PRINT September 1990


Notes on the Underground

Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination, by Rosalind Williams. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990, 265 pp., 17 black and white illustrations, $19.95.

JUST AS the historian of religion Mircea Eliade argued that the Neolithic shift from a pastoral, nomadic way of life to a settled, agricultural civilization precipitated a phase of profound upheaval and spiritual breakdown, so Rosalind Williams contends in her new book, Notes on the Underground, that the apprehension of losing the natural world to a predominantly technological one has triggered deep mourning and anxiety. This loss is far from simple. In line with the thinking of Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, Williams asserts that “environment and technology constitute not a dichotomy but a continuum” and asks “whether destruction of the natural environment might be culturally as well as physically harmful to human life.”

In this book, subtitled “An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination,” Williams aims to show how beginning in the 19th century technoscientific empiricism and artistic imagination conditioned each other and combined to form a new and potent metaphor for the environment—the world of the underground—the defining characteristic of which was the exclusion of nature. As she writes, “The subterranean environment is a technological one—but it is also a mental landscape, a social terrain, and an ideological map.” Extending the purview of her earlier book, Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth-Century France (1982), a consideration of the problem of ever-dwindling resources and how social relations are organized around them, Williams here examines a combination of historical documents and literary narratives to disclose “the psychological, social, and political implications of living in a technological world.”

That the salient radical theories of the 19th century should in some way reference geological strata is one proof to Williams of the primacy of the underground in the human imagination. Marx spoke of an economic base underlying an ideological superstructure; Freud referred to the subconscious; Jung proposed a collective unconscious. “It is,” as Williams writes, “the combination of enclosure and verticality—a combination not found either in cities or in spaceships—that gives the image of an underworld its unique power as a model of a technological environment,” and she credits Lewis Mumford as the first to define the underground in these terms.

In Technics and Civilization (1934), Mumford argued that the first stage of the industrial revolution was driven by the products of mining, coal and iron ore. But industrialism made mining ore, once a respected enterprise, more arduous and hazardous (even lethal) than it had ever been before. One of the first union movements, the Molly McGuires of Appalachia, arose in response to these poor conditions. The escalated demand for metals and fossil fuels, instead of disclosing an enchanted realm, contributed to the advent of what Mumford called “the manufactured environment”; more efficient mining necessitated wholly new systems of ventilation and lighting; the miner found himself isolated in a thoroughly inorganic world, cut off from plants and sunlight. From this image Mumford extrapolated his concept of “megatechnics,” which he developed in the 1960s, wherein the discrete hand tool is absorbed by an all-encompassing structure designed for automatic operation and completely divorced from the organic habitat. More and more, he observed, the city became an extension of the mine, going from metropolis to megalopolis to necropolis. For him it marked the end of humanity’s primeval state, the end of its direct bonds to the soil.

Simultaneous with this transformation, the earth was given a new symbolic value, as if to compensate for what had been left behind. In a chapter whose subtitle is “Digging Down to Truth,” Williams explains how the activity of excavation became an intellectual paradigm for truth, for reaching the bedrock of authenticity—just as real geological and archaeological excavations were beginning to shatter Western civilization’s preconceptions about its origins. Williams discusses, among others, Abraham Gottlob Werner (1750–1817), who postulated the orderly layering of rocks and soil or the “stratigraphic column,” Baron Georges Cuvier (1769–1832), who added “the flesh of paleontology” to the strata, and Charles Lyell (1797–1875), whose Principles of Geology (1830–33) depicted a bottomless stratigraphic column. Most daunting was the admission, fostered by Lyell’s researches, that human history made for but a brief episode in the sweep of geological time, though paleontology, too, implicitly challenged conventional religious doctrine by bringing to light unforeseen, even disturbing, remains of extinct animals and primitive humans. Under the weight of such mounting evidence, biblical creationist theory gave way to the theory of evolution; Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859 in the wake of such revelations.

John Lubbock’s Prehistoric Times of 1865 popularized the term “prehistoric” and linked geology to history via archaeology. This new science placed humanity’s modest role in cosmic time in a new perspective. Jacquetta Hawkes distinguishes between scientific archaeology, which concerns prehistoric origins, and humanistic archaeology, which concerns ancient civilizations—although she allows that the latter term masks the field’s often imperialistic underpinnings. Indeed, modern humanistic archaeology began with the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt when, in 1798, French soldiers discovered the Rosetta stone while digging the foundations for a fort.

