Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination
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From the dawn of European civilization to the twentieth century, the automaton―better known today as the robot―has captured the Western imagination and provided a vital lens into the nature of humanity.
Historian Minsoo Kang argues that to properly understand the human-as-machine and the human-as-fundamentally-different-from-machine, we must trace the origins of these ideas and examine how they were transformed by intellectual, cultural, and artistic appearances of the automaton throughout the history of the West. Kang tracks the first appearance of the automaton in ancient myths through the medieval and Renaissance periods, marks the proliferation of the automaton as a central intellectual concept in the Scientific Revolution and the subsequent backlash during the Enlightenment, and details appearances in Romantic literature and the introduction of the living machine in the Industrial Age. He concludes with a reflection on the destructive confrontation between humanity and machinery in the modern era and the reverberations of the humanity-machinery theme today.
Sublime Dreams of Living Machines is an ambitious historical exploration and, at heart, an attempt to fully elucidate the rich and varied ways we have utilized our most uncanny creations to explore essential questions about ourselves.
turned in the power of the automaton 37 every direction by a mechanical device, and twenty-three wounds could be seen, savagely inﬂicted on every part of the body and on the face. This sight seemed so pitiful to the people that they could bear it no longer. Howling and lamenting, they surrounded the senate-house, where Caesar had been killed, and burnt it down, and hurried about hunting for the murderers, who had slipped away some time previously.59 The purpose of the efﬁgy, and the whole
complex below the famous Gateway Arch monument in St. Louis, Missouri, several animatronic automata representing a Native American, a cowboy, a cavalryman, and other ﬁgures move and narrate the history of the American West. On my visit there I noticed that in every one of these displays an object, like a desk or a rock, was placed strategically in front of the automaton as a barrier between it and the spectators. These objects’ ostensible purpose might be to prevent people from reaching out and
recover in the second half of the ﬁfteenth century, the merchant city-states of Italy led the economic, political, and cultural revival that was the Renaissance. The rediscovery of ancient works on philosophy, nature, and magic created an intellectual environment that sought a more dynamic alternative to the Aristotelian synthesis achieved by Thomas Aquinas in the late thirteenth century. Renewed interest in classical learning in turn accelerated the search for more lost knowledge, creating a
other great philosophers of the era. Hobbes opens his Leviathan (1651) by comparing the natural creations of God and the artiﬁcial products of man in terms of life as motion. Nature (the Art whereby God hath made and governes the World) is by the Art of Man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artiﬁcial Animal. For seeing life is but a motion of Limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principall part within; why may we not say, that all Automata (Engines that
he died aboard the ship in 1838. from the man-machine to the automaton-man 179 After some performances in Philadelphia under new ownership, the device was destroyed in a ﬁre in 1854. The chess-player was no doubt a remarkable simulacrum of a thinking automaton that may have fooled some people, but a careful reading of the numerous writings on the device reveals that with the exception a few gullible commentators, none were actually fooled into thinking that it was actually playing the game.