Victorian scholarship has long subscribed to a form of technophobia adopted from the Tory critiques of industry by John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle and subsequently taken up by the Marxian critical tradition. By opposing the machine to the organic and the mechanical to the vital, this anti-industrial stance pleaded for the return to a pastoral, artisanal culture often linked with an idealised recreation of the Middle Ages. In recent years, as the computer dissolved the boundary between human intelligence and the would-be lifeless machine, this anti-industrial paradigm has been undermined. Victorianists have suggested that the steam-driven automatic machines of the Victorian mills and the proto-computers of Charles Babbage heralded our current understanding of human intelligence.
The human/mechanical dualism was gradually eclipsed by the vital machine as in the eyes of some Victorians their new engines were seen as hybrids, fusing mechanical qualities with qualities traditionally regarded as organic – Dickens’s description of the stationary steam engines of Coketown in Hard Times as “melancholy mad elephants” may be a case in point. It has also been argued that the machine gave Victorians a new way of envisioning the human psyche. For example, the steam engine could be seen as enacting the rhythm of generation and constraint of psychic energy or the occasional explosion of a locomotive boiler read as the image of a nervous breakdown. Precisely, what amounts to a form of “industrial imaginary” results from this tendency to vitalise machines whilst mechanising the mental and emotional life of human beings.
At the political and philosophical level, in the first phase of industrialization, the question was raised whether the machine enhanced human life or simply augmented production and national wealth. Many social reformers were ambivalent about the so-called progress and life improvement machines brought to operatives. Harriet Martineau praised female factory labour on the ground that technology helped empower women. As for Robert Owen, his first philanthropic experiment at New Lanark did not rule out productivity and intensive labour. On the other hand, industrialists were described by pro-industry supporters as new heroes improving their workers’ living conditions, while participating in a divine plan for the progress of global human history. In 1835 for instance, Andrew Ure in his Philosophy of Manufactures, praised “the blessings which physio-mechanical science has bestowed on society, and the means it has still in store for ameliorating the lot of mankind”. Even Dickens who admired “the poetic of science” was called by Ruskin, “the leader of the steam-whistle party” as he was found to be too enthusiastic about technological and scientific advancements. As for Carlyle, though fearing riotous mobs of workers, he took the defence of « the strong inarticulate men and workers » against Mammonism, in Past and Present. How did contemporaries navigate between these ambivalent tendencies, between ideas of moral and physical improvement on the one hand versus the economic necessity for more workers’ subservience to the machine? Did these discourses, developed in the early phase of industrialisation, vary after the Great Exhibition and in later periods? Did these debates on technophobia versus technophilia, on human versus machine spread to the Continent beyond Marxian circles?
On a wider scale, the industrial metaphoric web spread to different fields of knowledge: medicine, social criticism, natural history and the industrial world inspired different artistic pursuits in painting, literature and even music with the new music machine, the mass-produced piano.
If it may be said that in the last resort the Victorian era set the rationale for the particular forms of technophobia and technophilia that still dominate today and it should also be worth considering steampunk as the neo-Victorian expression of a fascination for anachronistic technologies or retro-futuristic inventions.
This year’s annual conference will address the following issues:
Ambivalent discourses on
– workers and the factory system, the horrendous working conditions of early industrial factories
– The factory system and its social and aesthetic effects
– Industrial capitalism and British culture
– The Factory Movement’s commitment to bettering working conditions
– Technological beauty and sublimity
– Pro-industry apologists, i.e. Andrew Ure, Edward Baines, William Cooke-Taylor
– Manliness and mechanism, female labour and mechanization
– European ambivalence towards the British industrial revolution and its moral side effects
– Emerging scientific ideas and technological inventions, i.e. “the whispering machine”
– The engagement with technological inventions in the Victorian and Edwardian press
– The overlap between humans and machines, mechanical-organic hybrids, prostheses
– Early mechanical computers: Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine and Analytical engine
– Inventors as tinkerers, inventors as heroes
– Recent criticism on the Industrial Novel: Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Kingsley and also on less canonical works by Frances Trollope and Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, Elizabeth Stone and Geraldine Jewsbury
– Poetry, poetics and industry, anti-industry poems
– Working life autobiography, factory accidents and the narrative of deformity
– The affective and cultural components of technophilia and technophobia
– Industrial utopias or dystopias, i.e. Samuel Butler’s Erewhon.
– Steampunk, science and (neo)Victorian technologies
As with previous SFEVE colloquia, this event will focus on broad notions that will be of interest to scholars from a range of fields, including disciplines such as (but not limited to) anthropology, sociology, history, cultural studies, literature studies, art history, science and technology studies, psychoanalysis, philosophy.