Renaissance Cyborgs

One of the articles on the list for last week’s lecture in my MA course Bodies and Selves in Early Modern Culture, was Jonathan Sawday’s “The Renaissance Cyborg” from a volume called At the Borders of the Human.

Sawday’s article is fascinating not only because he provides a convincing new interpretation of a line in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, or because he offers a correction on Donna Haraway’s theory of the cyborg. I enjoyed it also because it looks at the widespread early modern interest in automata such as those designed by Ramelli, who featured on this blog a long time ago.

Sawday signals a similarity between anatomical books published in the period, and the ways in which illustrations in machine books bring to light the hidden workings of machinery. The machine designs according to Sawday were not designer’s blueprints, the machines were not meant to be built. Instead, they were visual exercises in combining and re-combining mechanical structures. If corpses in anatomical illustrations tend to feature inset engravings of their inner parts (often lifting a flap of skin to reveal the organs), then these machine designs regularly come with inset illustrations of hidden pistons and cylinders. This similarity in conventions of representation points to a similarity in perception of body and machine. In Sawday’s words, “machines and humans, or bodies and engines, have a long history of intersection with one another” (184). A hundred years later, Descartes would indeed posit that the human body is little more than an automaton.

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