• Sasha Durakov Warren

Beware the Influencing Machines: Schreber, Mechanical Medicine, and the Law

Updated: May 11, 2021

The following is a transcript of a talk I gave at Boneshaker Books in Minneapolis in 2019. This text is a distillation of a longer text (my thesis), a draft of which is accessible for free at the bottom of this post.


Jacob Mohr, "Justizmord" [Judicial Murder]

Let us look through the window at the courthouse together. There’s a trial going on, a familiar scene. There are the judges sitting together. They seem quite satisfied with themselves, with their statutes and penal codes splayed out before them. I’m sure they think that justifies the whole mess. Do not look away, for now you must look again off to the side of the consultation room and verdict factory. Do you see the prosecutor-conspirators, mocking, making preparations for this depraved act of judicial murder? God, what haughty murderers, peddling incitement and bloodshed! Naturally, the police warders and villains, for the 1500th time today, are doing their best to maintain the calm for the peaceful continuance of murder and kidnapping attempts, here and in the poisonous and rotting prisons and madhouses. And there sits the biggest joke of all in this whole court’s comedy: the mock jury —among them Mr. Probably-Lied— robotically performing their wicked parts in this whole murder scheme. They are murderers themselves. Dont run now! You can’t leave, really, as your trial will be taking place soon. The defendant has arrived, some Jakob Mohr, hooked up head-to-toe to the medical-conspirator’s, rotten madhouse-runner’s influencing machine. You can barely see his body; you can barely distinguish it from the mess of wires and and fibers and so on. You must witness, really for your own sake, how they compel him now, by remote hypnosis and electrical waves, to speak on matters of impossible crimes and transgressions, securing his quick and simple judicial murder. Don’t look now, here comes the whole lot of them, for us now too!

Such was the juridical process as represented in the 1912 drawing “Justizmord” or “Judicial Murder” by Jakob Mohr, a frequent psychiatric patient and defendant in Germany’s judicial system.

Nothing escapes being invested with suspicious intentions in Mohr’s judicial scene besides himself and the chief witness to the defense wearing the “crown of truth.” What are these rigid figures under suspicion of? Chiefly, of having mechanical, automatic qualities: of being machines. The whole scene is composed in simple, geometric segments, connected by line or by text. A clean rectangle is formed with the prosecutor standing near the verdict factory, above the “incented pre-jurors” on the left; working with the judges with their legal Codes flat on their long desk at the top; facing the “misguided audience” in the stands, joined by the “police villains” and the press working on their “wrong publication and cover up” to form the bottom line; and completed by Mohr himself on the right, shown in the process of being pumped full of electricity and hypnotic waves by his hypnotist-psychiatrist influencing his behavior and dooming him to his own death. The “influencing machine” is but one component of a larger machine. Mohr stands off to the right with his face and the hypnotic waves radiating to the left, as if he is about to be fluidly pushed through the whole penal machine, punished and mocked by every actor, as if on a conveyor belt in hell. The scene is claustrophobic, but also funny. Funny in the way demons are funny, or in the way arbitrary violence can make one uncomfortably laugh. Like every machine, Mohr’s penal machine served a purpose, in this case indicated by the title: judicial murder.

The visual elements and the language of Mohr’s picture mirror very closely those used by another madman who faced judges and psychiatrists as impediments to his freedom, Daniel Paul Schreber, a former appeals court judge in Germany who went on to become the textbook example of a psychotic. Soon after marrying, Schreber ran and lost in a parliamentary election, an event that served as the occasion for his first major crisis in 1884, which he attributes primarily to “mental overstrain." Schreber ended up in the hands of Paul Emil Flechsig, a rising star in psychiatry who had recently been appointed the director of the Clinical Institute of Psychiatry and Neurology in Leipzig, Germany and major representative of the neuropsychiatric epoch that placed the brain above all else. Believing that problems of mind were purely and simply brain pathologies, Flechsig diagnosed Schreber in physical terms, and offered him a number of physical and chemical treatments like sleeping pills and hydrotherapy.

German psychiatrist Paul Emil Flechsig at his desk surrounded by images and models of brains.
Paul Emil Flechsig, circa 1909.

Schreber left feeling he had undergone an initially successful treatment by Flechsig’s hand, and spent the subsequent 8 years at large. In 1893, he was appointed as the President of the senate to the Superior Court of Appeals in Dresden, where he found himself again overwhelmed, this time by the stresses of the court. It was in the period of insomnia that the first “supernatural occurrences” took place. Most pressing of all was the bewildering notion that it might be pleasant to succumb to sexual intercourse as a woman. Schreber returned to Flechsig’s asylum where she found her former doctor hero now disgruntled by the “remission”. Then began a period of mistreatment and neglect, when the unchanging Schreber was pulled in and out of bed, had his head dunked in and out of water by the attendants, and locked into a lonely cell, perhaps as a gesture of frustration and anger from a doctor struggling to be taken seriously as a scientist who perhaps couldn’t stand the sight of an incurable patient. It was around this point, and after a number of suicide attempts, that Schreber began having regular communications with supernatural powers, with God, as well as with Flechsig’s soul, which, he maintained “had secret designs against me.” Above all, Flechsig stood accused of “soul murder,” which Schreber defines as the ability “to take possession of another person’s soul in order to prolong one’s life at another souls expense, or to secure some other advantages which outlast death.”

