Critical theory history of science Industrial Revolution philosophy

On Hartmut Rosa and the acceleration of social change in modernity

by contributing writer Bart Zantvoort

What is the cause of social alienation, the increasing number of burnouts and depressions, and the failure of political institutions in our late-modern times? According to the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa, all of these problems can be traced back to a single phenomenon: the continuous acceleration of social change, which puts us under increasing pressure to keep up with technological, economic and social developments. Rosa puts a distinct spin on the notion of acceleration in the history of ideas. His notion of acceleration is new but he also develops it in relation to the history of the notion, as developed by Reinhart Koselleck and others.


The notion that the world is changing fast, and perhaps even ever faster, seems intuitive at first glance. For who has never heard or uttered the complaint that modern gadgets and devices break or become obsolete so quickly that we are continuously forced to purchase newer versions? Or that there is an increasing lack of time and increased competition in the workplace, in education or in healthcare? Nor is it a new idea: Marx and Engels already wrote in The Communist Manifesto that the essence of modernity is that ‘all fixed, fast-frozen relations… are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify’, and ‘all that is solid melts into air’. But is acceleration indeed the most fundamental characteristic of modernity, as Rosa maintains? And is it possible to use this insight as the starting point for a new theory of social criticism, as he intends to do?


Though quite a lot of his work is available in English, Rosa is still much less well known in the English-speaking world than he is in Germany. In his first major work, Social Acceleration. A New Theory of Modernity (2013, German edition 2005), he convincingly sets out his wide-ranging theory of social acceleration and the social problems it causes. The solutions to these problems are addressed in his more recent Resonanz. Eine Soziologie der Weltbeziehung (2016), which is due to appear in English with Polity Press in June this year. A perfect moment, then, to introduce his ideas and some of their theoretical background.


When thinking about acceleration, the first thing that always comes to mind is technological acceleration. It is clear that technological innovation has brought about successive increases in speed in transportation, trade and communication: from horse-drawn carriages to steam trains to the space shuttle; from snail mail to telegrams to email; and from trade by camel to modern ‘flash trading’. This form of acceleration, with its clear link to economic and military competition, has taken centre stage in most discussions on the matter, from Marx to Paul Virilio’s notion of ‘dromology’ to recent debates on ‘accelerationism’. It is one of the strengths of Rosa’s theory, however, that he takes a broader view. He distinguishes three forms of acceleration: besides technological acceleration, these are the acceleration of the pace of life and the acceleration of social change.


The acceleration of the pace of life can be explained in terms of the following paradox: how is it possible that our lives seem to get (or at least ‘feel’) busier and busier, despite the fact that technological change, which allows us to do more in less time, should leave us with more free time on our hands? The point of inventions like the washing machine, the car and email seems to be that they should save us time. But the availability of cars has led us to live further away from work, and although writing and sending emails is faster than writing and sending letters, the volume of emails sent and received has increased to such an extent that we spend more, rather than less time on them.


The form of acceleration that is most important for Rosa’s project of social critique, however, is the acceleration of social change. It is not just technology that changes faster and faster, Rosa argues; so do fashions, languages, customs, work relations and family ties. In early modernity – roughly until 1800 – social change was ‘intergenerational’: social structures did change, but only over the course of multiple generations, making it nearly imperceptible in the lifespan of an individual. In terms of work, for example, a son would inherit the profession of his father and in turn pass it on to his son. In ‘classical modernity’, by contrast – roughly the period from 1800 to 1970 – social change was ‘generational’: each man could choose his own profession, but generally kept this profession for the rest of his life. Today, in ‘late modernity’, change has become ‘intragenerational’: we no longer hold a single profession or work for a single employer for our entire lives, but regularly change jobs or even professions.


But what does all of this have to do with social criticism and alienation, one of the other core themes in Rosa’s work? Alienation is an important concept in Marx and in the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, in the tradition of which Rosa can also be placed. The concept has recently regained currency as a way of explaining the dissatisfaction with and problems of late-modern, post-capitalist society, and Rosa uses it to capture what is wrong with acceleration. The notion of alienation, he maintains, primarily seeks to describe a situation in which we feel we are not living as we wish to be living, even if we are ‘free’ to choose how to live for ourselves and are not obviously forced in our choices by external forces. We feel we are forced to keep up with the heady pace of modern life, even if we ourselves choose to live this way.


