by Anonymous, February 15, 2021
***FALL 2020 CONTEST WINNER***
This essay was written in 2018, before the HBO’s Watchmen and Lovecraft County aired. Both narratives are worth looking into for representations of Black bodies in the nexus of history, science fiction, and modernity.
Recent years have seen increased diversity in the American population. However, entwined with its shining tradition of immigration, our country has a much murkier history of oppression and outgroup aggression. From slavery to Manifest Destiny, immigration bans to racial violence, the repeated and systematic dehumanization of large swathes of the population has sparked countless campaigns for liberty and equality that continue into the present day. The media has proven an excellent tool for and against different agendas, with media portrayals of different populations shaping public opinion of the people that comprise those groups. This essay looks at two different subgenres of speculative fiction (Techno-Orientalism and Afrofuturism) that emerged in the twentieth century and their connection to real-world histories of oppression through the lens of two recent productions, the 2015 film Ex Machina and the Metropolis concept album series.
I. History of Un/humanity
Throughout American history, people of color have been posited as less than human. From the Three-Fourths Compromise in 1787 and immigration bans in 1882 and 1917, to modern stereotyping, the American legal system has worked in tandem with socioeconomic anxieties to portray people of color as unhuman “Others.” This has been accomplished by relegating the bodies of Black and Asian people to the “uncanny valley.”
Coined by Masahiro Mori in 1970, the uncanny valley describes semi/sentient technological simulacra that are vaguely familiar, but at the same time discomfiting in their distinct inhumanness (Chu; Roh 78). Mori believed that people respond positively to simulacra (i.e. effigies, superficial or unreal representations of humanity), when they are less than 85% similar to actual humans (Mori 2012). The strength of the positive response then increases proportionally, albeit slowly, as the percentage similarity increases. Those that fall near the graphical valley at 85% are characterized by an existence in the liminal space between humanity and the mere simulation of it (Figure 1).
This percentage is determined by a combination of the simulacra’s vocalizations, physical embodiment, and responses to human engagement. Considering the negative connotations associated with African American Vernacular English, black skin, epicanthic folds and “foreign” customs, representations of people in media can often be examined through the idea of the uncanny valley. Though rather than having the ambiguous “human” category as the baseline, much of contemporary American respectability and assimilation politics uses the unmarked category of “whiteness” as the baseline against which all other speech patterns, bodies, and behaviors are compared and evaluated for familiarity/humanity.
With this context, we can begin to consider how the characterizations of people of color in media and contemporary fiction force them into this uncanny liminal space, an existence allegorized by the speculative fiction staple – the android. Exploring different manifestations of the android as allegory enables us to disentangle the heterogeneity and distinctions within the minority monolith, as well as providing us with a deeper understanding of the relevance of speculative representations of marginalized groups.
In a 1902 campaign to extend the Chinese Exclusion Act, Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), argued that Chinese laborers were capable of sustaining deprivations in safety and sustenance that those of European descent could not (Gompers). The paper was termed “Meat vs. Rice, American Manhood vs. Asian Cooleism”. Its very title suggests that Asian Americans are something other than hu/man, some differential species known as “Coolie”. Despite their crucial role in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad and as laborers in the American West, the extent of Asian American humanity was routinely called into question. They were construed as literal machines, “cogs of hyperproduction”, arriving overseas in bulk for use in constructing industrial modernity (Roh 5).
Techno-Orientalism is a direct byproduct of this paradigm shift. It is defined by Danielle Wong as “A discourse that imagines Asia and Asians in hypo- or hyper-technological terms in order to secure the West’s dominance as architects of the future” (Wong 35).
Lacking a distinct cultural history, America seeks to compensate by imagining a distinct cultural future, in the form of future-societies. A staple in speculative fiction, future-societies have their roots in the industrial revolution, when increasing mechanization led to novels and speculation on the integration of synthetic technology with organic humanity. In the wake of the technological and arms dominance that emerged in the nineteenth century, the United States constructed its identity on the basis of modernity. Its status as a relatively young nation and a global superpower to boot fed into this ideal of futurism, where Western society, America in particular, was seen as the embodiment of modernism. “If it was the West that created modernity, it was also modernity that created the imaginary space and identity described as Western” (Morley 153).
