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  • IntroductionDismantling the Man-Machine*
  • Pierre Cassou-Noguès (bio)

This issue should have been entitled, "The Man-Machine." It was the title that we had submitted to SubStance. At first, there was no question of dismantling the man-machine. The dismantling of the man-machine was an accident.

This issue originates from a seminar organized at University of Paris 7, in the laboratory SPHERE, by Pierre Cassou-Noguès, Viktoria Tkaczyk (for a time), and Koen Vermeir. It ran for several years. The idea was to meet about once a month and invite scholars from various disciplines around a common machine, or at least around machines with a common function. There were historians of science and technology, scholars in literature, art, media studies, gender studies, philosophers of science, and the list remained open. The only constraint was that all speakers should be concerned with the same kind of machine: calculating machines, sensitive machines, time machines, talking machines... Some machines were real, some were fictitious; some were invented on the spot, some had existed for centuries, if only in archives, or as mere figments of imagination. Machines seem to work as strange attractors for the human mind, and the same machines (or maybe not exactly the same machines but they still did the same job) navigate through history, or from science to literature, or the opposite; they intervene in the arts, not only as objects but behind the scenes or as a means for representing something else. The sort of ubiquity that enables a machine to reappear in the most unlikely places belongs particularly to machines that are endowed with a human attribute: a function such that one might wonder whether a human is really the only being able to exert that function.

Thus, when we decided to submit a special-issue proposal devoted to one of our machines, the man-machine seemed to be the best candidate. The man-machine is a machine that should look like a man (though incidentally it may look like a woman, and that is problem, since it bears reference to "man"). At least it looks like a human, and it invariably raises [End Page 3] the question of whether it could be a human, and conversely whether in fact humans are such machines. Or at least some humans: all humans except myself maybe.

Surely the scholar whose work is concerned with the man-machine must be willing to walk long distances in her university library. She will have to visit the department of history of philosophy, and the department of literature, I mean various departments of literature, English and foreign. There is no way she can escape German literature: think of Hoffmann's "Der Sandmann." She will spend hours browsing the science-fiction corner. She will even have to borrow a few books of logic, because of Turing. This will inevitably lead her to contemporary philosophy. She will look for well-used books, with many marks of fingers: let us see … P, for Putnam, and S, for Searle (at the very least). But she should also take a look in continental philosophy: Derrida, for instance, and Lyotard, of course.

"Is there a place for Transhumanism?"

"Yes, it is in the extension."


Transhumanism, posthumanism, media studies. If she has not already been there, media studies will bring her attention to automatons as they were used in shows, or religious processions, as early as the Renaissance. Then, of course, she needs to look into the history of technology, which in turn might bring her back to the history of philosophy. Or maybe she will get interested in the history of the history of technology. Each time she walks her circle, she will discover new branches. In fact, she could start anywhere.

I had her start in the department of history of philosophy because the term "Man-Machine" was coined in French by La Mettrie in his eponymous book, L'homme-machine, in 1748. A century before La Mettrie, and without the term, Descartes already imagines man-machines. In his Treatise on Man, he imagines that God created machines that look just like us, and he studies their mechanism. In various texts, he raises the...


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