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Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History

by Kara Reilly
Palgrave Macmillian, Basingstroke, Hampshire, UK, 2011
232 pp., illus. 19 b/w. Trade, £50 (US$80.00)
ISBN-10: 0230232027.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program

Washington State University Vancouver


In her new book, Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History, author Kara Reilly explores the history of automata, automated moving figures of animals or humans whose life-like movements suggest they are alive, as part of theater history, arguing that they constitute the historical precursors for today's machine-based entertainments. Chapters examine the mimesis (the art versus nature) of automata across several centuries and areas of representation.

The central argument throughout is that automata are both performative objects of mimesis and metaphors for the period in which they are explored. Automata, says Reilly, are performers on the stage of intellectual history, deeply connected to cultural history, contributing to ongoing tensions between nature and art, and producing our way of understanding and shaping reality as performing objects in theatrical and technological spectacles.

Reilly proceeds along three routes to position, conduct, and support this study: onto-epistemic mimesis, remediation, and trans-historical study. By onto-epistemic mimesis she means a mimesis "that changes a person's way of knowing [epistemology], and by extension their way of being [ontology]" (7, my definitions inserted).

With regard to remediation, Reilly echoes Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin's (Remediation 2000) positioning of the process of "the representation of one medium in another" as "the defining characteristic of the new digital media" (9). But, as Reilly argues, there is a long history behind cyberculture mimesis ranging backward in time from current-day Second Life avatars to the mechanical spectacles of Ancient Greek drama. Mimesis she argues not only represents reality, but shapes it as well, not as an aspect of social or historical construction, but as an aspect of history itself.

This point lends itself to a trans-historical approach to the study of automata and Reilly argues for a horizontal sense of connection and patterning as part of a participatory continuum. Automata are historical objects that can be explored over time, she says, but, any focus on a particular time period must incorporate a thick description of pre-existing structures and/or artifacts that have led or contributed to the remediation of the artifact at the particular time of its examination.

Following this theoretical underpinning, Reilly proceeds to examine automata across some of their trans-historical sweep. Chapter 1 examines the English Reformation Iconoclasm's fear that the power of art (specifically the representation of life by automata) might surpass the power of nature (God). Despite efforts to erase images depicting biblical subjects, religious icons resurfaced as moving statues in secular gardens or tropes in secular theater. Automata foregrounded anxieties over the persuasive power of images and eventually became the idols of the Iconoclasm movement.

Chapter 2 examines the influence of hydraulic garden automata on René Decartes’ mechanical philosophy in his Tretise on Man. Descartes, Reilly argues, demonstrates onto-epistemic mimesis when he says, as a spectator of mimesis, he can see no difference between machines built by artisans and objects created by nature.

Chapter 3 looks at French automata created by Jacques Vaucanson and Pierre Jaquet-droz, who both attempted to use mechanical philosophy to make sense of the natural world by creating mimetic mechanical devices that were in turn celebrated by eighteenth-century aristocrats as the ideal. In another example of the power of onto-epistemic mimesis, Reilly argues that the gigantic powdered wigs and round rouge marks on the cheeks of late eighteenth-century women's fashions gave courtiers the appearance of mechanized dolls. On the other hand, this mimesis formed the basis for criticism of the aristocracy as ridiculous autocrats controlled by ineffective mechanical bureaucrats. Reilly offers examples from then-contemporary theatrical productions.

Chapter 4 examines theatrical productions featuring the alluring beauty of E.T.A. Hoffmann's automaton Olympia, whom the protagonist, Nathanael is unable to recognize as a machine, falling deeply in love with her. This trope is reimagined in several later, subsequent theatrical productions, which are also examined. Reilly argues theories and perception of the uncanny, the shocking change from perfect fetish to mechanical monster, emanating from Olympia is representative of women as fetish objects in commodity culture.

Chapter 5 provides a case study of R.U.R., the drama by Karel Capek who coined the now universal term "robot," meaning "worker" or "slave laborer." Reilly argues that robots represent the growing anxiety over the increasing mechanization of human beings and technological and scientific progress in the wake of suspicion following the atrocities of mechanized carnage during World War I. Where automata are entertainers, robots are workers, or, as the play suggests, killers of humanity. Reilly ends her book with this advent of robots.

Throughout Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History, Reilly positions the desire to utilize mimesis to construct realities as metaphors for each of the historical periods she examines, crafting interesting intersections between theater history, technology, performativity, and mimesis suggesting that representation not only presents reality, but also shapes and creates reality. Implications for present-day and future mimesis include the continued negotiation between the simulacrum and the real, creating copies or models for the onscreen hyperreal that seem more real than the surrounding world.

Last Updated 5 April 2012

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