The ghost factories: histories of automata and artificial life

Historically, automata had always relied on a trick; and they’re still playing it.Imagine a factory. On the shop floor stands a single worker – a young girl. Surrounding her are the hulking frames of weaving looms, four of them, in riotous mechanical action. The girl doesn’t operate the machines. Instead, they operate themselves. The fabric, more perfect and uniform than human hands can manage, ‘weaves itself’. The girl’s job, her only job, is to watch the machines, making sure nothing threatens their work. She cleans the silk, she mends a broken thread, she reloads an empty shuttle. To do this, she stops the machine by pressing a single button, located on one of their four corners. When she’s finished, she presses the button again and the mechanism shudders back to life, exactly where it left off.That vision – a ghost factory – appeared in the November 1745 edition of the Mercure de France.1 It advertised the latest invention of Jacques de Vaucanson, tenth child of a Grenoble glove-maker and high wizard of mid-eighteenth century automation. Among the automata makers of his time, Vaucanson was unrivaled. The detail and sophistication of his automata – defecating ducks, tambourine- and flute-playing androids – dazzled his audiences and defined the approach to automata for generations to come. His talents were clearly portable. The techniques he employed and the visions he conjured cut across the spheres of courtly leisure, proto-industrial labor, and Enlightenment governance.2 Frederick the Great courted him. Voltaire sang his praises. Louis XIV proposed sending him to Guyana to source rubber for a mechanical model of the human circulatory system. Arguably though, Vaucanson’s greatest and most lasting feat involved none these accolades. Instead, his real legacy was to popularize a way of talking about machines. At the heart of all his work, including his spectral account of factory production, was a set of erasures – physical and rhetorical – that made the illusion of automation possible. Where were the artisans who built these automated machines? Who spun the threads that ‘wove themselves’ into impossibly fine fabric? Where were the Chinese and North African and West Indian laborers who gathered the silk and cotton from far-flung trading posts and colonies? It’s only at the end of his striking account that Vaucanson revealed the hidden organic forces powering his automated looms: a horse, moving water, a man, an eight-year old child. Vaucanson didn’t invent this opportunistically porous way of talking about automation and machinic self-action; at least not single-handedly. It was a collective enterprise. Historically, automata of all kinds – from androids to factory machines to our own autonomous technologies – have relied on this type of disappearing trick. And they’re still playing it.The ghost factory, then, is a capsule for the concerns, omissions, and erasures that stalk the history of automata. It is also an allegory for the way we write about that history. The historical scholarship on automata limns a curious, circumscribed tale of our relationship with machines.3 It rehearses a historical fascination with certain kinds of questions about agency, ability, intelligence, artificial life, and social order. Three fascinating recent books – Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock, Adelheid Voskuhl’s Androids in the Enlightenment, and John Tresch’s The Romanic Machine – set out to explore the histories we’ve overlooked while tracking those concerns.4 Riskin excavates a forgotten strain of mechanical philosophy, an ‘active’ mechanism in which the agency of machines was no idle metaphor, but rather a pulsing metaphysical commitment running through the modern period. Voskuhl leads us through mountain villages, artisanal workshops, clockwork linkages, and bourgeois sitting rooms to recover the vibrant material and cultural practices that produced Enlightened ‘women’ androids and gave meaning to their movements. And Tresch explores a juxtaposition so alien to our cultural imaginations, that we struggle to make sense of it: a mechanical romanticism that saw machines as alive and awake, and that flourished in the writings, utopias, theatres, and machines of Paris between the fall of one Napoleon and the rise of another. These are brilliant histories. And they have an enormous amount to teach us about the role of narrative, materiality, and nuance in our craft. But as much as they reveal and illuminate, as much as they excavate and recover, these works also hide elements of something else. Looking over Vaucanson’s shoulder, we find ourselves asking: what kinds of erasures make these histories, as fascinating and compelling as they are, possible as well?As Joseph Roach has explained, certain things need to be forgotten for specific ideas – invention, racial purity, even automation – to exist.5 We have to forget many things for histories of automata to be primarily about ‘sentiment’, or machine ‘agency’, or even artificial ‘life’. In what follows, I want to suggest that Riskin, Voskuhl, and Tresch teach us invaluable lessons about how to think through and write histories of automation. But they miss something else that should be haunting us. The Restless Clock’s captivation with agency and mechanical philosophy, Androids’ unspoken assumptions about the Enlightenment’s sentimental self, The Romantic Machine’s timely lessons for our contemporary world – all of them gesture to, without ever addressing, what might be the automata’s most lasting and troubling legacy: their role in creating the autonomous, white, liberal subject of the modern period. I want to suggest here that we have been tracking the wrong ghosts. Maybe a return to the ghost factory is exactly what we need to start undoing the trick that automata continue to play, not only on our cultural assumptions, but on our scholarly visions; a trick that lies at the heart of contemporary ideas about technology and the unhelpful ways it’s talked about in our current historical moment.Automata have been many things over the last six hundred years.6 Jessica Riskin’s book, The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick, masterfully traces one shimmering thread in that centuries-long history. For Riskin, automata crystallized the philosophical debates, cultural anxieties, and political stakes that surrounded mechanical ‘agency’ over the last half-millennium. Her book intricately charts the enduring, often-hidden, contest between two understandings of agency, articulated in two competing forms of mechanical philosophy – the natural philosophical program that emerged in the seventeenth century and described the natural world as a machine. On one side stood classical (or ‘brute’) mechanism. Its proponents – Descartes, Newton, Boyle, and their fellow travelers – inhabited a passive mechanical world of inert matter in motion that, they felt, adequately described not only inorganic phenomena such as magnetism or weather, but also living beings. Their metaphysics banned mysterious innate forces – intrinsic agency – from scientific explanation, which meant that agency had to come from without: an external motive force driving their clock-work world in the form, for example, of a divine designer.7 From the beginning, though, another vision opposed this classical, brute mechanism: an active mechanism, championed by philosophical heavyweights like Spinoza and Leibniz (who saw in the clock a model for ‘the inner, restless, resisting agency of the mechanism itself’.)8 For the active mechanists, agency came from within the machine. Nature contained its own sources of action as a self-constituting, self-transforming machinery.9 These active mechanists, Riskin tells us, ultimately lost the battle. But the fallout from their struggle was long-lasting. The subsequent history of scientific explanation has been haunted by at least two things: the implicit, forgotten need for external agency on which the brute-mechanists depended; and the remnants of the active-mechanist approach that, often secretly, lived on.Riskin brilliantly tracks their ghosts. Her book begins with automata, the ‘life-like machines’ that spread across medieval and Renaissance Europe, inhabiting churches, palace gardens, clock towers, and town squares. ‘These machines inspired the mechanistic sciences of life that emerged in the seventeen century’, shaping both the passive and active mechanist traditions of Descartes and Leibniz, respectively.10 They became choice avatars in the resulting contest over how to explain nature’s ‘machinery’. And the sciences they inspired, in turn, gave rise to a new breed of life-like machines that performed animal and human processes, machines that included the ‘androids’ used to argue that human beings, in all their wondrous complexity, might be wholly material.11 Although the brute mechanists ultimately won out, Riskin excavates the strain of active mechanism that continues into our own time: winding its way through Leibniz’s haunting metaphor of the restless clock – responsive, agitated, unsettled; resurfacing in Darwin’s theories of organic, self-organizing machines, and in late twentieth-century debates in cybernetics, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and evolutionary biology. For Riskin, that obscured history is important because it reveals a historical alternative and therefore unmasks the restrictions that current scientist have placed on their modes of explanation while blinding themselves to the stakes of their own adherence to brute mechanism.Riskin’s primary interest is in the debate over agency and its place in the struggle for the soul of mechanical philosophy and scientific explanation. And so it’s understandable that automata figure as the