Tag Archives: bruno bettelheim

Hen Electric

New Talk: The Hen Electric and the Mechanical Boy

“The Hen Electric and the Mechanical Boy: Joey, Bruno Bettelheim, and the Empty Fortresses of Humanism.” Paper presented at the 26th Annual Conference of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts, “Nonhuman,” Hilton, Milwaukee, WI, 28 September 2012.


In the March 1959 issue of Scientific American, Bruno Bettelheim relates the case history of Joey, the so-called “Mechanical Boy.” In this article, Bettelheim stages the child’s complex emotional disturbance as a psychoanalytic Pinocchio story for the “machine age.” Joey’s autistic imprisonment in a “world of machines” renders him a robot-child that oscillates between imperious withdrawal from, and helpless desperation for, human affection. When Bettelheim retells Joey’s story nearly a decade later, in The Empty Fortress, the Pinocchio story remains, along with its starkly moralized theme of a human species endangered by its own inept infancy in the face of highly complex and impersonal technological advancement. Yet where the magazine article deliberately concentrates on pathology over therapeutics, the greatly expanded account of Joey’s case history in the latter text does detail his course of therapy at the University of Chicago’s Sonya Shankman Orthogenic School. This account traces Joey’s journey through a psychological “rebirth” and escape from the captivity of his delusions. For Bettelheim, Joey’s flight from the machine world thus marks a triumphant delivery into a fully human world–at last he becomes a real boy! Yet I argue that the text depicts an (anthropo)genesis that is not at all as orthotic as Bettelheim claims. Joey’s psychically newborn self is a singular entity hatched from a miraculous egg, laid by an electric hen, and midwifed by kangaroos, bears, and dinosaurs. Joey’s story is therefore one of allogenesis, even xenogenesis, and suggests expansive forms of kinship and communication beyond the merely human.

Joey, the “Mechanical Animal” Boy

“I laid myself as an egg, hatched myself, and gave birth to me.”

The hen electric, pregnant with the electric fetus. (The Empty Fortress 323)
I just finished reading the mammoth chapter on Joey in Bruno Bettelheim’s The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self as part of my research for my paper presentation at SLSA 2012. It is a greatly expanded account of the case study Bettelheim presented as a Scientific American article almost a decade earlier in 1959, and offers much more detail about Joey’s treatment at the Orthogenic School as well as the psychic “rebirth” that marks the beginning of his journey out of his delusion.

The tale of Joey initially interested me because of his elaborate fantasy, according to which he believed himself a machine requiring elaborate apparatuses to remain alive.  The Scientific American article concentrates on Joey’s machine world, Bettelheim going so far as to suggest that this extraordinary case study “has a general relevance to the understanding of emotion in a machine age” (“Joey” 117).  It is this dimension of the story that establishes the broad topic of my SLSA paper, where I will primarily explore connections between children and machines.  But Joey’s story, as recounted in The Empty Fortress, closes the “cybernetic triangle” of animals, humans, and machines, with numerous references to nonhuman animals and a crucial role played by hens. Continue reading

SLSA 2012


The 26th Annual Meeting of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA)

Milwaukee, Wisconsin (USA)
27 September – 30 September 2012

I will be in attendance with the following paper (which I am thinking of putting together, in part, on this site):

The Child-Machine and the Mechanical Boy: Alan Turing, Bruno Bettelheim, and Taking Care of Nonhuman Generations

While the famous imitation game Alan Turing describes in “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” has served as the speculative benchmark for determining the achievement of human-level artificial intelligence, less familiar is his proposal to build such an intelligence by way of a “child-machine,” which would undergo an education approximate to that of a human child. Turing’s descriptions of this machine and its tuition resonate in intriguing ways with Bruno Bettelheim’s case-study of Joey the “mechanical boy,” which Bettelheim first outlines in the March 1959 issue of Scientific American. I place these contentious texts in dialogue with one another as a means to explore the ambiguous status of child subjectivity in modernity. Childhood is an experience at the limits of the human, during which the traditional markers and guarantors of being human in the modern Western tradition (reason, autonomy, self-possession, and so on) are absent or in flux. The figure of the child-as-machine casts into relief the various techniques and technologies by which the adult world informs—and deforms—a child’s growth to maturity, her passage from nonhuman to human. In so doing, I argue, this figure discloses the undecidability of what distinguishes properly human life from “animal” or “mechanical” life, prompts us to question the discursive and political techniques by which we do decide and do distinguish one form of living from another, and, finally, invites us to consider a renewed ethics of responsibility and care for future generations, whomever and whatever they may be.

The Boy Machine

A human body that functions as if it were a machine and a machine that duplicates human functions are equally fascinating and frightening.  Perhaps they are so uncanny because they remind us that the human body can operate without a human spirit, that body can exist without soul.

Bruno Bettelheim, “Joey: A Mechanical Boy,” Scientific American 200, no. 3 (1959): 117.

The Joey Machine

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In the summer of 2011, Australian artist Ian Haig collaborated with Kotoe Ishii, who holds an MFA from the Victorian College of the Arts, to create an installation piece inspired by the well known case of Joey, the “Mechanical Boy” Continue reading