The Machine Aesthetic: Breakdown and Reactions

01 May 2015

“Thumping thump…Machines. Smash a man to atoms if they got him caught. Rule the world today. His machineries pegging away too. Like these, got out of hand: fermenting. Working away, tearing away.” James Joyce: Ulysses, Aeolus 77-84

The Modernist movement was largely fascinated by the intersection between what was distinctly human and what was definitionally mechanical. From the late 1800’s, through the turn of the century, the human-engine crossover gained popularity in art, literature, film, and seeped into the processes for creating all of the above. Rising industrialism and an emphasis on efficiency weighed onto the art world, commodifying previously sacred objects. Indeed, noticing the world’s enrapture with the material and the commodity, Karl Marx was able to predict that the machine aesthetic would be a dominant future artistic theme in 1867, an astounding 35 years before the definitive start of Modernism as a literary movement (Koch, 1993).

The interaction between the human and the machine was pervasive and varied—at times making the individual a simple a cog in a societal machine, extending the human capacity, fusing the man and the machine into one complete and seamless being, and yet at other times personifying the machine as human. As man and machine collided and clashed, those living in the Modernist time period were forced to react to a shiny new, metallic, and seemingly unavoidable high-order destiny—and while some championed this change and rose to great heights, others buckled under the immense weight a technologically charged future.

The Individual as Part of the Machine

As new methods of increasing societal efficiency flowed into practice, many individuals were left feeling unimportant, even replaceable, to the larger system. Max Weber, a German sociologist and contemporary of Karl Marx became largely disillusioned with the state of society—noting in various essays that “the individual was [now just] a cog in the social mechanism” and that “individual worth was lost”. As jobs became more specified, work for many people became monotonous, leading them to derive little to no pleasure or utility from their vocations—or even be able to keep the final product of their labor in sight. Weber proposes that the Modernist emphasis on specialism creates an individual that is “chained to his activity by his entire material and ideal existence,” and therefore becomes “without spirit”—essentially a machine (Koch, 1993). This new concept of a “being-less being” is seen across the whole gamut of Modernist literature, from T.S. Eliot’s epic poem, The Waste Land to D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers.

In The Waste Land, both the Typist and the Clerk display the lack of spirit and Modernist personality that Michael North, a humanities professor at UCLA and Modernism scholar, calls “dismembered and standardized” (Wreath, 2013). When the reader is first introduced to these characters, it is not by name, but rather metonymy—they have assumed the persona of what they do in the larger social schema, rendering both of them replaceable due to a lack of individual qualities. Tiresias, a third character—and perhaps a poster child of the dual-identity plaguing most Modernists—refers to the Clerk as “one of the low” and subsequently goes on to exclaim that he has “walked with the lowest of the dead,” clearly defining the Clerk as not even deserving grace amongst the dead due to his specialist-induced lack of spirit (Eliot, 295). Using The Waste Land as a crystal ball to peer into a post-Modernist future, Eliot lays out the connections between the mechanization and industrial advancement of the time and the “degradation of human dignity” that ensued (Schein, 2009).

In Sons and Lovers, DH Lawrence presents an even more relatable instance of human dignity degraded at the hands of the Modernist industrial machine. Walter Morel, the protagonist’s father, is a poor coal miner in Nottinghamshire who transitions from a charming country-boy who knows how to dance to a haunting, ghostlike character, leaving his home (and the main scenes of the novel) early in the morning and not returning until many hours past nightfall only to get in drunken altercations with his wife, Gertrude. The reason for this change? Morel’s job at the coal mines, where he is not only a cog in the machine, but also universally hated by the higher-up cogs due to his consistent disrespect. After some time, Morel becomes aesthetically inseparable from his job even after washing up, his face “black and smeared with sweat” and his body covered in “blue scars, like tattoo marks, where the coal dust remained under the skin,” (Lawrence, 43, 235). Morel further becomes inseparable from the coal system at home, where he is mostly found seated in the kitchen, gazing into the coal-fueled fire. Speaking to the replaceable reality of the cogs in the coal-system or any sector of specialized Modernism, when he gets injured at the job, he is mostly forgotten as a person and altogether erased financially—historically true of the coal industry at a time where a death on the job meant no more than five dollars in total compensation (Freese, 2003).

By increasing specialization, Modernism mechanically victimized workers like Morel, the Clerk and the Typist, rendering them homogeneous and replaceable, but perhaps even worse decreasing “struggle” which Weber declares a key component of the human condition.