material avatars of philosophical visions so sweeping, they inform the practical and ideological programs of factory owners, slaveholders, and imperialists, underpinning the classism, racism, and sexism on which the history of capital was also built. ‘Follow the android flutists and mechanical birds’, Riskin entreats us, ‘and they will soon lead you to an automated factory’.12 And yet. And yet …. Something about that trajectory, running from metaphysical problem to worldly application, seems too neat. It too easily flatters our historical assumptions. And it spawns other questions: What legacies does this focus on the primacy of the natural philosophical debate hide? What if these machines’ most powerful and lasting effect wasn’t their place in a long-running question about agency and mechanical philosophy? What if automata performed something else; something so taken-for-granted, that we rarely notice it, even in our scholarly investigations? And what if this way of writing their histories further naturalizes something we should be historicizing and critiquing; something that we might desperately need to dismantle?One clue in that direction lies in the book’s central pivot. The Protestant Reformation forms the main axis for the The Restless Clock’s argument, the moment when automata lose their status as amulets and enchanted mouthpieces for other-worldly powers. ‘The Reformation transformed the world not just for Protestants but for everyone’, Riskin tells us.13 Its stark separation of God from his works shaped philosophical commitments across the European religious spectrum, as Catholics, Protestants, Deists, Jews, Muslims and others oriented their thinking in relation to the emerging view of nature as an inert, passive machine. For Riskin, the Reformation also marks a subtle shift in the audiences for the automata and the class of objects these machines represent. With the sermons of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli still echoing in the distance, Riskin moves us into a world increasingly shrunken: Protestant, secular, elite, focused on specific examples of individual automata rather than, for example, on the miniature social worlds that the ‘automaton theaters’ labored to capture. Gone, too, is the howling moor, hanging from his turban in Barcelona’s cathedral. The locked-down feel of these new spaces and objects marks the changing focus of The Restless Clock, from popular culture to high culture; from bawdy, raucous, profane, and sublime concerns to more sober philosophical questions; from fraught depictions of ‘otherness’ to white European androids.14 Along the way, we lose a sense of the larger cultural and socio-technical imagination of the period: the genealogies and family resemblances that inspired the mechanisms at the core of the automata, the way they were woven into both local and distant cultural topographies and mechanisms, beyond just clocks and automatic looms. It’s as if, once the machines move to their private estates and courtly fountains and palace waterworks, their human audiences start to occupy the gilded cage of Vaucanson’s mechanical singing bird. And they never leave.What awaited audiences when they stepped into the bustle of Covent Garden, outside the Great Room where Jaquet-Droz’s mechanisms dazzled and amazed? From inside that confined space, and so many others like it, we can easily forget that the clockwork at the heart of automata was not sui generis. It had its own complex genealogies, assembled from elements with rich and resonating analogs in the lived world of wheels and cranks, music boxes and automatic organs, winches and mills – a universe of mechanical devices that populated the public theater of machines of the early modern period and gave their mechanical kin meaning.15 Historically, the clock ‘balance’ that Leibniz seized upon (in French) for his spectral metaphor conjured not only the European jeweler’s cloistered and tidy workshop, but the cut-and-thrust of the merchant’s stall in a thousand global outposts.16 These broader cultural histories occasionally break the surface in Riskin’s account, gesturing to the sprawling material world of the period. But we too often lose the rich materiality of machines, including automata, in favor of the idea of mechanism – dematerialized and universal. The materiality of that wider world and its resonances with the automata may matter little for Riskin’s main focus, the philosophical contest over mechanism and its heuristics; although that is an open question. But they matter crucially to the question of what people saw when they witnessed an automaton in action or peered into its riot of machinery. Riskin’s argument, of course, is not that all automata inspired debates over mechanism and agency; or that any given automaton inspired them all the time. These were objects through which the contest between active and passive mechanism played out. But on Riskin’s telling, the stakes of the debate seem powerful, overarching, and seductive. And the impression we’re left with is that philosophical debates dominated the way people understood these machines: that you could not look at an automaton after the seventeenth century without seeing a metaphysics of agency at work.But was agency the only, or even the most important thing that automata performed? Performance and the theatrical metaphor are no casual analogies here. Automata were immersed in the vibrant early-modern world of both religious and secular theatre and spectacle, as Riskin herself illustrates. In a single year, 1547, the Passion play at Vincennes featured an automated mouth of hell, complete with devils and sinners, while John Dee’s mechanical flying dung beetle animated a production of Aristophane’s Pax.17 In the eighteenth century, automata were often displayed in theaters; and spaces like the Salle de Machines at the Tuileries Palace (so named because of its elaborate stage machinery) cemented the links between mechanism and illusion.18 The language of dramaturgy named an entire class of explicitly theatrical automata – the automaton theaters – now largely forgotten.19 These animated, mechanically driven scenes of work and leisure often appeared alongside individual automata, and competed with them for fascination and attention. The prominent father-and-son team of Pierre and Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz, two of the most eminent automata-makers of the Enlightenment, was famous for its androids – a harpsichord player, a draughtsman, and a writer. But the pamphlet for their London exhibit included an automaton theater (Figure 1), listed second in the program, and described rapturously and at enormous length, taking up more text than the other three devices combined.20 Published online:20 May 2020Figure 1. Jaquet-Droz Automata. Note the prominence of the automation theater (front center), with smaller images of individual automata arranged top-left and top-right. British Museum number 2003,0531.96, image AN145121001: ‘Three mechanical toys driven by clockwork designed by Pierre Jacquet-Droz (1775).’ Courtesy of the British Museum. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). Copyright The Trustees of the British Museum.Figure 1. Jaquet-Droz Automata. Note the prominence of the automation theater (front center), with smaller images of individual automata arranged top-left and top-right. British Museum number 2003,0531.96, image AN145121001: ‘Three mechanical toys driven by clockwork designed by Pierre Jacquet-Droz (1775).’ Courtesy of the British Museum. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). Copyright The Trustees of the British Museum.The automated tableau was about four and a half feet square and three feet high. A formal garden and the facade of building decorated the foreground; a Swiss mountain landscape stood in the middle distance, with shepherds, animals, a cottage, a mill, and a rivulet; and in the background a mountain with caves and grottos finished the scene. The operations of the theater were intricate. The sun rose and set; the actions told a story. A peasant emerged from his cottage, got on a mule with his sack of grain, crossed the bridge over the rivulet on his way to the mill, and was met by a barking dog. While he ground his grain, a shepherd and a shepherdess played a duet. The scene finished with peasant returning home with his sack of flour.Automaton theaters like this one complicate Riskin’s arguments about how people saw agency inhabiting machines. They make explicit how, like theatrical machinery and stage performance in general, automata were designed to generate effects for their viewers: wonder, amazement, surprise, puzzlement, humour, delight.21 These devices were part of the material apparatus of performance – contrivances, more akin in certain moments to popular puppets or marionnettes than to the agents and exemplars of mechanical philosophy.22 Kant himself underlined those connections and their common illusions. Pointing to the implications of a deterministic argument, he observed: ‘Man would be a marionette or an automaton like Vaucanson’s, fabricated and wound up by the Supreme Artist; self-consciousness would indeed make him a thinking automaton, but the consciousness of his spontaneity, if this is held to be freedom, would be a mere illusion’.23 These effects had material dimensions: they relied on historically specific machine behaviors, rooted in contemporary material cultures, and resonating with the behavior of living things. But they also relied on the broader cultural imagination of the period in order to make them work. Elicited in theatrical spaces, witnessed by enlightened theater-goers, the liveliness of these objects – their ‘agency’ – was, in crucial ways, imagined.24 Disentangling the exact interplay between imagination and