[•• = link to material outside this site. Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. — George P. Landow.]

Illuminated initial V

 ictorian scholarship has lately been catching up with Victorian machinery. As Tamara Ketabgian convincingly argues, Victorian studies has been shaped, or more precisely deformed, by a pervasive technophobia unquestioningly adopted from the Tory critiques of industry by John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle, and continued in the Marxian critical tradition exemplified by Raymond Williams. By opposing the machine to the organic and the mechanical to the vital, this anti-industrial paradigm separates industrial society from Arnoldian culture so as to canonize the latter alone. As Ketabgian notes, "This pastoralist bias has crucially affected which texts qualify as significant works of high culture, as well as the aesthetic standards that uphold them. Certainly the anti-industrialist history of literature is a remarkably selective history, resulting both in the selective canonization of particular texts and in selective ways of reading them" (10).

In recent years, as the computer dissolves the boundary between human intelligence and the would-be lifeless machine, this anti-industrial paradigm has been breaking down. Exemplified by the writing of N. Katherine Hayles, whom Ketabgian cites, a new, postmodern version of identity defines it as a "subjectivity formed through the interstices of cybernetic relations" (3). Meanwhile, a few Victorianists have begun to recognize that the steam-driven automatic machines of the Victorian mills and the proto-computers of Charles Babbage anticipate our own notions of artificial intelligence. In Manufacturing Culture: Vindications of Early Victorian Industry (2003; review on this site) Joseph Bizup respectfully treats apologists of industrialism such as Andrew Ure. My own case nicely illustrates the shift in their favor. Though Ketabgian quite accurately cites me as a purveyor of the anti-industrial model in my Victorians and the Machine (1968), she also generously notes that in my recent work — Victorian Technology (2009) — I have moved away from the human/ mechanical dualism.

Ketabgian's new book complements these revisionist studies by arguing that Victorian industry spawned what she calls the "vital machine." In the eyes of some Victorians, as Ketabgian quite rightly points out, their new engines were hybrids, fusing mechanical qualities with qualities traditionally considered organic. Hence the seeming oxymoron of the title, The Lives of the Machines. After all, perhaps the most famous metaphor for machines in Victorian literature — Dickens's depiction of the stationary steam engines of Coketown as "melancholy mad elephants" (in Hard Times) — limns the living machine.

In an even more startling and original turn, Ketabgian convincingly argues that the living machine gave Victorians a new way of envisioning the human psyche. In this thermodynamic model of emotional life, the steam engine could be seen as enacting the rhythm of generation and constraint of psychic energy, and the occasional explosion of a locomotive boiler could be read as the mirror of a nervous breakdown. In a most original insight, Ketabgian links the fire within the boiler of a locomotive to the unknowable depths of the psyche. Both, she suggests, were beyond ordinary perception.

In thus vitalizing their machines and mechanizing the mental and emotional life of human beings, Victorians created what Ketabgian calls the "industrial imaginary." This imaginary of the living machine and of the mechanical mind, she convincingly argues, pervades and structures Victorian social criticism, science, and literary expression. Often overt but just as often hidden, this industrial imaginary is traced from the industrial sites of Coketown and Manchester to the river Floss and to the bourgeois parlor centered on the emotive force of the new music-making machine, the mass-produced piano.

In explaining how Victorians fused the human and the mechanical, Ketabgian reminds us that Victorian victims of industrial accidents were commonly fitted with prostheses such as artificial legs. Since a prosthesis literally splices the animate with the inanimate, it provokes critical questions. For instance, it prompted Marx to ask whether, within industrial capitalism, the machine enhances human life or simply augments the machine. Likewise, Ketabgian contends, the conundrums in "The Book of the Machines" in Samuel Butler's Erewhon suggest that within a prosthetic system, the human being is not extricable from the machine.

Quite nicely drawing on the notion of the machine as augmentation, Ketabgian shows how the Victorian belief in the value of mechanization enhanced the power of women. In pro-industrial writing that has so far been kept outside the canon, we learn, Harriet Martineau praised female factory labor. Martineau herself is somewhat hyperbolically praised for suggesting that "contact with factory machinery leads to the development of superhuman skills and strengths, especially in women" (35). Here Ketabgian aligns her study with the argument that the technology of our own time helps empower women. Citing the leading feminist interpreter of contemporary machine life, Ketabgian notes that Martineau "features what Donna Haraway, in a more postmodern context, has termed 'intense pleasure... in machine skill.'" (35).

Ketabgian best reveals the originality of her approach to the Victorian machine when she applies it to Dickens's Hard Times, a novel typically read as a critique of industrial society and of the inhumanity of machines. But to read it in light of the scientific and philosophical turn to biological mechanism in the later nineteenth century is to see the shaping power of the industrial imaginary, with its focus on what Ketabgian rightly calls the "animal machine" (49). I was delighted to read again of Chunee, the real life elephant who turned melancholy mad when imprisoned in a menagerie. As described by Dickens in a periodical sketch, Chunee exhibited fits of violence or what seemed insanity until he had to be put down. If steam engines, like elephants, can turn melancholy mad, they are not so different from human beings; with their rhythms of generation and constraint, as already noted, they mirror the flow and arrest of human feelings, especially when melancholia marks the repression of desire. Gazing at the Coketown mills, Louisa Gradgrind tells her father, "There seems to be nothing there but languid and monotonous smoke. Yet when night comes, Fire bursts out, father!" She thus implies, Ketabgian suggests, that the steam engine shows how the constraint of energy in the human psyche may lead to explosion. Likewise, the seeming lack of affect in Stephen Blackpool can be read as intense fire or passion turning into depression when constrained. Although Ketabgian might have put a bit more emphasis on the erotic quality of the energy that drives the plot, her analysis of the correspondence between mind and engine in this novel renovates our understanding of it. Viewed within the imaginary of the animate machine, it is far from a critique of dehumanization. Rather it articulates a wholly new view of the human psyche that has been neglected by critical tradition: "Dickens," writes Ketabgian, "encourages us to read human character much as we read the actions of machinery and other nonhuman creatures...[invoking] an industrial metaphorics common in medicine, social criticism, and natural history" (70).

Further drawing on many early Victorian studies of factory work, Ketabgian applies an energistic model to Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton. In this novel, she finds, the power of the machine in the mills generates in the workers an analogous intensity that demands release. When we recognize that the psyche, like the steam engine, needs to vent its energy through the safety valve of release, we can also better understand Dickens's oft criticized insistence — in Hard Times — that leisure activities such as Sleary's circus are crucial for the maintenance of the factory system. But Ketabgian tends to slight one important element of Victorian industrial life. Given contemporary reports that factory work incited a particularly sexual desire as well as sexual play and harassment within the mills, I would have preferred — once again — more attention to the acting out and repression of sexual desire in Mary Barton, where the trajectory of repression not only drives the plot, as in Hard Times, but is also symbolized by industrial fire.

According to Ketabgian, this excitation or appetite generated in the mills springs from what destroys Gaskell's Esther: the desire for material goods. But here the study exemplifies the problems inherent in monocausal explanation. While the destructive lust for consumption among Gaskell's factory workers may have been partly driven by the shaping of the psyche within the capitalist system, it is also, and perhaps even more importantly, attributable to the availability of cheap machine-made goods. Ketabgian is more persuasive when she applies the model of the animal machine to explain psychological representations that don't pit emotional vitality against mechanism in the conventional way. Together with Blackpool's external automatism, John Barton's post-traumatic transformation into an automaton and the non-verbal aspects of working-class life and rituals all suggest not the absence of deep feeling but the intensity of it when contained, as powerful but as inaccessible as the inferno within a boiler.

As Ketabgian moves from the world of the steam engine to the domain of pre-industrial water power in George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, her focus shifts to the reconceptualization of the body as engine. Since Eliot read with interest Samuel Smiles's biography of George Stephenson, developer of the steam locomotive, as well as theoretical texts on thermodynamics, Ketabgian argues that the Mill can best be contextualized within "Victorian narratives of energy conservation" (119). The idea of energy permeates the novel, even if the energistic systems described — dams and floods — are powered by water rather than steam-driven engines.

Ketabgian's reading of the Mill highlights its treatment of the psyche as an engine. Even in a non-industrial setting, she argues, Eliot — like Dickens and Gaskell — represents the psyche as a locus of conserved energy and makes the emotional life of her characters resemble the engine in its production, constraint, and potential explosion of psychic and erotic energy. The novel, Ketabgian suggests, presents "the psyche both as a mechanical site under pressure and as located in a coordinated network of abstract, interdependent forces and relations" (108). Here, as in Hard Times, she writes, the female psyche in particular corresponds to the steam engine boiler in its repression and release of erotic energy, of "affective fire, flow, enclosure, and expansion" (128). In contrast, the conventionally masculine psyche exemplified by Tom is fully enclosed by a hard armor, "as close as an iron biler," so that, like the Carlylean industrial hero, he can channel his energy to productive goals. Thus the thermodynamic subtext does much to illuminate the critical crux of the final flood, where psychic and erotic energy bursts out. Freed from the regulation and social restraint that were exemplified for the Victorians by the steam-engine governor, this explosion of energy overcomes the self.

The complications and contradictions of the industrial imaginary emerge quite nicely in the final section, a coda perhaps, about the piano, which in the nineteenth century was experienced as a mass-produced "musical steam engine" (149). Here, quite brilliantly and with a deep historicist contextualizing, Ketabgian deconstructs the conventional opposition of mechanism to emotion by evoking another seeming oxymoron, "technological feeling" (147). To explain the Victorian fusion of the mechanical and the moving, she cites fascinating contemporary accounts of the performances of the celebrity piano virtuoso and composer Franz Liszt. Playing a musical machine demands a repetitive precision analogous to that of labor in the mechanized factory. Yet the virtuosity of Liszt's mechanical skill generated a passion that set his audience and himself swooning with excess feeling. Likewise, Ketabgian concludes, the beauty and passion paradoxically generated by mechanistic art informs the portrayal of Klesmer in Daniel Deronda . Anticipating the computerized music-making of our own day, the novel deconstructs the opposition between the machine and human feeling.

Related material


Ketabgian, Tamara. The Lives of Machines: The Indistrial Imaginary in Victorian Literature & Culture. Michigan, 2011. xi + 236 pp.

Victorian  technology

Last modified 16 January 2015