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Colloque de la Sfeve : Industrial Desires

Industry and Desire: Forging New Bonds

Désir et industrie : forger de nouveaux liens
Georges Letissier

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1Victorian scholarship has long subscribed to a form of technophobia adopted from the Tory critiques of industry, principally 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 gradually undermined. More recently, 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 therefore gradually eclipsed by the vital machine, as it was argued that even in the eyes of some Victorians, the new engines were already 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 demonstrated that the machine gave Victorians a new way of envisioning the human psyche. For example the steam engine was 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.

2At the political and philosophical levels, the question was raised whether the machine enhances human life or simply remains confined to the machinistic domain within the context of industrial capitalism. The human and humane advantages accruing from the introduction of machines were considered as a serious option deserving attention in its own right. Thus Harriet Martineau, to take one example, praised female factory labour on the ground that technology helped empower women. On a wider scale, the industrial metaphoric web spread to different fields of knowledge: medicine, social criticism, natural history, while the industrial world inspired different artistic pursuits in painting, literature and even music with the new music machine, the mass-produced piano. Exhibitions displaying beautiful machineries attracted crowds of visitors and the desire to pry into the insides of mechanistic devices was only paralleled by the curiosity for anatomical details in the field of medicine.

3It 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, in the field of ecology for example. Indeed, two types of ecological consciousness may be seen opposing their respecting arguments. One proves sensitive to the potentially liberating role of technology, by vindicating the advantages of solar energy, information technology and clean tech. The other, conversely, is adamant in its denunciation of the evils entailed by modern technological inventions. Their all-out attack spares no areas, as today’s mobilization against energy (nuclear energy, dams, oil), water management (irrigation), transport (rail, high speed train) as well as GMOs and nanotechnologies, show that the technophobic perspective remains both strong and indiscriminate. Moreover, the heritage value of the environment, which is one expression of the memory obsession of Western societies (Nora, XV-XLII), also carries an implicit criticism of technology by fantasizing an ideal state or idyllic ‘greenworld’, whose pristine existence is alleged to have preceded the emergence of technological influence. This retrogressive illusion freezes utopian places in a stationary time.

4However, one of the most salient signs of the Victorian legacy in today’s world is probably to be found in the retro-futuristic inventions and anachronistic technologies of Steampunk. Not only does this historicised take on the fantasy subgenre plays on temporal plasticity in the fictional realm but it also gives machines, both as aestheticized artefacts and triggers of imagination, a new lease on life.

5The annual conference of the Société Française des Études Victoriennes et Édouardiennes, held in Nantes on 3rd and 4th February 2017, elected the topic of ‘Victorian and Edwardian Industrial Desires: Artistic, Historical and Literary Perspectives’. Organised jointly by the Centre de Recherche sur les Identités Nationales et l’Interculturalité, EA 1162 (Georges Letissier) and the Centre de Recherche en Histoire Internationale et Atantlique, EA 1163 (Françoise Le Jeune), it aimed at assessing the impact of recent criticism in the field of machines and technology on Victorian scholars from both France and abroad, in the domains of literature, civilisation but also the arts, architecture and spatial planning. With its much praised ‘Machines de l’Île’ tourist venue, Nantes was deemed a fitting place to host this symposium which also revived a long-established tradition in the area of Victorian scholarship. More than any eras, the nineteenth century is indeed the one for which machines and technology prove seminal. It is also worth noting that in June 2017, the French Association of German Academics (AGES) happened to organise in Nantes too their own annual conference on the topic ‘Maschinen’ which, if anything, proves the relevance of the topic and the potentiality for transdisciplinary and translinguistic perspectives it probably affords.

