„The human body is a machine which can wind its springs itself, a live picture of continuous movement,“ wrote one of the French materialists of the Enlightenment Julien Offray de La Mettrie in his famous materialist manifesto Machine Man. In his text he sees humans as complex animals, describing humans´ nature as something clearly physical, material. A machine became the human and animal model and movement its mechanism.
The history of the 19th century was full of optimism and the belief that machines would bring progress and knowledge of the functioning of the human body which would ensure superiority to mankind. However, in the 20th century machines were also used for murdering people, whole nations and ethnic groups. The experience of mass murder during the war and the invention of the gas chamber for killing people in Europe is slowly disappearing with the last witnesses and so school textbooks become important media for the transmission of that experience. But can a classical paper book mediate today such an overwhelming emotional experience with a fundamental impact on several generations in the 20th century?
The video by Martin Netočný focuses on visual fragments of a textbook for the 9th grade of basic schools. The textbook was written by Helena Mandelová, Eliška Kunstová and Ilona Pařízková and published in 2004, i.e. in the time when it was not yet obvious that we were going through a radical digital revolution. Since it is set in the context of restoring of old prints we are confronted with the issue related to the changes of mediality of our experience, its speed and its consequences. Shall we be able, during our historically unprecedentedly long lives, to physically absorb the transition into the digital world, which will be perhaps even more radical than the arrival of the Internet, social networks and Netflix? Won´t this change cause a generation conflict similarly as the war experience did at the beginning of the „short“ 20th century?
If people in the 19th century were fascinated by the ability of machines to replace human labour, then we, who have never been modern as Bruno Latour said, are fascinated by hybrids of the cultural and natural. An inanimate machine turns the pages of a book which was invented by a pre-modern man and intended for manual use. Books are restored by standard processes requiring the knowledge of chemistry and book restoration also requires technical equipment which improves man´s skills – to see, clean, join etc. Machine work is often faulty and imperfect, man´s work is perfect workmanship (at least that is what we see in the film). History is full of symbols which evoke different associations and the automated movement of the machine converts them into an unstoppable succession of information and images which, surprisingly, has a beginning and an end. However, history is not that institutionalised content of a textbook from the end of the 20th century. History also includes the machine which digitalises, the man who restores, the equipment he uses, all live and inanimate players who participate in the making of a textbook, including those who use it and thus cause scars, wear and tear and stains. Donna Haraway spoke about material-semiotic knots whose borders are formed in social interaction of people and objects. Even some historians have recently dealt with such knots in the form of public spaces in towns, state infrastructures, animals and their relationship towards people or the forming of physical and social borders. However, these attitudes, these mindsets have not yet found their way into history textbooks. And if they ever get into school education then it will probably happen in a different form than a classical printed textbook.
The image of pages in a textbook being turned by a machine and standardised scientific restoration processes may arouse concerns but simultaneously hope. The experience of Western modernity, whether optimistic or disastrous, is a significant heritage which we should take good care of. We already know only too well what crimes and violence modern western people were capable of committing or at least took part in. However, we should not forget that modern institutions, such as the state, schools, science or museums, have created the infrastructure for our better lives. It might be a good idea to carefully return to the optimism of the 19th century, when machines were intended to free people, but without the then anthropocentric pompousness. Automatisation of labour, digitalisation and care for our cultural and historical heritage do not necessarily have to be at odds, our culture and material world may coexist in symbiosis.
Karel Šima (historian and anthropologist)