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2013 Jacques Barzun Prize

2013 award presented in April 2015

Adelheid Voskuhl

The American Philosophical Society is pleased to award the 2014 Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History to Adelheid Voskuhl in recognition of her book Androids in the Enlightenment: Mechanics, Artisans, and Cultures of the Self (University of Chicago Press, 2013). The presentation of the award will take place on April 24 at the Society's 2015 Spring Meeting.

At the heart of Adelheid Voskuhl’s remarkable book are two musical androids created in the 18th century. Both are young women seated at keyboard instruments, the first at a harpsichord, which she plays with her own articulated fingers, the second at a dulcimer, which she taps with long hammers held in her small hands. The first player was made by Pierre and Henri-Louis Jacquet-Droz in Switzerland; the second by David Roentgen and Peter Kinzing near Cologne, and supposedly represents Marie-Antoinette. The music, the geography and the queen’s name begin to suggest that much of the century’s history might be reflected in these figures and Dr Voskuhl, through detailed accounts of the fabrication and display of the androids, the cultural programs they and their mechanical peers furthered, the reflections of such figures in literature, and the long legacy of their ‘travel’ through time to the present day, shows how machines have allowed humans think practically and theoretically through constructions of sentiment and subjectivity. Dr Voskuhl persuasively argues that we should seek to understand the androids in their own age before importing them into ours, or projecting our anxieties into theirs. This understanding holds all kinds of interesting surprises for us, and Dr Voskuhl is sharply critical of authors who rush to find the uncanny where it is not. However, the book ends on a discreetly subversive psychological and philosophical suggestion, and perhaps the uncanny, properly examined, will be allowed its return after all. The large question her book raises, Dr Voskuhl says, may be ‘not only whether we are becoming more and more like machines, but also whether we can assume that stable and reliable selfhood is possible even in the absence of machines’.

Adelheid Voskuhl is currently an associate professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science and chair of the Science, Technology and Society Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to her position at the University of Pennsylvania she was a Fellow in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study and an associate professor in the Department of History of Science at Harvard University. Her research field comprises the history of technology from the early modern to the modern period. Her broader interests include the philosophy of technology, the history of the Enlightenment, and modern European intellectual and cultural history. She received her Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies from Cornell University in 2007, and holds graduate degrees in History and Philosophy of Science from Cambridge University and in Physics from Carl-von-Ossietzky-Universität Oldenburg.

The Barzun Prize selection committee consisted of Michael Wood (chair), Charles Barnwell Straut Professor of English, Princeton University; Glen W. Bowersock, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History, Institute for Advanced Study; and Jeffrey Hamburger, Kuno Francke Professor of German Art & Culture, Harvard University.