Automata: A Spectacular History of the Mimetic Faculty.

Kara Elizabeth Reilly. "Automata: A Spectacular History of the Mimetic Faculty." Diss. U of Washington, 2006.

People Involved: 

This study demonstrates that automata, as mechanized theatrical spectacles created through the lens of the mimetic faculty, were often deployed in the service of Foucauldian power and produced knowledge. There are four interdependent concepts that will be returned to in this study: the mimetic faculty, automata, spectacle and power/knowledge.
During the Renaissance, the Council of Florence employed Filipo Brunelleschi to create an ingenious machine that would persuade members of the Eastern Orthodox Church of the correctness of the doctrine of Filioque. Thus, Brunelleschi created an iconophilic spectacle in the service of a theological argument. During the Reformation, Protestants banned Catholic icons; they worried that art might surpass nature. Instead of disappearing altogether, these icons resurface in the emerging popular theatre, particularly in the form of moving statues.
Moving statues are precursors to seventeenth-century automata, such as the hydraulic automata in the grottoes at Saint-Germain-en-laye. Built by the Florentine scenographers, Tomaso and Alessandro Francini, these hydraulic tableaux vivants directly influenced Descartes' writings on the mechanical philosophy, particularly his concept of the rational soul versus the animal-machine.
Jacques Vaucanson's eighteenth-century automata had a tremendous impact upon important figures of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution through the concept of object-based mimesis, particularly upon the work of Julien Offray de la Mettrie, Francois Quesnay, Adam Smith, and Charles Babbage. The chess-playing Turk, an automaton imposter known as the "thinking machine," helped produce the discourse of orientalism. The nineteenth-century performance legacy of Olympia from E.T.A. Hoffmann's tale "The Sandman" indicates that female automata reflect male sexual desires, even helping to produce the discourse of fetishism and the uncanny. Automata even come to represent luxury items by marketing products in store windows, demonstrating the nineteenth century movement toward a culture of conspicuous consumption.
Through an exploration of the use of the imaginative mimetic faculty to create spectacular automata that produces Foucauldian power/knowledge, this study offers a genealogy of spectacle and mimesis in the hopes that "the role for theory today" still "seems to be...to analyze the specificity of the mechanisms of power, to locate the connections and extensions, to build little by little strategic knowledge."

Research Type: 
Status of Research or Work: 
Completed/published
Related Fields: