Automata, man-machines and embodiment: deflating or inflating Life?

In A. Radman & H. Sohn (eds.), Critical and Clinical Cartographies; Embodiment /Technology /Care /Design. 010 (forthcoming)
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Early modern automata, understood as efforts to ‘model’ life, to grasp its singular properties and/or to unveil and demystify its seeming inaccessibility and mystery, are not just fascinating liminal, boundary, hybrid, crossover or go-between objects, while they are all of those of course. They also pose a direct challenge to some of our common conceptions about mechanism and embodiment. They challenge the simplicity of the distinction between a purported ‘mechanistic’ worldpicture, its ontology and its goals, and on the other hand an attempt to understand ourselves and animals more broadly as flesh-and-blood, affective entities (that is, not just breathing and perspiring, but also desiring and ‘sanguine’ machines, as La Mettrie might have put it). In what follows I reflect on the complexity of early modern mechanism faced with the (living) body, and its mirror image, contemporary theories of embodiment. At times, embodiment theory seems to be governed by a fascination with what the Artificial Life researcher Ezequiel Di Paolo has called ‘biochauvinism’ (Di Paolo, “Extended Life”): an unquestioned belief that ‘living bodies are special’. Yet how does the theorist define this special status? The question is apparently a simple one, or at least promptly yields an aporia which appears simple: to borrow a provocative phrase from Terry Eagleton, embodiment theory is obsessed by the body but terrified of biology. Yet at the same time, at least since Hubert Dreyfus and Andy Clark’s groundbreaking works, embodiment has been a legit part of cognitive science, yielding the even more recently emerged field of ‘embodied cognition’ (see the work of Larry Shapiro), which seeks to depart from traditional cognitive science, especially the latter’s understanding of cognition as computational, in order to instead underscore “the significance of an organism’s body in how and what the organism thinks,” in Shapiro’s words.
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