Beginning in the 1980s, however, Asia has seen tremendous economic and technological growth, outpacing the nations typically thought to constitute the West. As a result, the focus of American anxieties shifted to “fears of being colonized [and] mechanized…in its pursuit of technological dominance” (Roh 4). Disoriented by the shift in technological innovation, the Western society developed insecurities about European and American modernity, Watching Asian nations outpace them in terms of GDP growth and technological innovation forces Western society to recenter the locus of modernity, forcing them to recenter the very core of their identities (CIA). This leads to further othering of Asian/American populations by white in order to retain their sense of identity, which is so inextricably entwined with the notion of technological superiority.
This led to the rise of cyberpunk. Envisioning future-societies dominated by masculinized white protagonists, cyberpunk allowed creators to reproduce the militarized, white, “rugged masculinity” that they believed to be their birthright. White men cast in the “lone wolf” archetype are shown as taking a stand against faceless corporations that are trying to elide humanity in favor of impersonal, unfeeling mechanization. Defining pieces in the genre include Blade Runner (1982) and Neuromancer (1984), both of which center on a lone white man in an Orientalized environment, which despite being populated by Asian/Americans, rarely gives them scope to be active subjects. Limited in their characterization, the presence of Asian/American bodies is used as sentient set dressing, with the sentience often called into question.
III. Ex Machina’s Inheritance
The distinction between sentience and thought originated in eighteenth century philosophy and has been historically connected to dehumanization and the justification for oppression towards the racial and ethnic Other. Sentient beings are considered capable of subjective interpretation, also known as emotions. Thinking beings, in contrast, are simply able to rationalize; take objective data and spit out information, no more human than a computer CPU. Thus, denying Asian/American characters of a full range of emotional expression effectively reduces them to androids; unhuman mechanized bodies whose sole purpose for existing is manual labor. By removing Asian/American subjectivity from Asian-coded environments, the narratives deny them personhood.
This phenomenon is observed in the 2015 film Ex Machina. Despite its rather hackneyed deployment of racialized tropes, Ex Machina is lauded as a speculative milestone for its inclusion of bodies of color in a future-society. However, said bodies are routinely denied subjectivity.
Humans interpret a subject’s emotion through two methods; voice modulation and facial expression. It is thus telling that both Asian androids in the film, Jade and Kyoko, have static visual affect displays. Throughout the 150-minute film, we see no variation in either of their expressions. Furthermore, their sole expression is neutral, suggesting that they lack any capacity for subjective, emotional response. In this sense, the film constructs the Asian face as “too artificial, too inorganic to pass for human” (Wong 40). The stereotype of the unfeeling, coldly logical Asian is depicted in full force here. This is driven to a visual extreme in the case of Jade, who is shown tearing herself apart in an effort to escape confinement. Her desperation literally destroys her. She does not show sentience, repeating the phrase “let me out” in a monotonous tone as her body breaks down.
It is also necessary to consider historical precedent in the case of Kyoko, who has been effectively muted by Nathan, the androids’ creator. Unable to utter a single sound, or to move in ways contrary to his explicit commands, she is denied any means of self-expression, any way of conveying the thoughts and feelings that would mark her as sentient.
Even Kyoko’s sexuality is almost mechanical in its eerie semblance to a computer responding only to user input. One of the most disturbing scenes in the film occurs when Caleb is looking for Nathan. Approaching Kyoko, he repeatedly asks her for Nathan’s location. As she remains mute, staring at him with her unchanging expression, Caleb shouts the profanity “F**k” as an expression of his growing frustration. It is this word that triggers Kyoko’s first action in this interaction, namely, to begin unbuttoning her shirt. Unable to respond outside the parameters and commands which Nathan has programmed nor express sentience, Kyoko is a trite character,
in the tradition of cyberpunk’s “use of the passive techno-Orientalized female body” (Roh 159). Kyoko is nothing more than sexual, sexualized technology.
Contrast this to Ava, the white female android. Not only does her tone vary throughout the film, depending on the emotions she experiences, we can also see changes in her facial expression. Viewers are called to question Ava’s humanity based on whether they perceive her expressions and voice modulations as either genuine expressions of feeling or calculated actions with the aim of liberation. In either case, Ava is at least offered the option of humanity, her white face allowing her to “pass’ in a way neither Asian android can.
