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Automatons and the Early Modern Drama of Skepticism


Weaving together the varied archive of early modern mechanics and readings of works by Cervantes, Descartes, and Hobbes, this essay examines automatons as technologies of belief and figures of thought, in addition to remarkable feats of engineering.

“Automatons and the Early Modern Drama of Skepticism.” Science on Stage in Early Modern Spain, edited by Enrique García Santo-Tomás, University of Toronto Press, 2019, pp. 210-230.

At the heart of Spanish Baroque aesthetics is a tension between ill-intentioned deception and righteous representation. This tension is also central to the late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century revival of skepticism, which, as Richard Popkin famously argued, helped to stimulate innovation in mechanical engineering, hydraulics, pneumatics, and clock-making. Doubt about the essence of human experience and religious order produced a new interest in the manipulation of that experience and order. Focusing on automatons as an emblematic test case, this essay argues that although skepticism came to serve radical ends in the late modern long term, in the early modern short term it strengthened the theological and political status quo. To recognize this fact is to begin to understand the conservative quality of much Golden Age theater, and also to see how and why writers like Cervantes, Descartes, and Hobbes could employ the figure of the automaton as a tool of  argumentation and persuasion.

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