Fall 1997, Volume 14.3
Technology Writ Large: The Machine, the Body, and the Text in Melville's Shorter Narratives
Klaus Benesch (Ph.D., U of Munich) is an assistant professor at the Institute for Northamerican Studies, University of Freiburg. He is the author of The Threat of History (1991) and has edited a special issue of Amerikastudien/American Studies on "Technology and American Culture."
If we follow the numerous critics of nineteenth-century cultural discourse, the impact of modern technology on the consciousness and imagination of antebellum Americans must have been tremendous. "As the machine turned country into city," writes H. Bruce Franklin, "serf-like peasants into slave-like workers, distance into time, hours into minutes, land into capital, and the ideal of a primitive arcadia into the idea of a highly industrialized utopia, it loomed huge in the everyday consciousness of almost everybody" (Franklin 141). In order to grasp the enormous cultural change that Americans experienced during the nineteenth century, one has to recall that the population of the United States had literally exploded from roughly 5 million in 1800 to more than 76 million in 1900. At the turn of the century only 322.000 or a mere 6% of all Americans lived in the city. A hundred years later, the ratio changed to 40% or a total of over 30 million people. Simultaneously, the rapid initiating of new technological devices dramatically altered the "Lifeworld" of every American. Among the many inventions that had influence on the attitudes and perception of nineteenth-century Americans were, just to name a few, the locomotive, the airship and—later on—the airplane, the steamboat, the automobile and the bicycle. Moreover, the century was marked by new technologies of communication (telegraphy and the telephone) and, equally important, representation (photography, the phonograph, and the writing machine). Even if one is not prepared to conceive of these inventions as the primary agent in changing the conditions of modern life (as many historians of technology now seem to be), it is quite clear that for most contemporary observers technological progress signified not just a revolution in the improvement of tools, as Thoreau sarcastically put it, but the ambivalent prospects of modernity itself.1
To the ongoing mechanization of modern life American writers responded in manifold ways. Among those who would welcome the marvelous inventions of an arising technological society Walt Whitman stands out as the nation's most influential singer of modernity.2 Yet, for the greater part, nineteenth-century American literature rather questioned the invasion of the machine and its presumed creative power. In so doing, it juxtaposed gendered images of the writer/author and the engineer, the technician, and it constantly engaged in probing the fragile boundaries of the animate and the inanimate, of the human and
the machine. This desire to cross the borders between the "natural" and the technological (by which I mean not so much techné as method or application but rather its modern referent: system, organization, complex networks, etc.) has recently been addressed as an important topic of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century American literature.3 As I would like to argue, however, the projected conflation of man and machine (again in its broader sense of the political, military, and societal machine) is also a prominent feature of at least two of Herman Melville's shorter tales: "The Tartarus of Maids" and "Bartleby, the Scrivener."4 One might even venture to say that among his contemporaries who investigated—each in their original way—the technologizing of American society (Hawthorne, Poe, Rebecca Harding Davis, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman et al.) Melville alone sensed the larger "cyborgean" implications of what it meant to live or, more appropriately, to write under conditions of modernity. Insofar as they foreground the adversarial relation of Romantic conceptions of writing to the mechanics of industrial production, Melville's "Tartarus" and the enigmatic "Bartleby" clearly articulate the precarious status of authorship in a culture where technology, to modify a phrase of art historian Siegfried Giedion, is slowly taking command. In what follows, I will thus try to bring together two major strands of criticism in regard to these highly allegorical texts: First, what might be called the socio-political approach which posits that Melville was primarily interested in social criticism, i.e. the representation of the bleak, "inhuman" aspects of mechanized labor and working-class life in contemporary America (as in Marx, Fenton, Dillingham, and more recently Michael Paul Rogin); and second, various psychoanalytical readings which stress the sexual-gynecological implications, especially in "Tartarus," without contemplating the symbolic web that entangles simultaneously industrial, bodily, and textual forms of (re)production (as in Wiegman, Young, Bromell).
Some 30 years after James Kirke Paulding's scathingly technophobic satire "The Man Machine,"5 Herman Melville set out to explore the cyborgean dimension of modern technology in more detail. What is more, by projecting writing and mechanical production as antagonistic activities, Melville took issue with the challenge of evaluating authorship at a time when public discourse was dominated by utilitarian ideology and technological progress. In stories such as "The Bell-Tower" and the "Lightning-Rod Man" he ridiculed the naive belief of his contemporaries in the blessings of modern science and technology, and he exposed the hubris and the vested political interests that accompany the materialist emphasis on matter and technical ingenuity. When Bannadonna, the Renaissance mechanician and chief engineer of "The Bell-Tower," is acquitted by the local authorities for his killing of a faltering workman, Melville has nothing but contempt for their motives and deviant reasoning. As the authorial voice of the story takes pains to explain, Bannadonna's achievement (the huge bell that would crown the titanic structure) was of such a dimension that "the state might not scorn to share" in its success with the public. What should have been considered downright homicide was thus not only overlooked but reinterpreted as an act of "esthetic passion." "His felony remitted by the judge," the narrator derisively asks, "absolution given him by the priest, what more could even a sickly conscience have desired" (176). The historical, pre-industrial setting notwithstanding, this incident aptly foreshadows the tendency of technological societies to suppress and redefine the detrimental effects of modern technology. It is therefore more in respect to what might be called the psycho-cultural dimension of technology that Melville's critique merits to garner the attention of contemporary readers. Rather than simply expounding the dangers of machinery run amok, "The Bell-Tower" aims at secondary yet no less disturbing changes induced by the ongoing mechanization of society. From this perspective, Bannadonna's remark that "there is a law in art, which bars the possibility of duplicates" (179) may well be read as an anachronistic statement, because it is precisely the uniformity of its products that distinguishes mechanical from artistic production; and since Bannadonna, at least in regard to his present enterprise, is more of an engineer than an artist, any aspiration to individual beauty must of necessity lead to his downfall. In the end, Bannadonna is killed not because of a break-down or dysfunction in the apparatus he has created but because he interferes with the mechanical processes initiated by his own hand. Or as Melville's narrator has it, deeming himself a "true artist," Bannadonna became entirely absorbed in giving his final touches to the sculpture (!) and, while striving to make it an "original production," is thus oblivious of the relentless machinery he has set in motion.
"The Bell-Tower," Melville's darkly philosophical and perhaps most Hawthornean story is actually full of such anachronism, thus drawing our attention to the behavioral shifts concomitant with the process of modernization. As in Hawthorne's "The Artist of the Beautiful" time pieces and the measuring of time play an important role in "The Bell-Tower." One of the most radical features of Bannadonna's tower is not the sheer height to which it aspires, but rather that it unites clock-tower and bell-tower, which "before that period—had commonly been built distinct" (175) Since punctuality and regularity were indeed crucial factors in transforming mostly agrarian and feudal societies into sites of industrial production, the erection of a monumental (phallic) time-piece must be read as an assessment of and commentary on this very transition.6 However, Melville goes even further than that. When the public finally gathered around the tower to await the unwrapping and dedication of the new clockwork, we seem to witness an event more reminiscent of the falling of the ball on Times Square than of a Renaissance community honoring its famous mechanician: "Watches were held in the hands of feverish men, who stood, now scrutinizing their small dial plates. The hour hands of a thousand watches now verged within a hair's breadth of the figure 1" (181). Though the obsession with time measuring instruments actually dates back to the fifteenth century, as can be seen in the models and experiments of such protean Renaissance figures as Leonardo Da Vinci, the actual structuring of everyday life around dependable time units is a relatively new phenomenon. And this also holds for the mass production and thus possession of individual time-pieces. The idea that "the hour hands of a thousand watches" would verge towards a given moment in time thus sets the stage for a more contemporary shift in temporal experience: the shift from pre-modern to modern temporality, from an individual, qualitative sense of time to a quantitative scheme of universal progress.7 By stressing the blurring of individual time in a moment of collective experience, Melville once more points towards the unifying aspects of modernity, a move that underwrites his concern about the uniformity of mechanical production and its corollary, the loss of originality. It might be revealing in this context, that in 1851 in a letter to his editor, Evert A. Duyckinck, Melville had expressed his unwillingness to turn in for publication a daguerreotype of himself, precisely because he feared a lack of distinction or, in his own words, the possibility of being, "oblivionated" by the process of photographic reproduction:
