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Duke University Press Books
The Monster in the Machine: Magic, Medicine, and the Marvelous in the Time of the Scientific Revolution

The Monster in the Machine: Magic, Medicine, and the Marvelous in the Time of the Scientific Revolution

by Zakiya Hanafi, Zakiya Hanafi, Hanafi


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The Monster in the Machine: Magic, Medicine, and the Marvelous in the Time of the Scientific Revolution

The Monster in the Machine tracks the ways in which human beings were defined in contrast to supernatural and demonic creatures during the time of the Scientific Revolution. Zakiya Hanafi recreates scenes of Italian life and culture from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries to show how monsters were conceptualized at this particular locale and historical juncture—a period when the sacred was being supplanted by a secular, decidedly nonmagical way of looking at the world.
Noting that the word “monster” is derived from the Latin for “omen” or “warning,” Hanafi explores the monster’s early identity as a portent or messenger from God. Although monsters have always been considered “whatever we are not,” they gradually were tranformed into mechanical devices when new discoveries in science and medicine revealed the mechanical nature of the human body. In analyzing the historical literature of monstrosity, magic, and museum collections, Hanafi uses contemporary theory and the philosophy of technology to illuminate the timeless significance of the monster theme. She elaborates the association between women and the monstrous in medical literature and sheds new light on the work of Vico—particularly his notion of the conatus—by relating it to Vico’s own health. By explicating obscure and fascinating texts from such disciplines as medicine and poetics, she invites the reader to the piazzas and pulpits of seventeenth-century Naples, where poets, courtiers, and Jesuit preachers used grotesque figures of speech to captivate audiences with their monstrous wit.
Drawing from a variety of texts from medicine, moral philosophy, and poetics, Hanafi’s guided tour through this baroque museum of ideas will interest readers in comparative literature, Italian literature, history of ideas, history of science, art history, poetics, women’s studies, and philosophy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822325369
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 10/25/2000
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.38(w) x 9.58(h) x 1.12(d)

About the Author

Zakiya Hanafi is an independent scholar who divides her time between Seattle, Washington, and Venice, Italy.

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Magic, Medicine, and the Marvelous in the Time of the Scientific Revolution


Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2568-0

Chapter One

The Origins of Monsters

Paris, 1826: an astonished audience at the Academy of Sciences listens to the curious deductions of renowned anatomist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, called in to solve the identity of a mysterious corpse found in an Egyptian sarcophagus. "An accomplished archeologist from Trieste," relates Dr. Ernest Martin some fifty years later, "had arrived in Paris with a rich collection of antiquities taken from digs that he himself had directed in the Egyptian ruins and tombs. Among the objects in this collection ... there was a mummy, and near it, a terra-cotta amulet, a crude but faithful representation of a monkey, whose huddled posture was the same as the mummy's-one that was customarily given to animals of this species-and from which it was concluded that the bandages concealed the body of a monkey." The fact that the corpse had been found in the necropolis of Hermopolis, a burial place reserved for sacred animals, confirmed this hypothesis.

But when Saint-Hilaire removed its wrappings, he found neither an animal nor a human, but rather a monster; that is, a human baby displaying simianlike deformations."As soon as the bandages were removed," continues Martin, "he recognized that what he had in front of him was a human being and a monstrous one at that.... Thus, a creature born of a woman had been embalmed and then buried, but was viewed as having animal origins." The nineteenth-century scientists concluded that "[the mummy] had been honored as a sacred animal; although excluded from human tombs, it was nevertheless welcomed into the necropolis of Hermopolis."

Honored as a sacred animal, yet excluded from human tombs: we should not be surprised that a little monstrous mummy could provoke such confusion. If the ancient Egyptians, like the Indians and the Persians, felt awe and respect when faced with such an anomalous creature as an anencephalus (born without a brain), many other cultures, primarily in the West, considered such beings abominations. The Law of the Twelve Tables, for instance, was explicit: "It shall be permitted for monstrous infants to be killed immediately!"

