The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Proto-Cyborgs in Wartime: The Tank, the Drill, and the Motor-Chair

Robert Hemmings
Nipissing University



In this essay I bring together interrelated stories about wartime fusions of humans and machines to explore overlaps and cultural continuities and to argue that these cyborgic entities harbor masculine fantasies of self-reproduction.  The three main stories I tell, about the British Army’s revolutionary weapon, Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill, and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, all involve cyborgs embodying masculine prerogatives of domination and reproducibility. Building on previous seminal interventions into the field, including Tim Armstrong’s Modernism, Technology and the Body, Alex Goody’s Technology, Literature and Culture and Trudi Tate’s Modernism, History and the First World War, I focus my inquiry into human and technological integration on the particularities of the gender implications of the cyborg figure conceptualized within the context of British wartime culture. I look back to the First World War and the immediately preceding years from a position informed by a blend of contemporary theories, notably cyborg theory, to argue that the conflation of human subject and mechanical object dramatically demonstrated in the tank and its embrace by the popular press engenders a new hybrid form of modern subjectivity, a kind of proto-cyborg, that also found expression in modernist representations of the human-machine hybridity.  The tank, essentially a symbol of British fortitude and invincibility in the press—regardless of its military efficacy (or ineffectualness)—reifies the ameliorative potential of the human, masculine form enhanced by machine prosthesis in the popular culture of wartime. The preponderance of proto-cyborgs in high modernist aesthetics that were variously shaped by the war—Futurism, Vorticism, Dadaism—suggests an unlikely proximity between discourses of “low” and “high” cultural expression which sought to contain anxieties over the growing intrusion of machines into modern life.  After all, if you can’t beat them, join them, or better, fuse with them.  In this paper I want to focus on two diverse modernist proto-cyborgs, Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill (1913-15) and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), which I situate as cultural bookends of the First World War. The proto-cyborg figure that emerges in these texts manifests a volatile disquietude, in turns ardent and anxious, about the human relation to technology and the environment, and about gender. In particular, the proto-cyborg resonates with cultural anxieties over the fantasy of masculine reproductivity, which is invoked by Epstein’s pre-war driller and Lawrence’s Sir Clifford Chatterley, post-war mine-owner. I argue that from the perspective of the Great War’s centenary, we can come to a better understanding of the meaning of these and similar aesthetic texts if we read them in terms of First World War military and popular press discourses about new technological fusions, in particular discourse about the tank. 


In September 1916, the British Expeditionary Force pushed its very latest military technology into action on the Western Front, with mixed results.  Keen to break the stalemate of the Somme, GHQ fast-tracked into service the tank, a top secret, self-propelled armed and armored vehicle. Proponents envisioned a mobile weapon impervious to machine-gun fire that could advance over the rough and cratered terrain of no-man’s-land, intimidate German troops and crush the machine-guns nests that were resistant to artillery bombardments, thereby allowing the infantry to advance to engage the enemy relatively unmolested by devastating machine-gun fire. That was the plan.  Sixty tanks were sent to France. Due to mechanical breakdown or becoming stranded in mud, thirty-six reached their pre-operative waiting stations at the frontlines. Of these, thirty were able to start the attack and only twenty-one tanks engaged in combat (Harris 65).  The tanks were slow, slower than foot soldiers unless on exceptionally advantageous terrain, unable to coordinate with other forces (or other tanks) once underway, difficult to navigate, susceptible to losing bearings and firing upon their own troops or running over injured comrades.  They were vessels of obnoxious noise, heat, and fumes for their cramped crews who were vulnerable to grenade attack and errant bullets through chinks in the armor and viewing apertures.  In 1916, this revolutionary piece of military technology failed to produce the breakthrough High Command had hoped for. It was an awkward debut, an unlikely precursor to agile maneuvers of the German’s panzer-driven blitzkrieg less than a quarter century later.  It was more langsame Kreigs; tanks in one section of the attack moved at 0.5 miles per hour, far slower than the soldiers whose trails they were ostensibly to blaze (Wilson 344).

The tank was nevertheless instantly recognized as an agent of spectacular victory in the British media (Figure 1). Accounts invariably fused the animate with the inanimate, creating the spectacle of a mechanical beast: “Motor-Monster,” “Giant Toad” (Wilson 345). The Daily Mail called them “Fantastic monsters . . . blind creatures emerging from the primeval slime” (Tate 124-25). To The Times they were “toad-salamanders, echidna-dragons, mammoths” (125).  But contemporary observers also saw tanks as St. George’s dragon, as Carroll’s Jabberwock or Boojums (Tate 124), situating this new hybrid within a cultural imaginary. 

And certainly, as Trudi Tate argues convincingly, while the tank had limited military success during the entire First World War, and effectively failed in its first mission, this new weapon had a profound impact on British culture through its propagandistic role on the home front, raising both funds and civilian spirits when the war was entering its most deadly years.1 The tank became a symbol of British industry and fortitude, endearingly embraced by the British media and public as its benign and jocular mechanized beast, its pet steel dragon. 

