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Title: Armonica/Automaton: Media Archaeologies of Affective Programming
Authors: De Fren, Alison
Issue Date: 5-Jul-2016
Series/Report no.: Methods: Interdisciplinary Imbroglio;07.11.2015 Session 7A
Abstract: This paper revives 18 th and 19 th century discourses around music, nerves, and technology to explore questions about affective programming and agency, using as a through line the 1814 short story “Automata” by E.T.A. Hoffmann. In Hoffmann’s tale, a lead male character falls in love with what appears to be a female automaton singer, but who is compared repeatedly to a glass armonica, an instrument whose ethereal, otherworldly tones had an unprecedented reputation for affecting its listeners. Invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761, the armonica had a meteoric rise to fame and an equally precipitous downfall, in part, due to its association with Anton Mesmer, who played it during his séances in order to facilitate the flows of magnetic fluid within his patients’ bodies. The story reflects not only the increasing suspicion of mesmerism, but also the shifting discourse around music and nerves, which had evolved from Cartesian hydraulic models of subtle fluid and Newtonian metaphors of nerves vibrating like musical strings to Galvanic models in which musical sensation was viewed as a form of electro­stimulus response. In mining the ambivalence surrounding the glass armonica, Hoffmann probes the affinities between humans and machines, raising questions about the vital and mechanical principles that enable machines to affect humans emotively and that make humans susceptible to their influence. Such questions are equally relevant today and still echo through contemporary media works that use the glass armonica, from Tony Oursler’s video installation “Influence Machine” to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s 2013 film Gravity.
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