Jon Klancher, Transfiguring the Arts and Sciences: Knowledge and Cultural Institutions in the Romantic Age

Jon Klancher, Transfiguring the Arts and Sciences: Knowledge and Cultural Institutions in the Romantic Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2013)  x + 307 pp. £19.99 Pb , EPUB £18.99, £62 Hb. ISBN: 9781107029101

Jon Klancher’s analysis of Knowledge and Cultural Institutions in the Romantic Age turns on something of a paradox: that institutions invented by the Enlightenment were given their ‘richest and most contradictory articulations in the Romantic age’ (1). Framed in terms of the ‘Arts and Sciences’, these institutions were to have long-lasting (indeed continuing) effects on the way in which knowledge was structured and produced, not least in defining the status of ‘literature’ itself.

In the first part of the book, entitled ‘Questions of the arts and sciences’, Klancher therefore focuses on aspects of their creation, and the debates it generated, many now more or less neglected.  These chapters take up (one might say champion) the neglected role of the administrator as ‘cultural producer’, as in Chapter Two (51), but also probe the now neglected, early nineteenth-century fascination with book history, and its ‘garish twin’, ‘Bibliomania’ in Chapter Three (86).  In similar vein, Chapter Four explores the largely overlooked print interest in the visual arts between 1806 and 1816, when the Annals self-consciously but erroneously declared itself the first art journal of the Romantic period (108), whilst Chapter Five, the last in this part, turns to the contested question of ‘Romantic-age sciences’ and the complex if ultimately creative relationship between ‘literary and scientific writers’ (128).  But as Klancher underlines in the opening Chapter One, behind this interplay lies a broader shift, from ‘the age of projects to the age of institutions’.  As he argues, bodies such as the Royal and Metropolitan Institutions were commercially (2) and, in a moment of ‘conservative revolution’, politically risky (3) ‘ventures in public scholarship’ (4); lacking state patronage, their future was always uncertain (5). Nevertheless, they played a pivotal role in redefining and extending the roles of knowledge producers such as the artist and the scientist, but also ‘projectors, collectors, directors, and institutors’ (2), whilst simultaneously exploiting both the public lecture and, more surprisingly, print media as forums for knowledge generation (6-7). As Klancher stresses, they attracted audiences from across class and gendered divides, whilst also drawing in intellectuals such as Coleridge and Bentham. Part of the problem in understanding the chaotic nature of these institutions – but also appreciating their long-term influence – is that, whilst multidisciplinary in their interests, these bodies also played an important if sometimes accidental role in creating the disciplinary divides that now make it more difficult to appreciate the scale of their ambition (3). Klancher’s aim is, at least in part, to complicate and enrich our understanding of the various knowledge fields that were sometimes subsumed into these disciplines, but sometimes ignored by them (5).

In the second part of the book, ‘Questions of the literary’, Klancher focuses on Romantic responses (9) to the changes in Enlightenment knowledge frameworks reflected in but also induced by ‘the “arts and sciences” these Institutions were helping to produce’ (7).  He begins in Chapter Six with Coleridge, ‘the literary republic’s most provocative and perhaps perversely illuminating Romantic historian’ (155), and then turns in Chapter Eight to the Dissenters and reformers whose responses (and resistance) to these intensifying ‘acts of institution’ (acts which ‘crucially’ included writing genres) (156) underline what was at stake.  As Klancher notes in his introduction, one might talk of a crisis in knowledge production, but that crisis took many forms, national, political and religious as well as secular and scientific, sometimes tending to broaden the way that knowledge was created, but sometimes creating a convergence (7-8); the important point is that this was also ‘an extraordinarily active age of instituting in its own right’ (9), and (Klancher adds) a thoroughly modern one at that (10). What Klancher nevertheless emphasizes is the contingent character of this institution building, a contingency at odds with the air of ‘authority and durability’ the word was intended to evoke (12).

One aspect of this uncertainty lay with the ‘vexed question’ (14) of what was meant by the arts and sciences, or the ‘practical arts’ as opposed to the sciences, and the extent to which the former (as a body of often customary practices) tended to elude print culture and therefore discursive elaboration, whilst simultaneously ‘outrunning’ science itself (15). When Klancher speaks of the transfiguration of arts and sciences, he is also, therefore, talking of the way in which, between the 1790s and 1830s, ‘skills’ were re-presented as ‘genius’ in ‘the language of sciences and arts alike’ (16), underlining their claim to autonomy (17). That these claims were relative is suggested by the second, lateral sense of his use of the word, which denotes the dynamic ‘entanglements’ of arts and sciences in the very media that aimed to distinguish them (18).

Even amidst the debates that Klancher highlights, these Romantic-era institutions began to falter – the Surrey Institution famously folded in 1823 – or metamorphose, as a series of new enterprises, amongst them the University of London (1826) and the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1831), created a ‘more durable [and enduring] administrative apparatus’ for the further separation and management ‘of “art,” “science,” and mechanical-practical knowledges’ (224).  The transfigurations of the Romantic period were nevertheless profoundly influential; as Klancher argues in an ‘Epilogue’ on ‘transatlantic crossings’, ‘the rise in the late 1820s of American lyceums in New England, and then more explosively across the North American continent, seems to me an unmistakable form of impact by English arts-and-sciences Institutions’ (226).

Consistently interesting and closely researched, Klancher’s book extends our understanding of a unique if confused moment in the history of knowledge, as a transfigured discourse of the arts and sciences took hold (and found form) in the newly emergent, and newly self-conscious institutions of the early nineteenth century (229).  As he stresses, these changes marked an important shift away from the Republic of Letters to a framework that was by the end of the century to dominate ‘all knowledge production’ (230).

Adrian Tait, Independent Scholar