Mark Sanders is Professor of Comparative Literature and English at New York University. Mark specialises in African literatures, literary theory, and interdisciplinary approaches to literature, law, and philosophy. He is author of several books, including Learning Zulu: A Secret History of Language in South Africa (Princeton UP, 2016), Ambiguities of Witnessing: Law and Literature in the Time of a Truth Commission (Stanford UP, 2007), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Live Theory (Continuum, 2006), and Complicities: The Intellectual and Apartheid (Duke UP, 2002). Sanders was recently awarded a fellowship by the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS) for his new book project, Coetzee, Kentridge, and the Computer: Automation and the Arts in South Africa.
When Bonaparte Blenkins cruelly crushes Waldo Farber’s model for a sheep-shearing machine that he has invented, he brings about a catastrophe of several orders. At a symbolic a social level, Blenkins has shattered the version of the colonial pastoral that allows Waldo, as the son of the farm’s overseer, time for imagining and contemplation. Waldo is cast out, fallen into town life, in which he must earn his bread by working for others. Physically exhausting, this work is soul-destroying. Living and working for something beyond a living is out of the question. Although the destruction of Waldo’s machine in The Story of An African Farm seals Waldo’s fate as a proletarian, the machine itself is figured as a work of art—even as superior to a work of art in the narrow sense. This in itself is revealing about the difference between our era and the late Victorian era, when engineer and artist were not as far removed from one another as we might assume. But what is perhaps more striking is that the machine that Waldo designs for shearing sheep, which the novel describes as built of wood and metal, with pulleys and cogs, is not explicitly characterized as a device for alleviating work. This would probably have been how a farmer or farmworker would have viewed it. What, though, was Schreiner’s view of the machine? For that, we need to turn to a later work, Woman and Labour. There Schreiner explains how the invention and use of machines in industry, farming, and warfare has relieved men of manual labor, thereby freeing them for mental labor. The trouble, however, is that women, although similarly liberated by machines, are not free to enter fields of mental labor. Their reproductive labor having also been reduced in social value, in part due to mechanization, women have been reduced to “parasites.” Schreiner’s appeal is thus for new forms of work for women. What stands out from Schreiner’s analysis is that she is not simply for or against the machine. She says that whether the machine is boon or bane depends on whether you can be remunerated for work that is meaningful and not degrading, once the machine has relieved you of the work you had. It so happens that, in her time, it was women were who were unable to find alternate employment. As we know from our time, this is historically contingent. Schreiner’s view of the machine-maker as artist—Waldo Farber as homo faber—connects Schreiner to the romantics. What makes her a thinker of modernity is that her machine is not one thing, but an entity the meaning of which changes according to its implication in a division of labor that, as she set it out, ran according to gender. At least a generation of readers has wished for this feminist’s greater attentiveness to how labor divides racially, especially in her version of pastoral. Notwithstanding this wish’s typical frustration, Schreiner’s contingent view of the machine, I argue, also makes her a lodestar for the analysis of mechanization and automation where their meaning is overdetermined by a racialization of work.