6The challenging choice of the seemingly oxymoronic label ‘Industrial Desire’ meant to acknowledge the industrial past of a nation which saw the birth of an unprecedented revolution that was to change radically the course of history. It was also an incentive to take a new look on the ensuing malediction this so-called Industrial Revolution has often been accused of causing. ‘Industrial Desire’ is of course by no means an encouragement to adopt a neo-liberal approach to a profit-based economy, premised on the merciless exploitation of workers. Rather, it suggests that any neat, clashing antagonism between human hankering, on the one hand, and cold, massive machinery, on the other, is most likely to prove reductive. It indeed leaves pending a whole range of unexplored threads to weave networks of connections between tekhne, episteme and psyche. Admittedly, French Theory, starting from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s desiring machines in Anti-Oedipus ushered in a radically new perspective, by breaking with the concept of the Cartesian subject endowed with transcendental interiority. To disclaim man’s metaphysical ascendency and disprove the Freudian and Lacanian etiology of desire as stemming respectively from oneiric fantasy (the theatre of the unconscious) or lack, Deleuze and Guattari resort to the machine—the hard and tangible machine, not its metaphorical acceptation. Machinic arrangements are interconnected by flows and the energy activating this endless system of plugged-in machinery receives the name of desire, hence the notion of desiring machines. Thinking up new modes of circulations, spurning arborescent or prosthetic set-ups, leads to the claim for the ‘body without organs’. This phrase, borrowed from Antonin Artaud was taken up by Deleuze and Guattari to evoke both the surface where desire is inscribed in a purely quantitative way and a slippery plateau where the structures and machines of desire slide around, couple and connect as partial objects in novel molecular chains of desire.

7The following articles cover the main directions in which the ‘industrial desire’ collocation may be thought up and illustrated by taking on board the most recent critical input on the topic. The first two papers may be grouped under the ‘Man Machine Dyad’ rubric because they both explore new patterns of connections between the organic and the mechanic and, in so doing, flaunt the promise of a re-humanised technology, either by introducing the sensory and the spiritual to establish a phenomenological man/machine bond (Tamara Katabgian) or by renegotiating both ontology and technology in the context of retro-futuristic, Steampunk (techno)fantasy (Helena Esser). Ketabgian sublates the crude antagonism between spiritless machinery and sentient humankind by documenting the covert persistence of William Paley’s natural theology in H. G. Wells’s fictions of technology. The beat of the steam-engine is bodily and sensorily perceived and acoustic patterns generate what may be construed as mechanical affects, shared by a community of receptive industrial subjects. Ketabgian then argues that Wells propounds Janus-faced technophilic tales, retrieving forms of ‘primitive’ worship redirected towards machines, whilst anticipating recent theories of vital matter and object-oriented ontology, notably the previously cited posthuman machinistic assemblages of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Steampunk elicits a new relationship to objects restored to their unique craftsmanship. Tapping into nineteenth century debates about human-machine relationships, Esser focuses on the steampunk cyborg, presenting it as a cultural metaphor. This man-machine hybrid testifies to recent concerns about fast-changing technology, and the risk that it might alienate the human as a result of hyper-sophisticated technicity. Steampunk fantasizes a pre-digital, highly technophilic past, identified as an alternative version of the Victorian epoch to foster new bonds between man and the machine, which are nevertheless freighted with contradictions.

8Then come two contributions that are concerned with ‘Weaving the Material and the Immaterial’. From Bram Stoker to Edward Morgan Forster, techno-communication shifts from occult transfers, steeped in archaic myths and folklore, to the fantasy of hypermodern instant contacts across distant continents. Some of the confidence in a better future may be lost in the process (Catherine Lanone). Whereas Stoker, in Dracula, adopts a rather benign stance on new-fangled contraptions by showing that Gothic contamination may be countered by modern technology, Forster in a lesser known short story, aptly titled, ‘The Machine Stops’ proves more wary. His dystopian vision already adumbrates the diagnosis established by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek when he speaks about hyperreality and the transmutation of hard, tangible reality into a spectral show. When mythology provides shaping figures to represent graphically the dire working conditions in Victorian factories, the transfer from hard, tangible materiality to iconic symbolisation self-referentially induces a poetics of industrial desire, predicated on Paul Ricœur’s study of metaphor (Marie Laniel). In her article Laniel investigates the often subtle links between the sheer materiality of machinery and the ethereal, intangible workings of the imagination. By focusing on Book I, Chapter 1 of Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833–34), she demonstrates that while lamenting the spiritual degradation caused by his fellow contemporaries’ enslavement to machines, the Victorian sage also responded to the call for creativity sparked by the spread of machines. By transposing the Ovidean myth of Arachne into the industrialised nineteenth century, Laniel shows that insectology metaphorically represents armies of animal-mechanical hybrids, toiling in the mills and that the arachnid analogy self-reflexively sheds light on the inner workings of the mind.