belief is a hopeless task. But recognizing that the two were entangled must be part of the history of technologies like the automata. It allows us to draw at least an analytical distinction between the phenomenology of machine behaviors – an investigation of the experiences machines created – as distinct from the history of machine ontologies – a history of what machines have been understood to be.This interplay of imagination and machine behaviors underlines something that often goes unremarked about the history of automata: the complicity of audiences in producing one of the automaton’s most important effects, the appearance of autonomy.25 Next to agency, autonomy is a concession prize in the contest of transcendent philosophical concerns. It’s a prior and more mundane effect. So it’s no surprise that this isn’t Riskin’s main quarry. But running throughout Riskin’s account is an ambiguity about autonomy and agency. Riskin stakes her definition of agency on the question of self-action. Agency is ‘an intrinsic capacity to act in the world, to do things in a way that is neither predetermined nor random’. But she also makes clear the role of autonomous action in creating the conditions for agency. ‘A thing with agency is a thing whose activity originates inside itself rather than outside’,26 echoing the 1751 Encyclopédie’s definition of an automaton as a ‘device that moves by itself, or a machine that carries in itself the principle of its motion’.27 The mundaneness of this basic form of autonomy tends to give it an artless quality – the innocent and simple-minded cousin of agency. In this case, though, the very mundaneness of autonomy, its taken-for-grantedness in discussions of automation, is precisely what makes it powerful and historically interesting. Autonomy was the base illusion that automata were designed to create. Riskin and her interlocutors see it chiefly as a mechanical effect, the instrumental byproduct of ingeniously designed machines like the automatic loom or the defacating duck. But the history of technology recognizes that, like objectivity, autonomy is both a material product and a historically contingent cultural effect: it involves not just new machines and clever devices, but learning to see them in certain ways.28As the account in the Mercure de France implied, Vaucanson’s machines were never going to go out into the world and gather their own silk, or power themselves. Who yoked the horses? Who built the powertrain or the weaving frame? What, then, could it mean for these machines to be ‘self-moving’? Just as importantly for our histories of technology, if this effect was to take hold, certain other things needed to be unseen and unimagined. What, and who, needed to disappear for this definition of autonomy to work out in the messy world? Just as Enlightenment audiences collaborated willingly in the fantasy of theatre performances by ignoring the stage crews, or the pages trimming the lights, or the back-stage machinery they knew to be there, embracing instead the theatrical effects, the audiences for automata had to become active participants in an act of erasure. They had to learn to see automata as autonomous. And they had many tutors.One way to read Riskin’s account is to see the mechanical philosophy as one of those tutors – a sophisticated, flexible, and overarching philosophical framework that shaped the early modern imagination. As Riskin tells us, ‘A model such as the human-machine is truly powerful, not when it compels a certain way of thinking, but rather when it is ubiquitous, supporting all sides of every dispute, underlying the whole conversation of a given age. Such was the case with the human-machine and the Enlightenment conversation about human agency, universalism, and difference’.29 But for all its power, it’s not clear that the mechanical philosophy taught people to see automata as autonomous. The mechanical philosophy was arguably produced by this way of seeing. Years ago, Georges Canguilhem, one of Foucault’s teachers, explained how.Canguilhem made clear that the mechanical philosophy was part-and-parcel with a philosophy of domination. The ‘animal-machine’ was a way of explaining animal life, but also a justification for the continued domination of humans over the natural world.30 The likening of animals and machines, moreover, was made possible by the illusion of ‘self-acting’ artificial mechanisms. When Descartes rummaged through early modern machinery for models of living things, he invoked spring-driven and hydraulic automata, calling to mind the technologies of his age – clocks and watches, watermills, artificial fountains, church organs.31 But that identity between mechanisms and organism (whether literal or figurative, passive or active) was impossible as long as the human or the animal ‘adhered’ to the machine, as long as organic actions were constantly visible as the ultimate source of mechanical action. It was only when ‘automatic’ mechanisms began storing human, organic, or animal labor – through coiled springs, or raised water, or hoisted weights – and releasing it at a later time, that the organic and the machinic could be separated in order to be later assimilated by the proponents of mechanical philosophy: Descartes, or Newton, or Leibniz. Humans, Canguilhem observed, participated in that process by forgetting, or ignoring, the linkages: ‘It is this lag [décalage], between the moment of output [restitution] and the moment of storage of energy by the mechanism, that allows the forgetting of the dependent relationship between the effects of the mechanism and the action of a living being’.32 In other words, mechanical philosophy could not link humans and machines until the actions of the two appeared to be separate, until people had learned to see the workings of the machine as autonomous from the organic labor that powered and organized it. The Enlightenment’s deep legacy was to create not only mechanically sophisticated automata, as Riskin so beautifully illustrates, but culturally sophisticated ways of perceiving, forgetting, circumscribing, and talking about machine autonomy that are still with us today.Seeing machines as autonomous, then, has historically meant not seeing certain kinds of labor and the people performing it. What Canguilhem missed was how this concealment embeds automation in historical and contemporary intersections of race and technology.33 Thomas Jefferson, America’s anointed son of the Enlightenment, for example, used a series of dumbwaiters at his Monticello home to ‘magically’ supply wine and food for dinner guests. But the magic only worked as long as his genteel callers ignored the company of slaves who worked the ‘hidden’ mechanisms encased in the walls of Monticello, carrying food and drink quietly and unfailingly through its caverns and narrow passages. That masking of the toil behind automation, along with the oblivious amazement of Jefferson’s guests, has twentieth and twenty-first century parallels.34 The food delivery ‘robots’ on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley enchant only as long as we ignore their remote operators in Colombia, plotting waypoints and sending the robots instructions every 5 to 10 seconds. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform relies on ‘human intelligence tasks’ – organizing pictures of cats, for instance – that the ‘artificial intelligence’ of computers will work on later. The actions of these workers are made machine-like – routine, repetitive, atomized – to the point where they become invisible to the casual observer, but they cannot yet be eliminated for the ‘autonomy’ of AI to work.35 The case of Jefferson, or indeed of Maelzel’s original chess-playing Mechanical Turk, however, show that human effort didn’t have to be routinized or deskilled in order for it to disappear. It just had to be culturally, politically, or economically inconvenient for the illusion of automation.This technologically-mediated concealment made the automata of mechanical philosophy possible, but not necessary. Why did these ways of thinking and talking about autonomous machines triumph in their own time, to the extent they did? And why do they continue into our own? This is a problem of historical context, and Canguilhem himself was at a loss to explain it.36 He recognized that the mechanical philosophy was allied with sweeping economic and political transformations, but the exact nature of their relationship remained obscure for him.37 The Restless Clock brims with a similar anxiety. And the book is all the more fascinating for it. Riskin explains that both strands of mechanical philosophy – passive and active – developed ‘in close conjunction with mechanical and industrial arrangements such as the automatic loom and the transformed world of production that accompanied it; with economic policies including the division of various kinds of labor; with taxonomies and rankings of human beings by sex, race, class, geographical origin, and temperament; and with projects of imperial conquest and governance’.38 But what was the nature and motivation for those conjunctions, exactly?One traditional response has been to focus on the social and ideological alliance between mechanical philosophy and Enlightenment managerialism. As Simon Schaffer notes, mechanical philosophers held important positions of governance and management – Charles Dufay at the Gobelin dye works; Vaucanson at the silk manufactures; Charles Coulomb at the military works in the French West Indies. Through those conduits, the interest in mechanism flowed not only across the life sciences, but into questions of cognition, labor, and political and social order, underwriting governance ideologies and the managerialism of the age, as the sciences of the enlightenment organized productive bodies in