Race and Robots

A neglected motivation behind the white supremacist terrorist attack in El Paso, Texas, on August 3, 2019 was the perpetrator’s racialized anxieties about automation. The bleak future predicted in the killer’s online manifesto reads like a scene from the dystopian film Elysium: working-class whites will not be able to reap the benefits of the new automatic technologies because they will be overrun by poor, unemployed, government-dependent Latinxs. This is certainly not the future promised by today’s dominant automation discourse, the business science fictions of the “second machine age” and “rise of the robots”; nor is it the future affirmed by “accelerationists” and other leftist thinkers who claim that full automation—combined with universal basic income—will usher in socialism or “luxury communism.” But the El Paso terrorist’s combination of the myth of white genocide and speculations about the radical automation of work is not as peculiar as it seems. For robots, as products of US history and culture, are cast from a substance that is simultaneously more immaterial and more real than their sensors and actuators: race. Recent work at the intersections of critical race and ethnic studies, decolonial science and technology studies (STS), critical code studies, feminist science studies, and literary and film studies suggests that what is at stake in automation is the technical reproduction of the US racial formation.

“Race and Robots,” American Quarterly 72, no. 1 (2020)

Are Orcs Racist?

Bright (2017), the most expensive film produced to date by the American streaming media company Netflix, exemplifies the micro-genrefication of American film within the emerging digital ecosystem of platform cinema. This essay uses a symptomatic concept of genre to triangulate a close reading of the film with analyses of generic forms and “racecraft,” a social epistemology that transforms or “crafts” social relations so that they appear to be biological relations among discrete “races.” Combining elements of science fiction, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth mythology, and the interracial buddy cop movie, Bright is an allegory of contemporary struggles between oppressed “races” and the Los Angeles Police Department. The film is symptomatic of a post-Black Lives Matter moment in US political and cultural history in which narratives of “racial” diversification can no longer redeem the police as an institution. Bright suggests that a new fictional collectivity must be racecrafted in order make cops great again. I conclude the essay by explaining the significance of Bright’s racecraft in relation to the contemporary resurgence of “race” in genetics.

“Are Orcs Racist? Genre, Racecraft, and Bright,The Genres of Genre (SPELL: Swiss Papers in English Language and Literature 38), eds. Cécile Heim, Benjamin Pickford, and Boris Vejdovsky. Tübingen: Narr, 2019.