Archive for October, 2010

From engines to organisms

Consider the two following quotes:

First, a famous denunciation of mechanism by Thomas Carlyle:

“Undue cultivation of the inward or Dynamical province leads to idle, visionary, impracticable courses, and, especially in rude eras, to Superstition and Fanaticism, with their long train of baleful and well-known evils. Undue cultivation of the outward, again, though less immediately prejudicial, and even for the time productive of many palpable benefits, must, in the long-run, by destroying Moral Force, which is the parent of all other Force, prove not less certainly, and perhaps still more hopelessly, pernicious. This, we take it, is the grand / characteristic of our age. By our skill in Mechanism, it has come to pass, that in the management of external things we excel all other ages; while in whatever respects the pure moral nature, in true dignity of soul and character, we are perhaps inferior to most civilized ages.”

Second, an also famous statement about the imagination and the kind of poetry it produces–then distinguished from poetry produced by another human faculty, the fancy–made  by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his Biographica Literaria (Chap 13 end):

“The IMAGINATION then I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary imagination I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.

Fancy, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; and blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word choice. But equally with the ordinary memory it must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.”

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Factory steam engines

Some images of the steam engines that increasingly supported and powered the growth of the factory system:

Early factory engine:

The factory floor it made possible, as it transmitted power via belts and axles:

One of the 19th century’s biggest, this version of the Corliss Steam Engine from 1876:

And one from the early 1900s:


Prelude to the Clock

1.     In Gawain and The Tempest magic and art are the terms for human agency in a world of wonders (Gawain) and a world ruled by fortune or chance (The Tempest).

2.     In Bacon, experiment as discovery became ways for humans to exercise agency in a world that was unknown, open, uncertain and new.  Thus the frontispiece image:

3.     In Defoe, humans exercised agency through self-reliant projects and improvements in a partially-mapped, yet still very uncertain world of random reverses and (temporary) achievements. Here is one way (a theological philosophical one) of putting this development: “In a Puritan view the normal course of nature is simply the sum total of an ongoing chain of special providences, for as a modern expositor of Calvin puts it, “Bread is not the natural product of the earth. In order that the earth may provide the wheat from which it is made, God must intervene, ceaselessly and ever anew, in the ‘order of nature,’ must send the rain and dew, must cause the sun to rise every morning” (Leopold Damrosch, Jr., p. 376).  In this view, the universe was very precarious—dependent on the unknowable will of god—and human agency was slight—Puritans saw humans as totally dependant on God. Crusoe, however, established agency through self-reliance, and his inventions helped order and improve his world; this meant that in fact he became less dependant, even as he himself attributed more and more determinative power to God. He became Puritan in thoughts, but more and more a modern self-reliant person in actions.

4.     But one of the foundations of science as it developed extended human agency further and changed the way that the world was seen. Theologically, Damrosch puts it this way: “In the eighteenth century, however, there was an increasing tendency to define providence as the general order of things rather than as a series of specific interventions” (p. 376). There was now, more than before, a stable order to nature and life.

5.     This sense of stable order became essential to science as it developed. We take the idea of “laws of nature” now for granted, but it was an idea that had to be invented and believed in.  God became the maker of a universe that ran itself—a universe imaged as a mechanism that God created, set running, and then simply let run without further intervening into it. Some even moved God further out of the picture by dispensing with Him altogether and becoming atheists. Here is an excerpt from a discussion of the origin of modern science:

The lawful Universe

Science and regularity

ohn D. Barrow (1988), The World Within the World, Oxford.

Science, it is widely agreed, originated from two main sources. One was the need to develop practical knowledge and to pass it from generation to generation. The other was a more spiritual concern with the nature and origin of the world. Common to both of these well-springs of science was an appreciation of the regularity of Nature. The way to build an arch that would not fall down today was to build it in much the same way as an arch that had not fallen down yesterday. The way to predict the waxing and waning of the Moon this month was to assume that it would follow much the same course as the waxing and waning that had been observed last month and the month before.