After one failed attempted suicide, his condition only worsened, and Schreber soon found himself sent to a warehouse for social cretins, the Sonnenstein Asylum (later a Nazi “Aktion T4” center for the elimination of “lives unworthy of living”). It was here that he spent most of the rest of his life as just another incurable in a cell, a perpetual problem for the staff —due to his bellowing fits and legal actions he leveled against his incompetency declaration— who took their frustrations out on him with abuse and seclusion, and where he would begin work on his book, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. And it was there, in Sonnenstein, where the imminent relations of all things were grasped and understood as a giant nervous system, an all-encompassing material substance underlying all phenomena including even God, split by Schreber into an upper and lower God, who was said to be “all nerve.” All souls, in essence, are nothing other than nerves, but God’s nerves are eternal and infinite. God is endowed with the ability to direct his infinite and eternal nerves, called “rays”, to create, transform, and influence the world of humans. God, however, powerful as he is, in normal circumstances, which Schreber calls the “Order of the World,” has retreated to such an enormous distance from humanity that he is said to only deal with corpses, not knowing anything about the lives of humans. But, after his breakdown, Schreber’s nerves were overstimulated, vibrating at such an extraordinary frequency that they destabilized God’s telegraph-like web of nerves, and became in this way one of the few humans able to communicate using the “nerve language.” Thinking it would render Schreber powerless, God directed a number of torturous miracles to crush his head, turn his bones to powder, tie him down with mechanical fastenings, and sent His little devils to try and pump his spinal cord out. He sent subordinate souls to twaddle mechanical phrases and torment Schreber, recording everything he said or thought and repeating it back, and created birds by more cruel miracles mirroring Daniel Paul’s words with meaningless rhymes like robotic parrots programmed for schoolyard bullying. All this in order to render Schreber inert and prevent his nerves from adversely affecting God’s power.

Schreber’s book has remained the most cited in the history of psychiatric case studies. Two films have been made about his life in the last decade. But I would argue that we do not yet know Schreber. The

problem begins with the title of the book. The full German title is translated by Ida MacAlpine and Richard Hunter in the English version as Memoirs of my Nervous Illness. The title is nothing short of an interpretive transformation of the text itself. A more generous translation of the first part of the title would be, as Zvi Lothane has suggested, “Great Thoughts of a Nervous Patient.” More significantly, MacAlpine and Hunter simply ignore the longer second part of the title, which one could translate as “with supplements and an addendum concerning the question ‘under what circumstances can a person deemed insane be held against their professed will in a mental institution?’" In excluding this second part, and switching the focus from Schreber’s thoughts as a nervous patient to memoirs of a nervous illness, the translators have made the author complicit in his own pathologization. Schreber, for his part, persistently confronts the notion that he is mentally ill, once stating unequivocally: “I deny absolutely that I am mentally ill or ever have been.” In the introduction, he clearly stated that he has “decided to apply for my release from the Asylum in the near future” thus identifying what follows not as an “insane memoir” but as a semi-legal tract, an argument for release from the asylum. The black-letter script of the original, typical of juridical texts, also identifies the text as a legal document. Further complicating matters, Schreber often cautions careful reading and doubt (“Nor can I maintain that everything is irrefutably certain even for me; much remains only presumption and probability. After all I too am only a human being”); while his remarks on methodology further cement his humility (“I shall have to speak much in images and similes, which may at times perhaps be only approximately correct”), challenging the notion that they are a megalomaniac or uncritically listening to the unceasing stream of voices in their head.

Victor Tausk, a judge-turned-psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, took it upon himself in his 1912 article “The Origin of the Influencing Machine in Schizophrenia,” to illuminate the meaning of the “influencing machine” of the sort Mohr and Schreber found themselves faced with. According to him, such “mystical machines” or mechanical Gods, always inexplicable in terms of their actual operations, provide a rationalization for a broken world, satisfying the need for causality. The theory works like this: this feeling, say, the desire to experience sex as a woman, could not have arisen in my own head: some persecutory actor must have forced and intruded its thoughts into my head from a distance. The machine is, for Tausk, the delusional person’s broken and wounded self projected out as an external force. This reading assumes that the one speaking of an influencing machine is incapable of metaphor, simile, or the use of imagery to drive a point, nor can they be capable of irony since Tausk assumes that what they say corresponds absolutely literally with their perception of the world; furthermore, Tausk presumes the existence of a central and coded meaning that only a professional, specifically a psychoanalyst, could ascertain. The broad tendency of psychiatry and other psy-disciplines has been to limit the machine to the interiority of the body or mind —to posit either a bio-machine driving the mind (the organic, chemical or mechanical haywired brain of psychiatry) or a scrambled and traumatized mind’s unconscious and subconscious-machine driving the behavior of the body and speech (the subjective haywire of psychoanalysis).

But what are they looking inside of? The reality may be that the experts only have the tools to look inside a machine of their own creation, bearing little resemblance to the person it is in their eyes arbitrarily attached to, as Schreber described: “the medical expert only became acquainted with the pathological shell, as I would like to call it, which concealed my true spiritual life.” We will be doing things differently. We will assume that those commonly called insane are coherent on their own terms, ought to be taken literally when asking to be read literally, metaphorically when metaphorical, and furthermore, can be understood as primary thinkers when unfettered by their various captors-interpreters. To that extent, it is essential to seek the means of understanding such productions from within, that is, without superimposing an overarching theoretical model or grid of intelligibility onto them from another source. This type of reading in no way excludes contextualization in the form of comparing their works to those of their contemporaries, or seeking clarification in historical or biographical detail, but neither can one allow either of these supplant the text itself as the locus of truth. Tonight we will try to peel back that pathological shell, and allow Schreber to be herself.

Up to now, I have mostly followed convention by referring to Schreber with the masculine pronoun “he,” but Schreber’s expressed gender identity was in no way fixed as male. Schreber’s second period of distress and discovery began when he halfway woke up and, in a dreamlike trance, thought she might enjoy sexual intercourse as a woman. Initially they were repulsed and even disgusted by the idea, but ultimately, after years of struggle, they found comfort in the notion that becoming a woman through “Entmannung” or “unmanning” (a word of their own creation) allowed her to achieve a state of “soul-voluptuousness.” Nevertheless, Schreber never consistently refers to herself as either a man or woman, and, at the risk of confusion, I will honor that uncertain vacillation with an unconventional use of both “he” and “she” pronouns for Schreber. The regularity with which modern commentators restate the matter-of-fact assumption of Schreber’s masculinity is nothing short of the negation of her capacity to decide for herself, reconstituting in text and thought the incompetency declaration she spent her later years fighting so persistently, miming the court’s and psychiatrist’s motion to reduce her legal standing to that of a child, where the commentator and reader conspire to play the role of the persecutory God who attempted to "retain me on the masculine side” in order to drive Schreber mad.

