Students of Victorian culture are well acquainted with that strain of literature running from Carlyle through Ruskin and Arnold to Morris, which attacks the factory system for brutalizing workers, destroying domestic life, and ruining British taste. Joseph Bizup valuably examines a contrasting strain that used a proindustrial rhetoric to argue that industry was itself a major component of culture. According to Bizup,

During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, an identifiable proindustrial rhetoric, predicated upon the subversion of the antithesis between industry and culture, coalesced within two mutually reinforcing bodies of discourse: the contentious debates over the factory system and its social and aesthetic effects, and the extensive discussions of the aesthetic, social, and commercial importance of "design" for British manufacturers. Within this pair of discourses, culture was reimagined as a coordinated and complementary development of art, science, and commerce, and automatic manufacture was itself construed as a cultural force or agent. Occasionally these views were advanced directly, but more often they were pursued obliquely, as arguments, images, and metaphors. [4]

After an introduction on early nineteenth-century British attitudes toward the relations of industrial capitalism and national culture, Manufacturing Culture examines the rhetoric of the factory system in three very different works: Edward Baine's History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain (1835), Andrew Ure's Philosophy of Manufactures (1835), and William Cooke Taylor's Notes of a Tour in the Manufacturing Districts of Lancashire (1841). Although "Baines writes a Whiggish history of the cotton industry, Ure a technical treatise, and Cook Taylor a piece of free-trade propaganda in the guise of a travel narrative," they counter the Factory Movement's attempts to secure shorter work days and safer, healthier working conditions by "representing the factory as an organic body and the factory system as an expression of English 'genius'" (20). I found this chapter, which skillfully analyzes the details of each argument in terms of its author's political beliefs, one of the best in a very good book.

Equally successful is the following chapter -- "'Beautiful Combinations': Abstraction and Technological Beauty in the Works of Charles Babbage" -- which examines the most widely read early defense of industry, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1832) in the context provided by Baine, Ure, and Cooke Taylor as well as John Ruskin and Elizabeth Gaskell. Babbage, who is best known as the father of computing, held a very modern semiotic theory of language and culture (54).

Babbage is moved less by the presence of machines and manufactures than by what these things embody and represent. In his eyes, machines are not merely ingenious configurations of levers, screws, belts, and gears. They are also material embodiments of abstract concepts and ideas. Manufactures are not "autonomous figures," or commodities in Marx's sense (Capital 165). They are signifiers that gesture toward abstract processes through which they are produced. In The Economy, in other words, Babbage does not offer simply a taxonomy of industrial processes or an exposition of economic principles in their application to manufacture; he also endeavors to distill the gritty materiality of industrial manufacture into the sublime rationality of pure mathematics. This drive toward abstraction, rather than his specific anticipation of the computer, is the true source of Babbage's modernity. [55]

Bizup, who points out that John Thornton in Gaskell's North and South embodies this "new aesthetic vision" (56), also looks at Babbage's attitudes toward the professionalization of science, his view of research as a "communal" effort (69), and his place in the history of aestheticism. Although he does not say so, it appears obvious that Babbage, a particularly fascinating Victorian, anticipates the Futurists and other twentieth-century admirers of technological beauty and sublimity.

Following this chapter (which I found a real intellectual treat), Bizup moves to a very different subject in "'A Debilitated race': Savageness in Social Investigation and Design Theory." According to him, between 1825 and 1850 advocates of industrial manufacturing had to answer two charges: (1) that factory work caused "a dangerous degeneration of the working classes, evident in their malformed bodies and blunted moral sensibilities" and (2) "an equally disturbing deterioration of public taste, evident in the garish ugliness of early Victorian manufactures" (84). To defend industrial manufacturing against these charges, its advocates employed the complex topos of the savage and savagery. Discussing the use of this topos in Smith, Malthus, and Mill, for whom the "savage state functions as civilizations conceptual other" (89), Bizup shows how James Phillips kay and William Pultney Allison also employed this image in debates over the nature of the poor and the colonized. The savage and cultural index becomes particularly complex once writers on art and design, such as Owen Jones, point out that so-called primitive art of the Maoris far surpassed contemporary English deign.

This last point, which closes Bizup's chapter on the savage-as-image, leads to directly to the following one, entitled "'Appropriate Beauty': The Work of Ornament in the Age of Mechanical reproduction," which begins appropriately by discussing Ruskin's "The Nature of Gothic" and continues with explaining various approaches to the decorative arts. "Victorian design theory," Bizup argues, "may . . . be construed as an attempt to reconcile capitalism's celebration of economic and creative autonomy with its concurrent insistence on discipline and control" (121). This chapter devotes much attention to the early years of the periodical variously named The Art Union and The Art Journal, a treasure trove of information on Victorian art.

Chapter five (which follows) concentrates on industrial culture and the Great Exhibition of 1851, in which Bizup points out that defenders of industrialism responded to "the nagging ugliness of English manufactures" by emphasizing the "sophistication of the mode of production" (158) over aesthetic quality. In contrast, those who wished to encourage better design "concentrated on three main issues, each of which had already been discussed in the 1840s but which took on a new import after 1851" (162): (1) "they urged manufacturers to abandon their apparently relentless quest for 'novelty'," (2) they advocated "institutionalization of art education," and (3) they sought to "situate design within the new commercial and social contexts" created by the industrial revolution (162). This chapter, which discusses the work of R. W. Wornum, Richard Redgrave, and Ruskin, makes important contributions to the history of Victorian views of art, design, and art education.

A final chapter provides an excellent discussion of Carlyle, Ruskin, and Morris on the relations of manliness and mechanism. "In the line of social criticism that runs from Carlyle through Ruskin to Morris," Bizup observes, a "concern with the liberty of working men merges with the more abstract idea that culture's ability to operate as counterpoise to material 'civilization' depends upon prior existence of autonomous selves" (177), which in each author relates importantly to an idea of manliness essentially opposed to mechanization. The author ranges widely, including H. G. Wells and others. If this fine study has any weakness, it lies in its too easy movement from theoreticians of the 1830s and '40s to Morris' work of a half century later. Throughout Manufacturing Culture, Bizup repeatedly returns to the writings of the first half of the century, but he never tells us either to what extent Baine, Ure, Cooke Taylor, and Babbage were read in the latter half of the century or even if later authors made similar points. Nonetheless, despite this lack, one must appreciate the way Bizup places Carlyle, Ruskin, and the other Victorian sages in the context of important Victorian debates. He has also provided valuable insights into Victorian design, art education, theories of civilization, and industrial capitalism.

Related Material

References

Bizup, Joseph. Manufacturing Culture: Vindications of Early Victorian Industry. Charlottesville: U. of Virginia Press, 2003.


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Last modified 7 June 2004