It’s alive!

Yesterday I returned from the Association of American Geographers conference in NYC, and walked through a remarkable exhibit in the San Francisco Airport on animated dolls. SFO is actually certified as a museum, and the general quality of the exhibits is excellent. This exhibit provoked me to think again about the modern world, through the lens of animated dolls from the late 19th century.

The standard narrative about the modern world is that it is rational, secular, and objective. Max Weber (1918) once called the modern world “disenchanted.” This, perhaps, was the down-side of the eighteenth-century campaign to eliminate superstitions through the Enlightenment of Reason.

Walter Benjamin, however, argued something very different: that the modern world is not only enchanted, it is a phantasmagoria of material consumption. He studied a transitional moment in Paris, in the 1860s, when mass-production reached a whole new order of magnitude. The “Second Industrial Revolution” of the late 19th century was different in both scale and character from the “First Industrial Revolution” (about 1760 to 1848).

In the Second Revolution, advances in chemistry produced cheap pigments and dyes. This meant brighter paints and fabrics of every color were affordable. Electricity began to be used, first in telegraphs and then for all sorts of devices including the vacuum cleaner, but also lights for display. Printing also became much cheaper, which facilitated a very different phenomenon–mass marketing–and the mass-production of all sorts of commodities including toys. Even the mass-production of large sheets of glass transformed retailing. Shops could suddenly display their products like art exhibits. Imagine what it was like to promote your shop-goods when your front windows were little panes of leaded glass! The bakery-display, the candy-shop or pet-store window; these are all phenomena that date from after the Second Industrial Revolution. While the First Revolution lowered the cost of fundamentals like textiles, the Second Revolution began to produce marvels.

So far as I could tell, the automatons on display at SFO were not mass-produced. These were hand-wrought progenitors of the mass-produced toys of the 20th century. They also have a connection to the earlier,  hand-carved wooden animatronics of Swiss “cuckoo clocks.” But in their uncanny detail, their design for intimate-range entertainment, and–above all–their portrayal of specific stereotypes, they express something distinctly modern.

What Benjamin noticed was something more, something subtle. Parisian retailers began building “arcades” in the early 1860s, with narrow streets covered by glass, and shops on each side. By the end of the 19th century, these spaces were out of fashion, replaced by multi-floor department stores. Benjamin noticed that these neglected, out-of-fashion spaces made people uneasy. They represented a recently-out-of-fashion world. Quixotic changes in style had existed among the aristocracy in the past, but these were now whole urban spaces whose entire aesthetic had become ‘dated.’

Martin Scorsese captured something of the sense of wonder in this era of clockwork-wonders in the movie Hugo. More importantly, Scorsese portrayed the painful trauma of an early filmmaker who saw is works go quickly out of fashion. We look at these automatons and sense how much they are from a different time; the SFO curators placed a background-fabric whose color and pattern evokes the era–not our era–or is it? How divorced are we, truly, from the industrial-mechanical era of exotic wonders and racial stereotypes of the 1860s and 1870s? Just to tickle this point, take a look (below) at the funkadelic fantabulosity of an African-American female astronaut-doll made by Mattel in 1985 (These dolls are on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum):

What does this short aesthetic lifespan mean about the present? Present styles, the ‘latest’ fashions, quickly become ‘so yesterday’ and discarded. But in our present, the latest gadgets and styles must be purchased! What Benjamin realized was that the whole world of commodity-production and commodity-marketing was producing a sense of enchantment. Mass-marketing may have been a hard-nosed strategy to sell product, but the effect was to produce and sustain a sense that the present was an ever-becoming magical moment. It is a phantasmagoria of the senses and desires; a materialization of dreams. Once that materialization becomes shabby and worn, it is worse than a an old tool; it is more like a necrotic dream. It must be discarded, deprecated, rejected.

