Issue 13.3 - 14.1 | 2016 / Guest edited by Patrick Keilty and Leslie Regan Shade

In Search of My Robot: Race, Technology, and the Asian American Body

“Who is machine, who is creature, what is human?”
—Glen A. Mazis, Humans, Animals, Machines: Blurring Boundaries[1]

“Boundaries don’t hold; times, places, beings bleed through one another.”
—Karen Barad, “Diffracting Diffraction: Cutting Together-Apart”[2]

I’ve been searching, and in my search, I find my robot within and in the gaps between the deep legacy of feminist science and technology theorizing, philosophical engagements on the human and posthuman, discourses and algorithms in robotics, racial theory, histories of the labor movement, and the feminist cyborg. This work includes delving into cuts, and soldering across the various parts. In this essay, I trace the theoretical genealogy of the representational processes of making and unmaking human and machine demarcations within the context of the US empire. In particular, I focus on race and how the Asian American is racialized as machine, and the robot in particular as a primary locus of racialization for Asian Americans. But where to find her? I follow feminist STS scholar Karen Barad’s formative essay on diffraction—the optical term for the slight bending of light around an object—as a reading and writing practice. As Barad outlines—drawing from Trinh Minh-ha, Donna Haraway, and Gloria Anzaldúa—diffraction is utilized as a metaphor and as performative writing at the edge and across the borderlands, while “re-returning” to feminist intellectual debts.[3] Similarly, I trace the limits and possibilities of various discourses, and illustrate how the gaps make room to solder parts together-then-apart. I conclude by considering the cover image of Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, by painter Lynn Randolph, as a visual example of the Asian American and/as automaton and her feminist possibilities.


The human/animal distinction has been central to Euro-American modernity’s conceptualization of race. A third term, less analyzed within racial theory, has also played a central role: the machine. As a mechanism, race is inherently imbricated in the shifting demarcations between human, animal, and machine. Race has been utilized, as fiction and technique, to maintain differences and to justify denigration and subjugation as Western demarcations of the human in fact oscillate between the machine and the animal, both discursively and materially. In his reading of Derrida, posthumanist theorist Cary Wolfe argues that we must consider not only “the relationship of the human and animal, but also between the organism and the mechanical or technological.”[4] In demarcating the boundaries of the human, the machine—like the animal—prompts a comparative racial analysis. While the animal functioned as a mechanism for justifying slavery and objecthood for indigenous and Black people, the machine has largely been utilized in the service of Asian racialization and subjugation.

Finding: “Immigrants from the Future”

In March 2014, a special issue of The Economist, ”Rise of the Robots,” published a report on robots entitled “Immigrants from the Future.”[5] The report itself was nothing new; special issues on robots have been published before. For example, Time magazine released a special issue in 2013 that was identically entitled “Rise of the Robots”; both publications illuminate the ever-growing fascination with and trepidation about the role of artificial beings in society. Yet the title of The Economist’s special report is particularly interesting. While race is not mentioned, the trope of the robot and immigration is evoked through mention of the Russian-born American science fiction writer Isaac Asimov: “His robot stories, and those of his successors, were immigrant stories. Except that the robots are immigrants not from abroad but from the future.”[6] As described by The Economist, Asimov’s stories were “immigrant” stories that explored issues of difference. While immigrants were not central characters in Asimov’s work, robots were, and they were largely featured as second-class laborers bearing an uncanny resemblance to the characterization of Asian Americans. As Jasia Reichardt writes in Robots: Fact, Fiction, and Prediction: “Indeed, in literature the robot has become a metaphor for a second-class citizen. Because the robot is made from metal, because it has been manufactured rather than grown, because it thinks with transistors rather than with protoplasm, it is almost always treated with condescension, even though it may demonstrate superhuman abilities, loyalty and talents.”[7]

Like Asian Americans, robots have been characterized as immigrants, “second-class citizens,” laborers, and Reichardt’s characterization of robots as having a second-class status bears an uncanny resemblance to the model minority stereotype of Asian Americans. Since the antebellum period in the early 1800s, Asian Americans however have been racialized as robots in popular visual culture and discourses due to their “labor.”[8] This characterization of Asian American as robots is entangled with the discourse of techno-Orientalism, a concept that Greta Niu describes as the “practice of ascribing, erasing, and/or disavowing relationships between technology and Asian peoples and subjects.”[9] Moreover, The Economist’s report reflects how both robots and Asian Americans have oftentimes been characterized as being from the future. Asian American racialization is distinctive because of its imbrication with the machine: specifically, the robot. Could we think about how the automaton, or robot, is much more than merely one of a “series” of characterizations of the Asian threat, but rather, as The Economist attests, a key locus of Asian American racialization?