In Sparta, Athens, and Rome, deformed births were regarded as sinister presages: the infants were thrown into the Tiber or hurtled over a cliff; the Etruscans threw them in the ocean, or incinerated them; the Longobards drowned or suffocated them; the ancient Germans slew them with a sword or burned them. The people of Rome could even go so far as to stone the mother. Her monstrous parturition was a sign of the heavens assigning her the responsibility of some wrongdoing. If the birth happened to coincide with an adverse event, they demanded her death, but "this anger did not last long, and once it had been appeased, the unfortunate woman rejoined her domestic foyer and anxiously set herself to ablutions to purify herself of the defilement to which the monstrous birth was a fateful testimony."

Evidence for the reaction of ancient and traditional cultures to monstrous births is vast. Whether viewed as an evil omen, a mark of defilement for some grave transgression, or, as the Chaldeans and Etruscans viewed them, as presages to be decoded regarding some future good or bad event, monsters have always been considered highly charged with meaning. And that meaning is a sign of the being's extra-ordinary status.

At the lowest threshold, what is monstrous is simply radically other, nothing more than "nonhuman," a convenient binary opposition, in the same way barbarian, derived from the Greek barbaros, meant nothing more than "not one of us," "foreign," mimicking the senselessness of foreign speech, bar-bar-bar-bar....

A monster is "not human," then, and explicitly signals its foreign status with its body: too many limbs, or not enough, or not in the right place. Monsters are ugly because they are de-formed, literally "out of shape," deviating from the beauty of standardized corporeal order. I know I am human because I am not that. The monster serves to erect the limits of the human at both its "lower" and "upper" thresholds: half-animal or half-god, what is other is monstrous.

Another fundamental meaning of the monster-perhaps the most important aspect for an anthropological understanding of its mythological and social significance-is its hybrid character. Monsters create confusion and horror because they appear to combine animal elements with human ones; they posit a possibility of animal origins, of bestiality, of some kind of "promiscuous" coupling, as Giambattista Vico would describe it. In the jumbled limbs and motley order of its body, the monster threatens to destabilize all order, to break down all hierarchies. Monsters stink of the feral and the forest, of that space outside the law.

Is that why the monster became associated with the voice of God, as an indication of divine will? Ancient mentality reasoned perhaps that, as events happening outside the ordinary course of nature, monsters must come from another world, a different world from the everyday reality, that other world beyond the purely physical, where the gods dwell. Monstrum and teratos, the Latin and Greek roots of monster did not signify a deformed being, but a sign in the same category as portentum, prodigium, and ostentum, terms belonging to the divinatory sciences, only migrating later through association to the natural sciences.

A monstrum (from monere, to warn or threaten) was by definition a terrible prodigy, not for what it was in actuality-a piteously deformed infant destined to die quickly either by natural causes or by ritual sacrifice-but for what it foretold. A sign of coming calamity, the monster first and primarily was a messenger from the other world. So if the barbarian was distinguished by making no sense, or nonsense, the monster, on the contrary, was distinguished by making several senses: by providing an oppositional corporeal limit to human definition; by eroding the strong conceptual differentiation between man and beast, man and demon, or man and god, pointing to pollution, transgression, a breakdown in social order; and by bearing a sign of warning from the forces of the sacred.

How that sign was interpreted is quite irrelevant, or rather, the interpretation is purely a matter of historical context. The ancient Chaldeans assigned one-to-one correspondences between limbs and exact events, either auspicious or ominous portents: an extra finger meant abundant crops and so forth. More recent "readings" of monstrous bodies, in addition to predicting political changes or calamitous wars, had precise propagandistic purposes. Interpretation of monsters in the Renaissance was nothing less than an alternative political science, more popular and contemporary in nature than the erudite fare of princely counselors like Machiavelli. An appearance of a monster was thus tied from the beginning to an interpretive community, to a social order to which it was addressed and to a priestly cast which was needed in order to decipher its precise significance.

