The Machine in Anglophone Arts and Literature

Diane Drouin's picture
Call for Papers
March 25, 2019
Subject Fields: 
Literature, American History / Studies, Art, Art History & Visual Studies, British History / Studies, Theatre & Performance History / Studies

Call For Papers

 The Machine in Anglophone Arts and Literature

One-day Conference – May 28th, 2019 - SORBONNE - PARIS

 organised by the doctoral team OVALE

Research Unit VALE (EA 4085), Faculté des Lettres de Sorbonne Université


Studying the machine within a literary context requires a dialogue between art and science. It is difficult to envision the machine outside of the context of scientific evolution, whether we think of the Renaissance and Da Vinci’s inventions and flying machines or the all-encompassing and powerful robots of the 21st century. According to Aristotle’s definition in Mechanical Problems, the machine is what enables us to defeat Nature to serve our own interests. From Turner’s paintings to Chaplin’s Modern Times, the machine has nurtured the imagination in anglophone arts and literature, despite the fact that the complex arrangement of gears is not something commonly associated to spontaneous artistic creativity. However, machines have durably and undoubtedly transformed the arts and their reception: printing, reproduction techniques, as well as typewriters and computers have broadened the access to serialized works of art. Sophisticated devices have driven cinema from the Silent Age to the “talkies”, while technicolour and special effects have given way to the most innovative cinematic creations.

First a symbol of modernity, the machine soon became synonymous with capitalist production and the necessity for constant optimization. The Industrial Revolution was pivotal in transforming the representation of machines both aesthetically as well as technically as both Dickens’s Hard Times and Whitman’s “To A Locomotive in Winter” clearly demonstrate. Celebrating industrial progress is also at the core of literary projects led by early 20th-century avant-gardes, such as Ezra Pound and his famous “Make it new!”. The machine also becomes an object of thought in Wyndham Lewis’ vorticist magazine, Blast. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto lauds the danger, speed and constant movement of mechanical inventions, which are as symbolic as they are instrumental to progress.

But along with this enduring fascination grows the fear of replacement and an irreversible dependency of man towards machines, especially when the latter surpass their inventors as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: the monster’s made-up, fragmented body, analogous to the assembled elements of a mechanical structure, becomes an embodiment of that fear. The machine as a useful tool gives way to the intrusive machine, a mechanical body that threatens to come to life. The genre of science fiction attempts to come to terms with man’s own humanity. This leads us to question the very mechanisms of what Descartes describes as the reasoning body, as well as the Deleuzian conceptualisation of the body as a “desiring machine” (machine désirante). In the theatre, the conception of the body as automaton becomes the ideal actor’s body for Edward Gordon Craig who describes it as an “Über-marionnette”. The genre of dystopia, from Huxley’s Brave New World to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, shows the implacable mechanics of political power, while technology becomes a means of surveillance and a totalitarian device of an oppressive, dehumanizing system. Current debates regarding the issue of artificial intelligence, cybernetics (Wiener, Porush), and robotics are at the core of the questions investigated by transhumanism and posthumanism (Hayles). While transhumanism explores the aspirations to a technologically improved human experience, posthumanism offers a more critical stance, highlighting the sense of threat emanating from increasingly dematerialized machines.

Nonetheless, far from reducing the machine to a cold, efficient and purely scientific contraption, many works of art and literature endow the machine with a creative potential that can become a source of artistic inspiration, not unlike Anne Sexton’s typewriter, which she endows with spontaneous, divine inspiration (“God is in your typewriter”). Discussing the machine from an aesthetic and literary perspective helps us rethink the coexistence of a functioning/dysfunctioning paradigm: if a dysfunctioning machine may be deemed useless for industrial purposes, art might redeem it by endowing it with creative value. Optic devices may even change the way we observe the world: cameras, much like mirrors, create illusions and transform the way we look at reality, as in Lewis Caroll’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass or many Gothic and fantastic narratives that filter reality and allow a new perspective (Milner).

To some extent, the preconception that opposes science to art and machine to creation might be just as illusory. The interdependency between these polarized fields invites us to think about artistic or literary inspiration as being closely linked to the machine: not only does the machine technically enable creation, but it can also be its source. It is particularly fruitful to study the dynamics between invention and dependency, fascination and rejection, mastering and fearing the machine: they prove crucial to the representation of the machine in arts and literature.


