What begins with an unlikely collection of unrelated phenomena--mechanical dolls, weather, atoms, lyric poetry--blossoms in the course of Toy Medium into a subtle and persuasive meditation on one of Western philosophy's biggest puzzles: the relation of mind and matter. What is the role of the imagination in defining material substance? In a dazzling study of the poetics of materialist philosophy and of the materialism of lyric poetry, Daniel Tiffany traces the historical conjunction of matter and metaphor through a remarkable range of topics: automata in classical antiquity and the eighteenth century; Kepler's treatise on snowflakes; animal magnetism; fireworks and cloud-chamber photographs; the origins of the microscope as a philosophical toy and its bearing on the figure of the virtuoso. At critical junctures in modern Western culture, Tiffany finds uncanny parallels between the metaphorics of science and visions of material substance rooted in popular culture and lyric poetry.
Los Angeles Times Best Nonfiction Book of 2000
Daniel Tiffany is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Radio Corpse: Imagism and the Cryptaesthetic of Ezra Pound (1995).
"In this bold, speculative, and immensely learned study . . . Tiffany[‘s concept of] lyric substance--the ‘sense’ of materiality supplied to us by poets like Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore--constitutes a world whose inaccessibility is legitimized by the principles of scientific materialism. Thus lyric, too long on the periphery of materialist discourse, emerges as being squarely in its center."—Marjorie Perloff, Stanford University, author of The Futurist Moment and Wittgenstein’s Ladder
"A lyrical inquiry into the circle of ideas: materialism, science, poetics. Winding through the whole is a fascinating exploration of toys--children’s toys, physicists’ toy models, philosophers’ robots, nuclear weaponeers’ toy towns. . . . My hope is that this book will contribute to a growing interest not in cleaving science from the arts but rather in exploring, poetically, the language, images and things that illuminate both." —Peter Galison, Mallinckrodt Professor of the History of Science and Physics, Harvard University
"A brilliant achievement, synthesizing the history of science and poetics, technology and the arts, in an iconology of materialism. . . All that is solid melts into air in this book, but just as quickly the airy poems of our climate condense into material, objective forms, weird gadgets, and objects of scientific research. . . A wonderful feast of learning and wit." —W. J. T. Mitchell, University of Chicago, author of Picture Theory and Iconology
"In clear-eyed and gorgeous prose, Toy Medium moves the question of Art's encounter with Science to an utterly original point of conflagration: where matter is mostly not matter. . . . Going to the bottom of the Imagination, where it still truly involves images, Tiffany explores how we have learned to see the inscrutable via our imagistic grasp of materiality. . . . This book is daring, brilliant, and deeply clever."—Jorie Graham, Boylston Professor of English, Harvard University, author of Materialism and winner of the Pulitzer Prize