The observation of regularity in Nature allows predictions to be made concerning the future course of particular events. In many primitive societies these regularities were ascribed to the activities of gods or other mystical spirits. However, gradually, over a long period of time, there emerged the notion that the behaviour of the world was guided by a set of natural laws that were themselves regular, in the sense that identical situations could be expected to have identical outcomes.

6.     An early version of the image of mechanism comes from Thomas Hobbes, in his book The Leviathan (1651), made memorable use of the image of mechanism to describe human bodies and also human society; his use of the word “art” clearly means “mechanical art”

NATURE (the art whereby God hath made and governs the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an artificial animal. For seeing life is but a motion of limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principal part within, why may we not say that all automata (engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as doth a watch) have an artificial life? For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints, but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body, such as was intended by the Artificer? Art goes yet further, imitating that rational and most excellent work of Nature, man. For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE (in Latin, CIVITAS), which is but an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; the magistrates and other officers of judicature and execution, artificial joints; reward and punishment (by which fastened to the seat of the sovereignty, every joint and member is moved to perform his duty) are the nerves, that do the same in the body natural; the wealth and riches of all the particular members are the strength; salus populi (the people’s safety) its business; counsellors, by whom all things needful for it to know are suggested unto it, are the memory; equity and laws, an artificial reason and will; concord, health; sedition, sickness; and civil war, death. Lastly, the pacts and covenants, by which the parts of this body politic were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that fiat, or the Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation.


Steam Engines–Some Paintings

This is a painting by the 18th century British painter William James, entitled “View of the Thames Showing Westminster, painted in 1765.

It is described on the website “London in the Mid Eighteenth Century” in the following way:

This is William James’s View of the Thames Showing Westminster which was painted around 1765. Sancho would have been very familiar with this view. James’s vantage point appears to be a boat in mid-river, a little to the north of the present day Hungerford Bridge. From left to right you can see Westminster Bridge, The House of Commons (two white towers) and Westminster Hall. Very prominent is Westminster Abbey with its (then) two new towers. The white Portland stone and neo-classical design of the Banqueting House make this the most prominent building on Whitehall, in the centre of this painting. The curious spire-like building is an early steam engine, used for pumping water at the York Buildings Water Works. The York Buildings Watergate is in the foreground, although since the Embankment was completed in 1870 this has been stranded some fifty metres from the river.

I won’t comment myself, but I invite you to think about the steam engine in the picture–and how it relates to the rest of the painting!

Again, here is a painting by the American painter George Inness, “The Erie and Lackawanna Railroad” from roughly a century later (it was America, after all), 1855:

Again I ask, how does the steam engine relate to the rest of the picture?

And finally here’s a painting from London, doubtless in the 19th century. The image (unidentified) comes from a great webpage on Wordsworth and the expanding industrial landscape of his time

Now I ask how this image relates to Wordsworth’s poem “Steamboats, Viaducts and Railways”?

And having thought about that, consider this: this is Leo Marx in The Machine in the Garden considering the enthusiasm that the new steam machinery aroused in popular and even highbrow essays, pamphlets, and books in the U.S.:

“Armed with this new power, mankind is now able, for the first time, to realize the dream of  abundance. The entire corpus of intoxicated prose seems to rest on the simple but irresistible logic of first things first: all other hopes, for peace, equality, freedom, and happiness, are felt to rest upon technology. The fable of Prometheus is invoked on all sides. In his essay on “History” (1841), Emerson uses the example of the fire-stealer to suggest how “advancing man” unveils the authentic facts, such as the “invention of the mechanic arts,” beneath the surface of ancient myth. “What a range of meanings and what perpetual pertinence,” he says, “has the story of Prometheus!”  pp. 192-3.

