[Humanist] 23.31 servants as automata

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri May 22 07:57:05 CEST 2009

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 31.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

[1]   From:    "Jan Rybicki" <jkrybicki at gmail.com>                       (59)
Subject: RE: [Humanist] 23.25 servants as automata?

[2]   From:    John Levin <john at technolalia.org>                         (40)
Subject: humans as automata

[3]   From:    Devin Griffiths <devin.griffiths at rutgers.edu>            (209)
Subject: RE: [Humanist] 23.28 servants as automata

Date: Thu, 21 May 2009 08:35:44 +0200
From: "Jan Rybicki" <jkrybicki at gmail.com>
Subject: RE: [Humanist] 23.25 servants as automata?
In-Reply-To: <20090519072921.C8CDC5787 at woodward.joyent.us>

Sorry for the obvious reference, but Vonnegut does a little discussion of
this in his Breakfast of Champions. He begins:

"Actually, the sea pirates who had the most to do with the creation of the
new government owned human slaves. They used human beings for machinery,
and, even after slavery was eliminated, because it was so embarrassing, they
and their descendants continued to think of ordinary human beings as

All the best,

Jan Rybicki

Date: Thu, 21 May 2009 11:35:24 +0100
From: John Levin <john at technolalia.org>
Subject: humans as automata
In-Reply-To: <20090519072921.C8CDC5787 at woodward.joyent.us>

Concerning the characterization of humans as machines, I don't know of
anything as specific as the portrayal of servants or slaves as automata,
but can offer some wider examples of the mechanical body and worker, and
the identification of machines with drudgery.

Considering the body as mechanical is an old idea, found in Descartes'
dualism and elsewhere. The mind distinguished human from animal. "The
soul of brutes .... but a meer machine, is the opinion publicly owned
and declared of Des Cartes, Gassendus, Dr Willis and others" (John Ray,
quoted in Jennings, Pandemonium.* Ray was opposing this view.)

In the 18th century, La Mettrie wrote L'homme machine (The Man Machine);
especially notable as rather than dehumanising the body, atheism and
materialism turned him towards hedonism.

In economics, the division of labour turns workers into parts of a machine:

Adam Ferguson, 1783: "Thus we might say that perfection, as regards
manufacture, consists in its being able to be dismissed from the mind,
in such a manner that without an effort of the brain the workshop may be
operated like a machine, of which the parts are men." (Quoted in Marx,
Poverty of Philosophy.)

Kay, 1832: "Whilst the engine runs the people must work - men, women and
children are yoked together with iron and steam. The animal machine -
breakable in the best case, subject to a thousand sources of suffering -
is chained fast to the iron machine, which knows no suffering and
weariness ...." (Quoted in Jennings, Pandemonium.*)

Marx: "Machinery is misused in order to transform the worker .... into a
part of a specialized machine." (Capital, penguin ed., p547)

I suspect the man machine metaphor is often used in connection with the
military: Foucault briefly talks of this in Discipline and Punish.

Lang's film 'Metropolis' is, if my memory serves, fairly explicit in
portraying the workers as robotic, mechanised slaves to the machine.

The word robot comes from the Czech word robota, meaning "work, labor or
serf labor, and figuratively "drudgery" or "hard work".

* OT: Humphrey Jennings' 'Pandemonium' seems to be out of print and not
on the net. Given that it was an early hypertext, this is a terrible
state of affairs.

Hope this is of interest,

John Levin

John Levin

Date: Thu, 21 May 2009 05:58:09 -0500
From: Devin Griffiths <devin.griffiths at rutgers.edu>
Subject: RE: [Humanist] 23.28 servants as automata

 Dear Willard,
I'm not sure if this is helpful, but Dickens's character Pancks from Little
Dorrit is an agent (a debt collector) for Mr. Casby, is explicitly figured
as steam-powered, (huffing and puffing), and, initially at least, unable to
make decisions or change course. I think Dickens had a human steam engine in
mind, but perhaps this counts as automata. Of course, what's interesting
about Pancks is how be becomes less machine-like over the novel.

Best,Devin Griffiths

Devin S. Griffiths
Graduate Fellow, Rutgers University
English Department, Murray Hall
510 George St.
New Brunswick, NJ 08901

4702 Feagan
Houston, TX 77007
(713) 882-7675

More information about the Humanist mailing list