Industrial Revolution in the Imagination of 19th-Century Spain


A review of Beyond the Material: Energy, Work and Movement in the Cultural Imagination of Restoration Spain, by Óscar Iván Useche.

For a few decades now, American Hispanists have approached nineteenth-century Spanish cultural production almost exclusively through gender studies. A new direction appeared some years ago when a growing group of young scholars took what is called “the spatial turn,” focusing their research on the cultural uses of the then emergent spectacle of urban culture. Óscar Iván Useche brings us yet another approach to the complexities of the changing cultural life of nineteenth-century Spain by focusing his dissertation on the symbolic uses of industrial revolution to renegotiate national identity and social tensions. Through four chapters and an introduction, Óscar Useche explores how the symbolic uses of the material, social, and epistemological changes brought by industrial revolution became a significant part of intellectual production. In Useche’s reading, industrialization, in particular the developing of both the railroad system and the systematic exploitation of mining sites, offered a new semiotical matrix for Spanish intellectuals to reflect upon the social and cultural changes happening in their society.

The opening chapter, “New Conceptual Metaphors: Tradition and Progress as Part of Industrial Symbolization,” establishes the theoretical frame of the dissertation. Useche begins by conceptualizing the way metaphors that used the language of industrial work made possible new ways of thinking, building upon the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live. He then develops two concepts to think about both the material and discursive dimensions of the industrial revolution in Spain. Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory and Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of fields help Useche reflect on the social, political, en economic context of industrial society, what he names the material field [campo material]. The material field would encompass not only the material realities of industrialization, but also the different networks to which intellectuals take part. The position intellectuals hold in those networks determines different strategies for representing the realities of the industrial world. Useche develops the idea of a discursive mirror image of the material world, what he calls the social foundry. Social foundry appears to be the discursive structure—in the Foucauldian sense—in which the interaction between semiotic and symbolic intellectual production and the material realities of industrial development happens. The social foundry builds a metaphorical language associated with energy, work, and movement. Each of those conceptual fields is the main focus of one of the three remaining chapters.

In the second chapter, “Scientific Thought: Energetics as Social Rhetoric in José Echegaray and Lucas Mallada,” Useche explores the metaphoric use of images of energy by paying attention to a sometimes overlooked characteristic of Spanish cultural life in the nineteenth century: the low division of intellectual labor. Reading the works of José Echegaray, who was a mathematician, play writer, and politician, and the works of Lucas Mallada, a geographer with a literary inclination, Useche analyzes the different uses in cultural discourse of the rhetoric of energy. He touches not only on how the scientific and industrial languages permeate cultural discourse, but also on how the discourses about industrial progress are frequently touched by literary language. Both authors discussed here, one from the official culture of the Restoration, the other one from the critical position of “Regeneracionismo,” diagnosed and battled through that language what they perceived to be the ills of the country in public speeches, conferences, and scientific works.

The third chapter, “Iron Fever: The Labors of Identity in the Context of the Mining Industry and the Railroad,” focuses on the fiction works of José Ortega Munilla, Benito Pérez Galdós, Armando Palacio Valdés, and Vicente Blasco Ibañez. This selection of narrative works published between 1878 and 1904 constitutes an amplified canon of fin de siècle Spanish novel, in which Óscar Useche studies the representations of work. From the classic liberalism of Ortega Munilla and Pérez Galdós, to the catholic conservatism of Palacio Valdés and the radical republicanism of Blasco Ibáñez, this selection lets Useche explore the different political positions intellectuals took toward the social conflicts developing in Spain because of the growth of industrial work. The careful reading of these works shows how representations of industrial development and the national railroad system were used by intellectuals to think through the tensions between rural and urban spaces in the reformulation of national identity. Even more interestingly, it shows how they negotiated the continuities and differences between a traditional idea of the nation and its current reformulation under the pressures of the industrial revolution.

The epistemological turn that brought the development of high-velocity traveling is the subject of the fourth and final chapter of the dissertation, “The Dynamics of Train Traveling: Railroad and Nation in Movement.” The extension of the Spanish railroad system in the second half of the nineteenth century brought forth not only a new perception of time and space but also a new semiotic and symbolism for representing the constant tensions between cultural tradition and the new face of progress. Exploring both travel writing and short fiction, Useche pays attention to how Benito Pérez Galdós, Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, and Emilia Pardo Bazán reflected upon national identity while traveling through Spain and Europe. Being one of the main products of industrial production, the train itself became a privileged object to project how industrial progress was being conceptualized by those intellectuals. The use of non-canonical works, like Pedro Antonio de Alarcón’s Viajes por España, gives Useche the opportunity to take a welcomed new look at the already much explored question of national identity formation in nineteenth-century Spain.

One of the most valuable aspects of Óscar Useche’s approach to nineteenth-century Spanish culture is his amplification of the literary canon. This will definitively make specialists of this field look with new eyes to what can be done and thought trough those texts. But maybe the most valuable question that Óscar Useche poses is how his research affects the traditional reading of Spain’s belated modernity and undeveloped industrialization during the nineteenth century. By shifting the focus from the material realities of industrialization to the cultural discourse surrounding it, Óscar Useche demonstrates throughout his dissertation that no matter how developed industrial production or the railway system were in late nineteenth-century Spain, those material realities became not only part of the cultural discourse of the time but also one of the main ways to think about the changes the nation and Spanish national identity were suffering because of industrialization. Intellectuals made clear that the realities of industrialization were a very important part of their conceptual world, what Useche refers to as social foundation. This shows a different impact of industrial revolution on Spain, not only a material but a discursive one. Through his careful readings of literary and scientific texts, Óscar Useche links this discourse to the debate happening at the same time around the very possibility of thinking of Spain as a modern nation. Because of this, Useche’s dissertation will appeal not only to specialists of nineteenth-century Spanish and European cultures but also to those with a more general interest in the formation of national identity and the epistemological changes brought by the industrial revolution.

Eduardo Hernández Cano
Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literatures
New York University

Primary Sources
Academic Speeches
Scientific works (Mathematics, Geography)
Long and short fiction
Newspaper articles
Travel writing

Dissertation Information
Columbia University, 2014. 319 pp. Primary Advisor: Wadda Ríos Font.

Image: Het gieten van ijzer in blokken (The casting of iron in blocks), by Herman Heyenbrock, ca. 1890. From Wikipedia.

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