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.


Gladys said...

hi natalia, i find this post very interesting as i have also been thinking about american childhood vis-a-vis infantilization of america's "others." plus i always wanted an A.I. doll when i was a kid. :-) what happened to this trend of building child-automata in the 19th century?

Natalia said...

Hah! The only automaton I want is a Roomba.

I haven't really studied the history of automata -- something to do in my copious spare time, I suppose.

Curious George (although German, not American) is an interesting test case for the infantilization of the other. The colonialist subtext is obvious, but the (presumably white) child is also clearly meant to identify with the monkey from Africa.

Arcadia said...

This also makes me think about Disney's first success (starting when he was a 21-year-old in Kansas) - a series of films known as the "Alice Comedies," which put a live-action girl in a cartoon world.

Natalia said...

Arcadia, I need a way to download all your film knowledge into my brain.

Gladys said...

ditto natalia.

p.s. a roomba would be nice too, hehe.