University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Cabinet of Natural History > Meeting nature halfway: Georg Forster, mining, and the aesthetics of artifice

Meeting nature halfway: Georg Forster, mining, and the aesthetics of artifice

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In 1784, Georg Forster travelled through mining-landscapes in Germany’s Harz and Ore Mountains. There he encountered ‘a new and rejuvenated Nature’. Steeped in the teachings of the mining elites who guided him, Forster came to see water-, horse- and man-powered industry as a noble human effort to participate in the ‘workshop of Nature’. His journals oscillate between hubris and humility: keenly aware of the awesome power of nature evidenced by mine collapses, Forster understood mining as a project of ‘fitting’, even ‘completing’, natural landscapes. Following Forster’s journey, this talk elucidates the unfamiliar sentimental world of late-18th-century resource extraction, which beguiles two dichotomous historiographical traditions. While some scholars describe the extractive ethos of Forster’s generation as a wholesale ‘oeconomization of nature’, another tradition identifies the turn of the 19th century, with its embrace of holism, as a wellspring of ecological thinking. Indeed, the curious nature of this moment is captured by the fact that so many romantic figures participated in Germany’s mining industry – from poets like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Hardenberg (‘Novalis’) to savants like Henrik Steffens and Alexander von Humboldt. Forster, to whom Humboldt attributed his own holism, helps us dwell in the alterity of a worldview whereby human dominion over nature was to be ‘shared with nature’. To that end, this talk grounds the lofty aesthetic meditations of Forster and his contemporaries in the ‘working world’ of mining, specifically in the hydraulic systems (dams, aqueducts, pumps and hydro-powered ore presses) that epitomized their philosophy of nature.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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