As for the Daguerreotype (I spell the word right from your sheet) that's what I cannot send, because I have none. And if I had, I would not send it for such a purpose, even to you. The fact is, almost everybody is having his "mug" engraved nowadays; so that this test of distinction is getting to be reversed; and therefore, to see one's "mug" in a magazine, is presumptive evidence that he's a nobody. So being as vain a man as ever lived; & believing that my illustrious name is famous throughout the world—I respectfully decline being oblivionated by a Daguerreotype (what a devel [sic] of an unspellable word!). (Correspondence 180, my emphasis)
In articulating, both in the short story and his correspondence, an anxiety about the fading of originality through the influence of mechanical (re)production, Melville actually prefigures an aesthetic critique of technology that has come to be almost exclusively associated with twentieth-century, high modernist discourse, and especially with the German critic Walter Benjamin and his influential essay "The Works of Art in the Epoch of Mechanical Reproduction."8 As in "The Bell-Tower," Melville repeatedly assails the mechanics of modernization in view of his own artistic enterprise or, put differently, his major concern is to explore the endangered territory of writing under the influence of modern technology.
Of all his works it is probably in the second half of the diptych "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" that Melville expatiates in greatest detail on questions of writing and technology. In allegorical yet unmistakable terms, the work of the writer is camouflaged in this text as the large-scale enterprise of distributing seeds, a business, according to the narrator, in which "the expenditure [for paper] soon amounted to a most important item in the general account" (324). This excessive demand for paper is caused by the mode of distribution peculiar to this trade: after being folded square, the yellowish sheets are filled with seeds, stamped and superscribed with the commodity's name until finally, by the hundreds of thousands a year, they are mailed to their respective customers. Although authorship does not figures explicitly in "The Tartarus," the metaphor clearly recalls Plato's famous comparison of writing to the "sowing of immortal seeds" (Plato 13940). In a striking gesture of self-referentiality, the narrator then takes us on a Dantean tour d'enfer to the site where the material—so dear to his profession—is produced: a New England paper mill. Upon entering the ominous premises it becomes quite clear that the production of literary texts is a composite activity, a process which is at once spiritual and profane. In order to produce the sheets that will contain or, rather, be inscribed with "immortal seeds," it needs not only a complex aggregate of machinery but a countless number of female workers to handle the cranks, wheels, and belts of this water—powered manufactory:
At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper. In one corner stood some huge frame of ponderous iron, with a vertical thing like a piston periodically rising and falling upon a heavy wooden block. Before it—its tame minister—stood a tall girl, feeding the iron animal with half-quires of rose-hued note-paper. (328)
As John Kasson has pointed out, New England mills were among the earliest American manufactories to be turned into sites of modern mass production. Mills such as the famous factory town at Lowell, Massachusetts, thus marked an important juncture in America's transition to a full-scale industrial society. It is worth noting that Melville's critique of the bleakness of a work routine dictated by the needs of the machine, one of the major topics in "Tartarus," was not shared by many his fellow Americans. On the contrary, exemplary institutions such as the Lowell mills were designed on conservative ideological grounds. From the outset, as Kasson has shown, Lowell's purpose was to integrate "advanced technology, factory discipline, and conservative republicanism." Many of the visitors who made the pilgrimage to the factory town during the 1830s through 1850s, perceived machinery as the crucial factor in negotiating the antagonistic aspects of conservative morale and industrial labor. As one admiring visitor ventured to suggest, the elaborate machinery of these mills, in which "each part retain[ed] its place, perform[ed] its duty," might well figure as a model for human society at large (Kasson 80). For Melville, on the other hand, whatever moral lesson might be gleaned from the machine was superimposed by the somber vision of humans menially serving the "iron animal." What is more, by metaphorically conjoining the forces of mechanical labor with the forces of female reproduction, Melville's story also articulates the gendered stance of nineteenth-century authors towards modern technology.
