Category Archives: Academia

Dissertation Reviews on Creatures of Artifice

Last week, Dissertation Reviews posted a review of my own doctoral thesis, Creatures of Artifice: Rodney Brooks and the Bioethics of Animated Machines. DR is a relatively new website (founded in 2010) that offers “friendly and uncritical reviews” of recently defended dissertations. What began as a fairly specialized forum for reviewing dissertations in Chinese history and Asian studies has quickly expanded to include research in science studies, bioethics, medical anthropology, and media studies, with the intention to keep growing. Continue reading Dissertation Reviews on Creatures of Artifice

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.

Kafka Wired: In the Penal Colony and The Metamorphosis by Martin Senn

A good friend of mine over at Carleton, Stuart Murray, was showing me a mock-up of a “fact sheet” that the university was putting together on his work. Clearly the design folks over there were at a loss as to what image to use for the big splash page, since they had copped a lo-res picture of some statue of Plato (or Socrates) from iStockphoto, blew it up, and slapped it in, watermark and all. He’s at a bit of a loss, since his work crosses a number of fields and topics: “What says “biopolitics” and death and ethics and medicine and prison and . . . ?” Remembering that he taught Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” one year at Ryerson, in a rhetoric course on “Free Speech,” I did a quick troll on Google and found this great work by a German artist named Martin Senn, an illustrator and painter who also does fantastic work with wire sculpture.

Martin Senn. Franz Kafka: Der Eigentümliche Apparataus der Erzählung “In der Strafkolonie.” [Franz Kafka: The Peculiar Apparatus from the Story “In the Penal Colony.”] Wire and modeling clay. 50cm x 35cm x 25cm.
 The “peculiar apparatus” is used in the Penal Colony to carry out an inmate’s sentencing. The condemned lies flat on a bed and has the content of his sentence cut into his body by the “Harrow,” a vast array of quivering needles driven by an electro-mechanical device called the “Inscriber.”

Martin Senn. Franz Kafka: Der Eigentümliche Apparataus der Erzählung “In der Strafkolonie.” [Franz Kafka: The Peculiar Apparatus from the Story “In the Penal Colony.”] Wire and modeling clay. 50cm x 35cm x 25cm.
I suppose its up in the air as to whether or not Carleton would want something like this on its promotional material, especially when its promoting one of their new Canada Research Chairs.

In any event, I find Senn’s representation of the device from Kafka’s tale remarkably evocative of the absurdly inhuman inscription of the Law upon the human subject. Bits and pieces of found materials twist together in a largely empty form to bring incredible violence upon the body of the condemned. And we are, all of us, in Kafka’s world, condemned.

Just ask Gregor Samsa!

Martin Senn. Franz Kafka: Das Ungeheuere Ungeziefer aus der Erzählung “Die Verwandlung.” [Franz Kafka: The Monstrous Vermin from the Story “The Metamorphosis.”] Wire and modeling clay. 30cm x 30cm.

Going Rogue . . .

. . . not quite like Sarah Palin though. A couple of weeks ago, new-media and digital-culture scholar Mirko Schaefer posted an interesting column called “Rogue Scholars in the Sim City University.” Here is the subhead for the article:

University managers create a virtual university for themselves, a sort Sim City academia. Columnist Mirko Schäfer calls it Sim Sity as in SIMplified univerSITY. He pleads for rogue scholars, who come up with solutions for problems without bothering at all the encrusted superstructure of administrators.

What follows is quite inspiring and makes me want to stick it to the man (especially since the man won’t let me play in his ivory sandbox, but that’s another story). He talks about departments setting up impromptu, ad-hoc symposia, lectures, and workshops, a group of grad students who took it upon themselves to put together a program website they thought “was not embarrassing for a new media program,” and a few other examples of faculty and students carrying on the work of scholarship while bypassing the morass of bureaucratic interference. It resonates with some initiatives happening in the humanities and social sciences, such as the stuff happening with Open Humanities Press and Liquid Books, projects which are, in part, taking cues from the hard sciences as proposals for new paradigms of publishing that respond more quickly to shifting trends in scholarship than traditional methods can hope to do.

Going rogue does sound attractive, but I wonder if the sorts of tactics that Schaefer proposes carry the legibility and legitimacy needed for junior scholars to bolster their credentials, especially considering the vulnerable position of the liberal arts today and how (perhaps paradoxically) slow they seem to be in breaking with entrenched ways of doing things.