New Talk: The Hen Electric and the Mechanical Boy

“The Hen Electric and the Mechanical Boy: Joey, Bruno Bettelheim, and the Empty Fortresses of Humanism.” Paper presented at the 26th Annual Conference of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts, “Nonhuman,” Hilton, Milwaukee, WI, 28 September 2012.


In the March 1959 issue of Scientific American, Bruno Bettelheim relates the case history of Joey, the so-called “Mechanical Boy.” In this article, Bettelheim stages the child’s complex emotional disturbance as a psychoanalytic Pinocchio story for the “machine age.” Joey’s autistic imprisonment in a “world of machines” renders him a robot-child that oscillates between imperious withdrawal from, and helpless desperation for, human affection. When Bettelheim retells Joey’s story nearly a decade later, in The Empty Fortress, the Pinocchio story remains, along with its starkly moralized theme of a human species endangered by its own inept infancy in the face of highly complex and impersonal technological advancement. Yet where the magazine article deliberately concentrates on pathology over therapeutics, the greatly expanded account of Joey’s case history in the latter text does detail his course of therapy at the University of Chicago’s Sonya Shankman Orthogenic School. This account traces Joey’s journey through a psychological “rebirth” and escape from the captivity of his delusions. For Bettelheim, Joey’s flight from the machine world thus marks a triumphant delivery into a fully human world–at last he becomes a real boy! Yet I argue that the text depicts an (anthropo)genesis that is not at all as orthotic as Bettelheim claims. Joey’s psychically newborn self is a singular entity hatched from a miraculous egg, laid by an electric hen, and midwifed by kangaroos, bears, and dinosaurs. Joey’s story is therefore one of allogenesis, even xenogenesis, and suggests expansive forms of kinship and communication beyond the merely human.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s