“Music and the Spectacle of Artificial Life” examines how mechanical experiments since the Enlightenment have used music to explain, affirm, and challenge the relationship between the material body and immaterial mind. Since Descartes, natural philosophers and scientists have imagined the human body and mind in mechanical terms, creating machines that attempted to simulate, and thereby reveal, a material origin for human life. These experiments were often conceived in musical terms, leading to automata, androids, toys, computers, artificial intelligences and neural networks that reproduced the actions of musical subjects. I analyze the reception of these machines to show how many philosophers, engineers, and critics heard mechanical music not only prove a machine’s capacity mimic the bodily affordances enabling music (the fingers of the instrumentalist, the voice of the singer, and even the brain of the composer) but simulate the mind’s embodied experience of interpreting, performing and feeling music. The spectacle of music enacted a spectacle of cognition. In case studies dealing with inventions by Jacques de Vaucanson and David Cope, I show how materialist models of cognition and consciousness were contingent on the aesthetic actions of machines, presenting mechanical minds that listeners could hear and evaluate musically. Chapter One investigates the spectacle of Vaucanson’s automaton flutist (1737), a machine that provoked philosophers like Denis Diderot, Julien Offray de la Mettrie, and Étienne Bonnot de Condillac to imagine a mechanical model for the origin of language—a prelapsarian utterance that these thinkers associated with the first emergence of human intelligence. Chapter Two follows Vaucanson’s machine into the nineteenth century when the automaton’s then-outdated technologies—which represented unerring reproducibility, internal self-regulation, and even uncanny action—were heard as potent tools for reimagining both human subjects and their subjectivity in post-Revolutionary Europe. Finally, Chapter Three examines the “musical intelligence” of Cope’s AI-powered composition software, Experiments in Musical Intelligence (“EMI”). Though many commentators considered EMI a radical break from Romantic subjectivity, I argue that it showcased the continuities between nineteenth-century idealism and twentieth-century computational materialism. By listening to the intersection of music and artificial life, this dissertation complicates a conception of Enlightenment ideology that celebrates the unwavering progress made by the sciences towards perfect materialist understanding. Instead, by taking the musical spectacles of artificial life seriously, I illuminate a history of cognitive science that was often unscientific, rife with contradictory claims from audiences who observed one thing and heard another. By embracing these aesthetic contradictions rather than dismissing them, this dissertation functions less as a scientific history of music and more as a musical history of science—a history that accepts listening itself as a viable site for understanding body and mind together.




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