Star Trek: Discovery Is Optimism, But Not for Us

Early in the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, in a moment that establishes the basic setup for the rest of the series, a black woman is sent to prison for life. Standing in the center of a dark room, the only obvious source of light glares down onto her head. She is separated from a row of superior officers both by the staging of the scene and by its dialogue. Where she is bathed in cold, unflattering light, they are silhouetted, faces obscured. Where she stands, far from any physical support, her tribunal is seated, restful. The long desk they share forms a visual barrier separating her from their figures in the frame, which from the camera’s angle of view she almost appears to be displayed upon, like an object under examination.

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“To all these charges,” they ask, “how do you plead?”
“Guilty,” she whispers.
“The accused cannot be heard.”

Continue reading “Star Trek: Discovery Is Optimism, But Not for Us”

2019: The Voight-Kampff Test

1.

In Blade Runner (1982), the LAPD of 2019 make use of privatized detectives—‘blade runner units’—in order to hunt down and murder runaway slaves. In the manner of certain contemporary societies, these slaves are used to build and maintain the basis for a ‘new world.’ In this case: the ‘offworld colonies’ out in some interstellar elsewhere. And just as in these ‘historical’ regimes that commercialized slavery and placed it at the center of the construction of the ‘new world,’ the line between slave and free is given ontological weight; it is a ‘line separating kind.’ The difference between freedom and slavery is the difference between ‘human’ and ‘non-human’ or ‘human’ and ’replicant.’ The slaves, you see, have been genetically designed and manufactured for the roles they will play in colonization, sold off from inception as ‘pleasure models’ or as fodder for hazardous labor, immune from pain, or as cannon fodder placed at the barrier between civilization and that which threatens it. And so when these slaves—valuable commercial property—occasionally flee, effectively stealing themselves from their owners, and return to earth to hide amongst the surplus population of a world that has been effectively left behind, they must be “retired”—murdered—by these police slave patrols. The problem, however (as it is for all regimes of slavery built on the ontological difference between humanity and its outside) is that the line between human and inhuman requires a surprising degree of maintenance to sustain. How does one know whether one is speaking to a human or a replicant? “Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” In 2019, the cops have a means: the Voight-Kampff test, which, we are told, can separate human from inhuman.

The Voight-Kampff (VK) test consists of a series of questions asked of the subject in rapid succession. We aren’t told much about how, exactly, the test separates replicant responses from human ones. In the film, we’re told that it’s an “empathy test,” and that what’s important aren’t the answers given to the questions, but the subject’s physiological responses; “capillary dilation of the so-called blush response … fluctuation of the pupil … involuntary dilation of the iris.” Decades of fan speculation have assumed that the VK tests for the presence or absence of empathetic response on the part of the subject. This idea is supported by the novella that serves as the main source material for the film, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). Androids… is much much more direct in its description of the VK test and how it works. In the world of the novella, a past nuclear conflict has resulted in a mass extinction event, and the extravagant wealth needed to keep one of the few real animals remaining on Earth has become a status symbol. As a result, cruelty to animals features prominently in VK questions:

“You’re reading a novel written in the old days before the war. The characters are visiting Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. They become hungry and enter a seafood restaurant. One of them orders lobster, and the chef drops the lobster into the tub of boiling water while the characters watch.”

“Oh god,” Rachael said. “That’s awful! Did they really do that? It’s depraved! You mean a live lobster?”

The novella’s version of the VK test, in other words, is a test of how far the subject’s empathy extends. Does one empathize with humans? That serves as a baseline. But empathy for humans isn’t necessarily sufficient to distinguish human from android. And so, degrees of humanity are measured according to an ever-expanding radius of empathy, culminating in the ability to empathize with non-anthropomorphic animals. There are reasons, even in the novella, to distrust the efficacy of the test, or its ability to sustain the sort of ontological distinction it’s meant to establish. After all, a surprising number of humans show very little empathy for nonhuman animals as it is. Empathy for animals, in the world of the novella, maps in a very particular way onto socioeconomic divides: not only the ones separating human and nonhuman, but the divides among the novella’s humans themselves. More than anything else, it’s a test of the extent to which the aspiration to a certain form of humanity has been internalized as empathy.

