Technology, Labor & Bodies in Victorian Culture

A review of The Body Machinic: Technology, Labor, and Mechanized Bodies in Victorian Culture, by Jessica Kuskey.

Using a historical materialist approach, Jessica Kuskey examines a range of representations of mechanized laborers, from memoirs and interviews to essays and novels. First, Kuskey identifies the commonly discussed metaphors of the mechanical body—“that people can appear mechanical in their feelings, personalities, and actions or that living bodies can seem mechanical in the structure and function of their internal processes” (p. 2)—but more importantly, and for the greater duration of the dissertation, she moves beyond these to a third metaphor that emerged in literature and culture during the height of industrialization in early-nineteenth century Britain—that of laboring bodies becoming machines. In doing so, her work presents an important shift in scholarly focus—from rehearsed discussions of the boundaries between body and machine, which serve only to “mask the ways the apparent body-machine relation is always the product of human social relations that become embedded in the technologies of the labor process,” to an in-depth analysis of class struggle (namely between worker and capitalist) as a means to make sense of cultural representations of the labor process.

In Chapter 1, Kuskey examines the 1830s “Factory Question” debates in order to plot the emergence of the dichotomy that has developed between “human” and “mechanical” labor. As she points out, critics of the factory system described workers as affixed to monstrous, living machines, while pro-industry apologists, such as scientist Andrew Ure, championed factories, claiming that industrial machines reduced the degree and effects of human drudgery—even freeing workers from hard labor. Images that emerged from the former showed terrifying conditions—workers turned automatons, who were at the mercy of machines, while those from the latter showed “the factory as a healthy body comprised of harmoniously united organs” (p. 11) that were working together toward a common objective.

Kuskey uses the “Factory Question” debates, which Karl Marx used as a primary source, to analyze graphic images/language in the factory chapters of Capital (Volume 1, 1867). She interprets those images as the material forms of the capitalist’s control over the labor process, and therefore, laborers. She argues that this social relation—one of exploitation—“becomes embedded in the technology which thereby becomes perceived as dominating and therefore monstrous” (p. 23). Marx’s monstrous machinery represents his theory of technology. Those images serve collectively as a metaphor for capital’s evils but, as Kuskey claims, they also (and more importantly, perhaps) show the extent to which the mystifications of machine technologies naturalize capitalist social relations embedded in the technology. Kuskey’s work in this chapter offers that fresh perspective to readers, and points to the origins of the greater nineteenth-century cultural anxiety that workers were transforming into machines (p. 60).

One of the strengths of Kuskey’s work is its extensive reach into a variety of cultural texts, so the turn to the factory workers’ autobiographies in Chapter 2 is especially important in developing an understanding of their collective political voice. She begins by situating David Harvey’s discussion of variable capital to her own ends (David Harvey, The Limits to Capital. London: Verso, 2006; David Harvey, Spaces of Hope. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), developing her historical materialist approach to the body, and then she uses several autobiographical accounts to show how workers used life writing as a means through which they could exhibit their damaged bodies to the middle and upper class as evidence of the atrocious conditions in the factories. Their goal, as Kuskey points out, was to show that even a small reduction in work hours (they called for a two-hour reduction) could keep them healthy enough to work over a greater span of years. Ironically, however, while they fought against the idea that their bodies were simply appendages of machines, easy to replace when they became worn out or broken, they had to use the same model of the body as quantifiable by functional parts and wages for their reform agenda. Her point in examining these accounts is to question how capitalist logic resolves the incongruities between the abstracted body of capitalist economics and the lived experience of the laboring body. The result of this approach is that Kuskey demonstrates successfully how “the introduction of new technologies into the labor process is crucially related to changes in a society’s abstraction of the laboring body, the refiguration of this body’s defined capacities, and the ideological mystification of real-life bodies’ experiences of the labor process” (p. 73).

