- Androids and Intelligent Networks in Early Modern Literature and Culture: Artificial Slaves by Kevin LaGrandeur
Kevin LaGrandeur’s recent monograph Androids and Intelligent Networks in Early Modern Literature and Culture: Artificial Slaves discusses master/servant relationships between unorthodox pseudoscientific creators and the synthetic humanoid slaves they appropriate or create. As often as not the text illustrates the dangers of undisciplined learning. The creators he discusses, both historical and fictional, are proud, forward-thinking intellectuals that undermine their own agency even as they seek to expand their abilities through their powerful servants. LaGrandeur’s scope is impressive, drawing from a variety of disciplines such as literature, mythology, philosophy, history, sociology, medicine, engineering, and computer science. Even with such breadth he engages readers by bridging the gap between current and contemporary mindsets, for instance by applying systems theory to the network of servants created by fictional magi like Prospero and Faustus. As the author explains the mechanical workings of antique clock jacks or Aristotle’s reflections on different types of slaves his text exhibits the benefits of interdisciplinarity and appeals to a wide audience.
Chapter 1 serves as preamble to the work’s motifs and details some types of artificial slaves observable today alongside their previous counterparts. LaGrandeur compares models as diverse as the networked Mars Rover and the computers behind automated stock trading to examples from Homer and Aristotle. Early writers, especially Aristotle, address concerns about the dangers of intelligent or powerful servants and slaves that resonate with man’s growing reliance upon machine support today. As is to be expected in an introduction, LaGrandeur’s claims at this point appear sans support, although he does specify the theoretical framework of the remaining chapters.
The second chapter, “Real Human Automata from the Pre-Empirical Era,” provides numerous stories and examples of humanoid automata and other mechanical creations from ancient times, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. The examples from antiquity are varied and fascinating, many even accompanied by schematics to improve comprehension. Anecdotes of moving dolls from early China or talking statues from Egypt appear alongside Homeric automata and other better-known figures from Greek mythology like Pygmalion and Prometheus. Many creations by first-century engineer Hero of Alexandria are discussed at length, and although these examples often feel overly detailed, the protracted descriptions prove LaGrandeur’s point that even ancient automata were used by their creators to enhance their influence and power. Automata like Hero’s temple doors that opened automatically “were instruments meant to awe the crowds and increase the priests’ hold over worshipers” (p. 29). The author makes similar arguments regarding religious and political clock jacks in the Middle Ages and early modern period. Often commissioned to serve as amusements for wealthy citizens, the animated statuary adorning large clocks in Europe also functioned as status symbols. The chapter concludes with two long passages concerning the creation of humanoid automata, mechanical prostheses, and the use of mechanical humanoids in garden waterworks. LaGrandeur is most perceptive when showing how early medical observation influenced anatomically correct mechanical recreations of the body; he also explains how such observations catalyzed the slowly growing acceptance of humanoid representations during the sixteenth century.
Chapter 3, “Whole Bodies: Alchemy, Cabala, and the Embodiment of Force,” provides the best examples for LaGrandeur’s vision of manmade slaves during the Renaissance. Whereas the previous chapter had discussed mechanical automata, here the focus shifts to describing humanoid automata such as the homunculus and the [End Page 114] Golem. The detailed and sometimes disturbing recipes for manufacturing such artificial servants comprise the first part of the chapter, with great attention being paid to Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa. Homunculi were little men sometimes made from the putrefaction of semen in manure, who besides serving their masters also demonstrated their creator’s abilities. LaGrandeur deftly shows the similarities between the traditions of late-classical Arabs and medieval European alchemists. The second half of the chapter includes Jewish legends of the Golem as automata and as...