quarta-feira, 5 de junho de 2013

American Writers and American Inventions: Cybernetic Discontinuity in Pre-World War II Literature by Joseph W. Slade

In 1906, in his autobiography, Henry Adams confessed to anxieties engendered by the social implications of the dynamo, the symbol, as he saw it, of a new century. Ten years later, in his autobiography, Henry's brother, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., admitted that his impulses toward reform as President of the Union Pacific Railroad had not been sufficient to deal with the social disruptions caused by the locomotive, the symbol, although he did not see it as such, of the century just past. Both men attributed their sense of powerlessness to the inability of the educated classes to cope with mechanization, but unlike his brother, Henry Adams made a brilliant attempt to understand the nature of his technological symbol.

Of the two, the less ambitious response of Charles Francis Adams was the more typical of American writers during the first four decades of the twentieth century. Antipathy to technology, by and large covert in the nineteenth century, emerged openly in the next- aggravated by the seismic forces of economics, the standardization of industry, the urbanization of the countryside, the realignment of class structures, and the widening distance between science and letters.

Deliberately or not, most writers assumed a posture of bewildered humanism, the essence of which was an inarticulateness regarding the machine. When they muckraked, they could be eloquent about the injustices of the factory system, and they became adept at uncovering the tentacles of octopi as industry expanded, but about the nature of the beast itself they were reticent.

When Vernon Parrington complained that the Gilded Age had produced few competent critics of industrialism among writers, (1) the observation might have been applied to the subsequent four decades as well. The inadequacy of response is noticeable chiefly in retrospect, for the First Industrial Revolution, which involved machines that do the work of human (or animal) muscles, was imperceptibly giving way to the Second, which involves machines that do the work of human senses and human intelligence. Strictly speaking, the Second Industrial Revolution commences with World War II as the result of advances in physics and electronics, but because technology develops more or less continuously, the roots of that revolution lie further back in time.

During the early part of the twentieth century, inventions and their applications became steadily more complex and systematized, and systematization is one of the factors that distinguish the Second Industrial Revolution from the First.

For the most part, Americans then had difficulty swallowing the diversified extensions of technology, and more difficulty still in deter­mining what they signified. American writers seemed conversant only with the simplest and most hackneyed of inventions. Still, when they did consider familiar machines, they were apt to treat them as strange devices and to emphasize the differences between men and inventions. In nineteenth-century letters, machines invade an American garden; in twentieth-century examples, systems proliferate out of control. The usual invader of the garden, the locomotive, was still awesome enough to continue generating railroad novels well into this century, and in the spread of that invention Robert Herrick would discover ominous pres­ence, as in his description of a railroad in Together (1925) as "a vast organism, with a history, a life of its own, lying like a thick ganglia of nerves and blood vessels a third of the way across our broad continent, sucking its nourishment from thousands of miles of rich and populous territory." Herrick quite properly concentrated not on the locomotive, an invention already domesticated in the previous century, but on the systems that it had spawned. Despite its organic nature, entirely suitable to systems, his analogy is interesting principally because of the distance it establishes between man and technology, a characteristic common to native thought. There is no Frankensteinian tradition in our literature, and little recognition that machines are created in man's image. Were one to know the country's technology only through its literature, one might conclude that machines and systems were entirely alien to their creators.

Because the machine was a product and an extension of man's head and hand, and because it had become so much a part of his everyday endeavors, it bore a special relationship to him. If the machine magnified man's fear, it also mirrored his aspirations. Clearly it benefited its creator, yet it also made demands upon him; take pride in it though man might, in its presence he felt impotent, anonymous, dehumanized. Had man not sensed the identification, had he not felt the intimacy with the machine, he would not have needed to erect alienation as a defense. It was difficult for the average citizen to put his apprehensions into words; it was no less so for the writer.

About this inarticulateness Robert L. Heilbroner has made a perti­nent observation:

When we ask ourselves exactly in what way the quality of life is adversely affected by the incursion of the machine, we find that however powerful the outcry against technology, the complaints are largely metaphorical. They describe, often very compellingly, the feelings of the observer, but they are rarely if ever explicit in describing the causal process leading to the end product they deplore. (2)

Writers, of course, deal in metaphors as a means of translating experience into literature. The problem—then as now—was not that writers em­ployed metaphors nor even that they were hostile to technology, but that they stopped short of accepting metaphors explicit enough to explain their antipathy. To do so would have been to acknowledge the affinity between man and his mechanical creations, and that, apparently, was too disconcerting. The Adding Machine (1923), the most — straightforward attack on technology in American literature and the only ', native work to compare in bluntness with foreign examples like Karel Capek's R.U.R. (1921) or E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops (1909), the result was near-hysteria.

Although the humanist typically masked his anxiety with concern for the machine's ugliness, vulgarity, or debasement of culture, the threat that actually disturbed was that technology at best would reduce man to a cipher, and at worst displace him altogether. When that prospect surfaced, as in Elmer Rice's

Underlying the threat was a duality defined by historian Bruce Mazlish as "the fourth discontinuity," a term which can be modified—in recognition of the period's advances in automation and systematiza­tion—to cybernetic discontinuity. According to Mazlish, man has already resolved three discontinuities, or skewings of his organic relationship to his world, resulting from the Copernican, Darwinian, and Freudian revolutions, after each of which he had to muster again a belief in the continuum of nature.

Mazlish calls the remaining discontinuity a dichotomy between humans and machines, and thinks that man has been struggling to eliminate it: “To put it bluntly, we are now coming to realize that man and the machines he creates are continuous and that the same conceptual schemes, for example, that help explain the workings of his brain also explain the workings of the 'thinking machine.' Man's pride, and his refusal to acknowledge this continuity, is the substratum upon which the distrust of technology and an industrialized society has been reared.” (3)

Only one American writer of consequence explicitly “eliminated" |the discontinuity, but Mark Twain did so for the wrong reasons, out of ! despair over man's benightedness or out of frustration over the Paige typesetter, on which he bestowed human traits. In The Mysterious Stranger (1916), and What is Man? (1906), especially the latter, Twain said flatly that man's brain was mechanical and man himself, a machine.