The judge goes mad from the stresses of the court and falls under the noxious influence of the nervous fibers of the universe, arriving ultimately in the care of a man who sees in people nothing but a map of their brain: what is one to make of these strange threads connecting law, madness, psychiatry and technology? In what follows, my goal will be to open up a route to a mad critique of the law, that is, a critique of legal power derived from the texts and art works of psychiatric inmates, something which I not only hold as possible, but as readily available and rich in conceptual devices still useful today. Such an endeavor implies and necessitates a mad critique of psychiatry, since the discipline, along with neurology and psychoanalysis, claims ownership over the interpretation of the works of the mad, and because the mad creators I focus on tie these two critiques together so tightly and so consistently that it can be hard to tell them apart. Tonight is miss Schreber’s night, and to stay close to her words and understanding, I will proceed by simply reading quotes by the failed judge and offering some explication.


A single pelican captured in various moments of flight
Pelican. Étienne-Jules Marey, circa 1882

Schreber’s cosmology begins like many others with God, creation, and the order of the universe:

“Things were so ordered-up to the crisis to be de­scribed later-that by and large God left the world which He had created and the organic life upon it (plants, animals, hu­man beings) to their own devices and only provided continu­ous warmth of the sun to enable them to maintain themselves and reproduce, etc. As a rule God did not interfere directly in the fate of peoples or individuals- I call this the state of affairs in accordance with the Order of the World.”

Schreber’s account resembles another tradition that likewise begins with the retreat of God, one closely tied to the symbol of the machine, or the automaton.

Writing and music playing automata by 18th century craftsman Pierre Jaquet-Droz
Three Automata by Pierre Jaquet-Droz circa 1770

The automaton, or the automatic machine is that which is made precisely to repeat the same act for the duration of its lifespan. For this reason, the model machine, the one that precipitated a mechanical worldview and set a standard for other automatic machinery, was the mechanical clock. The development of the mechanical clock can be traced to the Benedictine monasteries where it was used to synchronize the lives of monks according to the canonical hours, doing away with the accidents that plagued water and sun clocks. Every one of its precise movements serves the same, unified purpose, which is fundamentally to maintain its regularity and continue operating at the same pace. Its shape announces this purpose, for what else does movement within a circle represent besides eternal repetition and order? In its divisions of the day into abstract units, and its synchronization of diverse activity in reference to a single mechanical artifice, the clock stands in the symbolic center of a technical universe. Consider the peculiar example of the automatic bird, probably the most common automaton figure. The bird, and especially the rooster, has long been a symbol of rural and agricultural order. The rooster’s call announces the beginning of the workday, setting in motion, or at least accompanying the beginning of, a range of activities outside the city. Some of the appeal of the clock-bird could stem from the desire to reproduce a familiar rustic charm for the new medieval town and city-dwellers. But it simultaneously imposes a clockwork regularity upon it, subtly altering the very being of both clocks and birds to form a new rural-urban hybrid object: robo-rooster. The man-made robo-rooster does not peck for grain, run from approaching animals, or strike at hostile invaders in its pen; it does nothing other than mark the divisions of time, having been produced in the image of the artificial regulations of the clock. The mechanical division of time appears in the symbol of agricultural time, but its time is divided exactly according the engineering of clockmakers. So compelling was this notion of viewing the world as a technical object to the scientists and physicists of the 17th and 18th centuries, that it became common to refer to the entire world as a cosmic clock designed, wound up and set in motion by a clockmaker God. One of these mechanists, as they called themselves, Robert Boyle considered God’s work of creation to have culminated in “so great and admirable an automaton as the world, and the subordinate engines comprised in it.” God then “retreats” from the world and lets His plan play out like clockwork. An automaton world is a world made explicable by strict mathematic laws and controlled by overarching, equally lawful mechanisms of control and design like a clock. The reverse was also true in that clocks were built to resemble the regularity of the universe by incorporating “astronomical prediction, musical performance, and the imitation of life” to in effect create a mirror of the cosmos as a series of ordered formulas and equations.

Robotic Rooster from the Strasburg Astronomical Clock

Schreber is here speaking from within this tradition, but subverts it. Schreber effectively reverses the clockwork system. In both beginnings, God created the world, and promptly left, but while the mechanists believed that we spend our days living out our lives according to a script already written by God, Schreber characterizes the retreat as the beginning of human autonomy, mostly free from God’s power. This God, in fact, as Schreber repeatedly stresses throughout the book, knows nothing at all about living human beings nor their activity. When God begins to act in the world of humans, things can only go terribly wrong. She writes:

“[W]herever the Order of the World is broken, power alone counts, and the right of the stronger is decisive. In my case, moral obliquity lay in God placing Himself outside the Order of the World by which He Himself must be guided; although not exactly forced, He was nevertheless induced to do this by a temptation very difficult for souls to resist.”

What manner of God is this? This “silly and even childish” being, as Schreber calls Him is threatened by a single human’s overstimulated nerves, and is tempted like Eve to direct His infinite powers to use raw violence and every trick and deception at His disposal to either bring Schreber’s nerves under control or eradicate them. God is even said to be “embarrassed” by Schreber and what Schreber’s nerves do to Him. When God remains at a distance, as He does in the conditions of the Order of the World, humans live in a state of autonomy, mostly free from His interventions. It is only when the Order of the World is broken that God uses his rays to intervene, and try to regain authority. God may still be a sovereign in this cosmology, but He is neither omnipotent, omnipresent, nor all powerful. What Schreber’s frayed and over-stimulated nerves revealed is what Schreber calls a “crisis in God’s realms” in essence an investiture crisis, that moment when an authority figure’s power is revealed to rest on nothing but processions, names, and rituals, and of course, the brutality of pure violence. Schreber’s method consists in unrobing: she removes her stately judge’s robes, betraying her profession in finding a beautiful woman; while beneath God’s glorious exterior she exposes a petty warlord.

