Cyborg City: The Technologizing of Life in Jacob’s Room
In the essay Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown, Virginia Woolf proclaims that human character changed around the year 1910, a statement that serves as the jumping off point for her insights into the modernist movement. Much of her later writing explores just how human character changed in the early twentieth century. In her first experimental novella, Jacob’s Room, Woolf uses the contemporary city and technology to illustrate just one aspect of how human life changed. Where once people spent their lives within ten miles of the rural farm area where they grew up, now humans lived packed together in dramatically different spaces.
Woolf notes that if one were to simply watch the city, they would be “choked with observations,” (Woolf, 91). To deal with this new overwhelming reality, “nature and society between them have arranged a system of classification which is simplicity itself; stalls, boxes, amphitheatre, gallery,” (91). Comprised of both organic and inorganic parts, the city works to create a cohesive unit that isn’t quite uniform, but also doesn’t necessitate individuality. As a result, the way humans interacted with one another fundamentally changed, moving away from a more fragmented but individual connection to a much more massified but shallow sense of connection that allowed more individuals to interact than ever. The change in interaction can be explicitly seen in the introduction of new technology, like the omnibus, into human spaces. In a passage in the middle of the novel, Woolf notes that “human life is very tolerable on the top of an omnibus in Holborn, when the policeman holds up his arm and the sun beats on your back,” (86). The the emphasis on “human life” as opposed to just life serves as a reminder that human life isn’t the only entity in the new city. The intersection of three entities—the omnibus, a form of technology, the policeman, a representation of a man made institution, and the sun, an organic matter—in this sentence highlights the role of the city in the background of human interaction.
Indeed, the omnibus serves as a key tool for understanding the role of technology in the modern city. Woolf gives an account of an omnibus journey that highlights how technology both connects and separates individuals. The passage begins in a very un-Woolfian tone, using truncated, staccato sentences slotted together in a monotonous way. Then, once “the proximity of the omnibuses gave the outside passengers an opportunity to stare into each other’s faces”, the sentences suddenly begin to stretch out into the familiar Woolfian stream of consciousness style. The rhythm of the passage is truncated until the introduction of the omnibus, and so is the level of human connection. However, it is important to note that technology, in this case the bus, doesn’t magically create a deep connection between humans. Indeed, it appears that despite bringing people together in a literal and physical way, any connections being made are surface level: “Each had his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart, and his friends could only read the title…and the passengers going the opposite way could read nothing at all” (Woolf, 85). That old saying about judging a book by its cover becomes literal here, as each passenger can only view others as their appearance, “‘a man with a red moustache’” or “‘a young man smoking a grey pipe’” (85). What is left is a pervasive loneliness, despite being together in a crowded public space, so when the omnibus “jerked” on, “each person felt relief at being a little nearer to his journey’s end” (85). This greater sense of anonymity is key to understanding how technology transforms human connection. As humans come together in physical space, the need for individuality decreases. Instead, a more massified sense of ownership arises: “the streets belong to them; the shops; the churches; theirs the innumerable desks; the stretched office lights; the vans are theirs, and the railway slung high above the space” (87). Underpinning these traditionally public spaces is the continual iteration of the possessive word “their” highlighting the fact that these spaces actually belong to an anonymous corpus.
While the unnamed body endows the city with life, its identity is inextricably bound to the material, inorganic world, and idea which Woolf reinforces later in the passage describing the “innumerable overcoats of the quality prescribed hung empty all day in the corridors” (88). The coats that hang empty serve as a reminder that the individual, in this case, the worker, only exists insofar as they fill out a material space. That the object in question is a coat is significant as well; it is the outer shell, the husk of a body. Whereas once individuals were body and soul, now only their exterior is important. There is also suggestion of interchangeability, that it doesn’t matter who fills the space as long as they fit the mold. Furthering this sense of dehumanization is the fact that these actions are executed without actors: “each was exactly filled, and the little figures, split apart into trousers or moulded into a single thickness, jerked rapidly” (88). The verbs here, “filled,” “split apart,” “moulded,” and “jerked” evoke a mechanical process. This again highlights the sense of dehumanization of the laborers; their actions are without intent, their existence like that of an assembly line. The use of the word “conveyed” a sentence later emphasizes this idea, and leads the reader along the assembly line “into darkness” (88).
As an author working in a new mode of expression within the modernist movement, a woman pushing the boundaries of gender, and a human navigating life in the post war era, Woolf dedicated much of her work to exploring that change in human character that she so notably pointed out in Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown. The city was served as one means through which to do so. The introduction of new institutions into the city, most notably that of the mechanical world and technology, forever altered the way humans interacted with each other. While individuality became less crucial to the operations of the city, technology offered a new way for more people to connect with each other than ever before.
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