This bridging of the discontinuity did credit to neither man nor machine, for it assumed that man had lost his humanity, although Twain knew that no machine was capable of the malice of his characters. Bitter as they were, Twain's remarks were not aimed at technology; he simply used machines as a negative reflection of man's indifference to his fellows. Lesser writers, stopping well short of Twain's pessimism, nevertheless believed the machine's influence to be deleterious.

When they employed mechanical metaphors to describe humans or society, they suggested that the relationship between man and his creation was one-sided, with the machine nefariously dominant. More important, such writers implied that the comparison did violence to man's nature, that no human, unless he were depraved, resembled a machine. Men were becoming machines, said the writer, and society was becoming mechanical. But indifference, callousness, the diminution of originality and creativity—characteristics those metaphors were intended to convey—did not build machines in the first place. Writers seemed to have lost sight of the human in the inventor as well as in the invention. The effect, once again, was to depict technology as alien.

It was doubtless difficult for the writer to claim kinship with machines. It would also have been difficult for him to discover the causes for his feelings, if only because the effects of invention were so confusing. In 1916, the date of The Mysterious Stranger, a writer much younger than Twain could still have remembered the Civil War. He might have understood that the progress of certain types of inventions had led inexorably to the abolition of slavery in the United States, but he would have known as well that the perfection of other types had magnified the carnage of the conflict. Moreover, the technological horrors of World War I would shortly affront his sensibilities to an even greater extent.

Mark Twain ans his friend Tesla

If he were aware that inventions were improving the lot of Americans, he could not have ignored the sweatshops that had exploited women and children until only a few years before. If he knew that inventions were reducing human hunger and insecurity, he could not be so certain that they were ensuring freedom and dignity. The very number and disparity of new inventions seemed to preclude rational assessment or compact Frankenstein-type metaphor.

Even so, it should have been clear to the thoughtful writer that machines and systems were humanizing American culture at least to the degree that they dehumanized it. For their part, humanists should have been ready to direct not so much the "civilizing" of the machine, as John F. Kasson has described one phase of the evolution of American attitudes toward technology, as its humanizing. That did not require equating men and machines in Twain's terms, nor even abating distrust of invention; it did call for the affirmation of continuity.

To the writer, whose office it was to shape imaginative templates for experience, should have fallen the responsibility for creating metaphors that would help Americans to see that behind the perversion and trivialization of invention lie the extensions of man himself.

Unable to conceive of machines as made in man's image, writers were just as incompetent as other Americans to fathom the problematic intimacy that the growth of technology thrust upon them. The misfortune was not so much that the writer had a special obligation to deal with the complexities of technology, though he did. Nor was it so much that his failure to devise adequate metaphors was a failure of humanism, though it was.

What was unfortunate, however, was that the writer missed his chance to provide literary guidance in a critical period of American culture. By losing that role of leadership, by succumbing to the kind of helplessness that overwhelmed Charles Francis Adams, he fostered the birth of the Zeitgeist theory of technology, which holds that man's inventions have a life of their own, beyond man's control, alien to his aspirations. Worse, to the extent that the trend prevailed, it rendered literary statement increasingly inconsequential in an increasingly technological society.

There were, of course, exceptions. The writer who did most to humanize technology, and who discussed at length the metaphorical needs involved, succeeded in creating a symbol to rival Henry Adams's. In giving form to his symbol, Adams had drawn heavily on the scientific knowledge of his time, and from the breadth of his comprehension fashioned a monument of future-shocked abstraction. By invoking the Second Law of Thermodynamics, he concluded that society was in process of disintegration, the victim of energy gone entropic: multiplicity was destroying unity. In 1932 another American reared an abstraction upon a real monument, a fantastic bridge. Hart Crane's thesis was at odds with Adams's; as the poet envisaged it, technology wrested unity from diversity. Crane also arrived at his symbol through a method at variance with Adams's, or so he thought:

For unless poetry can absorb the machine, i.e., acclimatize it as naturally and casually as trees, cattle, galleons, castles and all other human associations of the past, then poetry has failed of its full contemporary function. This process does not infer any program of lyrical pandering to the taste of those obsessed by the importance of machinery; nor does it essentially involve even the specific mention of a single mechanical contrivance. It demands, however, along with the traditional qualifications of the poet, an extraordinary capacity for surrender, at least temporarily, to the sensations of urban life. This presupposes, of course, that the poet possesses sufficient spontaneity and gusto to convert this experience into positive terms. Machinery will tend to lose its sensational glamour and appear in its true subsidiary order in human life as use and continual poetic allusion subdue its novelty. For, contrary to general prejudice, the wonderment experienced in watching nose dives is of less immediate creative promise to poetry than the familiar gesture of a motorist in the modest act of shifting gears. I mean to say that mere romantic speculation on the power and beauty of machinery keeps it at a continual I remove; it cannot act creatively in our lives until, like the unconscious nervous responses of our bodies, its connotations emanate from within— forming as spontaneous a terminology of poetic reference as the bucolic world of pasture, plow and bam. (4)

Aside from some interesting contradictions—such as how one avoids the necessity of specifically mentioning "contrivances" while making "continuous poetic allusion" to them—the passage indicates that Crane understood the dimensions of technology. The "Pindar of the Machine Age," as Crane once styled himself, (5) built his Bridge upon a fetish for contrivances unequaled even in the novels of Lewis and Dos Passos; in "The Bridge" are celebrations of subways, acetylene torches, cars, airplanes, elevators, ships, forges, radios, locomotives, electric signboards.

Certainly Crane did "surrender" to the urban environment, assimilated and transcended it, but in the doing also romanticized it and the technology which had transformed it.