Both on an individual and on a political level, Rosa argues, we have ended up in a paradoxical state of ‘frenetic standstill’ – a term indirectly derived from Virilio’s ‘polar inertia’ – where everything is constantly moving and yet nothing ‘really’ ever changes. According to Rosa, this is because the rate of technological, economic and social change is now so fast that we are unable to control and manage these spheres through the slow processes of deliberative democracy, and are unable to manage or plan our own lives in any meaningful way. While the relatively modest pace of change during classical modernity gave us the sense that our lives had a meaningful direction, which we could influence through our plans and by investing in education, we are now caught in chaotic, directionless processes and are forced to ‘surf’ the waves of change. Similarly, while classical modernity gave rise to the notion of social progress guided by meaningful collective action and long-term social planning, today democratic politics is unable to keep up with the frenetic pace of change in technology and the economy and has therefore become reactive, inert, weakened and ineffective.


So what is the solution to all these problems? In Social Acceleration, Rosa announces his theory as a project of social critique, but does not offer much of a way out of this crisis: either we find a way to escape acceleration, he concludes, or we will be forcibly slowed down by ecological or political catastrophe. In his contributions to an interesting collaborative volume, Sociology, Capitalism, Critique, he provides a more developed concept of philosophical-sociological critique in the tradition of the Frankfurt School. Following Axel Honneth’s project in his recent work Freedom’s Right, Rosa argues we can ‘normatively reconstruct’ the values which are central to (Western) modernity’s self-understanding – the main value being autonomy. If our society is to be successful by its own lights, therefore, it must successfully institutionalize autonomy over against, for example, alienation; and this is what acceleration is making it impossible to do.


The alternative to alienation-through-acceleration is to be found in what Rosa calls ‘resonance’, a notion worked out at great length in his most recent work. Acceleration is here reconceived more broadly as the ‘imperative to increase’ (Steigerungsimperative), while resonance is conceived as the opposite of alienation: a relation between a person and the world, between subject an object in which both sides form a mutually ‘responsive’ relation, and neither side is reduced to the terms of the other. Resonance can be found in religion, art and in nature, but also in our relation to other human beings or to objects. Yet Rosa’s analysis is still distinctly pessimistic. We are stuck in a world with little ‘resonance’, where we seem ‘completely unable to offer a political remedy to the “iron cage” of the imperative to increase. The world (in the sense of the institutionally embedded capitalist reality) mercilessly enforces the everyday disposition of reification, and proves to be almost completely immune to any form of protest, in the street or in the voting booth’ (Resonanz, 706, my translation).


The possible practical solutions to bring about a world of greater resonance that Rosa suggests are hardly new, though they may resonate with current sentiments in left-wing discourse in Britain and elsewhere: socialization of the economy, and introducing a basic income. Yet how these changes are to be brought about in the face of an alienated, reified world and a paralyzed political system remains to be seen.


Bart Zantvoort wrote his PhD on Hegel at University College Dublin. He is a lecturer at the University of Leiden and editor and researcher at the Nexus Institute. His research focuses on the relation between social change and resistance to change in individuals, institutions and social structures more generally. He is the editor of Hegel and Resistance (Bloomsbury, 2017) and has published articles on Hegel, political inertia, Critical Theory and on Quentin Meillassoux.


environmental history history of science

The Taste of Water

by contributing editor Luna Sarti

On platforms aiming to disseminate knowledge to a broad audience, water is often defined as a “colourless, transparent, odourless liquid” which is at the basis of the fluids of living organisms (the Oxford dictionary). At times, popular definitions can include reference to its “tasteless” quality (Wikipedia). Such understanding of water as being “naturally” devoid of flavor, color, or odor informs not only standard definitions but also our expectations for particular forms of water. These characteristics that are ascribed to “pure” water, in fact,  play a crucial role in the development of drinking habits in contemporary societies. It is not by chance that popular, international filtering companies like Brita advertise filters that are able to provide “water with a great taste” by removing unwanted flavors such as chlorine and limescale, and thus produce drinking water that is flavorless and supposedly closer to an ideal conception of pure water.  Through processes of filtration, water flowing from the tap is transformed into better tasting water.  This process of re-making aims to obtain that tasteless quality that characterizes a certain imaginary around water in its pure form.

