Prof. Dr. Ute Berns
Ute Berns is Professor for British Literature and Culture at the University of Hamburg and has held this position since 2011. Previously, she was employed at the Technical (TU) and Free (FU) University of Berlin as well as Giessen University. She has studied at the University of Reading, UK; the FU Berlin; and the University of London, UK. After completing her doctoral studies on the subject of Micropolitics in Contemporary British Drama (1996) and writings on “The Construction of the Self in Early Modern Times” at the FU Berlin’s collaborative research centre titled “Cultures of Performance”, she wrote her postdoctoral thesis (Habilitation) on the British poet, dramatist, and scientist Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849). Since 2016, she has been the president of the “German Society for Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English” (CDE). Her research focuses on British literature and culture since 1750, and she specializes in literary and cultural theory, the literature and culture of the Romantic Age, as well as literature and science/ecology.
- Figurations of Knowledge in British and German Romanticism. (Ed. with Susan Gustafson). Cluster Issue of European Romantic Review 28.1 (2017).
- Theatre and History: Cultural Transformations. (Ed. with Verena Keidel and Janina Wierzoch). Contemporary Drama in English 3.1 (2015).
- Science, Politics and Friendship in the Work of Thomas Lovell Beddoes. Delaware: Delaware University Press, 2012.
- Medievalism: A Special Issue of the European Journal of English Studies (Ed. with Andrew Johnston). The European Journal of English Studies 15, 2 (2011).
- Solo Performances: Staging the Early Modern Self in England. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2010. Internationale Forschungen zur Allgemeinen und Vergleichenden Literaturwissenschaft.
- The Ashgate Research Companion to Thomas Lovell Beddoes. (Ed. with Michael Bradshaw). Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007. The Nineteenth Century Series. (Routledge Paperback 2019).
Research topic: The Steam Engine as an Object of Speculation in Romantic Literature and Science
In the second half of the eighteenth century, natural scientists and poets described the biological and geological forces of nature in new dimensions and timescales. Concurrently, British engineers and manufacturers developed and perfected the steam engine, the mechanical force of which revolutionized the experiential and working world of the nineteenth century in Great Britain and beyond. As we know today, the intensified consumption of fossil fuel which was initiated in this era was a crucial factor in hastening the shift of the relation of forces within the Earth System and its climate system, in particular.
The following research project enquires into how British poets and scientists imagined and conveyed the steam engine’s action, transmission, and transformation of force at the start of this period of rapid change. Which analogies and metaphors, especially from the field of the fundamental forces of nature, took effect, and how were general, mechanical, and natural forces interrelated to one another? Using a text by S.T. Coleridge, this research project investigates how literary, scientific, and cultural speculations about the risks and potentialities of steam power took shape poetically.
Reserach results: The Steam Engine as an Object of Speculation in Romantic Literature and Science
The poet Coleridge was situated in a network of poets and engineers around 1800 that had been neglected in romantic studies. In a historicizing approach, combining technological, economic, political and ecological perspectives, I read Coleridge’s ballad “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798) as a technically well-informed speculation about the imminent advent of steam transport in shipping and the transition into an accelerating, fossil-driven world. First, I argued that the ballad evokes Thomas Burnet’s treatise Sacred Theory of the Earth, an influential theological and cosmological text published one hundred years earlier. That treatise describes the earth as a mechanism driven by natural forces, an assemblage of engines steering towards the great conflagration. Second, I detailed how the poem draws on the contemporary development of the steam engine, experiments with steam-powered boats, and the patented technical principles of the transformation of forces in James Watt’s steam engine. Thus, it was possible to trace conceptions of natural and technically created forces at two different historical depths of focus which Coleridge’s ballad, at the level of structure, narrative and motif, interweaves in a clairvoyant and speculative manner.