Grey Room

Weltgeist/Wildegeist: The Savage inside “World History”

Ginger Nolan

Charles Godfrey Leland. “Prophesies for the Twentieth Century,” 1899.


The pyramids of Egypt would be rebuilt without slaves. The Tower of Babel would finally be completed despite the world’s diversity of tongues. A stone tower would materialize as if by magic one morning in Massachusetts, prefiguring Babylon’s restoration. With the aid of this imagined architecture machine, “the poorest people and even boys” would, according to Charles Godfrey Leland, scatter huts across the earth. The huts would spring forth from rustic imaginations—imaginations uncorrupted, that is, by any cosmopolitan knowledge of architecture. In a subsequent speculation from his “Prophesies for the Twentieth Century,” Leland foretells that in 1974 this architecture machine would be improved so that “photographs of a gigantic scale will be made in solid relief like stone, and used for mural decorations.” People would thereby decorate their dwellings according to nature’s own patterns. Finally, with this machine, Leland tells us, “Nature will be really reproduced by Nature.” Leland thus rewrites one of the nineteenth-century’s most familiar critiques of machine production: the machine does not necessarily denature and destroy preindustrial craft technique; rather, the machine might renaturalize art production while replacing brute labor with spontaneous, demiurgic acts of creativity. Labor, aided by creative machines, would become noncoercively self-organizing. Work would be a form of magic.