restricted access Elaborations of the Machine: The Automata Ballets
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Elaborations of the Machine:
The Automata Ballets

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a number of ballets entered the classical repertory that featured marionettes and activated dolls. Arlequinada (1900), Die Puppenfee (1903), Petrouchka (1911), and the immediate parent of these productions, Coppélia (1870), all focus on the imitation of living people through the movements of automatized figures. Coppélia, the first of these pieces, opened during a prolonged period of malaise—stretching back to the 1850s—in European ballet, in which dancing veered more toward repetitive athletic feats than expressive movement.1 Four decades later, Petrouchka continued the satirical work of Coppélia. Impressed by the unfettered movements of Isadora Duncan, whom he had seen perform several years before, Michel Fokine, Petrouchka’s choreographer, used marionettes and automata to mock the mechanical virtuosity at the heart of ballet’s aesthetic and to display the oppressive control and regimentation of individual bodies by the maîtres de ballet en chef.

Yet the full explanation of why suddenly there were performances featuring automata remains untold and extends well beyond the world of dance into late nineteenth-century automata manufacture and physiological studies of human automatism. Although the automata used in the ballets recalled older exhibition figures like Wolfgang von Kempelen’s automaton chess player (“the Turk”), they more immediately resembled the small and affordable toys manufactured for individual purchase by Parisian toymakers.2 These objects showcased the ever-expanding capabilities of moving machines, just as a branch of contemporary science was questioning the physiological distinctions between [End Page 65] human and nonhuman neuromotor movements. Technological advances in automata that made them more and more lifelike (or so their manufacturers claimed) dovetailed with experimental researches that effectively lowered the threshold of life to repetitive, habitual, and autonomic motion. Amid a convergence of economic, technological, and scientific developments, then, the automata ballets entered the ongoing debate over human automatism—whether life, specifically human life, was based on neuromotor activity or hinged on conscious cerebral involvement. In showcasing androids, which since the eighteenth century had destabilized boundaries between humans and machines, these ballets defied the polarities of the mechanical and the organic on which they ostensibly relied.3

On this issue, the written records surrounding the first performances of Coppélia and Petrouchka are clear: the libretto of the former and the correspondence among conceivers of the latter presume a fixed and clear distinction between objects and living beings. This distinction does not rest on movement; it rests, instead, on the mechanistic conception of a split between mind and matter that goes back to Descartes and suggests that living things move in a different way from nonliving things. This divide is central to the developing discourse of ballet in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and persists through the twentieth. In the pages ahead, I show how hard it is, nonetheless, to distinguish biological motion (the motion of people and animals) from nonbiological motion. Indeed, the movements of these ballets in performance capture the paradox of the automaton—which is both a “mechanism … that … appears to move spontaneously” and a “living being whose actions are purely involuntary or mechanical.”4 For this reason, we should approach the ballets with “methodological fetishism,” Arjun Appadurai’s phrase for following things as they move in a transforming material world.5 Viewed in this way, both ballets suggest the existence of active forces in seemingly inert matter.

The ballets do more than override the seemingly obvious distinctions between moving objects and subjects; they extend a view of the human body as a “field of forces, energies, and labor power,” in Anson Rabinbach’s words. This view, derived from Enlightenment vitalism, extends to nineteenth-century physiological studies and, in turn, to the construction of machines—machines with the power of epigenesis, the power to change with the repetition of motion.6 Tracking objects in motion that through motion become human, Coppélia and Petrouchka reveal that the body can be an open system: a mechanical assemblage in the Deleuzian sense, with “preindividual bodily capacities or affectivity.”7 In doing so, they challenge the old dichotomy between mechanism and organicism (and the vitalist ideas...