The immolation of those marked by difference was not a practice restricted to ancient or "primitive" cultures, however. In 1543 in Avignon, King Francis ordered a woman to be burned along with her dog because she had given birth to an infant with canine features. As late as 1825 in Sicily an anencephalic baby girl provoked such terror that those attending the birth threw her down a deep, dry well. She was saved only by order of the mayor.

Other examples of the horror provoked by monsters abound, but the reaction of nineteenth-century Western scientists is no less interesting. In their view, the organic reality of a deformed infant gave rise not to terror but to passionate scientific interest, focused especially on the taxonomical scaffolding required to construct a strong lexical foundation for a systematic categorization of birth defects. Science was called on to restore order to and extricate the parts from this inextricable chaos of teratological hybrids that combine fantasy with reality and body parts with inappropriate forms. It accomplished this by coming up with precise names for each deformity, by setting up an immense lexical apparatus, an iron-clad taxonomy based on rules and laws of corporeal organization.

Symmelus with tripodia, dicephalus dipus dibrachius, spondylodymus, heterotypic heteradelphia, these are some of the diagnostical labels we use today. But what "dicephalus dipus dibrachius" means, for example, is simply "two heads, two feet, two arms." In this distancing through language, especially by using the scholarly, authoritative language of Latin, we can see how transparent modern medicine's efforts have been to grant normalcy to something that obviously resists classification. Whether real, represented, or used as figures of speech, monsters function as representations of the other face of humanity, some bestial or demonic alter ego that must be repudiated and effaced in order for the authentically human being to assert its civilized selfhood.

The Disappearance of the Sacred Monster

A decentralization of human consciousness took place in Europe in the seventeenth century. Human beings went from a privileged position on the ladder of beings to a uniquely lonely position in a more mechanistic, materialist cosmos during this period. Human priority was displaced not only by the gradual switch from a geocentric to a heliocentric universe. Giordano Bruno went so far as to cultivate the awareness that there is no center at all: he imagined an open universe, populated by infinite worlds.

Mechanistic paradigms, God the Master Watchmaker, Galileo Galilei's mathematization of natural laws, the Cartesian projection of a grid onto space, a space made up exclusively of matter and extension: these factors must have had a disturbing, unsettling effect on a creature who had been accustomed to regarding himself as essentially, ontologically different from the rest of the created world. A comforting solution could be had if everything could be characterized as Art, including human inventions, natural phenomena, and even human beings themselves. At least a kind of ontological continuum could be preserved.

Following this logic, it made sense that, as Thomas Browne expressed it, "there are no grotesques in Nature." Since Nature was God's artifact, He would hardly commit the error of including deformity in it. In fact, following Pliny's lead, Nature's diversity and occasional deviation from its rules of production provided simply more cause for wonder and appreciation. Monsters were seen to bespeak the endless fecundity and creativity of God's handiwork. Their ancient associations with divination, transgression, pollution, breakdown in social hierarchy, terror, sacrifice, in short, their sacred links, seemed to be completely severed during this crucial period.

The analogical network of resemblances between the human microcosm and the worldly macrocosm also ceased to resonate. When the great "Stair or manifest Scale of creatures, rising not disorderly, or in confusion, but with a comely method and proportion" came tumbling down, Man the Western Male Philosopher-Scientist burrowed deeper into his studiolo and transformed his world into a theater to be observed. At the center of his museum, in a newly ordered taxonomic space, the seventeenth-century collector could become a removed spectator of his visual encyclopedia. As the creator of a theatrum naturae, or theater of nature, the scientist could provide a unifying and exhaustive description of the place of all things in relation to each other and to the whole, with the exception of one creature: himself, standing at the center. "The World was made to be inhabited by Beasts, but studied and contemplated by Man."

