Question for the November Session:

From Svet: “What is the historical fact (or idea) mentioned in History of Telepresence: Automata, Illusion, and Rejecting the Body that you find most intriguing and what is the one that you find least intriguing?” Post your response as a reply/comment on this post.


  1. I would like to say here that this essay made me think of The Time Machine but also just the very notion of transcending time altogether. What also comes to mind is Mark Twain’s long distance travel back in time to 6th century Arthurian England, and the transmission of new technology to a much earlier epoch. But then again, this reading caused me to recall the works of Hero of Alexandria and all of his wonderful “automata.” And I also agree with the idea that one could find the technology of senses, particularly sight and touch in the Lascaux caves of Paleolithic man. Fascinating concepts throughout the essay kept me wanting to know more about other examples of Virtual Illusions and “androids” of the 18th century. Of course, my last thought on this piece has to do with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (science, technology and humanity). In this idea we see both the possibility of perfection of man and the terror of man’s imperfectibility run amuck.

  2. I am quite sympathetic to Grau’s arguments as I see in this ‘historical’ account of telepresence resonances with my own work. I guess, to be polemical, the philosophical narrative that emerges here strikes me as more fascinating than the pressure to subordinate it to historiographical inquiry. This is the case especially if we take into account that both art and myth provide insights into the underside of the process through which telerobotics meets the internet.

  3. I really enjoyed the Oliver Grau reading. I was of course interested in his discussion of the early android/mechanization of the body discussions—especially the discussion of the puppets used during interregnums (interregna?) to represent the absent/dead king. I was interested in Grau’s comment that anxiety about modern automata stems perhaps from “the Jewish metaphor of the Golem” and self-deification. I would have liked to have seen this claim developed further. What different meanings does “self-deification” take on in a secular age — or in an age with no knowledge of that Jewish parable. etc. etc.

    My LIB200 class is currently discussing video games and their immersivity, so I found especially useful the historical discussion of panorama and other previous immersive art media. It is clarifying to learn that these conflicts around embodiment and disembodiment are not specific to our digital technological moment but stretch back at least to the Renaissance. I appreciated the description of the immersive ascent of the Sacro Monte in 16th-century Italy, to simulate the notion of a pilgrimage and stage scenes from the life of Jesus. Grau attributes this vogue to a “conviction that direct experience with one’s own eyes would provide an enduring buttress of faith.” The prioritization of vision occurs throughout the excerpt, and this is useful to think through further.

    I think Grau is attempting to sew up this vision-body crux with his notion of telepresence. I wasn’t entirely convinced. (Nor was I persuaded by some of his other subclaims, such as the weirdly gendered and universalizing notion, suddenly introduced, that automata stem from “male uterine envy”). But I think he’s onto something in linking the divorce between the bodily and the visual, linking the visual to the spiritual. From at least Plato’s Allegory of the Cave onward, sight and reality have always been linked–and often opposed; the visual is necessary but misleads us. It would be interesting to think this through the history of media via other senses. Has there ever been a study of media and artificial intelligence that takes the sense of sound/hearing as a launching point? The technology of touch is mostly resistant to technological amplification. What if it were otherwise?

  4. Karen Miller says:

    I thought that the reading was quite provocative and fun to read, but remain a skeptic about its universalizing tone. Rather than understanding the impulse to, for example, “overcome physical distance, to project ourselves outside the constraints of our own physical bodies” as something that has “always been a powerful motivation for both art and technology,” I’m interested in how that story about “art and technology” emerges at specific historical moments in order to explain something that artists or others find important in that historical moment (242). I liked the idea that the “android came of age” in the 18th century, but I would argue that that’s not because there was some evolutionary movement leading us up to the present in progressive form, but because the “android” itself had a powerful symbolic meaning at the time that helped the artists who used it explain cultural/social anxieties about production, urbanization, and the industrial revolution. Fun read! Look forward to discussion.