Asian as Machine-Like?

In her essay “Race and/as Technology; or, How to Do Things to Race,” new media theorist Wendy Hui Kyong Chun highlights how the human is created at the expense of the “machine-like” Asian/Asian American: “The human is constantly created through the jettisoning of the Asian/Asian American other as robotic, as machine-like and not quite human, as not quite lived. And also I would add, the African American other as primitive, as too human.”[10] Whites are positioned as “human,” while Asians/Asian Americans are racialized as “robotic,” and African Americans as “too human.” Although she provides critical interventions, Chun’s characterization of Asian Americans as “robotic” and “machine-like” suggests the two qualities are similar. While the Asian robot may be a stereotype, trope, or controlling image, I hope to build upon Chun’s articulation and demonstrate how the racialization of Asians/Asian Americans as the robot is dialectically connected. This connection between the Asian American and the robot is co-constitutive within the U.S. imaginary, and tracing these the convergences reveals configurations of race and resistance.[11]

On Robots: Soldering Across

If the robot is a central locus of racialization for Asian Americans, imbricated with immigration and labor, how do we further understand the role of robots and humans in Western society? Robots are not only contemporary figures of fascination, as the special reports in Time and The Economist may suggest; they have been a source of awe, intrigue, and trepidation for several centuries. Scholarly monographs and art books about robots are for the most part fairly recent, and include Human Robots in Myth and Science by John Cohen (1966) and the aforementioned Robots by Reichardt (1978). Both of these works explore the historical figure of the robot. While Reichardt’s Robots focuses mainly on their literary and cinematic representations, Cohen’s work is more psychological and scholarly, and is largely regarded as a key text in the history of the robot. Other prominent theorists include the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, whose writings about the “uncanny valley”—the phenomenon through which people’s feelings of rapport with machines increase as machines become more lifelike, then plateau when they become “too” lifelike—have been formative in US robotics, cultural theory, and science fiction.[12]

In Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination, historian Minsoo Kang offers the first comprehensive historical and theoretical study of the automaton that provides specific contexts for the robot’s role in society. Kang’s study examines intellectual and literary texts to explore how the European imagination has conceived of the self-propelled, life-imitating machine. Kang argues that the concept of the automaton has played a significant role in the world of ideas, with the artificial entity appearing in some of the most important intellectual works in European history.[13] However, Kang writes, “Ultimately, the real importance of the automaton idea lies in the crucial role it has played as a conceptual tool with which Western culture has pondered the very nature and boundaries of humanity.”[14] As a conceptual tool, the automaton troubles the boundaries of the human and the machine and has also been utilized to uphold them.

Today, the robot serves as a cultural juxtaposition with the human. As Kang points out, “referring to someone as a machine can be an expression of admiration, for the demonstration of great productivity at a task, unerring accuracy, and grace in its execution.”[15] Yet he also notes that “when a person is called an ‘automaton’ or a ‘robot’ it is usually a derogatory comment, denoting someone who is stiff and awkward in speech or movement; one who lacks imagination, emotion, spontaneity, or a sense of humor; a fanatical follower of rules…”[16] Similarly, The Economist’s title “Immigrants from the Future” speaks to the ways Asian Americans have been racialized in similar tropes, as humans with “great productivity” yet missing something by virtue of lacking “creativity” and “emotions.” The cultural intersections of the Asian American and the robot shed light on the concept of belonging in our national imaginary, insofar as the robot and the Asian American has been utilized as a trope for the “second-class citizen.”

The human/machine/animal analytic is a formulation that has been widely theorized within Western philosophy, from Descartes and Rousseau into Derrida’s theorizations of the demarcations of difference. Cartesian philosophy is largely known and critiqued for its split between the mind and the body, but Descartes’s dualism can also be understood through his analysis of automata and the ways he believed human cognition to differ from the workings of machines. As contemporary historian David Bates argues, “Descartes… was interested in mapping systematically the unusual machinery of the body”; “the human body was a robotic information machine that was capable of interrupting itself.”[17] Bates provides an important tracing of the Cartesian blurring of the boundaries between human and machine; however, he and other contemporary scholars who build upon Cartesian philosophy may inadvertently also elide how racialization, gender, and other differences of identity shape and reshape the demarcations of the human.