Monsters serving as amusing decorations and grotesques became garden ornaments in the late-Renaissance version of the modern amusement park. The welcoming words inscribed on the forehead of the marine monster in Bomarzo invited those who "are wandering the world desirous to see great and stupendous wonders, come here, where there are the horrendous faces of elephants, ogres and dragons." Terror and wonder were the watchwords of a ludic greed for distraction that spilled over into scientific collecting, turning didactic collections into cabinets of curiosities. It also invaded theories of rhetoric, turning the decorative into the main principle of elaboration. It worked its way into social philosophy, turning other cultures into pretexts for exotic operas. Art and nature, naturalia et mirabilia, began to merge with alarming insouciance: "In brief," explained Browne, "all things are artificial; for Nature is the Art of God."

This play with the boundaries of the natural and the artificial is one of the defining characteristics of the Baroque period in art history. The Baroque is famous for its exuberance, its opening, spiraling movements, its love of trickery and deception, its extravagantly frivolous evasion of the here-and-now. In our modern studies of Baroque aesthetics, though, we tend to forget sometimes that this immodest hunger for deceptive appearances and transportation into another, super-natural realm was fueled by uncertainty regarding this world order. Specifically, by an uncertainty regarding the limits of the natural itself; and even more specifically, regarding the limits of the "merely human." The celebrated Baroque sensibility for movement, for expansion out of confined spaces, for capturing the instant of metamorphosis, along with renewed interest in Greek mythology and Ovidian stories-this sensibility, we might say, pointed to the dwindling possibilities for transcendence portended by nascent scientificist thought.

The Founding Texts

Monsters do exist whenever people mention them or describe them, even if they may not exist in the real world. Sometimes it is difficult to tell a "real" monster from an imagined one. For this reason it is no more relevant to ask of Aristotle, Pliny, or Augustine whether their monsters were facts or fictions than it is today to ask a producer of a documentary on the Loch Ness Monster. The existence of the film itself attests to the Loch Ness Monster's reality as a creature of our cultural imagination. Monsters exist in all states of mind, from the deeply religious to the caustically secular.

There are monsters, there are accounts of monsters, and then there are compilations and histories of accounts of monsters. There are theories on the generation of monsters, and a science of monstrosity-or teratology-and there are also histories of teratology. Most monsters exist by dint of being repeatedly described in words rather than by being sighted in the flesh.

The literature proliferates according to several principles: the compiler, looking back to preceding times and authors, and around to other languages and countries, brings together secondhand reports, leaves out accounts that strike him as improbable or uninteresting, and adds personal observations and contemporary anecdotes. The speculative literature invariably gives a short history of previous thinkers' theories before launching on a new (or not so new) version of the causes of the generation of monsters or their symbolic meaning. More recent writings on monstrosity adopt a thematic organizing principle, such as "the monster in Western art."

The historians of histories of monsters generally peruse a fixed set of texts, giving an impression of a stable narrative with well-defined genres, and establishing a teratological canon. Elements remain constant, the variations limited, both in what a monster is (definitions inherent to and stabilized by etymological considerations), how it comes to be, what its significance is or is not, and what the genesis and culture of monstrosity have been in Western literatures. In other words, the category of the monster has been defined by an ancient and continuous literature that perpetuates itself in a limited number of discursive contexts which will be described below.

The way I am characterizing this body of knowledge and how it has been constituted is not surprising. History-most naively described as the accounts people give of their past-being what it is, we would expect a certain degree of conformity. There is an element of the real, after all, that inspires writings about monsters: deformed fetuses, anomalous births such as twins, animals with humanoid parts, humans with animal-like features, peoples that have different colored skin or unusual customs, all these provide the stuff of monsters. And that reality, transposed into written accounts, takes on another sort of ontological stability. That is to say, over time and in a culture that reveres book authority, the writings about these "real" phenomena acquire an equal reality.


Excerpted from THE MONSTER IN THE MACHINE by ZAKIYA HANAFI Copyright © 2000 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations




Chapter 1: Monstrous Matter

Chapter 2: Monstrous Machines

Chapter 3: Medicine and the Mechanical Body

Chapter 4: Vico’s Monstrous Body

Chapter 5: Monstrous Metaphor



Works Consulted


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