History of Automata

I am co-teaching a freshman seminar with Prof. Stefan Tanaka this quarter; History of Automata in the Non-West. Here is an excerpt from the syllabus:

We are increasingly confronted with forms of automation today, but automata have a long and diverse history. This seminar will survey automata and robots from primarily Mesopotamia, Egypt and Asia, Second, the underlying question of this seminar will be about the meaning of humans and machines in societies and times prior to the separation of humans and machines. In short, this will be an exploration into the changing interrelation between humans and technology.

I’ve actually  started to think of this as the history of oriental monsters which is influenced by Lorraine Daston’s distinction between monsters and marvels in the European medieval culture where the former denoted a sacred entity and the latter was used to signify secular wonders. When the first examples of automata arrived from Byzantium and Muslim lands in Europe they were treated as boundary objects  where the dichotomies such as life/death, human/inhuman and western/oriental were highly effective in the discoursive formations around these objects. And I think the perception of oriental automata existed in the border of monsters and marvels (or the sacred and the profane) not only because they belonged to another ontology (syntheses of Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Budhism, etc.) but also they were representatives of the eastern material culture in the form of highly pragmatic objects such as hydraulic clocks or humanoid automata serving humans in their daily chores.


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