Though with hindsight we might accuse the diggers of the cultural expropriation inherent in even the most careful of their operations, we cannot deny their professed feelings of awe as they entered ancient pyramids, tombs, and crypts. Conversely, their finds allowed certain contemporary writers to imagine their own civilizations as future ruins. In his poetic cycle À l’arc de triomphe (1823), Victor Hugo envisioned a vanished Paris where only traces of Sainte-Chapelle, the Vendôme column, and the Arc de Triomphe remained. Meditating on his own aging, Maxime du Camp wrote the kind of history of Paris he wished the historians of antiquity had written. Maudlin as these ruminations may have been, they helped to inspire a lively new literary form—science fiction. Yet if sci-fi has come to evoke visions of flying saucers and interplanetary exploration, the first narratives, like Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Descent into the Maelstrom” (1841) or his novella The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), involved detailed fantasies of the underground. Williams sees this subterranean genre as dividing into two distinct types: the first, narratives of exploration and discovery, the second, those of migration and colonization. In terms of cause and effect, one, of course, logically follows the other, yet the latter more closely corresponds to the consequences of modern scientific and technological development. These colonizing narratives are also characteristically tinged with pessimism: “Not progress denied but progress realized, is the nightmare haunting the antiutopian novel” (Irving Howe).

Jules Verne, acknowledged father of science fiction and self-professed admirer of Poe, carried the underground theme over into some of his best-known books, such as Voyage au centre de la terre (Journey to the center of the earth, 1864) and Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (20,000 leagues under the sea, published in serial form, 1869–70), as well as lesser-known works like Les Indes noires (Black Indies, 1877). Verne’s oeuvre constitutes a prolonged meditation on the problem of human mastery of nature, and its insights are often laden with foreboding. For example, a hatred of the so-called civilized world inspires his most memorable character, Captain Nemo, the hero of Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, not only to invent the miraculous submarine Nautilus but also, in his quest for absolute mastery and freedom, to take the law into his own hands by sinking warships and enslaving others.

Technology’s threat to a threatened earth, and its ferocious willingness to exploit others, has haunted science fiction from the outset. As Williams points out, a natural disaster of some kind is the usual impetus for the removal underground in most 19th-century subterranean narratives. Once underground, however, society becomes prey to other forms of catastrophe, usually of man-made origin. In E. M. Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops” (1909), for example, technological entropy leads to apocalypse, in a prophetic if reactionary forecasting of the results of environmental pollution. This mood of impending catastrophe and of human responsibility for it may, without too much exaggeration, be said to characterize our state of mind when faced with the present environmental crisis.

In setting out the purpose of her analysis of science fiction, Williams observes that “narration . . . encourages contradiction, exploration, questioning, and suspension of judgment, as opposed to abstract and logical statements of conviction. . . . The very act of storytelling opens up unexpected and perhaps unintended possibilities.” Like technology, the construction of a story begets a momentum of its own. If anything mars Williams’ investigation, it is a sometimes overweening love of her source material; after so many plot convolutions, complete with running commentary, the fate of this group of Eloi or that batch of neo-Troglodytes becomes largely beside the point. Aside from that, Williams has written a book that is clear and enjoyable. Where she once posed individual volunteerism as a kind of solution in Dream Worlds, she now avers that ecological reform calls for much more, making the intelligent point that the definition of environmental quality must be enlarged to include psychic and social well-being as well as the capacity to sustain life. Sidestepping academic debates about high versus low culture, she puts a broad range of disciplines and discourses into a coherent framework and draws out their often provocative implications. In this she strikes at the patriarchal hubris responsible for the environmental crisis, namely its manifest assumption that life-forms of every kind—from elephants to humans—are fair game for the profiteer. Notes on the Underground’s moral imperative not only makes for fascinating criticism, but also encourages a rethinking of our ecological priorities. As Williams writes, “Our environment will inevitably become less natural; the question is whether it will also become less human.”

John Miller is an artist and critic who lives in New York.