Downton Abbey and Technology

Tonight American audiences rekindle their fascination with Downton Abbey, the popular BBC series set in a stately English manor during the early twentieth century. It is a series that dramatizes the decline and dissolution of a world shorn apart by the violent winds of social change. In the series, the Great War, the women’s movement, socialism, and other contemporaneous developments chip away at the old order. But the opening scene of the pilot episode also strongly suggests that this older world is giving way to the forces of technological change. Consider the first two minutes:

The tapping of telegraph, the whistle of the locomotive, and the curves of power lines all feature prominently in these opening shots. And so too does the sinking of the Titanic, a near mythical case study in the dangers of technological hubris. Strikingly, the telegraph lines and the progress of the train are juxtaposed with idyllic country scenes. It is a filmic version of a prominent nineteenth century literary convention.

Consider the following passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal. While enjoying the enchantments of the natural (and cultural) world around him, Hawthorne is startled:

“But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive — the long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness, for the space of a mile cannot mollify it into harmony. It tells a story of busy men, citizens, from the hot street, who have come to spend a day in a country village, men of business; in short of all unquietness; and no wonder that it gives such a startling shriek, since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumbrous peace.”

This passage is a point of departure for Leo Marx’s classic study of technology in the American literary tradition, The Machine in the Garden. Similar vignettes were a recurring feature in the literature of the nineteenth century. For Hawthorne, Emerson, and many of their contemporaries, the train whistle signaled the industrial machine’s disruption of a pastoral ideal in which human culture blended harmoniously with nature.

The opening scenes of Downton Abbey fit neatly within this genre. Of course, Hawthorne was writing about what were for him contemporary realities. We are far removed from the historical setting of Downton Abbey. For us the train whistle signals little more than a break in traffic and the telegraph is merely quaint. But I wonder whether the popularity of Downton Abbey stems, at least in part, from its evocation of the specter of disruptive technological change. It offers the anxieties of a safely distant age as a proxy for our own, and, perhaps, in doing so it also offers something like a cathartic experience for viewers.

Perhaps it merely traffics in nostalgia for an idyllic age, but I doubt it. We know from the outset that there is a snake in the garden. The train, the power lines, the Titanic — they are so many momento mori littering the scene. More likely we are like the Angel of History in Benjamin’s reading of Klee’s Angelus Novus:

“His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

As the storm blows us onward we can’t help but glance back at the wreckage of the past piling up behind us … or some often romanticized, frequently commodified representation of it that may or may not bear any resemblance to historical realities.

Of course, it may just be the memes.