brita_great tasting water

One of the most striking aspects of contemporary values associated with drinking water lies in the contradictory expectations that are activated by tap water and mineral water. While the quality of tap water is assessed on parameters that privilege the absence of taste, there is a strong culture that views particular waters as unique and valuable on the basis of their properties, composition, and flavor. Tap water is deemed good when devoid of flavors, whereas bottled waters are advertised and highly valued because of their peculiar
mineral flavors. When comparing attitudes towards tap and bottled waters, “great tasting” can signify both the absence and the presence of distinct flavors.

san pellegrino_taste

In his book
Medieval Tastes: Food, Cooking, and the Table, historian and food studies scholar Massimo Montanari identifies a similar distinction when analyzing medieval attitudes toward the flavors of water. According to Montanari, the Middle Ages inherited from ancient science the idea that “water itself has no taste” even if it “potentially contains them all” (123). This conception of “pure water” as being tasteless is indebted to a long history in Western natural philosophy that dates back to Greek and Roman traditions, from Empedocles to Democritus and Anaxagoras up to Aristotle, Hippocrates and Pliny the Elder. Nevertheless, Montanari shows how in medieval tradition this conception of water did not translate into parameters for the consumption of water. On the contrary, while the water most recommended by dietary manuals was rainwater, a broad range of cultural practices existed “aiming at combating the ‘banality of water’ by altering it with additives of various kinds and playing with the temperature when served – modifying in essence the ‘natural’ state of the product” (123).

Other scholars of medieval water culture, such as Squatriti in his article
“I pericoli dell’acqua nell’alto medioevo italiano” (The dangers of water in the High Middle Ages), agree with Montanari in stating that in Roman tradition ‘pure water’ was viewed as “a simple drink that was consumed by women, children and slaves, and by the lower class” (590) and that this conception continued to play a crucial role in medieval attitudes toward drinking water. Thus, while Greek and Roman natural philosophers identified water in its pure state as being tasteless, colorless, and odorless, they did not usually rank this form as the preferred kind for drinking. On the contrary, they simply viewed taste as a parameter to distinguish and classify the multiplicity of its forms on earth while establishing a connection between flavor, properties, and effect. In the Natural Questions Seneca for example described a wide range of flavors, from sweet to pungent, without structuring a rigid hierarchical system.

All waters are still, or running, or collected, or occupy various subterranean channels. Some are sweet (dulces), others have flavours that are disagreeable in different ways (asperae); among them are the salty (salsae), the bitter (amarae), and the medicinal (medicatae). In the last category I mean sulphur, iron, and alum waters. The taste indicates the properties. They have many other distinctive qualities in addition. (Book 3, 2.1-2. Translated by Thomas H. Corcoran)

Seneca’s “system of flavors” is derived from Aristotle and characterizes the Middle Ages together with the idea that waters can naturally acquire different flavors as a result of their interactions with different soils. This, too, is a widespread conception in natural philosophy which was already present in canonical texts from Aristotle and Hippocrates to Pliny the Elder. Similar descriptions and explanations for waters on the basis of their flavors can be found in many other authors such as Frontinus, Augustine, Isidore of Seville, and Bede the Venerable.

Looking at the contradicting standards for classifying waters from this historical perspective, we can view contemporary attitudes towards drinking water as being informed by values and assumptions with a long history in Western tradition. Moreover, the apparent contradiction that emerges in assessing “good water” both through its “flavorlessness” and its unique taste can be seen as the consequence of the development and transformation of qualitative systems of flavors and thus in relation to what each flavor signifies in a specific cultural context.

A water sommelier describing the range of flavors that are associated with different bottled mineral waters.

In this sense, we could ask why today limescale and chlorine are culturally positioned as being “bad flavors” that must be removed while other flavors are not only to be appreciated but also to be understood as “good”. In the specific case of chlorine, for example, detecting its distinct smell and taste activates our awareness of the invisible processes that go into the making of tap water, such as disinfection and chemical treatment. On the contrary, mineral waters are presented as being made by nature, in spite of the fact that this process of making is the result of chemical interactions. The perceived category of the natural seems to play a crucial role in determining this distinction between “good” and “bad flavors”.