Alan Trachtenberg has already explored the technological motifs of Crane's splendid poem in Brooklyn Bridge, Fact and Symbol (1965). Trachtenberg demonstrates that Crane's belief that the Brooklyn Bridge had fulfilled American hopes by forging a symbolic "passage to India" was premature if not naive. At the same time, Crane's visionary romanticism, shade though it might into mysticism, acknowledged the triumphs of technology that a more conventional romanticism usually denied.

Where Crane's contemporaries scorned the machine as a threat to individuality, Crane praised it as an agent of community; where they feared mechanical power out of control, he applauded its democratic vigor; where they rejected the materialism of technology, he embraced the spirituality of invention. More important, Crane understood that man and machine had merged, that humans and their technology penetrated each other: the American environment was not only urban, but also technological.

Although Crane believed that "use and continual poetic allusion" would "subdue [the machine's] novelty," it was the former rather than the latter factor that operated most strongly to diminish the excitement of technological innovations. Average Americans learned to live with and to use machines more quickly than did writers. The more Americans welcomed new machines, and they did so eagerly, the less writers were willing to accord the inventions serious literary attention. It was not that writers deliberately ignored machines, nor that they were necessarily suspicious of popular enthusiasms—nor was it that familiarity bred contempt.

Rather it was as if, having admitted finally that the locomotive was here to stay, the literary mind was determined not to be shocked again. And, indeed, as inventions became more commonplace, assuming the status of items of furniture in home, office, and factory, the less sensational they seemed. On the one hand, the ubiquity of inventions ensured that references to them would enter poetry, fiction, and drama as Crane's "spontaneous terminology." On the other hand, the common­ness of the new devices often precluded their being closely examined in a literary context. Awkward and mysterious, the telephone virtually escaped literary notice, even as it was being installed in thousands of homes, forever to alter the habits of millions of Americans.

In a sense, the machine's loss of glamor early in the twentieth century may have eroded its metaphorical potential for many writers; they may not have understood how sophisticated technology was becoming. Technological change is not always dramatic. A new invention does not necessarily supplant older ones. Radio, for example, did not replace newspapers and magazines, and has not itself been rendered obsolete by television. The effects of technology are largely cumulative, and for that reason can go unnoticed as they are assimilated by a culture. A writer attempting to apprehend technology imaginatively would have to be able to extract drama and human significance from a very gradual process. Henry Adams managed to do just that, of course, but the writers who followed him, it might be argued, did not have Adams's advantage. Before 1900, the most impressive advances in invention came in ma­chines—like Adams's dynamo—designed as tools of production; after that date there appeared in increasing numbers technological devices intended for the personal benefit of the average citizen: telephones, gramophones, cinemas, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, refriger­ators, radios. The automobile and the airplane should have been amazing enough, but both were products of lengthy, almost tedious development and on-going refinement. Between the two world wars stretches a span of years that Siegfried Giedion has designated the period of "full mechan­ization," (6) when "mechanization takes command" by penetrating the most intimate areas of American life. Measured in dramatic achieve­ments, i.e., capital tools like the dynamo, the pace of invention slowed, to be offset to a degree by that spread of consumer-oriented inventions that was to make the machine so familiar. Actually, then, while the between- the-wars era consolidated entrepreneurship and saturated the economy with certain types of products, it was also a phase of technological lag instead of acceleration that Henry Adams had predicted. The reasons were in large part social and economic rather than technological, according to Samuel Lilley, who identifies a faulty distribution system, mass unemployment, and monopoly as the three major factors which:

tended in the years between the wars (and indeed from about 1900 onwards) to restrict the use of the most advanced methods and ultimately to slow down the progress of invention. First the faulty distribution system, which created the chronic difficulty of selling products and therefore reduced the incentive to introduce advanced techniques. Second, mass unemployment, which discouraged invention through the fear of displacing labour and, by depressing wage-rates, often made it cheaper to use monotonous hand labour instead of introducing highly automatic machines. Third, monopoly with its tendency to protect its own interests even at the cost of progress. These were not necessarily the only retarding factors at work, but at least they were three important ones. (7)

But the lag, less pronounced in the United States than in other countries, did not prevent the growth of automation, although it surely slowed it. It is perhaps too easy to point out benchmarks in the history of technology. For example, we commonly refer to the 1870s as important in the rise of American industrialism because there occurred then the massive shift from water power and iron to coal and steel, with deleterious consequences for milltowns, whose dark configurations mesmerized Victorian and modern writers alike. Or we might choose 1900 simply because Henry Adams saw his Dynamo in Paris that year, but such dates are largely matters of convenience. Nevertheless, the decades between the wars saw the transition of mechanics to cybernetics. In Turning Points in Western Technology, D. S. L. Cardwell observes that although self-controlling machines antedate this period, "one post- [World War I] trend was unmistakable: the development of the technology of control systems and the march towards increasingly automatic production processes."(8) Rudimentary automation techniques of that time prefigured the cybernetics systems of the present. To be sure, full cybemeticization had to wait for mathematical methods of automatic control and instrumentation like the semi-conductor and the computer, but the four elements of automation—mechanization, feedback, contin­uous process, and rationalization—were integrated between 1918 and 1939.

Shortly after Henry Adams published his reflections on his new goddess, Henry Ford geared his assembly line into continuous operation. Within a few more years, experimentation with hydraulic and pneumatic valves, and gradually, with electric sensors, established practical feed­back systems. Americans began to note that rationalization—in the form of efficient reorganization of work—seemed to have as its object the reduction of humans to machine-like components within the systems. As Ford himself put it, in one of the pronouncements collectively known as "Fordism," the machines were rather more reliable than their symbiotic partners: "A business is men and machines united in the production of a commodity and both the men and the machines need repairs and replacements. . . . Machinery wears out and needs to be restored. Men grow uppish, lazy, or careless." (9)

The exponents of Scientific Manage­ment, variously called Industrial Engineering or Taylorism, after its originator, Frederic W. Taylor, were more explicit. For them, all human effort could be redesigned with stopwatches and motion studies. (10) Rationalization, the efficiency experts said, aimed at converting a worker into "an interchangeable part of an interchangeable machine making interchangeable parts." (11) Beginning around 1910, wide application of the principles of Scientific Management to industry resulted frequently in the kind of worker disaffection that a later generation would call alienation.