  5. @habiba Right, this recasting of the self ( “Today we are on the threshold of change in regards to a location-oriented concept of persons” (Grau 241) is curiously so reliant on a very stodgy Cartesian mind/body dualism and the “Gnostic tradition devaluing of corporeality (Grau 242)”. But I especially appreciate Grau’s concluding suggestions that art might mediate, function as a means of renegotiation.

    @imamichi To extend the discussion about rejecting the body, I’d like to also connect this to notions of work and digital labor – that robots (and more specifically the online bots that generate most of the activity or interactions online. This calls up questions about what work is, how has certain kinds of work become devalued, and how it should be appropriately revalued (not determined by corporate interests).

    Machines serve not only dreams of omnipresence, or ““male uterine envy” (Grau 229 – gotta love it) but the dream of machines performing “work” that we do not want to do for various reasons – although of course, this is colored with heavy anxieties about gender, race, class, authenticity, also a Protestant ideological fixation on the inherent value of “real” work.

  6. I found myself most drawn to Grau’s claim that “in the search of the substance of man, we hope to realize the essence of life in projections of utopian technologies” (235). It seems to me that this optimistic investment in the product of the artist/scientist via VR, robotics, and other technology has also engendered sustained criticism, paranoia, or dystopian counter-narratives as well. The very “limitless potential” of such creations also (as we see in some of our other readings) makes some anxious.

    The article overall was very interesting, and other than the panoramas I was not aware of some of the other experiments with earlier VR environments. I would echo Naomi’s reservations about “omnipresence” and Grau’s argument that “myths are once again appearing on the scene” (235-6), mostly because I find it hard to believe they ever went away (and I think it’s a somewhat totalizing move).

  7. I thought the Virtual Illusion part was interesting, from the beginning of the 16th Century in Northern Italy the artificial installation of the station of Christ’s life transport visitors to (a representation of) a different time and place. It seems like a precursor to the different theme parks that exist today- although the modern version seems mostly for entertainment. It would be interesting to contemplate the (in)accuracies in the representations and the (in)authenticity of the experience, which probably could be applied to other kinds of technologies. The long history of these technologies and how these technologies shape the way people view the world and themselves was also interesting.
    One of the sub-themes “rejecting the body” could be also thought of as “compensating for” or “enhancing” the body.

  8. The most intriguing part was the excerpt from “The Conquest of Ubiquity” where Paul Valéry was describing/predicting long-distance transmission of sense-experiences. I found his “dream” written in 1928 so modern, so visionary. This part is particularly compelling: ” I do not know if there has ever been a philosopher who dreamed up a company specializing in the free home delivery of sensually perceptible reality.”
    I very much liked the section on Virtual Illusions and how the appeal for virtual reality goes back, according to Grau, to the Romans (60 B.C.). But then, when he comments on VR as being a forum for public spectacles in religious life, I thought that we could trace the origins of this form of art as far as Lascaux Caves.
    Overall, the article was very interesting. My only issue was the “eternal” debate over body versus mind: “spiritual or mentalistic conception of the human self”!!!

  9. It was the reference to Kleist’s _On the Marionette Theatre_ that I found most intriguing, as this reading is familiar to me through my study of theatre history. The idea that the human body is imperfect (though we often like to point to as being the reasons we are so wonderful and unique — our imperfections make us who we are), and that the more “pure” form would be one that is carefully controlled and able to be more graceful and beautiful as a result of being freed from our imperfect bodies, complete with affectations and self-consciousness. Kleist does, however, assert that the human presence/spirit is still required for this beauty, as the feeling the marionette has comes from the human connection—automaton without human control would be merely mechanized, and so inferior. The idea that a puppet is inherently superior to the human but only when operated by the human is an idea I find most interesting with regards to automata and the role of the human in their construction and operation.

    The least interesting? I found the whole article to be interesting, for the most part, but I’m not entirely convinced that we all “yearn for omnipresence.”

Leave a Reply