Mechanical Extensions of Man

Published in 1915, in the midst of the Modernist period, Franz Kafka’s illustrious novella, Metamorphosis, follows Gregor Samsa, a young professional as he is being transformed into an insect-like creature. Panzerartig, the German word that Kafka uses to describe the creation of a hard shell around Gregor translates to one of most ubiquitous mechanical extensions available to humans—armor (Coates, 1991). As technological gains allowed for new methods of solving international disputes, humans were forced to make use of new mechanical supplements such as tanks, machine guns, and flamethrowers. Furthermore, this new reliance on more efficient instruments allowed for many humans to lose individual worth, often being forced into the position of cannon fodder in times of war. Despite many of the available mechanical appendages regretfully leading to negative outcomes, some tools like the automobile were vehemently embraced as extensions to the human form by people like Dorothy Levitt, who was “fascinated” and “exhilarated” by this newly accessible technology (Levitt, 1909).

Perhaps the most important of human extensions was the house, described by Le Corbusier in Toward a New Architecture as “a machine for living in. Like many artists of the time, Le Corbusier believed that industrialization was corrupting the world by “alienating man from nature,” (Anderson). According to Anthony Sutcliffe, author of “A Vision of Utopia,” an exploration of Modernist urban planning, Le Corbusier was unlike many of his contemporaries. To Le Corbusier, the only solution was to embrace industrialism in terms of “behaviors, attitudes, and the ordering of the environment.” He drafted endless city plans, trying to design communities that “were perfectly suited to the needs of the machine aged man” (Radiant City 106). His proposals called for segregating pedestrian areas and motorways not as a means of reclaiming nature, but rather a means of appropriating human-freedom to motor vehicles, something he viewed as “a prerequisite to economic success” (Anderson). Trying to solve the problem of industrialization and the strong lack of perceived self-importance, Le Corbusier actually ended up stoking the fire, emphasizing the importance of technology and separating groups of citizens into preplanned agricultural communities to support his metropolis. Le Corbusier thought of his plans as an integral part of the new, Modernist civilization and ended up accidentally creating a monotonous place where mechanization was as prevalent as the human inferiority to the machine. While well intentioned, Le Corbusier’s plans

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Radiant City, Le Corbusier

would have probably led to the wrong extension of the human form—a mechanized city-scape similar to that described by James Joyce in Ulysses: “The whirr of flapping leathern bands and hum of dynamos from the powerhouse urged Stephen to be on. Being-less beings. Stop!” (Joyce, Wandering Rocks, 821).

Another example of efficiency in modernized architecture is Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky, the Austrian architect’s Frankfurt Kitchen. Schutte-Lihotzky was quoted in 1926 as saying “firstly life is work and secondly it is relaxing, company, pleasures,” an ideal which plays a huge role in her kitchen design. The Frankfurt Kitchen is a 1.9 x 3.4 meter total installation that sought to “minimize the number of steps needed to work in the kitchen.”

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The installation came with everything from bins dedicated and labeled for different ingredients, to a built in stove. It was so well designed that it was hailed as “a scientific professionalization of the domestic space” by a recent exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. entitled “Modernism: Designing a New World”—a further example of the modernist emphasis on machine-like efficiency extending to human behavior.

According to the same exhibit, “Modernist artists and designers saw the mechanization and rationalization of all aspects of life as a key objective of a new society,” an ideal that when produced effectively could streamline human performance by providing a worthy extension of the human form, but would most likely lead to what Eliot refers to as the “unreal (and doomed to fail) city” in The Waste Land.

Man As Machine

Throughout the Modernist period, Man and Machine merged in more that one medium. Most works, from literature to art and film, portrayed the mechanization and commodification of man in booth content and process.


From using technological terms when referencing human issues to applying measures of material as opposed to intellectual or emotional worth to people, Modernist writers of the time sought to blur the lines between man and machine.

With the steady growth of materialist culture that intertwined with the Modernist agenda, the human body became another material to be “purchased.” Skipping over themes of using humans as dispensable labor which were obvious in the world of Modernism, the man can be further split into multiple other functions as seen in Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The protagonist of the novel, Lorelei Lee pursues men not for their emotional or intellectual worth, but rather for their money (interestingly enough measured by derived material utility as opposed to net worth). Lorelei convinces herself and others that she is a “refined” woman, a game she plays to woo men into giving her as much as possible—accepting anything from diamond tiaras to trips to Europe. In flirting with these men, she is not only ascribing onto them a material worth, but also commodifying herself as a means of pleasure for these men—in essence turning the men into ATMs and herself into a material good. Exploring another aspect of the man as machine, Lorelei’s brunette best friend Dorothy Shaw turns men into sex toys, caring for nothing more than how handsome or muscular they are. Both girls skillfully manipulate men into becoming their respective pleasure machines (Turin, 1990).

