- The Automaton in English Renaissance Literature ed. by Wendy Beth Hyman
Edited by Wendy Beth Hyman. Aldershot, Hants, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011. Pp. xii+209. $99.95.
The study of the culture of automata has proven rich and fruitful in furthering our understanding of some basic intellectual currents and anxieties during the Renaissance. Among recent work in the history of art, science, and technology, Alexander Marr in particular has revealed the ambivalent responses to automata in that period. Some members of society celebrated the ingenuity of the devices and their creators, admiring automata as mathematical and mechanical wonders; others worried about their life-imitating qualities, condemning their makers for blasphemously usurping God’s powers. The book under review, a collection of essays brought together by Wendy Beth Hyman, builds on this recent work on automata, but, as its title indicates, is a volume primarily concerned with English Renaissance literature—that is, less with the real automata populating Renaissance gardens, and more with how these moving devices were imagined in contemporary literature.
This disciplinary focus is well reflected by the excellent choice of ten authors whose primary expertise is in English literary studies, and who are professionally affiliated with various departments of literature. The protagonists are Milton, Shakespeare, and Spenser (among others), and the book offers new interpretations of some key passages in their works. Yet while the intended audience is primarily situated in the field of English literary studies, this does not mean that the book has little to offer to historians of technology. It takes artists’ powers of imitation as a starting point. Throughout human history this skill came with the perceived threat that artists’ creations might turn out to be all too real. This fear was particularly strongly felt (as we know from Pygmalion’s Galatea to Frankenstein’s monster) when it came to the creation of humanoid figures that seemed to live and breathe.
The central questions, as laid out by Hyman in her introduction, concern the epistemology and ethics of automata and the animation of matter. What were the underlying assumptions about matter when it is given life? Where were the boundaries between man and machine? Or between man and God, when artists competed with God’s creative powers? Were artists blasphemous? While the book has no central thesis, one argument that it wants to advance is that Renaissance automata were not emblems of the emerging “new science” nor of a mechanistic worldview. This will not come as a surprise to historians of early modern science and technology, who would readily place automata within the art-nature debate and the ethical questions surrounding the imitation and perfection of nature (and humans) in the arts and sciences from antiquity to today, as beautifully laid out in William Newman’s 2004 Promethean Ambitions. [End Page 751]
The ten chapters are divided into three sections. Creations, Creatures, and Origins investigates the ontological ambiguity of Renaissance automata. Connecting Milton’s Paradise Lost to Descartes’s philosophy of automata, Scott Maisano’s chapter argues that Milton developed the radical thesis that the first humans were in fact automata. The central theme of section 2 is motion, the actual ability to move being an essential characteristic of automata and life. A particular highlight is Michael Witmore’s “Arrow, Acrobat, and Phoenix: On Sense and Motion in English Civic Pageantry.” The only chapter that does not deal with written literature, Wit-more scrutinizes public spectacles, especially street shows, with their various automata and animations marking the festive entrance of monarchs into cities. He argues that, as expressions of a vernacular intellectual culture in England, these performances were reflections on agency.
Section 3 investigates automata as objects of deception. The absence of a demarcation between magic and technology in Renaissance England is a common theme in Todd Andrew Borlik’s chapter on Robert Greene’s play on Roger Bacon, as well as in Hyman’s stimulating analysis of the conspicuous occurrences of mechanical singing birds in literary texts. All in all, this volume underscores the fact that scholars interested in the Renaissance culture of automata can only ignore how such machines and...