AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
Deception and Enchantment in the Life of the Automaton Chess Player
We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street, or to Baghdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose, let me read a time-table with tears of pride.
--G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare ( 1986:12-13)
Chesterton's hero, Gabriel Syme, is a disguised policeman, member of a squad of metaphysical cops in a secret war against the all-too-real forces of anarchy. Syme begins this nightmare novel sworn to protect a world ordered by trains, automobiles, communication lines, common sense, law and order (Chesterton  1986). He ends the adventure, in which a crew of anarchists are unmasked as fellow cops, by recognizing a profoundly irrational prime moving force behind his reasonable sense of the real. Chesterton, finally, leaves his uncertain hero staring at faith as the boundary between chaos and order. The sense of chaos, that anything might happen when the train arrives or the telephone rings, is held in check by faith in, among other things, the modern magic of machines, their extension and repeatable mimicry of human capacities and actions.
Electricity and magnetism were prominently figured as a technical form of magic in the scientific imagination of the 18th-century, modernity's dream life prior to its technological awakening in the electrical inventions of the 19th century. Christoph Asendorf describes a key shift between the 18th and 19th centuries: in the 18th, man is understood as an homme-machine; in the 19th, the machine itself is assigned human characteristics, frequently figured as female or exotic other:
In comparison with the eighteenth century, a shift in perspective has taken place. The body as a mechanical object has been replaced by the machine as a bodily object. If in the homme-machine the image of the machine was identical with that of the human body, then the consequences of this objectification become manifest in the image of the living machine: the separation of the body from the subject. [...] The rationality of the machine world is transformed into a mythology. (Asendorf 1993:4-5)
Following Marx's insight into the fetishism of commodity relations and mapping Hegel's notion of master-slave relations onto the relation between worker and machine, Asendorf discerns the operations through which subjectivity itself is reified--separated from human beings and displaced onto modern machines. How did electricity participate as mythology in this displacement? Electrical and magnetic sources of power first appeared to conjure up the invisible and to embody the tension between animate and inanimate realms, giving life to this newly reified machine with a human soul. This invisibility demonstrated for the spectator of 18th-century scientific entertainments impossible feats of distant control and the mimetic subjectivity of the inanimate world. Certain pre-technological performances, then, can give us some insight into the tense metaphoric operations and interconnections of faith and skepticism, or belief and disbelief, in the staging of new technologies in the image of l'homme machine, to use Julien Offray de La Mettrie's famous phrase for the marriage of intelligence and clockwork operations of the human body ( 1912).
The display of invisible forces associated with electrical and magnetic experiments called upon the 19th-century observer to believe in a force that could not be seen beyond its effects. The history of seeing the effects of electrical and magnetic forces crosses with the Enlightenment tradition of rational and mathematical entertainment in the 18th-century dramaturgy of popular scientific lecture-demonstrations in which Leyden jars and automata were the featured performers. Here lies what Barbara Maria Stafford, in her study of Enlightenment forms of "rational recreation," has called "the tension between quackery and pedagogy lurking in instrumentalized or empirical performance" (1993:22-30; see also Stafford 1994 and Altick 1978:64-69, 350-57). The legends surrounding Wolfgang de Kempelen's Automaton Chess Player--a mechanical puppet built in 1769 and costumed as a Turkish sorcerer seated at a chess board, awaiting the challenges of living opponents --illustrate the belief-inducing theatrical conventions of this genre, "empirical performance." The life-sized figure was dressed in a fur-trimmed cloak and turban and held a long pipe in its right hand, its left arm resting on a pillow. The figure was seated at a large mahogany chest about a meter wide, 80 cm high and 60 cm deep, with two swinging doors and one long drawer in its front. With the assistance of its exhibitor, it would publicly compete with volunteer players, using its mechanical arm to lift each chess piece and drop it into its new position (Hooper and Whyld 1984:363). With its downcast eyes and mustache, the figure suggested the Orientalist fantasy of a sorcerer or fortune-teller.
How and when did the early 19th-century spectator come to believe in technology? How did the operations of theatre participate in the reification of the inventions of science at a moment when technologies were new, even magical in their appearance? My interest is in the faith-inducing dramaturgy of technology thrown into relief by the trick performance. The Chess Player, a landmark in the history of automata, showed mechanism without itself being mechanical, and provoked evaluation of the secret workings of the machine, beyond the spectacle of its effect. Disguised as "technology" it presented the impossible, asking the viewer to suspend a certain disbelief. The double negative of this formulation--the suspension of disbelief--points to something more tense, and intentional, than simple belief. This double operation--first, of disbelieving; and, second, of setting aside that initial response in favor of a willing entry into the image, the spectacle, or the conjuring trick--was first named by Coleridge with respect to the faith exercised by the reader of the poetic image (Coleridge  1907, 11:5-6).(1) In this light, the 18th- and 19th-century texts associated with the Automaton Chess Player may be read as descriptive of an early modern form of technological faith, depending on a post-Enlightenment skepticism in the face of a new kind of magic.
De Kempelen's Automaton Chess Player was a technological mysterium, a secret to be uncovered, and a riddle to be solved, whether it won its game or lost to its volunteer opponent. To Chesterton's list of cultural miracles--the arrow striking its mark and the locomotive striking its distant station--we …