T.S. Eliot explores a different facet of the mechanical man, using technological language in the human subjects of The Waste Land. He clearly depicts a female character as machine by having her “smooth her hair with automatic hand” bringing up robotic imagery (Eliot, 255). Referring to the metonymic clerk, Eliot describes a “turn upward away from the desk, when the human engine awaits like a taxi, throbbing, waiting” (Eliot, 216). Not only does Eliot explicitly call the clerk an engine, he also throws in the throb of a waiting taxi, the lost vibrational energy that is present in both machine and human (as trembling). In this case, however, when the clerk lifts herself from the desk, she, the human, becomes a waiting taxi, a machine without a human driver—a clever switch on Eliot’s part.

Possibly the most playful of Modernist writers in both process and content was Gertrude Stein. Employing different techniques for most of her work, Stein changed the way the machine and the human worked together. For example, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein used Alice B. Toklas as a machine by ventriloquizing her to share her own story. Part of Stein’s story in the “autobiography” includes her time as a researcher in the Harvard Psychological Laboratory where she studied distracted writing, a method which she then employed for the majority of her own works. Distracted writing is—in essence—a mechanization of the process of writing where the action is infinitely more important than the content (both because the content isn’t important at all and because the action is). In her review with Leon Solomons entitled “Normal Motor Automatism,” she discusses distracted writing as “a condition in which the subject has not the faintest inkling of what he has written. It seems to depend on the lack of associations between the different words—one word going out of consciousness before another has come to be associated with it.”

Due to the research behind her work, BF Skinner, the psychologist, disqualified Stein’s artistic work, but nonetheless, Gertrude Stein’s automatic books like Tender Buttons got great critical reception (with the exception of a few people like Ayn Rand) and distracted writing became a tenet of Modernism and future movements such as Surrealism with writers and poets like Andre Breton and William Carlos Williams celebrating Stein’s style. As a matter of fact, Eliot was said to have employed distracted writing for many of his great works including The Waste Land, which critic Juan A Suarez accurately describes as “zapping through a sort of prerecorded literary archive which seems to be kept on the air at different frequencies” (Schein, 2009). But literature wasn’t the only medium to employ distracted automation as a process. Ezra Pound wrote of automatic painting in his 1915 essay Vorticism: “the painting is done without volition on their part, that their hands are guided by ‘spirits’ or by some mysterious agency over which hey have little or no control.”


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Much like Gertrude Stein and her automatic writings, Marcel Duchamp redefined the art process by introducing the readymade, a work of art that was taken from an every day setting (a bicycle wheel, a toilet, a shovel). Despite the mechanization of the process in that a machine (as opposed to the artist who then re-appropriated the object as art) crafted the work, Duchamp shows a brighter side of Modernism, the ability to acknowledge the art within the quotidian world. And although Duchamp sought to prove that the everyday item was valuable as a form of art, many of his unsigned works such as “The Fountain” were disposed of as junk as opposed to receiving the recognition they deserved.

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The Modernist movement and its Cubist and Futurist offspring were further entranced by the concept of human mechanization both in concept and movement. A human machine, or possibly factory, can be seen in Fernand Leger’s “The Mechanic (1920)” a work long revered as the Mona Lisa of Modernism. The mechanic is not only the creator of automated objects, but in this case seems to also be a machine himself. His muscles and fingers come apart easily almost as if interchangeable and his head tilts mechanically to the side. On top of that, he is smoking, which brings up steam engine imagery, further solidifying the concept of the mechanic as a machine in and of himself.

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A more clear representation of the human as a machine is Fritz Kahn’s “Der Mensch als Industriepalast” (Man as Industrial Palace), a depiction of the internal workings of a man’s body as a specialized factory. Storage and processing takes place at the head and wire clusters carry information down the spine. There is a food processing network in the stomach as well as a conveyor belt replaces the heart which pumps blue pellets in one direction and red pellets in the other. Kahn sought to show that the man and the machine both “exhibit far-reaching similarities. Both derive their energy from the combustion of carbon, which they obtain from plants. Man, the weaker machine, utilizes fresh plants for fuel, while the locomotive, a stronger machine, uses fossilized plants in the form of coal.”