Two wolves in judge's robes touch hands with the caption "wolves don't eat wolves."
Grandville —One Hundred Proverbs: “Wolves don’t eat wolves”,1845

Schreber’s theology becomes through the book a theology of revolt. God exists, but His reign is threatened, will hopefully come to an end, so that a new era of creative transformation may be instituted in His place. Schreber’s God panics when His divine nervous system is revealed to have fatal gaps. In fear and trembling, God begins a policy of torturing and disciplining Schreber, notably in mechanical fashion. These mechanical attacks called miracles took one of two basic forms: recording or playback machines that operated through repetition and mirroring to disturb her peace of mind; and torture machines designed to degrade or abolish Schreber’s physical integrity or to confine them.

First mentioned in the book was the “Aufschreibesystem”, the “writing-down-system” that automatically appended to each thought the phrase “it has been recorded…” Though Schreber was not sure who was doing the recording, the beings in charge of the writing-down-system that recorded all his thoughts, phrases, and even environmental details did so without intention since “their hands are led automatically, as it were, by passing rays for the purpose of making them write-down, so that later rays can again look at what has been written.” At their most insidious and childish, the divine rays thrusted Schreber into a regimen of “compulsive thinking” forcing him to listen to “phrases learnt by rote” on repeat without respite. Later he describes a number of birds created by miracle that automatically reeled off some of these words and “mechanical phrases" learnt by rote without genuine feeling or understanding, having “a natural sensitivity for similarity of sounds.” At times, the “predetermined concoctions of thoughts spoken into my head by senseless voices in tiresome, monotonous repetition” created by the lower God were repeated to Schreber by birds instigated in turn by the upper God. And what manner of things did this relay-complex (lower God—>upper God—>miracled bird—>Schreber) speak of? Electric light, railroads, colossal powers, and hopeless resistance. In short, they spoke of the relays between mechanics and power. Some of the most excruciatingly painful miracles Schreber withstood resemble some manner of semi-mechanical torture devices: the first being the “compression-of-the-chest-miracle” that forced the chest inward, interfering with the ability to breathe. The description recalls both the mechanical restraints in use in asylums and the clamped metal torture devices of the Middle Ages. This impression is strengthened when Schreber compared the compression miracle to another perpetrated by “little men” or “little devils” who smushed his head with a “head-compressing-machine” that seems to directly reference such torture devices. It was said to squeeze the head “as though in a vice by turning a kind of screw, causing my head temporarily to assume an elongated almost pear-shaped form.” These “little men,” one of whom was a “little Flechsig” sent by God caused all manner of trouble for Schreber, opening and closing her eyes when she tried to look around or damaging her knee-caps when she tried to play piano. All these actions happened automatically, like a reflex, and for the express purpose of rendering Schreber’s life boring, tiresome, and stupid. When Daniel would try to sit, the miracles force him to stand. Over time she becomes more rigid, more mechanical, more and more like a walking automaton.

A devil automaton with a surprised face and arms crossed behind his back
Automatic Devil, Italy circa 16th century.

There’s nothing at all strange about comparing the human body to a machine. By the late 15th century, Europe was already buzzing with little mechanical beings, many of which were perhaps surprisingly sponsored and built by the Catholic church. Clocks came alive with angels and mallet-wielding men struck bells at the allotted hour while organs were outfitted with choirs of angels playing horns or topped by a large Saint Peter who blessed the congregation by nodding his head and moving his eyes approvingly. The world was whirring with automata. Even the holiest and most nefarious religious figures had their spring-loaded doppelgängers: mechanized Jesus’ opened their mouths while blood spilled out from his side, angelic automata pulled horns up to their mouths, and crank operated mechanical devils grimaced and licked the air with cold metallic tongues to frighten observers from their life of sin. The 18th century saw the miniaturization and mastery of a crucial technology in automation: the cam. Cams are flat, round disks of metal with uneven, undulating cuts made on their edges. As the cam rotates, a flat piece called a follower makes contact with it, pushing a connected rod upwards, producing corresponding up and down motions with the continual rotations. The cam and follower constitute the physical memory of the automaton, its iron brain. Like the clock, the cam expresses its motion through a repeating circle, but, unlike the simple clock, it possesses the capacity to convert this circular energy into vertical movement. What appears to be complex, fluid motion on the outside is ultimately reducible to the ever-repeating circular force hidden on the inside.

This was precisely the aim of the 18th century master automaton makers Jacques Vaucanson and the Jaquet-Droz family. Vaucanson’s most famous creation is the defecating duck, put on display in Paris for the first time in 1738. The duck could make a gurgling noise while drinking water and move from sitting to standing position. But, amazingly, Vaucanson’s duck could also eat little pieces of corn and grain and, after seemingly digesting them, shit them out. In a world artificially alive with fluttering gears and singing pipes, a radical theory of the human and animal body emerged. According to this new theory the body is nothing other than “a statue or machine made of earth,” and is set in motion by God with the power of mysterious “animal spirits,” fluids which resemble both flames and a subtle wind. These passages do not originate in a tract of yet another asylum inmate, but from the physiological works of the French Enlightenment philosopher whose romantic reveries in a castle closet led him to wonder whether a demon might’ve been altering his perceptions, René Descartes. He posited that living beings are not simply like machines, but truly are machines, beholden to the same material and theoretically quantifiable laws, acting out prearranged actions etched into our nerves like an organic cam system by God. How did this machine work?

A boy's foot gets near a fire. The interior of his body reveals a single nerve path up to his brain.
Descarte's illustration of how fire causes a nervous chain reaction in the body to the brain.

Descartes’ first choice of example to describe the body’s function are the “fountains in the royal gardens.” As we unintentionally trip the mechanisms that forces the actions of the fountains and automata (like a stone that, when pressed, causes a fountain to shoot water), the objects of the world stimulate, or trip, the wiring of our senses. Every action is automatic, unthought, occurring on account of the interaction between the stimulus and the reactions of the fibers of the body. This purely reflexive body requires no mind, only a properly functioning body with the requisite plumbing system. This body is a hydraulic automaton, created by God, powered by heat, that moves by virtue of sensitive fluid animal spirits flowing from the brain to instigate reactions. Through repetition, he thought, automatic behaviors could be learned (by the physical body, not the rational mind), and incorporated into the functioning of the animal-machine’s reflexive inner workings. Descartes uses his own attraction to women with crossed eyes as an example. As a child, he loved a girl with crossed eyes. This association between love and crossed eyes was established in his brain so that “afterwards when I saw anyone with a squint I felt more inclined to love them than to love any others”. Descartes still leaves room for a thinking, feeling soul; something transformed in Schreber’s work into a bundle of nerves:

“The human soul is contained in the nerves of the body; about their physical nature I, as a layman, cannot say more than that they are extraordinarily delicate structures­ comparable to the finest filaments-and that the total mental life of a human being rests on their excitability by external im­pressions.”

