n his "Sign of the Times," Thomas Carlyle takes issue with developments and tendencies of his time, which he dubs the "Mechanical Age" (p. 2). For Carlyle, the introduction of machinery into every facet of life — whether it be the mechanization of weaving (p. 2), or "the Machine of Society" (p. 5) — has transformed the collective ideology of society and, more importantly, the thought processes of the Great Minds who decipher the times. So enamored with machinery, both the commoner and the Great Mind have come to emulating machines, and subject themselves to their workings. Thus, Carlyle argues that the very nature of man has been changed: he has become a machine. Or, perhaps more accurately, the nature of man is vanishing, as the societal cogs grind and churn out something to take its place — something that, oddly enough, is man's own handiwork.
The Philosopher of this age is not a Socrates, a Plato, a Hooker, or Taylor, who inculcates on men the necessity and infinite worth of moral goodness, the great truth that our happiness depends on the mind which is within us, and not on the circumstances which are without us; but a Smith, a De Lolme, a Bentham, who chiefly inculcates the reverse of this, — that our happiness depends entirely on external circumstances; nay, that the strength and dignity of the mind within us is itself the creature and- consequence of these. Were the laws, the government, in good order, all were well with us; the rest would care for itself! Dissentients from this opinion, expressed or implied, are now rarely to be met with; widely and angrily as men differ in its application, the principle is admitted by all. [p. 6]
Jeremy Bentham,, one of the Mechanical Age philosophers alluded to by Carlyle, devised an architectural scheme for a prison that hinged on this notion of "external circumstances" shaping "the strength and dignity of the mind" (p. 6). Called the panopticon, the structure consists simply of a cylindrical tower surrounded by a circular building. The latter houses all of the cells, which face in towards the tower. This arrangement, Bentham believed, would cause inmates to police themselves, as the watchtower — which, Bentham said proudly, could work just as well without anyone in it — would serve as a constant reminder of the warden's gaze. Thus, the prisoner internalizes his "external circumstances" (p. 6); the warden and the prison affect his "mind which is within" (p.6); or, indeed, they come to replace it. The prisoner becomes an automaton that functions like the panopticon itself — a machine made from a machine. As Michel Foucault writes in his essay "Discipline and Punish," the inmate "inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection" (227). With this in mind:
1. How does this relate to Carlyle's statement that "the strength and dignity of the mind within us is itself the creature and consequence of (external circumstances)" (p. 6)? How could the panopticon be seen as emblematic of Carlyle's analysis of the Mechnical Age?
2. Twice in this work Carlyle refers to bad dreams (pp. 1, 11) as a condition of the times. How could this relate to the mechanization of the mind, and the internalization of the exterior? Does it have anything to do with the subconscious? Does this question make any sense?
3. What is Carlyle's fear of a "principle... admitted by all" (p. 6)? Is it simply this principle that he fears, or the agreement as well?
4. How do notions of time and timekeeping play into this passage?
5. Does the argument of "Sign of the Times" have any mechanical characteristics? Is there any way in which Carlyle, perhaps unknowingly, does what he denounces?
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
Last modified 7 March 2005