Tiny Chinese Mechanical Birds

Tiny Chinese mechanical birds are called automata. The mechanical bird sings. Is the ability to produce a song a category of the real? The mechanical bird tilts its head, it might click its wings or it might produce a vibration to imply the movement of a hummingbird. We know that the hummingbird vibrates as a result of the speed of its wings. The automaton vibrates to imply the movement of wings. We are struck by the speed at which the wings move. We watch the hummingbird hover as it draws nectar from a flower. The flower is real insofar as it produces nectar, but when the pistil becomes dry, the flower is no longer real as it no longer contains a category that makes it real to the hummingbird. The automaton does not want nectar, and we are struck by the way it vibrates across the table and by the speed of its mechanism, and it must be watched so that it does not fall on the floor. On the table is a vase with a yellow flower. The automaton vibrates past it and we notice how both cast a shadow. Is a shadow a category of the real? The mechanical bird falls off the table. Is falling a category of the real?

A tiny Chinese mechanical bird is called an automaton. A computer program that generates a self-sustaining program is called a cellular automaton. It produces a result that in other forms we would call life. Is life a category of the real? The java applet mimics conditions that are necessary to understanding natural occurrences of rules that we might possibly distill all of nature into a small set of calculable systems. Are calculable systems a category of the real?

A tiny Chinese mechanical bird is not a simulacrum. It is an automaton. It automatically produces categories of the real. The precise mechanism inside the tiny shell is a remarkable system of gears and jewels that produces a response we call automatic insofar as it is without interference, except that we may have to wind it. A bird is not lost to the automaton. Nothing in nature is taken away. Nothing is subsumed. The automaton must follow the laws of nature. It is a victim of the very same things as all birds. It will eventually stop. It will rust and its metal will corrode and their molecular structure will break down. The automaton emphasizes the real by its mimicry. The simulacrum strips the real of its integrity so that the original becomes an automaton. The automaton insists on the real. It is driven by the real and it is made possible by the real.

A tiny Chinese mechanical bird is not stucco, the single substance that reduces the real into mere decoration. Stucco makes the production of nature not only possible, but it masks the original by making it into a cast. And the original, already one step removed from the form, is now lost under the weight of the stucco. The stucco is not an appearance - as is the original - of the form. It is a copy. It is more than one more step removed. It completely subverts the original, because the original is no longer really needed. But it does have one thing that the true simulacrum does not: nostalgia for the original. The automaton is not nostalgic. It is possibly bourgeois, but it contains no sentiment. It may one day be sentimental, and we may remember the way it vibrated off the table with nostalgia. Stucco needs the real so that it might be cast. The automaton needs the real so that it might mimic.1 The automaton is not decorative. It is beautiful. And we are amazed by it. We may even covet it.

Cellular automata are artificial life forms. They generate and die. They vibrate, and we are amazed. They do not seek to destroy the original, but to mimic so that there can be understanding. They do not replace. They are tiny mechanical birds. They are not stucco. "Cellular Automata are discrete space time/ logical universes." Like tiny Chinese mechanical birds, cellular automata are either on or off. They need to be wound.

I hold a tiny mechanical bird in my hand and I wind it with a small silver key that is placed into a hole on the side of the bird. As I turn the key the bird begins to vibrate. I must hold its wings together while I wind so that it does not wind down while I am winding it up. This tension is immanent. It belongs to the real because of its immanence. A simulacrum is transcendent as it seeks to transcend the real. It is religious. It is the icon that reveals itself as beyond the determinable relationship to its original. The automaton exists in the same space as the real bird. I do not watch the automaton to understand the bird. But I might pray to the simulacrum to try and understand the real. The latter is false. It is sacrilege.

Tiny Chinese mechanical birds are called automata. Cellular automata are artificial life forms. Simulacra made of stucco are not automata even though a response to them might be automatic. Automata capture the real and let it go, like a small bird caught in your hand. Production is necessary. We may even produce ourselves. We may even watch as there are no more birds, but tiny mechanical ones kept under jars or in wonder chambers. Clones are simulacra. God is in the mechanical. The simulacrum is in the chemistry.


1. See Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans Ian Hamilton Grant (London: Sage Publications, 1993).

Peter Bebergal is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, MA. He is currently at work co-editing a reader on the intersection of religion and popular culture. Peter is also a collector of American detritus from the '40s and '50s.