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Kahn’s work is the height of human mechanization and the idea that the body is meant to internally operate as a rational machine as opposed to an emotional being. In terms of external operation, however, Umberto Boccioni’s “Spiral Expansion of Muscles In Space” (right) and “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” (left) both serve as paradigms for mechanical motion. In both cases we see the mapped geometric arcs of all the possible muscular movements at that current position, naturally restricted due to the machine operations that Boccioni portrays. Despite the winged appearance of both figures, they seem heavy, clunky and robotic, likely a reference to the radical championing of the mechanical that made up the Futurist aesthetic. In the Cubist sense of breaking up the larger form, specifically comparing examples from sculptors Jacques Lipchitz (“Man with a Guitar”) and Boccioni (“Development of a Bottle in Space”), one can see that the inanimate form is much like the human form when it is torn down to its base, further erasing the lines between man and machine.


Another great interpretation of mechanized form comes from the artistic film of the time, most notably Ballet Mecanique directed by Fernand Leger in 1924 and Entr’acte done the same year by Rene Clair—the former being an exploration of artistic movement as mechanical imitation and the latter showing a more sinister view or mechanical immortality.

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Ballet Mecanique begins and ends with a mechanized ballerina (shown below), followed by a quick succession of mechanical rotations (amusement park teacups, whisks, slides, pistons, and records) to represent the rotations of a ballerina’s spins. These images are interspersed with images of the ballerina’s eyes, mouth, and body as a way of repurposing the mechanical movement to the ballerina as parts of her body. This motif continues through a display of dancing prosthetic legs near the end which serves to symbolize the union between the human and the mechanical.

In Entr’acte, the major plotline revolves around a car speeding up from a stop, an image interspersed with film of people walking, and then as the car increases its velocity, jogging, and finally frantically running. The imagery is clear; the human will never reach the machine capacity. Then something interesting happens: a coffin falls out of the back of the car. When a group of spectators gathers around the coffin, it slowly opens and a lively young man jumps out—symbolizing the appropriation of replaceable-part, endless machine life to that of mortal humanity. As the people get excited, the revived man suddenly looks distressed, pulls out a wand and starts zapping everyone away, until after a second of utter loneliness, he points the wand at himself and commits magical suicide due to his feelings of helplessness and machine inferiority.

Through art, literature, and film, Modernist influencers were able to provide many examples of the interaction and collision between the human form and the machine form, both as they helped and stopped each other from operating. Despite the endless positive aspects of Modernism, however, many artists and experiencers of the Modernist tradition felt unable to escape a dark and gloomy machine-operated future.


One of the more curious things about Modernism is the fact that many people couldn’t stand the pressure of a mechanical world and reacted negatively to the changes around them—many times through suicide as seen in Entr’acte. Interestingly enough, Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx who had actively predicted the machine aesthetic years prior, committed suicide with two friends due to their feeling of loneliness and inferiority in the newly machine-dominated world. In both literature and the real world, suicide seemed to be the most prevalent and valid form of Modernist escape. From Leopold Bloom’s father who poisoned himself prior to the start of James Joyce’s Ulysses to Ruby Tough who cites &”Greek and Roman reasons, Sturm und Drang reasons, reasons metaphysical, aesthetic, erotic, anterotic, and chemical” as reasons to enlist her friend Balacqua to assist her suicide in Samuel Beckett’s More Prick than Kick, death appeared to be the only way to achieve freedom. This matter is further explored by Virginia Woolf (who herself committed suicide in 1941) by way of Septimus Warren Smith, a depressed veteran in Mrs. Dalloway. When the reader is first introduced Septimus as being suicidal the suite of emotions is described as, “quite alone, condemned, deserted,” but as the novel goes on, Woolf presents a different side, “there was a luxury in it, an isolation full of sublimity; a freedom which the attached can never know”(92). This concept of achieving the sublime through suicide continues through the point at which Mrs. Dalloway finds out of Septimus’ death at the ball and is emotionally affected leading into a quick evaluation of the beauty in suicide: “death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre, which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death”(Woolf, 184).

Despite its ubiquity in the Modernist landscape, suicide was not the only choice. Others like F.T. Marinetti pushed past the fear of human mechanization and decided to embrace the future. This group subsequently became known as the Futurists, the people who savored the taste of and derived their strength from the muck from factory gutters, only willing to see the beauty in the towering, albeit prosthetic, heights of humanity.


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