It may be in the realm of the imaginary that these organic-machines wrought their most devastating military impact. Paul Virilio notes that once French tanks were deployed in 1917, “their psychological effect was tremendous” (78). According to Alfred Stern, head of British Tank Construction, during the tanks’ first combat mission, the one described in this essay’s opening, “it astonished and terrified the enemy” (96). Erich Maria Remarque noted the effect of seeing the relentless machine rumbling towards him and his comrades, a “terrible weapon . . . [that] more than anything else embod[ied] the horror of war” (184). The source of this terror and horror can be attributed in part to the tank’s gothic sundering of boundaries between the living and the dead, between the animate beast and the inanimate machine. But the media’s invocation of the tank as a curious beast of burden belies its profound breaching of boundaries: it is a fusion of organic and inorganic, a complex machine inoperable without a system of intricately coordinated tasks performed by the crew of eight humans encased within its steel carapace. The tank thus conjoins machinic system and organism. In other words, the tank, with its fusion of human and machine, is modern war’s cyborg, lumbering through the mud some forty-four years before cyborg entered the English language.

The fusion of human and machine found in the tank is a material embodiment of the fascination with boundary breakdown that permeated the cultural zeitgeist of the war years (and the ensuing years colored by war’s residual traumas). This fascination informs a diverse range of cultural texts, including advertisements, manifestos, photographs, films, poems, paintings, sculptures, and novels. The ensuing textual and historical analyses touch upon two examples from these media, a sculpture and a novel, each of which picks up on the porousness of boundaries embodied in the tank. 

Terms and Conditions: Proto-Cyborg

I use the term “proto-cyborg” because the word cyborg coined by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, psychiatric researchers conducting experiments for the US space program, did not enter the English language until 1960. Their “cyborg” was a conflation of “cybernetic” and  “organism.” “Cybernetics,” designating a field of study, is also a relatively recent neologism, first popularized by Norbert Weiner in 1948. He defined cybernetics in the subtitle of his book of that name as “control and communication in the animal or in the machine.”  This interdisciplinary field emerging in another period of world war, the 1940s, concerned itself with the study of systems contributing to the integration of human and technological devices, and from its very origins sought to break down the boundaries of traditional disciplines including those between biology, electrical engineering, psychology, and mathematics, among others (Hayles 85). The etymology of cybernetics comes from the Greek “kubernetes,”2  meaning “steersman,” and this figure of the human subject at the helm of an object of mobility, a boat, nicely captures the essence of cybernetics.  The steersman controls the direction of the boat not simply by fixing the tiller in a certain position, but by responding to the communication of the wind and the waves, and adjusting the rudder accordingly.  The steersman-boat relation is thus a simple system determined to a greater or lesser degree by the process of feedback.  Both Weiner’s definition—“control and communication in the animal or in the machine”—and the steersman figure at the core of cybernetics point towards the fusion of machine system and organism at the heart of Clynes and Kline’s project.

In 1960, they proposed the term cyborg “for the exogenously extended organizational complex functioning as an integrated homeostatic system . . . The Cyborg deliberately incorporates exogenous components extending the self-regulatory control function of the organism in order to adapt it to new environments” (OED).  In their experiments for the developing US space program at New York’s Rockland State Hospital, Clynes and Kline sought exogenous supplements to the human body to enable its travel through the new environment of space. Their first cyborg used a rat not a human subject as the organism, and an osmotic pump as the machine component to regulate the organism’s biochemistry. Their term quickly caught on. “Cyborg” is today most readily associated with hi-tech advances and science-fiction, and Donna Haraway’s manifesto of resistance to “oppressive myths of the patriarchy” (Goody 140).  In Katherine Hayles’ deft assessment, through fusion Haraway’s cyborg 

violates the human/machine distinction; replacing cognition with neural feedback, it challenges the human-animal difference; explaining the behaviour of thermostats and people through the theories of feedback, hierarchical structure, and control, it erases the animate/inanimate distinction. (84)

Her predicates—violation, challenge, erasure—reveal latent anxieties about the cyborg’s capacity to effect positive change.  In the early twentieth century, its antecedent, the proto-cyborg also emerged out of “boundary breakdowns” between organism and machine (Haraway 317), but without the systems’ informatics to control and regulate the entity’s response to its new environment. The tank is an apt paradigm of the proto-cyborg rather than cyborg; it was set in motion at the outset of an attack but incapable of coordinated response to the feedback of its engagement in battle, its human crew deafened by engine roar and gunfire, blinded by protective closures on viewing apertures, hoping to escape breakdown by mechanical failure or direct hit by high explosive shells. As Donna Haraway puts it, “pre-cybernetic machines . . . could not achieve man’s dream, only mock it.  They were not man, an author to himself, but only a caricature of that masculinist reproductive dream” (317).  Such a dream animates Epstein’s Rock Drill and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which feature “pre-cybernetic machines,” or what I call proto-cyborg figures, that embody fantasies of masculine reproductivity.  The penetration of these fantasies into British wartime culture is evident in how the British military’s proto-cyborg, the tank, was invoked by the popular press, and the military itself.  

