February 4, 2013

Daud Ali, University of Pennsylvania

Garden Automata and the Production of Wonder Across the Indian Ocean

Department of the History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania

Time: 3:30pm
Location: 337 Cohen Hall, University of Pennsylvania

This paper explores the circulation of technological practices pertaining to automata between the Eastern Mediterranean and South Asia at the turn of the first millennium CE.  By the tenth century, automata, particularly those in garden contexts, formed an important part of a newly emergent cosmopolitan world of objects which created wonder among men as geographically dispersed as the Ottonian Bishop Luit Prand of Cremona and the contemporaneous west Indian savant Somadevasuri, writing under a satellite of the mighty Rastrakuta court. At the center of this world stood the Abbasid court, from where the greatest interest and most intimate knowledge regarding these devices was produced. Looking at these devices from the periphery of this world, from the Western coastal regions of the South Asian Subcontinent, this paper will explore several questions regarding the transmission and reception of these automata as a both technological and cultural practice—how was knowledge of these machines transmitted between and within specific cultural contexts?; how should we best understand the domestic and garden environments which seem to have inevitably formed places where these machines functioned?;  and relatedly, in a world without the supposed disenchantment of the modern, where far more miraculous beings and events were not unknown, why did these machines elicit such a particular fascination?

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