disciplined settings and then understood production according to the workings of automata.39 Riskin similarly explains that mechanical philosophy and industrial arrangements fed off one another – the brute-mechanist model, with its distinction between mind and mechanism, ‘informed’ the process of industrialization and its managerial dreams of docile and obedient workers; and industrialization, in turn, made manifest the brute-mechanist distinction between thought and labour.40 By suggesting that androids, workers, and self-moving equipment were the same kind of thing, Vaucanson, La Mettrie, and others, so the claim goes, took their conceptions of machine-like humans and applied them to the workplaces and governance operations they oversaw.But the classic focus on managerialism obscures at least as much as it reveals. If mechanical philosophy was so intimately bound to managerialism, with its view of humans as disciplined cogs within larger, more vital machines, how did it flourish within a broader culture that venerated the opposite – the value and sanctity of the individual? How could androids – machines-as-humans and humans-as-machines – resonate in the emerging civic cultures of the European Enlightenment? Here, focusing on autonomy leads where Canguilhem himself could not go. The early modern period featured deep anxieties about autonomy, expressed in debates over free will, in the rituals of courtly culture, or in treatises on Enlightened governance. We tend to see state-sponsored initiatives like managerialism as opposing autonomy, which is one possible reason the hermetic, machine-like determinism of the mechanical philosophy resonated.41 But the creation of autonomy was also a project for French authorities, including Vaucanson. His later work, like that of Rousseau or Voltaire or the Encyclopédie, hinged on personal, micro-scale acts of separation, prying apart the age-old loyalties, relations, and identities embodied in estates, and guilds, and ancient corporate rights to create stand-alone individuals. Machines both embodied and modelled this personal autonomy. They resonated deeply because they reinforced not only the managerialist dream that envisioned workers as autonomous stand-alone machines, cut off from their former universe of labor relations, but also (in the form of the Enlightenment android) the liberal fantasy that saw autonomy as the political foundation of the individual. The role of automated machines in modeling both autonomous workers and autonomous subjects cuts strikingly across mechanical philosophy and the broader culture of the Enlightenment.Concerns over autonomy – repeated in law courts, in edicts attacking the guilds, in new forms of literature, in treatises on national wealth, in dreams of self-acting machines – form one broad context for both the mechanical philosophy and the sweeping political, economic, and social transformations of the age. Attending to these concerns encourages us to read Riskin’s history from the inside out: not labor and enslavement as the playground of visions first worked out through philosophical devices; but philosophical devices as expressions and material articulations of long-standing conversations about the capacities for human labor and freedom. On this understanding, it’s not that the mechanical philosophy provided a readily-applicable solution to problems of management and industrialization. It’s that the intertwined questions of automaticity and autonomy created the conditions for a parity of humans and machines, on which both mechanical philosophy and industrialization could profitably build. What linked them were not widespread questions about agency, but economically and politically potent questions about autonomy under the collapse, and dismantling, of corporatist models of labor and social organization. That focus provides one possible explanation for the powerful appeal and triumph of the mechanistic explanation and the interest in automata in the first place, and of their full imbrication in questions of political philosophy and of labor. As part of a material and cultural history of autonomy, these machines teach us how ‘self-action’ across humans and machines was produced and understood, why it mattered, how it was circumscribed in the first place, as well as the political and cultural work that it performed for the emerging project of liberal individualism.42Vaucanson’s ghost factory was haunted by these concerns over autonomy and the individual. And it’s precisely the place where we can sense the dangers of starting with the mechanical philosophy as the inspiration for these transformations. One of the most telling things about Vaucanson is that, as soon as he could, he abandoned the automaton project, passing up the court of Frederick the Great and a seat next to his admirer, Voltaire, to instead head up the French silk manufactures. Scholars have often seen this – materially, philosophically, politically – as a lateral move; part of mechanical philosophy’s expansionist interest in an interchangeability of humans and machines that would encompass cognition, labor, and social relations.43 The brute-mechanist vision of docile and obedient machines obviously resonated for Vaucanson.44 But his motivations and interests in the manufactory were much more complex. His self-weaving loom, like his machine for sorting silk, was born out of a broader mercantilist anxiety within the French state, expressed in at least one intelligence-gathering mission, about how to reduce silk imports from Piedmont-Sardinia by ‘perfecting’ French manufactures.45 One obstacle to that perfection, Vaucanson and others believed, were the guild masters and artisans. The French state would move to abolish the guilds in the same year, 1776, that Vaucanson published a series of plans for idealized factories. As Jan Goldstein has noted, this broader Enlightenment attack on the guilds was an attack on a way of life, rather than a paean to the virtues of mechanization proper. Artisans experienced it as an anxiety about isolation – an anxiety, not about being considered a machine, but about being cut off from the social relations that defined their identity: a fear of becoming a free-standing individual.46 That vision of individuation wasn’t a necessary condition for either the mechanical philosophy or for managerialism, as the automaton theaters show. It was the politically resonant prospect of machinic autonomy, as a model for autonomous individualized workers, that made the floors of Vaucanson’s new factories appear like a glimmering, lucrative space for his craft.47 And it was precisely the deep intertwining of humans and machines around political concerns over autonomy that made his skills so applicable there. The machine did what individual workers could theoretically accomplish, but what guild artisans, with their corporatist ethos and production restrictions, refused to. His image of the solitary girl encircled by machines was anything but innocent. It was, among many other things, a statement about the dismantling of powerful, collective forms of life and work that had surrounded the looms and against which the Enlightenment project also took aim.48 Agency might have been the philosophical prize here, but the autonomy of both people and machines was the dangling (and lucrative) political purse.This focus on autonomy exacts its own price, though. Linking Enlightenment factory machines and mechanical humans, especially in the shadow of Focuault, is methodologically seductive. But the approach also trades on a central conceit; namely, that otherwise very different kinds of machines – massive factory machines and intricate androids – are essentially the same kind of object. Autonomy becomes the shining ideational thread that ties a diverse world of material objects together. But the material specificity of machines has to matter for our explanations. It mattered crucially to the people living through those turbulent times. Even the Enlightenment’s ‘universal’ ideal of the human was built up from a series of surrogates – intelligence, agency, capacity, potential, sociability – that took material forms and marked out particular kinds of historical subjects. If we want to understand the relation of machines to the enduring selves the Enlightenment created, we need to understand how different material objects, including factory machines and androids, could stand for very different things, including different kinds of humans. We need to ask how particular material configurations defined specific human qualities, intertwined technical and human virtues, that included autonomy and came to stand in for a universalized ideal of the ‘human’. Paying careful attention to materiality forces us to ask exactly what kinds of automata, and what kinds of autonomous individuals, the Enlightenment helped create.That’s the question that Adelheid Voskuhl takes up so brilliantly in her book, Androids in the Enlightenment: Machines, Artisans, and Cultures of the Self. Voskuhl sets out to challenge three dominant assumptions about Enlightenment automata: 1) that they were symbols or oracles of an industrial modernity that their creators and their viewers anticipated; 2) that they were shown to large eighteenth-century audiences, who shared with the automaton makers a sense that the machines portended social mechanization; and 3) that artisans or philosophers built them as philosophical and epistemic objects – replicas of the human body to better understand anatomy and physiology. ‘Such ideas render Enlightenment automata more modern than they are’, Voskuhl tells us.49 One by one, she dismantles these props as edifices of a later nineteenth-century sensibility. In their place, she argues that specific Enlightened automata were the product of a complex preindustrial