Elove: What Does Fiction Know?


Surrounded by our computers, tablets and phones, it is quite obvious for us today that a machine, whether it is a simple calculator, a so-called “smart” phone, a sophisticated robot, or a machine that can eventually be loved and that can love back, must have the capacity to be inscribed, to retain that inscription and to reproduce it—what we commonly call memory. This component is probably as old as our civilizations. The Sumerian tablets performed the same functions for calculation purposes and commercial memoranda. It is only the technology that has changed throughout the ages. E.T.A. Hoffmann in “The Sand-Man” does not go in any detail into the making of Olimpia, the automaton Nathanael falls in love with, in spite of her jerky gestures and monosyllabic, single-word vocabulary, but we can assume that it is probably patterned after the late 18th-century automatons that watchmakers such as the Jacquet-Droz family have produced—the Lady Musician (Automata,) for example, which bears a striking resemblance to Olimpia and whose inner workings are quite known and still on display today. The memory in these machines is not necessarily a form of writing. It is however “inscribed” in their engineering in a system of wheels and cogs of various sizes placed to work together in order to produce the desired movement and sound when their spring is wound up. The Lady Musician can even play several tunes on her organ along with the appropriate movements. It is just a matter of replacing one cylinder with another.
Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Tomorrow’s Eve, though, offers an interesting twist to that memory. The main character in that novel is Thomas Edison, not quite our Thomas Edison but a simulation of the inventor. His invention of the phonograph changes things quite a bit. Before the phonograph there were, of course, machines that played musical pieces, such as music boxes and street organs. But unlike the previous representation technologies, which were mainly graphic (writing and image) and which required a certain mental processing on the part of the reader (a mediation, an interpretation or translation), the phonograph’s voice reproduction sensibly reduces that processing, creating a semblance of unmediated presence. Moreover, sound reproduction introduces something quite unheard of, so to speak: for the first time, the listener witnesses an event that takes place and unfolds in time. In contrast to a graphic representation, we have the actual duration of the original event reproduced. It is not surprising, by the way, to see talking heads—simulacra of human heads that supposedly communicated with the dead—appear in theaters and sideshows during that period.

This page has paths:

This page has tags:

Contents of this tag:

This page references: