Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Uncanny Valley 2: Racial Appearances

[This is a continutation of my previous post on the uncanny valley. If you don't know what the uncanny valley is, you may want to go back and read the previous post first.]

In 1931, at the beginning of the dénouement of the Harlem Renaissance, conservative (some would say "reactionary") African-American author George Schuyler penned Black No More, a bitingly ironic send-up of early 20th C. race discourse that lampoons the KKK and the spokepersons of "black consciousness" (W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, the NAACP) with equally acerbic satirical wit. Black No More is a complex and fascinating text and I can't give a full critical analysis of it here, but if you haven't read it, you should. The novel recounts the story of a rakish African-American insurance agent (Max Disher) who avails himself of the opportunity to "become white" by way of a new scientific machine developed, ironically, by an African-American scientist. In the novel, the machine offers a total transformation from "black" to "white," such that there is no way to perceive the difference between a person who has undergone the procedure and a "real" white person.

Contemporary philosopher of race Charles Mills uses the example of (what he calls) the "Schuyler Machine" in his famous essay "But What Are You Really?: The Metaphysics of Race" from Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race. Mills' hypothesis is that if there were such a thing as racial essences (in the "scientific" or biological sense) then we would easily be able to place people in racial categories (for example, by using a blood test) and we would never encounter racial "passing" as a metaphysical (or epistemological) problem. That is to say, we would never have occasion to ask the question-- of someone whose racial identity is ambiguous-- "but what are you really?" The very question itself assumes the "reality" of racial essences or, to state it another way, the question assumes that it is possible that one may ("really") BE other than how one APPEARS. But, as we all know, there is, in "reality," no litmus test for determining racial categories. "Race" is a social construction and its meaning and definitions change from context to context. The interesting metaphysical problem presented by the Schuyler Machine thought-experiment is: what is the difference between a "real" white person (who appears "white," that is, who is consistent with the "image" of "whiteness," that is, who adheres to all of the available criteria we have for determining "real" whiteness) on the one hand and, on the other hand, a formerly-"black" person who has undergone the operations of the Schuyler Machine (and who, consequently, "appears to appear 'white'," that is, who is only merely or superficially consistent with the "image" of "whiteness" qua "image")? If determinations of "race" can only be made by way of appearances, how do we distinguish between the "real" appearance and the "apparent" appearance? Why isn't the person who has been transformed via the Schuyler Machine really white?

Let's take another example: Michael Jackson (post-cosmetic-surgery). The reactions to Micheal Jackson's gradual approximation of the appearance of a "white" person over the course of his life, loaded with moral approbation as they were, are clear indications that people took his transformation to be some kind of attempted deception or dissimulation. He was "playing at" or "attempting to appear" white, as the conventional wisdom goes. He was presenting us the "image" of whiteness, though he was really black. Of course, Michael Jackson's transformation was a long and slow process and we got to see it in all of its progressive stages, but there definitely came a kind of "tipping point" at which the (white and black) public no longer accepted his presentation as "real" and expressed their outright revulsion to it quite viscerally. He was attempting to "pass" as white. He was a fake, a counterfeit, and we didn't want to be suckered by the bait-and-switch. Sure, he may have appeared white, but we were all capable of and more than willing to make the distinction between reality and appearance... because not only can you not "fake" your racial identity, but you shouldn't. Although Michael Jackson's story couldn't have happened a hundred years ago, because the medical technology wasn't present, the almost-universal social rejection of his "passing" is the same as it has ever been.

So, what does this have to do with robots and the uncanny valley? Well, nothing directly, but it serves as a nice analogue. Race theorists like Frantz Fanon, Homi Bhabha, Edward Said and Albert Memmi have spent a lot of time explaining how, in racist societies, "Whiteness" (and, more specifically, white supremacy) demands that non-whites adopt the affects, practices, values and norms of white people WHILE AT THE SAME TIME refusing non-whites full access to "white" identity. Fanon described the Syisyphan existence of non-whites in a white-supremacist society as a project of "black skins donning white masks." Similarly, Bhabha explains the strategy of racial (and racist) discourse as one of ironic farce-- in which whites demand of non-whites the impossible task: "Be like me, but don't be just like me"-- such that the life of non-whites becomes defined by and obsessed with an always-imperfect mimicry. The point here is that "whiteness" is set as a universal norm to which everyone is accountable and expected to aspire, only the very idea of "whiteness" requires that not everyone be able to achieve it. Like the uncanny valley, whites accept non-whites the closer and closer they approximate whiteness-- up to a point-- but when non-whites get close enough in their mimicry to "pass" as "really" white, the integrity and truth of "whiteness" becomes threatened and the mimicry is violently rejected.

Michael Jackson, from about 1987 to his death, was in the uncanny valley of race. For all of the talk of our post-racial society, we are still as secretly terrified of something like the Schuyler Machine as we are of robots that might pass for real human beings. We believe that the human/non-human distinction is a difference that makes a difference, just as we believe the same about racial differences, and we have a deep investment in maintaining the distinction between the real and the apparent... even in the case of racial identities, which are almost entirely about the "apparent." The philosophical problem here is, of course, that we haven't bothered to do the work of making these nuanced distinctions intelligible, much less defensible. Maybe it's possible that something like the uncanny valley is hardwired into the human brain-- that was certainly Jentsch's and Freud's conception of Das Unheimliche, from which the valley takes its name-- but surely we are obliged to consider the possibility that we can be habituated into taking certain weakly-defined and weakly-conceived norms (like "race") to hold the same kind of "reality" as stronger norms (like "life," human or otherwise). And, surely, we can ask ourselves what our "real" investments in avoiding deception are in each of these cases.

In Schuyler's novel, and in the "real" racist world, our investments are not that difficult to locate. We reject the person who was black, but who is black-no-more, because that person threatens the deep struts and girders of our social ontology, which depend on our being able to accurately differentiate between the advantaged (or those who ought to be accorded advantage) and the disadvantaged (or who those who ought not). But the relationship between that "is" and "ought" is not a natural one, nor is it a given one, and our revulsion at the familiar/unfamiliar expression of it is something for which we are obliged to account.


Chet said...

I think this is right in a lot of respects. Yet I wonder if the target is off. I really think that the problem of uncanny valley dysmorphia is more about sexuality confusion. And I think that the example of MJ is therefore misleading. Certainly we have had the unfortunate example of hearing talking about blacks trying yo be white and vice versa and the scorn that is implied in that. But those are not about appearances but about social judgments accorded. The problem with MJ was the implicit claim that his skin treatments had that it is better to be white. But the thing which also made it difficult was his non-typical sexuality.

I really like this post a lot.

emma b said...

Well I think the "uncanny valley" idea also applies to transgenderism, and the frequent violence of the reactions toward the transgendered... are you... are you not... wait you are... etc. Also reminded of some of Zizek's observations about anti-Semitism.

But then again, I find myself also a little suspicious of a paradigm or analogy that fits all these types of almost-likeness, just likeness, not quite likeness, etc.

In general though I find the uncanny a highly useful and resonant phenomenon to think with (I've written about it in relation to dolls, automata, the death drive, antigone), though its graphical and calculable aspect in robotics discourse has me a bit worried!

steventhomas said...

Does this at all explain why the rise of humanism in the 18th c. was accompanied by the rise of scientific racism? And does it also explain why racist discourse is so saturated with the fear of sex between a black man and a white woman? It does in a way, but it also doesn't. I'm too much a Marxist, I think, and can't help bring economics into it.

Also, just curious why you characterize Schuyler as a conservative/reactionary, which always seem to me like problematic categories for describing African-Americans in the 1930s, especially one such as Schuyler who argued for "miscegintation" (then illegal in most states.) I haven't read his stuff yet, but just recently read about his novels Black Empire and The Ethiopian Murder Mystery, which along with Black No More were all published in the 1930s. I know he wrote a book in the 1960s after McCarthyism called Black and Conservative, which might be why you call him reactionary, though a lot of African-Americans were disenchanted with socialism by then, but in the 1930s he was publishing stuff in H.L. Menken's newspaper and working for the NAACP.

cole6219 said...

While there is a certain truth the aspect of not wanting to be "fooled" it doesn't seem to me that this is at the real heart of the uncanny valley's "uncanniness". As humans we certainly dont want to be fooled or have the wool pulled over our eyes, but if we are to assume that seeing a dead body rises in us the same disturbance of seeing an almost exact replica of a human that is not human, and that the basis of that fear is being fooled. then, we must also say that it is that we fear the corpse because we are afraid it is fooling us into believing it is void of "life".

Lorenzo said...

I am not sure this grasps enough the historical contingency of 'race'.

The first anti-black discourses are from Arab/Muslim North Africans (such as Ibn Khaldun). Slavery is crucial in understanding modern racism because it created the need to exempt the enslaved from various forms of moral universalism (either Christian, Muslim or Enlightenment). Ancient slavery did not have this problem because they were not moral universalists and enslaved people regardless of skin colour.

Racism then got further leases of life to explain and justify the success and structure of European imperialism. (How Europeans got to rule non-Europeans and why this was "just fine".) Though racism did not become truly murderous until it merged with Jew-hatred.

American racism was particularly virulent since it had to make blacks not "moral neighbours" in the Christian sense and not with rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" in the American Revolutionary settlement sense. Hence the cunning and rhetorical power of MLK's "I have a Dream" speech because it attacked those exclusions with powerful eloquence, invoking the principles that Americans in particular were supposed to believe.

But the "effortless virtue" of racism connects to such "moral" needs less and less. As shown by President Obama's election, Condi Rice's popularity, that 4 of the top 15 box office "pulls" are black, etc.

Michael Jackson's uncanniness seems to me not so much about race as about remaking (and remaking in a way that makes race matter more than we actually want it to nowadays). Transgender folk can generate the same sense of "uncanniness" but about something which has far more persistence as a social category. (The 2008 election may have shown the increasing weakness of racism: it sure showed the resilience of misogyny.)

A lot of anti-racism seems to me to not grasp the historical contingency of racism: something that actually make racism worse, since it is clearly such a chosen distinction, but also less ingrained. (There is social science research that racial categories are less entrenched than gender ones.)

Of course, nowadays ostentatious anti-racism is used as both a positive status marker and an exclusion device, but that takes us to all sorts of other places.

In Michael Jackson's case, he seemed to be doing something "unreal" and "deceptive", when we increasingly felt he should not even think that such mattered in such a way. Or to put it another way, we already liked his music, his dancing, even his eccentricities: it bothered us that he would think that race mattered for that and weirdly remake himself because of it.