Although water departments release data on water quality and use complex biological and chemical markers to assess water quality, research supported and spread by the International Water Association reveals how aesthetic criteria such as color, flavor, and odor represent the main parameters used by consumers to assess water quality (see for example Franco Doria et al.). Considering that taste plays a crucial role in determining if water users decide whether or not to drink tap water (and being mindful of the resources invested in producing tap water), it is worth reflecting on the complex cultural and historical legacy that determine such decisions, rather than positioning “aesthetic perception” as being anti-scientific and thus requiring just policies for scientific literacy. Further comparative historical research could help illuminate what values inform contemporary systems of flavors in relation to water.


capitalism history of science US history

The Pricing of Progress: Podcast interview with Eli Cook

By Contributing Editor Simon Brown

In this podcast, I’m speaking with Eli Cook, assistant professor of history at the University of Haifa, about his new book, The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life (Harvard University Press, 2017). The book has been honored with the Morris D. Forkosch Book Prize from the Journal of the History of Ideas for the best first book in intellectual history, and with the Annual Book Prize of the Society for US Intellectual History for the best book in that field.

pricing of progress

In The Pricing of Progress, Cook tells the story of how American businessmen, social reformers, politicians, and labor unions came to measure progress and advocate policy in the language of projected monetary gains at the expense of other competing standards. He begins this account with the market for land in seventeenth-century England, and moves across the Atlantic to explain how plantation slavery, westward expansion, and the Civil War helped lead Americans to conceive of their country and its people as potential investments with measurable prices even before the advent of GDP in the twentieth century. He traces an intellectual history that leads the reader through the economic theories of thinkers like William Petty, Alexander Hamilton, and Irving Fisher on the one hand, and quotidian texts like household account books, business periodicals and price indices on the other. Throughout, he shows how the rise of capitalism brought with it the monetary valuation of not only land, labor and technology, but of everyday life itself.   

Listen to the full conversation here.

Atlantic history history of science Think Piece

John Parkinson and the Rise of Botany in the 17th Century

By Guest Contributor Molly Nebiolo

John Parkinson, depicted in his monumental Theatrum botanicum (1640).

The roots of contemporary botany have been traced back to the botanical systems laid out by Linnaeus in the eighteenth century. Yet going back in further in time reveals some of the key figures who created some of the first ideas and publications that brought horticulture forward as a science. John Parkinson (1567-1650) is one of the foremost in that community of scientists. Although “scientist” was a word coined in the nineteenth century, I will be using it because it embodies the systematic acts of observation and experimentation to understand how nature works that I take Parkinson to be exploring. While “natural philosophy” was the term more commonly in use at the time, the simple word “science” will be used for the brevity of the piece and to stress the links between Parkinson’s efforts and contemporary fields. Parkinson’s works on plants and gardening in England remained integral to botany, herbalism, and medicinal healing for decades after his death, and he was one of the first significant botanists to introduce exotic flowers into England in the 17th century to study their healing properties. He was a true innovator for the field of botany, yet his work has not been heavily analyzed in the literature on the early modern history of science. The purpose of this post is to underline some of the achievements that can be  attributed to Parkinson, and to examine his first major text, Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris, a groundbreaking work in the field of history in the mid-1600s.

Parkinson grew up as an apprentice for an apothecary from the age of fourteen, and quickly rose in the ranks of society to the point of becoming royal apothecary to James I. His success resulted in many opportunities to collect plants outside of England, including trips to the Iberian Peninsula and northern Africa in the first decade of the seventeenth century. At the turn of the seventeenth century, collectors would commonly accompany trading expeditions to collect botanical specimens to determine if they could prosper in English climate. Being the first to grow the great Spanish daffodil in England, and cultivating over four hundred plants in his own garden by the end of his life, Parkinson was looked up to as a pioneer in the nascent field of botanical science. He assisted fellow botanists in their own work, but he also was the founder of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, and the author of two major texts as well.

