Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Under the Skin of Automata: Books

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Under the Skin of Automata: Books

Article excerpt

Angela Vanhaelen on the fascination and fear aroused by 18th-century mechanical figures.

Androids in the Enlightenment: Mechanics, Artisans, and Cultures of the Self

By Adelheid Voskuhl

University of Chicago Press

296pp, Pounds 31.50

ISBN 9780226034027 and 34331 (e-book)

Published 8 July 2013

Automata - self-moving mechanical figures - come to us from a deep past. Plato and Aristotle described cunningly designed artefacts that mimicked the movements of human bodies. Like us, yet not like us, a well-crafted automaton can dance and sing, smoke a pipe or play a musical instrument. In the 18th century, there were androids so technologically accomplished that they could defeat human opponents in games of chess, draw pictures and handwrite thought-provoking little notes stating: "I think therefore I am." There were even automata that defecated and engaged in sexual acts. The chess player was a fraud - a very smart, very small human was wedged inside. The defecating duck, however, really did excrete from internal bowels. Less is known about the copulating automata, as none seems to have survived. (We can imagine them melting in the fires of Victorian furnaces.) Indeed, there is something about the automaton - a lively thing that is always already dead - that makes it both potent and vulnerable. Goethe saw the decrepit featherless remains of the no-longer-defecating- duck in 1805 and wittily observed that it had lost its powers and was "utterly paralyzed".

But just what were the powers of automata? They have long moved at the edges of artistic and scientific practices, but their historical functions have proved difficult to pin down. It is tempting to situate them as anxiety-provoking ancestors of the cyborg and the computer, harbingers of artificial life, artificial intelligence and human/machine amalgams such as the factory production line. But automata are more elusive than this. They rarely move along expected trajectories, but tend to dart off in other directions. Plato, at least, saw them in this way, writing: "If no one ties them down, they run away and escape. If you have one untethered, it gives you the slip like a runaway slave." It is the slipperiness of automata - especially their refusal to be tied to predictable historical narratives - that Adelheid Voskuhl confronts in Androids in the Enlightenment. …

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