And He was asking him, "What is your name?" And he said to Him, "My name is Multitude; for we are many."

Man & His Monsters – II Natura Artifex

It was when the Christian Man established the possibility of creating automatic engines, there on the verge of the Renaissance, when Man as Artisan was able to make things with a movement of their own that God could have made a Nature gifted with a movement, a logic and eventually an agency of her own.

This article is divided in four parts published in a row in this blog. The first part is here.



natura artifex


God made Man in His own image. Man was hence His only possible reader, the only one who could, by his faintest similitude with the Author, launch himself in the perpetual exegetic work of reading Nature, of finding the analogies, the figures and the similes that ran in her veins. To be God’s only reader, however, is to be His only author. That ‘Man made God in his own image’ is not an atheist provocation but an historical relation. It was when the Christian Man established the possibility of creating automatic engines, when it developed the early mechanical clocks,[1] there on the verge of the Renaissance, when Man as Artisan was able to make things with a movement of their own that God could have made a Nature gifted with a movement, a logic and eventually an agency of her own.[2]

natura artifex

This agency, given to Nature by God, is not boundless; as the movement impressed by the artisan to his mechanism, it is characterized by its constancy, by its ordered faction; it primes in repetition, in iteration and in regularity. Nature «possessed an independent internal order located in the chains of causes that produced particular phenomena.» God could suspend order and intervene, «but under normal circumstances … nature became an agent, predictable within certain limits.»[3]


God was now present in all things as their First Cause, the origin of natural repetition, the primary impetus, while Nature, in her semi-autonomous agency, comprised a complex articulation of secondary causes. There was no doubt, however, that all things had an origin, and hence a creator and a purpose: «the production of something is always a form of change, & there is no change, according to Aristotle, without an Agent as its author & developer. … Moreover, Aristotle having decided that Nature doesn’t do anything in vain, she must have an end for all the effects she produces.»[4]




the monsters’ makers


We see now how the idea that Nature was to be the creator of monsters became a field of controversy, for they are different and singular, they pierce order and seem to throw doubt upon habit. From the late Middle Ages to the end of the Renaissance, the period in which such comprehension of Nature was in force, the notions of monstrosity – i.e. of what counted as a monster – were numerous, diverse and often contradictory. Something remains constant, however, in comparison with the ages that preceded and succeeded it. For during these centuries monsters played a unique role in the difficult relations between Man, the Natural and the Divine, dividing and limiting them, inhabiting their tensions and the obscure gaps between them, operating, in sum, as the defining tensors, establishing equivalences and mutations between either distinct or overlapping, but always related, ontological spaces.


So, in establishing Nature as an agency of regularity – a pre-condition for her later laws – the period that concerns us gave a distinctive role to monsters, as it gave to all those things that fell outside of regularity. A role recognized, by the avid readers of Aristotle, under the insignia of particulars. And hence monstrous species, and rains of stones, and tremblings of the earth found themselves together in Lycosthenes’ Liber Prodigiorum;[5] and monstrous births were the living equivalent of those «inanimate creatures of production different from their causes … as when we see in the Clouds the figures of Lions, or of Soldiers who fight.»[6]



beyond nature’s path


This is not to say that Nature was not involved in the making of monsters. Fortunio Liceti, the italian physician and author of the famous De Monstris Causis,[7] saw non-demoniacal monsters as the result of Nature’s will overcoming exceptional obstacles, and thus «it is in this that I see the convergence of both Nature and Art, because one or the other not being able to make what they want, they at least make what they can.»[8] But the foundation of the ordinary as natural made way for a complex field of inquiry on the agencies involved in the production of particulars. When was Nature acting on her own? When was God intervening on her production, and with which purposes? When was a monster, after all, the deed of the Devil? In trying to establish what was divine, what was natural, and what was against Nature (contra naturam) or beyond Nature (præternaturam), scholars drew the lines that would define the planes of inquiry for four centuries.


How the inquiry on monsters may be seen to be part of a broader philosophy concerning particulars and trying to understand the Preternatural, has been a line of thought strongly pursued in the last two decades, subject to large and ambitious studies.[9] Monsters, there is no doubt, are among those things deemed to be accidental, to happen by chance, or at very least to be profoundly defective. For this reason, many of these studies have imagined the preternatural as an essentially relative category, condemned to volatility, as its constituents increased in frequency and hence stopped being particulars. They have described, thus, the preternatural as a negative category, as having a negative function. One feels, however, compelled to ask: to what extent were the Natural and the Divine equivalently vulnerable to such volatility?, weren’t their boundaries changing precisely to same extent as the preternatural ones? Can’t one say, in the end, that if the preternatural gathered the attention of the Renaissance it was because it was the most central of categories?, the one where the Divine and the Natural were themselves being negotiated?, the driving force of the ontological distribution? wasn’t it, ultimately, the most positive of categories?[10]


