History, Continuity, and Discontinuity: Cyborgs and the Eighteenth Century

Robert Mitchell
Duke University

Allison Muri begins The Enlightenment Cyborg: A History of Communications and Control in the Human Machine, 1660-1830 (Toronto, 2007) with the claim that, pace its title, “there is no such thing as the Enlightenment cyborg”–that is, the eighteenth century knew neither the term “cyborg,” nor the particular machinic augmentation of human beings that we have come to associate with the term in the twentieth century (1). Nevertheless, Muri contends contends, if we want to understand what is at stake in contemporary discussions of cyborgs, we must engage a long history of “man-machines” that stretches back into the late seventeenth century.   According to Muri, a failure to attend to this long history has led to two kinds of errors.   The first error characterizes the work of theorists of cyberculture who engage in ” presentist analyses” that depend upon the claim that the cyborg should be understood in terms of a “Cartesian dualism” that (depending on the theorist) cyborgs either overcome or further reify (17).   The second error afflicts historians and literary critics interested in the eighteenth-century figure of the “man-machine.”   Muri suggests that because these scholars often neglect the much later concept of the cyborg, they tend to miss the ways in which the eighteenth-century man-machine was also an attempt to understand concepts generally associated with twentieth-century cybernetics, such as “feedback” and “communication.”   The Enlightenment Cyborg seeks to correct both of these errors by bringing eighteenth-century scholarship on the man-machine into conversation with contemporary cyborg theory.   This is an ambitious project, and one that succeeds on a number of counts.   However, Muri’s attempt to address simultaneously two audiences–cybertheorists and scholars of the long eighteenth century–has the effect of making individual parts of the book hard going for one or the other group, while her commitment to the claim that continuity exists between Enlightenment and contemporary approaches to man-machines raises several methodological questions about writing this kind of “long” history.

Muri’s account of the Enlightenment cyborg is divided into six chapters.   The first begins with her account of the ways in which contemporary cyborg theory errs by understanding the modern figure of the cyborg in terms of a Cartesian mind-body split.   Oriented primarily toward Muri’s cybertheorist audience, this is a knuckle-rapping chapter which takes to task, and finds lacking, essentially every contemporary account–whether that of Anne Balsamo, Michael Heim, or Donna Haraway–of the origins and implications of the figure of the cyborg.[1]  (Though Bruno Latour is not an author that appears in The Enlightenment Cyborg , one could imagine a potentially productive dialogue between Muri’s first chapter and the claims of We Have Never Been Modern.[2]) The second chapter develops the outlines of Muri’s corrective history of the origins of the cyborg figure.   Central to this history is the intriguing, and compelling, claim that we should see the period between 1660 and 1945 not as a series of rises and falls of various “isms”–mechanism, materialism, vitalism, etc.–but instead as a continuous history in which natural philosophers sought to locate the body’s physiological processes in smaller and smaller particles, which latter were in turn increasingly susceptible to mathematical formalization.   It is this history, as Muri notes in the next chapter, that allows us to see the cyborg “not as Cartesian automaton with a soul but more accurately as a human-machine-text moved by energy and controlled by a circuit of communication” (115).   Subsequent chapters focus on the role of “communications” in Thomas Willis’s account of the man-machine; the ways in which the Enlightenment man-machine was not gendered in the way that the twentieth-century cyborg has been; and claims about relationships between texts and consciousness in Enlightenment and contemporary theory.

As Muri notes, The Enlightenment Cyborg has precedents in histories such as Otto Mayr’s Authority, Liberty, and Automatic Machinery in Early Modern Europe, which also draws on twentieth-century cybernetic theory to explain the development of eighteenth-century political and economic theory.[3]  Muri suggests, in fact, that her book provides a sort of complement to Mayr’s study, for where he explored “one side of the cyborg’s history”–namely, “[t]he convergence of metaphors for machine and national government”–she is interested in “the other side of the cyborg’s history,” that is, “the convergence of these metaphors with physiological ones for government of the individual human body” (109).   Yet in addition to this thematic difference, there is another important, though unremarked, distinction between Mayr’s and Muri’s approaches.   Where Mayr used the eighteenth-century term “regulation” as the vehicle for relating twentieth-century cybernetic concepts to eighteenth-century theories, Muri is generally more comfortable simply decoding eighteenth-century theories in terms of concepts of “feedback,” “communication systems,” and so on.   Like Muri’s opening caveat– “there is no such thing as the Enlightenment cyborg”–t his tendency raises the question of anachronism.   Muri is explicit about the importance of anachronism for her project, emphasizing that The Enlightenment Cyborg is directed against “anachronistic” understandings of contemporary cyborgs in terms of “Cartesian dualistic ideology” (83).   Yet Muri’s commitment to demonstrating the continuity of the man-machine model between 1660 and the present occasionally produces some surprising, and not entirely convincing, claims that seem themselves to border on anachronism, such as the suggestion that Newton’s discussion of light anticipated Einstein’s formula E = mc 2 , or the suggestion that Willis’s account of animal spirits is an “almost prescient image of electronic communication” (61, 125).

