Flee(t)ing Control

In 1963, labor organizer and Black radical thinker James Boggs wrote about the coming menace of automation, the approaching technologically-driven stage of capitalist development where less and less manpower would be needed to increase profit. In Detroit, known as the arsenal of democracy, where Boggs organized Black autoworkers, these concerns were real. For it would mean that those who in the two decades prior could achieve a relatively comfortable middle class lifestyle with only a high school diploma, and only a will to work hard and exert themselves through manual labor, would no longer have a place in the industrial economy. For Boggs, the results would be catastrophic. Writing in a period of high hopes—at least among the Black liberal elite—Boggs was clear that capitalist development as a system had no responsibility to achieve an equal society; even civil rights, though it had an egalitarian appeal, could never produce a just society, so long as the market determined human possibility. As such, Boggs and his wife Grace Lee began to think about what a world without work would look like at the same time that they embraced post-capitalist visions of the future.[1] Their work, especially, Grace Lee Boggs’ imagination of human amelioration, could be thought to run counter to the Enlightenment notion of progress through reason, an idea which has been shown to be illogical on its own merits. Yet this idea continues to drive scientific inquiry; “if only we knew more, innovated more,  we could eliminate human suffering.”

It is within these contexts that we might best understand Gregory Hampton’s Imagining Slaves and Robots in Literature, Film, and Popular Culture, as an invocation to think through the synergies between the enslaved past (but also present) and the ways in which science arrogantly assumes that we might progress into a future where leisure orders human existence. Robots are the result of a concept of reason that has overextended itself, if not exposing its own fundamental alienation from a metaphysics of Divine order.[2] That is to say, the historicist turn created the hope that man could indeed control nature, could indeed progress. Yet the various warnings that pervade Hampton’s work reveal the dangers of such assumptions. Too often reason dictated progress at the barrel of a gun. What does it mean that the very progress of the Western social order was bought through dispossession, genocide, and enslavement? How do we think about human futures ordered by reason if the past has revealed that there was often a “price of the ticket”?

Robots are here. New technologies will come. However, instead of blindly adopting them, instead of Googling and asking Siri how they will change our daily lives, we should use this opportunity to think about what their impact might be on how we understand what it means to exist in this moment. I’m not sure Siri or even Wikipedia will help us there. In Hampton’s reading, the disavowal of human agency during the era in which Africans were held in bondage was an attempt to reduce them to chattel, but also a simultaneous acknowledgement that they were probably, plausibly, human. One needs to only think about Thomas Jefferson’s dual acknowledgement—at best, at worst, and most likely a deep and sick confusion. In the same way, Hampton argues that the possibility of humanoid robots occupying the same Western imagination of human/non-human binary epistemologies might lead to some unwelcome outcomes. Avoiding the typical apocalyptic man vs. machine motif in science fiction criticism, Hampton arranges readings of popular culture narrations of robotic life as mirrors of racial, gender, and sexual identities explored in narratives of the enslaved. The work of Lydia Maria Child and Fannie Hurst are read together with the science fiction of Douglas Sirk’s Bicentennial Man (1999) and the enslaved domestic is read into the future through Hanna Barbara’s cartoon, The Jetsons. This juxtapositions, these mirrors, while comparing actual human stories to nonhuman futuristic accounts, for Hampton have implications for how we will come to identify the human self, the racial self, and interestingly what it means to love one another in age of continuing Western political dominance.

Whatever else they do, new technologies will remain the handmaiden of power. And it is here where Hampton’s reading might have extended its conversation. In the final chapter, Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid is understood as a convergence point between liberation narratives and futuristic sites of engaging such freedom. Monae’s work challenges us to think about the future, but also questions of being liberated from forces whose technologies only seek to destroy, to occupy, to remake what it never should have possessed. But in her earlier work, “Many Moons” she questions whether or not the futurity of technological progress has rendered us “walking dead” people; can robots make us less human? Susan Greenfield’s latest book, Mind Change (2014), explores the ways that technology has indeed shifting the neurological process of brain capacities. Study after study has shown that increased exposure to technologies has led to a diminished capacity to acquire certain kinds of knowledges. Reason it seems, is some Frankensteinian inevitability.

It is no accident that most technologies have their origin in military research; variations of the death dealing robots we call drones have now become Christmas presents. Space travel has become the scientific study of how the West will seek to colonize other planets. These notions of futurity require us to think back to what modernity has meant for the world. It requires us to critically engage, if not abandon notions of reason that privilege destructive means toward progress. Just as the enslavement of humans in the modern era was made possible by the dispossession of native lands and made possible the industrial exploitation of scores of humans, the enslavement of technologies that perform human functions cannot be decoupled from the question of colonization and imperialism by simply praising them as cute scientific advances. What we know about the Western intellectual project is that what is on the horizon is more ominous. In fact there is a long tradition of Western critique of scientific progress and its relationship to industrial technology. Even within the bounds of the Enlightenment tradition, as Noam Chomsky argues in his recent What Kind of Creatures are We (2016), there is room for an analysis that reveals that the core premise of the tradition is to achieve the common good. Historian Jonathan Israel and other Enlightenment theorists are expending great amounts of intellectual energy on just this particular reading. If one was to take them at their word, then an archaeology of just how egalitarian ideals if inherent to these particular formations end up creating the unjust world—even by their own merits—that continues to define human life. Such work is enthralling and useful, but it often obscures critiques of Western traditions that have always emanated from the source of modernity’s primitive accumulation.

For even longer than the Luddites, the jacobins, or the counter-revolutionary Patriots, this older sensibility has resisted the idea that science should seek to dominate nature. Cedric Robinson has called it the Black Radical tradition—the sense that we Africans are more than a source of labor, but thinking, and yes, even “reasoning” human beings. But what kind of reason? Is there an identifiable African logos? Perhaps. Black radicalism—the approach to freedom demonstrated by the very enslaved Africans thought to be less human—was in fact a worldview the included nature as part of the pantheon of living deities. It could not be dominated because it was a part of us. One might think of the sciences of George Washington Carver or the use of the root to affect and extend life. What made these ideas work was harmony, not control. In his 1972 pamphlet, Science and Oppression, Jacob Carruthers called for a conception of Western science as the center of its imperial domination, and in many ways for a “revolt against reason and progress.” Gregory Hampton’s work is a call to think about how this logic of domination will appear in the form of humanlike machines. Without resisting the idea that technology is inherently progressive, we will only reinscribe this logic of power at the cost of more human lives.

[1] See July-September 2011 issue of Souls for more on the work of the Boggses.

[2] Here the work of Jacob Carruthers is instructive, see Mdw Ntr: Divine Speech (London: Karnak House, 1995), 89-104.


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