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Walter Scott, Automaton

Paper Delivered at the 2023 North American Society for the Study of Romanticism Conference

Published onApr 06, 2023
Walter Scott, Automaton

As new forms of automatic writing proliferate in our contemporary mediascape, they offer a fresh occasion for considering the uncannily persistent association between Walter Scott and the figure of the automaton. I have for you today a short paper that introduces some new thinking about Scott inspired by work I have been doing with colleagues at my university who work in a Robotics lab, where, however improbably, I’m now embedded as an apprentice Human-Robot-Interaction researcher. Part of my function in this lab is to ask basic questions about the terms that structure its research on, to take one field-definitional phrase, “Trustworthy Autonomous Systems.” When I’ve asked about the lab goal of developing fully autonomous, multi-function robots, I have been told that a robot is considered fully autonomous if it can go ten hours without recharging or receiving new command inputs. Ten hours of solo action, it turns out, equals essentially full autonomy. I found the arbitrariness of this ten-hour principle risible, until I reflected on how I am myself considered fully autonomous, and yet stop continually to rest, recharge, and receive new instructions; while my Department, which seems completely idiosyncratic if not wholly disobedient from the point of view of the State Government that funds it, is nevertheless considered by its own leading theorists to be only relatively autonomous. How does the discourse of autonomy in Engineering and Computer Science relate to the concept as it matters for moral and political philosophy, and for aesthetics and for literary history and criticism?

Having previously been considering, in a series of conference papers, the literary history and theory of causation, I would like today to make a start at reflecting on the related concept of autonomy. Although causation and autonomy aren’t exactly keywords of literary theory, perhaps they should be. Nicholas Brown suggests how such a lexicon might work in practice when he harnesses these terms to that indubitable literary keyword, intention, in a useful formula he shares in his 2019 book Autonomy: The Social Ontology of Art Under Capitalism. Arguing for an aesthetics of autonomy, which to his mind represents a minimal but essential assertion of political power, Brown defines autonomy as “actions ascribable to intention rather than to causal conditions,” and calls such autonomy “the precondition for any politics at all” (14). To state this theorem somewhat differently: properly intentional effects, Brown suggests, result from autonomous actions, and as such can be distinguished from effects that derive from external causes not, or not yet, conditioned by those autonomous actions. Here the scene is set for world-historical action: for the unfolding of the relationship between history, understood as causal conditions, and the autonomous human intentions that set out to change those conditions, that is the great topic of the historical novel.

Autonomy, thus construed, describes a central problem of Walter Scott’s work. Meanwhile, autonomy, understood in more functionalist terms, also describes the problem, grappled with by contemporaries, of how Walter Scott worked. For Scott could himself seem to be a kind of automaton, a robot avant la lettre. Late in life, Scott himself worried that, no longer “robust and active,” he has become “a sort of writing automaton.” In his time and since, many of the critics who praise the magic of “The Wizard of the North” also decry what John Buchan, one important epigone, terms Scott’s “mechanical stupor.” Thus William Hazlitt, when he praises but ultimately condemns Scott in The Spirit of the Age, makes Scott a figure commensurate to his fellow Tory George Canning, whom Hazlitt elsewhere calls “a political automaton … pulled by the wires and strings of the state-conjurors.” Scott himself evinces a strong interest in automata, exploring in various works the notion that one can, and perhaps should, be served by machines, or even become one. (Some works that I don’t otherwise mention that are relevant here are The Lady of the Lake, The Talisman, and the Letters on Natural Magic, addressed to Scott by David Brewster, which includes a chapter on the history of automata.) Automaton was very much an idea current in Scott’s time and is a concept that Scott brings up and plays with at various times in writing, while at other moments engaging with a somewhat more abstract aesthetics of autonomy. Flickering knowingly between asserting autonomous subjectivity and subjecting himself to an objectifying, automated process, Scott can be seen as one of the first modern writers to embody and propagate characters indiscernible from androids.

This dialectic crystallizes in one of the most famous descriptions of Scott ever published, a gothic anecdote of text generation shared by his son-in-law J. G. Lockhart in the mammoth biography of Scott Lockhart published in 1837, five years after his death. In this story, Lockhart describes an evening in 1814 when, as a young man, he, Lockhart, joined “a party of very young persons … all gay and thoughtless, enjoying the first flush of manhood, with little remembrance of the yesterday, or care of the morrow.” After “two or three bottles go round,” the party “adjourns to a library which had one large window looking northwards.” “After carousing” further, “for an hour or more,” Lockhart observes “a shade … come over the aspect” of the host of the party, “who happened to be placed immediately opposite” to him, facing the window. Lockhart says

something that intimated a fear of his being unwell. ‘No,’ said [the host], ‘I shall be well enough presently, if you will only let me sit where you are, and take my chair; for there is a confounded hand in sight of me here, which has often bothered me before, and now it won't let me fill my glass with a good will.’ I rose, to change places with him accordingly, and he pointed out to me [through the window] this hand which, like the writing on Belshazzar's wall, disturbed his hour of hilarity. ‘Since we sat down,’ he said, ‘I have been watching it—it fascinates my eye—it never stops—page after page is finished and thrown on that heap of MS., and still it goes on unwearied—and so it will be till candles are brought in, and God knows how long after that. It is the same every night—I can't stand a sight of it when I am not at my books.’—'Some stupid, dogged, engrossing clerk, probably,’ exclaimed myself, or some other giddy youth in our society. ‘No, boys,’ said our host, ‘I well know what hand it is—'tis Walter Scott's.’

