The Robotic Imaginary: The Human and the Price of Dehumanized Labor

by Jennifer Rhee, University of Minnesota Press, 2018, 240 p. (paperback) ISBN: 978-1-5179-0298-8

“Though this book focuses on robots, it is first and foremost about the human—in its shifting definitions and barbarous exclusions—and the ways the figure of the robot across culture and technology inscribes and challenges these various definitions and dehumanizing exclusions” (29).

We exist in a moment where attempts to know and manage the human through automated and predictive technologies are deployed at every turn, and in a dangerously experimental fashion. In The Robotic Imaginary, Jennifer Rhee rejects the givenness of the human, the notion that the human is knowable or inherently recognizable. From the Turing test onwards, capturing and translating human essence—discussed in the book as anthropomorphizing—became a seemingly unassailable pillar of robotic and AI development. Moves to anthropomorphize collapse “humans and machines at the site of intelligence” (10) while extending or reshaping the boundaries of what can be considered human. Crucially, the humanizing of robots comes at the expense of those whose humanity is not familiar to machine-makers and their machines. With a focus on gender and race, Rhee asks of the robotic imaginary: “Who gets humanized, and how? Who gets dehumanized, and why?” (11).

The book attends to both cultural and scientific visions of the human and the robot. These visions are circulated and materialized with real life consequences, especially with regard to what is understood as intelligence, affect, labor—and as human. Disciplinary stakes are also at play here, and Rhee advocates for the critical role of the humanities and arts in scientific and technological considerations. Accordingly, each chapter looks at both technological and cultural translations of the robot, and is punctuated with a coda dedicated to robotic art to explore alternative visions of human-robot relations. While the domain of technological art is not without its own politics and omissions, Rhee practically juxtaposes scientific and popular culture with examples of creative robotic forms unbeholden to rationalizing military influence. One such example is Norman White’s The Helpless Robot (1985) which solicits care from nearby humans, only to then disparage their efforts, “generating alternate circuits of affect in the process” (61).

Rhee makes connections across literature, film, art, and scientific moments from the mid twentieth century onwards, summoning a motley roster of  “usual” suspects and objects, such as Alan Turing, Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Cynthia Breal’s sociable robot Kismet, as well as more recent films such as Ex Machina and Her. Rhee looks not to those cultural works that scientists deem most influential, nor to the more conspicuous robot fictions, but instead includes works that demonstrate how the robotic imaginary diffracts across disparate spheres to inform durable inscriptions of the human. For example, in holding together the closed world logics of Cold War robotics with Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, Rhee highlights that “the lived body,” owns a disruptive “worlding” capacity which can threaten the narratives dominant subjects tell about themselves and the world. In Stepford, the killing and replacing of (wealthy, white) women with their robot doubles “highlights the extreme erasures that must occur to construct and protect a closed world” (76). Notably, though, working-class women of color—whose labor sustains upper middle-class fantasies of the good life—are omitted entirely, absent in dominant technological, cultural, and feminist imaginings of both robot and human agency of the time.

Labor is identified as the key site of dehumanization in (and beyond) the robotic imaginary. The first three chapters of the book are organized around forms of invisible, devalued labor and their anthropomorphic renderings. The first chapter attends to care labor (i.e. whose work is diminished or erased to support both scientific advancement and capitalist accumulation?). The second chapter takes on domestic labor (whose labor is already deemed mindless or “robotic”? whose time can be freed up by robots?). And the third chapter looks at emotional labor (whose emotions and interests are legible and appropriate?). The fourth and final chapter, “Dying,” takes up drone labor, the most explicit scene of robot-amplified dehumanization. Here it is not just the gendered or racialized Other who is dehumanized. With the immediate threat of ground combat removed, drone operators are at once de-masculinized and dehumanized—they ‘lose their humanity’ as they mechanistically obliterate some lives for the sake of (American) others. Drone art featured in this chapter, such as the viral campaign #notabugsplat, registers the impossibility of recognizing humanity from the vantage point of the drone, or from the vantage point of the art gallery for that matter. Charting the political context of these robotic imaginings throughout the book, Rhee underscores that innovations in this domain are subsumed by—if not already rooted in—warfare and capitalist exploitation. Thus, across both scientific and cultural forms, the essence of the universalized human in the robotic imaginary emerges as “violent and murderous at its core” (23).

This book effectively demonstrates the ways in which “the robotic imaginary in its various forms has always had at its constitutive center gendered devaluation and racial dehumanization” (176).  In the epilogue and across the codas, Rhee ultimately seeks to reconfigure this dehumanizing imaginary, promoting instead a conception of the human (via Édouard Glissant, Judith Butler, and drone art) that is fundamentally unknowable or opaque, and importantly also vulnerable and interdependent. This disrupts the dehumanizing ideals of sameness, productivity, individuality, replicability, and recognizability. Although outside the scope of this inquiry, there is fruitful overlap here with queer and crip theory (and being) that likewise accounts for dehumanization vis-à-vis illegibility and encourages “unsettling the settled” notion of the in/human (Muñoz 2015).

Rhee’s book arrives at a critical time when the ethics and accountabilities of AI and robotic development are up for public, academic, and private industry debate. The Robotic Imaginary thus compliments well the recent spate critical work on AI, robotics, and algorithmic technologies by bringing art and popular culture into the fold, and will be valuable for science and technology studies scholars, technologists, and artists alike.

Leah Horgan, Dept. of Informatics, University of California, Irvine


Munoz, J. E., J. Haritaworn, M. Hird, Z. I. Jackson, J. K. Puar, E. Joy, U. McMillan, et al. 2015. “Theorizing Queer Inhumanisms.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 21 (2–3): 209–48.