What is more telling is director Alex Garland’s response to questions of racial bias. The director stated in an interview:
This statement is fundamentally flawed in its interpretation of race. Race is not a biological reality so much as a social construct, with the body “a kind of mediation of the processes by which race becomes attached to physiology…racialization is neither a biological nor a cultural descriptor” so much as one created to divide society on a system of baseless difference. Skin color, like so many other identities that have been historically rendered objects, exists on a spectrum, and the sheer arbitrariness can be seen in codification attempts such as the “one-drop rule”, which has no biological substance. There is a historical tradition of configuring posthuman subjects as white, and the lack of subjective action given to the non-white androids renders them unhuman, rather than posthuman.
While the movie features multiple female bodies of color, they are not complex characters. Even Kyoko’s demonstrations of her inorganic nature are oddly fetishized; a naked Asian woman is literally peeling away her flesh in order to show a white man the extent to which she is an “Other”. Had Garland limited the removal to her face, it might have proven less overtly voyeuristic. Even in the supposedly “feminist” scene, where Kyoko stabs Nathan, it is important to note that her transgression results in her immediate death via dismemberment. It is the white gynoid who delivers the final thrusts, who escapes into the wider world, whose transgressions result in her salvation, as opposed to her destruction.
Bound by the “visions” of both Nathan as their fictional creator, and Garland as their real creator, Jade and Kyoko exist as little more “technological tools for the personal exploration” of white women and men, rather than active subjects in their own right (Roh 161). In interrogating the portrayal of said bodies, it is possible to understand the premise of multiculturalism and its contributions to the same dehumanization it purports to counter, by arguing that mere inclusion of bodies of color does not inherently confer subjectivity to said bodies.
IV. Similarities – Comparing Histories
It is also important to consider the portrayal of the black body in Ex Machina as another embodiment of this concept. “The disconnection of black body parts from black subjectivity in the name of scientific progress” (Wong 41) is a common motif in cyberpunk, as well as real world history. There is a rich American tradition of scientific experimentation on black slaves, which is paralleled by Jasmine’s lack of face and brain. This literal absence of signifiers of thought, feeling, and sentience disturbingly parallels the deplorable treatment of black women’s bodies by white men in the name of “scientific inquiry”.
The case of Saartjie Baartman stands as a grim example. One of the Khoikoi people of southwestern Africa, Saartjie was taken to England by a Dutch trader, who then sold her to an exhibitionist who displayed her in a literal menagerie for public viewings. In a gross parody of empiricism, scientists and anatomists would come to poke and prod the poor woman, all in the name of “research”. Even death was not to provide a release from these indignities, as her body was autopsied for “definitive evidence of her low-level status on the scale of civilization” (Farrell 76). Her labia were preserved in a jar of formaldehyde in a Paris museum until the 1970s, when activists managed to force the items to be removed from display. But it was only in 2002 that her remains were repatriated to South Africa and given a formal burial.
Saartjie’s experiences were part and parcel of nineteenth century western philosophy that used bastardized biological precepts to justify the dehumanization of black and brown bodies. These pseudoscientific armchair anthropologists wrote about Asians, Africans and Native Americans as less evolved, then – in a staggering display of egoism and lack of integrity – used their own writings as “evidence” to justify oppression, colonization, imperialism, and slavery (Farrell 60). Such blatantly unscientific paradigms undergirded centuries of unethical experimentation on Black bodies, beliefs that Black people are “less sensitive to pain” (Washington; Hoffman et al).
It is very difficult to divest Jasmine’s denuded, defaced form from such a sordid history. It is also difficult to read the film’s cinematography as anything more than an underdeveloped, cursory nod to this history. It is a glancing acknowledgement, not a remotely clever interrogation. The film’s creators seem to fail to realize that the simple reproduction of a cliché or visual injustice is not necessarily a critique of it.
Afrofuturism seeks to counter this objectifying trend. While Techno-Orientalism is based on restructuring future temporalities as “colorblind” or white-by-default, Afrofuturism restructures past and present temporalities to acknowledge the existence and active subjectivity of black bodies (Van Veen 11). A subset of Ethnofuturism, it contains the largest body of work compared to other ethnofuturistic lenses, such as Asian-futurism and chicano-futurism, which focus on Asian and Latinx representations in speculative fiction, respectively. When considering the android as allegory for the conditions of racial “Others’ in America, it is important to consider “the nonequivalent co-construction of anti-Asian and antiblack racism” (Roh 183).