One pleasure-seeking admirer of Vaucanson’s work would take the man-machine to its conceptual limit. His name was Julien Offray de La Mettrie, a physician. While he agreed with Descartes that the body was a complex hydraulic clock, La Mettrie turned this position into a total materialistic system by denying the existence of the soul and God. He begins by “trying [to] isolate the soul, as it were disentangling it from the body’s organs.” “Naked materialism,” as Schreber called it, like that of La Mettrie, displaces the ethical and moral fault of the soul it claims to abolish and locates defects and lacks in the physical construction of the body. The primary difference between the mighty Julius Caesars and Napoleons and the cowering crybabies of the world is usually just an obstruction in the pancreas or liver, or perhaps how much meat and coffee each consumes. A great mind is the result of good breeding (“strong features”), healthy air, a fair climate, quality food, and imitations of the well educated and well bred around us whose gestures, speech and movements our “body imitates mechanically,” despite ourselves.

A plate illustrating neurons by Camillo Golgi, 1885.

At the end of the 18th century, the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani performed the most spectacular feat in a series of experiments when he strung up disembodied frog’s legs to an insulated wire during a storm. To his delight, ”as often as the lightning broke out ... all the muscles fell into violent and multiple contractions,” proving, he believed, his hypothesis that an internal quantity of electricity allowed animals to move. Despite being separated from the brain and spine, the electricity still “communicated” information to the nerves, causing them to pulsate. Galvani’s experiments seemed to suggest that the nervous system could be mapped, its impulses recorded and its networks made visible, much the same way that the Earth was being segmented and mapped by telegraph lines and railway systems, each of which suggest interconnected and ordered threads communicating with each other through electronic transmission and facilitating the fluid movements of material that gains its meaning only through said movement. This connection was so strong that German experimental physiologist Emil DuBois-Reymond could state in a lecture in 1851 that electrical telegraphy was already modeled in the animal machine’s nervous system, while Samual Morse referred to his morse code network as “nerve channels.” Those twitching detached frog’s legs promised to open up the study of the body into smaller and more sensitive particles than ever before.

Fritz Kahn, "Speed of Thought" comparing the passage of thoughts in the nervous system to an SOS signal put out by a distressed ship.

A wave of new inscription devices opened up to the user new technical, segmented visualizations of the body. In 1882, French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey used his chronophotographic gun to shoot people performing physical feats to capture the movements of their bodies in motion, birds in flight, or horses running, breaking each sequence down into analyzable instants of actions. Indeed, in the 1850s, the physicist and physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz would measure the speed of the nervous impulse using a similar technique to Galvani. Thermometers, kymographs, and sphygmographs soon brought heat, muscle contraction, and blood pressure under the all seeing eye of the technician, rewriting each as a separate event visible only in the language of the machine.

God’s cosmos in the Memoirs is a planetary network of mechanical recording and communication devices. When wondering why he is apparently the only person able to see the bright spots in his head and hear auditory cries for help connected with the rays, Schreber compares it with telephoning: the rays, God’s nerves, are like telephone wires, and the cries of help are audible because they have only, at the moment, established a direct connection with him and not some person in between. The voices Schreber hears, often broken up and incomplete, later become a pure “hissing” sound, as if her receptors were accidentally picking up the radio stations of other souls’ thoughts. At another point, Flechsig’s soul speaks of the principle of “light telegraphy” to explain why rays and nerves are attracted to one another. The compulsive thinking became especially unbearable for Schreber when the voices in her head modulated their speed, slowing down to a snails pace. “To say "But naturally" is spoken B.b.b.u.u.u.t.t.t. n.n.n.a.a.a.t.t.t.u.u.u.r.r.r.a.a.a.l.l.l.y.y.y, or "Why do you not then shit?" W.w.w.h.h.h.y.y.y d.d.d.o.o.o...........; and each requires perhaps thirty to sixty seconds to be completed.” Schreber’s voices were, like the voices on the phonograph, captured and transformed into objective matter —even the freedom of voice, the language of humans was something now to be captured, inscribed automatically into the quantifiable language of devices, manipulable by powerful forces. The German word for phonograph is instructive in this regard. It is Tonaufzeichnungsgerät, or “drawing up of sounds device.” The voice is given over —graspable, visible— as a series of variable lines on a rotating circle. One can roll one’s fingers over the texture of the voice on vinyl, interacting with it as an object, a commodity. Schreber describes an order where the treatment of the body was given over to the unerring calculations of machines that write automatically, without thought, without considering external factors.

Emil Du-Bois Reymond — Myrograph [for measuring muscle contraction] in use, from page 225 of "General physiology of muscles and nerves”, 1889

When Schreber describes the human soul in terms drawn from neurology and graphic inscription devices, he is describing an objective historical phenomenon and era. As it was mapped and recorded in apparatuses not unlike those in the Memoirs, what was formerly allotted to the soul became all nerve, incorporated into a material, purely physical universe. It’s impulses were automatically recorded by “writing-down-systems”, and could be viewed, played back, and manipulated by technicians. Schreber describes God in largely the same way physiologists described the network of nerves, and technicians the telegraph networks. If the soul is pure nerve, then God is both arch-neurologist and the nervous system itself.

