Lamia Balafrej

Instrumental Bodies: On Makers, Servants, and Machines in the Medieval Mediterranean

Wine-serving automaton, folio from a copy of al-Jami‘ bayn al-‘ilm wa al-‘amal al-nafi‘ fi sina‘at al-hiyal (A Compendium on the theory and practice of the mechanical arts) of Ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari, d. 602/1206, Anatolia. Istanbul, TSMK, Ahmet III 3473


Evocations of automated servants can be found across a wide range of ancient and medieval sources, promoting the mechanical reproducibility of servitude, while objectifying subaltern labor as machine-like. However, the thesis of substitution technology—the idea that technical media can replace servants—might betray a number of modern assumptions, including the master-slave dialectic, and a belief in technology’s efficiency, in its ability to minimize imprecision—as well as workers’ visibility and resistance. This talk will delve into visual, material, philosophical, technical, and literary sources, in order to understand the work of technology in medieval imaginaries. On the one hand, the desire for automation invites a political, critical reading of the machine as a tool of domination. On the other hand, the linkage between servitude and technology might also have had a different, if not opposite, effect: bringing subaltern labor to the fore. 

Lamia Balafrej is Associate Professor of Art History at UCLA, specializing in the Arts of the Islamic World. Her new research project explores the intersected histories of technology and labor in the medieval Mediterranean. She is currently a 2023 Rome Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Rome and will be a Getty Scholar at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles in Spring 2023. In her first book, The Making of the Artist in Late Timurid Painting (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), she examined the work of visual intricacy in Persian painting in relation to Persianate notions of authorship, medium, and representation. 

24 January 2023

This event will take place in a hybrid format.

Palazzo Grifoni Budini Gattai
Via dei Servi 51
50122 Firenze, Italia

To participate in person please email sinem.casale@khi.fi.it to reserve a seat.

To participate online please register in advance via Zoom: https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJUqf-CvqD8sH9IHgkTfqDDPdiIjjSg8ENhB 

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting. 


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