text menu at bottom of page


I. II. III. IV. V. bibliography

What mythic form tells the story of a machine's accomplishment? Do we have to choose between regret and the thrill at novelty, or can a breakthrough in automation inspire the appreciation that landscapes and planetary orbits do? Morse's first telegram asked what God had wrought: is it still possible to feel such reverence? And where would it come from?

I like the Kasparov/Deep Blue event for repopularizing these questions, so that twenty years after pocket calculators last enchanted anyone, maybe forty years since most people could talk heatedly about photography-as-art, a machine's powers again call for interpretation. I dislike the event for an unavoidable consequence of two-player games: you take the event as a conflict, and then either celebrate the result or regret it. Sides exist, so you take sides. Because a human played a computer, we want to think we've learned something about the nature of humans or of computers. In fact it is chess that we've learned something about. The game's permutations can be narrowed down more methodically than programmers had thought, to a point where a sufficiently fast machine can run through all remaining options. So chess can be mastered by a quick enough and memorious enough calculating machine - that's the news, rather than that computers are quicker or more perfectly memoried than humans.

Of course Deep Blue's victory changes things. Now that chess looks more like a puzzle than an art, will fewer people play the game? Will future champions' names appear with asterisks or a parenthetical H to show that they've done as well as humans can? Will chess-playing machines vie for dominance in a separate league that human grandmasters try out for rarely and embarrassingly, while virtual masters are forced to stay out of the flesh-and-blood league?

These are questions all over again about what categories we use to contain the computational process. To the extent that these individually plodding but collectively speedy steps strike us as a mimesis of nature, we can say Deep Blue showed us chess's nature. If the natural order in turn means what lies outside the human order, we can take in a programmed chess game as we do a constellation, not a rebuke to human aspirations but their sublime ideal. It might be that mechanical and human chess play finally look like different orders of things altogether, so that tomorrow's Kasparov no more takes on a computer than (for all his draughtsmanship) yesterday's Picasso took on a camera. Spectators of art say only occasionally, and from deep reserves of thoughtlessness, that a drawing fails at photographic reproduction. Maybe the two breeds of chess play will likewise find their incommensurable places and stay away from each other.

But this is not imagining, it's pretending to imagine. Are there grounds for making sense of such a possibility? Does programmed chess competition resemble photography enough to warrant its coming to occupy a place parallel to its human cousin's, neither a supplantation of what people used to do, nor an irrelevance in the way that a crane's power to lift heavy masses is irrelevant to Olympic weightlifting competitions? What in computer chess do we appreciate?- which means asking first: what mythological home do we find for the machine's accomplishments?


Machines have been cast as portents of progress at least since Verne, and before that since Aristotle's insincere promise that if shuttles and lyres worked themselves we would not need slaves (Politics, 1253, 34-39). Since Mary Shelley technology has symbolized debility and death, as it already did in the story of Midas, inspired for the Greeks by the first king they knew to emboss his likeness on his coins. Maybe because the powerful technologies are still so recent, both versions of the mythology cast the machine as the being set apart from nature. Aren't there any stories that put the modern machine into the domain of the essentially natural, maybe that find company for it in that domain that will earn technology an awe unearned by either of the other myths?

I think the story of Dracula does that. This is one of the grips the story has on me; in fact I only get attracted to Deep Blue thanks to its reflected glory, because the Kasparov event resonates with the questions I'm led to when I try to make sense of Dracula. But my thoughts begin with Bram Stoker's Dracula (Francis Coppola, 1992) rather than with Bram Stoker's novel, because I find the film a more coherent meditation on Dracula's relationship to modern technology. I want to follow the trail of the film's theology of mechanism, as a way of moving through Deep Blue to the mechanical arts.

On this subject Stoker's novel can't settle itself in one place. It partly valorizes the machine, as we expect such a book to do. Imagine a novel from the late nineteenth century that confronts its time with the past's magicians: who wins? A Connecticut Yankee from 1889 may find himself the odd man out in King Arthur's court, but Merlin's robes and glossolalia can't beat a well-placed lightning rod or the prediction of a solar eclipse. In the same spirit, Stoker sometimes lets the hardware of 1897 barrel into his novel to drive out medieval occultism. Telegraphy brings the vampire hunters together without backfiring as Dracula's telepathy does. Phonograph cylinders and an early telephone unravel his tight network of command. A train rushes through Romania to cancel Dracula's head start. Abraham Van Helsing uses his medical expertise to undo the vampire's predations and then the vampire himself.

