Percy Shelley show us a new spin on longings for the past...they deal with the same antiquity revisited during the Renaissance and the neoclassical period, but this time, with more emphasis on the transcendant, emotional beauty of the ages, not necessarily the glorious sense and symmetry and humanistic control we're used to associating with the attitudes of ancient Greece.

In Ode to a Grecian Urn, Keats wrote:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

What does this seem to say about all of the longwinded, highly-developed ancient Greek philosophy we're used to learning about? Is truth in science, as Aristotle believed? In learning, knowledge, and intelligence, as Plato insisted? In contemplation and peace, as Epicurus felt? In spirituality? Or is it really as simple as Keats would like us to believe...just...beauty? What IS beauty?

Percy Shelley's Ozymandias, a response to an ancient sculptural inscription dedicated to Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses 2:

“...met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.“

In this poem, there's an admission that despite man's achievements, almost nothing is lasting, save perhaps the basic spark and spirit of humanity. Even great kings fall, their legacies broken into dust...in this particular case, the sculptural colossus of Ramses, or Ozymandias.

Novelist Mary Shelley, wife of Percy, and daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, authored Frankenstein, a novel written as a bit of an indictment of the obsessive Enlightenment era pursuit of rational truth and the Industrial era’s obsessive pursuit of advanced technology. In the story, the eponymous character literally creates life, and then watches as his creation spirals out of control, emotionally isolated and violent. At the end of the day, you might say, moving too quickly, with too much singular ambition, too much reliance on cold science, too much of an obsession with technology, and not enough heart, understanding, and emotional sensitivity to guide it all responsibly...can breed unhappiness and disaster.

In chapter 4, Victor Frankenstein, the scientist and creator of the "monster," tells us,

"A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquillity of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Caesar would have spared his country, America would have been discovered more gradually, and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed."

And in chapter 5,

"The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart."

We are beginning to discover, in our haste to master truth and nature (our haste to play God, even?), that there are indeed limits to our mastery. This brings us to the nasty side effects of Industrialization and modernity in general, which we'll learn more about in The Communist Manifesto and in Metropolis...