Historian and writer Minsoon Kang's first nonfiction book has just been released by Harvard University Press. The title is Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination. I'm not going to attempt to re-summarize this complex topic, so here's the jacket copy:
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.
That may sound a little dry, but the book itself is entertaining and fascinating. How can it not be when it contains discussions of such marvels as Vaucanson's mechanical duck?!
Here's an excerpt from the introduction to get you started...
by Minsoo Kang
A few months after I began my research for this book, I saw something that brought home to me the complexity of the ideas I was dealing with. A friend and I were walking through the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California, packed with people on a Saturday evening, when we came across a street performer dressed in a silver suit, his face and hands painted in the same color, pretending to be a robot. He entertained a crowd with slow, mechanical movements of his limbs, hips and head, until he stopped in mid-motion. He remained still until a little girl approached him with curiosity. When she came close and made a face at him, the performer came alive again, sending the girl running with a delighted squeal, much to the amusement of the spectators.
"He's really good," my friend said, "but the whole thing's kind of creepy, too, isn't it?"
I was immersed in thoughts of automata at the time, so I naturally found the scene of great interest. As I pondered the nature of the spectacle, several immediate thoughts came to me. From a conceptual point of view, the performer's act was of a complex order, as it featured a man pretending to be a machine that pretends to be a man. Also, even in this technologically advanced society, where all manner of machines, from the massively industrial to the conveniently portable, are ubiquitous and essential to the daily functioning of people's lives, there is something about the mimicry of machinery that can still enthrall people. Furthermore, the performance was made possible by a ritualistic complicity on the part of the spectators.
The viewers knew full well that the performer was a human being pretending to be a machine that pretends to be a man, since only a child could seriously think that he was an actual robot. Yet they willingly suspended that knowledge for the peculiar pleasure of the play, to watch how well he executed the double act. When he stopped in mid-motion, the performance was raised to another level as the viewers, aware that he was now pretending to be an inert object (a man pretending to be a machine pretending to be a man pretending to be a statue), waited for someone to approach him so he would move again with the pretense of frightening that person. The performance seemed like a reenactment of countless such scenes from science fiction and horror movies in which people are terrorized by robots, statues and dolls animated by a malevolent force. The act was one of harmless fun but there was an undercurrent of uneasiness, in the pretense of danger by the young girl and in my friend finding the spectacle "creepy." Such expressions of anxiety at the thought of an inert object taking on characteristics of a living creature can be found not only in contemporary popular culture but also in literary works of the past.
In Alexander Pushkin's celebrated narrative poem "The Bronze Horseman" (1837), a disturbed man envisions the equestrian statue of Peter the Great coming alive to chase him through the streets of the Czar's city.
And all through that long night, no matter
What road the frantic wretch might take,
There still would pound with ponderous clatter
The Bronze Horseman in his wake.
And ever since, when in his erring
He chanced upon that square again,
They saw a sick confusion blurring
His features. One hand swiftly then
Flew to his breast, as if containing
The anguished heart's affrighted straining;
His worn-out cap he then would raise,
Cast to the ground a troubled gaze And slink aside.
In Prosper MÃ©rimÃ©e's story "The Venus of Ille" (1837), the inexplicable murder of a young man is believed by some to be the work of an unearthed statue of a pagan goddess; in E. T. A. Hoffmann's "The Sandman" (1816), a man who finds out that the woman he loves is an automaton is driven mad by the revelation; and in the various versions of the Don Juan story, the libertine's damnation is presaged by the statue of his murdered victim coming alive to shake his hand.
But the ambivalent feelings toward the performance at the Promenade (amusement as well as unease) were not just about the representation of an object that comes alive. The other component was the spectacle of a human being who behaves like a machine, an act that also arouses conflicting emotions in people. The complexity of such reactions can be discerned in the contradictory ways in which certain types of people are described in mechanical terms in everyday language. On the one hand, referring to someone as a machine can be an expression of admiration, for the demonstration of great productivity at a task, unerring accuracy and grace in its execution.