The world of Blade Runner’s 2019, however, is a very different one from that of the novella. The novella’s androids are much closer to what we traditionally think of when we hear the term “robot;”[1] full of wires and computers underneath an exterior façade made to match the humans and animals that they mimic. In 2019, replicants are flesh and bone. They may be manufactured rather than ‘born,’ but their status as nonhuman owes more to their provenance as an object of design than to a difference in material composition. Additionally, while the world of Blade Runner is similarly devoid of ‘natural’ animals, we’re given very little reason to think that this is the result of Cold War-era nuclear fears come true. The mass extinction that haunts the margins of the earth in 2019 hews closer to the slower, more mundane ecological catastrophes we’ve already wrought for ourselves than to a vision of nuclear winter. As a result, there’s less reason than it initially appears to assume that the film’s version of the VK test is designed along similar lines.

The key to the film’s version of the test is summed up nicely by Sarah Gailey: “It is not about having enough empathy, but about having empathy for the correct things. If you do not have enough empathy for the correct things, you will be murdered by a cop who does have empathy for the correct things.” Consider Leon, the one slave who we’re shown failing a Voight-Kampff test. We don’t need to measure Leon’s capillary response to see that when it’s suggested by a VK question that he’s not helping a dying turtle in the desert he’s visibly disturbed, to the point of losing all composure. Conversely, the affection associated with familial kinship is totally alien to him. “My mother? Let me tell you about my mother…” Rachel, on the other hand, whose failure occurs only offscreen, dozens of questions after the ones we’re shown, doesn’t bat an eye at the idea of taking an animal life:

“You’re watching television. Suddenly you realize there’s a wasp crawling on your arm.”

“I’d kill it.”

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When the police “put the machine on” you in 2019, it’s not in order to determine whether you have empathy, but to determine the extent to which the distribution of your capacity for empathy aligns with a very specific—human—distribution. It’s not a question of having more or less empathy. It’s not even really a question of lacking empathy for the things you should associate with yourself. To have empathy for the wrong things, to have inhuman empathy is not only excessive, but suspect. What kind of person, anyway, would look at things and see themselves?

2.

It’s impossible to understand what, exactly, is at stake in this act of ‘misrecognition’ without thinking about what it means to be a slave. What kind of thing is slavery? What is it, exactly, that defines a slave? Orlando Patterson, writing in Slavery and Social Death (1982), pointed out that what’s most central to the relation between slave and master is a specific kind of power relationship; the titular social death. This emphasis on social death should be understood in contrast with an understanding of slavery that primarily imagines it as a particularly extreme form of exploitation. There’s a strong tendency in the history of thinking about slavery to associate it most directly with the experience of forced labor. A slave, according to this way of thinking, is exploited for their labor—just as a worker is—but to much a greater degree, and with much greater force. We could, for example, say that a worker is exploited exactly to the degree to which some amount of their labor isn’t compensated—and from that point we could draw a series of analogies that point to greater and greater degrees of exploitation, culminating in the slave, who labors without any relationship to compensation in the form of a wage. It’s on the basis of this image of what slavery is, for instance, that it makes sense to speak of an analogy between the condition of black slaves in the Atlantic slave trade, and the white indentured workers forced to labor alongside them in plantation fields until their debts had been paid off (an analogy captured in terms like ‘debt slavery’). If slavery is defined in terms of the experience of exploitation, then slavery and indentured servitude—and, by extension, wage labor—don’t differ so much in kind as in degree: an ascending pyramid of exploitation upon which, at the very top, sits the slave.

