Monday, April 25, 2011

Cleopatra's Automata

I recently finished reading Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life, and was delighted to come across a reference to the mechanical marvels for which Alexandria was known.

"A center of mechanical marvels,
Alexandria boasted automatic doors and hydraulic lifts, hidden treadmills and coin-operated machines. With invisible wires, siphons, pulleys, and magnets, the Ptolemies could work miracles. Fires erupted and died down; lights flickered from statues' eyes; trumpets blared spontaneously." (p. 70)

From the 3rd through the 1st centuries BCE, Alexandria was known as the center of mechanical engineering. The "Alexandrian School" (not the same as the famous library and gymnasium complex in Alexandria, but related to it) was a group of engineers and architects who designed, built, and wrote treatises on how to make elaborate automata and mechanical marvels of the kind that Schiff describes.

What were these devices? Ktesibios (ca. 3
00-270 BCE) designed a water-pump, a pneumatic catapult, a hydraulic organ, and mechanical birds that trilled the hours on a water-clock. Later engineers refined and expanded Ktesibios' machines, designing drinking fountains (for water or wine), mechanical serving girls, and elaborate theatrical and religious tableaux, including maenads worshiping at a shrine of Dionysus. Cleopatra's contemporary, Hero of Alexandria, designed numerous and elaborate automata for pageantry and stagecraft, including the kinds of sound and visual F/X that Schiff described in Cleopatra's pageantry during her triumphant return to power in 47 BCE. You can find one of the texts, Hero of Alexandria's Pneumatics, translated from the Greek, on-line at Google Books. The diagram above shows one of his designs: Hercules slaying the dragon. Instead of fire, the dragon spits water on Hercules. Maybe not as scary as fire.

It's too bad that Joseph Mankiewicz didn't include these mechanical marvels in his version of the events, but I guess that the incendiary love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton was the only special effect he needed. I wonder if the new biopic, starring Angelina Jolie and rumored to be directed by David Fincher, will include some automata. I hope so!

Thursday, April 14, 2011


J'adore this recent article in the NYT about the upcoming Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Costume Institute at the Met. The catalogue photographer, Solve Sundsbo, photographed the frocks on live models. But by using the familiar arts of photographic wizardry--make-up, lighting, and digital retouching--Sundsbo made the models look like dummy mannequins.

At the same time, Mr. Bolton
[the curator of the exhibit] was intrigued by Mr. Sundsbo’s proposal to make models look like mannequins because it spoke to the blurring of boundaries — between good and evil, angels and demons, nature and technology, permanence and decay — that was a consistent theme of the McQueen collections. “The beauty of McQueen is that simultaneous feeling of awe and wonder mixed with fear and terror,” he said.

Bolton's quote echoes Freud's views on the uncanny, or the unheimlich--the sensation of wonder and terror when encountering something that is both intimately familiar and completely alien. Is the model a woman or a mannequin? Is she both?

The uncanny models, and the way they are used to highlight the porous boundaries evident in McQueen's oeuvre, recall the automata I'm writing about. In this instance, Sundsbo is using humans to appear artificial and undifferentiated, like those living statues one often finds in touristy pedestrian districts or at municipal festivals.

In my own work, I more often find the opposite: artificial copies of people that surpass nature's originals--especially at places that delineate boundaries, like entrances, tombs, and bridges. The effect is the same, however: delight, amazement, and a strong undercurrent of fear.

Friday, April 1, 2011

PSA: Cronon Round-Up

I've been following the story cloud about Bill Cronon, the environmental historian, MacArthur Fellow, incoming president of the AHA, and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His emails (sent from his university email account) have been requested by the Wisconsin Republican Party under the FOIA, after Cronon published a blog post that convincingly argued that Governor Walker's attempts to kneecap public-sector unions in the state had been heavily influenced by a conservative organization that writes model laws for conservative politicians around the country. Cronon's point: This kind of political maneuvering is fine, but should be done in the open, not behind closed doors.

In the past week the shit has really hit the fan. A NYT op-ed denouncing the Wisconsin Republican Party's efforts. The Wisconsin GOP's denunciation of the campaign of intimidation against them for their FOIA request. Paul Krugman, professor of economics at Princeton, took aim at academic intimidation on his NYT blog. The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote an article about the request, along with the university's response. Jack Shafer weighed in with a defense of all FOIA requests (which, for the record, I find convincing, even as I deplore the way in which it's being used in this instance).

Historians have also been chiming in. Historiann wrote a nice round-up piece, with the suggestion that professors working at public universities start forwarding and cc'ing every piece of email correspondence to the Wisconsin GOP (death by kipple and tedious work email). Tenured Radical sang it loud and proud, reminding folks why tenure is a Good Thing and why you should never, ever use your work email to send anything that you wouldn't want forwarded around the ether. And Historian Super-hero Tony Grafton laid the smackdown at the New Yorker, reminding some folks that what historians do (and what Cronon was doing--helping to reveal an aspect of the Wisconsin political process for posterity and the historical record) is important and filled with sharp elbows (seriously: the reviews on my last article submission were excoriating).

I'm of two minds about the whole thing. I mean, yes, the Wisconsin GOP's tactic is a huge political stunt and retaliation for Cronon's blog post, and Cronon's point that compliance with this request would have a seriously dampening effect on the discourse and communication of employees at any public institution is one that I definitely agree with. But, on the other hand...historians want open access, don't we? And part of me wonders if some of the resistance to the FOIA request actually reveals a gap in terms of understanding and using newfangled intertube technology. There are people who recognize that anything they send from their work email address or store on their work computer is not private. And so they don't write about personal matters, personnel matters, or anything that they wouldn't want to come back and bite them. For sensitive matters or personal matters, they use the telephone, personal email, or face-to-face interaction. Then there are people who think a magic cloak of privacy guards all of their email correspondence, and behave accordingly.