Both mills, the real-life factory town at Lowell and the fictitious "Tartarus of Maids," are operated by young females. While Lowell, however, hired young, single women on a temporary basis because its designers feared the establishment of an all-out proletariat, the blank-faced girls of the paper mill function as signifier of the castrating forces of machinery writ large. "Why is it, sir," the visiting seedsman asks, "that in most factories, female operatives, of whatever age, are indiscriminately called girls, never women?" (334). The naming, and this holds also for the historic situation, aptly reflects a widespread practice: Because the rhythm of the machine affords steady workers, the factory's policy is to employ but unmarried women. (Matrons, according to the proprietor of the mill, "are apt to be off-and-on too much" .) By thus stressing the maidenhood or virginity of the mill's work force, Melville shifts the emphasis away from merely the harsh social aspects of industrial life. Rather, his criticism of the machine centers in the tautological relation between the feminine and its reproductive capacities. Whereas the writer, at least in Melville's metaphoric tale, represents the proliferation of seeds, the female only represents the machine. In the Talmud, the word golem—an ancient equivalent for automaton or robot—also refers to a woman "who has not yet conceived." Automata, as Robert Plank has pointed out in a seminal essay, cannot reproduce on their own. Whenever they generate, they do so by proxy, that is they act on external stimuli only (Plank 1423). Put in such perspective, it is not hard to see why the "blank-looking girls" of "The Tartarus" so perfectly resemble their "barren" product: As with the blank pagesyet to be inscribed by the writer's pen—their prematurely withered lives provide ample evidence for Melville's psycho-cultural generalizations about technology and authorship.
As a "technology of tools" machinery always performs to some predetermined, engineering design. And so does—as nineteenth-century anatomist discourse suggests—the female body. In modern Western cultures, claims historian Thomas Laqueur, the feminine was invented along the lines of a synecdochic relationship between an organ and a person: a woman is her ovaries (Laqueur 175). What is more, the conflation of body, gender, and its concomitant, social ranking appears to be but the offspring of another rhetorical substitution. At the end of the eighteenth century the term generation, with its organic connotations, was increasingly shunned from public discourse; it was replaced by reproduction, a term that prefigured the modern view of procreation as biological technique. "Put a Dog Machine and a Bitch Machine side by side," writes the French scientist Bernard de Fontenelle, "and eventually a third little machine will be the result" (qtd. in Lacqueur 155). In constructing industrial work in "The Tartarus of Maids" as a kind of female reproductive labor controlled by the machine, Melville's commentary on the hazards of modern technology thus works in two directions. First, it capitalizes on the age-old anxiety about humans becoming automata or machines. And second, it effectively drives home the Romantic notion of authorship as the only creative force there is (in terms of original, authentic production), as a true counter-space to the bleak, all-encompassing regime of the machine.
In what is probably his best known and most widely read short story, "Bartleby, the Scrivener," Melville elaborates again on his vocation as a writer vis-à-vis the commercialization of art and the dehumanizing effects of the modern division of labor in general. Given the sheaves of critical commentary, it is hard to think of any particular reading that has not yet been proposed in reference to this ambiguously modern text. Although writing has been singled out by various critics as one of the major topics of the story, this has been done either with regard to Melville's own writing career (most convincingly by Marx and, later on, Davidson) or as part of a more general analysis of capitalist America and its despotic economic practices (as in Deane, Fisher, and Rogin). In the remaining paragraphs of this essay, I will therefore concentrate rather on ontological aspects or the philosophy of writing, and I will argue that Melville has Bartleby turn into a machine-like creature, a Romantic cyborg of some sort, that tragically conjoins discourses on the democratization of culture (as called for by the contemporary political agenda), on mental vs. mechanical labor, and on the ability of writing to negotiate between these two competing forms of human activity.
