Mechanisms of Fear: Man and Machine at the dawn of the 20th Century

Social Insight — POSTED BY Adam Gyngell on December 16, 2009 at 4:16 pm

F. T. Marinetti hailed the twentieth century as the one in which man would finally consummate the “dreamt-of metallization of the human body”.[1] For Marinetti, modernity carried with it the promise of a new, dynamic synthesis of man and machine – a synthesis that Gerald Heard would, in 1939, term mechanomorphism.[2] The human body had proven itself to be a faulty piece of apparatus. The Futurist dream invested in the promise of new technology, believing that modern man would be redeemed by the machine. Mechanization constituted an advance beyond humanism: man could now evolve, Dziga Vertov announced, “from a bumbling citizen, through the poetry of the machine, to the perfect electric man.”[3]

By Adam Gyngell

The fear of the machine takes two distinct forms – that man, forced to configure to the machine, will extinguish that vital element that makes him human; or worse, that the machines man created will run loose from our control, their automatism transforming into a new and terrifying autonomy

epstein_rockdrillStarting work on his Rock Drill in 1913, the sculptor Jacob Epstein conceived of his machine-human hybrid as the form of the future. By 1915, the year the sculpture was finished, amidst the mechanized horrors of the Great War, Epstein had lost faith in his mechanic creation. “Here is the sinister form of today and tomorrow,” he declared. The work displayed “no humanity”: this, he said, was “the terrible Frankenstein’s monster we have made ourselves into.”[4] The dream of mechanomorphism, of the machine purging man of his weak and fallible flesh, had turned into a nightmare. The Futurist machine-body no longer promised the dawn of ‘new men’, but the ominous elimination of the human.

In the early years of cinema, we see the ways in which modern culture sought to come to terms with man’s relationship with the machine. The fear of the machine takes two distinct forms – that man, forced to configure to the machine, will extinguish that vital element that makes him human; or worse, that the machines man created will run loose from our control, their automatism transforming into a new and terrifying autonomy. Whether machine is elevated to quasi-human status, or man is degraded to the level of automata, both represent the process of dehumanization that was seen to characterize machine-industry. Marx was astute in his dismissal of neo-luddite machine-smashing. He knew that the problems lay with humans not machines: machines have always been a mirror for humans. In his ‘Project for a Glossary of the Twentieth Century’, J. G. Ballard gives his entry for Science Fiction as “the body’s dream of becoming a machine.”[5] How soon that dream was transformed into a nightmare.

Taylorism bases industrial productivity in “the reduction of human beings to a mechanical assemblage of partial functions and parts of organs.”

Analysing the effect that mechanized industrial labour had had on the human body in Capital, Marx states that “To work at a machine, the workman should be taught from childhood, in order that he may learn to adapt his own movements to the uniform and unceasing motion of an automaton.”[6] In order to harness the energies of the working body most efficiently, the nineteenth century science of work strove to harmonize the movements of the body with those of the industrial machine. Marx articulates the common tenet that the body can “adapt” itself to the rhythms of the automaton. Yet if the biological body can place itself in the service of the machine, it is only because the body, as an organism, has long been perceived to function like a machine. Finding its roots in the Cartesian view that man is a mechanical physical form presided over by a soul, the empirical science of the nineteenth century took as its leitmotif the metaphor of the machine for the functions of the animal organism. The body became refigured as a microcosm of the machine: the arms are levers, the lungs are bellows, the eyes are lenses, the heart is a pump, the fist is a hammer, the nerves are a telegraph system connected with a central station.[7] The division of specialized labour that accompanied the technological advances of the nineteenth century performed an analysis of the working process, reducing it to a series of simplified human motions which could then be translated into mechanical operations. The French physiologist and chronophotographic pioneer Etienne-Jules Marey was a leading figure in this mechanization of the human body. Using his innovative photographic time-and-motion studies in the 1870s, Marey conceived of the body as La Machine animale. The functional anatomy of organisms and that of machines, Marey noted, obey the same laws: “The laws of mechanics are as applicable to animated motors as they are to other machines.”[8]

TaylorismMechanics is governed by the principle that every movement of a machine is geometric and measurable. Marey’s work proposed that the movements of the human body submit to the same rational measurement and control as the machine. Indeed, it was this research that paved the way for the mobilization of the body-machine as an economic system in Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management (1911). Building upon the foundations laid by Marey’s discoveries, Taylorism bases industrial productivity in “the reduction of human beings to a mechanical assemblage of partial functions and parts of organs.”[9] For Taylor, the human body and the industrial machine could be run by the same principles: both were motors that converted energy into mechanical work. His system views the worker as a machine capable of infinite productivity.

