electric salvation

Wolfgang Schevilbusch in Cabinet:

Schivelbusch1_2Émile Zola was one of countless literati who formulated this hopeful vision. In his utopian novel Work (1900), the factory environment is entirely electrified:

The machines did nearly everything. Driven by electricity, they formed an army of obedient, enduring, and indefatigable workers. If one of their steel arms broke, it could simply be replaced without any pain. The machines had now become the worker’s friend and no longer his competitors as before. They were liberating machines, universal tools that toiled for man while he rested. The only thing that remained for him to do was to monitor and control the machines by pushing levers and buttons. The workday lasted no more than four hours, and no worker was occupied with the same task for more than two of those. When a colleague replaced him, he occupied himself with something else-in public life or in culture-altogether. After electrification had freed factory-halls from their earlier deafening noise, these were filled with the workers’ merry singing. These songs, combined with the quietly and powerfully working machines, produced a hymn to the justice, glory, and redemption of work.2

The literary imagination went even further, it represented the equation “life = electricity” as reversible. Dead matter without a soul could be animated by introducing electrical current. In “Some Words with a Mummy,” Edgar Allan Poe resuscitates an ancient Egyptian corpse in this fashion. Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein brings his monster, constructed from dead body parts, to life with a force like electricity but without referring to it by name (it was the twentieth-century film version that first did that). In his novel l’Ève future, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam creates the ideal woman as an electrically animated automaton. A latecomer to this tradition is the demonically destructive female robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, likewise given life by electricity.

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