Tamara Ketabgian, The Lives of Machines

Tamara Ketabgian, The Lives of Machines: The Industrial Imaginary in Victorian Literature and Culture (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2011), 252pp. Pb £30.50. ISBN 0472051407.

This fascinating and challenging book stages an intervention not only in our habitual readings of the Victorian industrial novel, but also in our larger sense of how and when we have (re)conceived humanness in relation to machines. Under Ketabgian’s keen eye, Victorian machines act as prothestics in multiple senses, not only extending and replacing, but also mimicking and modeling what is nonetheless quintessentially human. Grouping literary texts with a range of philosophical, social, economic, physiological and psychological writings, Ketabgian addresses "a persistent technophobic bias in British literary history" (164) as she explores Victorian mechanical affect.

She begins with what may at first seem an unlikely connection between the Victorian factory and mesmerism, demonstrating how the engagement with machinery reconfigured the boundaries of the human in the works of Karl Marx, Charles Babbage, Samuel Butler and Harriet Martineau. These authors “stress the hybrid and ever-malleable aspects of human identity” (43) in ways strongly suggestive of what has been identified as not only postmodern, but indeed posthuman.  In both industrial and mesmeric narratives, human subjects become part of the machinery that extends and contains them, while at the same time, body parts and machines emerge as subjects. And contrary to what we may expect, these sustained encounters between human and machine are often thought to conduce to the improvement of the human.

Certainly, they facilitate its reconception. Here, the subject emerges as “praxis”; there, humanness as “porous.” In all cases, human subjectivity is tied to machine culture. And throughout, Ketabgian makes sense of what seemed paradoxical—“nonhuman affect,” “mechanical feeling and community,” the “industrial imaginary”—as she explores the “surprisingly expressive nature of mechanical habit and instinct” (107).

Finding the potential for uncontrolled animality among the “melancholy mad elephants” (the factory machines) of Hard Times, Ketabgian traces the intertwined constructions of the machine and the human as systems characterized by internal energy that is not always successfully contained and channeled. The animal machine continues to reveal "a potentially expressive identification with industrial culture" (103) in Mary Barton, which "defines human feeling as shot through by the animal, the machine, and a paradoxically redemptive realm of physical appetite, ritual, and symbolism" (103). Not only does the factory itself emerge as a metaphor for working class desires (as in now familiar constructions wherein individuals are understood as under pressure or needing to let off steam), but factory work comes to shape desire. Its intensity, speed and rhythms are understood to continue in the associated habits of the worker, in living “fast” by indulging in drink, sexual excess, and imprudent spending, as well as in poignant ritual and communal aspects of working-class culture, which represent effects, extensions, or inversions of factory rhythms and requirements.

As she turns to Eliot's Mill on the Floss, Ketabgian shows how the Victorian “industrial imaginary...pervade[s] the most pastoral realms of literature with a distinctly mechanical vision of affect, community and perception” (108). In this “fantasy of allied natural, mechanical, and psychic force” (119), Ketabgian traces a more typically Victorian conception of the machine, “no longer a lifeless clockwork mechanism” but rather “a power motor, a self-governing network, and a ‘sun-engine’ inseparable from the forms of energy it made visible” (109). As new steam technologies supersede the old water mills and the Floss floods in the novel’s most dramatic hydraulic event, the machines of industry and nature make us visible to our selves. Maggie is treated “as a germinating plant with thermodynamic features” (124). “Tom embodies fantasies of economical energy conversion”  (134). And the flood, “a machine accident writ large,” triggers the release of Maggie's internal energies, revealing even as it “simulates these hidden forces.” Maggie and Tom are mingled with the machine that kills them in the “catastrophic and transformatively reordering” event that brings home The Mill’s view of “humans as irrevocably joined to a network of hybrid natural and mechanical forces, feelings, and relations” (144-5).

Ketabgian's “final brief case study to this book’s account of technological feeling” (147) explores the piano as “musical steam engine,” showing how machine culture makes its way into bourgeois leisure, as notions of technical virtuosity continue to remake the human, expanding the capacity for emotional expression, “spurring and regulating the passions of listeners and performers” and enabling “Victorian communities of feeling [that] realize their greatest intensity as mechanical networks, joining people, habits, systems, and things in complex psychic and physical configurations” (162).

Barri Gold, Muhlenberg College