In this section, I demonstrate the gaps, the inadvertent, inadequate grappling with racialization, and the critique of the liberal human subject in contemporary philosophical engagements with the boundaries between human, animal, and machine. The liberal human subject emerges from Cartesian theorization and relies on the idea of a stable human and self. The lack of critical engagement with the liberal human subject often underlies the absence of a racial critique, although the two are not mutually exclusive. I draw from the formative interventions contemporary philosophy has made into the binary between humans and machines, and I indicate where identity markers such as race and gender have been largely omitted from the analysis.

While “machines and humans are often taken to be in opposition,” philosopher Glen A. Mazis writes in Humans, Animals, Machines: Blurring Boundaries:

These three realms, I would contend, can only be thought through together. The boundaries of the human, animal, and machine overlap, dance within each other, and separate, or maybe they should separate at certain key moments, but these lines or arabesques have been barely drawn or even traced out for the intricacy and beauty of their movements.[18]

The connections between the human, animal, and the machine that “separate” but also “overlap” with one another at “key moments” prove to make the idea of the human both stable and unstable. Mazis also notes: “Yet, what seems most striking is that we have not really thought through globally the characteristics of the machine, whether machines are evolving in their characteristics, and what exactly their relationship is to human being.”[19] Mazis’s question about the machine prompts vital insights into the “global” characteristics of the machine and the evolution of its “relationship to human being.” However, Mazis’s critique fails to question the category of human. Unlike Chun’s articulation, Mazis’s critique rests on the assumption of a stable and non-racialized human category. This lack of a racial critique can be found in other studies on the human, animal, and machine divide. The collection The Boundaries of Humanity: Humans, Animals, Machines, edited by James J. Sheehan and Morton Sosna, contains neither mention of a critique of the liberal human subject nor an analysis of race.[20] Both books explicitly take on the question of the human/animal/machine and engage with Descartes and other philosophers, yet they critique neither the construction of the human nor racialization as analytic.

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  1. Glen A. Mazis, Humans, Animals, Machines: Blurring Boundaries (Albany: Suny Press, 2008), 4. [Return to text]
  2. Karen Barad, “Diffracting Diffraction: Cutting Together-Apart” Diffracted Worlds – Diffractive Readings: Onto-Epistemologies and the Critical Humanities. Volume 20, Issue 3, 2014, 179. [Return to text]
  3. Barad, 2014. [Return to text]
  4. Cary Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010). [Return to text]
  5. “Immigrants from the Future,” The Economist, March 29, 2014. [Return to text]
  6. Ibid., 4. [Return to text]
  7. Quoted in Ibid., 7. [Return to text]
  8. Stephen Sohn, “Introduction: Alien/Asian: Imagining the Racialized Future,” The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 33, no. 4 (2008): 6.
 [Return to text]
  9. Greta Niu, “Techno-Orientalism, Nanotechnology, Posthumans, and Post-Posthumans in Neal Stephenson’s and Linda Nagata’s Science Fiction,” The Society for the Study of the Multi- Ethnic Literature of the United States 33, no. 4 (2008): 74.
 [Return to text]
  10. Wendy Chun. “Race and/as Technology or How To Do Things To Race.” In Race After the Internet. Edited by Lisa Nakamura and Peter A. Chow-White. (New York: Routledge, 2011), 51. [Return to text]
  11. Building upon Chun’s formative work, I have outlined elsewhere, in my study of Nam June Paik’s robotic art, that Asian Americans have been historically racialized as robotic in nineteenth-century popular automaton discourse. Margaret Rhee, “Racial Recalibration.” Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas 1.3 (2015). [Return to text]
  12. Masahiro Mori, “The Uncanny Valley,” trans. Karl F. MacDorman and Norri Kageki, Spectrum, June 12, 2012. Originally published in Japanese in Energy 7, no. 4 (1970): 33–35. [Return to text]
  13. Minsoo Kang, Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010), 5. [Return to text]
  14. Ibid., 12. [Return to text]
  15. Ibid., 3. [Return to text]
  16. Ibid., 4. [Return to text]
  17. David Bates, “Cartesian Robotics,” Representations 124, no. 1 (2013): 43–68. [Return to text]
  18. Mazis, 6. [Return to text]
  19. Ibid., 3. [Return to text]
  20. James J. Sheehan and Morton Sosna, eds., The Boundaries of Humanity: Humans, Animals, Machines (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991). [Return to text]