The tank’s nomenclature is a study in “ironic innocence” (Tate 137), and its originary story is rife with curiously fecund associations that invite us to consider the depth and breadth of cultural fantasies of masculine reproductivity.3  The first successful tank model to undergo tests in the summer of 1915 was called “Juggernaut,”4 or “Little Willy” (“Story” col. 2). A larger model called “Big Willy Centipede” (“Story" col. 2), more popularly known as “Big Willy,” was deemed superior by GHQ and went into production, becoming the first tank to see active battle in September 1916. Tate points out that while “Big Willy” and “Little Willy” were familiar nicknames for the German Kaiser and Crown Prince, “willy” was also a slang word for penis.  But “Big Willy” was promptly renamed “Mother”—“as it was the first of all tanks” (Tate 136)—long before it went to battle. The phallic associations of the original names are overwritten or suppressed, the machine transgendered by this new and popular name of “Mother.”  But rather than being emasculated by this moniker, the tank is further gendered by the designation of two main different subtypes, male and female.  The male Mother had two types of guns, while the female had one type, and the male Mother was more comradely with its crew, being easier to escape from in case of emergency; “being inside a female Mother was one of the men’s worst nightmares” (Tate 136).  In other words, and fittingly for a markedly patriarchal institution like the army, the preferred model was designated masculine, the feared model feminine, despite the absence of obvious mechanical analogues involving protrusions or apertures. The point I would like to stress is that the tank favored by crews, the male Mother, in the coalescence of its name and its cyborgic embodiment, harbors a fantasy of masculine reproductivity also invoked by Epstein and years later, by Lawrence. But no amount of masculine attributions could alter the fact that “Mother” was a proto-cyborg designed for destruction, not creation (or procreation), as dangerous for its male crew as the male soldiers it was designed to terrorize. 

As Haraway’s argument implies, the fantasy of masculine reproductivity, which pervaded popular, military-industrial and modernist cultural expression, was not actually “achieved” by proto-cyborgs. Rather proto-cyborgs—whether modernist representations or military machines—“mocked” this fantasy by at once invoking its possibility and exposing its foibles.  In effect, masculine reproducibility is a compensatory fantasy to assuage anxieties about how the fusion of man and machine can erode and delimit masculine power rather than enhance it.  This fantasy and these anxieties were evident before the War, as Epstein’s sculpture attests, but they were also heightened and exposed to a wider field by the mechanization of modern war.

“Within Itself Its Progeny”

In 1912, the year the British War Office was first shown design plans for a tank, plans it shelved and forgot about (Harris 9), Jacob Epstein was journeying between London and Paris to oversee the installation of his Tomb of Oscar Wilde in the Père Lachaise cemetery (Gilboa 110). While in London he witnessed the Italian Futurist show (Rose 75). Epstein soon tired of what he called “the true Fascist impertinence” of Marinetti and the Futurists. However, he was swept into the vortex of Vorticism, sharing a vision of the artistic interfusion of man and machine (Gilboa 124).  His work from 1913 and 1914, before the declaration of war, certainly manifests a Vorticist embrace of technology, which blessed English “mechanical inventions” as supreme national achievements, above the paltry efforts of other nations (especially Latin ones) (Blast I 39). In particular, Epstein’s work from this period exhibits his own “ardour for machinery (short-lived)” (Epstein 59, 56).  The finest examples of this “ardour” are the drawing studies and sculpture of Rock Drill.

With his materials and his conceptual fusion of human and machine, Epstein’s approach anticipated and echoed key works of the Dadaists. In Rock Drill Epstein combined a human figure with a Vorticist mechanized angularity that recalls Wyndham Lewis’s contemporary approach to the human form in painting (Figure 2), and anticipates the fusion of human and machine found in Dada artist Francis Picabia’s “mechanomorphic” portraits.  

Picabia composed this work in 1915 after he had fled the French Army and settled in New York.  In Portrait d’une jeune fille américaine dans l’étate de nudité, for example, a machine part—a spark plug—stands in for the human subject of the drawing’s title, which distills Picabia’s sense of the essence of this fusion: Picabia stated in 1915 that “the machine has become more than a mere adjunct of human life.  It is really a part of human life – perhaps the very soul” (qtd. in Karmel 203).5 During his “ardour for machinery,” Epstein never went quite this far.  

For Rock Drill Epstein purchased an actual pneumatic rock drill from a second-hand shop, admiring its striking balance and power, and deployed it as a kind of ready-made.  Like Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1912), the wheel of which, mounted on an upturned set of forks, actually turned, Epstein had conceived motion as a feature of this sculpture. In Epstein’s words: “I had thought of attaching pneumatic power to my rock drill, and setting it in motion, thus completing every potentiality of form and movement in one single work” (56). One can imagine the unsettling effect of the noise of a pneumatic drill reverberating through a gallery upon the ears of the patrons. This pre-war concept of proto-cyborgic cacophony serves as an uncanny foreshadowing of the impact of engine noise and clanking metal tracks upon the ears of tank crews starting in 1916.  The unsettling qualities of the sounds, both in Epstein’s sculpture and the military’s tank, forewarn of the latent dangers upon which the proto-cyborg’s fantasies are built.  While Epstein’s mechanizing ideas were not realized, as the human figure within his sculpture, cast in plaster, was unlikely to withstand the activated drill’s motion (Causey 80), the sculpture’s effects were imposing. Standing nearly nine feet high, the white plaster figure straddles the drill on its tripodic mount, flaunting its phallic drill bit.  However, the driller’s flagrant masculinity is complicated, in Epstein’s words, by it “carrying within itself its progeny, protectively ensconced” (Epstein 56).  

The presence of a rounded a fetus within the angular ribs of the masculine figure marks a distinct evolution from Epstein’s early study for Rock Drill, done in black crayon (1913).  In this study, there is no figure of a baby within the ribcage (Figure 3). 