The Automatons on display at SFO express the nature of those dreams. Automatons embody nineteenth-century mechanical ingenuity, and reflect the same taste for display and spectacle that caused the parallel rise of circuses, zoos, museums, and the Great Exhibitions of London (1851), Paris (1889), and Chicago (1893). The automatons are mechanical marvels, but they also express cultural and racial stereotypes. There is the Italian mandolin player (above), the French artiste, the Chinese acrobat and musician, the African (/American) magician. These were the dreams of their time, and look quaint and historic and dated in precisely the way that Benjamin describes. They also express what Timothy Mitchell identified in his 1989 essay “Egypt at the Exhibition:” such modern displays also produced stereotypes of whole societies. As observers we are uncomfortable with a previous generation’s stereotypes–and that is part of our production of our own imaginary, our enchanted present.

But the automatons have another connection to our present. In the 1800s, the prevailing metaphor for the nature of the universe was an elaborate clockwork. In Newton’s fashioning of the metaphor at the end of the 1600s, God was the superlative clockmaker, and the motion of the spheres was driven by his ‘original impetus’–an early modern reinterpretation of the medieval concept of primum mobile. By the late 1800s, that clockwork-universe was secularized, but even more reinforced by an age of mechanical innovations. However the automatons express something more: they evoke medieval conceptions of animation such as the golem and the homunculus. Automatons are animate technology. That can be a source of anxiety, such as Fritz Lang’s portrayal of “Maria” in the film Metropolis (1929), and successors in the genre: HAL 9000, Stepford Wives, Terminator, Cylons. This haunting of technology began with Mary Shelley’s interpretation of Paradise Lost into Frankenstein: or, the modern Prometheus. If we can create our own homunculi, our own golems, what is our ethical position as creators?

In another part of SFO, a different animated marvel is displayed for sale:

It is a toy drone, much like the ones used by real-estate photographers in Los Angeles, and like some of the smaller drones used by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. These new automatons reveal the fantastical nature of modernity from another angle: labor-relations and the “business end” of modern technology.

The larger drones used for targeted assassinations (Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Israel/Palestine) remind me of the airborne Hunter-Killers (below) portrayed in the first Terminator film (1984). The crucial difference is that in Western pop culture, we are tempted to remove the human presence from the machine; part of the experience of wonder of the Mechanical Turk was the suspension-of-belief that a human operator was required. In fact this narrative act of erasure conceals a form of labor-relations: the concept of “mechanical Turking” is now used to describe information piece-work done over the internet. In the picture above, the toy drone is being operated by the sales clerk holding the controller in the photo.

How does our perspective shift when we use such devices ‘to keep us safe’?

Journalist Pir Zubair Shah notes that Pakhtuns in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas express a better sense of the personhood and ethical accountability of these tools, these extensions of human capability. They use the phrase “I will drone you” as a sarcastic threat. In a popular love song the lover professes “I am looking for you like a drone, my love,”–a witty reference to the drones’ surveillance capabilities. Both expressions put the narrator in the position of the drone itself, unlike the Western narrative of anxiety about being dislocated, displaced from the position of agency. That haunting anxiety is the shadow-side of the phatasmagoric experience of modernity. The Pakhtuns who satirize drones are also very modern, very 21st century. But they experience the modern phantasmagory from the nightmare-side, from the ‘receiving end’ of modern power.

The production of our enchanted modernity has always had a back-stage, a servant’s area. That production continues to require a lot of labor, like the women in China who produced the smartphone I used to photograph the automatons at SFO. The 19th-century recruitment of St. Nicholas into a promoter of toy sales and ‘holiday spirit’ even included a mythology of happy laborers: Santa’s elves. Maybe Roald Dahl portrayed them better as the ‘native’ Oompa-Loompas who replaced English workers in Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Whereas Marx and Engels tended to reduce these lopsided labor-relations to a very straightforward story of exploitation and injustice, Benjamin saw something more when he suggested that the exploiters bedazzle themselves. Our world is being governed by children at the display window, blissfully unaware of the labor relations and transactions involved in producing that display. Neither the ignorance nor the bliss are innocent; but the ethics of that self-deception and self-distraction are not so simple either.

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