Thursday Seminar: What if Orfeo was an Automaton?


Thursday, April 20, 2017, 6:00pm


Gould Hall

In 1616, Monteverdi told Alessandro Striggio that he couldn’t imitate winds because they are not human. “Ariadne moved us because she was a woman and similarly Orpheus because he was a man.” But what if Orpheus was not a man driven by his own internal passions and creative instincts but instead was an automaton—an inanimate machine with spontaneous motion and sound creation.  The paper entangles Orpheus and the early modern works written in his name to hear the story of music’s patron saint as one of technology and animation. There has always been something automated about Orpheus. His story ends with his head hurled down the river singing, without a body or a soul, like a programmable object The paper juxtaposes Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo with two early modern texts. In 1607, the year Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo premiered; Francis Bacon published an essay called “Orpheus; or Philosophy” that positioned Orpheus as the founder of civilization because he could tame the wild beasts. Bacon turned the musicological hero into a master of the secrets of nature and colonial subjugation in the same year that his fellow Englishmen settled Jamestown and brought the first African chattel slaves to the new rold. Thirty-five years later, Descartes described in detail an Orpheus automaton living in the royal gardens and thus put his Orfobot at the center of his understanding of the human body as a machine. The paper concludes with some speculations on the political relevance of scholarship on Early Modern Europe. These questions of humans, machines, technology, and agency are not just abstract games. There are consequences to this kind of materialism: if everything is alive—humans, machines, ideas—then the distinctions between active subjects and passive objects start to crumble. Such questions lead quickly to questions of personhood: what or who counts as a person, who gets to vote and what or whose voice gets heard?


Bonnie Gordon teaches at the University of Virginia. Her work centers on the experiences of sound in Early Modern music making and, the affective potential of the human voice and technology. Her first book, Monteverdi's Unruly Women(Cambridge University Press, 2004) listens to contemporary notions of sound, body, voice, and sense. She co-edited an interdisciplinary and cross cultural volume of essays about courtesans entitled The Courtesan’s Arts (Oxford University Press, 2006). Outside of early modern Europe she writes on Thomas Jefferson and Black Noise.  She runs arts community engagement programs at UVa and plays rock, jazz, and baroque viola.