political economy, shaped by an intensified courtly culture and an efflorescence of traditional artisanship; and that the androids drew their motions and meanings from a bourgeois culture anxious about the gendered politics of the body in the emerging civil society of the early modern period. Our current ideas about Enlightenment automata distort that tradition and stem from the experiences of nineteenth-century industrial revolutions and twentieth-century wars.50 Her book seeks to ‘rescue’ the devices from a distorted legacy, exploring intensely local questions of why and how they were built, and unpacking just how these early-modern objects became part of a very different kind of modernity in the period between the Enlightenment and the Cold War.As far as we know, ten mechanical androids emerged between 1730 and 1810. Voskuhl focuses on two: both music-playing ‘women’ automata. There is the harpsichord player (La musicienne) built between 1772–1774 by the father-and-son team of Pierre and Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland; and the dulcimer player (La joueuse de tympanon) built in 1785 by David Roentgen and Peter Kinzing in Neuwied, in the German Rhineland. Androids paints a fascinating vision of the local cultures that created these remarkable devices. Both La Chaux-de-Fonds and Neuwied were unusual in their collection of skill, patronage, and resources.51 An eighteenth-century efflorescence of traditional artisanship and an intensification of court culture (with its wonder and spectacle, its legitimation of political power, its rule and rituals, its gift-exchanges, its carefully constructed hierarchies) created in those two towns the material and social conditions where well-to-do artisans could create the expensive, time-consuming, and technically demanding pieces for profit. Voskuhl’s exploration of the machines cuts across three axes: industry (how the automata were created, including the social worlds of the villages that produced them), musical culture (why they performed the actions they did), and literary commentary (how they were written about, understood, and interpreted). Together they produce a kind of analytical orrery – an intricate, moving cosmos of proto-industrial mechanical arts, bourgeois sociability, sentimental music-making, and novel types of literary production.52Chandra Mukerji (writing in these pages) has criticized what she sees as the negative argument in Voskuhl’s book. Androids, Mukerji explains, denies the automata’s transcendent philosophical motivations, but offers no alternative.53 If philosophical concerns don’t explain the centuries-long interest in androids, then what does? But Mukerji’s observation only emphasizes just how devastating and compelling Voskuhl’s critique of automata studies is. Not only is there little historical evidence that philosophical concerns dominated the production and reception of these automata; there is considerable evidence that these were not the main concerns of the age. Automata weren’t widely exhibited. Their delicate mechanisms had to be carefully maintained, making their transport in rudimentary carriages over rugged eighteenth-century roads a rare event.54 They were not the focus of widespread fanfare; they were not interpreted in rapturous tones. Against what The Restless Clock tells us, the philosophical debates surrounding them, to the extent they existed, were not shared by the artisans who created the machines; and the breathless discussion of the machines themselves was an effect of an eighteenth-century publishing industry hungry for gossip and curiosities. Even their creators didn’t see them as particularly special. In both the cases she studies, the artisans chose not to build or display any additional automata, electing instead to expand their original businesses of clock-making and furniture-making. With Vaucanson smiling gravely off-stage, Voskuhl explains: … . the two women automata occupied a variety of places on their respective creators’ agendas; they were not always at the top. This fact calls into question the assumption that spectacular objects such as android automata were the chief devotion of artisans and businessmen in eighteenth-century Europe.55These were objects of natural philosophy in the way meteorological phenomena might be – candidates for philosophical drama but not, for that reason, its central players. Androids may give us no alternative transcendent genealogy for the interest in automata, but the book does set us straight. And it furnishes some invaluable instruments to chart a path forward.What Voskuhl exposes most clearly is the mistaken assumption of automation studies – that the most important thing automata could have done in their time was what they do in ours, namely to raise pressing concerns about the future of work, the nature of intelligence, and the agency of machines. Androids shows that automata were many things in the Enlightenment, most of which aren’t captured by focusing on them as epistemic and philosophical objects. She pushes us towards a deep historicization of the actual machinery of automata, seeing in their material details a rich world of social, cultural, economic, and political relations. This is not vibrant matter, in the way Jane Bennett has explored.56 But whereas The Restless Clock describes what machines meant to Enlightenment observers, Androids shows how those meanings emerged from rich and historically specific relations of humans and material objects. For their artisans, automata were materialized business strategies, built to project expanding commercial enterprises far beyond the villages and communities that produced them, into the metropoles of a crumbling court society. For artisans and audiences alike, they were intricate material choreographies that drew on a mechanical repertoire of cams, linkages, and the studded barrels of music boxes, connecting them to a wider world of simple mechanisms and their laboring motions. (In Chapter 4, Voskuhl fascinatingly and beautifully details the way the machines actually moved and the techniques and components that made this possible.) Androids were also a set of machine behaviors. Voskuhl pays particularly close attention to what these specific movements were and what they meant – to a cultural history of android movement. In this case, the actions of the androids, the gendered form of the machines, and the broader culture of sentimentalism combined to cast their actions as part of a sentimental sociability that wove them together with music-making, literary pursuits, friendship, travel, letter-writing, scientific inquiry, and child-rearing, forming the basis of an emerging non-estate based civil society. The automata didn’t present something new, but rather something familiar – ‘an already existing cultural and social technique of sentimentality’.57 Like an image-detail out of the automaton theaters, they ‘replicate mechanically a comprehensive scenario of cultural and political activity of their time’, not the totemic philosophical and epistemic concerns that have occupied their historians.58Androids provides a master class in how meticulous attention to material histories can help us reconstruct the rich web of social, political, and cultural relations that automata participated in and helped create. But it also suggests that focusing on materiality alone isn’t enough. If we want to understand what these objects meant for the kinds of people the Enlightenment imagined, and the social orders built on them, we need to pair that perspective with examinations of what we might think of as histories of the technological self.59 Voskuhl is clear that her automata are not ‘technologies of the self’ in the way Foucault might understand them: practices, methods, and forms of knowledge that help create a way of being.60 Instead, what she has in mind is something closer to a ‘technological self’ – a historical self encoded in the affordances, the appearances, and even the behaviors of machines. The individual automata of Androids, one of which was likely modeled on Marie Antoinette, seem like the obvious place to explore those issues of the self. But we need to be careful that, in tracking those questions, we don’t treat as self-evident the historical effects that these individual automata were designed to create.Take the criterion of ‘self-movement’ as an example. Calling a device ‘self-moving’ not only involved the erasures that Canguilhem pointed us to; it also involved the policing, for authenticity, of a specific understanding of what it meant for a machine to move ‘itself’. In a fascinating passage, Voskuhl notes that authorities in Basel often commissioned investigations of the ‘self-moving mechanical spectacles’ of itinerant lecturers or artisan journeymen who applied to exhibit them at local marketplaces and fairgrounds. Members of the Bernoulli family, professors at the University of Basel, were often enlisted for this.61 Why were they called upon to police automata in this way? Voskuhl doesn’t explain the exact purpose of the examinations, but we can imagine that authorities wanted to determine whether the machines were authentically ‘self-moving’ or some deception; whether they should count as true automata or not. Machines, after all, were historically linked to notions of deceit and trickery, to ‘machinations’.62 The concerns of the Basel officials therefore point to a different divide; not between the human and the machine, but between the authentic and the fraudulent. The episode shows that Enlightenment observers knew that the ‘self-movement’ of the automata was an effect, a trick; but it was a sanctioned trick. Only officially certified methods of producing ‘self-motion’ were acceptable. What Androids doesn’t explore is how this way of sanctioning certain kinds of movements