And more:

“Indeed it would almost seem as though he [Man] were not but just entering on that dominion over the earth, which was assigned to him at the beginning. No longer, as once, does he stand trembling amid the forces of nature.” (194)

“The wide air and deep waters, the tall mountains, the outstretched plains, and the earth’s deep caverns, are become parcel of his domain and yield freely of their treasures to his researches and toils. The terrible ocean . . . conveys . . . [him] submissively . . . . He has almost annihilated space and time.” (194)

“Objects of exalted power and grandeur elevate the mind that seriously dwells on them, and impart to it greater compass and strength. Alpine scenery and an embattled ocean deepen contemplation and give their own sublimity to the conceptions of beholders. The same will be true of our system of Rail-roads. Its vastness and magnificence will prove communicable, and add to the standard of the intellect of our country.” (195)


Note on the Mechanical Arts

You have seen from your reading in Bacon’s Novum Organum that, not only does the valuation of the “new” come into prominence in the later 17th and 18th centuries, but also “the mechanical arts,” a medieval term, becomes more and more important. The mechanical arts are associated with handworkers’, not elites’ knowledge; with knowledge that increasingly becomes publicly disseminated and tested, not kept in secrecy; and with knowledge of nature that includes the humbler, “low,” and even offensive elements of nature, as opposed to ideal forms.

Now add one other feature to the list of what is associated with the mechanical arts: as Bacon writes,

For even as in the business of life a man’s disposition and the secret workings of his mind and affections are better discovered when he is in trouble than at other times, so likewise the secrets of nature reveal themselves more readily under the vexations of art than when they go their own way.

At the extreme end, “vexations of art” means., some have held, that the mechanical arts need to put nature on the torture rack to make her reveal her secrets. (There is contention about whether Bacon meant this one-sided torturing or “an heroic mutual struggle”–see “Wrestling with Proteus: Francis Bacon and the “Torture” of Nature,”  Isis, Vol. 90, No. 1 (Mar., 1999), pp. 81-94 at But either way, the mechanical arts were separating from and becoming even antagonistic to a still often–but less and less as time went on–personified nature.)

So science and technology from the later 17th century on became separated from and even antagonistic to nature and “her” forces, as the “arts” (which included agri-culture) were not. Some medieval instances of the mechanical arts–like making machinery to use wind and waterpower–didn’t vex nature with art. But others, from metallurgy to the steam engine, did, and these quickly became what people imagined when they imagined machinery.


The Panopticon

The architecture incorporates a tower central to a circular building that is divided into cells, each cell extending the entire thickness of the building to allow inner and outer windows. The occupants of the cells are thus backlit, isolated from one another by walls, and subject to scrutiny both collectively and individually by an observer in the tower who remains unseen. Toward this end, Bentham envisioned not only venetian blinds on the tower observation ports but also maze-like connections among tower rooms to avoid glints of light or noise that might betray the presence of an observer

—Ben and Marthalee Barton [5]

How might the text of a novel be like a panopticon? How might Defoe’s Crusoe be like one?


Critiquing the Enlightenment Project

5 Perspectives


The function of Crusoe’s diary, it seems, is not to anatomize the self, but rather to keep track of it in the modern fashion that Riesman [David Riesman, author of The Lonely Crowd] describes: “The diary-keeping that is so significant a symptom of the new type of character may be viewed as an inner time-and-motion study by which the individual records and judges his output day by day. It is evidence of the separation between the behaving and observing self.”

–Leopold Damrosch, Jr., “Myth and Fiction in Robinson Crusoe”


One might compare the effects of listening to a Gospel passage read from the pulpit with reading the same passage at home for oneself.  In the first instance, the Word comes from a priest who is at a distance and on high; in the second it seems to come from a silent voice that is within . . . . I think that the ‘deep penetration of new controls’ to all departments of life becomes more explicable when we note that printed books are more portable than pulpits, more numerous than priests, and the messages they contain are more easily internalized.  . . . In so far as they were internalized by silent and solitary readers, the voice of individual conscience was strengthened.

–Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 428-9.


Crusoe reflects the progressive desacralizing of the world that was implicit in Protestantism, and that ended (in Weber’s phrase) by disenchanting it altogether. Defoe’s God may work through nature, but he does so by “natural” cause and effect (the seeds that sprout), and nature itself is not viewed as sacramental. Rather it is the workplace where man is expected to labor until it is time to go to a heaven too remote and hypothetical to ask questions about.

–Leopold Damrosch, Jr., p. 179.


Defoe’s narratives array the old prisons [characterized by misery and hilarity, punishment and immorality that roused initiative in prisoners rather than making them conform] on detailed representational grids of elapsed time, causal sequence, perceptual registration, and associative psychology [features that suggest the new “penitentiary,” which emphasizes regimes, schedules, and disciplines meant to reshape prisoners]. Under these circumstances the  . . .  prototype of [the old prisons] gives way to an ideal of confinement as the story of isolated self-consciousness shaped over time, within precise material circumstances, and under the regime of narrative discipline—what I call the “penitentiary idea.”

Of all the major genres only the novel is younger than writing and the book: it alone is organically receptive to new forms of mute perception, that is, to reading.” The novel, the genre of writing par excellence, formally embodies the fabric of urban culture: the very self-consciousness concerning the fabric of concrete particulars that defines it not merely as an awareness of being watched but the technical ability to keep track by writing and to retrieve by reading. Compilation, investigation, justification, adjudication, letters, lists, receipts, journals, records, evidentiary detail, testimony—the written traces of merchandise and manners—here is the stuff of both cities and novels.

“From the beginning,” as Lewis Mumford says, “the city exhibited an ambivalent character it has never lost: it combined the maximum amount of protection with the greatest incentives to aggression: it offered the widest possible freedom and diversity, yet imposed a drastic system of compulsion and regimentation.” My stance necessarily stresses the subordination of diversity to civic rule and, in the case of the novel, to narrative order.

–John Bender, “The Novel and the Rise of the Penitentiary,” p. 392, p. 398, p. 401.


Just as “Moloch” London depended upon a fresh influx of bodies to grow faster than its death rate, England depended upon its colonized bodies to feed its “necessary” needs that resulted from its expansion. Defoe, ostensibly the professional booster of such a vigorous economy of expansion, points repeatedly to its cost, its dependence on slavery, upon violence, upon death.

Crusoe does his part to stock the island with “Supplies” including “seven Women, being such as I found proper for Service, or for Wives to such as would take them: as to the English Men, I promis’d them to send them some women from England, with a good Cargoe of Necessaries (220).

Slavery—physical and sexual-becomes “Necessary” here, sustaining not just life, but Crusoe’s jaunts around the world. While Defoe repeatedly presents the rigors of the slavery system . . . he remains oddly outside of his own analysis of the system. Peter Earle ruefully notes that Defoe “went so far as to hope that one day all Englishmen might be masters, wishing for his country’s good ‘that it might please God that all our people were masters and able to keep servants, tho’ they were obliged to buy their servants, as other nations do.’”

–Carol Houlihan Flynn, “Consumptive Fictions: Cannibalism and Defoe,” p. 424 and pp. 430-1.

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From Restoration to Progress

From Restoration to Progress

Frontispiece of Sir Francis Bacon’s Instauratio Magna (“Great Renewal”), 1620, the foreword to his Novum Organuum, 1620.

See the bottom section of

The image depicts a ship sailing through the Pillars of Hercules. They were the end of the known world, which supposedly bore the warning “ne plus ultra” (nothing further), a warning no to go beyond them. The motto along the base of Bacon’s frontispiece offers the optimistic promise Multi pertransibunt et augebitur scientia (“Many will pass through and knowledge will be the greater”).

What are all the contradictions here (between the title of the text, the motto, and the legend about the Pillars of Hercules)?

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