The Golem: The Artificial Anthropoid from Enlightenment Monster to AI

May 20, 2021  | 12pm ET

Lecture (virtual) | Speaker: Cathy Gelbin (University of Manchester)

This lecture is part of the (rescheduled) 2020 GHI Spring Lecture Series “'The spirits that I called': Artificial Life from the Enlightenment to the Present.”

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The Hulk, Superman, the Terminator; they are all modern popular culture echoes of the golem, that mystical Jewish artificial man of legend, a sort of friendly Jewish Frankenstein. Widely seen as an icon of authentically Jewish lore, the golem has inspired a broad range of works of writers and artists within the Jewish world and beyond. The talk will explore the modern emanations of this figure from ambivalent Enlightenment discourses about the Jews, as well as gendered, racialized and sexualized difference more broadly, through to their 20th century reconfigurations and postmodern debates about the ‘posthuman’ (Donna Haraway) in relation to the cyborg. It will relate these discussions to contemporary representation of AI and test their promise to release us from the constraints of essentializing notions of the self.

Cathy Gelbin is a film historian and cultural studies scholar with special interests in European life and its Jewish cultures. Her work on feature film, video testimony, literary texts and live art has focused on Holocaust representations and the dynamics of modern German-speaking Jewish culture. She has written The Golem Returns: From German Romantic Literature to Global Jewish Culture, 1808-2008 (Social History, Popular Culture, and Politics in Germany).


2020 Spring Lecture Series

“The spirits that I called”: Artificial Life from the Enlightenment to the Present
Organized by Anna-Carolin Augustin and Claudia Roesch

Will technological advancements enrich our lives or ultimately destroy us? Current debates about the consequences of artificial creations – robots, artificial intelligence, designer babies – raise both hopes and deep concerns. Promises of a better future or eternal life stand in contrast to fears of being overpowered by more intelligent, more resilient artificially created beings.

"The spirits that I called," lamented the sorcerer's apprentice in Goethe's famous ballad, after bringing a broom to life with magic and losing control of it. For centuries, the idea of creating artificial life has fascinated and frightened human beings. It touches upon fundamental questions of human existence, the relationship between humans and nature, and the beginning of life. Fictional characters and stories such as the Golem, and Frankenstein’s monster reflect the long history of engagement with the idea of artificial life.  So, too, do attempts over the past three centuries to build androids and robots, to mimic human thought in computer software, and to engineer ever more sophisticated reproductive technologies. The question today, as in the past, is whether artificially created beings and new technologies will ultimately turn against their creator.

The spring lecture series 2020 “The spirits that I called”: Artificial Life from the the Enlightenment to the Present combines approaches from the history of science and technology studies with religion, gender and film studies to discuss the history of the idea of artificial life/creation, and how it has framed both hopes and concerns associated with new developments and technologies.

Human-Machine Boundaries in the Enlightenment and Beyond

February 27, 2020
Speaker: Adelheid Voskuhl (University of Pennsylvania)

Transmission of Intelligence and Information. A History of Artificial Intelligence

April 29, 2021
Speaker: Rudolf Seising (Deutsches Museum)

The Golem: The Artificial Anthropoid from Enlightenment Monster to AI

May 20, 2021
Speaker: Cathy Gelbin (University of Manchester)