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Prognosticating Echoes: Race, Sound, and Naturalizing Technology

Chude-Sokei, Louis

In his near-classic The Recording Angel (2005), Evan Eisenberg points out that the actual legacy of automata in the twentieth century was machines like the phonograph or gramophone. Since so many automata were used as music boxes and existed for entertainment purposes and for refined contemplation in a European context, it is no surprise that they would evolve as they did in America. This emphasizes something more interesting than their pedigree: that in the years between Joice Heth, the black slave woman that P.T. Barnum passed for an automata, and (Karel Capek’s) R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), the play that would introduce the term “robot” into the English language, ventriloquism and masquerade become increasingly properties of technology. “Mimetically capacious machines” were beginning to define the difference between centuries and, in the United States, between cultural powers and social groups (Taussig 1992).

Eisenberg is generally very aware of the relationships between African Americans and the history of sound recording, yet he maintains the common reading of Capek’s robots as merely representing “alienated labor” or as figures of class struggle. But in a country still reeling from racial violence and where, unlike Europe, radical political assertion—of the kind that Capek was also alluding to—was strongly linked to racial politics, the play’s vision of an extremely violent robot war depended on much more immediate concerns. Then of course there is Capek himself, consistently deploying race alongside all those other meanings that made the play as rich a work of literature as it would be an influential work of the genre of science fiction, which was only a few years from being formally named. Yet in the final two sentences of Eisenberg’s passage the racial meanings intrude too far to be ignored. The slave haunting the master, turning on the master, becoming a master, and the master becoming a slave—clearly a great fear of proletarian revolt in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. And these meanings are present in R.U.R. just as they are in Fritz Lang’s film, Metropolis (1927).

In the nineteenth century such an expectation was so strong in the American South that it became a crucial set of narrative tropes: the black rapist, the brutish automaton that sets fire to the plantation, racial revenge as the first gesture of freedom. Those two sentences prefigure the next chapter of the book, which charts in advance of Capek the notion that machines and humans need be figured in a master/slave dialectic. In this tradition the necessary conclusion to that dialectic is not synthesis—as will be the case in cybertheory or “cyborg feminism,” topics of an even later chapter—but violence and supplantation. Capek was not the first to narrate the relationship between human beings and machines in racial terms, but his vision has proven to be the most influential. Interestingly, for Eisenberg the difference between phonograph and robot is arguably based on “soul” or something very like it.

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October 22, 2018
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