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STEMS: "The Tocqueville of Techniques: Michel Chevalier and the Cosmic Geography of the USA"

Monday, February 25, 2013
12:00 AM
1014 Tisch Hall

Accounts of the USA in the 19th century often rely on Alexis de Tocqueville’s celebrated analysis of the social, legal, and cultural conditions of democracy. But another French voyager's report from the
same moment, Michel Chevalier’s “Lettres sur l’Amérique du Nord” (1835) brings neglected aspects of the early nation to light. Chevalier, a polytechnician and political economist, had been a fervid contributor to the utopian and industrial mythology of Saint-Simonianism; his “Système de la Méditerranée” (1832) projected peace, progress, and economic and religious unity through railroads,
canals, and telegraphs.  While much of the religious register dropped from his report on the USA, his sense of political and even cosmic renewal via technology remained. In comparing Tocqueville and
Chevalier, we see how much has been missed in canonical accounts of this period. The consolidation of the USA and above all its status as a budding empire depended not only on representative democracy but on rapid innovations in industry and public works, as well as the development of an institutional and communications infrastructure for the arts and sciences. The aim was a transformation in cultural geography: a shift in the USA from peripheral satellite of Europe to imperial center in its own right. As visitors and “native” commentators showed, technologies of this period refigured the links between the infinitesimal spaces of industrial mechanics, the expanding map of the nation, the globe, and the infinite reaches of the cosmos.