The angular driller is set within a sharp-angled linear background, and the base upon which he stands is angled into a vee shape, with the drill tip pointing down into the very cusp of the inverted apex.  The diagonal lines of the base suggest to some critics “an open female vulva between parted legs; the act, therefore, suggests an ambiguous penetration” (Gilboa 125). This sexual allusion calls to mind historian of science Carolyn Merchant’s account of the gendered language of domination surrounding mining: “for most traditional cultures, minerals and metals ripened in the uterus of the Earth Mother, mines were compared to her vagina” (Merchant 100).  Modern industrial mining had to overcome, or ignore, the traditional associations of an organic and fertile earth to mechanize the industry.  In leaving behind these linear references to the site of penetration in other crayon and pencil studies, and in the sculpture itself, Epstein in effect appropriates and embeds the fertility of the feminized object of penetration within the masculine driller figure, further consolidating his organic dimension, further animating his proto-cyborg.

Contemporary reactions to Rock Drill focused on a tension existing between the plasticity of the figure and the mechanical essence of the drill. Responses in 1915 were typically hostile.  In a letter to American modern art collector and progressive lawyer John Quinn, the painter Augustus John described Epstein’s sculpture as “Altogether the most hideous thing I have seen” (qtd. in Cronshaw 157).  The Observer found Rock Drill “utterly loathsome”:  

Even leaving aside the nasty suggestiveness of the whole thing, there remains the irreconcilable contradiction between the crude realism of the machinery (of American make) combined with the abstractly treated figure; and the lack of cohesion between the black iron drill and the white plaster monstrosity perched upon it. (Konody 5)

From this critique, I’d like to pick up on two points: the tension between the materials of the sculpture, and the disdainful (one feels) reference to the machine as American, because both the apparent material incoherence and the implication of British machinery’s superiority to American are integral features of the praise Epstein’s sculpture also garnered. First, the reviewer’s attention to the “lack of cohesion” between the black of the machine and the white of the human figure also struck one of Epstein’s prime advocates, Wyndham Lewis.  In Blast 2 (July 1915), Lewis blesses Rock Drill as “one of the best things” Epstein had done:  

The nerve-like figure perched on the machinery with it’s [sic] straining to one purpose, is a vivid illustration of the greatest function of life.  I feel the combination of the white figure and the rock-drill is rather unfortunate and ghost-like.  But it’s [sic] lack of logic has an effectiveness of it’s [sic] own.  I feel that a logical co-ordination was not intended. (Lewis Blast 2 78)

For Lewis, the figure is “nerve-like,” embodying the nervousness, the anxiety of the age by which others, like Augustus John, were so repelled.  The absence of logic, according to Lewis, the conspicuous imbalance between the mechanical materiality of the drill and the pale fragility of the plaster figure allows Epstein’s work to produce its haunting, “ghost-like” effects, its uncanny power.  The mechanized, “ready-made” base of this sculpture is clearly important for Lewis as well.

While the Observer reviewer’s antagonism to Rock Drill is palpable, his seeming disdain for the nationality of the machinery—“of American make”—also calls to mind Wyndham Lewis’s insistence on the significance of England to machinery and machinery to England.  In the Vorticist Manifesto, Lewis trumpets the ingenuity of English machine-making: “The Modern world is due almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon genius . . . Machinery, trains, steam-ships, all that distinguishes externally our time, came far more from here than anywhere else” (Blast 39).  Lewis boasts the through “mechanical inventions . . . England has influenced Europe in the same way that France has in Art” (39).  He asserts that it was mechanical invention that allowed England to dominate the world through imperial expansion, and wants to claim Art as integral to this new, modern, Vorticist world.  A properly modern art, in his view, must embrace the mechanistic imperative. Writing in Blast 2, Lewis insists: “In any heroic, that is, energetic representations of men to-day, this reflection of the immense power of machines will be reflected” (44).  Artistic movements, Cubism for example, fall short in Lewis’s eyes, if they fail to reflect the power of machines.  For Lewis, “A machine is, in a greater or lesser degree, a living thing.  It’s [sic] lines and masses imply force and action” (Blast 2 44).  So naturally, the most celebrated art embraces the machinery of the machine age.  Epstein’s Rock Drill does exactly this.

In Blast Lewis indirectly invokes the proto-cyborg when he blesses the nautical and mechanical function of English ports, which he likens to “machines that work the little boats across the clear liquid” (23).  Recalling the Greek root of cybernetics, we can also see Epstein’s driller as a kind of “steersman” astride his pneumatic “vessel,” static but threatening to erupt into the kinetic frenzy of the violently probing drill.  The humanoid driller, the pneumatic drill, the protectively ensconced progeny together form part of a cybernetic system of self-regulated masculinity, a fantasy of self-reproduction.  Rock Drill is a figure of masculine power. But as Hayles points out, “the cyborg becomes the stage on which are performed contestations about the body boundaries that have often marked class, ethnic and cultural differences” (85). Pointedly, the visored, protected driller, is a member of the mechanical classes, a miner like the miners Epstein must have seen in media accounts of the 1912 national coal miner’s strike, then the largest strike in global history (Jackson 21).  A contestation of class boundaries is certainly bound up in Epstein’s plan to set this nine-foot proto-cyborg on a podium, in a public place. It is destined to be a larger-than-life sized, heroic mechanized-miner figure elevated to a position of communal prominence more typically reserved for an industrial magnate, not an industrial worker (Causey 85).  