Muri’s desire to establish continuities between Enlightenment and contemporary texts also has the (presumably unintended) effect of emphasizing the more or less complete absence of the nineteenth century in The Enlightenment Cyborg.   On the one hand, Muri’s account of the Enlightenment cyborg explicitly ends in 1830, and it thus seems unfair to hold Muri accountable for developments after this date.   On the other hand, though, it is not entirely clear to me why Muri has chosen this date as her official ending point, and in fact, Muri’s account picks up again in the early to mid-twentieth century, with the development of cybernetics.   Though the absence of nineteenth-century texts and technologies from Muri’s account does not affect her fascinating descriptions of the Enlightenment cyborg proper, it does raise some doubts about the continuities that Muri wants to establish between Enlightenment and contemporary cyborgs (especially in light of Friedrich Kittler’s suggestion that the rise of cybernetics was due in part to a massive epistemic shift between 1800 and that 1900.[4]

Muri’s interest in documenting continuities between widely removed historical periods also brings up larger methodological issues.   Given that it is probably always possible to find a textual precedent from an earlier period that seems to “foreshadow” a later term, concept, or theory, how can we distinguish between instances in which a seeming precedent is in fact part of a continuous history, and when it simply “resonates” in ways that actually obscure important differences?   (This question is especially important now that research tools such as Early English Books Online and Eighteenth-Century Collections Online make it possible to search for terms easily and quickly across numerous, and often obscure, texts.)   Or, to put this another way, more specific to the case at hand: what gives us warrant for believing that the history of the “cyborg” begins in 1660, rather than, say, 1440?   Muri points explicitly to the work of Robert Boyle as the justification for this starting point, and gestures towards the emergence in the seventeenth century of “capitalistic and commercialized print culture,” “early factory culture,” and so forth as background for Boyle’s work (24).   However, Georges Canguilhem’s approach to “concepts” would have been helpful for Muri’s project, for Canguilhem suggests that a key threshold has been reached, and a concept emerges, when analogies and textual claims become linked to actual experimental protocols.[5]  While Muri seems to make a similar claim, contending that “by the mid-eighteenth century the material properties that enabled the processes of human will and action were regularly hypothesized, investigated, and empirically tested”, she is clearly employing a very different, and far looser, sense of “empirical testing” than Canguilhem (26).   A more extended discussion of methodology in The Enlightenment Cyborg would have been helpful, so that readers would have a better sense of how Muri wanted her claims for continuity between periods adjudicated.

In summary, The Enlightenment Cyborg will be of interest to both contemporary cybertheorists as well as scholars of the eighteenth century.   Though Muri’s long history of the cyborg does not answer all of the methodological issues that it raises, it nevertheless provides an intriguing account of the ways in which the Enlightenment man-machine may have engaged questions of control, communications, and feedback in ways we tend to associate more exclusively with twentieth-century cybernetics.


[1]   Muri focuses especially on Anne Balsamo, “Reading Cyborgs Writing Feminism,” Communication 10 (1988): 331-44; Michael Heim, The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (New York and Oxford, 1993); and Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” Socialist Review 80 (1985): 65-107.

[2]   Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, Mass., 1994).

[3]   Otto Mayr, Authority, Liberty, and Automatic Machinery in Early Modern Europe (Baltimore, 1986).

[4]   See Friedrich A. Kittler, Discourse Networks 1800/1900 (Stanford, 1990), and Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford, 1999).

[5]   It was for this reason, in fact, that Canguilhem, in his account of the concept of “physiological regulation,” emphasized that one should not read eighteenth-century texts through the lens of cybernetic concepts: see Georges Canguilhem, Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass., 1990), 82-83.