His first book, Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris (Park-in-Sun’s Terrestrial Paradise) reveals a humorous side to Parkinson, as he puts a play on words for his surname in the title: “Park-in-Sun.” This text, published in 1628, along with his second, more famous work published in 1640, Theatrum botanicum (The Theater of Plants), were both immensely influential to the horticultural and botanical corpori of work that were emerging during the first half of the 17th century. Just in the titles of both, we can see how much reverence Parkinson had for the intersection of fields he worked with: horticulture, botany, and medicine. By titling his second book The Theater of Plants, he creates a vivid picture of how he perceived gardens. Referencing the commonly used metaphor of the theater of the world, Parkinson compares plants as the actors in the the garden’s theatrum. It is also in Theatrum Botanicum that Parkinson details the medicinal uses of hundreds of plants that make up simple (medicinal) gardens in England. While both texts are rich for analysis, I want to turn attention specifically to Paradisus terrestris because I think it is a strong example of how botany and gardening were evolving into a new form of science in Europe during the seventeenth century.

Title page woodcut image for Paradisus Terrestris. Image courtesy of the College of Physicians Medical Library, Philadelphia, PA.

The folio pages of Paradisus terrestris are as large and foreboding as those of any early modern edition of the Bible. Chock full of thousands of detailed notes on the origins, appearance, and medical and social uses for pleasure gardens, kitchen gardens and orchards, one could only imagine how long it took Parkinson to collect this information. Paradisus terrestris was one of the first real attempts of a botanist to organize plants into what we now would term genuses and species. This encyclopedia of meticulously detailed, imaged and grouped plants was a new way of displaying horticultural and botanical information when it was first published. While it was not the first groundbreaking example of the science behind gardens and plants in western society, Luci Ghini potentially being the first, Parkinson’s reputation and network within his circle of botany friends and the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries bridged the separation between the two fields. Over the course of the century,  the medicinal properties of a plant were coherently circulated in comprehensive texts like Parkinson’s as the Scientific Revolution and the colonization of the New World steadily increased access to new specimens and the tools to study them.



Paradisus terrestris includes many woodcut images of the flowers Parkinson writes about to help the reader better study and identify them. Image courtesy of the Linda Hall Library, Kansas City, MO.

Another thing to note in Paradisus terrestris is the way Parkinson writes about plants in the introduction. While most of the book is more of a how-to narrative on how to grow a pleasure garden, kitchen garden, or orchard, the preface to the volume illustrates much about Parkinson as a botanist. Gardens to Parkinson are integral to life; they are necessary “for Meat or Medicine, for Use or for Delight” (2).  The symbiotic relationship between humans and plants is repeatedly discussed in how gardens should be situated in relationship to the house, and how minute details in the way a person interacts with a garden space can affect the plants. “The fairer and larger your allies [sic] and walks be the more grace your Garden shall have, the lesse [sic] harm the herbs and flowers shall receive…and the better shall your Weeders cleanse both the beds and the allies” (4). The preface divulges the level of respect and adoration Parkinson has towards plants. It illustrates the deep enthusiasm and curiosity he has towards the field, two features of a botanist that seemed synonymous for natural philosophers and collectors of the time.

John Parkinson was one of the first figures in England to merge the formalized study of plants with horticulture and medicine. Although herbs and plants have been used as medicines for thousands of years, it is in the first half of the seventeenth century that the medicinal uses of plants become a scientific attribute to a plant, as they were categorized and defined in texts like Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris and Theatrum botanicum. Parkinson is a strong example of the way a collector’s mind worked in the early modern period, in the way he titled his texts and the adoration that can be felt when reading the introduction of Paradisus terrestris. From explorer, to collector, horticulturist, botanist, and apothecary, the many hats Parkinson wore throughout his professional career and the way he weaved them together exemplify the lives many of these early scientists lived as they brought about the rise of these new sciences.

Molly Nebiolo is a PhD student in History at Northeastern University. Her research covers early modern science and medicine in North America and the Atlantic world and she is completing a Certificate in Digital Humanities. She also writes posts for the Medical Health and Humanities blog at Columbia University.

book history Britain history of science Industrial Revolution

Reconsidering Mechanization in the Industrial Revolution: The Dye Book of William Butt

By guest contributor Lidia Plaza

On my way to Covent Garden this summer, I spotted a Muji store and popped inside.  A few months earlier I had picked up a pair of Muji socks in Terminal 5 of JFK, which had since become my favorite pair.  Determined to acquire more, equally lovely socks, I studied the sock selection until I found some in the same style, size, and color as my beloved pair.  I grabbed them and headed to the till.  I didn’t bother to inspect the socks; I assumed the knit tensions were all perfectly even, the densities were consistent, the colors were identical.  I also assumed that they were exactly like the socks I had purchased a few months earlier in New York.  I didn’t compare the socks because I take consistency for granted.  I expect it.  I insist upon it. My expectation that socks I purchase from a Japanese retailer in New York will be identical to socks I find in London months later is a testament to the success of the Industrial Revolution.

