The Eclipse of the Utopias of Labor

The Eclipse of the Utopias of Labor

The Eclipse of the Utopias of Labor

The Eclipse of the Utopias of Labor

Synopsis

The Eclipse of the Utopias of Labor traces the shift from the eighteenth-century concept of man as machine to the late twentieth-century notion of digital organisms. Step by step--from Jacques de Vaucanson and his Digesting Duck, through Karl Marx's Capital, Hermann von Helmholtz's social thermodynamics, Albert Speer's Beauty of Labor program in Nazi Germany, and on to the post-Fordist workplace, Rabinbach shows how society, the body, and labor utopias dreamt up future societies and worked to bring them about.

This masterful follow-up to The Human Motor, Rabinbach's brilliant study of the European science of work, bridges intellectual history, labor history, and the history of the body. It shows the intellectual and policy reasons as to how a utopia of the body as motor won wide acceptance and moved beyond the "man as machine" model before tracing its steep decline after 1945--and along with it the eclipse of the great hopes that a more efficient workplace could provide the basis of a new, more socially satisfactory society.

Excerpt

My 1990 book, The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Moder nity (New York: Basic Books), revolves around the distinction between machines and motors as metaphors of the body at work. Modern productivism, I argue, presupposes that human society and nature are linked by the primacy and ultimate interchangeability of productive activity of the body technology, or nature. the social imaginary of productivism is characterized by an understanding of the conversion of force or energy, an idea which first appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century. in the premodern Newtonian universe, diverse forces (gravity, wind, water, or horses, for example) push, pull, or turn machines, generating motion. in the Helmholtzian universe, which had matured by the 1850s, force or Kraft is converted into work by motors—whether human or human-made. Unlike the metaphor of the machine, the metaphor of the motor is productivist because it rests on an industrial model of a calculable channeling of energy, converted from nature to society. Comparing the human body to a motor rather than a machine meant making it something altogether other than a conduit of force: it was a converter of energy identical to the action performed by technology or nature.

My investigation of the human motor as a figure of nineteenth-century transcendental materialism was also an attempt to elaborate on the distinction between the image of the motor and earlier representations of the working body. in that book’s conclusion, I anticipated a further study of the ways in which the metaphor of the motor lost much of its compelling power in the second half of the twentieth century, in large part because of the emergence of a different set of metaphors designed to articulate the experience . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.