Knowledge in the Difference Engine

Disraeli’s quote, “Knowledge is power”, seems to sum up a recurring theme in The Difference Engine. One one level, knowledge is everything to the society presented in this book, as Knowledge is the thing that can turn people from poor to rich, commoner to aristocrat, unknown to famous. An organization like the Central Statistics Bureau, therefore, hoards as much information as its Engines can hold, and in turn it becomes a central component of the government. Not everyone, as Tobias explains to Mallory, has access to the data stored in their Engines. It’s interesting to note that two groups have this privilege: those in the highest seats of authority, and those in the lowest. Higher-up government officials can request information or even the erasure of information; meanwhile, the workers of the engines (who tend to be poor, children, or women) have direct access to the machines. It seems that the ones who are most disadvantaged by the Bureau’s system are the ones that fall in the middle of these two demographics.

In two instances we see unrelated characters who express the same sentiment. While talking to Sybil about his “knowledge guild”, Michael Radley claims that the “big bosses” can take a lot of things, “But they can’t ever take what you know, now can they, Sybil?” (15). Later, the inventor Godwin tells Mallory that he’ll lose his fortune if his steam-gurney fails, but “Well, they can’t take what I know, can they?” (83). Knowledge does seem to be something that can only go forward linearly, considering how difficult it is to “un-know” something once you know it. This is exemplified in the way characters struggle and compete to reveal greater, newer, more accurate insights as if knowledge is something that “is dying to be born” (322).

Those who obtain information that others do not (Sybil, Oliphant, savants) tend to be able to get things done and those who publicize their knowledge receive celebrity status, privileges, and aristocratic titles. But I wondered if it was a coincidence that these words emerge from the mouths of those “in the middle”, the ones who are least likely to handle sensitive information like the kind found in the Bureau. Radley almost immediately loses the all-important punched cards by being murdered. Godwin, upon making his “line-streaming” discoveries, puts his knowledge out to the public space. In both cases, the knowledge each man obtained could not be contained for very long.

On another level, the form of the novel itself also seems to be playing with knowledge and how to present it to the readers. We talked in class about the word iteration in the chapter titles, and how each successive iteration builds on those that came before it in order to give a better, more accurate picture. In this way, we get pieces of knowledge fed to us in sequence after sequence until we finally understand the whole story. No single Iteration contains all of the information we need and we start out with very little information, and end with a whole series of “Images Tabled” for us to puzzle together the gaps.

As someone mentioned in class on Tuesday, this book is all about different forms of knowledge and how they’re presented and used. Since this is just a brief overview of some of the passages that I noticed in the text, I’d like to know if anyone else found any other passages or had any other thoughts about them.

1 thought on “Knowledge in the Difference Engine

  1. The way you describe the organization of knowledge in the novel is interestingly very similar to Jameson’s delineation of pastiche is the postmodern context. That is, the way that truths are presented throughout the narrative is from varying perspectives and they are eclectically arranged, challenging the normally chronological mode of storytelling and focusing more on the universality of space. I think this particular manner of how the novel unfolds not only makes a specific claim about the presentation of knowledge within the diegetic world of the novel but also on how the reader interacts with the knowledge as presented by the world of the novel. I felt like a traditional, linear reading of the book moving from one point to the next and then the next seemed almost counterintuitive to the way that it presents itself. Only as I finished the book, it occurred to me that perhaps I would have earned a more comprehensive understanding of the book if I had approached the book as a kind of a visual map, in which I am simultaneously taking in the different iterations and permutations of elements in the well of knowledge. Of course, the foremost nature of text is that it is fundamentally linear, so I could not to that, and I think that is where the tension arises, in the reader coming to terms with the certain extent of impossibility in reading “The Difference Engine.”

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