So a reader such as Geoffrey Winthrop-Young ("Undead Networks") has good reason to conclude that modern machinery fells Dracula. Besides, the picture fits with the other interpretations that make Dracula the past's grimy residue about to be flushed out by the flood of history, whether because he's a moneyed aristocrat out-performed by capitalism (Smart, "Blood and Money"), or an old homosexual unwelcome in Victorian Europe. Technology's superiority over magic merely adds an epistemic dimension to England's moral and economic progress.

But more often Dracula laments these ubiquitous technologies and puts its trust in old-church sacraments. Mina retypes all the letters and journal entries pertaining to the Dracula adventure; but where Twain enjoyed claiming to be America's first writer to type his manuscripts, Jonathan Harker brings the curtain down on Dracula with metaphysical regret over what the machine has done. "We were struck with the fact that, in all the mass of material of which the record is composed, there is hardly one authentic document! nothing but a mass of type-writing." The typewriter has saved the tale and destroyed it.

And look at which character embraces the new science: Dr. John Seward, who calms himself with "chloral," confides in a phonograph cylinder, and hopes to bring the advances of secular psychiatry to his lunatic asylum. What does he do? He locks Renfield up but can't decipher his madness. He certainly can't figure out Lucy's vampirism. Seward lives in the novel only in order to fetch his teacher Van Helsing, who rebukes him with words from before and outside science: "You do not let your eyes see nor your ears hear." Where's the veneration of science? Even Van Helsing gets nowhere as long as he relies on gimmickry like blood transfusions. It's the Blood of the eucharist that brings Dracula down, and holy water that denatures his crates of decrepit earth. Van Helsing studies occult lore and carries a crucifix - which may still be true of doctors today, but is not part of what makes them doctors. By the time Van Helsing faces Dracula his scientism has faded to the sound of a Dutch accent.

If the technology merely failed in such moments the novel would seem dystopian, like Shelley's. What carries more weight than the failures is the very idea that machines and ceremonies should double-team against Dracula. Especially if we can find some characteristic that makes mechanical devices natural images of sacraments, we might say that they join together to reveal something about each other.

Dracula verges on linking the two orders of being, but doesn't unpack its own secret. Maybe it's stopped by its Anglican anxiety over sacramental efficacy. (When Jonathan and Mina get married, the novel weirdly drops an Anglican priest into a Romanian convent to stave off the wrong worship. Earlier, when Jonathan notices a crucifix holding Dracula at bay, he settles his mind with Reformational rationalizations: "Is it that there is something in the essence of the thing itself, or that it is a medium, a tangible help, in conveying memories of sympathy and comfort?") Or the parts of this structure haven't been assembled in sufficient number and articulation to release the kind of thought that readers come looking for. Stoker's occasional suggestions can be thought about but don't share in the thinking.


People have called Bram Stoker's Dracula excessive; but it's that tireless excess that makes it think about the myth that will hold those last-century machines it looks back at. The film elaborates on those elements that I noted as hints in Stoker's novel. Its additions to the story are all in their ways sacramental, as if to sustain through the length of a film the explosion that ritual had brought to the buffalo slaughter in Apocalypse Now, or the baptism, wedding, and confession that respectively turn the three Godfathers around.

If Bram Stoker's Dracula had nothing to say about machinery, its array of ceremonies would place it in a familiar tradition of Christian comedy, starting with Everyman and Dante's Commedia and continuing in (for instance) Much Ado About Nothing and Great Expectations. John Cunningham has sorted out the liturgical patterns that guide those works through battles between true and false sacraments, and the patterns play through Coppola's film too. This film moves against that tradition, though - a tradition that confronts real sacraments with perverted ones - by mapping each canonical sacrament against two images of it, so that at least six of the seven sacraments appear in it three times apiece: as Dracula's demonic instruments, as the right-functioning sacraments that overcome him, and as machines.

