ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Why are bodies machines?

Contact Convenor: Iwan Rhys Morus

School of Anthropological Studies, Queen’s University
Belfast BT9 7HL

Tel: 028 9027 3701 

Co-Convenor: Tracey Heatherington

Panel abstract

Homologies between human bodies and machines seem to be everywhere in modern culture. At the beginning of the eighteenth century natural philosophers argued that the Universe was a vast piece of clockwork and that animals and human beings were just like the clockwork automata they could see in a cathedral clock. By the beginning of the nineteenth century and the Industrial Revolution it seemed clear that the human body was like a steam engine and that the work humans did could be measured and regulated just like the output from such a machine. Later on in the century it seemed as if the human body and nervous system was just like the Victorian age’s expanding networks of electric telegraph wires. Now we talk about computers who think like humans and humans who act like computers. Postmodernists talk about cyborgs and the emergence of posthuman bodies.

The homology’s universality is misleading. There is nothing self-evident about the relationship between humans and machines. Recent work in the history and anthropology of science has made clear the ways in which boundaries between human and machine are continually blurring and shifting. The contributions to this panel will bring together a range of perspectives from both the history of science and social anthropology to address the multiplicity of ways in which humans have been configured as mechanical devices (and vice versa) in a range of particular contexts. The aim will be to recapture the specificity of human-machine homologies and the role they played in their own local contexts. It is only by looking at the ways in which the body-machine is constructed in particular contexts for locally and culturally specific concerns that we can hope to address its apparent universal appeal.

And galvanism has set some corpses grinning: instruments, skills and the making of the Victorian body

Iwan Rhys Morus

Byron’s throwaway line refers to efforts to resurrect the dead by means of electricity. Throughout the nineteenth century the human body was an important locus for disputes about the nature of electricity and its relationship to the stuff of life. Electricity and the kinds of instruments, practices and skills that defined it were also, as it turns out, important resources for managing the body throughout the Victorian period. Late Victorian bodies could be treated like machines, integrated into the mensurational culture of late nineteenth-century physics, precisely because of the labour that went into sustaining the networks of instruments and skills that surrounded them. This process was not without its resistances. Late Victorian medical electricians differed vociferously over the vexed question of the relationship between the bodies they treated and the kinds of skills and practices needed for such treatment. Controversies like these lay bare the cultural  relationship between ontology and epistemology. Questions about the ontological status of the body – what kind of machine was it? – could not be solved without addressing the question of what kinds of skills were appropriate for its treatment – what kind of person should the practitioner be and what did they need to know? Looking at episodes like these therefore helps us look inside the cultural mechanisms that sustain the image of body as machine.

Automatism and the mechanisation of human consciousness in the late nineteenth century

Francis Neary, University of Manchester

This paper focuses upon attempts to analogise human consciousness with machines in this special period for the creation of new disciplines to study the human mind and the transmutation and professionalisation of older ones. In fact disciplinary boundaries were in flux at such a rate that it was difficult for Victorian contemporaries to keep track of them. It analyses a series of metaphorical strategies to explain the role and the status of human mental faculties, including the ‘whistle’ and the ‘governor’ of steam locomotives and the ‘exchanges’ of telegraphic systems. These metaphors were put to use for a variety of purposes and often operated simultaneously at scientific, political and social levels.  They were extremely pervasive, mobilised by actors from the scientist or philosopher to the psychical researcher or clergyman. They could be found in a diverse range of spaces from the scientific laboratory to the Victorian parlour and from the high brow periodical to the satirical magazine or the political pamphlet. Automatism was not confined to the rapidly developing sciences of mind; it cut across fledgling disciplinary boundaries and moved freely through popular and professional, and scientific and philosophical arenas. In fact medicine, physiology evolutionary biology, law, psychiatry, psychology, psychical research, mental philosophy, ethics and mental healing were all touched by it. It is for this reason that automatism provides an excellent focus to do ‘boundary work’ and to explore the mechanisation human consciousness over a diverse range of sites in this period. This paper will map how automatism was a phenomenon that transgressed political, social and professional boundaries and inhabited the spaces between living and dead, conscious and unconscious, animal and human, human and machine, moral and amoral, and science and pseudo science.