And yet, however repugnant the identification of man and machine to writers, occasionally, from surprising sources, came the recognition that the popular metaphor had positive connotations. In 1911, for example, Samuel Gompers assessed the metaphor in The American Federationist:

Let science, the intellectuals, the employers and the body politic take hold of the laborer from his earliest years and build him up, clear up to what the original man-maker put into him in the way of physical and mental possibilities. Let the promoters of the proposition study how the laborer may be given his full physical height and breadth, his full mental and moral growth, his full potential worth to society as a good machine. In the end they might find that they had contributed in the construction of a good strong man. (12)

Gompers was less interested in ideology than in economic participation in a technological society for his followers. Still, so astonishing a concession on the part of a labor leader indicates how powerful was the tendency to equate the worker and the tool. In his own way, Gompers had found what Peter Drucker has called "the essential flaw" in the science developed by Taylor and his disciples:

"The worker is put to use as a poorly designed, one purpose machine, but repetition and uni­formity are two qualities in which human beings are weakest."(13) The challenge to industry, then and now, has been to design systems that utilize men as efficiently as machines, but that task requires an under­standing of similarities and differences between them.

More intimate with machines than were writers, and more prone to ascribe virtues to their tools, the workers Gompers led were not distressed by their chieftain's metaphorical flight. The famous Haw­thorne experiment of the 1920s demonstrated that Western Electric workers took pride in their machine-like efficiency—when they were asked for their opinions and allowed to set their own pace—when they were permitted, in short, to participate in factory life like the superior machines that they were.

Forced by necessity to perceive that men were similar to machines, and aware that machines performed more and more of their crude functions, such workers needed such metaphors to conceptualize their relationship to their assembly-line environment. And, as the quotation from Gompers indicates, those metaphors came not from mainstream literature but from other sectors of society.

If experience in the factory were not enough to establish the resemblance between man and machine, ideas current during the period reinforced it. Books like Carl Snyder's The World Machine (1911), Jacques Loeb's The Mechanistic Conception of Life (1912), or George Grill's Man, An Adaptive Mechanism (1916) expanded the analogy: not only was man himself a machine, but he lived within one, either because nature herself was mechanistic or because industrialism had made his environment artificial. Most such works drew on the clockwork models inherent in still-viable Newtonian physics, or attempted to adapt, however misguidedly, the thought of men like Darwin, Freud, and Marx. Mass production, with its emphasis on the integration of man and machine, seemed compatible with the ideas of Darwin and the corollaries of Spencer and Durkheim. Freud's division of the psyche into forces, drives, and regressions suggested a mechanistic structure of the personality. Marx, of course, had understood that factories and industrial institutions, whatever else they might be, were forms of social organization. More­over, Marx believed that man's relationship to the things he produces was the most significant factor in human society, and further, that the individual was related to other humans primarily through his produc­tion. The implication was that man and thing are interchangeable: if the production and distribution of things were modeled on social relation­ships, then the equation seemed to be reversible, so that men were things—or, if one likes, machines.

Americans did not have to accept Marxian analysis to see that advancing technology was wrenching capitalism and creating new classes capable of manipulating new social structures. During this period Joseph Schumpeter and lesser economists, as much aware of the power of corporations as muckrakers like Steffens and Tarbell, began speculating on the bureaucracies of Standard Oil, American Tobacco, Quaker Oats, Otis Elevator, and Singer Sewing Machine. During this period also occurred the rise of the "managerial elites" and "the revolt of the engineers," (14) movements that generated others like "The New Machine" of Henry Gantt and the "Technocracy" of Howard Scott, which enjoyed vogues of some duration. Fundamental to such organizations was the notion that, given large systems and sophisticated machinery, and given the affinity between man and machine, machine experts or engineers should run not only the factories but society as well, to unify human endeavor under order and efficiency.

Advocates of The New Machine and Technocracy were long on hope and short on theory, but the prevalence of the three connected assump­tions—that man resembled a machine, that his environment had already to a degree been mechanized (or systematized), and that technological experts should govern society—gave impetus to a series of books which have been called "technological utopias." Between 1883 (John Macnie's The Diothas; Or a Look Ahead) and 1933 (Harold Loeb's Life in a Technocracy: What It Might Be Like), at least twenty-five Americans published these visions of technological grandeur. In virtually all of them, according to Howard Segal, the principal authority on the subject,

the envisioned domestication of technology and nature alike is what leads to the resolution of the tension Leo Marx deems irresolvable: the tension between the industrial and the agrarian orders, the tension between the machine and the garden, a tension which Marx believes lies at the heart of "the American experience." That tension is to be resolved by the moderniza­tion rather than the abandonment of the garden, by its being transported out of the wilderness and relocated in the city, but a city now itself transformed from a lethal chaos to a healthy order. The new "industrialized garden" does not take the form of Marx's "middle landscape": the Jeffersonian ideal of an agrarian-based yet technologically proficient yeoman republic. Rather, it takes the form of what in the "real" world have since been termed "megalopolises": massive combinations of urban and suburban tracts em­bracing practically all of, in this case, utopia. (15)

Such schemes—some of which have materialized in the present, though without the blessings envisioned by the Utopians—were an approach to resolution of the man-machine discontinuity, for they were predicated on the assumption that people could live harmoniously with their inven­tions. Despite their visionary aspects, these sub-literary blueprints managed to avoid the simplistic industrial-pastoral tension that ­continued to disturb more established writers.
That tension weakened as the spreading presence of machines and systems gradually relegated the pastoral ideal to the status of remote rebuke to the urban areas of the twentieth century. It no longer mattered so much whether the Garden was invaded by the machine or left untouched; rural America no longer served as an escape valve for urban pressures. That was the lesson of "the revolt from the village," the literary recognition that agrarian cultures imposed a conformity and a regi­mentation as great as the factory's, and spawned boobus Americanus as readily as metropolises dumped Maggies on the streets.I'll Take My Stand. The protests against technology in that volume seemed antiquated even in 1930, especially when considered in the light of the Country Life Movement of a few years earlier, a program that did much to ensure the viability of declining rural areas by providing trained county agents, machinery, and technological assistance to farmers beset by ignorance and poverty.