The pneumatic drill literally elevates the driller and, in the words of Clynes and Kline, the drill is the “exogenous component” which “The Cyborg deliberately incorporates . . .  extending the self-regulatory control function of the organism in order to adapt it to new environments.”  The new environment to which the proto-cyborg Rock Drill is adapting is the New Age of machines celebrated, if in different ways, by Futurists like Marinetti, Dadaists, like Picabia, Vorticists like Lewis and (for a time) Epstein. The machine may be the soul of humanity in Epstein’s Rock Drill, but with its probing drill bit between the driller’s legs, it is humanity’s phallus, a conspicuous metonym of masculine virility, a virility so potently self-regulating, it renders the masculine humanoid organism capable of self-reproduction, as the ensconced progeny attests.

Lady Chatterley’s (Proto-) Cyborg

Lawrence was writing his last novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the years 1926-29, right in the heart of the war book boom in England (Worthen 349), so it is hardly surprising that this novel evokes anxiety provoked by the machinery of the modern world,6 not least of which is the machinery of modern war.  The novel opens with Sir Clifford Chatterley returned from active duty in Flanders “more or less in bits . . . the lower half of his body paralyzed forever” (5).  In Lawrence’s novel, Clifford Chatterley’s phallus is as conspicuously absent as the Rock Driller’s phallus is conspicuously present.  As Lord of a manor whose wealth was founded upon lumber, coal, and iron extraction, Sir Clifford is as invested in mining as Epstein’s driller.  

Sir Clifford exists in tension with the present. Disabled, and tellingly for Lawrence, emasculated by the technologies of modern war, Sir Clifford looks to the past for reassurance and meaning, in contrast to Epstein’s Rock Driller who looks to a brave, new future. What Lawrence’s anti-hero sees in the past strangely echoes Wyndham Lewis’s ideal of an English character forged out of and together with English mechanical ingenuity. The Chatterley estate in the heart of the midlands derived its wealth from mining coal. In a scene early in the novel, Sir Clifford, whom it is possible to read as a kind of cybernetic “steersman” mounted on his motorized “bath chair,” struggles up a path that taxes his motor, and views a denuded hill on the property, which fills him with anger and hatred for his father who had logged the woods for trench lumbar during the war (45).  Now lord of the manor, Clifford is replanting the hillside, and maintains a paradoxical faith in the sustainability of the estate, and its irrevocable connection to past greatness, despite its continued reliance on extracting non-renewable resources. Clifford interprets the scene before him as “the old England, the heart of it” (45), which cannot be dissociated from the tradition of the British class system and prerogatives of land ownership: “‘One must preserve some of the old England,’” says Sir Clifford, “‘And we who have this kind of property, and the feeling for it, must preserve it . . . One must keep up the tradition’” (46).  His notion of “preservation” here is at once perverse and typical, as it still involves exploiting, ravaging, and denuding his property for the sake of a masculine tradition.

Carolyn Merchant has written about the denigration of attitudes toward the environment that were ushered into the West during the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment, particularly attitudes toward practices of extracting minerals and metals from the Earth.  Through Greek and Roman antiquity and up to the early modern period, the notion of the Earth as a nurturing life-force prevailed, predicated upon an organic framework and certain normative ethical values that gave rise to “animism and fertility cults that treated nature as sacred” (Merchant 100-101).7 With the scientific revolution, the growth of European empire, the development of market economies, and the Industrial Revolution, the organic framework gave way to “a dead, inanimate, physical system” (102), and the ethical attitudes that restricted the exploitation and domination of the natural world no longer applied within this new system.  This was the Chatterley system for which Sir Clifford expresses nostalgia.  As Merchant has it, “a female nurturing earth and virgin earth spirit were subdued by the [male] machine” (99).  In narratives and images of mining, especially modern industrial-scale mining associated with Epstein’s driller and Sir Clifford, analogies of sexual violence and exploitation still linger.  

Sir Clifford proposes producing an heir as a means to perpetuate this conflicted tradition.  At first he invites his wife to become pregnant with another man’s child. But later in the novel, after he has been emboldened with the ministrations of his nurse and the spirit of mining engineering to modernize and mechanize the Chatterley mines, he feels his virility on the verge of return.  On one level, this is the masculine virility that seeks to exploit “the nurturing earth mother” through technology (Merchant 116), and to appropriate her fertile capacities for his own purposes. As Epstein’s driller contains within him the shape of his progeny, Sir Clifford harbors within himself a misconceived belief in his own potency (153).  