In the history of the Industrial Revolution, the mechanization of cleaning, processing, spinning, and weaving textiles has become Chapter One of the gospel, but in this telling there has been undue emphasis put on the mechanization of manufacturing.  The triumph of the Industrial Revolution was not the machines themselves, but the processes that could produce consistent products at a mass scale; machines were just one tool of those processes.  This point is well illustrated in an often-overlooked verse of the gospel: dyeing.

Dyeing’s neglect is partially understandable, as dyeing is almost as difficult for the historian to study as it was for the eighteenth-century apprentice to learn.  Unlike paints, dyes must chemically bond with the textile fibers, and variations in the fibers, the pH of the water, the quality of added mordants and dye-assistants, or even the composition of the containers used can affect the results.  Only in the nineteenth century did chemists begin to understand dye chemistry, and when histories of industrialization include dyes, this, for instance, is often what they highlight. But early modern dyers spent their careers learning to achieve consistent, even dyes, and, more recently, scholars like Giorgio Riello have included dyeing innovations in their examinations of early textile industrialization.  It is now becoming clear that dyers and clothiers like William Butt were making critical strides in early textile industrialization.


William Butt began his dye book on November 24, 1768.  As a clothier, Butt oversaw the entire process of producing a woolen textile from cleaning the raw fibers to weaving the fabric.  Yet his book, the product of almost daily work, is just about dyeing.  Why then did Butt devote so much effort to just one step in the manufacturing process?  The answer is simple: half the price of a finished textile could come just from the quality of its dyeing.  It was not uncommon for clothiers to set up their own dye houses, unwilling to trust someone else’s work with such a critical step.  William Butt was such a clothier.

Between 1768 and 1785, he recorded 794 recipes, filling over 88 pages with rows and columns of cryptic numbers, strange symbols, bizarre ingredients, and round little pieces of colored felt, stuffing little scraps of paper between its pages.  After weeks and months of pouring over the book in the reading room of the Beinecke Library, I made some sense of the book; each row documents a new recipe, and each column contains a separate piece of information about the recipe.  In this way, Butt recorded the amounts of wool he worked with, the merchant marks of his wool suppliers, and the dyestuffs used in each recipe, always providing samples of the results and assigning a unique recipe number.


The book shows that Butt was able to dye more wool with better results by systematically experimenting with his dyes.  Starting around 1777, about page 35 of his book, Butt began to treat his book less like a cookbook of collected recipes, and more like a lab notebook to record his experiments.  He started dating his recipes, and the dates suggest that Butt began to intensify his production.  Butt filled 35 pages between 1768 and 1777.  Assuming this was his only dye book, this means he only filled 3 or 4 pages a year during this period.  However, after 1777 he usually filled at least 6 pages each year.

Number of Pages Filled by Each Year in William Butt’s Dye Book Between May 1777-May 1785
Year Approximate Number of pages filled
1777 (May-December) 6
1778 6.5
1779 8
1780 6
1781 7
1782 6
1783 6.5
1784 5
1785 (February-May) 3

Not only was Butt working with more recipes but he also became more meticulous in his work.  He got pickier about how he classified a new dye recipe by assigning a new dye number to recipes that varied only slightly from other recipes in the book.  He began experimenting with his recipes, recreating previous recipes using wool from different suppliers, for example.  In another instance, he experimented with technique, noting that recipe 20129 was the same as 19917, “differing from 19917 in method only.”  His book gets more cluttered as he began recording the merchant marks of the merchants who supplied the wool in each recipe, and as he makes more notes and comments.



Part of Butt’s success may have come from the fact that he seems to have been a specialist.  He was clearly skilled at using many dyestuffs, but he relied on other dyers to provide him with indigo-dyed wool.  Indigo is a vat dye, which has an entirely separate chemical process for bonding to fibers than the other dyestuffs Butt worked with, which were almost exclusively mordant-dyes.  Not all dyers specialized, but there is evidence that indigo specialists were common, and so it is not surprising that Butt would also specialize in one type of dye.  By focusing on dyes that all required similar methods, Butt was able to refine those methods and increase his efficiency.  By the end of his book, Butt had more than doubled the amount of wool he dyed in each recipe.

