Thursday, 25th October, 2018
The Imperfect Sense
At the stroke of every hour, a young girl let some metallic spheres fall on bronze cymbals, while the signs of the zodiac flowed round. What remains of the water clock of the Royal Palace of Palermo—wanted by Roger II and executed in AD 1.142 by an Arabian technician from Malta—is only a trilingual inscription (in Arabic, Greek and Latin) dedicated to it, and located at the Palatine Chapel; From the Byzantine version: “[…] It brakes the course of the fluid substance, the cognition distributing free of errors of the hours of time.” It was a mechanical woman the first, in Palermo, to question the fluid substance of a world up to then governed by the human intellect. From here, as the art critic Francesco Bartoli wrote, a jumble of unusual presences began to flow into the space of the ‘spectacle’: “self-propelled statues, hybrid ghosts, mannequins and animated things, an entire arsenal of unnamed beings invoked the right to cohabit with man, if not even to jam the action and to replace him.”
Inscribed in the cultural history of Palermo (and of Sicily in general) there is a particular attention to technical bodies. The term ‘automaton’, from the Greek autómatos (lat. Automătus), means that «that moves by itself», and in a certain sense identified (next to its use in labour-related jargon) the extremes of Western culture: God and animal, the only ‘bodies’ to be in synergy with the world (relationship from which man was excluded, being generally its model). Starting from the 12th century (thanks above all to the Arab influence on the island), a cultural vision developed in Sicily that undermined this triangular relationship, replacing it with a more horizontal one that united man, machine and nature, and that even elected man as the first true automaton. According to the philosopher Carlo Sini, there hasn’t been a truly ‘natural’ human being, he/she is in fact essentially technical: “the ‘natural’ is the result of a rebound from the ‘technical’. […] Man is on a path of artificiality that, only by difference, can derive the idea of naturalness.” The automaton has always been a “philosophical war machine”, wrote the French philosopher and physicist Georges Canguilhem. It is in fact the device that best can embody this relationship of ‘difference’ between the conscious space (the power) of man and the nature that surrounds him.
Since man has discovered himself to be no longer unique but repeatable and stereotypical, his horizon of values has changed profoundly. In a passage of Luigi Pirandello’s The Late Mattia Pascal (1904), the old Anselmo Paleari, after having seen the representation of the Oreste in a theater of automatic puppets, asks the protagonist what would happen to the hero if “a rip was made in the paper sky of the theater.” He could no longer remain what he was: “he would become Hamlet. However, the difference between ancient and modern tragedy consists in this: in a hole in the paper sky.” As Pirandello reminds us, we are all puppets looking for our nature since the origin of the world, but we feel differently from when the horizon of the absolute proved to be a backdrop made of papier-mâché. The power of the automaton is, in this sense, twofold: it not only incorporates the deepest fears that torment us (forcing us to confront them) but, with its manifestation of uncanniness, presents the potential to distance ourselves from what is too similar to us and reinterpret, thus, our role in a constantly changing world.
In her book Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2017), feminist writer and philosopher Donna Haraway (on which a documentary film was presented last November in the context of Manifesta 12) replaces the idea of cyborg with that of “companion species”, describing our age as that in which the human and the non-human (from machines to animal organisms) are inextricably linked in tentacular practices. Already in 1985 she proposed the cybernetic automaton as a metaphor to explain how the fundamental contradictions of feminist theory and of identity (of gender and of species) must be joined rather than resolved. Two years later, in Palermo, Polish playwright Tadeusz Kantor produced, in collaboration with the museum Pasqualino, Machine of Love and Death, one of the first shows in which actors in flesh and blood shared the stage with automatic machines.
With its implacable silence (what still distinguishes it from the human is perhaps only the lack of crying, of voice), the automaton seems to suggest that it is not thought that defines us, but feeling; And feeling is already fully thought, since every sensation contains a contracted and silent speech. Within a contemporary context where thought and computation tend more and more to perfectly coincide, the automaton, for its uncanny imperfections, remains an essential tool for reflection. Leading us, by difference, outside of ourselves, makes us perceive the machine (like the natural, external world) no longer in terms of resemblance, but of proximity. What moves by itself is truly what is closest and familiar to us: a world in perpetual motion of which we stubbornly try to trace its rhythm.