Saturday, November 2, 2013

Mechanical Beings in the Age of Descartes

Riskin, Jessica. “Machines in the Garden.” Republics of Letters: A Journal for the Study of Knowledge, Politics, and the Arts 1, no. 2 (April 30, 2010):

The opening paragraphs:
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE ALIVE AND CONSCIOUS: an aware, thinking creature? Using life-like machines to discuss animation and consciousness is a major cultural preoccupation of the early twenty-first century; but few realize that this practice stretches back to the middle of the seventeenth century, and that actual lifelike machines, which peopled the landscape of late medieval and early modern Europe, shaped this philosophical tradition from its inception. By the early 1630s, when René Descartes argued that animals and humans, apart from their capacity to reason, were automata, European towns and villages were positively humming with mechanical vitality, and mechanical images of living creatures had been ubiquitous for several centuries. Descartes and other seventeenth-century mechanists were therefore able to invoke a plethora of animal- and human-like machines. These machines fell into two main categories: the great many devices to be found in churches and cathedrals, and the automatic hydraulic amusements on the grounds of palaces and wealthy estates.

Neither category of contraptions signified, in the first instance, what machine metaphors for living creatures later came to signify: passivity, rigidity, regularity, constraint, rote behavior, soullessness. Rather, the machines that informed the emergence of the early modern notion of the human-machine held a strikingly unfamiliar array of cultural and philosophical implications, notably the tendencies to act unexpectedly, playfully, willfully, surprisingly, and responsively.

Moreover, neither the idea nor the ubiquitous images of human-machinery ran counter to Christian practice or doctrine. Quite the contrary: not only did automata appear first and most commonly in churches and cathedrals, the idea as well as the technology of human-machinery was indigenously Catholic. The church was a primary sponsor of the literature that accompanied the technology of lifelike machines, and the body-machine was also a recurrent motif in Scholastic writing.

Automata were therefore theologically and culturally familiar, things with which one could be on easy terms. They were funny, sometimes bawdy, and they were everywhere. To under- stand what Descartes and other seventeenth-century mechanists did with the idea of animal and human machinery, one needs to take into account its familiarity and pre-existing meanings. From the early to mid-seventeenth century, at the hands of mechanist philosophers, matter and its mechanical combinations would be divested first of soul and then of life. This essay tours a mechanical culture that flourished before that development, in which machines represented precisely the capacities that the mechanists would later deny them: divinity and vitality.

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