Technology was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution, but, as Butt’s dye book illustrates, if all we imagine when we think of technology is machines, we are missing a large part of the picture.  Technology is simply the practical application of scientific knowledge, and in this sense William Butt’s dye book is as much a piece of technological advancement as the spinning jenny and the power loom.  He could not have known the chemistry underpinning his work, but he knew he could maximize his output by systematically experimenting with dyestuffs and applying what he learned to his processes.  All the spinning jennies and power looms in the world would have been useless if all those threads and fabrics could not be consistently and reliably dyed, but dyeing at larger scales required a better understanding of the dyes, not new machines.  Butt and the many others like him understood this.  Hiding in record offices and archives, there are other dye books, all written by clothiers and dyers trying to master dye processes.  It was their mastery of process that achieved the consistency that I take for granted every time I browse a wall of socks.

Lidia Plaza is a PhD student in British history at Yale University. Her research focuses on industrialization and British foreign policy in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries.  

art history Art installations environmental history history of science Museums

GIFs, Archives, and Riverscapes – Process and reflections on Floating Archives

By artist and contributing writer Jacob Rivkin

What are the subtle histories embedded into each landscape? Floating Archives asks Philadelphians to consider our beloved “hidden river” as a source of narratives that tell of the ever-changing borders between land and water. (The original name for the Schuylkill River comes from the Lenni Lenape, Tool-Pay Hanna, which translates to Turtle River. The moniker ‘hidden river’ originates from the name given by Dutch settlers in Pennsylvania.) Some stories show us who shaped the river, and the funds and materials they used to harden its edges. Other stories are more difficult to surface, obscured by centuries of persistent structures of power and displaced ecologies of humans, animals, and plants. Floating Archives playfully and vividly reminds us of these submerged histories.

Floating Archives was a public art intervention on the lower Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. The project was supported through the Mellon Artist-in-Residence program at the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities, in collaboration with Bartram’s Garden and the Science History Institute. On three Saturday evenings in September 2018, hand-drawn animations based on archival materials were projected on a screen suspended between two canoes. As these floating silent images present traces of the past in vibrant color, they invited us to see still other rivers, as they were, as they are, and as they could be. Specific animations were projected as Floating Archives approached the place that each original image referenced, creating a spectral layering of landscape, history, and wonder, both literally and figuratively. These drawings and animations also provoke us, in times of rising waters and changing coastlines, to consider the labor, capital, and energy that have and will shape the river’s future course.

1. Floating Archives Dusk
Floating Archives on the Schuylkill River, 2018

The inspiration for Floating Archives originally came from making animations for a film on the history of taxidermy, and its contemporary alternative scene, with the Distillations podcast at the Science History Institute. The film, Death and Taxidermy, included animated explanations of the history, process, and personal stories involving taxidermy. The section on history included conducting research on advances in scientific methods of preservation and the buildings and landscapes where these scientific developments occurred. The process of reimagining physical actions and motions of people and animals in these historical spaces proved to be very enjoyable as an artistic practice. I started thinking about how I could bring this sensibility to my own independent research as an artist.

Clip from Death and Taxidermy, 2016

My work as an artist addresses how we experience and internalize the idea of landscape, and by association, wonder. These include creating devices that record the multi-sensory elements of a landscape through creative coding and physical computing, speculative biological systems, and films which explore the awakening of sentience and complexity within digital images. As an active canoer on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, I started thinking about the viewscapes created by the flow of water and the edges that border the river. Taking this as my lead, I started combing through digital archives and was led to reading Redemption of the Lower Schuylkill by John Frederick Lewis from 1924. This book, or perhaps manifesto, which contains a passionate argument for how the river in that time could be improved in cleanliness and recreation, is also filled with photographs and historical images of the river. This is where I would start the process of creating the animations for Floating Archives.

