Fall 2016 Colloquium Series: Patent Fictions: The Poetics of Invention in Imperial Germany

December 2, 2016

Erik Born

Erik Born

On December 2, 2016, Erik Born (Cornell University) concluded the IGCS fall colloquium series with a paper titled “Patent Fictions: The Poetics of Invention in Imperial Germany,” in which Born examined the cultural techniques and practices of scientific and literary invention from 1871 to 1918. “Patent Fictions” belongs to a larger project that traces the history of invention by analyzing how authors and inventors acquire new technological means of consecrating novelty in their works and how the meaning of invention itself changes as a result of these developments. The paper put critical pressure on the common assumption that authors merely “make things up” while inventors make things. Born thus elaborated on the concept of “imaginary media” and media practices that make use of imaginative labor to expand the horizon of possibility for scientific thinking.

Central to Born’s analysis was the emergence of patent laws, which provided inventors with the legal means to secure proprietary rights for their ideas and inventions. Expanding on the economic function of patents, Born added that these “paper machines” also play a key role in the management of knowledge. As he also demonstrated, they ushered in a new inventor class consisting of dilettantes, the practically skilled, and the professional “inventeur.” Born offered many insights into the complex and often asymmetrical relationship between science and fiction regarding the status of their respective inventions, especially as those inventions pertain to modernism, which came to define reality less in terms of “givenness” and more through a fluctuating set of experiences, cultural symbols, scientific instruments, and media technologies.

Using the branding label “Made in Germany” as his point of departure, Born noted the ironic underpinnings of Germany’s spirit of discovery [Erfindergeist]. According to Born, the label was originally intended to warn citizens of the British Empire not to consume inferior foreign products (i.e. to encourage local consumerism). However, “made in Germany” paradoxically later became synonymous with high quality, making German engineering a top-shelf product in the global market of symbolic goods. Born also described how this branding label inspired a generation of poet-engineers [Dichter-Ingenieure] to compose a collection of poetry affirming the triumph of the engineer class in Germany. The paper additionally offered close readings of representative work by anti-naturalist poet-engineers such as Kurd Lasswitz, Christian Morgenstern, Paul Scheerbart, and Mynona Salomo Firedlaender. In sum Born reflected on how these literary publications both reinforced and called into question the authority of science through their work on literary narrative. (Matthew Stoltz)