As might be expected, the industrial-pastoral tension survived longest in those sections whose citizens prided themselves on their distance from the industrialized East. Perhaps the best-known testimonial to the persist­ence of the agrarian mythos was offered by Twelve Southerners in

Writers in the West also remained hostile to alterations wrought by technology on nature. The ironies could be intense, for where the Garden still flourished, as California Boosters boasted it did in that state, it blossomed through the grace of technology that irrigated and fertilized it, harvested it, and transported its bounty along vast networks of trade. From laments on the passing of geographical, social, and psychic frontiers can be extracted two by Californians which illustrate dis­approving perceptions of the technology which was reshaping the territory.

The first is George Sterling, who, conscious of the encroach­ments of man's invention on his "unspoiled" Carmel, asked, "Am I to be but a whisper amid thunders, a flower insecurely rooted in the concrete of crowded ways, a dwarf dazed among the enginry of his own devising?" (16) The second, better known, is from Robinson Jeffers's "The Purse-Seine":

I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into inter­dependence: we have built the great cities; now 
There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable of free survival, insulated 
From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on all dependent. 
The circle is closed, and the net Is being hauled in. They hardly feel the cords drawing, yet they shine already. The inevitable mass-disasters Will not come in our time nor in our children's, but we and our children Must watch the net draw narrower, government take all powers—or revolution, and the new government Take more than all, add to kept bodies kept souls—or anarchy, the mass-disasters. 
These things are Progress. . . ,  (17)

Despite apparent similarities, the examples exhibit differences attribut­able to talent and orientation. Sterling was a fin-de-siècle poet; his flower in the dust metaphor derived from nineteenth-century individualism, and his protest was a simple variation on the industrial-pastoral dichotomy. Although both men understood that man is a prisoner of his own ingenuity, Jeffers, a poet of more modern bent and greater ability, apprehended also a dominant characteristic of twentieth-century tech­nology—that it unites as it permeates culture and in so doing redefines the relationship of the individual to society. Jeffers's insight into the systematization of the landscape was remarkable for 1937, especially when it is set against the hackneyed vision of "satanic mills" and "industrial-hells" that are the stock indictments of technology among essayists of the twenties and thirties.

Jeffers's analogy is an improvement on Herrick's organic one because it stresses the man-made dimensions of the technological dilemma. Sophistication like Jeffers's was rare, for his criticism, entirely valid and still relevant, grew out of his perception that the advance of technology involved more than the trampling of flowers. His nightmare vision of impotent interdependence was the dark side of Crane's dream of technologically-achieved community. The industrial- pastoral tension thus did not disappear—it is with us to this day—but as it faded the hostility to invention that it had stimulated was matched by other literary reactions occasionally just as sharp.

The antipathy of some writers reflected a repudiation of modernity itself, or a rebellious opposition to traditional American practicality, or just a romantic preference for an instinctual rather than a rational approach to life. Sometimes the hostility was snide, the result of a distaste for the machine's vulgarity. Into this category falls Henry James's sniff at "the great religion of Elevator" and the indignities of riding in one of Mr. Otis's contraptions in The American Scene (1907). (18) Sometimes it was superficial, the concomitant of a preoccupation with the more absurd effects of rampant "progress." Inveigh as he did against Fordism, chain stores, and the mores of an increasingly homogenized society, H. L. Mencken could say as late as 1931 that "We live in a Machine Age, but there are still plenty of us who have but little to do with machines, and find in that little no answer to our aspiration." (19) By then Walter Lippmann had for a decade been attacking "the pseudo-environment" created by information systems which filtered ideas and affected the behavior of Americans, but in Mencken's defense we should remember the technological lag. Sometimes the hostility was anachronistic, the effect of ignorance. Amused by Willa Cather's belief that horses on a farm were superior to thrashers, Anthony Hilfer remarks that "There is a case to be made against a machine civilization, but Miss Cather lacked the intellec­tual ability to make it;"(20) Occasionally the scorn was churlish and silly, as when Waldo Frank, appalled at the crowds lining up in front of the Roller Coaster at Coney Island, sputtered: "No person in whom joy is over­flowing will resort to a machine that stands him on his head and spins him on his ear, to shake it out. These are makeshifts of despair. America is a joyless land." (21)

The better writer was far more ambivalent. His ambivalence was not much different from that of the average citizen, proud of and grateful for his new automobile and his wife's sewing machine, but alienated by his work down at the shop. Nor was it more remarkable than the traditional American ambivalence toward education. Not to acknowledge that machines could liberate as well as enslave would have been similar to denying that education could improve the quality of life.We (1927) to celebrate his fusion with the Spirit of St. Louis, and had gone on to invent (with Alexis Carrel) a perfusion pump called an artificial heart. The more marvelous the machine, the more contiguous with man's mind or his body, the more easily it could be exalted. Worship of the purity, the discipline, and the power of machines provided a tempting escape from the confusion of shifting values.