Another source of the “heart of old England” is the British industrial ingenuity that extracts coal from the depths of the land (albeit with devastating environmental and social consequences, as indicated by the sulphurous air that hangs over the Chatterley property, and the squalid streets of Tevershall village).  Sir Clifford learns that to preserve this “heart” he cannot look only to the past, and must embrace modernity. As he immerses himself in family business, in “the technicalities of modern coal mining” (112), literally descending into the pits, he himself becomes more mechanized, more a part of an industrialized machine system.  He becomes paradoxically a creature (an organism), and a machine.  He sits, stunned, listening to the wireless, installed in Wragby Hall at great expense, “like a person losing his mind” (115).  He is also like a person losing his personhood:

Clifford was drifting off to this other weirdness of industrial activity, becoming almost a creature, with a hard, efficient shell of an exterior and a pulpy interior, one of the amazing crabs and lobsters of the modern, industrial and financial world, invertebrates of the crustacean order, with shells of steel, like machines, and inner bodies of soft pulp.  (115)

He is a crustacean organism wedded to the mechanized system of industrial modernity, and seeing him fills his wife with horror and disgust.  He and his mechanical prostheses are anathema to Lady Chatterley who shares and embodies Lawrence’s faith in the organic power of an authentic natural order of virility.  It is her lover who articulates the demise of men of modernity, from mining magnates like Sir Clifford to working class drillers: “Their spunk is gone dead” (226).  Mechanized, modern life is, Mellors asserts, “killing off the human thing, and worshipping the mechanical thing. . . . Pay money, money, money to them that will take the spunk out of mankind, and leave ’em all little twiddling machines” (226).  Modernity and modern war has left Clifford a “twiddling machine . . . worshipping the mechanical thing.” As critic Sharon Stockton puts it, Clifford Chatterley, “crippled and rendered impotent by the war,” is “almost a cyborg” (Stockton 82).  And despite the technological enhancements that provide Clifford limited mobility, Lady Chatterley’s proto-cyborg is far from Donna Haraway’s provocative celebration of the potential of the cyborg to break down oppressive hetero-normative boundaries.  

Lawrence’s main interest in the proto-cyborg figure is involved with what David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder would consider “narrative prosthesis.”  Mitchell and Snyder contend that the ubiquity of disability in literary discourse functions primarily as stock characterization and “as an opportunistic metaphorical device” (Mitchell and Snyder 205).  “Narrative prosthesis,” Mitchell and Snyder further contend, refers to the use of disability “as a crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality, and analytical insight” (206).  Sir Clifford’s disability, his dependence upon his mechanized bath-chair, and indeed Sir Clifford’s variously growing technologized ontologies—his becoming an immobilized cyborg, a soft pulpy inner organism covered with a machined exoskeleton, his immersion into the wireless medium—are devices, handy metaphors of disruptive potentiality which indicate the broken status of the English ruling classes, the inescapable scars of modern war, and of industrial modernity more generally. Lawrence’s retrospective reconsideration of the war’s instrumental role in modernity’s destabilization of the class system is part of what situates Lady Chatterley’s Lover within the late 1920s “war books boom.” His attention to Sir Clifford’s broken body embodies Lawrence’s articulation of a broader cultural anxiety about the penetration of technology into modern British life, which the war amplified and exacerbated. In the novel this anxiety is localized and contained within Sir Clifford’s disabled and hybrid physicality, and contrasted to Mellor’s virile, organic vitality. Tate observes that Clifford’s cyborgic transformation—“his injured body is seen as a kind of machine, indistinguishable from the motorized wheelchair to which he is confined”—serves to reify his symbolic function: he is “mind without body; reason without passion” (103). The suffering, pain and trauma of the war experience that led to his disability are concealed beneath a modernized exoskeletal surface; accordingly, Lawrence and his readers need not sympathize with him and his delusions of virility. Rather, these delusions form part of the “narrative crutch” Lawrence deploys to support his proto-cyborg and his antagonism towards the encroachment of technology into organic culture.

Conclusion: “Cast in Metal”

The prostheses of Sir Clifford’s cyborgian embodiment anticipate another centenary perspective on the war and its deployment of fused technology. Cultural theorist Paul Virilio is concerned with how technology contributes to the human capacity to dominate time and space through speed, and posits war as the laboratory for refining this dominance.  Virilio describes Futurism’s enthusiasm for the tank’s speedy cousin, the armored car, in terms that echo Weiner’s fusion of organic and machine systems: “an animal body that disappears in the superpower of a metallic body able to annihilate time and space through its dynamic performances” (84). To Virilio, the body of Marinetti’s dandy, mechanically ensconced in the “steel alcove” of his armored car, shares the imperatives of the “doubly-unable proletariat soldier. Deprived, as he has always been, of will, he now requires physical assistance from a vehicular prosthesis in order to accomplish his historical mission, Assault” (Virilio 84).  Virilio’s assessment resonates with the proto-cyborgs of this essay.

While the Rock Drill, Sir Clifford, and the tank (in the First World War) lack dynamism and speed, they are each able to annihilate space.  During the war, the Motor-Monster destroyed the earth’s surface, and those unable to escape its path, through relentless, crushing forward motion. Even if the tank was relative ineffective in its 1916 debut, it was lauded in the British press for its “dynamic performances” of the hybridity of man and machine on the battlefield.  In the aftermath of war, Sir Clifford and his motor-chair destroy by relentlessly exploiting what Merchant would call the “earth’s womb” through “the technicalities of modern coal mining” that allow ever greater extraction of the combustible mineral. Of course, Clifford is no proletariat, but the First World War has left him with an “unable body.”  Despite his dreams of reproducibility, his cyborgic hybridity cannot restore his virility; he is but a “little twiddling machine.” His impotent rage is sublimated in the target of his postwar assault, the environment, his chief weapon industrial technologies. Epstein’s Rock Driller in 1913, is more distinctly a proletariat figure, and while his prostheses are not vehicular, they are technological: he is protected by the “steel alcove” of his visor, and fused with his drill. But in this pre-war form, flaunting the phallic drill bit, the Rock Driller is perpetually on the cusp of committing environmental assault, which as Epstein’s pre-war pencil studies make plain, has undertones of sexualized assault, along lines ascribed by Carolyn Merchant.  

