- The Enlightenment Cyborg: A History of Communications and Control in the Human Machine, 1660–1830
Shortlisted for the Raymond Klibansky Prize for best English-language book in the humanities, Allison Muri’s The Enlightenment Cyborg: A History of Communications and Control in the Human Machine, 1660–1830 promises a lot. Spanning not only the hundred and fifty years suggested by the subtitle, but also twentieth-century cyborg theory, science, and narrative, Muri draws a line from the “man-machine” anatomized by seventeenth-century physician Thomas Willis to recent work on the postmodern cyborg. The Enlightenment Cyborg casts a skeptical eye on theories that have tended to invoke the cyborg, either hopefully or despairingly, as “a vision of radical change” in a technologicized present (6). Such politicized oversimplifications of the cyborg, Muri suggests, results from an inattention to history. Most work in cyborg studies defines the cyborg against the Cartesian subject, taking for granted that the mind/body duality theorized by Descartes was the Enlightenment’s defining, or maybe only, theory of subjectivity. Muri’s research into English seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scientific texts demonstrates that, on the contrary, Descartes’s separation of mind from body was, even as early as 1667, contested by anatomies and theories of human body and [End Page 227] consciousness as inseparably “mechanical” and that these definitions, not the Cartesian one, “produce[d] the nascent definitions for living bodies” still used by medicine and science today (23). Similarly, our present-day fears and fantasies of the cyborg rehearse anxieties and desires that Muri traces to the age of sensibility’s “reaction to mechanical interpretations of human knowledge and understanding” (31).
While the book opens with the caveat, “there is no such thing as the Enlightenment cyborg” (3), Muri finds precedent terminology in French philosophe Julien Offray de la Mettrie’s “man-machine.” Although she insists, rightly, on maintaining the historical specificity of each of these terms, Muri argues that both the Enlightenment man-machine and the cyborg share an ontology; they both “exist because of the important assumption, established in the Enlightenment, that humans can be defined in the same terms and by the same physics as machines” (22). Maintaining this doubled historical focus, each chapter anchors Enlightenment man-machines and postmodern cyborgs in the political, medical, and technological discourses of their times. And it’s in Muri’s emphasis on discursive contexts—particularly her use and ample quotation of fascinating Restoration-era medical theory—that the book lives up to its promise. By introducing under-studied eighteenth-century texts such as Thomas Willis’s descriptions and anatomies of the brain, Muri opens an archive valuable not only to cyborg theorists but also to eighteenth-century scholars and historians of ideas. Until now, many of these texts have hardly been studied outside of medical histories. This illustrated edition also provides forty pages of gorgeous images from these early works and cyborg films, providing a useful and compelling visual resource for scholars and their students.
In chapter 2, Muri begins to clarify the shared ontology of “man-machine” and “cyborg” by examining medical texts that, first, described a mechanized body and, second, articulated a view of the mind or consciousness as also material, based in the flow of fine particles of the body, or “aether.” The second conclusion, which suggests the materiality of the soul, was the most controversial, for obvious reasons, suggesting as it did a model of human life without God. Although the idea that mind and feelings are based in electro-chemical processes is now widely accepted bioscience, Muri observes that the controversy of the material soul persists in cyborg literature which posits the mechanical against the moral and feeling human.
While Haraway called the cyborg “a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (quoted in Muri [End Page 228] 19), Muri defines the cyborg more narrowly as “an organic machine that is steered or governed by a homeostatic mechanism...