babbage's dancer

Introduction

In a very well-known passage of Capital, Marx described labour as 'a process between man and nature' through which man 'acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature.' Intelligence made the labour process distintively human. 'What distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees,' Marx argued, ' is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax.' In this paper, we explore the relationship between intellectual and manual labour in the culture which Marx himself studied, the industrial-scientific complex of early nineteenth century England. Like him, we ask (a) how such labour processes change human capacities just much as they transform nature, (b) how different kinds of workers can be said to build structures in the mind and (c) how intelligence can be embodied in the labour process. My paper focuses on the work of Charles Babbage, whose designs for thinking machines, minature factories to process numbers launched in London between the 1820s and the 1850s, now figure so largely in the standard histories of computers. This is a story about automata because such devices, capable of self-government and intelligence, helped people understand the new factory system and also Babbage's intelligent machines. And this paper is about the place of intelligence and its display, because geography was crucial for the politics of the machinery system. When Victorians defined where the intelligence of a system was, they were defining where the political control of theat system was vested. Marx's parable of the architect and the bee is important, both becasue it draws our attention to the problem of thinking and unthinking labour, and because it reminds us that the place where thinking happens is a key aspect of any working machine. Marx was Babbage's most penetrating London reader, and during debates with the city's workers about mechanisation in 1856, he announced the 'all our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force.' A year later, he observed that 'it is the machine, which possess skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself a virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it.' Within the 'system of machinery, the automatic one is merely the most complete, most adequate form, and alone transforms machinery into a system.' What follows is an attempt to examine some implications of this 'automatic system' by taking the geography of automata very seriously indeed.

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