Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination
Kang, Minsoo. Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2011.
From the publisher's blurb,
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.
Reviewed by Philip E. Kaveny, SFRA Review #296 (Spring 2011): pp. 11-12.[]
[Kang has written] an evolving conceptual history of the automaton, “a machine that mimics a living being as an idea in the European imagination,” from the time of Hero of Alexandria right up to depictions of revolts of the machines in the 21st century (1).
Kang’s book contains seven chapters, including “The Power of the Automaton”; “Between Magic and Mechanics: The Automaton in The Middle Ages and the Renaissance”; ”The Man-machine in the World–machine, 1637-1748”; From the Man-machine to the Automaton-man, 1748-1793”; “The Uncanny Automaton, 1789-1833”; “The Living Machines of the Industrial Age”; and finally, “The Revolt of the Robots, 1914-1935.” [***]
Kang concisely applies Freud’s theory of the uncanny to the origins of our discomfort and ambivalence towards the automaton, which seems to exist in the liminal space between human and nonhuman. [...H]e describes watching a little girl interact with a human impersonating a Robot. The human impersonator becomes most disturbing as a human who acts unhuman [...]. Finally, the girl runs off in frivolous dread, two terms that [...] embody our attitude toward the uncanny and the liminal boundaries between human and machine. Kang also points out how the term machine, at least when used to describe human performance, is usually a positive [...]. An android, on the other hand, is usually depicted as comic or grotesque [...]. (Kaveny, p. 12)
See also Jessica Riskin's The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick.
RDE, finishing, 4Ap21