English 160D1: Critical Cultural Concepts: The Automaton

What’s the difference between a human and a machine? Would people have thought the same thing fifty years ago? Three hundred years ago? The figure Daedalus in Greek mythology allegedly made statues that could move, and by the eighteenth century, mechanical automata could play musical instruments, draw, and write. When scientists and philosophers think of the mind as a computer, of the body as programmable, or of the universe as clockwork, are the distinctions between the human and automaton in danger of disappearing?

In this course, we’ll read novels, plays, short stories, films, a graphic novel, and nonfiction that have used the figure of the automaton to explore how new technologies and new forms of knowledge might change what it means to be human. We’ll think about how literature tests the limits of the human, explores the meanings of freedom, and asks what we can and can’t know about our bodies, our minds, and each other. Readings will include work by William Shakespeare, René Descartes, Mary Shelley, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and others; film and television screenings will likely include The Manchurian CandidateThe Stepford Wives, and Blade Runner. Assignments will include frequent written responses to readings, midterm and final exams, and a final creative group project that stages an encounter between a human and an automaton.