Moreover, inventing was almost an American pastime, and so was playing with inventions, as Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt toyed with his car and his electric cigar lighter. Respect for "know-how" made folk heroes of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison as readily as it had Eli Whitney and Samuel Colt for earlier generations. Eddie Rickenbacker, a car racing champion at sixteen, an air ace at twenty-eight, had become a success by following childhood advice to hitch his wagon to a machine. Charles A. Lindbergh had written

The wish to worship furnished Eugene O'Neill with a subject for Dynamo (1929), a particularly appropriate choice given the primacy of that symbol for Henry Adams. The protagonist'of the play is not dehuman­ized by machines; he has already been dehumanized by a Fundamentalist minister-father and a jealous, ignorant mother. Electricity represents liberation for him, and onto the dynamo that generates the current he projects his fears and guilt and desire to comprehend his world:

But there must be a center around which all [life] moves, musn't there? There is in everything else! And that center must be the Great Mother of Eternal Life, Electricity, and Dynamo is her Divine Image on earth! Her power houses are the new churches! She wants some one man to love her purely and when she finds him worthy she will love him and give him the secret of truth and he will become the new savior who will bring happiness and peace to man. (22)

Whether one considers this feminization of electricity an inevitable avatar of Henry Adams's Virgin-Dynamo, or just—in Leo Marx's phrase—"the technological sublime" gone berserk, O'Neill makes clear that this god is as false as the one the boy's father worships. At first glance the American readiness to personify the machine, reminiscent of Emerson's desire to anthropomorphize the locomotive, (23) seemed to speak to the man- machine discontinuity, but the real urge, O'Neill believed, was to deify. The play attacks the slavish faith in technology that O'Neill saw Americans drifting toward: the machine was still an alien presence, not a creation of man's own devising, still a danger to Americans uncertain of technology's role in American society. That O'Neill could discuss his subject sympathetically indicates, however, that major writers of the four decades before World War II could bring some understanding to that role.

During this period the number of writers of repute who were uncritically in favor of technology reduces—if we leave out Hart Crane, whose response was complex—to one, Carl Sandburg. What is sur­prising, however, is not that major authors did not share Sandburg's attitude, but that they so rarely lapsed into hostility of the kind we noted earlier. Sometimes the antipathy we would expect to find was forestalled by obsessions peculiar to an author. For example, despite the occasional glimpse of a Carrie Meeber at work before a shoe-mending device, the novels of Theodore Dreiser are too preoccupied with the blind forces of nature to waste time on anger at machines. Throughout Dreiser's fiction are scattered references to automatic machines taken for granted, the "usual" telephone switchboards, streetcars, and elevators; they make no great impact on the lives of his characters, save as the source of dull wonder.

Sometimes ambivalence grew out of the author's perception that machines were important to the common man. "The most interesting thing going on in American life is inside the factories," thought Sherwood Anderson, who wished to treat industrialism fictionally "to get the beauty and poetry of the machine, but at the same time its significance to labor." (24) Although he tried to do so in books like Marching Men (1917), Poor White (1921), and Perhaps Women (1931), the efforts were not memorable, perhaps because Anderson could not heed Hart Crane's warning that "mere romantic speculation on the power and beauty of machinery keeps it at a continual remove" from human endeavor. Perhaps also Anderson's own unsettling experience in a paint factory worked against his intentions.

Usually ambivalence developed from a passive, unconscious recog­nition that machines and systems were firmly entrenched in the twentieth century. If such writers were not hostile to technology, it is in part because they did not focus on it. Having become part of the environment, inventions and their extensions served chiefly as background for narra­tives. F. Scott Fitzgerald was one of the first Americans to remark that the automobile had enlivened the sexual activity of the young; (25) he was surely aware that the radio had broadcast the rhythms of the Jazz Age, and he understood that the cinema had heightened the expectations and redefined the lifestyles of his contemporaries. For all that, he does not deal with inventions as such; they are just there. When Fitzgerald does refer to them specifically, inventions serve as icons of class: automobiles as big as the Ritz, airplanes that span the coast for those rich enough to ride in them, tickertapes that click out money and privilege.

Ernest Hemingway's themes similarly obscure the evolving signifi­cance of machines in human contexts. In Hemingway's war novels, complex weapons destroy civilians and shred traditional values. In some of his sports stories his heroes disdain mechanical aids and opt for primitive techniques. Yet in other works cars, boats, and planes function simply as extensions of man; they are tools whose morality is determined by their use. This commonsense attitude makes it possible on occasion for Hemingway to view technological devices as intimate elements of the lives of his men and women and as appropriate details of his landscapes. The Sun Also Rises, the wheezing bus that carries Jake Barnes, Bill Gordon, and a flock of Basques up mountain roads to Burgette receives affectionate treatment in the narrative because it inspires humor, stimulates camaraderie, and gets the two Americans within striking distance of an unspoiled trout stream. The vehicle is not alien to the setting. The terrain it traverses, however, is European. When we compare this scene with the edenic, machineless American Garden of "Big Two-Hearted River," Hemingway's position is far from clear. Alliances between man and machine in his fiction are uneasy.

The uneasiness is more pronounced in the work of William Faulkner, who is also more thoughtful in his ambivalence toward technology than Hemingway. Had Faulkner's novels not been so grounded in the rural South, and were his ambivalence not so keyed to this region, he might eventually have addressed the man-machine discontinuity directly. At any rate, complex machines for Faulkner are emblematic of the twentieth century, whose collisions with the nineteenth-century world of Yokna- patawpha County wear down his Mississippians. Faulkner's early novels are cautionary tales of the danger of empty metaphor and futile resistance to change. In Sartoris, Southerners who fume and sputter against the automobile shrink beside the figure of their ancestor, Colonel Sartoris, who mastered the locomotive and built a railroad. More specifically, when Faulkner allows his own love of inventions to surface in books like Pylon, he can describe the leader of a barnstorming aviation troupe as "single-purposed, fatally and grimly without any trace of introversion or any ability to objectify or ratiocinate, as though like the engine, the machine for which he apparently existed he functioned, moved, only in the vapor of gasoline and the filmstick of oil." (26) Faulkner thus aligns himself with Samuel Gompers in admitting that man and machine do resemble each other; the necessary qualification is that man is the more complex of the two—he is not, or should not be, "single-purposed."

