Russell Smith: Frankenstein in the Automatic Factory

Frankenstein in the Automatic Factory

Thursday 31 August, 1pm Milgate Room, AD Hope Bldg, SLLL

On 4 November 1818, some eight months after the anonymous publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dr Andrew Ure performed a series of galvanic experiments at Glasgow University on the body of Matthew Clydesdale, hanged for murder an hour earlier. According to Ure’s lurid account published in the 1819 Quarterly Journal of Science, the dead man resumed breathing, opened his eyes and appeared to gesture towards the terrified spectators. In this paper, however, I focus on Ure’s subsequent career as the first scientific consultant to industry and one of the principal theorists of the industrial revolution. Pilloried by Marx in Capital as the ‘Pindar of the Automatic Factory’, Ure was an influential advocate for the transformation, not only of the production process, but of the labouring body, by automatic machinery. Ure’s definition of the word ‘AUTOMATIC’ from his Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines serves to link his electrical experiments and his theorisation of capitalist production:

AUTOMATIC: A term used to designate such economic arts as are carried on by self-acting machinery. The word is employed by the physiologist to express involuntary motions.

I want to explore Frankenstein, modernity’s most protean fable, as a text emerging from the reconceptualization of life and the living body in the industrial revolution, as matter that can be animated by forces such as electricity, and can thus be heightened, sustained, managed and disciplined – in a word, engineered – in the service of capitalist production.

Dr Russell Smith lectures in modern literature and literary theory in SLLL.


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