Robotic History

book review of dustin a. abnet’s the american robot: a cultural history.

x-posted from us intellectual history book review.

Like Klaatu with his robot companion Gort in the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still (remade with Keanu Reeves in 2008), Dustin A. Abnet has come to tell us about a history Americans only partly understand. In his study of “the idea of the robot in American culture,” Abnet notices that Americans have portrayed the machine in two almost opposite ways: sometimes, they treat the robot as a “mechanized human”; but just as often they have been interested in the “humanized robot” (3, 5). As a “mechanized human,” the robot has symbolized the degradation of workers within industrial systems of mass production (6). This is the context in which the term originated, in a 1920 Czech-language play R.U.R. (Rossumovi Univerzálni Roboti, Rossim’s Universal Robots). The robot has also stood in for the passivity and lack of criticality arising in mass society in general. This was what sociologist C. Wright Mills meant when he unhappily described citizens turning into “cheerful robots” in the 1950s.[1] Either way, robot bad! However, Americans also have thought robots were good: as a novelty, a labor-saving device, or a helpmeet, the “humanized machine” has long dazzled and bewitched Americans with its uncanny qualities of simulated personhood. Just ask Siri or Alexa to confirm this.

Robots have cognition, they have intelligence, or so many techno-utopianists declare, but as a cultural historian Abnet is less interested in whether robots can actually think than in how robots have galvanized human thinking. The American Robot is ambitious in scope. It does not begin with the more familiar twentieth century stories of a clunky, science-fiction metal man shooting laser beams. Nor does it start with the fears of factory automation rampant since at least the 1950s. It does not even start with laboratory dreams of mechanical brains. Rather, it goes all the way back to the Early Republic. We join one “Senor Falconi” and his Native American automaton, which appeared in 1788 in Philadelphia. Abnet then explores robotic inventions and musings by many figures: Georges-Louis Leclrec, Comte de Buffon, Pierre and Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz, Swiss clockmakers, Jacques de Vaucanson, René Descartes, John Locke, Methodists such as John Wesley, Thomas Jefferson, Cyrus McCormick, William Seward, Henry Thoreau, the “Steam Man,” the Automatic Toy Company, Frederick Taylor, Emma Goldman, Frank Baum’s Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, Ernest Hemingway, the Westinghouse Company, Walt Disney, Howard Hughes, Gene Autry, Vannevar Bush, Lewis Mumford, Charlie Chaplin, Harry S. Truman, Erich Fromm, Albert Einstein, Norbert Weiner, Isaac Asimov, Audrey Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in the film Desk Set, Martin Luther King, Jr., Arthur Koestler, countercultural hippies, Philip K. Dick, Andy Warhol, Michael Jackson, the rock bands Styx (“Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto”) and Devo (“Q. Are we not men? A. We are Devo!”). That is just to name some of the people and material that The American Robot marches through on its way to the present era.

The scope of the book makes for a wide-ranging account, one that reminds us how the robot has lurked in many unlikely places. It has been, Abnet explains, “a multifaceted character that people use to deal with some of the most persistent tensions in their society, especially those between slavery and freedom, work and desire, authenticity and artificiality, peace and war, and self and other” (295). These tensions had to be “reconciled” repeatedly by the white, bourgeois men who dominated the robot imaginary (295, 17). For them, Abnet contends, the most impressive aspect of the robot had nothing to do with feats of technological invention and far more to do with what the robot could accomplish symbolically and ideologically to keep them on top. The robot was not a tool for social equality, Abnet believes; it was a mechanism for reinforcing hierarchy. It could not escape categories of identity and power; rather, it continuously wrapped its mechanical claws around issues of race, gender, and class. Or, maybe better said, in Abnet’s view, issues of race, gender, and class almost always powered the robot. They were the cultural batteries that repeatedly charged its place in the American imagination. These matters, for Abnet, form the national robot unconscious (actually, most of the time, the use of robots to reinforce hierarchy and power was not even subtle, as Abnet tells the story; it was pretty obvious and overt).

Alas, the way Abnet handles race, gender, and class in The American Robot can get somewhat too, well, robotic. Intent on squeezing disparate stories into one unified singularity of cultural historical analysis, he insists on fitting the robot into rather static modes of categorizing social organization and identity formation. Rather than look for what has surely been a more complex dynamic of contestation and change over robots and their many meanings, he settles on an underlying continuity. “The character of the robot,” he writes, “has predominantly been the creation of a small subset of Americans: middle- and upper-class white men” (8). It has “fused middle- to upper-class white men’s fantasies of taming the bodies of others to fantasies of taming the out-of-control machinery of modernity” (295-296). It has been “a slavery fantasy that has predominantly appealed to white, middle- to upper-class men as a means of dealing with their own lack of absolute control over themselves, others, and the processes associated with the development of industrial capitalism” (300). “The subset of people who have publicly envisioned, displayed, and discussed robots is strikingly small. With only a few exceptions before the late twentieth century, robots have been the expressions of men of power and privilege” (7).  These and many other sentences make it seem as if only this elite group of Americans has been able to exert control over the robot. It is not that this analysis is wrong, to be clear. They have! But the point takes on a rather automated quality in Abnet’s book. It bludgeons when one longs for interpretation that might be a bit more nimble.