The process for creating animations is as follows. I find an image that contains some portion of the Schuylkill River – this can be a photograph, etching, or drawing. All of the images came from archives or images that were digitized. This was necessary because I made most of the drawings and animations while participating in an arts residency at the Fine Arts Work Center during the winter of 2018 in Provincetown, MA. I then study the image for clues of what kind of industry, recreation, labor, or leisure may have taken place there, if it is not immediately apparent. This image is imported into a computer program specifically for hand-drawn animation. The image is cropped to either focus on the action or create a more visually engaging composition. The layer the image is placed onto is then locked, and the opacity is reduced to about eighty percent. On a new layer above, I use a digital pen and tablet to trace over the contours of the image below using a bright pink color with a two-point wide mark. This is so I can more easily delineate between the old and new background and ensure parts of the image below are not missed. A new layer is then created that contains the character or objects that are moving. Separating these different elements out of the image allow for further applications of independent motion or effects. The last elements to animate, also on separate layers, are the atmospheric effects of water, clouds, and smoke. The line drawings of the background layer and animation layers each receive its own independent color layer as well by using a paint bucket to fill in the outlines of the layer above. The process of creating several layers of images, motion, and color allows for the quick rearrangement of timing and compositing because less erasing and drawing is involved than if every image were on the same layer. For example, erasing the outline of a figure begins to erase the color and lines of the background. In the end, a final seamless two-dimensional animation is created.

4. Process animation-1

Animation is an accessible medium of communication. By translating archival images, many toned by the hue of time, into hand drawn animation containing consistent lines, weights, and vibrant colors, the original cultural currency imbued in the image is transformed into a source of contemplation, more playfulness, and less cultural gravity. The sense of seriousness contained within the original image can become a barrier for imagining the embedded narratives. The language of hand-drawn animation references a childlike association with Saturday morning cartoon series and films produced by Disney, and, by proxy, increases the sense of wonder around an image.

5. GIF_shaq cat-1
Shaq vs. Cat GIF

Moreover, the animations take their inspiration from the culture of GIF (Graphic Interchange Format) animations. GIFs are a file type originally associated with rotating logos and website “under construction” signs, which now exist as a quotidian form of communication and expression in digital culture. One important element of GIF animations is that embedded image and actions are on constant repeat, looping, sometimes seamlessly, in time. Each of the animations created for Floating Archives also loop seamlessly. The resonant link between history and repetition, the constant cycle of development and redevelopment, and the ebbing transition of wilderness to the flow of culture, seems analogous to the way images through history depicting the Schuylkill River have portrayed the river as a confluence of labor, resource extraction and transportation, and leisure.

6.Man fishing with hand nest-1
Man fishing with hand net on the Schuylkill River, 1927, Photo by Jacob Schuler,
Temple University George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection

Water, progressing from higher elevations to lower ones, carries the sediment of upper creeks and tributaries to the shores and banks in the wetlands below. The movement is ever forwards. The physical history of a distant, yet interconnected, place becomes present for a brief geological moment, then continues its journey downstream and out to the vast ocean. In animation, one drawing follows another seamlessly. Images move forward sequentially in time to reveal the illusion of movement and convey meaning embedded into each frame. Yet, we cannot hold onto a particular image, as its meaning is conveyed by the images that came before and the images that come afterwards. By placing water and animation, these two vehicles of motion and meaning, in proximity to each other, Floating Archives can offer, for perhaps longer than a moment, a fleeting perspective of history and landscape illuminated by projection, streetlamps, and glimmering reflections in the river below.

7. Floating Archives, 2018 - Main Image Still - 72ppi(2)
Floating Archives, 2018

Jacob Rivkin is an interdisciplinary artist living and working in Philadelphia, PA. He is a former Fulbright Fellow, a recipient of the Visual Arts Fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and teaches Fine Arts courses at the University of Pennsylvania. His animations have screened at the Japan Media Arts Festival in Tokyo, Japan, Animation Block Party in Brooklyn, NY, Vox Populi in Philadelphia, PA, and the Peephole Cinema in San Francisco. His sculptures have been exhibited at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, BC, The Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum, Philadelphia, PA, the Arlington Art Center in Arlington, VA and Julius Caesar Gallery in Chicago, IL. He previously worked with the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities as an Ecotopian Toolmaker in 2017 with ecological designer Eric Blasco. Their project, the Bio Pool, was described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “a giant Brita filter for the Schuylkill River.” It continues to filter water and be a habitat for cattails and red-winged blackbirds near the public dock at Bartram’s Garden.