- The Lives of Machines: The Industrial Imaginary in Victorian Literature and Culture
With The Lives of Machines, Tamara Ketabgian has produced an illuminating investigation into the affective power of technology in Victorian literature and art. Ketabgian seeks to move away from reading the Victorian machine as a source of alienation and toward a post-human reading of [End Page 930] steam-driven machinery as transforming the Victorian self. In this reading, technology emerges as a de-centering force in the construction of hybrid social and individual subjectivities, a process that can, in part, be read through the examination of literary texts. This is a challenging reading of both Victorian technology and literature, and if The Lives of Machines does not always succeed, it is in part due to the scale of ambition of its project.
The Lives of Machines investigates three major areas in which Ketabgian argues that “thinking like a machine,” or perhaps more properly “thinking with machines,” exhibited a profound literary and emotional effect on the Victorian self. The first of these areas is the concept of “prosthesis,” where the author examines the emotive impact of the connection of human body with machine part. Examining the ways in which prosthetics challenged ideas of human individuality and produced what we might now imagine as cyborg conceptions of a post-human society, Ketabgian provides a challenging re-reading of Victorian technology as a force creative of a new ontology. Perhaps the most exciting and convincing aspect of this part of the book is the re-reading of Karl Marx as an author exploring new ways of thinking about the relationship between human and machine that generated new conceptions of human possibility. There is a great deal of potential in this reading of technology, and historians of technology may find it can enliven their own analysis of scientific and popular accounts of the machine.
The second and third parts of The Lives of Machines investigate vital forces in the machine itself and organic conceptions of the machine as a thing embedded in cosmological processes of energy transfer and conservation. These analyses are based on close reading of familiar literary texts such as Hard Times, Mary Barton, and The Mill on the Floss. These parts of the book will be of interest mainly to literary scholars. The points at which the machine is read as an animal force, or the affective developed through understandings of steam power, while convincing in themselves, do not seem to be more than analogical or metaphorical deployments of the machine, however. Perhaps this is a limitation of a primarily literary analysis that a slightly broader approach to historical texts might be able to overcome. One can see in the concept of the prosthetic a rich potential for a rereading of narratives of technology in the periodical press, for instance.
Finally, although The Lives of Machines is sensitive to the hybridity of the machine and the human, it is not always clear why this approach has been taken. It is simply assumed that a hybrid reading of machinery is normatively superior to a critique of alienation. The politics of hybridity are effaced as a consequence. For example, readings of Marx and Andrew Ure are presented in terms that fail to engage significantly with their political or ideological contexts. Nevertheless, it is intriguing, informing, and challenging to read this volume as a text about the radical re-imagining of the possibilities [End Page 931] for being human in a technological age, and it is certain that any reader will gain a great deal from engaging with Ketabgian’s important and scholarly contribution.
Dr. Timothy Cooper is lecturer in history at the Cornwall Campus of the University of Exeter, UK. He has published widely on the environmental and technological history of waste and waste disposal since the Victorian era.