The network is a figure of thought that began to emerge as a concrete physical formation and as a conceptual model long before the digital revolution. Following recent scholarship on historical network epistemology, this essay traces such network thinking in nineteenth-century US philosophical and literary discourses with an emphasis on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalist philosophy and Walt Whitman’s poetry. Features associated with networks, such as relationality, reciprocal interaction, decentralized self-organization, and emergent properties significantly shaped US thought and played a crucial part in national, cultural, and political processes of self-reflection and -identification in the early days of the American Republic. Demonstrating how network epistemology has informed and in turn been generated by US literature and philosophy of the nineteenth century, Schober examines the network not only as a universal model, but also as a historically contingent conceptual model. The specifically Romantic concept of the network that comes to the fore in the texts under scrutiny responds to an increased impact of concrete technological network structures, while reflecting and affecting particular notions of (spiritual) interconnectivity, community, and national unity. In Emerson’s and Whitman’s writing in particular, conceptions of the network serve to integrate the Romantic quest for unity within an optimistic vision of an original US identity, establishing the network as a key figure for future self-reflection and -definition at a time particularly shaped by cultural renewal and social reform. The network, as combining both concrete, material reality and epistemological, theoretical discourses, thus represents a central image in the project of (re)defining personal and national identity in the early Republic.

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