While Epstein never signed the Vorticist manifesto, which was published a month before the outbreak of war, he was sympathetic to its ends, and was certainly embraced by its proponents. Through Rock Drill Epstein expressed a Vorticist optimism that man and machine could harness and control nature, and that technology was at the forefront of the modern age (Causey 88). But with the unprecedented mechanized destruction unleashed by the Great War, Epstein soon tired of Vorticism’s posturing and antics and lost faith in the mechanistic triumphalism, made especially terrible and devastating through the machined technology so lauded by Lewis in Blast. When fellow sculptor and Vorticist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a great early admirer of Rock Drill, was killed at the Western Front in 1915, Epstein dramatically recast Rock Drill in bronze (Figure 4). 

When he exhibited the sculpture as part of the London Group in March 1916, Rock Drill was transformed, stripped of its phallic intentionality, its reproductive fantasy lingering in the “progeny within” (Causey 80). As he recalled laconically in his autobiography: “Later I lost my interest in machinery and discarded the drill.  I cast in metal only the upper part of the figure” (Epstein 56).  Gone is the machine, gone are the driller’s legs, gone his hands.  What remains is a torso, severed from its empowering machine, no longer part of a conspicuously masculine organic-machine system.  Norbert Weiner, the theorist of cybernetics working out his dreams of human-machines in yet another postwar period, may have understood.  As Katherine Hayles points out, Weiner worried about “where should the cybernetic dissolution of boundaries stop?  At what point does the anxiety provoked by dissolution overcome the ecstasy?” (Hayles 85).  This point for Epstein seemed to arrive in 1915.  Rock Drill remains a powerful sculpture, but its aggressive stance has shifted to a cowed pathos. Perhaps it has become the sculptural version of a “narrative prosthesis,” its amputated limbs a crutch for indicating the “disruptive potentiality” of the machine age.  It approaches the postwar stance of Lawrence’s Sir Clifford, emasculated by war. The torso is no longer a steersman responding to the feedback of the machine, but to the uncertain undulations of the fetus within its mechanized exoskeleton. In its bronzed form, it is a neutralized proto-cyborg, harboring a spectral fecundity. Recast, Rock Drill represents Epstein’s reappraisal of the fantasy of masculine reproductivity, his faltering conviction in the vital, regenerative potential of the proto-cyborg. In the same year the British Army and the popular British press were first embracing the tank, Epstein, a powerful figure of prewar belief in the potentialities of human-machine hybridity, arrives at Lawrence’s postwar position. The fantasy of masculine reproductivity embodied by the proto-cyborg cannot contain the anxieties surrounding the incursion of technology into human subjectivity exposed by the carnage of modern war. One hundred years later, the British Army, and militaries the world over, are in a way following the artists before them.  Acknowledging their anxiety about tactical efficacies of tanks, they are decoupling the organic crew from the machined exoskeleton by producing web-interfaced human-controlled machine systems.  In the military, proto-cyborgs will cede to tank drones, which will produce a new incarnation of cultural anxiety about the incursion of technology into the human.  


1  In keeping with the tank’s collapsing of the border between animate and inanimate, the tank was also simultaneously capable of arousing terror and laughter. Initial British newspaper reports consistently noted the ability of the tanks to inspire laughter from their friends. A correspondent for The Times, to choose one example, noted that watching a tank maneuver made one “laugh till one’s sides ached,” and wondered if they were a legitimate new weapon of modern warfare or “only a preposterous joke” (qtd. in Tate 126). While the head of British Tank construction noted the tank’s ability to terrorize the enemy, he conceded that “It astonished, delighted and amused its friends” (Stern 96).  For an account of the laughter associated with this “terrible weapon,” see Tate, “The Tank and the Manufacture of Consent” in Modernism, History and the First World War.

2  The French word “cybernetique,” coined in 1834 by French electrodynamicist André-Marie Ampère has the same etymological roots in ancient Greek, but refers to the art of the steersman as a metaphor for governing in the political sense (Dyson 6).

3  The originary story of the tank became a contested legal question after the war. In October 1919, the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors heard claims concerning ownership of the idea of the tank.  The commission’s goal was to decide “whether any, and if so who, among a certain number of claimants was entitled to any, and if so to what, monetary reward” (“Story of the Tanks” col. 1).

4  As a tank name “Juggernaut” makes sense given its etymology.  In an ancient annual Hindu festival celebrating Jagannath, an enormous idol-carrying chariot crushed to death devotees who would throw themselves under its wheels (OED). The tank’s prime military objective was to crush machine-gun nests and intimidate enemy soldiers.  But the popular name that stuck was “Little Willy.”

