Minsoo Kang, Sublime Dreams of Living Machines

Review by Sara Cole
University of Maryland Baltimore County

Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination. Minsoo Kang. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011. 374 pp. (hardback) (987-0-674-04935-2)

[1] "Is a human a kind of machine? Does the mechanical represent the way to our empowerment and perfectibility or to debasement and the loss of what is vital and unique about being human?" Kang asks these and other questions of his subject of analysis: the idea of the automaton, or in most recent parlance the (humanoid) robot, in popular consciousness throughout history. He explores the concept of the automaton, literally defined as the "self-mover", in European culture as an idea evolving along with the technology and cultural mythology that support it. By tracing the cultural development of our current understandings of automata, as well as the historical time periods from which such definitions are drawn, we are better able to understand the connections between our own sense of what it means to be human and humanity's reflection in living and non-living entities and creations. Kang uses the historical progression of this concept to support changing notions of mechanistic aspects of humanity, the fascination and fear that automata may elicit, the changing ways the concept has been understood throughout history, and ultimately the connection between the ways in which this idea functions as an enduring topic and how people react to the implied power of this subject.

[2] Kang's historical research focuses on the automaton as a cultural and intellectual symbol, following the idea, not the physical technological innovation, of the self-mover through European history. He describes the movement from reactions of fascination and amusement to the sublime and uncanny and then to terror or horror as the limitations, the assured parameters, of our control of such technology are brought into question. Fictional, artistic, imaginary, literary, philosophical, and physical manifestations of this concept provide a useful foundation from which to build a sense of overall understanding of the progression of the automaton as an idea. Kang supports his analysis with an impressive number of articulations of the automaton in various forms, from philosophical or theoretical implications to science fiction films. The sheer magnitude of examples that support the cultural influence of humanity on the idea of automata and the opposite – the notion that these ideas in fact shape humanity as it progresses – results in a fascinating historical account.

[3] The use of specific terminology is clarified at each step along the way, depending on Kang's era of analysis, as he proceeds chronologically through each chapter. This provides helpful context as to the variation of meanings attributed to the terms for automata. For instance, in ancient Greece, automata could be anything that moved independently. Kang repeatedly references the example in Aristotle's Politics of the tripods of Hephaestus and the living statues of Daedalus in order to illustrate the ancient origins of the difficulty in resolving our relationships with the people (in Aristotle's case, slaves) and objects (in modern terms, computerized robots) that serve us. Though written long before the technological knowledge necessary to create the mechanical structures that later generations would consider automata, the Greek myths of magically moving objects addressed an anxiety that remains today – the potential risk of powerful devices (now machines) that are supposedly under human control. Following the conceptual progression of the automaton provides insight into both our technological fears and aspirations.

[4] After the Renaissance, the term automaton was applied to mechanical items such as clocks that move according to internal devices – a self-moving machine. Only in the last centuries, since the Enlightenment in the late eighteenth century, has the word been commonly linked to our idea of what we now call robots, human-like technological constructions that support and often out-perform their human/organic creators. This concept of a machine designed specifically to mimic humans or other living creatures is a relatively recent development.

[5] This work informs the disciplines of history, technology, and cultural studies in regard to the influence of artificial life, intelligence, and mechanical beings. Automata are explored through literary history, for instance the science fiction genre globally, philosophical and metaphorical uses of the term in relation to industrialization, and through the history of robotic creations from the beginning of European civilization to the modern day. Though certainly not an exhaustive or encyclopedic account, relevant and detailed examples are included. Kang connects imagination and reality, thought and agency, by breaking down the ways in which we define humanity in terms of the non-human. He looks at the cultural and intellectual history of Europe in terms of changing definitions of human and automaton, allowing robots to act as a symbol, a lens through which we may view the nature of our own humanity.

[6] The human yet non-human quality of the automaton is a source of both intrigue and anxiety. This book builds on the work of Alfred Chapuis and Edouard Gélis on automata as well as other period specific historical accounts – though most others focus solely on the "golden era" of the automaton in the eighteenth century and the creations of Vaucanson. The ways in which we, as human beings, characterize the man-machine has been the subject of study in recent technologically focused writing such as those of Donna Haraway (discussions of the cyborg), N. Katherine Hayles (exploration of the post-human relationship to technology and virtual bodies), and Hillel Schwartz (who provides an analysis of the cultural construction of ideas about replicas and duplicates). Kang lacks these sorts of detailed analysis in this more historical account, as an adequately comprehensive exploration of the idea of the automaton in connection to specific disciplines (gender studies, post-structuralism, or cyber theory) would require another complete volume. However, in sketching the historical progression of the overall idea of the automaton with such detail through European history, Kang gives readers a starting point from which to delve more deeply into other more specified work. Kang's other publications position his research within this realm of debate and discussion, though with a decidedly historical vantage point. Some of his articles and chapters include topics such as 18th century views on life and death in terms of the man-machine, sexing of the female robot in terms of popular visual culture, and the power of robots and other technological or mechanical creations. He is also the co-editor of a book about modernity and the anxiety of representation in Industrial Age Europe.

[7] Despite the prominence of techno-, cyber-, digital-anxiety, Kang argues that the automaton can be, and often has been, transformed into a source of pleasure when in a controlled setting: the tiger behind bars in a zoo, for instance or when positioned as a positive metaphorical force of efficiency, logic, and strength. The automaton, as an idea and as a thing itself, transcends our dichotomies in categories such as animate and inanimate, or living versus dead, and is therefore at the same time infinitely intriguing, terrifying, and awe inspiring.

[8] The book concludes with an analysis of Fritz Lang's Metropolis and does not continue its chronological analysis beyond the time period between WWI and WWII. Kang defends this ending point, describing it as containing the most extreme examples of dehumanization and machine dominated society. This is a disappointing limitation of printed text. At the current length, a useful amount of detail concerning a broad range of influences on the idea of the automaton is included, but it is naturally not comprehensive. Perhaps Kang's future work will focus on the automaton since WWII as this concept changes with exponential speed, shifting in focus to the United States rather than Europe, through the dawning of the technological revolution in the 20th century and beyond.

[9] The concept of the automaton culminates in a reflection of the destructive potential of a confrontation between humanity and machinery. Attempts to resolve this disconnect necessarily involve the exploration of the effects and affects of the modern era in terms of personal identity, interpersonal/inter-computer communication, power dynamics in terms of globalized new media/technology access, and the fundamental link between technology and humanity. Though primarily an historical account of the progression of the concept of the "living machine", Kang's text informs historical and cultural studies, modernity, science, technology, and above all the study of human nature as reflected by its own creations.