BAR Book Forum: Symposium on Achille Mbembe's "Critique of Black Reason" (Part 2)
It is crucial to bring a feminist and critical race perspective to bear on notions of technological development.
“Technology is a site through which contemporary racism reconstitutes itself in the present day.”
(In this three-week symposium, we asked authors to comment on Achille Mbembe’s book, Critique of Black Reason. This week’s contributors are Neda Atanasoskiand Kalindi Vora. Atanasoski is Professor of Feminist Studies and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Vora is Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies at the University of California, Davis. Read the first part of the symposium, by Vincent Lloyd, here.)
“Response to Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason”
Neda Atanasoski and Kalindi Vora
On February 1, 2018, the New York Times ran an article about Amazon’s patents on a wristband that could track its workers’ every move. The engineering of a device that knows when workers are “slacking off” or doing something wrong – at which point the device vibrates – appears to be a dire indicator of ever-increasing technologically enabled and dehumanizing surveillance in the workplace.The Times article details the ways in which Amazon warehouse workers feel that they are already treated like robots.“A former Amazon warehouse worker in Britain said in a phone interview, ‘After a year working on the floor, I felt like I had become a version of the robots I was working with.’ He described having to process hundreds of items in an hour — a pace so extreme that one day, he said, he fell over from dizziness. … ‘They want to turn people into machines,’ he said. ‘The robotic technology isn’t up to scratch yet, so until it is, they will use human robots.’”
“Amazon warehouse workers feel that they are already treated like robots.”
Part of a slew of exposes published in the last decade that present a bleak picture of the ways in which technology is changing the nature of labor (and the conditions of exploitation), the Times article on the Amazon wristband is an account how technology erodes humanity. One assumption in this genre of techno-dystopic narratives is that turning humans into robots is the first step in a process that ends when technology reaches the point where robots can replace human workers, rendering them obsolete. What this account and others like it often assume but do not account for is how and why technology is imagined to replace only tasks that are already degraded and racialized (those tasks deemed non-creative, dull, and repetitive), such as Amazon warehouse work. As one of its many contributions to theorizing the centrality of blackness and race to global modernity, Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason touches on the ways in which the histories of racial slavery and colonialism undergird contemporary neoliberalism as a “phase in the history of humanity dominated by the industries of Silicon Valley and digital technology” (3). The “human robot” (as the Times article frames the worker in our contemporary era) is a figure that is representative of what Mbembe explains as the fungibility of the subject in a moment when capitalism and animism fuse (4).
“The systematic risks experienced specifically by Black slaves during early capitalism have now become the norm for, or at least the lot of, all subaltern humanity.”
In contrast to popular terms used to describe the socioeconomic changes following the revolution in robotic and digital technologies (including the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Second Machine Age) – terms that indicate that we are in a moment of radical transformation that fully breaks with past modes of capitalist exploitation – Critique ofBlack Reason insiststhat the contemporary possibility that “human beings will be transformed into animate things made up of coded digital data” (5) is in a fact the “universalization of the Black condition,” (4) or the “Becoming Black of the World” (6). As Mbembe puts it, “the systematic risks experienced specifically by Black slaves during early capitalism have now become the norm for, or at least the lot of, all subaltern humanity.… Such practices borrow as much from the slaving logic of capture and predation as from the colonial logic of occupation and extraction” (4). Technology is a site through which contemporary racism reconstitutes itself in the present day, even as the foundational logics of technological and political modernity and global capitalism continue to be structured by the presence of the “Black Man” as “the only human in the modern order whose skin has been transformed into the form and spirit of merchandise” (6). In this sense, Critique of Black Reason connects its exploration of what constitutes the human to the conditions of the emergence and expansion of global capitalism. Mbembe writes that the Black Man has always been also the name for the “man-of-metal, man-merchandise, [and] man-of-money” (47) – in short, the Black Man was “an essential mechanism in a process of accumulation that spanned the globe” (47).
“Slavery, colonialism, and racial apartheid led to the Black subject’s separation from him/herself.”
BecauseCritique of Black Reason demonstrates throughout its pages that global capitalism has not “left behind … the principle of race and the subject of the same name” that began with slavery and the plantation (13), it is a book that invites a consideration of how racial difference still structures the logics of our technological modernity (even as, or precisely because, technology appears to be not directly about human bodies and their differential exploitation). Put otherwise, the presumption that technology and engineering imaginaries are race neutral implies that contemporary modes of production and technological infrastructures are race neutral, progressive, and leading towards a future in which humans can be liberated from prior modes of exploitation. By asserting digital technology as part of the “Becoming Black of the world,” Mbembe demarcates a systemic drive within capitalist modernity, a drive that is still embodied by the “Black Man,” but also critiques both the role of technology within capitalist modernity as well as the purported liberatory future promised by its defenders. Mbembe gestures to how these defenders of technology’s promise to make capitalism better, more efficient and more rational led directly to the mechanization and dehumanization of the worker. In this connection, Mbembe argues that “the term ‘Black’ was the product of a social and technological machine tightly linked to the emergence of globalization and capitalism” (6). As Critique of Black Reason asserts, slavery, colonialism, and racial apartheid led to the Black subject’s separation from him/herself, to disappropriation of that subject and material resources, and finally to degradation through exile and social death. This is in contrast to the subject’s desire to know oneself (the moment of sovereignty) and to hold oneself in the world (the moment of autonomy) that define the fully human (liberal) subject (78-79). “The Black Man” is the “living crypt of capital” even as in its dualism, “Black” also symbolizes a conscious desire for life.
“The presumption that technology and engineering imaginaries are race neutral implies that contemporary modes of production and technological infrastructures are race neutral.”