5  When the First World War broke out in 1914, Picabia enlisted as a driver to a general in the French Army, an appointment he obtained thanks to his mechanical acumen and aptitude with motorcars and his social position (Puchner 137). On the verge of being transferred to an infantry regiment bound for Ypres, Picabia, secured an Army supply procurement position in Caribbean. However, when his Caribbean bound ship made a port of call in New York in June 1915, Picabia stayed behind, technically deserting the army (137). He was struck immediately upon arrival in America “that the genius of the modern world is machinery, and that through machinery art ought to find its most vivid expression” (qtd. in Hughes 330).  That Picabia was collapsing the boundaries between human subject and machine object in portraits inspired by the American machine age at almost precisely the same time the British Army was exploring boundary blurring in the creation of a new fused weapon, the tank, suggests that the cultural forces driving technology ever deeper into human subjectivity during the war found expression in aesthetics as well as strategic military planning.

6 Lawrence is also fascinated with the technological world he disdains, and he avidly explores the “boundary breakdowns” between human and machine that Haraway sees in pre-cybernetic figures.  Critics have noted the portrayal of Gerald Crich in Women in Love as a man immersed in his modern systemizing of mining, his organic core hollowed out.  For example, Mark Wollaeger calls Crich “an Edwardian cyborg” (79).

7 Within such a framework, accepting “the earth as a living organism and nurturing mother” imposed limits and restrictions on human behavior towards the earth’s “natural resources” (Merchant 100); to sink a mine shaft into the earth, the source of life, was a violation akin to rape.  Miners within this organic framework atoned through elaborate ritual–ceremonial sacrifices, sexual abstinence, fasting, strict cleanliness–for the violation of their mother’s body (100).

Works Cited

Armstrong, Tim.  Modernism, Technology, and the Body: A Cultural Study. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.  

Causey, Andrew.  “Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill: Man and Machine.” London, Modernism, 1914.  Ed. Michael J. K. Walsh. Cambridge: Cambridge UP,  2010. 78-100.

Cronshaw, Jonathan.  Carving a Legacy: The Identity of Jacob Epstein (1880-1959). PhD Thesis, University of Leeds, 2010.

"cyborg, n.". OED Online. March 2013. Oxford University Press. 15 May 2013 <>.

Dyson, George.  Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co, 1997. 

Epstein, Jacob.  Epstein: an Autobiography.  London: Hulton Press, 1955. 

Gilboa, Raquel.  And There Was Sculpture: Jacob Epstein’s Formative Years (1882-1930).  London: Paul Holberton, 2009. 

Goody, Alex.  Technology, Literature, and Culture. Cambridge: Polity P, 2011. 

Hayles, N. Katherine.  How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999. 

Haraway, Donna.  “A Cyborg Manifesto.” The Cultural Studies Reader.  Ed. Simon During. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2007. 314-34. 

Hughes, Thomas P.  American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2004.

Jackson, Alexander.  “‘Miners Play Regardless of Expense to the Community’: Reports and Portrayals of Miners at Leisure During the 1912 National Coal Miners’ Strike in Provincial and Metropolitan Newspapers.” Class, Culture and Community: New Perspectives in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century British Labour History. Eds. Anne Baldwin, et al. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2012.  17-36.

“Juggernaut | Jagannāth, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 22 March 2015

Karmel, Pepe. “Francis Picabia, 1915: the Sex of a New Machine.” Modern Art and America : Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries.  Ed. Sarah Greenough.  New York: Bulfinch, Little Brown, 2001. 203-219.

Konody, P. G., “Art and Artists: The London Group.” The Observer 14 March 1915: 5. Guardian News and Media Archive Web. 14 December 2014.

Lawrence, D. H.  Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  1928.  London: Penguin, 1988.

Lewis, Wyndham. Blast (1). London: John Lane, the Bodley Head, 1914. The Modernist Journals Project. Web. 12 December 2014.

- - - .  “A Review of Contemporary Art.”  Blast 2. London: John Lane, the Bodley Head, 1915.  The Modernist Journals Project. Web. 12 December 2014.

Merchant, Carolyn.  “Mining the Earth’s Womb.”  Machina Ex Dea: Feminist Perspective on Technology.  Ed. Joan Rothschild.  New York: Pergamon Press, 1983. 99-117. 

Mitchell, David and Sharon Snyder. “Narrative Prosthesis and the Materiality of Metaphor.” The Disability Studies Reader. 2nd edition. Ed. Lennard J. Davis.  New York: Routledge, 2006. 205-16.

Puchner, Martin. Poetry of the Revolution: Marx Manifestos, and the Avant-Gardes.  Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006.

Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. London: Picador, 1990. 

Rose, June. Daemons and Angels: A Life of Jacob Epstein.  London: Constable, 2002. 

Stern, Albert Gerald. Tanks, 1914-1918: The Log-Book of a Pioneer. 1919. Reprint. London: Forgotten Books, 2013. 

“Story of the Tanks.” Times [London, England] 8 Oct. 1919: 12. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 22 March 2015

Tate, Trudi. Modernism, History and the First World War. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1998.

Virilio, Paul.  Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology. Trans. Mark Polizzotti. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2006.

Weiner, Norbert.  Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1965.

Wilson, Trevor. The Myriad Faces of War: Britain and the Great War, 1914-1918.  London: Polity, 1986.

Wollaeger, Mark.  “D.H. Lawrence and the Technological Image: Modernism, Reference and Abstraction in Women in Love.” English Language Notes 51.1 (2013): 75-92.

Worthen, John.  D.H. Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider.  London: Allen Lane, 2005.  

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