   Papers that adopt an interdisciplinary approach (philosophy, history, sociology…) are more than welcome. Papers may explore (but are not limited to) the following themes:

·       Machine as an object of literary/aesthetic representation

·       Interdependence between the machine and the body

·       Machine as metaphor for power / the mechanics of political power

·       Machine in relation to gender studies

·       Machine as a dual tool for progress/oppression

·       Machine and literary/aesthetic avant-gardes

·       Theatre and the machine

·       The role of new technologies in literature and contemporary art


Abstracts of about 300 words, written in French or English, can be sent to the following email address, along with a short bio: Papers should be 20-minute long.

 Submission deadline: March 25th, 2019

Notification of acceptance by mid-April, 2019



Arendt, Hannah, La Condition de l’homme moderne (1958), trad. Georges Fradier, Paris : Calmann Levy, 2018.

AristoteProblèmes Mécaniques, Paris : Les Belles Lettres, 2017.

Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), Londres : Penguins Books, 2008.

Berghaus, Günter, « Futurism and the Technological Imagination Poised Between Machine Cult and Machine Angst », Futurism and the Technological Imagination, ed. Günter Berghaus, Amsterdam : Rodopi, 2009, 1-40.

Besnier, Jean-Michel, Demain les posthumains : le futur a-t-il encore besoin de nous ?, Paris : Hachette pluriel, 2009.

Broeckmann, Andreas, Machine Art in the Twentieth-Century, Cambridge, Mass. : The MIT Press 2016.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix GuattariL’Anti-Œdipe, Paris : Éditions de Minuit, 1972.

Descartes, René, Discours de la méthode (1637), Paris : Flammarion, 2000.

Haraway, Donna, « A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century » (1985), Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York : Routlegde, 1991.

Haken, Hermann, Uno Svedin and Anders KarlqvistThe Machine as Metaphor and Tool, Berlin : Springer, 1993.

Haslanger, Andrea, « From Man-Machine to Woman Machine : Automata, Fiction, and Femininity in Dibdin’s Hannah Hewit and Burney’s Camilla », Modern Philology111.4. (May 2014), 788-817.

Hayles, N. Katherine, How We Become Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, Chicago : The U of Chicago P, 1999.

Ketabgian, Tamara, The Lives of Machines : The Industrial Imaginary in Victorian Literature and Culture, Ann Arbor : The U of Michigan P, 2011.

Krzywkowski, Isabelle, Machines à écrire : littérature et technologies du XIXe au XXIe siècle, Grenoble, Ellug, 2011.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, La Pensée sauvage (1962), Paris : Pocket, 1990.

Milner, Max, La Fantasmagorie, Paris, PUF, 1982.

Orvell, Miles, After the Machine: Visual Arts and the Erasing of Cultural Boundaries, Jackson : UP of Mississipi, 1995.

Perloff, Marjorie, The Futurist Moment : Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre and the Language of Rupture, Chicago : The U of Chicago P, 1986.

Porush, David, The Soft Machine : Cybernetic Fiction (1984), New York, Taylor and Francis, 2018.

Serres, Michel, « Turner traduit Carnot », La Traduction. Hermes III, Éditions de Minuit, 1974.

Wiener, Norbert, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948), Cambridge, Mass. : The MIT Press, 1965.


Contact information:


Practical information:

·       The conference is public.

·       The scientific committee is composed of Omayyah Al-Shabab, Anouk Bottero, and Diane Drouin, PhD candidates and members of the Board of OVALE, as well as of Professor Elisabeth Angel-Perez, Professor Line Cottegnies, and Professor Frédéric Regard.

·       Selected papers will be published in the online journal edited by VALE members, Sillages Critiques.

·       The conference will be held at the Maison de la Recherche of Sorbonne Université, in Paris (28, rue Serpente 75006).


Contact Info: 

Laboratoire Ovale doctoral team, Sorbonne Université.

You can send your proposals and questions to the organisers :

Diane Drouin :

Anouk Bottero :

Omayyah Al-Shabab :

Laboratoire Ovale :

Contact Email: