‘The Restless Clock’ Will Have You Pondering the Matter of Matter

History of science professor Dr. Jessica Riskin examines how we banished agency from the science of living things.

What makes a duck tick?

Since the 17th century, modern Western science has understood life processes and the behavior of living things as mechanistic. This is an organizing principle of modern science and it’s built on how artificial machines work. In turn, a tree does not “seek” sunlight or “desire” to grow in a particular direction. When one offers a scientific explanation for a natural phenomenon, they render biological and physiological processes as passive.

The scientific principle that bans ascriptions of agency to the material world has been the prevailing ideology in modern science’s understanding of living things. The passive nature of nature is a central paradigm of modern science, and it has a significant influence on how we understand, respond to, treat, and talk about non-humans and non-conscious biological processes. For example, our understanding of nature as fundamentally passive has justified human intervention into and exploitation of non-human natures for hundreds of years.

At present, humanities and social science scholars have recently started to undermine commonly held assumptions of nature’s supposed passivity. In particular, theorists working in the area of new materialisms are newly attending to the significance of matter and materiality when thinking about lived experience and life processes. The biological and physiological aspects of the body have increasingly become of interest, with theorists such as Elizabeth Wilson exploring, for example, how the gut processes anti-depressants as way to account for the vitality of the body.

New materialists work against the assumption of passivity in nature, and challenge the foundational belief in the passivity of matter. Such work questions the usual distinction between the self and the outside world that positions human and sentient non-human beings as disconnected from their bodily processes. This kind of thinking, in contrast to dominant scientific explanations, offer a distinct political and socio-cultural understanding of living things that newly acknowledges and accounts for their vitality.

Against the newfound popularity of this (re)thinking, Riskin’s new book The Restless Clock takes an interest in the history and influence of scientific perspectives on vitality and agency. A “thing with agency,” she says, “is a thing whose activity originates inside itself rather than outside.” The opposite of agency, then, is passivity, the dominant view of nature held by modern science. A thing in nature does not “act” because it wants to or has the will to; rather, it “acts” because it is compelled to do so by forces outside of itself. Certainly, many things and actions within non-human nature seem to occur in an intrinsic manner, but the position of modern science is that the nature of the material world is mechanistic.

However, if new materialist thinkers are to properly challenge the principle of passivity, they must not, Riskin’s work implies, remain ignorant of its history. Instead, they must make themselves aware of the history of this principle such that they are aware of what exactly they are critiquing. Moreover, Riskin suggests that theorists must understand the history of mechanism in modern science in order to properly grasp the intellectual possibilities that are foreclosed by the dominant ways of thinking of nature as passive.

Therefore, motivated by an interest in how historical understanding shapes contemporary thinking about the life sciences in particular, The Restless Clock unravels the history of thinking about agency in the history of modern science so as to determine how mechanism and passivity became the dominant paradigm. In this expansive work — which draws on primary sources, correspondences between intellectual radicals, and archival materials from across the Western world — Riskin expertly demonstrates not only how the principle of passivity came to dominate modern science in the first place but also how this principle has influenced contemporary science.

Crucially, what is not typically known is that the principle of mechanism has taken two forms: passive mechanism and active mechanism. As Riskin demonstrates throughout, these two forms long competed with one another in early modern science. On the one hand, active mechanism views agency as “a primitive feature of the natural world like force or matter, an aspect of the very stuff of nature’s machinery and especially”; on the other hand, passive mechanism, the now-dominant view, is premised upon the repudiation of agency from the theory of nature.

Instead of offering the story of a paradigm shift in which passive mechanism became dominant over active mechanism, Riskin’s unique finding is that there was in fact a longstanding conflict between the two principles of mechanism, and that this conflict strongly informed and continues to undergird modern scientific accounts of life. The Restless Clock offers a fascinating and expertly detailed history of the origins of these two mechanisms as well as the conflict and contradictions between them.

Taking an appropriate route in to the origins of mechanism in modern science, Riskin begins with the story of Medieval automata that appeared to operate of their own will and volition. During the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance, hydraulic and mechanical automata animated European society. Early automata were commissioned primarily by the Catholic Church and were therefore devotional objects that were both mechanical and divine, signifying a kind of “holy machine”. After the Reformation, which generated sharp distinctions between materiality and spirituality, automata could no longer “represent divinity other than deceitfully”.

With the Reformation came the newfound conceptual problem of “the relations between body and soul, matter and spirit, mechanism and agency”. However, even though automata complicated these distinctions, they flourished throughout the world. Many of the clockmakers and engineers who were commissioned to build religious automata for the church also built secular automata for installation in private and public settings. In the 16th and 17th centuries, secular automata in the form of dancing statues, garden installations, and animals that dipped their heads to drink, became wildly popular. Automata were designed to make people laugh, and so played tricks and jokes on unsuspecting visitors who took great and seemingly endless delight and pleasure in these inventions.

Riskin’s exploration of the enthusiastic reception of automata in European society at this time demonstrates how society’s confrontation with mechanism inspired scientists and philosophers to attend more closely to the problem of mechanism. Riskin’s engagement with the historical literature and evidence suggests that the spirited machines of this era, which were constructed with no sense of a separation between machinery and agency, came, through their ubiquity, to inspire the mechanistic and “modern” scientific perspectives of life that emerged in the 17th century.

From there, she moves on to explore Rene Descartes’ theorizations of bodily materiality and motion. Yet, rather than emphasize, as is commonly done, that Descartes’ philosophy is indicative of an ideological shift, Riskin emphasizes that Descartes’ thinking actually signifies a revolution in method, that in turn changed how people came to understand and explain natural phenomena. As Descartes considered all material things machinery, he was “the earliest influential proponent of the idea that the living body was a machine.”

Even though this idea was already relatively popular among scientists and intellectuals at this time, it was Descartes’ severing of the soul from the body and his ascribing human intellect a “God’s-eye view of the physical world” that instigated institutional dismay (particularly among the Jesuits, who administered education in 17th century Europe). Descartes’ ideas newly imbued life processes with notions of “passivity, limitation, and constraint”, which generated an understanding of the living bodies of animals, for example, as alive and as machines.

Riskin then moves to explore the “metamorphosis” of Descartes’ ideas, focusing on their appearance in the works of subsequent thinkers like Voltaire, Hobbes, and Locke. Eventually, as the history is usually told, a “categorical denial” of animal and bodily sensation emerged, and the resulting denial of spirit and agency produced a paradigm shift in which nature came to be understood as a series of material parts with involuntary movements — as “brute machinery”.

However, Riskin’s findings contravene this dominant narrative and, instead, reveal that this version of events, wherein the model of nature as brute machinery succeeds over the model of active mechanism, is in fact a mythologized version of history. The Restless Clock reveals that the typical origin story of modern science — in which a theological understanding of the properties of nature as mysterious comes to be replaced by the modern, secular realization that nature is passive — neglects to acknowledge that there is actually a theological orientation that also sits at the core of modern scientific attitudes toward the agency of matter and life. Thus, one of Riskin’s objectives is to properly acknowledge the theological origin of passive mechanism.

In most accounts of the origins of modern science, there’s usually no mention of divine intervention or creation of the world. The development of modern science is understood as the point at which scientists and intellectuals became enlightened and embraced there being nothing divine about living beings and processes in terms of origin or action. However, the 17th century development of modern scientific principles, Riskin shows, did not mean that scientists and intellectuals immediately renounced their religiosity and their belief in God as the Earth’s creator. Rather, they tried to generate a synthesis between their religious belief in the origin story and their newfound understanding of nature as mechanistic.

So, as much as life was, conceptually speaking, transformed into an entirely passive machine, this machine “still had to indicate the existence of a divine Designer, whose omnipotence was guaranteed by his monopoly on agency.” Intellectuals worked, Riskin establishes, to determine that a single, omnipotent God was responsible for the physical mechanisms of the material world. Robert Boyle focused on physiological fitness to demonstrate the utility of the human body regarding anatomical, chemical, mechanical and optical characteristics. William Harvey appealed to the “innate” agency of nature to explain the theological origins of life processes. Others, like Gottfried Leibniz, appealed to the idea of God but only as an organizer and not as a designer, and proposed the Spinozan notion of “common striving”; that is, “the tendency of natural entities to persevere, develop and expand”.

Intellectuals and scientists struggled to represent animal movement as a machine model with divine origins. This difficulty extended beyond scientific and philosophical thought, Riskin shows, and infiltrated engineering, policy making, and industrial reform. This took shape in novel attempts to recreate living processes in machinery, namely androids that, while lively, “signified the lack of a rational soul [and] of a capacity for reason and intellect.” Lifelike machines, created by engineers such as Jacques de Vaucanson and those who imitated his work, made music using “flexible lips, moving tongues, soft fingers, and swelling lungs” or could be “programmed to write messages of up to 40 characters”. Although they were androids, they were responsive and dynamic. The novelty of androids wore off by the early part of the 20th century, but, Riskin suggests, they generated a lasting slippage between life and art and thereby summoned people to question “whether natural phenomena worked in essentially the same way as artificial ones”.

Such experimentation, through fleeting in its popularity, provoked radical intellectuals to consider whether humans might be material entities through and through; early productions of “man-machines” also galvanized the first expressions of what we now know as the modern theory of evolution, for they encouraged thinkers to consider living organisms as self-organizing and self-transforming machines.

One of Riskin’s central and most illuminating contributions in The Restless Clock, then, is her examination of Darwin’s perspective on mechanism. Reading through Darwin’s well-known writings — namely, multiple editions of On the Origin of Species — notebook entries, and his correspondences and dialogues with contemporaries like Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer, Riskin demonstrates that Darwin himself remained torn between active- and passive-mechanist conceptualizations. However, she finds, later (re)interpretations and applications of Darwin’s work in the 19th and 20th century have eliminated this tension and produced a neo-Darwinism that is a purely passive-mechanist theory of life and nature.

Riskin’s astute historicizing is what, uniquely, opens up the possibility for her to make a unique contribution to the ideological underpinnings of modern science, and to explicitly demonstrate how this “hidden history” informs contemporary scientific debates and research. In the final chapters of The Restless Clock, Riskin takes up Richard Dawkins’ conceptualization of the “selfish gene” and related aspects of evolutionary biology and epigenetics that, discursively speaking, do in fact position various processes in human biology as agentic. In these final, illuminating chapters, Riskin works to demonstrate how agency continues to be “smuggled” into contemporary science even as contemporary science vehemently denies agency and vitality to living processes. Crucially, as Riskin points out, the “old” contradiction between active- and passive-mechanism has not been left behind but in fact informs the research objectives and discourses that shape contemporary science.

Another key strength of Riskin’s far-reaching analysis is that it also attends to the social and cultural significance of the question of agency in modern science. Throughout, she attends to the implications that debates over agency have had in terms of, for example, the hierarchizing of people based on race and the automation of work processes that have alienated people from their labor.

In taking on the problem of agency as supposedly banished from modern science, The Restless Clock compels us to think about how agency is actually essential in and to nature. Riskin captivatingly tells the story of this “centuries-long argument” over agency with the patience, precision, and the profound depth of explanation that history demands. The Restless Clock provides a much-needed investigation of how scientific understandings of material reality have been undergirded by historical understandings and calls for more deliberate historical analysis not only in scientific work, but also in critical analyses of scientific discourse and ideology. Such a work deepens our comprehension and awareness of the taken-for-granted ideologies that underpin modern science and, subsequently, the contemporary challenges posed to it by movements such as new materialisms. The Restless Clock will become a frequent reference for anyone interested in the matter of matter.