Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Time Machine and Victorian Transhumanism: A Different Kind of Anxiety

I promised myself that my first contribution to this blog would NOT be an underdone post-undergraduate essay, but lookie look, I'm sure something like the title of this post has crossed the desk of many a harried and underpaid sessional prof. Oh well. Must not get hung up on it.

So. Yes. The Time Machine. Good ol' Herbert George Wells with his scientific fantasy, his fable of the future, full of Darwin-informed fears that Marx would become biological. With each generation, the leisured upper-classes will become more frivolous and weak, the downtrodden worker will become stronger (and embittered!) for his struggles. Eventually, presto-change-o, the master-slave dyad is reversed. Right? That's how I've always been lead to read The Time Machine

It's the same kind of anxiety people feel regarding 'designer babies' --- you know, the idea that rich people can pay to have their offspring's genomes tweaked, thereby making class divisions biological. Strong intelligent bourgeoisie, dull-witted working-class drudges. Invariably, Morlock and Eloi are invoked whenever the media takes note of such an issue. Check out this example from The Daily Mail, entitled "Human race will 'split into two different species (link)'":

  • In the 1895 book, the human race has evolved into two distinct species, the highly intelligent and wealthy Eloi and the frightening, animalistic Morlock who are destined to work underground to keep the Eloi happy.

Of course, this isn't just a misreading. It's a colossal failure along the lines of calling Wuthering Heights a heart-warming romance (more on that later, I'm sure). It's almost as if the journalist had the basic concept of The Time Machine explained to them (yes I will be using 'they' and 'them' as singular gender neutral pronouns), but fundamentally misunderstood (or were misinformed) on all of the specifics. Yeah, the Morlock do work to keep the Eloi happy --- everyone knows content calves make the best veal.

The Eloi are not intelligent, and they appear to live a post-consumer existence, so the paradigm of wealth VS poverty is sort of not applicable. As for calling the Morlocks 'frightening,' well, that's kind of to the point, but 'animalistic?' Not only do I disagree, I'm going to argue the opposite.

The Eloi are simplistic creatures inhabiting a prelapsarian Eden. Science is not just undeveloped among them; they lack the very fundamental abilities of reason. They are unable to make simple cognitive partitions like test/control or even human/nature, mental organizations that the empirical method requires. Even language has atrophied among them. They posses none of the qualities that traditionally separate human and animal (a separation that is becoming increasingly blurry and permeable, but no matter, it was a pretty clear delineation in the late 19th century).

Meanwhile! Meanwhile, the Morlock are cunning. They understand cause and effect, and many times they are shown to experiment and deduce. They understand at least the basics of mechanics. More importantly, they are divorced from the natural world even as the Eloi are subsumed by it --- they live underground, in artificial tunnels and passageways. They are unequipped to deal with the light of the sun or the flash of a flame, both natural phenomenon. They farm their food (remembering that agriculture is a manipulation of nature and thus can be called unnatural, especially when practiced on an industrial scale).

So in a way, The Time Machine isn't class division made biological. It's technology made biological.

If it were a question of class, would not the Eloi use their cash (and thus their power) to maintain the status quo, as The Daily Mail mistakenly thinks they did? Oh surely, in the maelstrom of anxiety that is The Time Machine, there is a fretful awareness of the labour movement, socialism, and the inhumanity of industrial capitalism as practiced in 19th century Britain --- but if Communism had succeeded (as the Eloi's post-industrial idyll might initially suggest) why were not the workers (the Morlocks) freed from poverty and servitude to take their due portion? And if the schism into Eloi and Morlock is meant to represent the end result of a ruthless industrial capitalism where a leisured class lives off the sweat of the labourers' brow, how did the Eloi become (literally) prey to the Morlocks --- surely they would exercise their power and capital to maintain the status quo long before the proletariat started eating their flesh.

So, yes. The Time Machine is an old favourite. It can be read in an afternoon, which is what I did recently. And by golly gum if I didn't say to myself, after thinking all of the above: "the Morlocks are cyborgs! CYBORGS!"

I'm prone to excitable statements and I'm not sure that's quite what Donna Haraway had in mind. Haraway writes in a digital context; Wells, steam and piston. But the fact remains that Morlocks are rational, subterranean, pitiless: urban. The Eloi are pastoral, sensual, emotive: rural.

That's what the text is afraid of, at the eye of the hurricane of anxiety (and it is such an anxious text!) It senses the emergence of technologically-augmented urban humanity, a seeming new species of city dwellers, and, recoiling in horror, it turns them into monsters. Yet the alternative, the simplistic and stupid Eloi, offer no intellectual or artistic stimulation. As my father is fond of quoting, "how are ya' gonna keep 'em down on the farm / now that they've seen Paris?" --- the old is as dull and devoid of meaning as the new is terrifying and (seemingly) heartless. When Man and Machine come forward to the future, the Eloi embrace the Man, and the Morlock drag off the machine.

The Industrial Revolution had only just celebrated its first centenary when The Time Machine was published in 1895. London had experienced a near-exponential level of growth throughout that century. It's cliché but it is still worthwhile to remind ourselves of the following (from London Online):

  • Comparing the beginning of the 19th century with the end we see two starkly different cities both in terms of size and also in terms of technological advancement. In 1800 there were no railways, no cabs, no buses, no telegrams, no telephones, no gas, no electric-light, no 'penny post', and no new Metropolitan Police. In 1900 all of the above existed.

It's somewhat like Frankenstein, then, in its fear of what technology and science are capable of when they cross paths with biology, but it is informed by Darwin's theories just as Frankenstein is informed by then-recent discoveries regarding electricity and the electrical properties of the nerves. Frankenstein's monster is made from human parts, but is, through technological intervention, greater than humanity. Ditto the Morlock in the context of the Eloi.

So: just as the titular Machine itself transgresses the bounds of what humanity 'should' and 'should not' do, so the Morlock have become unrecognizable as human even as the exhibit the qualities usually used to delineate human from animal. Conversely, the Eloi are strongly identified with human children, even as they lack any of the intellectual traits which we usually call 'human.'

So: the Morlock are human, more human than the Eloi, but they have been cross-bred or 'tainted' with technology, as it is understood in the pre-digital pre-atomic steam era. The increasing pace of change, the sprawl of urban development that E. M. Forster would decry only 15 years later in Howards End, the continued integration and supplementation of human life with mechanical devices --- they prompted the nightmare that prompted The Time Machine.

And that's my first post, made! My first brushstroke on the Brit-Lit canvas as a Painter of Modern Life. It's an exciting time to be alive.


NB: oh, yes, a l'il nota bene action for y'all: I currently have no access to scholarly sources, and besides these are just my thoughts and ideas, not a conference paper. Chillax! Although please do suggest readings if you think any are pertinent. I'm hopin' to return to the ol' Ivory Tower some day not too far away (18 months?)

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