Genome Canada: cyborg galleries on tour

Tracey Heatherington, University of Western Ontario

In the Canadian context, the fascination with cyborg bodies has much to do with the cultivation of technoscience as a national dreamtime, and the utopian romance of science in society as a quality of Canadian distinctiveness. This paper looks at the representation of ‘high technology’, in relation to both the human genome and the scientists who study it, as portrayed by the Genome Canada website and the Canadian Museum of Nature’s spring 2003 traveling exhibition, “The Geee! in Genome”.  If the genome is presumed to be a “little machine” at the core of human nature, to what extent are images of the genome project as “science in action” articulated with postmodern perspectives on subjectivity and objectivity?  Are scientists as mediators of knowledge about “human nature” themselves pictured as inherently cyborg? What does this mean for the future of qualitative research projects and interdisciplinary engagements between science and the humanities? Drawing on anthropological approaches to technology and the exhibition (Harvey 1996) and “big science” as “gyres” of culture, funds, people and institutional contexts (Zabusky 2002), the paper will examine the planned “Nature of Humans” gallery in Ottawa as a contribution to Canadian identity.

Technologies that are bodies: some remarks about the development and use of avatar-related technologies.

Mario J. L. Guimaraes, Brunel University

This paper discusses the socio-cultural processes surrounding technologies of embodiment in cyberspace. These technologies are not only designed and represented through homologies with human bodies, but also intended to take the place of those bodies on certain social environments. Avatars – the focus point of those technologies – are virtual bodies that represent humans or artificial agents inside social environments in cyberspace. Their appearance can be configured by users in many ways but inside a framework of possibilities programmed by their designers. Nevertheless, there is an intense cultural dynamics between designers, users and researchers regarding avatar’s features and possibilities. This paper draws from the data of a multi-sited ethnography amongst researchers, ICT companies and users of avatar-related technologies. The aim of those actors is to develop and use technologies that are not only described or understood in terms of human bodies but that are intended to actually act and behave as human bodies and ultimately take their place, at least inside cyberspace and virtual reality environments. In order to negotiate the technologies features, those actors had to deal with ideas, metaphors and conceptions about body, embodiment and body behaviour. Some of those discursive practices and their social and technological outcomes are described and analysed in order to cast some understanding at this socio-technical network.

Twittering machines: re-enchanting language in the 21st century

Bernard C. Perley

Since the late nineteenth century studies of language have used the methods of analysis borrowed from scientific mechanistic modeling to describe the ways humans communicate with one another through language.  Often the nature of communication was dispassionately observed and described in abstract and formal terms.  Today we are using machines to describe human communicative machines.  The development of such methods coincide with Weber's observation and articulation of the increasing rationality and subsequent increasing disenchantment of social states.  The European art of the period celebrated aspects of this increased mechanization through a "machine-age aesthetic".  However, Paul Klee retained a keen interest in the joys of whimsy, folktales, and magic as examplified in his painting "Twittering Machines".  It is that same spirit of enchantment that this paper brings to an analysis of a social science of language for the twenty-first century.   Are humans greater than the sum of their twittering mechanistic parts?  Can the last one hundred years of a science of language be one hundred years of linguistic disenchantment?  Can a twenty-first century science of language embrace a re-enchantment of language to reflect the magic of human twittering?  This paper hopes to articulate a position from which the repsective advantages of objective language analysis and subjective language  analysis  that would retain the joyful creativity of humans as twittering machines.

Experimental knowledge and science, 1750 – 1850

H. Otto Sibum, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

That experiment-based knowledge has to a large degree advanced science is nowadays a commonplace. However, since the early modern period, scholarly opinions on ‘the art of experiment’ have ranged from denying it had any epistemological value to conviction in the nineteenth century that this form of inquiry was the only way to make sense of natural causes. One of the underlying issues in these controversies about the meaning of experiment was that the physical manipulation of objects was seen as not belonging to the scholarly tradition, in which a clear distinction between doing and knowing still predominated. Amongst the many attempts to bridge science and art, theory and practice since the mid-eighteenth century, one proposed that  the engineer was the ideal candidate – the third man.  The historical process of the integration of experimental knowledge into the academic culture draws attention to a much broader concern in history of science: firstly, the need to reconstruct and map hitherto neglected forms of practice-bound knowledges. Secondly, to study the interplay between these knowledge traditions and modern science. Only through this approach we will learn about the cultural preconditions of the emergence of science in this historical period.