Apart from the advent of machine-driven production, no other development in the history of industrial work had an impact equivalent to Taylor’s ideas of industrial organization. It seems significant that if the first major revolution in industry is considered to be the development of machines, the second is the redevelopment of humans as machines, Taylorism’s mechanization of the human body. Taylor’s system takes as its starting point the decomposition of each task into a series of abstract, mathematically precise, and calculable, relations. Its focus is on economizing motion and achieving greater work performance through adapting the body to technology. Above all, it invests in the utopian hope that the resolution of industrial conflict was possible, by scientific and rational means, in the interests of economic progress.

For Taylor, the rationalization of production was predicated on the rationalization of the body. The chronometrics of Taylorism represented only a part of a system that included the standardization of tools and plant design. The Taylorist factory was designed to produce a standardized object, with standardized machinery and standardized methods. It demands, with exemplary logic, that human labour be similarly calibrated and standardized: the worker is regarded as an extension of a mechanical system.

Commenting on his first stage role as a child actor, Charlie Chaplin revealed that “only mechanics bothered me.”[10] Throughout his career, the mechanistic drill of cause and effect would become a continuous source of frustration and humour. It is in the rationalized deployment of the human body as mechanism that Chaplin finds the essence of his comic art. His 1936 masterpiece Modern Times can be seen as a savage satire of Taylorism. Chaplin appropriates the calculating logic of Taylor’s system – which takes as its base assumption the commensurability of man and machine – and stretches it to its elastic limit. Working on the assembly line, Chaplin continues spasmodically to tighten imaginary bolts after the conveyor belt has stopped. In this famous gag, Chaplin has harmonized his own movements to the machine. For Taylor, the success of the factory system was dependent on the capacity of the worker to acquiesce to the rhythms of the machine. But there was one weak spot in the system: the nature of human beings themselves. The main difficulty, as the great Victorian apologist for industry Andrew Ure pointed out, lay “above all, in training human beings to renounce their desultory habits of work and to identify themselves with the unvarying regularity of the complex automaton.”[11] In this scene, Chaplin has followed Ure’s counsel: losing his human ability for spontaneous adaptability, he has identified himself with the automaton so completely that his walk to the bathroom is punctuated by the “unvarying” convulsive jerks required of his labour. Chaplin applies Ure’s logic with a fidelity that ruthlessly exposes the degrading demands of automatised work.

The underlying assumption of Taylorism is that man must configure himself to the machine in order to gain mastery over it. However, the fear articulated in Modern Times is that, rather than becoming masters of the machine, workers become machine-like. Examining the network of connecting rods, propellers and pistons, Marey had observed that the organs of machines are a perfect expression of physical laws which are imperfectly expressed in the functional anatomy of the human body. “There is,” he pronounced, “therefore a profound difference between the mechanisms employed by nature and those created by man: the former are subject to special demands which do not apply to the latter.”[12] BeneatMarey’s empirical language lies an ominous suggestion: that the machine or automaton is superior to the human. Marey’s evaluation carries with it the dangerous belief that the machine, unconstrained by the organic limitations imposed on man by nature, takes precedence over the human. Mechanized industry, as Marx presciently perceived, demands that the body adapt to the machine. If the body cannot conform itself to the machine, the natural conclusion is to replace the body with a machine – the robot. Reducing ourselves to mechanical processes, we see in the automaton our own image: man as a dehumanized machine.

verticalfarmIn The City in History, Lewis Mumford assesses the predictions of sociologists for the metropolis of the future. These speculative visions tend “to arrive at a universal megalopolis, mechanized, standardized, effectively dehumanized, as the final goal of urban evolution. Whether they extrapolate 1960 or anticipate 2060 their goal is actually ‘1984’.”[13] Mumford reveals the fear that beneath mechanization’s superficial regard for improving life lies a deep contempt for organic processes. As he concludes: “the popular technology of our time devotes itself to contriving means to displace autonomous organic forms with ingenious mechanical (controllable! profitable!) substitutes.”[14]

In Karel Capek’s 1921 play R.U.R., the designer at the automaton factory Fabry outlines the inventor Rossum’s motivation for creating his ‘Universal Robots’: “The human body is very imperfect; one day it had to be replaced with a machine that would work better.”[15] Capek’s play coined the term ‘robot’: in its original Czech, robota signifies labour or drudgery; the inventor’s name alludes to the Czech word rozum, meaning ‘reason’ or ‘intellect’. Capek presents the robot as the rational replacement for an unpredictable proletariat. Rossum’s automata are better suited to modern capitalist industry than any human ever could be: for the robot, to live is to work – for what other life do machines know? Machines rather than humans, robots instead of thinking beings – the industrial complex excludes all dimensions of the human personality other than the physiological. Technological progress strives for a rational reconstruction of the body; when the body fails, the robot emerges. As Fabry wryly notes, “nature had no notion of the modern rate of work.”[16]

Marx asserts in Capital that “machinery not only acts as a competitor who gets the better of the workman, and is constantly on the point of making him superfluous. It is also a power inimical to him.”[17] This is the fear of man in the industrial age. Confronted with machines that were more powerful than the men who invented and operated them, man sees them as a hostile force. Out of fear, his primitive, animalistic response, like that of the workers in Ernst Toller’s play The Machine-Wreckers (1922), is to destroy the machine. In the modern era, the automaton, like Epstein’s Rock Drill, becomes a Frankenstein’s monster, an autonomous, inimical power. Man had previously seen himself as the agent for technological change.

Why, Mumford asks, should he now assume a more craven posture in confronting the machine, “whose physical laws he discovered, whose body he created, whose rhythms he anticipated by external feats of regimentation in his own life?”[18] How could the machine take possession of European society until that society had, by an inner accommodation, surrendered to the machine? The prostrate submission of modern man towards the machine signifies an abdication of human agency. The automaton, for Marx, is endowed “with intelligence and will”; it is “animated by the longing to reduce to a minimum the resistance offered by that repellent yet elastic natural barrier, man.”[19] Man is recast as the machine’s enemy.

The processes of mechanization that came to dominate industry were a means of gaining a greater control – of people, of production, of profit. The machine was the counterfeit of nature: nature analysed, regulated, controlled by the mind of men. The robot marks the apex of man’s technological ingenuity, the culmination of these processes. Yet, almost immediately, this achievement comes to embody a mechanization that has gone out of control. It is telling that R.U.R., the play that introduced the robot into modern culture, also is the first to depict the rebellion, and eventual victory, of robots against the men who created them. No sooner have they been given a measure of autonomy than they use it to turn on their human masters.

Gyorgy Lukacs memorably termed technology “second nature”.[20] Alienated and reified, this “second nature” constituted a world created by humans who did not recognise it as their own. This new “nature”, Lukacs points out, was not just industrial technology but the entire world of matter (including humans) as it has been transformed by this technology. The machine embodies that which is made by human hands, but is alien to human nature. It is our instinct to recoil from the robot – for in the robot, we are forced to confront how our conceptions of ourselves have been transformed by technology. We see in the robot a distorted and disturbing image of ourselves.

Chaplin understood what Walter Benjamin would later theorize: that “film is the art form corresponding to the pronounced threat to life in which people live today.”[21] It is fitting that, for Chaplin, cinema is seen as the ideal medium for an exploration of man’s fear of mechanization. Cinema, the exemplary art form of the mechanical age, offers a palliative rehearsal of modern society’s uneasy relationship to the machine. Aldous Huxley saw cinema as product of a modern world ruled by “Taylorized work and mechanized amusement.”[22] Cinema, as Benjamin points out, mirrors the means of production employed in the factory: while factory production is “psychotic” and is experienced at work, film production is curative and is experienced in the cinema, the ‘dream factory’.


[1] Marinetti 1935: 1

[2] Heard 2004: 60

[3] Vertov 1922: 2

[4] Epstein 1955: 56

[5] Crary and Kwinter 1992: 277

[6] Marx 2008: 260

[7] See Appendix 1: Kahn, Der Mensch als Industriepalast

[8] Marey 1874: 62

[9] Doray 1988: 9

[10] Chaplin 1964: 80

[11] Ure 1835: 15

[12] Marey 1874: 70

[13] Mumford 1966: 600

[14] Mumford 1966: 600

[15] Capek 1921: 5

[16] Capek 1921: 7

[17] Marx 2008: 267

[18] Mumford 1934: 318

[19] Marx 2008: 247

[20] Lukacs 1971: 86

[21] Benjamin 2008: 132

[22] Huxley 1929: 61

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