- Engines of the Imagination: Renaissance Culture and the Rise of the Machine
Jonathan Sawday's Engines of the Imagination attempts to document an "imaginative history" (xv), a transactional relationship between texts of many kinds (poems, plays, paintings, treatises, engineering documents, machine books, etc.) and an important if neglected aspect of European cultural history between 1450 and 1700: the development, invention, and creative embellishment within that time-frame and geographical scope of machines and mechanical devices. As befits its subject, the study is workmanlike. Organized for the most part around thematic topics (e.g., nature vs. artifice or gendered perceptions of machine usage) and types of machines (e.g., clocks, the printing press, water pumps, the spinning wheel) rather than by specific locations or chronological development, it reads as a survey that aims more at description than analysis.
This survey-orientation —as opposed to more extended interpretive discussions of particular figures or texts —is at once a strength and a weakness. As a collection of data drawn from an impressively wide range of times, places, and material practices (mining, engineering, warfare, commercial institutions, urban planning) the study succeeds in demonstrating its main point: that a deep, sometimes appreciative, but more often ambivalent awareness of the human mastery of and dependence upon machines inflected early modern Europe's cultural self-fashioning nearly as much as the Industrial Revolution structured eighteenth-and nineteenth-century perceptions. At their best, Sawday's descriptions open up the cultural psyche of the period's discourse of machines, a discourse not simply about particular objects but encompassing as well religious and moral questions, socio-political arrangements, and economic developments. Within this heuristic framework, we are helped to understand why a writer like Donne might have been "attracted by the potential restlessness of the morphology of metals" (168) or how what might at first appear as a simple clock metaphor could be something more than merely incidental or topical, something that might have engaged the reader in ideas about "motion, mortality, society, or . . . autonomy" (236).
The promise of this discursive approach culminates in the study's penultimate chapter and its only extended discussion. There, Sawday presents a compelling case that Milton was not simply alternately fascinated with and horrified by the constant presence of machines (especially around London) but also intent on framing his theological arguments in response to their conceptual presence, especially as new technologies were being championed within a tradition of "mechanical philosophy" that Milton never completely repudiated. Milton scholars may feel that Sawday's discussion of the devilish use of "engines" as portrayed in Paradise Lost is rather commonplace. But it is the context he establishes for understanding these engines that is novel: that they are not simply "types" (in the theological sense) of [End Page 1408] instruments used during the Civil War but discursive engagements in an emerging philosophical tradition. The notion that Milton's concept of free will might have had something to do with debates in the period about the human-as-machine is, to my mind, a new, intriguing, and valuable argument.
The survey-orientation has its limitations as well, however. Because he is covering so much ground so quickly, Sawday often neglects even to speculate on the implications of opposing, even contradictory evidence: the machine as sign of progress or as sign of human fallenness; the machine as marker of female autonomy or as marker of female subordination. And there are times when promising hints fail to develop into more detailed or insightful commentary. For example, even as Sawday provocatively suggests that "the familiar image of Fortune turning her the wheel" in King Lear "has been reworked in terms of a larger industrial apparatus" or astutely notes that "depictions of Babel in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries . . . [often] showed the gigantic edifice festooned with stupendous machinery" (153-54), he is willing to leave us conceptually stranded, unsure as to whether such images capture something crucial about the early modern mentalité. Finally, because there is simply...