If we go by its full (original) title, "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street," this is not a text about an individual or a distinct personality, but about a place, a marketplace, to be more precise, a commercial space dominated, as Leo Marx has pointed out, "by a concern with property and finance" (13). This view is further corroborated by the obvious lack of information with regard to the scrivener, a fact that has led numerous critics to focus their attention instead on the narrator, a Wall Street lawyer, and his philosophical ramblings as to how he should handle his recalcitrant clerk. True, the lawyer is an important figure in the story but only insofar as it is his point of view from which we perceive the main character, or rather non-character, and that we are therefore called upon to dissociate carefully what he thinks he sees from what is actually there. If one takes a closer look at Bartleby himself and the possible roots of his strange behavior, the most remarkable thing about the scrivener, at least in the beginning, is not that he refuses to work but that he by far exceeds the expectations of his employer. Bartleby is described as having managed "an extraordinary quantity of writing." In fact, he appears as so prolific a writer that it looked as if he was "long famishing for something to copy" (19). The scrivener literally seemed to "gorge" himself on the lawyers documents, with "no pause for digestion." Would he only have done so cheerfully, his employer could have been fully satisfied. But Bartleby "wrote on silently, palely, mechanically" (20). What is striking about this description is its ambiguity, the fact that it basically hinges on a paradox: Given the way the scrivener is pictured, he appears to be at once a machine, a writing-machine that is, and a famished organism feeding on written text. Even as he is still complying with the daily routine of the office, his behavior is utterly subdued, lifeless, pallid. Bartleby is inscribing huge amounts of paper, but he does so mechanically, with no trace of emotion or "anything ordinarily human about him" (21). Moreover, at various points of the story he is compared to dead matter: the lawyer refers to him as a "fixture," as being stationary as the pale plaster-of-paris bust of Cicero, and noiseless as any of the old chairs in his office. Falling thus somewhat between the categories of the wholly animate and the completely inanimate the scrivener might well be conceived as a coupling of man and machine, a cyborgean creature that combines the realm of the living and the non-living. Although the concept of the cyborg is usually associated with twentieth-century cybernetic research and its literary offspring, the increasing postmodern cyborg and cyberpunk fictions, its basic fictional premises seem to fit nicely with the way in which Melville envisions Bartleby as a metaphor of writing and modernity. Ontologically, according to Donna Haraway, the cyborg is "a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction." As a fictional construct, cyborgs "populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted" and they do so as a reminder of the polymorphous nature of reality and, especially, the constructedness of what Haraway calls "border wars," that is the ideological struggle over the differences between natural and artificial, mind and body, male and female, organism and machines (Haraway 19193). Yet cyborg fictions are not only deconstructions of how we perceive "reality," they are also about technology becoming, as another critic claims, "a field of cathexis, an imaginary screen onto which psychic energies from the most archaic to the most current may be projected" (Schwab 194). It is in this sense of a mirror-image, I would like to argue, at once the "analogy" of man and its "interlocutor" (Baudrillard 92), that Melville casts his most famous character as a cyborgean transgression between man and machine.
