Dream Machines

Steven Connor

Machines are thought to belong to the realm of the definite and the actual, and therefore to be opposed to the softer, less substantial world of dream, fantasy and vision. The aim of Dream Machines, the book I am writing for the Technographies series with Open Humanities Press, is to use the analysis of a number of imaginary or frankly impossible machines to isolate a certain strain of the visionary that may be involved in all thinking and writing about machines. Technologies are ‘dreamed up’ and machines require a great deal of lucid dreamwork in order to be brought into being. So the actual development of technologies like those of flight or phonography has usually been preceded by centuries or more or less concrete embodiment in fantasy. This means that the very idea of the machine becomes entangled with magical thinking. Sometimes these dreams are extreme wish-fulfilment, the ultimate cognitive labour-saving device; but they can also be nightmare visions, very often of machines that have no other purpose than to propagate or perpetuate themselves, like Novalis’s 1799 vision of ‘a monstrous mill, driven by the stream of chance and floating on it, a mill of itself without builder or miller and really a true perpetuum mobile, a mill grinding itself’ or Conrad’s vision, almost a century later, of the ‘knitting-machine’ of the cosmos, that ‘has made itself without thought, without conscience, without foresight, without eyes, without heart…It knits us in and it knits us out’. I will suggest that machines that depend on or result from dream have a way of turning back on the dreamer, and figuring the machinery of the act of dreaming itself. It is this apparitional function of the dream machine that much literary writing isolates and allows us to think about.

As I have thought about the various kinds of imaginary machines that are the subject of this book, teleportation machines, perpetual motion machines, cyberneiric machines, influencing machines, time machines, and other devices yet to come into existence yet flourishing in imagination, I have become more than ever convinced that there is a continuing work of imagining involved in all machines and indeed, that all machines are in fact imaginary machines. By this, of course, I do not mean that no machines in fact exist. I mean that the acts and arts of imagining, and the spectrum of comportments and affective investments they convoke, are essential to the ways in which machines are ‘existed’, in Sartre’s transitive usage – that is, made to exist, brought to and kept in existence, made livable, and even, often, lovable. If all technographies, the ways we write and picture machines, are suffused with fantasy and affect, they must all therefore be seen as psychotechnographies. We give ourselves to machines, and come to ourselves through them.

Work in progress towards this book, along with other technographic writings, can be found at http://stevenconnor.com/technographies.html