When faced with mechanical operations going on indefinitely, repeating forever their rote motions for the sole purpose of fulfilling a preprogramed goal, the question of control rises to the fore. This was intuitively grasped by Schreber. Though the defecating duck contained a multitude of internal cams lending them the appearance of extraordinary, near lifelike complexity, these actions all referred back to the repetitive circular motions driving the apparatus. What drives Schreber mad is that they sense that the mechanist God sees the body, or the brain, as merely an organic cam system onto which rote functionality can be etched. It refers all apparent complexity back to a central seat of power, or a stack of overlaid hierarchical seats: desire controls the vulgar acts of the body; the “soul”, or at times the brain, controls its sensitive and rational motions; while God in turn controls the soul.

Here we arrive at what Schreber, Mohr and the mad discourse around machines offers that the mechanists do not: a psychological element to the notions of reflexivity, rote repetition, control, regularity and quantification. What does it feel like to be a machine or to live in a machine world? What are the consequences of being seen as more machinelike than a normal person or as defective machinery by a technical expert? What appeals to the mechanist physiologists as a route the consolidation of medical authority, namely the mechanization of life, appears to Schreber as an affront to the capacity to enjoy life, as a degradation of lived experience and a limitation on his mobility. The forced thought Schreber experienced from the rays, that is, “having to think incessantly” is experienced as a “dreary monotony,” as “attacks […] on my life,” making the cessation of thought and rest feel impossible. When life resembles the operations of a machine, what are the emotions but programmed reflexes to pain? What becomes of our choices when our purpose is to perform automatically that which we were made to perform?

But there’s something even deeper and more radical at the heart of these passages, and that is the notion that human beings are not naturally machinelike, but become so only when exposed to certain environments, or become the objects of specific scientific discourses. It is clear why it would be to the advantage of physiologists and psychiatrists to proclaim the entire world to be of a technical structure, since it is precisely they who are equipped to understand its intricacies, they who are to becomes the judges and engineers of a clock-world requiring an army of engineers to design more efficient machine models and make repairs. The revolt against the automation of labor and the degradation of skilled work to the point where the factory worker spends their entire day monotonously stamping a single object or pulling a single lever has been well documented. Less well known is how the objects of medical and scientific discourses have reacted to being thought of and treated as defective machines. In Schreber’s cosmology, the body and mind are not naturally mechanical, but made so by a petty God wishing to consolidate his own power. Here lies an unknown tradition —a tradition that remains unknown because we still believe such people to be broken machines— of creative revolt against being made mechanical that I locate the ravings of Schreber.


Before the Memoirs proper even begin, Schreber included an open letter to his psychiatrist, Emil Flechsig, where he stands accused of soul murder and medical malpractice as a handmaiden of a predatory God. In what capacity? Schreber wrote:

"[W]ithin the Order of the World, God did not really understand the living human being and had no need to understand him, because, according to the Order of the World, He dealt only with corpses. The other rele­vant issue is the dependence on Professor Flechsig, or on his soul”

Emil Flechsig was a student of Wilhelm Griesinger, often credited as the psychiatrist responsible for changing the direction of psychiatric research towards a neurological future, pushing psychiatry away from the police work of rounding up deviants and vagabonds it had been endowed with towards laboratory work, pathological anatomy, and clinical demonstrations in hopes of finding biological causes for pathologies of mind, and, eventually, cures. Griesinger, wanting to firmly establish psychiatry as a medical discipline, claimed that the mind operated via reflexive impulses in reaction to stimuli. Psychiatric illnesses like Schreber’s represented above all a disordered reflex mechanism, whether by becoming overactive as in mania and hypochondria or slowed to a halt as in melancholy. The brain as a reflex-machine become the driver and central image of psychiatry, replacing social relations or notions of selfhood, encapsulated in his and his disciples slogan “mental disease is brain disease.” Griesinger pushed for psychiatrists to move away from tending to the “soul” as they said, by acting like patriarchal fathers in the position of a caring God, and move towards the study of the nerves of the brain. Schreber very aptly called the system of asylums at the end of the 19th century "God's Nerve-Institutes.” A scientific practice of psychiatry would involve continual surveillance of the patient to note minute changes in their behavior and manner. But Griesinger’s reform plan invaded deeper into the bodies of psychiatric patients, he argued for smaller clinics outfitted with the tools of laboratory science: microscopes, bacteriology labs, and, dissection rooms. Wanting to evade a reputation of inexactitude and mysticism, this new breed of psychiatrists turned away from the vagaries and uncertainties pertaining to the environment, social life, politics, or financial status of the patient, referred to the body as a technical assemblage with its “speech apparatus,” its “signals,” and its “brain mechanics,” and saw in the quantification and visualization offered by graphical devices a persuasive means of satisfying public and professional demands for precision. The image of a pastoral god tending to his flock was supplanted by the unruly new gods of the nerves, under whose reign we still live today.

American Journal of Insanity —Sphymographic tracing of chronic mania. (1870)

If the reflex action of the nerves could be visualized and measured, stained and put under a microscope, then so too could the actions of the mind, at least theoretically. But how? Griesinger and his followers placed his faith in the idea that “pathological anatomy was the ultimate adjudicator,” it would “reveal which disease had ‘really’ caused clinically observed symptoms.” The pathological corpse of the lunatic was especially valuable, since it was more likely to reveal insights into the operations of the body than a “normal” one, and because it was less likely to have a family try to claim it. The market in bodies was healthy, and Flechsig was perhaps its most avid trader. Flechsig instituted in his clinic a “Leichenpolitik” or, a policy of corpses. He offered free beds to chronic patients while introducing measures ensuring these incurables would stay until the moment of death, ensuring a fresh supply of research material. The lifeless body, the corpse, splayed out with its nerves and organs exposed becomes the prism through which the living patient can be made intelligible. Her behavior, his thinking, their words become readable only when written in the language of cadavers. This is why Schreber feels to urge to repeat the incantation “I am the first leper corpse and I lead a leper corpse” and why she passionately feels that God “completely misunderstands the needs of an actually living body and treats me like a soul, sometimes like a corpse.” The mad judge pointed his finger at this vampiric God whose nobility and status had its origins in the trucks and warehouses acting as makeshift graveyards for civilization’s most valuable miscreants and justly leveled the accusation of “soul murder.”