Oft imitated in fiction since, Lockhart’s rendering of Scott’s disembodied, automated writing hand brings onto the stage of modern art the body reified into a mechanical thing.

Yet, however surreal, the tableau serves Lockhart as an exemplary scene of moral instruction. He frames the anecdote with a testimonial to how the friend and host in the story, who is named as the Honorable William Menzies, internalized Scott’s example of hard work, and thereby became “one of the Supreme Judges at the Cape of Good Hope.” Lockhart thus presents us with what Walter Benjamin would call a “dialectical image,” in which “what has been comes together in a flash with the now, to form a constellation” (Arcades Project Convolut N). A fable of nighttime fairy-writing, engineered by The Wizard of the North, is also a vision of modern industry. The dissolution of autonomy, in the dissipation of the revelers, seems to conjure a forceful reassertion of autonomy, in Scott’s exemplary aesthetic labor. That labor, in its turn, forges humorous entertainments that will inspire a whole empire of coercive judgment. This scene of writing, which Lockhart associates with the composition of Waverley, infuses a whole social scene assembled around it with its logic, instantiating the modernity of Baudelaire’s “Painter of Modern Life” and of Benjamin’s “Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” an era in which the achievement of authorial aesthetic autonomy is measured by the risk of the audience alienating its own.

Scott gestures toward such alienation with his epigraph to the First Chapter of Ivanhoe, four lines from Alexander Pope’s translation of Book X of the Odyssey:

Thus communed these; while to their lowly dome,

The full-fed swine return’d with evening home;

Compell’d, reluctant, to the several sties,

With din obstreperous, and ungrateful cries.

Citing how Ulysses’s crew, having been transformed into pigs by the magic of the witch Circe, loses its autonomy, Scott aligns such subjection with the happy alienation of his own readership, now taken in hand once again by the Author of Waverley. More particularly, as his opening scene dawns, Scott uses this epigraph to figure the practice of stewardship, or, as a spurious etymology current in the day would have it, stie-ward-ship: the mode of governance that represents, Ivanhoe will argue, the best British tradition of the delegation and subjection of autonomy. The governors in Scott’s opening scene are those most minimal of political leaders, Gurth the swineherd and Wamba the court jester. When Scott depicts Gurth at his humble office, he creates an opening Wamba the wit to formulate in linguistic terms the alienating logic of commodification whose overcoming Scott’s novel traces. Wamba notes that, subjected to the Norman Yoke, as illegitimately exerted by Prince John, Saxons such as himself and Gurth can only experience the pigs as the objects of their labor. In so doing, they denominate the pigs with their own Saxon word, “swine.” And yet, Gurth notes, as soon as the pig is transformed into a commodity, it becomes “porc”—it goes by a Norman name—and it is thenceforth only experienced, that is to say, eaten, by the Normans.

Surely Scott knew the Homeric locus classicus of the automaton in the modern sense of a robot – of the fully automated laborer that carries out, of its own volition, the commands it is issued. This locus classicus is the scene in Book 18 of the Iliad where Vulcan, at the request of Thetis, forges the armor of Achilles, assisted by tools that work by themselves. While the exact linguistic assemblage of an “automaton” does not appear in the passage, both its Greek roots do feature in its strikingly contemporary scene of tripod tables and self-powered bellows assisting Vulcan in his workshop and saving labor time. As Pope renders the scene:

That day no common task his labour claim’d:

Full twenty tripods for his hall he framed,

That placed on living wheels of massy gold,

(Wondrous to tell,) instinct with spirit roll’d

From place to place, around the bless’d abodes

Self-moved, obedient to the beck of gods.

Automation, in the workshop of the gods, is the vehicle for crafting the ultimate work of art, the shield of Achilles. In its practical function, that work is a membrane which strives to separate the self of the heroic actor from his world; in its aesthetic function, meanwhile, it is, itself “self-moved,” a whole world of its own.

Scott himself, he tells us in a late manuscript, sought such a workshop. In a late autobiographical description of his mansion and personal museum, Abbotsford, a document suppressed by Lockhart, Scott describes a plan for automating his own place of labor, his study. He “endeavoured,” he tells us, “to devise a mode of placing my volumes in an order easily attainable for the purpose of consultation,” but

never could hit upon an idea more likely to answer, than supposing a librarian who, like Talus in Spenser, should be in point of constitution, ‘an yron man made of yron molde;’ a creature without hopes, views, wishes, or studies of his own, yet completely devoted to assist mine; an unequalled clerk with fingers never weary, possessing that invaluable local knowledge by which I might, availing myself of his properties, command my volumes like the dishes at King Oberon’s banquet, to draw near and to retire with a wish.

Here, in another dialectical image, Scott envisions a robot librarian no doubt inspired by the age of steam, but reminiscent of a golem in Spencer. Falling short of such invention, what Scott has instead are books: since, he writes, he has “never been able to find … a mechanical aid of such a passive description … the alternative to which I am reduced, is a working room or study in addition to my library where I keep around me dictionaries and other books of reference or those which my immediate studies may require me to consult.” What if, we might be left asking, such books themselves are the ultimate automata? Books do, after all, speak back to us intentions they generate themselves—the intention of their creators having been to give life to such forms in their art.

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