The Craftsman: Machines

In reading about Jacques de Vaucanson’s robots, or automata (from Greek “acting of one’s own will”) I was absolutely captivated by the complex relationship(s) between man and machine. Richard Sennett talks at length about the craftsman relationship with and against the machine. He coins the term “mirror-tool” to describe an implement that invites us to think about ourselves (84); these take the forms of the replicant and the robot. Replicants are copies of human beings that mirror us by mimicking us. A pacemaker, for example, allows the heart to function like it ought to biologically (85). Robots are human beings enlarged: stronger, faster, tireless, efficient. Sennett describes the iPod as robotic memory; it is capable of holding music, the sums exceeding totals of musician (human) output in entire lifetimes. This huge memory though is organized to serve humans – one could never use the full memory of the iPod at any given moment. Sennett goes on to make this distinction, “the replicant shows us as we are, the robot as we might be” (85).

Automaton figure of a monk, South Germany or Spain, c. 1560; National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. From Blackbird Archive.

Automaton figure of a monk, South Germany or Spain, c. 1560; National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. From Blackbird Archive.

Right before reading this chapter, I was cooking, listening to Radiolab podcasts. Perhaps serendipitously, one of the episodes, Ghost Stories, featured the tale of the Monkbot. While I highly suggest listening to this section of the podcast, I’ll try to tell the story in redux:

1562, Spain: King Phillip II’s son, Don Carlos, falls, hitting his head (exposing skull), causing grave injury. He is struck blind, his head swells, and it is determined the young boy will die. All the doctors Phillip brings cannot stop what seems inevitable.  Needing a miracle, it is said that the King asks for the remains of San Diego de Alcala, local Franciscan monk, to be brought in bed with the boy while he sleeps. The King’s prayer and appeals to God seem to be answered, as the boy miraculously recovers to health. As a signifier of his gratitude, the King creates the praying monk automaton – prayer perfection.

Elizabeth King, of The Smithsonian, writes about this monk in Clockwork Prayer: A Sixteenth-Century Mechanical Monk at length.

Her history begins with the quote “”El movimiento se demuestra andando,” we say in Spanish: You demonstrate movement by moving.” She describes the monk’s movements:

the monk walks in a square, striking his chest with his right arm, raising and lowering a small wooden cross and rosary in his left hand, turning and nodding his head, rolling his eyes, and mouthing silent obsequies. From time to time, he brings the cross to his lips and kisses it.

Within King’s detailed history, she raises questions as to what the monk would have represented to the time

And when the child did indeed recover, Philip kept his bargain by having Turriano construct a miniature penitent homunculus. Looking at this object in the museum today, one wonders: what did a person see and believe who witnessed it in motion in 1560? The uninterrupted repetitive gestures, to us the dead giveaway of a robot, correspond exactly in this case to the movements of disciplined prayer and trance.

King is featured in the Radiolab podcast (as she is writing a book on the monk) and with the hosts, they try to get closer to what the monk represents. In Spain at the time, if one had enough money, one could pay for prayer repetition. They raise the question: What did it mean at the time to be a Catholic? After describing the ritualistic manner of Catholic worhsip that was valued, they isolate what counted as prayer to time, action, and place – method mattered. These ritualistic actions, motions, are articulated tirelessly by the monk. The monk embodied “the perfect prayer”.

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