and erasures established a seemingly self-evident way of talking about ‘autonomous’ technologies that persists into our own time.63 Here, potentially, is Mukerji’s missing genealogy. The drama and fascination of self-driving cars or autonomous drones all involve sanctioned erasures of people, work, and infrastructures designed make them appear self-acting, even (or especially) when their consequences are devastating. The Enlightenment recognized these linkages and erasures, even as it created and legitimated ways of talking that elided them.Something else, at least as lasting, was clearly being created in the rich materiality of Voskuhl’s automata, though. One of the central arguments of her book is that the intricate techniques and discourses around the automata created objects that mirrored bourgeois sentimental spectators back to themselves.64 In order to do this, the androids had to embody not just the gendered performance of sentiment, and not just an emerging ideal of the autonomous individual, but an emerging racial ideal as well. Androids takes the Enlightenment’s reification of race slightly for granted. The sole mention of Pierre Jaquet-Droz’s bell-striking Le négre automaton, for instance, makes no mention of its English translation (a pejorative rendition of ‘negro’) or of how it depicts race.65 This is a period that invented race as a way of maintaining and justifying injustice and brutality in a society supposedly pledged to universal equality and freedom.66 As Orlando Patterson and Toni Morrison remind us, these are not separate histories. ‘Nothing highlighted freedom – if it did not in fact create it’, Morrison writes, ‘like slavery’.67 In Morrison’s view, slaves acted as ‘surrogate selves’ for white Americans and Europeans, providing a way to think in concrete forms about problems of human freedom that went beyond the abstractions of human potential and universal rights.68 Like the slaves they furnished a vocabulary for, the Enlightenment androids Voskuhl studies functioned in similar ways. Alongside the sentimentalist literature devoured by their enlightened viewers, androids inspired meditations on the self. The gendered bourgeois techniques of self-cultivation they embodied stood implicitly for a racial ideal of their times. That mechanical codification of virtue and superiority contained its opposite: the slur of innate inferiority leveled against none-white slaves, servants, and colonial subjects. As Morrison suggests in a parallel connection, it required hard work not to see this.69 These ‘others’ were people without autonomy, and therefore forever incapable of cultivating the sentimental self of the bourgeois Enlightenment. That both the complex automaton theaters and these ‘others’ disappear from our histories at precisely the moment that Voskuhl’s individual automata take the stage is doubly meaningful, and doubly troubling. If this is a historical phenomenon, it underlines the ways that automata reinforced the social and racial boundaries on which Enlightenment liberal individualism was built. If this disappearance is (also, or instead) a historiographical effect, then it means that the way we write histories of automata potentially reifies and naturalizes Enlightenment commitments to a racialized personal autonomy that emerged in this period, along with the kinds of individuals it produced. We call attention to the sentimental android, the courteous android, the intelligent android – all of which seem quaintly historical. But we miss their most lingering and powerful legacy around the circumscribed idea of the self-acting individual. In focusing so strictly on these specific individual automata, in dropping the automaton theaters and leaving the ‘others’ out of the story, we either rehearse the fetishization of the universal, racially pure, European liberal individual that these single automata literally embody (and we therefore naturalize it); or we fail to take advantage of the opportunity to fully historicize its emergence.That kind of historicization matters because it uncovers what’s usually hidden in the focus on individual androids like Voskuhl’s: the possibility that the Enlightenment defined human autonomy using the same disappearing trick it played with its machines. As Fred Moten teaches in The Universal Machine, we can’t take the individual for granted (or else we do so at great risk).70 Machines play a role in both naturalizing individuality and in denying it. If technologies like the slave ship and the gas chamber dissipate individuality, then technologies like the android point to the way machines also individuate, and to the kinds of individuals they help sustain. Those technologies work together with a set of privileges and capacities – property ownership, wealth, physical qualities – that produce ‘proper’, self-sufficient individuals, elevating them above the rest.71 Read carefully, Androids immerses us in the early history of that relationship. One of its most remarkable revelations is how, in the case of her androids, the techniques and artisanal practices that produced these self-moving ‘individuals’ were, in fact, profoundly collective. Voskuhl explodes not only the myth of the individual inventor, but of the autonomous individual, and instead weaves a fascinating account of religious migrations, eclectic mountain villages, large-scale social and economic transformations. In the face of this constant testimony to collectivity, the Enlightenment produced ways of forgetting these intricate dependencies and connections, erasing the supporting cast that allowed people to act as if they were autonomous, and exalting instead the stand-alone person. Here, machines become deep surrogates for kinds of people – community-built ‘individual’ androids, sometimes cast in the image of actual historical figures, but imagined, represented, and certified as autonomous.This, then, is the dark duality of Enlightenment androids. They embodied, through their tricks, a material and cultural fetish around autonomy while at the same time furnishing a vocabulary for talking about groups of people who could never know that autonomy. Their material forms and their ‘self-action’ encoded a set of wider associations about freedom, dependency, racialized individualism, and political rights that formed part of what Charles Mills called the ‘racial contract’ of Enlightenment liberalism.72 For the excluded ‘others’, the machinery and the ‘décalage’ always stood ready to be revealed opportunistically by elites, employers, and masters, laying bare the supports and mechanisms that they – the unfree, the enslaved, the laboring, the ‘invalid’ – relied upon to function. The social elites of both Androids and The Restless Clock called attention to those supports to justify the dependencies of their social inferiors, while erasing their own. This was a deliberate tactic. Casting our own investigations narrowly around questions of agency or rational capacity, or even sentimentality, threatens to play precisely into their evasion. When we say that, for Enlightenment elites, slaves were machines because they lacked a rational soul, it sounds like simple and arrogant bigotry – the projection of soaring prejudice onto an existing and hierarchical social world.73 But that social world was the same one that dreamed the mechanical philosophy and sentimentalism in the first place. Alongside them, it assembled precisely the intricate, legally codified, culturally sanctioned mesh of dependence and subjugation to which these philosophically laundered prejudices could readily be attached. Automata and automatic machines were part of a bounding and definition of autonomy, freedom, and selfhood that defined a social world in which certain groups of people were always profoundly dependent, and therefore unfree, to begin with.Thinking about autonomy in this way might seem like a historian’s indulgence. But people living through the upheavals of the late 18th and 19th centuries made precisely those connections, as John Tresch’s book, The Romantic Machine, shows. Set in the roiling, turbulent, often breathless Paris of the early nineteenth century, Tresch’s book aims to challenge a historical vision that places Romanticism, with its emphasis on emotion, connection, and organicism, at odds with the alienating and reductive mechanism of the industrial age. Rather than opposing the two, The Romantic Machine (as the title suggests) argues that France during the Restoration and the Second Republic integrated machines into romantic visions of unity, universal connection, and social transformation. Setting out to correct what they saw as the soulless mechanism of the eighteenth century, early nineteenth-century French observers didn’t reject mechanism outright. Instead, romanticism’s emphasis on subjectivity, passion, and invisible powers was often of-a-piece with the development of mechanical science and of new technologies they saw as liberating and transformative.What was at stake across the scientific, aesthetic, and political projects of the mechanical romantics, Tresch claims, was a new cosmology. André-Marie Ampère’s representation of the sciences; Alexander von Humboldt’s views of nature; the Saint-Simonian’s temple; Auguste Comte’s calendars – these projects were concrete and specific means that early nineteenth-century Parisians used to represent the order of the cosmos to themselves and to their fellow Parisians. They represented cosmograms, artifacts at different scales and genres, that inscribed actual or aspirational social and natural worlds. Those world-making pictures argued for two things: that machines played a central (and beneficial) role in humans’ modification of nature; and that all parts of the cosmos needed to be assembled and represented at a single site, in order to focus human