Butler, Samuel

    Samuel Butler’s Erewhon

    Marija Grech


    Traditional notions of the humanist subject have been challenged in contemporary discourse by a growing awareness of what has been termed, following the work of Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler, the ‘originary technicity’ of the human. Recognising technicity as inherent to and inseparable from the human as such, contemporary theorists may be thought of as proto-posthumanist. One such text is Samuel Butler’s 1872 novel Erewhon which voices the fears and ambitions of an age marked by the swift technological developments of the Industrial Revolution.

    The three most widely discussed chapters of the novel, titled ‘The Book of the Machines’, question man’s assumed mastery over technology and explore the possible effects that continued technological progress might have on the human race. Many of these ideas parallel contemporary concerns over man’s relationship with technology, reflecting what Stiegler has described as the “paradox of contemporary technics in which it reveals itself at one and the same time as human power […] and as the power for the self-destruction of humanity”.[1] The three chapters present the arguments of two Erewhonian writers; one a ‘machinist’ apologist who believes that technology is a mere prosthetic aide to the human, and the other a technophobic ‘anti-machinist’ who fears the subjugation of man at the hands of the machine. These two opposing viewpoints are echoed in present-day arguments that either exult in man’s technological prowess or, alternatively, bemoan man’s dependence on machines. However, as Bernard Stiegler notes, both of these viewpoints, where they occur, remain “caught up in the workings of oppositions inherited from metaphysics […] and are reduced to opposing the human and the technical”.[2]

    Despite being presented as diametrically opposed to one another, the arguments of Erewhon’s machinist and anti-machinist authors both depend on liberal humanist notions of man and machine that can be traced all the way back to Aristotle. As Arthur Bradley suggests, the history of philosophy has been dominated by the Aristotelian conception of technics as “a prosthesis (pro-thesis, literally, that-which-is-placed-in-front-of) to nature, thought and the human, with no formative or reproductive power of its own, that can be utilised for good or ill depending upon who or what happens to wield it”.[3] Despite the differences in their arguments, both the machinist and anti-machinist authors view the machine as an object that is, or at least that should be, under the full control and mastery of a human subject.

    However, the text also suggests a different possible understanding of man’s relationship with technology. Buried under the liberal humanist rhetoric of human mastery is a conception of technics that preempts the contemporary notion of ‘originary technicity’. According to the machinist author, technological devices may be thought of as “supplementary” or “extra-corporeal limbs”[4] that work in conjunction with the human mind and body in a process of mutual development or co-evolution – what Stiegler, in his analysis of the writings of paleoanthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan, describes as a process of “structural coupling” in which man creates technology while being in turn created by technology.[5] A similar understanding of the man-machine relationship permeates the writings of the anti-machinist author, who claims that “it is the machines which act upon man and make him man, as much as man who has acted upon and made the machines”.[6] “Man’s very soul” he explains, “is due to the machines; it is a machine-made thing: he thinks as he thinks, and feels as he feels, through the work that machines have wrought upon him, and their existence is quite as much a sine qua non for his, as his for theirs”.[7]

    As numerous thinkers have pointed out, this ‘structural coupling’ between man and machine reveals an inherent technological otherness within the human that is integral – an ‘originary technicity’ that serves as “the empirico-transcendental condition of life itself”.[8] Accordingly, as David Wills suggests, the human must be “understood to become technological as soon as it becomes human, to be always already turning that way”.[9] In recognising this co-evolutionary process, Samuel Butler’s text may be said to problematise the notions of human mastery and control over technology and, in a proto-posthumanist gesture, deconstruct the liberal humanist rhetoric that lies at the heart of the machinist’s and anti-machinist’s arguments.

    Written more than 140 years ago, this novel preempts many of the arguments witnessed in contemporary debates about the growing power of technology. Indeed the novel describes a society in which fear and suspicion over the dangers of technological progress lead to the eradication of all complex forms of machinery in an attempt to reduce man’s dependence on machines and return to a simpler way of life. However, the novel also suggests that such a post-technological society can never be achieved because technics is inherent to and inseparable from human nature itself. If man is always already marked by an inherent relationship with technics, then a post-technological society would necessarily also be one that is no longer human.

    — Cardiff University, October 2014

    Keywords: Samuel Butler; Erewhon; originary technicity; prosthesis


    [1] Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time I: The Fault of Epimetheus, trans. Richard Beardsworth and George Collins (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 85.

    [2] Stiegler, p. 95.

    [3] Arthur Bradley, Originary Technicity: The Theory of Technology from Marx to Derrida (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 5.

    [4] Samuel Butler, Erewhon: Over the Range (London: Trubner & Co., 1872), pp. 172-173.

    [5] Stiegler, p. 158.

    [6] Erewhon, p. 171.

    [7] Erewhon, p. 158.

    [8] Bradley, p. 14.

    [9] David Wills, Dorsality: Thinking Back Through Technology and Politics(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), pp. 3-4.