I am writing to share info about an online seminar-style course that may be of interest:
The Work of Art in the Age of the Automaton, January 7–28, 2021; Thursdays 6–8pm ET; 4 online class sessions over a period of 4 weeks; enrollment is open but limited to the first 20 students.
Long before automation became associated with modernity and capitalist production, automated movement presented a quandary for philosophers and a curiosity for the public. Automata, or “self-moving” mechanical devices, were by the eighteenth century often designed to resemble humans, and increasingly gave the illusion of intelligence and agential action. Notable among these are Pierre Jaquet-Droz automata that could draw images, Henri Maillardet’s poet-automaton, and Jacques de Vaucanson’s “Flute Player,” which was equipped with muscle-like mechanisms that could produce a dozen melodies. Not surprisingly, these objects raised a host of questions for artists and philosophers, among them: Can complex mechanical devices be said to think? And what does it mean to make beautiful art if an automaton can do the same? At the same time, as automata increasingly became material metaphors, the question of whether art is a specifically human endeavor was turned on its head to ask: what does it mean when people primarily function as machines under violent labor systems?
In this course, we will examine key literary and philosophical works addressing the figure of the automaton, the cultural spaces in which automata were displayed, and the eventual politicization of the automaton to critique the institution of slavery and the exploitation of the working class in the United States. Beginning with E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” and Sigmund Freud’s famous interpretation of the story in his essay “The Uncanny,” we will study foundational works by philosophers like René Descartes, Walter Benjamin, and Stanley Cavell, as well as more contemporary work by Victoria Nelson. In the second half of this course, we will consider the ways the automaton figured in the North American context, including Herman Melville’s automaton characters, the discourse around black automata, and the material history of the automaton through P. T. Barnum’s (fraudulent) automaton chess player “The Turk.” By the end of the course, we will be able to see the ways that historical concepts around the automaton influence contemporary discourses about automation, technology, and aesthetic production. More information, and to enroll, visit: https://borderlinesopenschool.org/courses/p/automaton
This course is hosted by a new nonprofit initiative, Borderlines Open School for Advanced Cross-Cultural Studies, which aims to offer the general public, students, teachers, and professors alike affordable opportunities for engaging with and developing advanced and creative scholarship outside of the usual university system, as well as to ethically pay and support all of their instructors, recognizing their intellectual and pedagogical labor as valuable work that matters. To learn more about this new initiative, please see our FAQs. You may also email me with any questions.