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With digitalculturebooks, the University of Michigan Press publishes innovative work in new media studies and digital humanities. We began in 2006 as a partnership between MLibrary and the Press, taking advantage of the skills and expertise of staff throughout Michigan Publishing. Our primary goal is to be an incubator for new publishing models in the humanities and social sciences.

The Lives of Machines

The Industrial Imaginary in Victorian Literature and Culture
Tamara Ketabgian
Expanded views of the connection between humans and machines in the Victorian era


Today we commonly describe ourselves as machines that "let off steam" or feel "under pressure." The Lives of Machines investigates how Victorian technoculture came to shape this language of human emotion so pervasively and irrevocably and argues that nothing is more intensely human and affecting than the nonhuman. Tamara Ketabgian explores the emergence of a modern and more mechanical view of human nature in Victorian literature and culture.

Treating British literature from the 1830s to the 1870s, this study examines forms of feeling and community that combine the vital and the mechanical, the human and the nonhuman, in surprisingly hybrid and productive alliances. Challenging accounts of industrial alienation that still persist, the author defines mechanical character and feeling not as erasures or negations of self, but as robust and nuanced entities in their own right. The Lives of Machines thus offers an alternate cultural history that traces sympathies between humans, animals, and machines in novels and nonfiction about factory work as well as in other unexpected literary sites and genres, whether domestic, scientific, musical, or philosophical. Ketabgian historicizes a model of affect and community that continues to inform recent theories of technology, psychology, and the posthuman.

The Lives of Machines will be of interest to students of British literature and history, history of science and of technology, novel studies, psychoanalysis, and postmodern cultural studies.

"The Lives of Machines is intelligent, closely argued, and persuasive, and puts forth a contention that will unsettle the current consensus about Victorian attitudes toward the machine."
—Jay Clayton, Vanderbilt University

Cover image: "Power Loom Factory of Thomas Robinson," from Andrew Ure, The Philosophy of Manufactures (London: Charles Knight, 1835), frontispiece.

Tamara Ketabgian is Associate Professor and Chair of English at Beloit College.

Praise / Awards

  • "This fascinating and challenging book stages an intervention not only in our habitual readings of the Victorian industrial novel, but also in our larger sense of how and when we have (re)conceived humanness in relation to machines."
    The British Society for Literature and Science

  • "Victorian scholarship has lately been catching up with Victorian machinery. As Tamara Ketabgian convincingly argues, Victorian studies has been shaped, or more precisely deformed, by a pervasive technophobia unquestioningly adopted from the Tory critiques of industry by John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle, and continued in the Marxian critical tradition exemplified by Raymond Williams. … Ketabgian's new book complements [recent] revisionist studies by arguing that Victorian industry spawned what she calls the 'vital machine.'" 
    —Herbert Sussman, New Books on Literature 19

  • "Ketabgian weaves a rich and complex vision of industrial imagery in Victorian literature and is able to show the interplay between nonfiction, fiction, and the apprehensive optimism with which Victorians regarded their rapidly changing world. The book is deceptively compact and presents an in-depth study bolstered by solid research and a fascinating perspective."
    Studies in the Novel

  • "...dismantles the easy oppositions between the emotional and the robotic, the organic and the mechanical, and the human and the machine that still dominate much thinking about the period. It reminds us that Victorian culture serves as a prelude to and a resource for postmodern theories of human identity."
    —Susan Zlotnick, Vassar College, Victorian Studies

  • "With The Lives of Machines, Tamara Ketabgian has produced an illuminating investigation into the affective power of technology in Victorian literature and art."
    —Timothy Cooper, Technology and Culture
  • "Ketabgian’s close attention to the language of mechanical emotion should provide some thought-provoking new ideas for historians of technology and industrialization." 
     ---Journal of Modern History

Look Inside

Copyright © 2011, University of Michigan. All rights reserved.

Classroom Resources

Discussion Questions | Word doc

News, Reviews, Interviews

Read: Tamara Ketabgian interviewed in NPR (Link) | 2/23/2016

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 252pp.
  • 6 B&W illustrations.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 2011
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-05140-3

Add to Cart
  • $36.95 U.S.

  • Open Access
  • 2011
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-90035-0

Read Online


  • Technology and literature, Victorian factories, Victorian Machines, Victorian steam engines, Victorian technology, Victorian industrialism, Victorian novel, Nineteenth-century British literature and culture, Nineteenth-century British industrial literature and culture, Technoculture, history of technology, Literature and science, Affect, emotion, psychology, Postmodern, Posthuman, Prosthesis, Animal machine, Mechanical, Organic, Charles Babbage, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Franz Liszt, Karl Marx, Harriet Martineau, Samuel Smiles