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Reviewed by:
  • Bodies and Machines
  • Timothy Sweet
Mark Seltzer. Bodies and Machines. New York and London: Routledge, 1992. x + 236 pp. $16.95 paper.

If Bodies and Machines is less about machines than the title seems to promise, it is nevertheless a fascinating study of embodiment, personation, agency, representation, and related categories in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American culture. Among the writers discussed are Norris, James, Crane, London, Rebecca Harding Davis, Jacob Riis, Thorstein Veblen, Henry Ford, and Ernest Thompson Seton (the latter a co-founder of the scouting movement). Seltzer traces these writers’ engagements with the “body-machine complex”: a set of linkages or “relays articulated between the life process and the machine process.” He is equally concerned, however, with another set of relays that might be specified as the “body-market complex.”

The theoretical significance of the “body-machine complex” is evident in Seltzer’s refiguration, in Part II, of one of cultural criticism’s foundational binaries, the subject/structure opposition. Seltzer suggests that we rethink this opposition in terms of an opposition between “market culture” and “machine culture.” The tensions and crossings between the two modes of subject-formation that correspond to the market/machine opposition—“competitive” or “possessive individualism” and “disciplinary individualism,” respectively—produce a highly complex notion of agency. The reading of James’s The American in this chapter depends much more heavily on the presence of market than machine culture, primarily because the novel itself thematizes market relations much more fully than it does the “body-machine complex.” Seltzer goes on to use the market/machine opposition to elucidate James’s distinction between romance and realism and to explain his preference for the romance mode, with its market implications, over realism, with its exhibition of machine culture’s tendency toward standardization. Yet machine culture need not be brought in at this point to provide a locus of standardization, for standardization is also a feature of market culture; this we can infer from both Marx’s analysis of the commodity and Baudrillard’s deconstruction of that analysis. That is, we might say that the market disciplines the subject in certain ways relevant to James’s aesthetic choices.

Seltzer’s refiguration of the subject/structure opposition is most fully applied in Part IV, on Life in the Iron Mills. Here both machine and [End Page 914] market connections are given equal weight. The analysis takes up, in turn, Davis’s notion of a person as an index of material conditions, the tension between indexical and iconic theories of realist representation, and the complications that this tension indicates within the category of agent in commodity culture. Less concerned with the market in Part V, Seltzer traces a highly suggestive set of relations among machine culture broadly construed (scouting, eugenics, systematic management, photography), the production of masculinity, and the “unnatural” Naturalisms of Crane and London.

Although Seltzer frequently criticizes new historicist analysis, his own method shares with much of this work a reluctance to theorize causality. Identifying, for example, the production of “statistical persons” in Crane’s Maggie and Riis’s How the Other Half Lives as indicating a particular “logistics of realism,” Seltzer clarifies his position: “I am not suggesting that such a logistics can itself be accounted for by referring these problems of embodiment and mechanism back to larger historical causes and forces. These relays and relations are in fact what they appear to be.” As an antidote to new historicist reductionism (for example, a positing of the market as culture itself, which is roughly Walter Benn Michaels’ position in The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism) this may be salutary. At times, however, an engagement with “larger historical forces” could enrich Seltzer’s own analysis, as for example when he points out in Part 1 that Norris’s The Octopus “provides a virtual map of the crises of production in the late nineteenth century, and of the representations invented to manage these crises.” Relevant here would be some account of the late nineteenth-century crisis of agricultural production. Since this crisis was precisely a crisis of overproduction, its material details and concomitant discourses would have mapped quite interestingly onto Seltzer’s discussions...

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