9Not surprisingly, ‘industrial desires’ determine, or complexify, generic affiliations, whether they be the ‘industrial romance’ or ‘working-class women’s poetry’. A third section is therefore entitled ‘The Industrial Poetics of (Sub)Genres’. H. G. Wells’s ‘The Cone’, responds through a new aesthetics, to the momentous changes affecting England in the wake of industrialisation. If totally new genres are seldom to be seen erupting from scratch, and if new combinations or recycling of already existing are more commonly the artistic answer to societal and cultural transformations, H. G. Wells, for his part, comes up with an original formula by conflating the industrial romance with the secular nemesis carried by the tragic in a deterministic environment (Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay). In the bleak environment of industrial scapes suggesting abysmal depths and concealed pent-up energies, Wells never dehumanises his chief characters. Within a given genre, a whole array of polyphonic voices may be heard. Factory poems are by no means a monologic chorus, voicing in unison the same denunciation of horrendous working conditions and mechanistic dehumanisation. The picture is indeed a far more complex and contrasted one. Factory verse ranges from the celebration of typically conservative values such as industry, self-reliance, self-restraint and cleanliness as next to Godliness, to the expression of a more gynocentric discourse. Besides, it also exhibits differing uses of the poetical form; from the adherence to a stilted code, vaunting the merits of bourgeois respectability, whilst muting unsavoury details, to more audacious experiments, when the typically masculine blazon serves to eroticise male bodies and bestow agency upon female poets exerting their scopic power (Fabienne Moine).

10The last three papers assess the impact of industrialization on visual culture (the growing success of industrial exhibition exemplified by the ‘factory-tour-logue’ and printed reproductions), on architecture and on spatial planning: ‘The city as a machine, urbanisation as an industry’. They appear below the ‘Industrial Desires and the Visual, Architectural and Spatial’ subtitle. The Victorians found beauty in the locomotive, the automatic spinning machine or even the steam-hammer. Exhibitions of new machinery drew in crowds of curious visitors, including the Royals. This representation of modern implements, diverted from their immediate productive function, to be spectacularised, initiated a transformation in visual culture. Indeed, with the shift from the public display of machines to their printed replication on paper as pictorial graphical reproductions there arose the necessity to pioneer new systems of transcoding, such as isometric or orthographic projections. In hindsight, the desire to devise visual analogues for industrial equipment resulted in a semiotic change. To some extent, this visual revolution, from the representational to a higher degree of abstraction, led in its turn to a shift of paradigm, from realism to incipient modernism (Béatrice Laurent). Industrialism exerted an indirect effect on architecture by exacerbating the tensions, and potentially the contradictions, between a technophobic yearning for a return to past medieval grandeur and the technophilic and pragmatic imperative to avail oneself of the advantages afforded by up-to-date engineering. The necessity to navigate between two diametrically opposed methods is best demonstrated by resorting to a case study. The sharp contrast between the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras, designed by George Gilbert Scott and the neighbouring station proper, built to the designs of William Henry Barlow and Roland Mason Ordish, illustrates the tension between the old and the new, and—more to the point—the ways of striking compromises by adopting different strategies. Whereas Scott aimed at proving the suitability of the secularized Gothic to a modern civic monument, Barlow and Ordish had no such compunctions and went for an all-modern vast, arched shed, evidencing what innovative technology could achieve at the time. The jarring juxtaposition of the two crystallises the antagonism between Puginesque revivalism and the bland achievements of modern engineering which, in its most extreme manifestation, went as far as to search for a style-less type of architecture (Richard Hayes). The ideology of industrialism may sometimes be surreptitious and covert, to the extent of passing unnoticed for decades. This is indeed the case with Ebezener Howard’s ‘Garden City’, which has long been hailed as a harmonious fusion of the rural and the urban, in a manner reminiscent of William Morris’s rurban scapes in his utopian socialist fantasy: News from Nowhere. The fact of the matter is a more contrasted reality. Far from providing an answer to a collectivist ideal, the world of ‘Garden Cities’, also known as ‘Sociable Cities’, is inspired by the conviction that the development of industrialism will of necessity call for a new spatial configuration, whereby large cities will be progressively replaced by smaller towns in rural areas. Industrialising the countryside was deemed to be the easiest means to bypass constraining public urban regulations. Because Ebenezer was an ardent advocate of industrial productivism, he never contemplated altering the dominating model of society nor did he envision upsetting the hierarchic division between employers and workers. Whatever good intentions may have prevailed in redistributing the money, collected from the rent of land, to public services benefiting the population, they remained confined to the philanthropic level and partook of a very socially conservative approach (Jean-Yves Tizot).

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Georges Letissier, « Industry and Desire: Forging New Bonds »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 87 Printemps | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2017, consulté le 16 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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