In this sense, you do not really need to read The American Robot to know what it is going to say about robots. One need only execute what have become some of the more standardized programmatic commands of today’s routinized academic analysis. As with everything else, so too with the robot: bourgeoise white men have behaved monstrously. Yet Abnet makes a more subtle argument within this rather potted overarching historical narrative. To him, when elite white men have gazed into the robot’s blinking red eye, they, pace Nietzsche, have most often found it gazing back. The robot was not only a “metaphor for a person who lacks agency and authenticity,” it also presented “the possibility that everyone can satisfy even the most intimate of desires without having to deal with the competing wishes of others” (10). It became a means of narcissism, self-obsession, and self-aggrandizement. Robots allowed elite white men to diminish fellow humans by associating them with the robot as “other” rather than thinking of other humans as fellow beings. The robot was “crucial within American cultural history because separating human from machinelike persons has been one of the key ways of rationalizing efforts to restrict the rights, freedoms, and powers of others” (10, 7). In short, look for the robot in the American past and one finds not a futuristic hope for utopian science fictional transformation, but rather a social realism of continually reasserted subordination.

One sometimes wishes Abnet would delve more deeply into moments when robots served as feistier symbols of dissent, resistance, and rebelliousness. He mentions the African American cultural creation of the “robot dance” in the 1970s, for instance, but only with the faintest exploration of its sophisticated vernacular gestural commentary on the line between mechanical alienation and human virtuosity in an increasingly computerized economy (286-287). Similarly, Abnet alerts us to the potentially emancipatory feminist vision of the robot in Donna Haraway’s 1985 “Cyborg Manifesto,” but moves on quickly to yet more examples of the oppressive use of the robot to guarantee racial, gendered, class hierarchy (291). For Abnet, the robot’s many manifestations—Barnumesque humbug automaton, corporate advertisement spectacle, cybernetic Cold War laboratory creation, paperback sci-fi fantasy—lead almost always back to an elite, white man assembling the mechanism’s cultural meaning and that alone. Not wrong, but not the whole story.

To skip the book for this reason, however, is to miss moments when Abnet discovers remarkable surprises. For instance, the religious dimensions he notices in the history of the robot remind us how stubbornly matters of the human soul surface in considerations of the non-human machine. Examining Enlightenment-era philosophy, Republican ideals of society and citizenship alongside shifting notions of salvation in early nineteenth-century Protestantism, Abnet points out that the precursor to the modern robot, the automaton, became a mechanism for exploring its precise opposite: the ideal of autonomy. It turned out that the when “Americans pondered whether the automaton was a gift of God or a demon that threatened to drag the country’s innocence to hell,” it was most of all a way to confront “the impact of material and intellectual transformations on the individual soul” itself (17). The automaton was but a way to measure the nature of human autonomy.

At the end of the book, the robot as a means of registering questions of human spirituality once again inspires Abnet to more nuanced investigation. In close readings of Janelle Monae’s appropriations of the robot in her science-fiction, Afrofuturist R&B as well as HBO’s revival of the 1970s Michael Crichton film Westworld, Abnet at last glimpses emancipatory possibilities for the robot. “Perhaps,” he writes on a more hopeful note, “the American robot has begun to rebel against those who have long imagined and controlled it” (300). When a machine imagined as an indigenous person spoke in HBO’s Westworld, Abnet explains, it reversed the use of Falconi’s automaton Indian centuries earlier. The robot became “an icon of resistance—not against the abstract concepts that seemed to restrict the freedom of the powerful, but against the powerful themselves” (301). By insisting upon “the material nature of human identity and reveling in the freedom it might provide,” Abnet believed that maybe, at last, the robot was becoming “a symbol not of control but of liberation” (300).

For Abnet, the robot’s symbolic power as a force for good arises, paradoxically, when we stop forcing robots to serve as symbols. Only when robots speak as themselves, for themselves—which is to say, when we stop wanting them to become human or stand in for humanity—can they perhaps deliver to us what it in fact means to be fully human. When reduced to their basic parts, robots thus expand their emancipatory potential. These machines start to provide the nuts and bolts for constructing a view of humans as themselves nothing more than flesh and bone. We are corporeal beings, they tell us, caught up within our own limits of this mortal coil. From there, however, maybe we can shift from fantasies of “mechanized humans” and “humanized robots” to a more egalitarian pursuit of beauty and justice for all. Released from the requirement that they automate our advancement, discharged from the task of mirroring human nature, robots might paradoxically help us make progress toward realizing a better sense of what it means to be human.

[1] C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (1959; reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 175.