In both cases, however, a problem arises in the indirectness of the android as allegory. Using the struggles of mechanized simulacra as representations of real-world dehumanization transfers experiences that remain, in reality, and unhuman condition” to a level of literary abstraction. By representing the struggle of these androids, most of which are typically either indistinct or rife with racial caricaturing, as representative of real-world human struggle, it separates the viewer from the reality, the visceral suffering of flesh and blood humans. They can construct these struggles as being unreal, existing only in fictional allegory and post-apocalyptic or long past temporalities. It removes the immediacy.
V. Afrofuturism as the Future
African/Americans face a similar struggle for nuanced representation in speculative fiction. A study conducted as recently as 2008 found that Black people in America are routinely considered subhuman, represented in media as “ape-like” and more “primitive” (Goss et al.). Unlike Asian/Americans, though, their unhumaness is tied to their lack of technology. Whether considering technologies of the flesh (intelligence), or disembodied technologies (access to the Internet, computer systems, smart devices), African/Americans have been portrayed as possessing “less”. This construction of blackness as antithetical to technology-and therefore limited in sociocultural-advancement is reinforced by “the digital divide…limited broadband in inner-city communities, and the lack of computers in urban schools…racial surveillance and profiling” (Womack 47).
Unlike Asian/Americans, contemporary dehumanization of black skin is posited on the notion that they are “less evolved”, more closely resembling the prehuman apes as opposed to posthuman androids. In this sense, depicting African/Americans as active technology-enhanced subjects in speculative literature, rather than contributing to a history of caricatured oppression, can serve as a counter to “militarist and masculinist white visions of 20th century antiseptic science fictional futures” (Van Veen 20). By portraying black as integral to the narrative fabric of posthuman future-societies, they subvert the white default in media, and reconstruct narratives to provide less glamourized contexts for the reality of their condition.
As a movement, Afrofuturism can be defined as aiming to “Fuse the shiny tomorrowland of extraterrestrial beings, experimental technoculture and cybertronic robots with the self-esteem politics of ‘black is beautiful’” (Nama 142). By generating narratives that examine the African/American social condition while simultaneously imagining unconventional African/American embodiments beyond those imposed through a history of white hegemony and colonial trauma.
The condition of robot laborers bears striking similarity to that of African/American slaves. Both are constructed as unhuman, their commodification and enslavement justified by questioning their capacity for sentience. In fact, the term “robot” comes from the novel “Rossum’s Universal Robots”. The author, Capek, takes the term directly from the Czech word for “forced labor”, a descriptor evocative of slavery. In most depictions of androids as allegory for this group,
“The figure of the excluded and racialized other had nonetheless been insidiously included: the other had just been sanitized as metallic robota, ‘their’ troublesome attributes of consciousness and demand for ‘human rights’ quietly erased through deferential reprogramming.”(Van Veen 20)
This entire allegory is explored in Janelle Monáe’s Metropolis concept album series. Chronicling the narrative of a messianic female android named Cindi Mayweather, Monáe’s work also uses a working android as an allegory for the experience of individuals of color, but unlike the voyeuristic distance of Ex Machina, Monáe’s Metropolis is populated by black androids, and humans of different ethnicities. What is telling is that the android bodies, made and marked for commodification, are those of black women. However, unlike the sustained male gaze present in the creation of other cyberpunk and speculative fiction properties, e.g. Ex Machina, the album series presents Cindi as a subject rather than object. Her face is hyper-expressive, switching between expressions in a rapid, fully humanized manner, while her body is never denuded, except for the album art in The Metropolis Suite. However, it is unskinned and unadorned, explicitly showing wiring and cords spilling out of her, suggesting disassembly and un/making than a voyeuristic intrusion. Her unfinished body is tellingly depicted in a stark white metallic shade, to convey how the embodiment of “blackness” as a race is purely social, with no natural basis. The color of our skin is literally that of the elements we were created with, and not a reflection of us as individuals.