An image from a founding document of both neurology and pathological anatomy by Thomas Willis portraying a number of medical men surrounding a dead body on a table.
Thomas Willis —Cerebri Anatome, 1664

God is made partly identical to Flechsig, the brain-obsessed materialist, on multiple occasions, once even referring to a hybrid “God-Flechsig." This identification can now be understood in the proper light: Flechsig is, or imagines himself to be, a master brain technician in a technical universe, with the powers of surveillance and control that come with that, and thus occupies a position granted to God in the mechanist worldview. The new gods of the nervous kingdom sharpened their knives not in the interaction with patients, but through notes scribbled on microscopic slides, in long days spent huddled around the festering corpses of lunatics, at desks surrounded by brains in jars. At the exact same time as Schreber was visited by the hellish “writing-down-system”, Flechsig’s staff introduced a “feeding-system” wherein “attendants, mostly the same ones […]­ forced food into my mouth, at times with the utmost brutality. Again and again one of them held my hands while the other knelt on me as I lay in bed in order to empty food or pour beer into my mouth.” Schreber’s indictment of God is a judgement against all science that reduces the body to the merely rational, the numbers assigned to its parts, the “naked materialism” of its reflexive physical structure.

God is not merely God. Schreber consistently and repeatedly reminds us that Flechsig is in many ways identical to this figure she calls God or that he at least draws his power from God. So the book is about psychiatry then. Not so fast. While under attack from all these technological and mechanical supernatural happenings in Sonnenstein, Schreber tried and failed to end his tutelage and regain his liberty through legal means on several occasions until he fired his lawyers and took on the case himself, arguing, successfully, in 1902, that he ought to be at liberty without having to deny his beliefs. Lawyers and personages from the court appear to Schreber in a garden as “fleeting-improvised-men,” or beings so flimsy they must have been created in some slap-dash fashion. Schreber makes it clear on the first page that the book is at least initially a legal tract, and uses juridical language throughout. So the Memoirs are a legal document then. Again, not quite. Schreber discusses God in terms of technology, law in terms of religion, psychiatry and materialist science in terms of law, and every other conceivable combination. This in itself is a statement. In the fiction Schreber has spun, she is saying: these are various expressions of power. The mechanical vision of the universe is filled with drudgery, misery, and pain. Schreber expresses her frustration throughout the book that readers will see the text as a delusion. What is the difference between Descartes and La Mettrie proclaiming the human to be a machine, and Schreber that God is all nerve? The former shored up with princes, expounding their theories from the castles and noble estates of Europe. Schreber expired in solitary confinement, a lunatic, a filthy man-woman, a psychotic freak bellowing til the end of days. Michel Foucault and Friedrich Kittler are among those scholars praised for asserting that medical vision and technological advances are political in themselves and related to law and power. The insane have always known this, because they are the objects of this polyvalent power, but nobody bothered to listen.

All is not lost. Schreber ends the book on a positive note.

“I have wholeheartedly inscribed the cultivation of femininity on my banner, and I will continue to do so as far as consideration of my environment allows, whatever other people who are ignorant of the supernatural reasons may think of me. I would like to meet the man who, faced with the choice of either becoming a demented human being in male habitus or a spirited woman, would not prefer the latter. Such and only such is the issue for me.”

The venomous voices taunted Schreber asking “are you not ashamed in front of your wife?” spitting vitriol like “fancy a person who was a Senate President allowing himself to be fucked.” She fears that through unmanning, she is exposing herself to potential sexual abuse, not an unreasonable fear, generally speaking. The voices told her that all those who have been singled out by God to be destroyed are “Luder,” or “whores.” It’s important to keep in mind that in Schreber’s lifetime, the desire to become a woman or at least experience intercourse as one, was considered the height of his delusion, the red herring for what must have been a highly progressive brain disease. Homosexuality would not be removed from the DSM until 1973 (Gender Identity Disorder was in May of 2019) removed from the World Health Organization’ list of mental illnesses. Perhaps this deeply embedded antagonism towards all things trans and queer is why, even towards the end, Schreber still shows some resistance to the necessity she feels in the drive to become a woman or in cultivating sexual feelings for their own sake.

Schreber’s father was a strict moral pedagogue who spurned the idea of non-reproductive sexual gratification. Schreber, however, found pleasure an absolute necessity, a way of achieving relief and rest from the onslaught of miracles, legal actions and psychiatric treatments from all those who would reduce him to a demented madman. The clever Schreber acknowledges the father’s moral rectitude while also fundamentally subverting it, saying that her special position as an unmanned soul means that “For me such moral limits to voluptuousness no longer exist, in­deed in a certain sense the reverse applies.” Like a blasphemous nun, Schreber made it her duty to picture herself as a woman, aided by images from magazines or stuffing in her shirt. This practice of picturing herself “as a woman in the height of sexual delight” alone allowed her to enjoy a pure pleasure for its own sake, which Schreber called “soul-voluptuousness”. Under cloak of sly wordplay and rule-bending, she attends finally to her role as divine whore with gusto.

A painting depicting Phryne's lawyer removing her robe before her jury.
Phryne Before the Jury, Jean-Leon Gerome. 1861

Here too lies our holy Luder’s ultimate act of revolt against the law. Phryne, a prominent sex worker from 4th century Greece, was accused of sacrilege and impiety towards the Gods, and was forced to stand trial. When things started looking bad, she or her lawyer removed her cloak and exposed her naked body to the jury, who, upon looking at her, were filled to pity and lust and let her free. The myth suggests that femininity and especially feminine sexuality could only invite the irrationality of emotion and lust into the decisional practice of law. Legal scholars excluded women in no uncertain terms: Ulpian says that women are inferior to men, lacked capacity and personality, could not bring lawsuits; Cujas added they are not properly human; Alciatus called woman “the ruin of man, an insatiable beast, continual disquiet, and unlimited disturbance.” The judge, more than any other figure of law, represents judgement, decision, the firm and stark boundary lines between licit and illicit. For Miss Schreber to have removed the image of the reason and uniformity of law, the judge’s robe, the protective relic of the sacerdotal origins of law, reminding one at once of the prestige of the legal tradition and the power of its priestly class, and reveal feminine sexuality was to embed and embody the exclusions of Western law right into its heart. Schreber exposes herself to the law, and, through doing so, exposes the law to us as comedy, as the site of the irrationality and violence it claims to exclude.

