3. The Non-Orientability of the Mechanical in Thomas Carlyle’s Early Essays

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Alessia Pannese


Thomas Carlyle’s early writings epitomise the critical stance towards the utilitarian culture of the age, which Carlyle condemns for glorifying the ‘outward’, i.e. the physical world of machinery, governed by automaticity and mechanical principles, at the expense of the ‘inward’, i.e. the spiritual realm of the human individual, whose hallmarks are instead free volition and agency, and to which automaticity and mechanical principles are foreign. By the 19th century, however, the distinction between human and machine was becoming increasingly problematic. Drawing from Thomas Carlyle’s essays “Signs of the Times” (1829) and “Characteristics” (1831), and from earlier physiological texts with which they engage—chiefly David Hartley’s Observations on Man (1749)—, I explore the tension between the understanding of the human in terms of free will and agency, and the physiological evidence that human thought and behaviour are partly automatic. I argue that the understanding of human nature as partly automatic destabilises Carlyle’s categories of ‘outward’ and ‘inward’ by disrupting their underlying assumption of a clear boundary between man and machine based on their functioning (the latter) or not (the former) according to mechanical principles, entailing instead a fluid connotation whereby the ‘mechanical’ is defined as much by identification with the ‘human’ as in opposition to it. I conclude by offering a geometric illustration of the destabilised inward-outward boundary through the metaphor of non-orientable surfaces (e.g. Möbius strip and Klein bottle), in which it is impossible to distinguish an inside and an outside.}


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