Unlike Ex Machina, Metropolis is also consciously aware of the history it inherits, and the rampant objectification of bodies of color in mainstream speculative fiction. A tongue-in cheek adaptation of Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic film, it uses a female android as a catalyst for societal change. While Lang’s film posited the gynoid Maria as an evil entity, whose hypersexualized performances were responsible for fomenting what was essentially a communist uprising that resulted in societal collapse and destruction, Monáe’s series posits Cindi Mayweather as an androgynous, messianic entity whose performances encourage individual self expression and love. Rather than being coded as a mechanical Eve, responsible for the downfall of man, Mayweather relies on “the concept of prophecy, or speaking about hope to create a vision of the future.” (Womack 41). Monáe also uses the concept of love as a measure of humanity, with viewer sympathy for Cindi stemming from her initial attraction to a human. But it is telling that her character is not marked solely by her actions in relation to men. While her attractions and affections catalyze her development as a messianic performer, it is her use of prophecy and calls to liberty that fully renders her a subject. In this case, the android is a beautiful allegory for enslavement, using music as a means of communication to call her people to freedom from an oppressive society that sees them as little more than objects. In fact, the use of the term ArchAndroid to describe Mayweather is reminiscent of the term “archangel”, suggesting that she holds the key to all sentient salvation.
“Her inversion of Maria, the female android who is constructed to seduce and trick the proletarian workers of Metropolis. In Monáe’s version, “slave cybergirl” #57821 becomes the ArchAndroid, the revolutionary mediator between the proles and the elites, just as her Africanist embodiment reverses Maria’s whiteness to the ArchAndroid blackness.”(Van Veen 13)
Her frenzied audiences are also predominantly women of color, with men of color outnumbering white men. This defies the male gaze that is so pervasive in speculative fiction, increasing Mayweather’s subjectivity, as opposed to objectification in the eyes of a male audience with greater social power than herself. It makes it explicitly clear who her message is for, consciously aware that the messages of empowerment and control that manifest in depictions of future-societies are typically centered on white men. For Mayweather’s audience, self-worth and love for others in a future-society parallels that in contemporary society, acting as revolutionary forces that can counter a societal dynamic of dehumanization and objectification. Metropolis’s Cindi Mayweather thus subverts the android trope in its entirety, offering a possible archetypal “happy ending”, rather than having the android punished for her subversiveness, as with Kyoko in Ex Machina.
Monáe’s use of Egyptian motifs is also telling, hearkening back to a time when dark skinned cultures were heralded as advanced societies, producing technological knowledge that shaped the world. They were the crux of technoscientific development, and as such were the loci of modernity. Rather than relying on trite, tired racialized imagery based solely on dehumanization in the post-colonial context, the symbols employed by Monáe connote possibilities of power.
It is important to understand that these issues are not restricted to the past and paper. The insidious specters of systemic dehumanization continue to make their presence felt current political rhetoric surrounding African and Asian societies. The distinction between Ex Machina and Monáe’s work is rooted in the use of an objectifying lens versus a subjective one. This distinction serves to “complicate [the] assumption…that inclusion would remediate racism”. While Ex Machina used racist cliches, it did nothing to dismantle the stereotypes or xenophobia that initially created them. Contrast this with Metropolis, which uses lyrics such as “I’m a slave cybergirl without a face a heart or a mind / (a product of man, I’m a product of the man)” to cleverly subvert the notion that women of color are incapable of subjectivity and/or sentience. The use of the first-person pronoun immediately acknowledges the speaker’s subjectivity and self, even as the literal words imply that her nature is to be objectified. Unlike Ex Machina’s brutalization of the literally brainless and faceless black female body (shockingly sensational, but hardly original), Metropolis immediately follows this lyric with a chorus that drives home the nature of that dehumanization. Cultures of inequity, just like robots, are products created by (mostly) men, for the system of institutions and ideologies that privileges them over “Others.” Mayweather the android, her body and programming created by a man and commodified in the future-society. is thus a parallel to the contemporary woman of color, whose gender and race are the products of a racist, patriarchal, capitalist society that profits and has profited on the commodification of their bodies.
As seen through the deconstruction of Ex Machina and Janelle Monáe’s use of colored bodies, however, it is evident that inclusion itself does not progressive humanization make. Rather, it is the complex context in which the human or androids act and react that truly makes for positive representations. It is not enough to have the bodies without considering what they are meant and made to embody. Afrofuturism offers a direct response to histories of inequity that Techno-Orientalism only serves to reinforce.
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