In "Bartleby," technology is basically represented as the technology of writing. Although the bulk of writing in the lawyer's office is still executed with the pen, the Wall Street copyist of the 1850s is a far cry from the medieval auctor meticulously copying an ancient text. In fact, the lawyer's suggestion to have his two "half-man" replace each other at times of their utmost inefficiency, already foreshadows the nightmare of rationalization and Taylor's idea of scientific management. Both of his original clerks are conspicuously human in their dependency on bio-rhythmical patterns, and their respective intervals of dysfunction are repeatedly compared to the organic cycle of rise and decline. Due to their "natural" idiosyncrasies, Turkey and Nippers continuously struggle with the demands of mass-producing copies of written texts, thereby highlighting the mechanical, machine-like work habits of their fellow scrivener as well as the modern office routine in general. This also holds for the dreary process of verifying the accuracy of the copies, a lethargic affair that would be all but intolerable, as the narrator readily admits, to an imaginative, "mettlesome" poet as Byron. By bringing up creative writing as a counter-image to the writing or rather copying of official texts, Melville thus steers the attention away from the wearisome circumstances of nineteenth-century office work to the broader theme of the division of labor (writing) and the denial of authentic creative experiences.
In his influential essay "Man A Machine" (1748), the French physician and philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie claimed "that the human body is a machine which winds its own springs. It is the living image of perpetual movement. Nourishment keeps up the movements which fever excites. Without food, the soul pines away, goes mad, and dies exhausted" (93). It is precisely this image of a living automaton, starving, going mad and, finally, dying exhausted that Melville evokes in this prototypically modern text. In order to comment on the precarious status of authorship in modern society he projects onto the imaginary screen of Bartleby's cyborgean existence at once relics of the Romantic image of writing as an organic process (Bartleby's organism is feeding on his written products) and the buying out of this notion, that is the increasing alienation (and ultimate death) of the writer/author. Bartleby's border-crossing identity thus not only pushes to an extreme an imagery resonant throughout many of Melville's shorter narratives, it also foreshadows a recurrent topic of twentieth-century aesthetic discourse: the demotion of authorship under conditions of mechanical (re)production. By articulating his anxiety about the loss of authorial control in terms of an encroachment of the technological over the "natural" and organic, Melville anticipates an essentially technophobic argument that has resurfaced with each introduction of new and more powerful technologies.
1 Thoreau, Walden 5. For the question of how technology is involved in changing socio-cultural conditions see Smith and Marx.
2 Emerson who had confided to his journal that "machinery and transcendentalism agree well" eventually adopted a more ambivalent tone when it came to modern technology. Thus, in his English Traits (1856) he cautioned his fellow citizens to the fact that the enthusiasm about the machine and its alleged powers might ultimately turn against its creator. For a detailed discussion of Emerson's view of technology see Kasson 11435. Whitman's ongoing interest in modern technology is thoroughly documented in Orvell.
3 Machines, or rather mechanical forces of all sorts, are a prominent topic in naturalist writing. See Seltzer.
4 "Billy Budd," Melville's somber story of a young sailor who became crushed by the mechanics of military jurisdiction, might be read along similar lines. Such a reading could be backed further by the "unnatural" circum stances of Billy's execution, namely the absence of reflexive motion in the hanged body. This fact leads the ship's surgeon to remark that Billy died "much like a watch when carelessly winding it up you strain at the finish, thus snapping the chain." Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative) 125.
5 In 1826 the prominent critic and politician James Kirke Paulding had published an extended short story called "The Man Machine." Designed as a commentary on Robert Owen's A New View of Society (1813) and a critique especially of Owen's own utopian experiment at New Harmony, this story satirizes the totalitarian aspects of a closed, over-regulated utopia, a society, according to Paulding's imagery, patterned after the factory system and its technological foundation: the machine.
6 For the important role of time and its measurement in transforming agrarian into industrial societies see Thompson.
7 As Peter Osborne claims, this shift actually informs most of the discourses on modernity. See his chapter "Modernity: A Different Time."
8 In his influential essay Benjamin describes Western Art as being on the verge of a fundamental shift from originality to repetition, from the unique and authentic work of art to the mass-produced, dissimulating works of the machine. One of the key terms of Benjamin's argument is "aura," the ritual function of art, its ongoing negotiation between distance and presence, between authenticity and artificiality. According to Benjamin, aura only occurs in the original and unique work of art, and for this reason "it does not permit of reproduction nor replica" (37).
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