‘HUMAN-OBJECT’ – Leonie Hannan

RESPONSE #4 – Leonie Hannan

At our last meeting of 100 Hours, we were joined by Chris Laoutaris – Research Fellow at the Shakespeare Institute – who came to talk to us about ‘Mechanical Motion, Emotion, and Objects of Wonder’. Chris’ session took us from evocations of automata in early modern literature, to the artefacts themselves. He confronted us with the material meanings of Renaissance cabinets of curiosity, with their purposefully playful combinations of objects, and with the emotional resonance of provocative objects. Chris is a literary scholar, who works on the Renaissance period – but he posed a very modern question: are we post-human? Drawing on the work of N. Katherine Hayles, our team were asked to think about the way machines have become part of how we think and act. This blurring of boundaries, as Kate Smith puts it, goes to the heart of our circling discussion about object and subject; thing versus person; the inanimate in contrast to the animate. It brings us back to the agency of things.

We all accept the argument that things act upon us, just as we act our will upon them. We are used to the example of the tool that trains the movement of the arm; the shoe that conditions the foot to remain uncalloused (and ill-equipped for bare-foot expedition). In Liz Haines’ recent investigations, she used stereoscopic viewing glasses to look at her lantern slides with the result that “models of mountainous country spring into relief”. Using these glasses in concert with her own eyes – “the image manifested very vividly as a product of multiple material entities”.

10 Lantern Slides, Galton Collection (no. 376), documented on a light box 08.10.13/ Liz Haines

10 Lantern Slides, Galton Collection (no. 376), documented on a light box 08.10.13/ Liz Haines

There are many such familiar and accepted human-object relationships, but Chris asked us to think specifically about very contemporary technologies – the devices that many of us carry about our person every day – technologies which collaborate in our decision-making and shape our social behaviour. And from this modern frontier of enmeshed human/machine relationships we tracked back to a Renaissance manifestation of human-machine: the automata.
Domenico Remps, A Cabinet of Curiosity (1690s); The Early Modern Center interdisciplinary conference (University of California, 2010); Jaquet-Droz automaton (c.1770), Musee d'Art et d'Histoire, Switzerland

Domenico Remps, A Cabinet of Curiosity (1690s); The Early Modern Center interdisciplinary conference (University of California, 2010); Jaquet-Droz automaton (c.1770), Musee d’Art et d’Histoire, Switzerland



As Elin Jones comments, early modern automata inspired both wonder and fear in the viewer. They still do. As we watched a flickering, moving image of a sixteenth-century automaton monk praying and beating his chest with clockwork zeal, we marvelled at it and shrank from it. Did it pray for us, or shame us in our spiritual inadequacy? Sarah Longair views this automaton as emblematic of human weakness. But automata have been used both to emphasise man’s mastery over the material world (a God-like ability to create life) and, conversely, to highlight man’s failings in comparison with the clinical precision and forceful repetition of a machine. Sarah’s contemporary example of an automaton, showing sailors making a meal of the last dodo, emphasises a different aspect of human weakness: “as the handle is turned, the sailors hungrily hammer the table with their knives and forks while the captain sharpens his knife over the dodo”. Perhaps an equally fearful prospect.

A response of both wonder and fear certainly extends to much-fetishized twenty-first-century technologies. These devices herald new patterns of human behaviour: anything from technological dexterity in toddlers to irretrievably inactive teenage bodies. Elin Jones turned this discussion of the centrality of technology to her subject of photography – considering the relationship between camera, hand, frame, and pose. As Elin puts it, not only do we “pout, turn, smile for this little box” but the eye cast on our lives through the camera’s lens is also far from neutral.

Photograph Album, UCL Art Museum

Photograph Album, UCL Art Museum

Sarah Longair proposes that early modern cabinets of curiosity provided an experimental space in which the boundaries of what is artificial or natural could be explored. Objects that fused the organic and the constructed were a source of fascination because they upset neat, material boundaries between the living and the lifeless. Elin notes the uneasy relationship between the natural and the artificial embodied in the life-like but life-less automata, a manifestation of a deeply early modern anxiety. Is a person who they appear to be? Is all that glitters gold? This artifice can, of course, be detected in the photographic images Elin is currently researching and has become a central concern in her analysis of them as historical evidence.

Liz Haines objected to the way post-humanists conceptualise power and human experience: “a focus on control (as apparently the full spectrum of the experience of power) and a focus on decision-making (as apparently the full spectrum of the experience of thought).” This seems an important corrective. Whilst the post-human argument is successful in animating the technologies with which we work and live (and in re-balancing a person-centric world view), our understanding of power and human thought surely needs to encompass more than this.

Florian Roithmayr recalls the processes of making and shaping materials that are familiar to him as an artist. Tullia Giersberg and Emily Orr, in contrast, feel distanced from their objects by their inability to create by their own hands objects of this kind. Tullia goes one step further and asks whether it is really desirable for her to tear down the boundary between herself and her object? She argues that the example of the cabinet of curiosity demonstrates that it is in contrast rather than in unity that meaning is evoked. Florian concludes that whilst the foraminifera models “were produced using a whole palette of different processes, techniques and materials … with procedures based on contact and touch”, “it seems that the materials and techniques didn’t matter as long as the end result achieved something” – something that exists quite outside of how the model came into being.

Foraminifera Plaster Models, Grant Museum of Zoology

Foraminifera Plaster Models, Grant Museum of Zoology

This perceived dislocation between the process of making and the material purpose of an object is interesting. For Kate, materiality and performance are key frameworks for understanding objects. So, whilst – as Tullia points out: “we curate our lives, we don’t create them” – a contemplation of the process of making has certainly informed many of our researchers’ responses to date, whether that process is familiar or alien.

Whilst the death of the book is often proclaimed, Katy Barrett contends that print culture still mediates our interactions with the world around us and, no less so, in relation to new technologies. The visual image she conjures when considering the changing weather has its roots in the earliest printed weather maps in nineteenth-century newspapers. Whilst Katy recognises the weather maps as a form of information technology, she realises that she has been viewing them more as art than as science; as image rather than data.

Weather Map Printing Blocks, Galton Collection, UCL

Weather Map Printing Blocks, Galton Collection, UCL

Juliette Kristensen’s response to Chris’ exploration of emotional objects is a personal one – she talks us through the sequence of images, decisions, understandings, and misunderstandings that led her to the Dictaphone tubes in UCL Science Collections. From the literal network of the subterranean, pneumatic telegraph tubes to the networks of meaning that Juliette has constructed. This chain of objects, images, spaces, and thoughts is characteristic of the research process recorded on this website. But what can we present at the end of this process, when the method has been so central to the research experience and the results of that research do not easily cohere as a recognisable academic product? Mat Paskins’ contribution tackles that particular problem directly – he has written fourteen 100-word pieces on the subject of his meteorite. These blocks of text begin to tell us the story of the meteorite’s origins and relationships with people over time, but do so in the fragmented way that we have generated findings from this project. The fragments might be seeds of future projects, but Mat’s staccato utterances tell us something important about how process relates to product.

A ‘typewriter’ transcribing from an Edison Phonograph, 1892.

A ‘typewriter’ transcribing from an Edison Phonograph, 1892.

In considering that “things come into being as extensions of embodied experiences”, Kate calls for a greater emphasis on practice as a way of understanding the material past. This will prove controversial for some of our researchers. But as we set about diagnosing the value of the 100 Hours approach to object research, the embodied experience of practice will, no doubt, remain central to our conversation.

Coming soon: our researchers’ responses to a meeting with historian of science, Simon Werrett.

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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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 )

Connecting to %s