Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination (MIT Press)

Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination (MIT Press)

Language: English

Pages: 304

ISBN: 0262731908

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


The underground has always played a prominent role in human imaginings, both as a place of refuge and as a source of fear. The late nineteenth century saw a new fascination with the underground as Western societies tried to cope with the pervasive changes of a new social and technological order. In Notes on the Underground, Rosalind Williams takes us inside that critical historical moment, giving equal coverage to actual and imaginary undergrounds. She looks at the real-life invasions of the underground that occurred as modern urban infrastructures of sewers and subways were laid, and at the simultaneous archaeological excavations that were unearthing both human history and the planet's deep past. She also examines the subterranean stories of Verne, Wells, Forster, Hugo, Bulwer-Lytton, and other writers who proposed alternative visions of the coming technological civilization. 

Williams argues that these imagined and real underground environments provide models of human life in a world dominated by human presence and offer a prophetic look at today's technology-dominated society. In a new essay written for this edition, Williams points out that her book traces the emergence in the nineteenth century of what we would now call an environmental consciousness--an awareness that there will be consequences when humans live in a sealed, finite environment. Today we are more aware than ever of our limited biosphere and how vulnerable it is. Notes on the Underground, now even more than when it first appeared, offers a guide to the human, cultural, and technical consequences of what Williams calls "the human empire on earth."

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skeleton. The skeleton had been scattered by the workmen, its age was a mystery, and no animal remains were found with it. Most baffling of all was Chapter 2 36 the shape of the skull-a low narrow forehead, large projected ridges above the eyes, and thick cranial bones. When Lyell presented a cast of the Neanderthal skull to Huxley, the latter "remarked at once that it was the most apelike skull he had ever beheld. "34 Huxley's widely read 1863 essay Man's Place in Nature included a long

mountain-becomes their leader; when they follow him, the original state of equality and harmony is restored. "*4 Like the triumphal entrance to the Edge Hill tunnel, and like the lithographs of Bourne and other artists, Kingsley's novel invested tunneling with symbolic stature, making it a metaphor for the abstract progress of civilization. This glorification, though, contradicted the realities of subterranean labor. While excavation and tunneling were being glorified as emblems of civilization,

characteristic of the neotechnic age of electricity. If contemporary technological practices helped shape the aesthetic discourse, that discourse in turn shaped responses to technology. Aesthetic vocabularies first applied to the subterranean environment in particular were extended to the manufactured environment in general. Machinery too is not considered beautiful by traditional aesthetic standards, and may even be considered positively ugly. Like the subterranean environment, the mechanical

he began to withdraw from society. After years of abject poverty and utter isolation, Villiers finally began to receive recognition as a writer in the 1880s, thanks in part to the support of his new friend Huysmans. Villiers had begun to write L ' E V future ~ in 1877 or 1878, and a first draft appeared in 1880. The final version was published in 1886, by which time Villiers was broken in health. He died in 1889 from stomach cancer. ~ ' ~future v e opens by introducing its hero: "Twenty-five

reshaping Western civilization. In these narratives the description of the supposedly discovered land or lands, besides being entertaining, is often intended to comment upon contemporary society by presenting an alternative at once strange and recognizable. The best-known imaginary voyage in English is Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, but there are many others; one scholar has cataloged 215 such tales written between 1700 and 1800.30The plot devices are simple and oft-repeated: a shipwreck on

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