Dracula's new church begins in the moment of his transformation into a vampire, a tale absent from the novel. Furious with the church for refusing to bury his wife, Vlad Tepes stabs the baptismal font and brings blood gushing from its side. The blood of course makes up his new eucharist; it's also Vlad's baptism, perverted by being celebrated by its participant (i.e. with no call for external grace).

There is nothing new about a vampire's banishment from the church, when Eastern Orthodoxy in the first millenium had identified the vrykolakas as one who died excommunicated, hence denied the sacraments (Lawson, Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion). What is new is the film's giving Dracula not just a place outside the church but an outside church of his own. If the confessional power the vampire enjoyed in Stoker - the power to read his victims' minds - seems too indirectly a sacrament, the same can't be said of the admission of guilt that Dracula wrings in the movie from his traitorous Forerunner Renfield. Dracula uses water for another baptismal rite when he brings a violent rain to England, catches Lucy and Mina in it, and arouses them with the rain as preparation for his presence in them. The perfumes that Jonathan finds in the castle surely figure as unction, given that their oily release summons the female vampires who try to lure Jonathan into the death that traditional unction, which heals the sick, exists to ward off (Mark 6.13; James 5.14-15). And the power to celebrate all these sacraments makes Dracula his own religion's high priest (see the vestments he wears in his final battle).

Marriage enters with the plot element that most sets Bram Stoker's Dracula apart from Stoker's novel, and from nearly all preceding Dracula films: this vampire comes to England not to seek just any prey but to recapture his old love. Did this whole rewrite of Dracula's motivation happen just so that marriage could also appear on screen in its three guises? Either way, it's there. Whether or not you call it rape when Dracula enters Lucy's bedroom, the camera crosscuts that scene with Mina's church wedding to Jonathan, to emphasize that this is the kind of wedding Dracula has to offer.

Against these new rites come traditional sacraments and technological miracles. The former appear more explicitly here than in the Dracula novel and with none of its sacramental anxiety. The Christian rites are literal in Mina's and Jonathan's wedding and Van Helsing's ubiquitous Host, even if, oddly, the former is Orthodox and the latter just as unmistakably a wafer from the West. The ceremonies work metaphorically when Van Helsing, a supernatural physician, represents the priesthood; performs an exorcism that repeats the gestures of baptism; interrogates Jonathan (as a confessor) about his pre-marital infidelity. In keeping with the patterns of Christian comedy, these powers outdo Dracula's. Just as Mina's love that is detachment can send Dracula to a rest that his attachment-love blocked, communion trumps his blood sacrifices and exorcism neutralizes his rainstorm.

The machines again gather around John Seward, a technological image of the priest. The phonograph cylinder on which Seward records his secret hopes and fears is his emblem of confession. He administers medicine, the scientific unction, and the morphine he is addicted to has the soothing effect specifically attributed to unction. The floods of water that Seward orders his staff to turn on the inmates, to exorcise their demonic possession, are figures of baptism. He puts his blood into Van Helsing's transfusion apparatus.

Where the film found a vampiric marriage ceremony in its super-added love story, it finds a mechanical one by interpolating the cinematograph. Call it a machine of marriage for figuring so prominently in the scene in which Dracula meets and woos Mina. He takes her to Edisonian moving pictures. A man sits between two standing women in nightgowns, who lower themselves to his lap just before a jump cut to his wife on his lap instead - as if film is for showing both the fantasy and the reality of marriage. Later in the same scene, but in the background, the cinematographic apparatus seems to be playing a primitive peep show: call that the mimicry of a man's wedding night.

The cinematograph repulses Mina: so much for seduction. So much for Seward's new fangles when they can't undo Dracula's bite. But none of these machines is powerless. Morphine really soothes; hosefuls of water do push inmates back into their cells. The interesting question is not whether the new technology is good or bad, but why it is made to fail at some tasks after performing others so ably, and why it ever should have found itself joined with church magic to begin with.


The morphine and blood transfusion and phonograph cylinder and cinematograph not only outgrow the comedy of redemption but bring it to a self-critique. What becomes of sacraments in a world of automatic technology? What have they been doing all along that the machinery can't do better?

