The Ghost in the Machine?

The programme for the forthcoming Society for the Social History of Medicine annual conference has recently been released. Held at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London from 10-12 September 2012, the conference will cover diverse perspectives on Emotions, Health and Wellbeing, from the Middle Ages to the present day, with keynote speeches by Joanna Bourke, Mark Jackson, and William Reddy.

We at the Archives and Museum were particularly struck by the title of one of the panels – Affect:  The Ghost in the Machine? – as we just happen to have loaned a work to an exhibition that has just opened in New York with a very similar title: Ghosts in the Machine.

The term originated in philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind, first published in 1949. Ryle objected to a Cartesian dualism that regarded body and mind as separate but complementary necessities: the “ghost” of the mind giving life to the “machine” of the body. The exhibition at New York’s New Museum (18 July – 30 September) surveys the constantly shifting relationship between humans, machines, and art, looking at the ways in which humans have projected anthropomorphic behaviors onto machines that have become progressively more human. Similarly, the conference panel looks at topics including the exorcism of the ghost from the machine in nineteenth century depictions of “poltergeists”, and cybernetic theories of psychopathology in cold war Czechoslovakia, arguing that affect can be used as a prism through which to understand concerns with new technologies, society and the self.

Indeed, the picture loaned by Bethlem Museum to the Ghosts in the Machine exhibition – James Tilly Matthews’ Air Loom sketch – can be interpreted in a similar manner. Drawn by Mathews to illustrate the machine he thought was used to control him and certain political figures in late eighteenth-century Britain, the Air Loom becomes a representation of both the mental and emotional turmoil of one man as well as the political and social unrest of industrial England in the wake of the French Revolution.

Register for the Society for the Social History of Medicine conference here.

Find out more about Ghosts in the Machine here.

Air Loom Image

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1 Response to “The Ghost in the Machine?”


  1. 1 bethlemheritage September 7, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    The Air Loom engraving is mentioned in The New York Times’ review of Ghosts in the Machine (the exhibition at the New Museum) – see http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/20/arts/design/ghosts-in-the-machines-at-the-new-museum.html?pagewanted=all. The exhibition continues until 30 September 2012.


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