A caricature by Cruikshank depicting the frivolousness and chaos of a fictional court ruled by women. 1849.

The imagination becomes the vector through which God’s reductive machine can be rendered inoperative. Schreber has no pastoral, romantic reveries about a time before the psychiatric materialism she was swallowed up by, she sees no way of going backwards. She speaks the language of mechanisms and law, but makes that language itself the material for her practice of “zeichnen”, “picturing” or literally translated “drawing”, where she could “produce pictures of all recollections from my life, of persons, animals and plants, of all sorts of objects in na­ture and objects of daily use, so that these images become visi­ble either inside my head or if I wish, outside, where I want them to be seen by my own nerves and by the rays.” Picturing is, in her words, a “a reversed miracle”, a weapon against God’s influencing rays, a method of emptying them of their noxious potential. By exposing God’s rays to images of her own choosing, she could confuse the writing-down-system, make jokes with the miracled birds, upset God’s program. The act of concentrated and intentional picturing ended in rapturous laughter, or in sensual delight. Schreber always gets the last laugh, at us, especially.

Campion —“Lustucru”, the brain blacksmith, curing the “screechy, angry, lunatic, obstinate, rebellious, willful, and lazy” women by forging new heads (~1660)

The influencing machine stands between the captors and the captured, but not as an object unambiguously available to all, but as a site of struggle, the object of a war over whether certain processes and environments are machinic in themselves or produce machinic effects, whether they reduce either the operators or the objects to automata or else whether there exist certain people whose brains or personalities resemble machines and ought to be treated differently on this account. The influencing machine is a sign through which struggles over autonomy and control, criminality and madness embedded in notions of irrationality and rationality, endlessly play out. By mirroring the works of contemporary scientists and men of medicine with Schreber’s work, I mean to show that she spoke from within multiple medical, theological, and legal traditions in a way that is entirely coherent and comparable. But I in no way intend to imply an equivalence. What La Mettrie and Galvani offer as fact, Schreber sees as an imposition on the possibilities of the imagination, of impoverishments of our way of seeing if we declare them the bedrock of truth. The body becomes a system of rote mechanical movements, the mind a mere reflexive device, while the patient’s value is measured by the market in cadavers. The battle lines are clearly visible. Schreber leaves us with screaming, picturing, and gender and sexual transformation not as an escape route, but as an internal subversion of the mechanical system itself, a strategy of beating it at its own game. Schreber spoke from within in order to destroy, distorting both Christian religion and medical materialism by putting them in the service of unmanning, laying holy ruins as the stones on a new path.

Sébastien Leclerc—The Great Destruction of Lustucru by Strong and Righteous Women (1663)

Tonight will end with something always denied the mad person: simple emotions. Between 1903-1907, after Schreber won his court case regaining his freedom, Schreber lived in regained liberty with their mother and sister, in good spirits, though barred from working, and choosing to dress in women’s clothing only in private. He played music and chess, and spent many joy filled hours with his adopted daughter, Fridoline. Unfortunately, this bliss was not to last. Daniel Paul’s mother died, and not long after his wife Sabine had a stroke in 1907 that resulted in the temporary loss of speech and vision problems, as well as a noted irritability and shortness. Schreber felt this as the loss of his primary support, and not for the first time. His brother, with whom he was very close, Gustov, took his own life in 1877. But Daniel Paul Schreber’s psychiatrists and interpreters do not allow even simple sadness in response to deep tragedy and loss. Schreber’s subsequent near-speechlessness and despondency becomes instead a “relapse” into schizophrenia, a third “episode” of an illness that has supplanted the person as the narrative subject at hand. What did Schreber really want? Besides picturing, Schreber’s other method of fighting God’s miracles was to play music, because it cultivated real emotion, which God’s nerves, the rays, could do nothing with. Schreber needed an emotional outlet, time to cry, space to scream, a bed into which she could lay down the body of a voluptuous inner woman. She says in the postscript that what she needed most was “more loving care than I could get in an Asylum.” She would never get this wish granted. At the end of her life, the main reported symptom in the medical charts was the continual bellowing, screaming towards the sun, the unceasing rage against power that she could not bottle up. And yet, I still believe Schreber when she wrote at the end of the Memoirs:

“The scales of victory are coming down on my side more and more, the struggle against me continues to lose its previous hostile character, the growing soul-voluptuousness makes my physical condition and my other outward circumstances more bearable. And so I believe I am not mistaken in expecting that a very special palm of victory will eventually be mine. I cannot say with any certainty what form it will take. As possibilities I would mention that my unmanning will be accomplished with the result that by divine fertilization off­ spring will issue from my lap, or alternatively that great fame will be attached to my name surpassing that of thousands of other people much better mentally endowed.”

Unlike the biblical story, this immaculate conception does not end in the return of a king with his new lawful order, but in a new transient and transitioning people. Schreber’s assertion that, through intercourse as a woman with God, she would repopulate the Earth is in no way a megalomaniacal notion, for I recognize it as at least in some ways already true. Whenever we find pleasure in our transitional desires, when we direct the imagination towards creative acts of subversion or playful trickery, or when we cultivate deep emotion together with intention, we become in part Schreber’s impossible children, the heretical spawn begotten through the unholy romance of a woman screaming to crack her pathological shell and the vicious conditions we receive as our inheritance or as God. Schreber will win. Her children, we whores in God’s ever surveilling nerve network, still bellow and will tomorrow too. We are clumsy, and anguishing, but our exuberance will take the day and soon, we will push aside what feels like the crushing weight of the debris of the past, and crawl out, painfully, into a creative future, unmanned, unholy, ecstatic and transformed.

Daniel Paul Schreber.

Further reading:

This is a distillation and summary of a much longer text, available here:

Beware the Influencing Machines
Download PDF • 1.03MB

Check out the wonderful images of Schreber by Friese Undine, which were a huge inspiration for this obsession:

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