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  • RoboCop Dissected: Man-Machine and Mind-Body in the Enlightenment
  • Koen Vermeir (bio)

Legend has it that Descartes had made an automaton, a beautiful female android, which he named “Francine” after his deceased daughter.1 Descartes and the automaton were inseparable, and he took her with him on all his journeys. During a storm at sea, Descartes was nowhere to be found, and the ship’s crewmen discovered a large wooden box in his cabin. They were horror- struck when they opened it and saw a young woman inside, seemingly dead, but alive as well. Convinced of witchcraft and of having found the ill omen that hampered the voyage, the captain threw Francine overboard. This story first appeared in the eighteenth century and gained wide currency. It indicates that Descartes became an iconic figure, representing the watershed between a magical world in which living automata were frightening and fascinating and a mechanized world in which humans became machines. It also shows that the Enlightenment was fascinated by the question of what it is to be human, especially since old certainties had been overthrown and the boundaries between the natural and artificial, life and the lifeless, body and mind, animals and humans, were being contested and renegotiated.

This theme lies at the center of Allison Muri’s The Enlightenment Cyborg.2 Muri has set out to uncover the “prehistory” of the cyborg, a twentieth-century [End Page 1036] hybrid between man and machine, a prehistory she locates in the Enlightenment trope of the human-machine. She has two basic aims. First, she inveighs against the exaggerated rhetoric of postmodern theorists, who claim that the age of the cyborg heralds a “new humanity” or the “posthuman,” and against recent claims that the cyborg overcomes or, alternatively, rearticulates the ills allegedly created by technology and modernity. “History,” she argues, “is necessary to combat the oversimplified and frequently incendiary rhetorics of utopia and despair that have tended to characterize theories of human identity in a technologized environment” (p. 7). Second, Muri accuses postmodernists and cyborg theorists of misappropriating the Enlightenment. She stresses its complexity and proposes to provide a more adequate history of the cyborg figure.

Muri locates the history of the cyborg as man-machine in the early modern mechanistic view of the body as an engine, as well as in Enlightenment mechanistic understandings of the mind, prefiguring theories of neural networks and the electrochemical mind-machine interface. Then and now, in man-machine and cyborg, the role of the soul is contested— affirmed by some and dispensed with by others. In chapter 4, the heart of the book, Muri sketches the history of the nervous system in terms of circulations and communications, and she examines the transformation from control by an immortal soul to a machine-like bodily feedback system. She calls the physician and natural philosopher Thomas Willis (1621–75) the originator of the cyborg tradition, because—Muri claims—Willis took a materialistic approach toward the soul, which was in essence the nervous system consisting of an active and energetic communications network, and because he treated the body as a feedback engine. Muri describes it as “a case study in mechanical consciousness” (p. 118), in which the animal spirits are seen as messengers, akin to current-day information technology. From Willis’s theories, she sketches the development of a new image of man-machine as “sensible machine” in physicians such as George Cheyne and Samuel Auguste Tissot, and writers like Laurence Sterne. Then she goes on to describe Diderot’s view of the nervous system as a sensitive network and Erasmus Darwin’s identification of the nervous fluid with electricity. In this way we arrive at the idea that the matter of the mind is continuous with electromechanical systems, a precondition for the cyborgian idea that the mind can actually be connected to a machine, and that the human spirit might be downloaded and transmitted in an information network.

Elsewhere in her book, Muri focuses on different aspects of cyborg discourse. In chapter 3, she analyzes the body-politic of the man-machine in order to uncover the historical roots of the acclaimed political and moral consequences of cyborgs. What governs...