Erewhon: Man’s very soul is due to the machines

Bruno Latour’s book Aramis or the love of technology begins by mentioning the fascinating work of the Victorian novelist Samuel Butler and his book Erewhon (so needless to say I got distracted). Latour writes:

“Samuel Butler tells the story of a stranger passing through the land of Erewhon who is thrown into prison because he owns a watch. Outraged at the verdict, he gradually discovers that draconian measures forbid the introduction of machinery. According to the inhabitants of Erewhon, a cataclysmic process of Darwinian evolution might allow a simple timepiece to give birth to monsters that would rule over humans. The inhabitants are not technologically backward; but they have voluntarily destroyed all advanced machines and have kept none but the simplest tools, the only ones compatible with the purity of their mores.”

On reading Butler’s Erewhon, I found that Latour gets the details wrong in the above quote (he is not sent to prison because he owns a watch or outraged at the verdict) but the core narrative is correct. The stranger passing through Erewhon is taken to the magistrate once he has entered the town and on searching through his belongings they find a watch in his inside pocket. The magistrate orders our traveler to the museum of the town where there are fragments of steam engines and a range of broken machinery on display: “Indeed, there were fragments of a great many of our own most advanced inventions; but they seemed all to be several hundred years old, and to be placed where they were, not for instruction but curiosity.”

On questioning the people of Erewhon about the museum the stranger notes:

“I learnt that about four hundred years previously, the state of mechanical knowledge was far beyond our own, and was advancing with prodigious rapidity, until one of the most learned professors of hypothetics wrote an extraordinary book… proving that the machines were ultimately destined to supplant the race of man, and to become instinct with a vitality as different from, and superior to, that of animals, as animal to vegetable life.”

The people of Erewhon convinced with this reasoning remove all technology “that had not been in use for more than two hundred and seventy-one years (which period was arrived at after a series of compromises)”.

Samuel Butler

Samuel Butler

This made me think about how we often condemn new technologies to the museum and resurrect old ones. The current diffusion of bike-share schemes in cities across the world is one immediate example; the bike has begun to overtake the car. But Butler’s book is a far more interesting than a call for “out with new and in with the old”. Writing in 1872 (!), Bulter sets the stage for Latour’s task of illuminating the entanglement of humans and non-humans. As Latour states “Butler’s Nowehere world is not a utopia. It is our own intellectual universe, from which we have in effect eradicated all technology. In this universe, people who are interested in the souls of machines are severely punished by being isolated in their separate world, the world of engineers, technicians and, technocrats.”

Butler is clearly very interested in the social life of machines:

If all machines were to be annihilated at one moment, so that not a knife nor lever nor rag of clothing nor anything whatsoever were left to man but his bare body alone that he was born with, and if all knowledge of mechanical laws were taken from him so that he could make no more machines, and all machine-made food destroyed so that the race of man should be left as it were naked upon a desert island, we should become extinct in six weeks. A few miserable individuals might linger, but even these in a year or two would become worse than monkeys. Man’s very soul is due to the machines; it is a machine-made thing: he thinks as he thinks, and feels as he feels, through the work that machines have wrought upon him, and their existence is quite as much a sine qua non for his, as his for theirs. This fact precludes us from proposing the complete annihilation of machinery, but surely it indicates that we should destroy as many of them as we can possibly dispense with, lest they should tyrannise over us even more completely.

Given that Latour is heavily influenced by Deleuze, it is not surprising that Deleuze also drew from Bulter’s work. Deleuze quotes Bulter in the anti-Oedipus and built on many of his ideas in Erewhon and liked the idea of seeing machines as networks (or maybe Deleuzian “rhizomes”). The stranger in Erewhon notes: “We are misled by considering any complicated machine as a single thing; in truth it is a city or society, each member of which was bred truly after its kind.” Latour takes a lot from Butler (without referencing), for instance: “A technology isn’t one single character; it’s a city, it’s a collective, it’s countless” (p.227) and “The soul of machines constitutes the social element. The body of the social element is constituted by machines” (p.213). Erewhon is clearly then an important text for thinking about our techno-social world and how urban arrangements are made up of machines.


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