Nevertheless, far from indicating any serious attempt to resolve the man-machine discontinuity, the ambivalence of the finest literary minds represents a sidestepping of the issue. The factor which best explains why Anderson, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner were not hostile to machines also explains why they could not confront the discontinuity and why they could not advance beyond popular thinking on the subject of technology. Put simply, the reason is that these men did not envision machines as in themselves inimical to human society. For them, mechanical devices and mechanical processes were less troubling than the forces of twentieth-century commercialism. In The Sound and the Fury, for instance, Faulkner has Jason Compson use the money he swindled from Caddy to buy an automobile even though Jason is nauseated by the smell of gasoline. The machine is not a symbol of Jason's evil, nor is Jason like the machine. His sterility, his rapaciousness, and his alienation condemn him, and these traits Faulkner associates with commercialism.

It is true that these writers refer occasionally to the "mechanization" of life in "the machine age." Such lapses may be attributed to confusion and to the residual distrust that the most practical of humanists still feels before the most innocuous of machines. Like the average American, thoughtful writers identified inventions with progress, and knew that progress was real. If life did seem mechanized, it was sometimes easier for writers to follow the inclinations of the man in the street and saddle business interests with the blame. In addition to being a popular reaction, moreover, the approach had intellectual respectability. The distinction between inventions and the commercialism that perverted them had been established early in the century by one of America's most idio­syncratic minds, albeit a non-literary one.

The two American thinkers most directly concerned with technology before World War II were Lewis Mumford and Thorstein Veblen. In his volumes on architecture and in works like Technics and Civilization, Mumford discussed the stages of mechanization and the elegance, the discipline, and the symbology of the machine. Guiding his investigations was the hope that the organic potentialities of systems could be made harmonious with man's needs. Although the influence of Mumford's erudition should have been considerable, it was Veblen's voice that carried in the literary arena, largely because of the praise heaped on The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) by William Dean Howells. In his later years, Veblen would provide ammunition.for the Technocrats, but prior to the twenties he devoted little attention to the social utility of engineers. Beginning with The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904) and continuing with other volumes, Veblen implicitly eliminated the cybernetic discon­tinuity.

Where the Marxists had accepted the institutionalist role of technology, Veblen asserted that technology was a natural outgrowth of rationalism. Convinced that technological development was a dynamic, causal factor behind advancing civilization, he insisted that Americans had to come to terms with their inventions. Technology was the flowering of man's most creative instinct. Moreover, because of the reciprocal relationship between man and machine, proliferating technology could only further stimulate creative, i.e., rational, habits and impulses in humans. Thus, although the man on the assembly line might seem to be coarsened by his experience, he was actually learning discipline and rationality; given sufficient time the worker would become the "good machine" Samuel Gompers desired—but without the qualities Gompers deemed essential. The Theory of Business Enterprise is replete with passages in praise of the machine's influence: "The machine throws out anthropo­morphic habits of thought. . . . It inculcates thinking in terms of opaque, impersonal cause and effect. . . . Thus in the nature of the case the cultural growth dominated by the machine industry is of a skeptical, matter-of-fact complexion, materialistic, unmoral, unpatriotic, undevout." (27) The more humans emulated the machine they themselves built, the better off they would be.

But if machines were good, and if to be like machines were good, how did it happen that technology was so often perverted? The answer, said Veblen, was that opposed to man's creative instinct was another he called "predatory," which resided in its purest form in the American businessman. "The production of goods is a mechanical process, incidental to the making of money," Veblen wrote in 1919, "whereas the making of money is a pecuniary operation, carried on by bargain and sale, not by mechanical appliances and powers. . . , (28) The fault lay not with the machine, but with its economic corruption, not with the inventor but with the entrepreneur. The upshot was that Veblen eliminated the man- machine discontinuity by saying that the machine was vested with the best human characteristics; but in the process he replaced one duality with another, the dichotomy between industry and business. The result, however, was to deflect fear of the machine onto the businessman.

The problem with this deflection is that while it permits the critic of technology to inveigh against a satisfactory enemy it leaves unanswered the more basic question of man's relationship to his inventions. The man- machine discontinuity does not lose its tension, and the metaphorical difficulties remain, as the work of Sinclair Lewis illustrates. Because of Veblen's emphasis on rationality as the most human of traits, the acceptance of his theories was hardly wholesale among writers, but Lewis did endorse the general outline. As Mark Schorer has observed, Lewis's novels popularized Veblen's ideas: "Looking back again at Babbitt from this point of view, we can see it as a dramatization of the divorce between industry and business, of the disappearance in a transitional America of independence and individuality in the machinelike processes of mass culture."Babbitt suffers from metaphorical contradictions. On the one hand, he can perceive his "way of life as incredibly mechanical. Mechanical business—a brisk selling of badly built houses. Mechanical religion—a dry, hard church, shut off from the real life of the streets, inhumanly respectable as a top-hat. Mechanical golf and dinner-parties and bridge and conversation. Save with Paul Riesling, mechanical friendships—back slapping and jocular, never daring to essay the test of quietness." (30) On the other hand, he feels best when he visualizes himself as mechanical: "He felt superior and powerful, like a shuttle of polished steel darting in a vast machine." (31) Babbitt's aesthetic sense is most stimulated by machinery, although Lewis undercuts his response with irony: "He had enormous and poetic admiration, though very little understanding, of all mechanical devices. They were his symbols of truth and beauty. Regarding each new intricate mechanism— metal lathe, two jet carburator, machine gun, oxyacetylene welder—he learned one good realistic-sounding phrase, and used it over and over, with a delightful feeling of being technical and initiated." (32)