activity on reshaping the world.74Tresch’s dazzling contribution here is to introduce a powerful typology of machines. From the seventeenth century onwards, ‘classical machines’ – balances, levers, clocks – had dominated the natural and epistemic imaginations of philosophers and artisans alike. They implied both a stable, fixed nature made of discrete points of matter, and a view of knowledge as detached, impersonal, emotionless and objective. But in the 1820s, 1830s and 1840s, amid the upheavals of early industrialization, a new view of science emerged around ‘romantic machines’, exemplified by the steam engine, the daguerrotype, and other technologies of conversion and transmutation.75 Against the classical vision of unfeeling, cold, inhuman technologies, the romantic machines were flexible, active. They were aesthetic and spontaneous social extensions of their users, weaving humans together with each other and with their environment, underpinning a different understanding of nature as growing, complexly interdependent, modifiable. They recast knowledge as an active, transformative intervention where thoughts, feelings and intentions allied with material instruments in establishing truth.76 And they featured a crucial ethical dimension: freedom through connection with other humans, with nature, and with machines.Although specific machines form the basis of each chapter, this is ultimately a book about people. It’s the ‘mechanical romantics’ – scientists, engineers, and politicians of the Bourbon Restoration, the July Monarchy, and the short-lived Second Republic – who wove these machines into utopian visions crafted in the laboratories, temples, and theaters of the French capital. The mechanical romantics were not united by class, social origin, or institutional context, Tresch tells us. They were united by their desire to unify knowledge, society, and nature; and by their focus on the ‘milieu’ as a site of action, understood as the ‘totality of substances surrounding an organism and forming its ‘conditions of existence’.77 The concept of the milieu (literally, ‘the place in between’) spanned metaphysics, science, aesthetics, even religion, and underlined a commitment to ‘freedom-in-connection’, making it central to Tresch’s analysis of the politics of individual autonomy at the time: ‘The notion of milieu thus accomplished a crucial work of synthesis, or sublation, in relation to politics, because society was a milieu in the sense that it was halfway between being a unified entity standing over and dictating to its members and being nothing but an aggregate of autonomous individuals’.78 Rather than locating his protagonists in the new formal institutions and rigid academic disciplines of the period, Tresch instead looks to the nomadic social collectives that opposed these institutions and formations – cliques, cells, cenacles, committees, banquets – that embraced reformation and revolution as opposed to monarchy. In enlisting the enterprises of science and technology to reform society, the mechanical romantics redefined where science took place and who participated in it, bringing together scientists, journalists, poets, composers and Tresch tells us, increasingly workers.79For Tresch, automata embodied the turbulent and transformative metaphysics of mechanical romanticism. Like Riskin, he locates an early modern transformation in how automata were seen: ‘In the Renaissance, automata, like amulets and idols, had been understood as magnets and mouthpieces for magical powers; in the early nineteen century’s patchwork of revived illuminism, automata could be seen as allegories of the infusion of spirit in the material world’.80 During the Bourbon Restoration and the July Monarchy, these machines formed potent conduits for a current of technological imagination that viewed material objects as alive and awake, testifying to ambiguous relationships between spirit and matter waiting to spring into action.81The devices and the debates surrounding them brought anxieties, too. As Tresch explains, ‘Beyond its psychoanalytic and literary meanings, fantastic imagery of automatons may be read as an inscription of the metaphysical, scientific, and political uncertainties of the early industrial age’.82 The machines were potent and paradoxical. They embodied ideas about control and reduction; but also of liberation and the supernatural, as in Grandville’s Un Autre Monde.83 Imbricated in the social ecology of nineteenth century Paris and the political commitments of the mechanical romantics, animated machines, living matter, and automata played a starring role in the vibrant imaginary of early socialism. More fundamentally, Tresch maintains, these romantic automata highlighted a neglected dimension of the cultural history of industrialization by drawing out ‘the fantastic, supernatural, and frequently religious undercurrents that accompanied the arrival of the machine’.84Few harnessed their phantasmagoria more effectively, Tresch illustrates, than Eugène Robert-Houdin, creator of modern stage magic and inspiration for Harry Houdini. The automaton he displayed at the 1844 Exposition Nationale was ‘attired like an eighteen-century nobleman, sitting at a writing table’.85 When King Louis-Philippe, the ‘bourgeois monarch’ was intrigued enough to ask the machine questions, he received ‘clear replies written on paper in a fine hand’. The magician’s experiments in automation extended to his own home, where a web of wires and electromechanical devices automated and regimented the functions of human servants.86 Praised as the heir to Vaucanson, Robert-Houdin moved to Paris to launch his soirées fantastiques – sober but fantastical performances that mixed somnambulism, magnetism, ethers, and his own flesh-and-blood sons with androids and life-like machine-men. Interestingly, Tresch notes, some scholars have suggested that the audience knew these performances were merely tricks, but delighted in guessing their hidden mechanisms. Tresch instead argues that the audiences of the soirées fantastiques were not so homogeneous. In the malleable, spectral metaphysics of romantic mechanism, ‘displays of automata could suggest an uncanny mastery over matter; they could imply that thought, reflection and memory could be performed by machines; or, on the contrary, they could be read as playful illusions, as clever tricks that mocked such beliefs’.87Automata weren’t just implicated in the metaphysical contortions and upheavals of the age – spiritualism, Cartesiansim, pantheism, Spinozism, Neoplatonism. The problems of technology were problems of social order. As Tresch explains elsewhere, the machine-breaking that convulsed Paris and Lyon in the 1830s and early 1840s, accompanied by cries of ‘Down with the machines!’, portrayed self-powered devices as diabolical rivals to humanity. That violence turned out to be generative: ‘the epidemic of machine breaking created a demand for new social ideologies that recast industrial machines as living in harmony with industrial workers’.88 In fact, as Tresch makes clear, liberal individualism was the target here. The mechanical romantics would ultimately enlist automated machines partly to undermine the social, political, and economic individualism that accompanied their introduction.The most stirring example came from the tireless Pierre Leroux – typographer; member of the revolutionary Carbonari; founder, editor, and printer of the Globe; Saint-Simonian from 1830 to 1832; and a coiner of the term socialism. Leroux’s own democratic socialism was designed to overcome the limitations of the ‘absolute socialism’ of the Saint-Simonians on one hand – in which society appeared like a machine served by its constituent members – and liberal individualism, on the other, with its emphasis on the individual alone.89 Leroux’s material contribution to romantic mechanism, the pianotype, aimed to tread this middle path. The device, which allowed users to line up the letters to be printed like keys on a piano, was ‘a new tool drawing people closer together and weaving them more tightly into their surroundings while making them increasingly free’.90 For this it had to be owned collectively by the people who actually employed it. An earlier version of his invention had been rejected, like other attempts at mechanization, by powerful guilds who not only shouted abuse but attacked the machines.91 Leroux, undaunted, insisted his pianotype heeded the juste milieu by avoiding both oppressive collectivity and reductive individualism. His efforts were eventually rewarded when a radical banquet that honored his efforts to ‘proclaim THE TYPOGRAPHIC REPUBLIC’.92 In this, Leroux’s machine and his political philosophy embodied the wider romantic emphasis on freedom-in-connection. Drawing sociological inspiration from ideas in anatomy and biology, it illustrated how the parallels between the organism and the machine weren’t primarily about passive or active agency, but about the stakes and reality of human freedom and autonomy.93And yet, unlike Voskuhl revealing the rich materiality of her automata, we never really learn what made the pianotype tick. We never risk catching our fingers in its gears and linkages, or soiling our clothing on its greasy cams. The machine is never put to work in the hands of Leroux, or of anyone else. What, exactly, did this automatic machine automate? And what, precisely, did workers who destroyed previous versions believe it threatened? We surface from deep immersions into German philosophy and French symbolism and philosophical anatomy with a rich sense of the epistemic dimension of Leroux’s sociology, but with very little sense of how the behaviors of machines and of their minders occupied the world.The workers themselves, the crucial allies of Leroux and Arago, are also elusive: shape-shifters and specters, haunting the book without ever completely inhabiting it. They keep vanishing just as we’re about to take their hand: lurking imprecisely behind the Daguerrotype, shimmering and translucent alongside the machinery of industrial exhibits; materializing around the grievances of the 1848 Revolution before dissipating like a fog. Their ephemeral quality seems oddly at place in a book filled with phantasms and ethers; until they bump up against the corporeality of Leroux’s disheveled hair. Who were these workers? What were their names? Where were their factories? What machines did they tend? We are told that workers were valued as a source of inventions but, with the possible exception of Leroux, the typesetter-turned-politician, there are no major examples of their creations. To what extent did they identify with the novel romantic machines Tresch outlines, over and above the useful political alliances that Arago and others offered? We’re reminded that the inventions we often privilege aren’t the same as what we might call the broader theaters of machines – the long-standing technologies in constant, daily use.94 Those unspectacular technologies also filled the industrial exhibitions that inspired mechanical romanticism. And they filled the workspaces of romantic Paris, too. What did romanticism look like beyond the pages of Balzac, or the speeches of Arago? On the floor of the manufactory; away from the grand operas and the grands boulevards; in the workshops of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, the ateliers of the Quinze-Vingts, or the weaving frames of the Gobelins?And who benefitted from these visions of machines and the panegyrics about freedom and integration and unity? Insofar as it sparked efforts at technical education directed at workers, for example, the appeal of mechanical romanticism seems clear. But the visions of the machines themselves had more ambivalent effects. Romantic machines were also tools of empire and propaganda. Elsewhere, Tresch observes that Baudelaire himself chastised the ‘emperor’s bad faith in sending none other than the master of illusions and builder of automatons, Robert-Houdin, to the recently conquered colony of Algeria to awe the followers of insurrectionary Arab chiefs with mechanical miracles’.95 Tresch uses episodes like this to illustrate the contradictions of automata during the age. ‘These doubled machines’, holding both the reality of injustice and brutality, and the vision of liberation, ‘were themselves a mechanical reflection of the workers, who claimed a greater stake in government on the basis of their labor but at the same time welcomed the promise of liberation from that labor’.96 But how did industrial machines reflect insurrectionary Arabs and restive locals? Key figures among the mechanical romantics, most notably the abolitionist Arago, were instrumental in abolishing French slavery after Napoleon’s reinstatement of the Black Code in 1803 had formally resurrected it. (Reports of slavery’s death in 1794 had been greatly exaggerated). But as Saidiya Hartman observes for the United States, abolition simply meant that power took different forms as physical domination ‘yielded to an economy of bodies, yoked and harnessed, through the exercise of autonomy, self-interest, and consent’.97 As we’ve seen, that racial ideal around autonomy had been articulated through machines. To what extent, then, did the romantic machines of Arago and Leroux, even as they rejected the dangers of individualism, also encode a still-racialized understanding of connection as the source of workers’ freedom?The roles of workers in the movement matters to Tresch because they’re central to his argument about how the social geography of mechanical romantic Paris helped generate the 1848 revolutions and eased the transition to the authoritarianism of the Second Empire. Tresch explains that economic conditions and a long-brewing political crisis over representation led to political agitation, encouraging workers and republican politicians into forms of association – banquets – that the established order saw as increasingly subversive. These banquets and their suppression led to the establishment of the Second Republic in February 1848. Republicans, including mechanical romantics like Leroux and Arago, proposed utopias as a solution to the political crisis. The urban middle classes, provincial elite, and conservative countryside, which benefitted from the existing political order, retrenched and sparked the revolutions.But we may wonder if workers ever bought into those utopian technological visions in the first place; whether they saw these new technologies as romantic machines at all; or whether they realized that their collective labour simply made possible the autonomy of others. In short, we wonder whether the laboring classes were really ever fellow travelers. The sense we get is that workers realized that the convenient alliance of the 1820s and 1830s was illusory. These people – Arago, Ampère, even Leroux – never really understood them. Could industrial machines ever really be their allies? The 1848 Revolution had its roots, at least partially, in the strikes and uprisings in Paris and Lyon – uprisings motivated by unemployment and the mechanization of industry.98 As the revolution lurched between reform and reaction, with increasing distance between the mechanical romantics like Arago and Leroux and the workers whose interests they claimed to represent, it’s interesting to think about the ways the mechanical romantics themselves put forward ways of thinking and talking about machines that undermined the revolutionary potential they claimed. The words of workers confronting Arago during the June Days fall like a thunderclap: ‘But you have never been hungry, M. Arago. You have never known misery’.99Tresch is clear that the promise of machine-assisted liberation had, by the time of the Second Republic, ossified into ideas about ‘progress through machines’ that covered new inequalities.100 By 1850, the liberating machines of the July Monarchy had given way to instruments of suffocation and repression. The failure of the mechanical romantic utopias led to their historical erasure. The Romantic Machine aims to reconstruct these paths not taken through industrialization; possibilities foreclosed by the political reaction and the hardening of institutional, social, and disciplinary boundaries under Napoleon III. They form, Tresch suggests, a resource for rethinking our relationship between machines, knowledge, and nature in the age of the Anthropocene. In a remarkable concluding chapter, he signals the elements of mechanical romanticism that can give us hope: visions of nature as mutable within certain limits; of humans as technological animals; of projects directed at the medium scale; and of putting human consciousness back into the world picture.101But the experiences of 1848 make us realize how, in the end, the mechanical romantics also contributed to the lasting and troubling mythologies of machines and automation. As altruistic as their efforts seemed, their glimmering visions smoothed the rise of an industrial order that betrayed their alliances with the workshops and factories of the capital, and reinforced the brand of liberal individualism they decried. In this sense, mechanical romanticism picked up where the Enlightenment project left off. Perhaps the lessons Tresch teaches us aren’t only the ones that he draws for the Anthropocene. Perhaps the real point of Robert-Houdin’s soirées, for example, was not whether people attending them were credulous or agnostic or scoffing, but that the heterogeneity of people’s reactions placed them at a moment of transition; a moment where the ‘tricks’ of both androids and automatic machines were still being naturalized; when ways of talking about automation, autonomy, and collectivity still vacillated between cynicism and belief; and when the inseparability of history from historians’ practices seemed more obvious. They marked a historical moment when people still understood, if only temporarily and unevenly, the tricks they had to believe for automata to ‘work’.When Vaucanson unveiled his ghost factory in 1745, he envisioned automatic looms as its feature attractions. It’s tempting to think we can break the enchantments of his machines, reverse their tricks, by instead elevating the supporting actors in his theater of machines – the lone girl tending the looms; the artisans building and repairing the mechanisms; the animals, the natural elements, and the humans powering the devices or gathering the factory’s raw materials. But those kinds of inversions would miss the point here. Humans, too, are the partial products of other technological worlds standing just off-stage. Machines, in all their fascinating and frustrating materiality, should be one focus of our efforts. They point us to the broader place of technologies in the crucial difference-making projects of the modern period. My intention here hasn’t been to shift our gaze between historical objects, as important as that can be, or to substitute one dominant analytical framework for another. I find it much more interesting to think about how these three astonishing books – The Restless Clock, Androids in the Enlightenment and The Romantic Machine – help us understand how certain frameworks become dominant in the first place.102 Works like these force us to interrogate the boundaries of our historical vision, they push us to question our inherited practices and concerns, and they inspire us to think through the different kinds of histories that might help create different and better futures.Disclosure statementNo potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).
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