Communication and Construction of Monstrous Embodiment
June 15-16, 2012

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Monster in the Machine

Those of you focusing on the Early Modern period may already be familiar with Zakiya Hanafi's The Monster in the Machine: Magic, Medicine, and the Marvelous in the Time of the Scientific Revolution (Duke University Press, 2000), but for those of you who aren't, you may find it interesting. Hanafi explores the evolution of sacred monsters into monstrous automata in early modern Italy, but her discussion touches on a conceptualisation of monstrosity that spreads far beyond these regional and chronological specifics. Particularly interesting is her discussion of the relationship between the monstrous body and the monstrous automaton, in which both rely on an understanding of monstrosity not as, to use her own words, "any specific thing", but as "a category that becomes constituted in different ways according to different cultural and historical contexts".

Henri Maillardet's Automaton at
The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia
The discussion of a historical relationship between monstrum and automaton raises interesting questions regarding notions of the sensualised or de-sensualised monster, especially regarding Hanafi's description of mechanised monstrosity itself:
"What makes an automaton monstrous is not the arrangement of its parts (although the automaton is often formed to represent a monster, a highly significant convergence). That is to say, that disposition of its limbs is not what makes it rare and extraordinary; that is not what makes it a monstrum. Rather, it is the fact that matter formed by artificial means and moving of its own volition would seem to be endowed with spirit... The horror and fear provoked by appearances in nature of monstrous births moved over into the horror and fear provoked by our own artificial creations"
Such an idea of the monstrous automaton seems inherently disembodied and yet intrinsically tied to a kind of artificial embodiment. Interestingly, it also seems to cast out once again the role of the senses in not only the reaction to the monstrous, but also in the conceptualisation of monstrosity. Although it may not necessarily have been an intentional directive of the text, in exploring the bonds between the development of monsters and the scientific revolution in Italy Hanafi draws attention to a sterilisation of the monstrous which is characteristic of many categories of monstrosity across cultural and historical boundaries.

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