In Chapter 3, Kuskey examines Frances Trollope’s Michael Armstrong, Factory Boy (1839-40) and Charlotte Tonna’s Helen Fleetwood (1839-40)—the earliest industrial novels that aligned with the factory workers’ reform agenda by taking middle-class readers inside factories to show the cruel working conditions. Kuskey discusses the myriad literary critics who have dismissed the novels as generally formally flawed; both texts set agricultural and mechanical labor or, more generally, country versus town against each other—a common theme of the industrial novel sub-genre—yet she also dismisses those criticisms as limited in scope. Instead, as Kuskey argues, these early texts of the reform movement demonstrate how “the opposition between human and mechanical labor constructed by the Factory Question debates made its way into the larger culture, in this instance through its incorporation into the pre-existing aesthetic and ideological opposition between the town and the country” (p. 109). She therefore gives the novels greater credit than has been paid to them, arguing that they serve as a tool to analyse the material social relations that define town life.

Kuskey’s final chapter extends the discussion about mechanical and human labor, but moves in a slightly different direction: mental labor, intellectual property, and the professional figure. Especially intriguing is the analysis of mathematics and inventors, which underlies the section on Charles Dickens’s novel, Little Dorrit (1855-57). Kuskey argues that while the Victorians generally despised higher mathematics such as calculus and algebra because they “cultivated mental laziness, [and] wreaked permanent psychic damage by installing mechanisms within the [student’s] mind that converted it into a factory” (p. 139), Charles Babbage saw in these higher maths the “potential to mechanize, streamline, and maximize the mind’s mathematical production, [making] it an important mental tool specifically appropriate for accelerating the mathematical pursuits of geniuses” (p. 139)—namely inventors. He responded to this potential to mechanize mental labor by designing the Difference Engine (the first programmable computer). Dickens, as Kuskey argues, saw this as symbolic of the cold, heartless government bureaucrats, and he responded by making this a central concern of his novel. Daniel Doyce, Dickens’s hard working inventor and engineer represents both Babbage and Babbage’s ideal inventor, while the rest of the characters exist at the bottom of the hierarchy of mechanized labor. As she has accomplished in previous chapters, Kuskey opens this text to an alternate reading, demonstrating how it was crucial to the social identity of the professional to establish the use and value of the products of mental labor and, in addition, to distinguish it as markedly different from manual labor. While manual labor was supposedly mindless and mechanical, mental labor was self-directed. As she points out, this was important to Dickens as well; as an author, he too was part of the emerging professional class.

While acknowledging the worth of traditional interpretations of various texts, Kuskey constantly reminds readers that there is greater value in thinking beyond traditional metaphors of the body and machines and beyond well-established readings. Even in her Conclusion, Kuskey does not disappoint in this respect. In fact, her analysis of the “Book of the Machines” chapters of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), is particularly innovative and forward thinking. Rather than become part of the novel’s battery of critics, who ultimately betray Butler’s purpose by choosing a “side” in the dichotomy of body and machine, Kuskey aligns herself with Butler. According to her, Butler’s purpose was always to “present the dominant ideas and characteristics of Erewhonian society in order to lampoon the rigidity of their thought—the primary target of his critique of Victorian society” (p. 8 of Conclusion), and this is the purpose to which she aligns her own interpretation.

Importantly, Kuskey brings the discussion from the past into the present by recognizing that certain forms of technophobia and technophilia are the result of Victorian ideals of “human” and “mechanical” having been passed down.

This is a painstakingly researched dissertation, expertly presented. Kuskey makes a significant contribution to her field, but the thesis has wide-ranging implications. It is a must-read for scholars interested in the body, technology, Victorian literature and culture, the post-human, and class more generally.

Sherri L. Foster
Assistant Professor of English
Chesapeake College

Primary Sources

Industrial novels: Frances Trollope’s Michael Armstrong, Factory Boy (1839-40); Charlotte Tonna’s Helen Fleetwood (1839-40), Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872).
Memoirs: A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, An Orphan Boy (1832); A Narrative of the Experience and Sufferings of William Dodd, a Factory Cripple, Written by Himself (1841), etc.
Interviews with injured factory workers available through Blue Books and anthologies of evidence

Dissertation Information:

Syracuse University. 2012. 224 pp. Primary Advisor: Claudia Klaver.

Image: Trollope, France. The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, Factory Boy. London: Colburn, 1840. p.83 (Courtesy of Google Books)

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