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Joseph Drury. Novel Machines: Technology and Narrative Form in Enlightenment Britain. Reviewed by Deven M. Parker

Monday, January 4, 2021 - 09:12

Joseph Drury. Novel Machines: Technology and Narrative Form in Enlightenment Britain (Oxford University Press, 2018.) 272 pp., 8 B&W illus. (Hdbk., $90.00; ISBN 9780198792383.)


Deven M. Parker

Queen Mary University of London

Joseph Drury’s Novel Machines: Technology and Narrative Form in Enlightenment Britain breaks new ground in the field of technology and literary studies not just because it offers deep historical dives into several under-researched areas of eighteenth-century technology and science—musical instruments and medicine, carriage and road design, and theatrical engineering, among many others—but even more so because it theorizes a mutually constitutive and constantly evolving relationship between technology and literary form. The argument at the book’s center is that eighteenth-century novelists sought to transform the novel into a machine that could produce knowledge about the world, much like those other Enlightenment machines, such as air pumps and automata, that scientific philosophers believed could recreate natural phenomenon in order to help them better understand it. It follows, then, that if the novel’s formal devices are the component parts of a machine, alterations in literary form subsequently change the kinds of knowledge that machine—the novel—produces. In chapter one, Drury explores how with the breakdown of barriers between the arts and sciences in the early eighteenth century, authors and critics sought to “devise natural histories of the progress of literature and to ground its practice in a set of scientific principles” (27), transforming the novel from a dangerous French import into a machine that could mediate subjectivity and produce knowledge. At the same time, Drury demonstrates how establishing the novel as a machine opened it up to the criticism of those who attacked new technologies on ideological and moral grounds. Just as in the present, machines elicited public responses that ranged from exuberant acceptance to fearful suspicion. This meant that the novelists that Drury takes up had to adapt their novels’ machinery in response to this criticism, reengineering their narrative machines through various formal innovations so that they could better serve useful ends. Chapter two reads moments of protracted deliberation in Eliza Haywood’s seduction novels as one such innovation that the author used to respond to early eighteenth-century anxieties about the immorality of both novels and mechanical philosophy, while chapter three reads Henry Fielding’s performative narrator in Tom Jones (1749) as the formal manifestation of spectacular machinery that served in the production of Enlightenment knowledge, machinery that some Augustan writers worried looked too much like entertainment to be of epistemological value. Rounding out the book, chapter four reads protracted digressions in Tristram Shandy (1759) as Laurence Sterne’s response to concerns about the alienating effects of both fast-moving carriages and plots, while chapter five takes up representations of music and sound in Ann Radcliffe’s gothic novels in the context of debates about the medicinal benefits and harmful effects of “ethereal” instruments (the Aeolian harp and the glass harmonica) on the body’s nerves. 

As each chapter maps a connection between a formal features of a given work and some larger cultural debate about a particular machine, Novel Machines doesn’t seek to claim a one-to-one correspondence between the two; instead, the variation and contradictions we see in novels’ machinery, and even within individual novels, is construed as a response to rather than an effect of technology’s influence. This model avoids the techno-determinist pitfalls of a Foucauldian approach to technology’s effects on the novel—where each innovation performs some disciplinary function—as well as what Drury terms the “Pinchbeckian” approach in which the novel’s machinistic attributes are seen as merely symptomatic of larger cultural forces. Instead, Drury adopts the “constructivist” method of Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway, among others, to articulate a relationship between literature and technology that is mutually constitutive and constantly in flux, stressing “the variety and adventitiousness of modern technology’s uses and effects in different contexts” (10). This approach helps to explain the contradictions Drury locates not just in the ways novelists’ treated the novel as a machine, but also in how narrative machinery operates within the same novel. In his chapter on Radcliffe, for example, this approach explains why we see music and acousmatic sounded portrayed as both palliative and harmful in equal measure; in practical terms, this method accords with the broad range of uses and effects of a given machine and not merely those we ascribe to it. This is an exciting approach because it opens up new ways of reading disciplinary technologies—and the literature they inform—as more than simply shaping art in terms of power. Drury demonstrates this in his coda through a powerful reading of William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794), arguing that the novel deploys the panoptic machinery of broadsheet criminal biographies as an unexpected instrument for reforming the unjust legal system they served. By asking what happens if we take seriously the idea that the novel itself is a machine, Novel Machines ultimately makes the case for literature as a powerful vehicle for social and political change.