(29) Like other Americans, Veblen believed that literary hostility to technology was fed by snobbery, a suspicion not without foundation. His stringent humanism did not erase that hostility, for it still flourishes. Nevertheless, to the degree that writers could translate Veblen's opposition between tech­nology and business into the traditional schism between art and commerce, they muted their distrust of the machine. This warming trend was signalled most clearly with the publication of John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer (1925), which established the machine as a permanent facet of American culture, and his three-volume U.S.A. (1930, 1932, 1936), which established it as something more. In the later works the technologist stands on a par with the artist, as much a benefactor of the quality of life as any creator, and subject to the same economic pressures. As countless critics have noted, the rhythms of U.S.A. are the rhythms of the machine, the pulse of a modern society in motion. Dos Passos's characters take their humanism where they find it, and they discover it at least as often in the presence of the machine as they do in its absence. By employing the "camera eye" and the "newsreel" and by pacing his narrative with biographies of Taylor, Ford, Steinmet, Veblen, Edison, and others, Dos Passos achieves that "spontaneous terminology" Hart Crane believed would guarantee the absorption of technology into literature, and he also makes that terminology work metaphorically.

Whether one considers it an adequate response to technology or not, Dos Passos's work was soon dated by the feverish wartime engineering that revved up the Second Industrial Revolution in earnest. World War Two's computers, rockets, and radars, which in their turn would be succeeded by microprocessors, smart bombs, and lasers, would seem more alien than ever to writers, who had never made their peace with earlier inventions. From war's end on, social, political, and economic imperatives would remove the prerogative of metaphor from literature, and vest it instead in popular culture or in non-literary disciplines. The moviemaker like Kubrick, the cartoonist like Feiffer, the political scientist like Ferkiss, the sociologist like Bell, even the odd literary critic like McLuhan, seemed better equipped than the writer to conceptualize man's relationship to his inventions. Today the writer's task is to synthesize other people's metaphors. So far, only Thomas Pynchon has successfully accepted that challenge, and it is significant that he began his career with a parody of Henry Adams's Virgin. Should other writers follow Pynchon's lead, they may regain the ability to speak of American inventions. Since the age of cybernetics has arrived, it is time to span the man-machine dichotomy, and time to end the literary lag.


1. Vernon Louis Parrington, The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America, 1860-1920 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1958), p. 137. 

2. Robert L. Heilbroner, “The Impact of Technology: The Historic Debate,” Automation and Technological Change, ed. John T. Dunlop (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1963), p. 19. 

 3. Bruce Mazlish, "The Fourth Discontinuity," Technology and Culture, ed. Melvin Kranzberg and William Davenport (New York: New American Library, 1972), pp. 217-19.

4. Hart Crane, "Modern Poetry," The Complete Poems of Hart Crane, ed. Waldo Frank (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1958), pp. 181-82.

5. Quoted by Peter Viereck, "The Poet and the Machine Age," Dream and Responsibility: Four Test Cases of the Tension Between Poetry and Society (Washington, D.C.: Univ. Press of Washington, D.C., 1953), p. 52.

6. '’Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History (New York: Norton and Co., 1969), p. 41.

7. Samuel Lilley, Men, Machines and History (New York: International Publishers, 1965), p. 190.

8. D. S. L. Cardwell, Turning Points in Western Technology (New York: Science History Publication, 1972), p. 204.

9. Quoted by Emma Rothschild, Paradise Lost: The Decline of the Auto-Industrial Age (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), p. 57.

10. Taylorism precipitates a textile factory revolt in Sherwood Anderson's Perhaps Women (1931).

11. Quoted by Melvin Kranzberg and Joseph Gies, By the Sweat of Thy Brow: Work in the Western World (New York: Capricorn Books, 1975), p. 160.

12. Quoted by David R. Weimer, "The Man With the Hoe and the Good Machine," Studies in American Culture: Dominant Ideas and Images, ed. Joseph J. Kwiat and Mary C. Turpie (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1960), p. 72.

13. Quoted by Kranzberg and Gies, pp. 162- 63.

l4. See Edwin T. Layton, The Revolt of the Engineers: Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Profession (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve Univ. Press, 1971). 

15. Howard P. Segal, American Visions of Technological Utopia, 1883—1933," The Markham Review, 7 (Summer 1978), 65-76.

16. George Sterling, untitled manuscript, c. 1920, Sterling Collection, Mills College.

17. Robinson Jeffers, "The Purse-Seine," The Modem Age, ed. Leonard Lief and James F. Light (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), pp. 443- 44.

18. Henry James, The American Scene (New York: Harper and Bros., 1907), pp. 180—81.

19. H. L. Mencken, The Vintage Mencken, ed. Alistair Cooke (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 202.

20. Anthony C. Hilfer, The Revolt from the Village, 1915-1930 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1969), p. 99.

21. Waldo Frank, The New America (London: Jonathan Cape, 1922), p. 192.

22. Eugene O'Neill, "Dynamo," The Plays of Eugene O’Neill (New York: Random House, 1954), III, 479.

23. See John F. Kasson, Civilizing the Machine: Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776—1900 (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), pp. 120-21, 126, for an account of Emerson's tendency to anthropomorphize the machine.

24. Sherwood Anderson, The Letters of Shenmod Anderson, ed. H. M. Jones and W. B. Rideout (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), pp. 210-11.

25. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up, ed. Edmund Wilson (New York: New Directions, 1956), p. 14.

26. William Faulkner, Pylon (New York: Signet Books, 1962), pp. 102—03. 

 27. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of Business Enterprise (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1904), p. 313.

28. Thorstein Veblen, The Vested Interests and the Common Man (New York: Viking Press, 1946), pp. 91-92.

29. Mark Schorer, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life (New York: McGraw Hill, 1961), p. 772.

30. Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (1922; rpt. New York: New American Library, 1961), p. 190.

31. Ibid, p. 45.

32. Ibid, p. 58.

In: The Technological imagination: theories and fictions/edited by Teresa de Lauretis, Andreas Huyssen, Kathleen Woodward. PP. 27-48.

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