I've been speaking of "machines," a word that can mean levers and inclines as well as the range of machinery we're familiar with. It's worth characterizing them more exactly, because what the machines in Bram Stoker's Dracula mimic about the sacraments becomes visible when we distinguish them from tools. If a tool is a thing you can conceive as an extension of your hand (so that the hand is a tool of tools: De Anima 432a1), a machine is a thing you keep your hands off. A machine reduces and ultimately eliminates the demand for its user's craft. Tools need skillful wielding, which means that in different hands they yield different results. Not all tooled leather looks alike. But the machine's effects don't vary. A typewriter produces uniform letters as pens were never made to. And what typing is to writing, striking a match is to flinting fire, and taking a photograph is to painting a portrait. It's not that tools have intruded where none existed, but that these new tools leave themselves open to be worked by just anyone. No special skill, no merit or confidence, and no faith in the tool's virtue are called for from the human operators, who may now watch their own actions like spectators.

This is also to say that the machine does its own work. I can aim my camera at the chair and slip and photograph my foot instead, but if I slip when I'm trying to draw the chair I won't accidentally get a drawing of my foot. A given program might lose to Kasparov, but it will do its best; it has to.

This picture of technological implements resembles a picture of Roman Catholic sacraments, anyway the picture or caricature of them against which the Reformation rebelled. From the time of Augustine, the Western church labored to define its sacraments so as to eliminate their subjective elements. Where Donatism had claimed that a bishop's mortal sin invalidated baptisms performed under his jurisdiction, Augustine argued for the unimpeachable power of the rite. He could concede that the participants' faith and intent helped to determine what the sacraments accomplished: unrepentant sinners received communion to their own detriment (I Cor 11.29), and a damned priest would further imperil his soul if he persisted in celebrating baptism. But the power of the sacrament did not vary with its effect.

Augustine's solution to the crisis over baptism evolved into a general conception of sacramental efficacy that further reduced the individual's place in the celebration, until Paschasius Radbertus, in the eleventh century, claimed that the Real Presence in the eucharist brought it explicitly magical powers (Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, vol. III). Paschasius reported so many tales of eucharistic miracles that Berengar of Tours finally chastised his credulity. The Reformation proved that Rome had not quieted Berengar's complaint, for Protestantism used his arguments to sweep away even elements of the sacramental power that he had wanted to preserve. Protestantism relegated communion to the status of a symbolic act, on the grounds that it could only then express the subjectivity of its participants.

To Protestants, the Catholic overstatement of the sacraments' efficacy made them appear to do a job that might be accomplished more reliably by an invention. If the confessor functions as a recording ear into which one makes a declaration of sin, why not cut out the middleman and pour your words into a phonograph diary? Given the success of modern barbiturates, why bother with the unction? Quiet the possessed more firmly with a water hose; skip the make-believe of marriage and watch a movie. And why all this ceremony to consecrate a life-giving substance, when a tube between two people's veins will bring the needed new life? We may as well omit the hocus-pocus.

Dracula plays the Lutheran in this scheme, not in denying the legitimacy of the church's rules (any excommunicant could do that), but in offering an individual engagement meant to replace the ecclesiastical dispensation of grace. He gets his charm by wielding willful sacraments, which is to say magic whose power derives from its practitioner's subjectivity. Dr. Seward's technologies came into the fight against Dracula because their automatic functioning had made them indistinguishable from the ecclesiastical moves that traditionally undid the undead.


I'm saying that Bram Stoker's Dracula meditates on an age in which the demonic workings of a capricious pure subjectivity can come to look more attractive than a magic that cranks out its effects automatically, or you might want to say unthinkingly (see Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic). But what's really so bad about uniform and automatic work, or even unthinking work?

The human mind is thought to have less to do when photographing than when painting. But that's a ham-handed way of identifying the difference, and invites a litany of objections: that photographers pick and frame their shots, misrepresent their pictures' objects, blur or miscolor a photograph, and so on. So say what's more relevant, that the human mind enters into the making of a photograph by disrupting a (mechanical) process, whereas it enters the making of a painting by causing a process. For photographs, as for sound recordings and films, a causal sequence joins the object to its depiction. Machines as I am thinking of them are those things through which information can pass untouched, whether or not it actually does.