Moreover, an historical inquiry that follows the way certain problems are being approached and how these approaches evolved, i.e., in our case, how natural or philosophical questions were being answered, seems to have blind spots inlaid in its premises. These historiographical problems have been discussed at length in other writings.[11] It suffices here to say that a project that takes historical impetus to be an accumulation of individual agencies is capable of accounting for the answers given, sometimes even for the questions posed, but rarely for the ones that weren’t so. The history of monstrosity, perhaps even more than many others, has to account as much for the questions posed as for the absent ones; we now turn our gaze to one of these questions, which has particular relevance in the context of our writing: why wasn’t artificiality monstrous?





At this point, one can see distinctly how the question of artificiality, what to consider artificial, needs to be profoundly reshaped. All that is has a maker. Man, like any natural being, had Natura Artifex, Nature the Artisan, as his maker.[12] Those things that were beyond the perseverant habit of Nature,  had as their maker either demons or God Himself. All things, whether understood or occult, had the latter as their Creator, as their First Cause.


To talk about the artificial in the sense we now employ the term is then no easy task. Not all that isn’t artificial is a sole product of Nature, nor is all that is not natural artificial. It would be right to put forward the proposition that Man did not know, in our terms, the concept of artificiality – he knew Art and its artifex, but not artificiality as an unifier class opposed to the natural. But it would be even more appropriate to say – and this is nothing but the generalization, the stronger form, of this proposition – that he knew nothing but the Artificial. One doesn’t need to wander far from the monsters’ stories to find traces of such indistinguishability.



body-technologies: artificiality without monstrosity


Ambroise Paré, one of the most notable surgeons of the sixteenth-century, dedicated a whole book to discussing Des Monstres & Prodiges.[13] As a completely separate topic, he also wrote on and developed a large set of prosthetics for those who had lost limbs in battle.[14] He was born two months earlier than Nature would have intended, aboard a ship. Liceti survived by being put into the hen incubator developed by his father, who astutely adapted it on the spot for his newborn. For that, Liceti was given his first name, Fortunio, the lucky one.[15]

What is to be noted here is the profound absence of monstrosity in their stories. But why, at a time with a taxonomy so foreign to us, in a cosmos where things found proximity by affinity or analogy – why don’t we find the blend of human and artificial to be taken as monstrous? Why is it that a man with a metallic hand or a baby born from a techno-womb are not part of those exhaustive catalogs of monstrosities, those infinity-bound encyclopedias that brought together the satyr and the two-headed baby, the hermaphrodite, the root that resembled a snake, the sea monsters and the african man with his lip pierced? Why aren’t cyborgs part of Aldrovandi’s Historia Monstrorum? Why doesn’t Liceti contemplate, in his vast enumerations, the man with limbs that were not of flesh?


In the same way, artificiality was foreign to the understanding of the order of things, it is not of humans we are to talk, but of Man – a being delineated by his place in scripture and not in time, of theological origins rather than evolutionary ones. A Man that was to monsters as «habit is to privation, as that which is straight to that which is bent, & as a finalized Work is to one that was only just sketched.» It is only by looking to Man that we can find monsters, as Liceti thought, together with an entire age: «we cannot properly know the nature of privation, if not by the habit to which it is opposed, for that which is straight is the rule of what is oblique, & nobody ignores that only the skilfull Artisans can judge the vices & defects of a work;» and only those who understand «the perfect constitution of man in the Womb will understand exactly all we say … about Monsters»[16]. We will find this relation to contain its reciprocal: that only in Monsters is man to be found.

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[1] Usher (1954)

[2] See Truitt (2015), Economou (1972) and Chenu (1968).

[3] Daston & Parks (1998) 49

[4] Liceti (1708), p. 28, trans. my own.

[5] Lycosthenes (1552)

[6] Liceti (1708), chap. 1

[7] Ibid., also see Ceard (1996)

[8] Ibid., chap 7.

[9]  For introductory notes, Daston & Park (1998) chaps. 1-6; for demoniacal praeternatural, Clark (1999).

[10] This conceptual shift would – not coincidentally – correspond to that in recent Disability Studies and Crip Theory, cf. Davis (1997) and McRuer (2006) .

[11] See, to start with, Foucault (1969).

[12] Truitt (2015)

[13] Paré (1971/1573)

[14] Paré (1964/1564) and see Thurston (2007).

[15] Bates (2001)

[16] Liceti (1708), preface; see also, Liceti (1616).


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