Wendy Beth Hyman, The Automaton in English Renaissance Literature

Wendy Beth Hyman (ed.), The Automaton in English Renaissance Literature (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), xi+210 pp. £55.00 hb. ISBN 978-0-7546-6865-7

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As the introduction to this collection of essays notes, a number of real-life automata have been preserved from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The study of these objects has in general been used to reinforce the sense in which automata can be understood as “soulless, albeit ingenious machines” (8). This type of appraisal is then used to argue that the creation of automata illustrates the Enlightenment fascination with mechanistic views of bodies and the surrounding world, alongside a dualist separation of mind, or soul, from the body. However, the essays in this collection develop a more nuanced understanding by analysing automata in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English poetry and prose, in public civic displays and as stage presences conveyed by actors through their interactions with stage properties. This is valuable because, as the introduction also stresses, even the OED definition of ‘automaton’ opens up a multiplicity of questions that suggest automata have a far more complex significance than simply acting as illustrations of mechanism. Are automata best understood as artificial or organic, natural or unnatural, or somewhere in between these poles? Are they actually or seemingly internally controlled and energised, or controlled from without and lacking their own will? Are automata best perceived as wondrous or dangerous creations, where either understanding potentially places their makers contentiously as somewhat godlike?

The first part of the collection contains three essays concerned with the creation of various automata, whether they are understood to be “born, invented or made” in literature or on stage (13). In “Descartes avec Milton”, Scott Maisano considers the creation of automata that have been situated quite clearly as ‘natural’, since they are the nonhuman animals made by God in the Garden of Eden. Maisano’s argument revolves around a comparison of Milton’s representation of the Creation (Genesis 1:24-5) in Paradise Lost with the writings of Descartes that support his philosophical separation of humans from animals. Milton’s writing resonates with Descartes’s philosophy by placing animals as mindless machines, in comparison with humans (at least in their prelapsarian state) who demonstrate a dualist construction consisting of both body and mind. In contrast, Justin Kolb’s essay, “To me comes a creature”, is an exploration of automata of a very different kind within Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Kolb’s argument considers the interactions between actors, stage properties and the play itself in terms that place both actors and objects on stage as automata that are animated by one another, as well as by the lines of the playwright. The final essay in this section, “Antique Myth, Early Modern Mechanism”, returns the discussion to automata imagined through the written word as opposed to actions on stage. In this essay, Lynsey McCulloch analyses Spencer’s Iron Man, drawing attention to the ways in which, while this automaton has no “sence” (68), it is nonetheless described as somewhat anxious. Spencer’s automaton would seem to share with various science fiction robots, for example Isaac Asimov’s Bicentennial Man, an ambiguity relating to its inability to show emotions juxtaposed with the possibility that it does have underlying feelings.

Part two of the collection turns to consider the importance of motion in understanding automata. In “Orpheus and the Poetic Animation of the Natural World”, Leah Knight returns the book’s discussion to automata in nature through her consideration of literary descriptions of movement in landscapes and vegetation. Her essay highlights the relationship between movement and emotion, and also draws attention to the idea of the poetic imagination as an animator of the inanimate. In the essay that follows, “The Mechanical Saint”, Brooke Conti considers humanoid automata, where here the term is used to describe both moving statues and human worshippers. Conti emphasises that religious appraisals of automata in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were varied, the figure almost always being met with distrust, although also being used to raise complex questions about human agency and the authenticity of certain human actions. In particular, this essay considers the confusion that arises between an understanding of the automaton as governed by outside forces without a will of its own, and an understanding that places it as driven from within, whether by known or unknown means. Finally in this section, Michael Witmore’s essay, “Arrow, Acrobat and Phoenix”, analyses the presence of automata and human actors in descriptions of the pageant for the coronation entry of Edward VI, drawing out the blurred boundaries that result between humans and machines as they perform together. This essay argues that both the automata and human actors within the pageant can be understood to instruct the young prince using a semiotics based in movement, to prepare him in how he must behave on the occasion of his coronation.

In its third part, the book moves on to consider literary automata as marvellous, but also as quite possibly deliberately deceptive. Todd Andrew Borlik’s essay, “More than Art”, explores different interpretations of Roger Bacon’s creation of a giant bronze head, as an early experiment in chemistry, a magician’s trick or a demonic creation. In particular, Borlik contrasts the portrayal of Bacon’s creation as a “necromantic animation” (137), within Robert Greene’s play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, with other sources that, in contrast, support the idea of Bacon as an early scientist. This essay also emphasises the sense in which actors within plays can be considered as automata, presenting the lines that they have been given by the playwright. Borlik’s essay therefore has productive links with Kolb’s, which appears earlier in the collection. In “Mathematical experiments of long silver pipes”, Wendy Beth Hyman challenges the assumption that sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poets strived for the “authentic self-expression” associated with natural birdsong (145). Hyman argues that the poets’ ideas of perfect expression were instead linked not with real birds but rather with the ‘voices’ of mechanical birds, created using precise lengths of metallic pipe. This therefore questions whether or not such automata are simply deceptive imitations of the real, or rather beautiful poetic creations that are worthy of being wondered at in their own right. In the final essay of the collection, “Desire, Nature, and Automata in the Bower of Bliss”, Nick Davis explains how, although some have overlooked the presence of automata in the Bower, it is the juxtaposition of natural and artificial elements in Spencer’s description from The Faerie Queen that can be understood to make the Bower fantastic and in some ways “better” than nature (167). Davis’ essay also draws out the difficulty of separating the machines from human workers in the garden, since the latter have become “automated by its highly managed routine of pleasures” (177).

This collection of essays illustrates the value of considering literary examples, alongside those from real-life, in examining the broader cultural meanings of science and technology. The fictional examples allow the authors to question the assumption that the automaton should primarily be regarded as a figure of mechanism or materialism, an understanding often drawn out from examinations of the physical objects themselves. In addition, the juxtaposition of fictional and factual examples also reminds the reader that it is useful to consider the way in which automata are sometimes physically positioned in the world, and therefore being viewed within particular contexts, such as gardens, plays or pageants. In particular, the analysis of fictional representations alongside factual descriptions can emphasise the blurred boundary between the idea of a character played by a technological object or one played by a human in the perceptions of those watching the performance.

From the perspective of this reader, as someone whose research has analysed human-robot interactions, Hyman's book provides a valuable source highlighting the resonances between Renaissance ideas about automata and more recent considerations of technologies such as computers, robots and cyborgs as ‘lively’, ‘thinking’ and ‘emotional’ beings. Indeed, it would be possible to extend the ideas presented within this volume by considering a broader range of theory relating to human-machine interactions, and the blurred boundaries between humans, animals and machines, than Haraway’s discussion of the cyborg, cited in the introduction and McCulloch’s essay. I am not suggesting that this is an oversight of this collection, but rather that there is an opportunity for further consideration of these early automata, in literature and in real life, in light of the work of scholars such as Sherry Turkle, and her ideas about “evocative objects”, and more recently “relational artifacts”. It would be fruitful to consider automata in the light of such work, since the ideas raised in this volume already begin to speak to these understandings, and are important in stressing the historical background, complexity and longevity of such thinking about humans, machines, flora and fauna and the relationships between them.

Eleanor Sandry, Curtin University, Western Australia