Friday, October 26, 2007
The child as ideal automaton
Apparently I can only post about children's lit lately, but I swear this comes from a non-children's lit source.
I attended Scott Bukatman's keynote address at the ParaSite New Media Symposium today. The talk, titled "Disobedient Machines: Autonomy and Animation," discussed the tradition of created beings (e.g. the Pygmalion myth). Bukatman, reading Disney’s Pinocchio, noted that interesting automata in film —- the good kind, the kind that really come alive —- always rebel. Their disobedience is a sign of their autonomy, a sign that creation was successful (insert long passage from Paradise Lost here).
Bukatman discussed this in terms of cinema’s creations, specifically the uncanny (but cute) disobedient creatures of animation (which are subsequently schooled, like Pinocchio or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice) and the sublime disobedient creations of live-action film.
But what struck me was his revelation that many of the 18th century automata (the clockwork mechanical bodies some folks were apparently fond of constructing) were automated children. Bukatman’s talk raised the idea of the child as a kind of disobedient (and therefore successful) creation. As Anne Scott MacLeod and Myra Jehlen have observed, American childhood (boyhood, in their formulations) is seen as constitutively disobedient, and this disobedience and unsophistication (construction as children’s literature) only makes it seem more quintessentially American (the American is the infantile, the unmediated), such that Huckleberry Finn can be pronounced the American novel. The resemblance between Twain’s project of vernacular realism and Disney’s project of simulated photography in films like Pinocchio -— both projects that seek to render the created boy “real” -— is striking, especially given how that realism is figured as specifically American (at least for Twain; I don’t know that much about Disney). I’ll have to think more about this.