The DEW Lab

The Long Khan


The life of Fritz Kahn is one of hardship, terror and intrigue. His books, at one time celebrated contributions to German culture, were burned by the Nazis and he narrowly escaped the reach of the Third Reich with the aid of Elbert Einstein. His work preceded the Second World War but in some ways presaged the cybernetics that would follow the technological boom leading into the 1950s. Here’s a brief overview of Kahn’s work from the British Library:

“The image above [reproduced above], by the artist Fritz Kahn, shows the nervous system as a complex electronic signalling system, complete with buttons, charts and busy workers. Fritz Kahn’s books and illustrations explored the inner machinery of the human body, using metaphors of modern industrial life. Kahn turned the brain into a complex factory with light projectors, conveyor belts, secretaries and cinema screens; he showed the journeys of blood cells as locomotives encircling the globe; and he compared bones to modern building materials such as reinforced concrete.

Kahn was writing in the 1920s, a period in of great industrial and technological change. The manufacturing industries were achieving incredibly high levels of efficiency thanks to the latest methods of production: factory assembly lines, for example, required only a simple and relatively unskilled input from factory workers. For these workers the body was like a piece of clockwork, its calculated movements acting solely as a functional cog in the social machine.”

The British Library

If you’ve been following this blog and the project we aim to realize through our MAME cabinet, the passage above may sound eerily familiar. Our stop-motion video concept is quite thematically similar to the role of the worker in the industrial factory. In fact, the original video concept had the assembly line worker realizing that his actions were actually unnecessary to the operation of the machine–he was revealed to be  just a skeumorph or vestigial holdover. We decided to be a little less direct in our final video but the notion is still very present, though it is entwined with economic and political theory.

An animated sequence by Henning M. Lederer of Kahn’s “Man as Industrial Palace.”

Kahn’s illustrations, 20 years before Norbert Wiener’s seminal paper on cybernetics, conceptualizes the modern human as the mechanized automaton that his/her industrial surroundings seemed to imply. After all, civilizations that were saturated with natural surroundings tended towards a more naturalistic conception of the body. The myth of Daedalus and Icarus is particularly interesting in this respect. Artistic portrayals of Icarus traditionally tended towards an eagle-man hybrid, not as the technologically augmented being that the myth describes. Technics, in this sense, imitated biological life–a prosthetic amalgamation not necessarily between human and machine but rather as an attempt to transcend the limitations of the human form as delineated by other creatures. In other words, classical depictions of Icarus idealized the animalistic/angelic form, not the mechanical extensions themselves. At a certain point, however, the myths began to reflect a very different idealized form.

Daedalus and Icarus by Ludovico Lana (1597-1646)

Kahn’s work is very indicative of this and Marshall McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951) explicates that mythical shift. What McLuhan notes is that in the new industrial mythos the focus has shifted from the end to the means. This shift begins the metaphorical mechanization of the human form and the ensuing transhumanist movements that have overlooked the inherent artifice of the mechanical. Icarus’s literally mechanical augmentations were artistically interpreted as an organic transformation. Modern industrial folklore omits this transcendence, suggesting instead that mechanization is in and of itself transcendental.

Teaser-trailer for the transhumanist-inspired Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011)

In this sense, the ‘human machine’ is a gross mischaracterization. As with Icarus, the natural, organic world serves to inspire the technics that define and extend our lives, resulting in inferior mechanical attempts to replicate the unparalleled ‘natural’ extension or externalization. Following this line of thought, the human mind is like a computer processor inasmuch as the father has his son’s eyes. Mechanizing the human body, internalizing the industrial schema, is an attempt to supplant a copy for the original. It is so very morbidly fitting, then, that Descartes, the father of mind-body dualism that for centuries has denigrated the organic corporeality, is said to have substituted a doll for his daughter. Whether fact or fiction, the story of Descartes’ daughter makes for a fitting myth:

“When René Descartes left France at the request of Queen Christina of Sweden to join her royal court, he brought his daughter Francine along with him to be his companion on the long voyage. On one particularly stormy night, the story goes, the crew approached Descartes’ quarters inquisitively because they had not yet seen the lovely daughter of Descartes in all their days of sailing. Creeping about Descartes’ room the crew came upon Francine, apparently laying motionless inside a wooden box. Perplexed they drew nearer and upon careful scrutiny found not a human girl but instead a child sized female automaton created in the exact likeness of Descartes’ deceased daughter. The frightened and deeply superstitious crew immediately brought ‘her’ body to the captain of the ship who in turn cast her overboard convinced that he presence aboard the ship was the source of the dangerous and stormy weather conditions the ship was presently encountering”

-Shanken, A. E. “Hot to Bot: Pygmalion’s lust, the Maharal’s fear, and the cyborg future art.” Technoetic Arts: A Journal of Speculative Research, 3(1), 43-55.

I would like to suggest the following: a doll for a daughter is tantamount to having a machine for a mind. Both the doll and the machine are derived from organic inspiration and yet they lack the ability to transcend their materiality. Only a solipsist would think to fill an emotional void with such artifice, and only the descendants of a solipsist (a paradoxical notion itself) could conceptualize biology as wetware in contrast to the idealized hard/software. And yet that’s what our industrial folklore would have us believe–that technical extensions, mechanized enhancements, insofar as they exist in the artificiality that is the world around the solipsist, could readily supplant physiological experience. Which seems ignorant of fact that it is only through art that Icarus’s mechanical extensions became biologically-extended wings.

Work’s such as Kahn’s ‘industrialized’ bodies contribute to the mythos that the modern human is encoded in machine-language. Today we exist in an era where patterns and codes and algorithms supposedly transcend corporeal existence–the data supersedes the subject. And what’s more, increasingly we refer to ourselves in mechanistic/computational terminology, fashioning ourselves through the language of the machine. This seems ignorant of the fact that conceptualizing the biological as machinistic, while the machine was inspired by biology, makes the rhetorical reduction of life into a GATTACA-sequence a self-referential system.

Daedalus wanted wings but he could only fashion mechanical imitations. The modern human, with an IQ, BMI, DNA sequence, typing speed,  etc. (all of which can be enhanced/augmented with technological implements), seems driven by the eventuality that technological enhancement will lead to transcendence. This amounts to the belief that by building better feathers we will one day have wings. What we see now is that the gap in the metaphor has been compressed, the technical artifice is now mistaken for the symbolic transformation.

Myths and folklore, from this perspective, reflect the relationship between humans and technics at any given moment in the history of a culture. Reading our post-industrial folklore, as McLuhan did for the industrial ‘man,’ may reveal not only how we perceive our relationship with technology but what we, as a culture,  believe it can do for us (or perhaps, what it can turn us into). It may well turn out that this mechanization of the human form is but a capitalist fantasy, after all the body was once the last stand against the cyclical process of modular upgrading. Now it seems more and more likely to be the result of a long con; decades of illegitimate metaphorical misappropriation of the biologic into the mechanical.