What would get you into a habit of mind that lamented causal processes? They're our bread and butter. And yet the automatically effective sacrament gets seen as insufficiently spiritual; the machine that wins a game without human intervention has harbingered a grim future of cybernetic dictatorship. Not only philistines still say of the mechanical arts that "anyone could do that." And they don't mean what that reproach wants to accuse certain twentieth-century paintings or music of, that a child could do as well, so that the emperor has no clothes, but that there's no emperor either: no one at all is doing it.

A causal order that can go its way without micro-management by external intelligence: that you feel shut out from its string of actions makes sense - but why regret it? What happens when Deep Blue wins a game or a phonograph cylinder transcribes a speech is what happens, but not consciously regretted, in any process we say belongs in nature. Automated machines are our mimesis of nature; and I suspect that a disenchantment with nature lies behind disappointments with mechanism.

Disenchantment with nature has nothing to do with no longer finding it pretty, as when you stumble over a curvy root or stare at a vista as you would at a big deep picture. Allen Carlson ("Appreciation and the Natural Environment") has convinced me that appreciating nature - what I would call feeling its enchantment - inheres not in such absorptions of the natural into the artistic, but in understanding how natural principles brought this thing here to this state. You relish sunlight not because you take its power to illuminate as a miracle, but because you don't. A green leaf's ability to convert that light into sugar bears studying for its exact compliance with chemistry's laws, rather than as a lucky mystery that somehow sustains life on earth. It is in this sense that Aristotle appreciates nature when he cautions his zoology students not to let the unsightly elements of anatomy put them off (Parts of Animals 645a). Those entrails and oozing tissues exist for purposes quite other than human preferences, and we'll grasp their beauty when we've stopped trying to assimilate those purposes to our own.

But that's the same appreciation that a machine's accomplishments deserve. If being a machine means acting uniformly and predictably, then the machine's existence relies on non-human nature. That's where its regularity comes from. And if you want to see nature sacramentally, which might be what it means to see it as sacred, you begin with that regularity, maybe an image of the eternity that Eden possesses in our fantasies. What stings in Kasparov's defeat is the thought that it wasn't random, and so that henceforth chess victories might pass out of human hands. Physics alone suffices for victory at chess, as it no longer suffices to shape the planet's climate. In this mood wishing for a supernatural comeback from Kasparov is no tribute to him, but the wish that he could represent a mind above and outside natural principles, like Dracula's. .


Bram Stoker's Dracula. USA: Columbia/Zoetrope/Osiris, 1992. Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, Fred Fuchs, and Charles Mulvehill. Directed by Coppola. Script by James V. Hart, based on Stoker's novel. Director of photography, Michael Ballhaus. Production designer, Thomas Sanders. Music, Wojciech Kilar. Editor, Nicholas C. Smith. Cast: Gary Oldman (Dracula); Winona Ryder (Mina/Elisabeta); Anthony Hopkins (Van Helsing); Keanu Reeves (Jonathan Harker); Richard E. Grant (Dr. Seward); Cary Elwes (Lord Holmwood); Sadie Frost (Lucy); Tom Waits (Renfield); Bill Campbell (Quincey Morris).

Carlson, Allen. "Appreciation and the Natural Environment." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 37 (1979).

Cunningham, John. "Comedic and Liturgical Restoration in Everyman." Comparative Drama 22 (1988).

________. "Comedic Structure, Christian Allusion, and the Metaphor of Baptism in Great Expectations." South Atlantic Review 59 (1994).

Lawson, John Cuthbert. Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion. New Hyde Park, NY, University Books, 1964 (reprint).

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, III. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Smart, Robert A. "Blood and Money in Bram Stoker's Dracula: The Struggle Against Monopoly." In John Louis DiGaetani (ed.) Money: Lure, Lore, and Literature. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1994, 253-260.

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. New York, Scribner's, 1971.

Winthrop-Young, Geoffrey. "Undead Networks: Information Processing and Media Boundary Conflicts in Dracula. In Donald Bruce and Anthony Purdy (eds.) Literature and Science. Amsterdam, Rodopi, 107-129.

>>>---> riPOSTe Geoffrey Winthrop-Young responds

>--thREADs     ebr6--<