Techniques of Indifference: Celibate Machines and the Modernist Gimmick

Online via Zoom
Thursday 29 April 2021 (19:30-21:00)

Nathan Waddell (


Hosted by the Centre for Modernist Cultures

Join Michelle Rada (Brown University, USA) for a talk about indifference, death, automation, and erotic desire in modernism.

It is commonplace to name indifference—not hate—the antipode of love. Indifference freezes over the erotic intensities of love and hate, an affective energy Freud identifies with modernity in 1920, in the wake of the First World War. The psychical trauma wrought by technologies of mass death emerges as a drive to return to a state before life itself: inorganic, inanimate, mechanical, cold. Modernity crystallizes a dimension of affective life in its mechanized, inhuman form, ushering in an icy age of 'supreme indifference', which Georges Bataille designates the definitive affective modality of modern art. Indifference erupts as an 'intensity' released into the twentieth century, the harbinger of a new kind of death: the death of meaning and depth for the subject of art, its mortification into inorganic object. This paper turns to a set of mythical modernist objects—the celibate or bachelor machines—designed to automate erotic life and objectify desire.

Coined by Duchamp, the celibate machine is a technology of autoerotic reproduction assembled to mechanize sex in a self-contained system that 'transforms love into a technique of death.' Often gimmicky surrealist images, celibate machines articulate (and mock) a modernist fantasy linking mechanical reproduction to a self-satisfied, cruel annihilation of difference (in/difference). Far from comprising a handful of installations in the imperial core, celibate machines were a fixation of modernist artists working across hemispheres and in diverse media—from novels and film to painting and the plastic arts. I turn to a variety of these machines, including a literary version in Adolfo Bioy Casares's La invención de Morel (1940), to explore the modernist link between automation and the frustration of erotic desire. I also briefly consider a contemporary iteration of the masturbatory bachelor in the figure of the 'incel' (involuntarily celibate), whose internet-based identity is shaped by a shared experience of erotic denial and the desire to violently obliterate the subject of love. Finally, I think through why in modernism this fantasy emerges so frequently as gimmick, recently described by Sianne Ngai as 'an unstable object' that wavers 'between the dissatisfying and the innocuous.' The gimmick both courts and challenges our indifference to it, disorienting us with its indifference to our judgment of its meaning and 'techniques.' By reading these works as gimmicks, I argue for an alternate order of modernist indifference, one that repudiates calls to sadistic cruelty and purposely occupies the position of inhuman object.

Michelle Rada is a PhD candidate in English at Brown University and affiliated faculty at Emerson College. Her research is on functionalist aesthetics, global modernism, and psychoanalysis. She has published essays in James Joyce Quarterly, the Journal of Modern Literature, The Comparatist, Room One Thousand, and the Journal of Beckett Studies. Michelle is currently working on a project on the psychoanalytic clinic as a site of political solidarity and serves as Senior Assistant Editor of differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies.

NOTE: Access to the talk will be via Zoom. A link will be circulated to attendees on the day of the presentation.

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