In our book Surrogate Humanity: Race, Robots, and the Politics of Technological Futures (Duke University Press, 2019), we address a sympathetic condition of technological political modernity that we call the “surrogate human effect.” In our theorization, this effect is the racial grammar through which an embrace of technological progress merges with liberal accounts of the free, autonomous and sovereign subject. We assess how technologies that claim to replace humans take up historical forms of racial and gendered subjugation that enable the possibility of a technologically mediated update to the liberal form of the human. Moreover, we postulate that the surrogate effect is a racial and gendered relation emerging at the interstices of new technologies and the reconfigurings of Euro-American geopolitical dominance. Through a focus on labor, we show how technologies constituting the so-called fourth industrial revolution are in fact co-produced with the shifting racialized and gendered essence of “the human” itself and, to be more precise, the liberal subject.
Whereas Mbembe in his discussion of Silicon Valley digital updates to racial modernity showcases how the human can be reduced to a (non-autonomous, non-sovereign) machine, in our work, we have also considered the racial nature of the fantasy that the nonhuman machine can function autonomously, thus rendering it unnecessary for any human to do dull, dirty, or degrading work. In promotional and media accounts of engineering, ingenuity erases human-machine interactions such that artificial “intelligence,” “smart” objects and infrastructures, and robots appear to act without any human attention. These technologies are quite explicitly said to be “enchanted” – a term that encapsulates a desire to attribute magic to techno-objects. The desire for technological enchantment, that is, for animate and “intelligent” technological objects that perform degraded and devalued tasks to uphold the freedom of the liberal subject, encapsulates the surrogate effect of techno-utopic fantasies, expunging the ongoing ways in which the colonial structures of racialized and gendered exploitation that enable the feeling of being human produce the desire for enchanting technology. Technological enchantment seeks to overcome a sense of disappointment in the limitations of the human as a biological being embedded in a rational-secular-scientific society. The fantasy of a re-enchanted secular and rational world is one made magic through technologies that can be completely controlled by humans, yet these same technologies bypass human thought and labor, thereby seemingly overcoming the historical, economic, and imperial legacies that create categories of objects and people as needed, desired, valuable or disposable. Enchanting the object precludes the possibility of recognizing the racialized and gendered scaffolding of racial capitalism and of an attendant anti-racist politics.
“Technological enchantment seeks to overcome a sense of disappointment in the limitations of the human as a biological being embedded in a rational-secular-scientific society.”
The desire to enchant techno-objects, then, actively obscures the differential conditions of exploitation under racial capitalism. We foreground the longer history of human surrogates in post-Enlightenment modernity from the body of the enslaved standing in for the master, to the vanishing of native bodies necessary for colonial expansion and expropriation of land and resources. The claim that technologies can act as surrogates recapitulates histories of disappearance, erasure, and elimination necessary to maintain the liberal subject as the agent of historical progress. Thus, it is crucial to bring a feminist and critical race perspective to bear on notions of technological development, especially in the design and imagination of techno-objects and platforms that claim to re-enchant those tasks that we term “miserable” through the marvels of technological progress – the ostensibly dull, dirty, repetitive and uncreative work. In this future imaginary, human consciousness shifts vis-à-vis the technical enchantment of objects, animate and artificially intelligent, rather than as a result of political transformations.
Given the argument in Critique of Black Reason that the desire to obliterate the humanity of the slave is always incomplete, the desire for enchanted technologies can also be read as the inheritor of the racial conditions of capitalist development (but without the threat of rebellion). As Mbembe writes, the mechanism of slavery and colonial expropriation sought to deny those whose labor went unpaid their full humanity (47-48). “Yet, on a purely ontological level at least, their humanity was never entirely erased. They constituted a … supplemental humanity engaged in a constant struggle to escape imprisonment and repetition. … The suspended humanity of the slave was defined by the fact that he was condemned to reconstitute himself perpetually, to announce his radical, unthinkable desire, and to seek liberty and vengeance” (48, original emphasis). Bringing together our analysis of the surrogate effect with Mbembe’s theorization of Blackness, we can understand the supplemental humanity and suspended humanity of the Black slave as the threatening foundation for the engineering of the surrogate effect into techno-objects. At stake is (still) the violent drive to fully control labor. As Mbembe points out, the invention of Blackness “was the cog that made possible the creation of the plantation … and accelerated the integration of merchant capitalism with technology and the control of subordinated labor” (20). Thus, writes Mbembe, capitalism has always needed and depended on “racial subsidies to exploit the planet’s resources” (179). These racial subsidies still undergird (and delimit) the engineering imaginaries of surrogate human technologies that will liberate those already fully human subjects from devalued and racialized work.
“The suspended humanity of the slave was defined by the fact that he was condemned to reconstitute himself perpetually.”
Mbembe’s book concludes on an optimistic note. As he writes, “as long as the retreat from humanity is incomplete, there is still a possibility of restitution, reparation, and justices. These are the conditions for the collective resurgence of humanity. … The durability of the world depends on our capacity to reanimate beings and things that seem lifeless – the dead man, turned to dust by the desiccated economy; an order poor in worldliness that traffics in bodies and life” (179-181). Yet, given the desire to animate nonhuman technologies (what we theorized above as the enchantment of techno-objects), as well as the historical linkages between the category of the human and the fiction of the liberal, autonomous subject, we need to also ask how to go about the resurgence of humanity that does not reiterate and reinscribe these foundations.
Neda Atanasoski is Professor of Feminist Studies and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Kalindi Vora is Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies at the University of California, Davis. Their new book is Surrogate Humanity: Race, Robots, and the Politics of Technological Futures.
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Yeginsu, Ceylan. “If Workers Slack Off, the Wristband Will Know (and Amazon has a Patent for It). New York Times 1 February 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/01/technology/amazon-wristband-tracking-privacy.html