If Patterson is right, however, exploitation may be a common effect and experience of slavery, but isn’t what defines the condition of the slave. The relationship between slave and master is defined instead by the fact that the slave is, from the point of view of the master, socially dead. As summarized and rearticulated by Frank Wilderson III, social death has three basic elements: [1] gratuitous violence, [2] natal alienation, and [3] generalized dishonor. First: the violence heaped upon slaves is gratuitous in the specific sense that it’s not—unlike the violence that might be unleashed on, say, workers—validated by the idea that the slave has stepped outside her role. “This vulnerability,” he argues, “is not contingent upon his or her transgressing some type of law, as in going on strike with the worker.”[3] A slave’s body can be the target of ‘legitimate’ violence simply as a result of being a slave, without the pretext of, say, disobedience. Second: slaves are natally alienated in the sense that filial kinship among slaves is systematically disrupted or unrecognized. The claims that a mother or a father might make upon a child are always, in the case of the slave, mitigated by the prior demands of the master—slaves are sold away from their kin, their names changed, their lineages obscured. Both of these prior points articulate the more general third: slaves undergo general dishonor in the sense that they are transferred from one realm to another; from the realm of persons to the realm of property. In other words, what underwrites both the gratuity of violence and disruption of filiation that define the slave as socially dead is the transformation of a person into a specific kind of thing: a commodity. Since the slave, once transformed into a commodity, is often put to work, this is often experienced as exploitation, but to define slavery in terms of that experience is to confuse the effect with the systematic terror from which it stems. “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it?,” Roy Batty comments to Deckard. “That’s what it is to be a slave”

3.

What kind of person would look at things and see themselves? This is a question that hangs in a particular way over the year 2019. One of the most common complaints among critics who went to see Blade Runner in its original (failed) theatrical run was the absence of a character with whom the audience could meaningfully identify. This absence was attributed to a number of factors. For one, Harrison Ford turns in an uncharacteristically affectless performance as the film’s eponymous blade runner. Even to the extent that Ford’s sarcastic charm can cut through the cold, visibly depressed Deckard, audiences seemed to find it difficult to identify with the casual brutality of a man who would shoot through a crowded street in order to murder an unarmed slave in the pouring rain. It’s hard to ignore the fact that the film’s central ‘romance’—between Rachel and Deckard—reads so strongly as a rape.

In response to this, the received wisdom among the film’s fans has been that the film exists more as an exploration of ideas than an invitation to identify with any particular characters. And the most basic idea under examination, on this reading, can be phrased as a simple question: ‘what does it mean to be human?’ The film, of course, studiously avoids revealing much of the information that would take the work of answering this question out of the audience’s hands: we’re never definitively told, for instance, whether we should understand Deckard to be a replicant, or whether the replicants we do see enjoy real human emotions or make real human decisions. Call it a cinematic Turing test: do the replicants possess humanity, or do they not? This is a question that it’s possible to ask in 2019. By asking it, however, the viewer tacitly enters the film from the vantage of the police. The ontological difference between human and slave is reiterated as the ontological difference between human and replicant. Can a nonhuman rise to the level of humanity? This is the question that animates a certain reading of Blade Runner, but it’s also the question that occupied the case against Reconstruction in the American South and—much later—the infamous Moynihan Report.

More primarily than a Turing test, Blade Runner performs, in fact, a kind of cinematic Voight-Kampff test. What kind of viewer would look at slaves and see themselves? As difficult as audiences found it to identify with Deckard’s depressive brutality, Roy Batty’s lethal pathway of ascent to the Tyrell corporation’s penthouse suite tends to inspire even lower levels of empathetic response. Even when there’s a certain logic of frustration that’s granted to him in the moment he kills his own creator after being admonished as ungrateful for the life he’s been given, the fact that he kills the bashful and ostensibly friendly J.F. Sebastian on his way out the door is often understood as an act of needless brutality. Viewed from the position of the slave, however, J.F. Sebastian’s ‘playful’ curiosity takes on a very different tenor. Sebastian is, after all, a man who fills his house with a menagerie of living toys, each genetically designed—just as the replicants are—to fulfill his flights of whimsy. Walking tin soldiers, porcelain dolls enfleshed: each designed for a life of monstrous servitude. It’s in light of this that we should read his similarly playful attitude toward Pris and Roy, each of whom is asked in his early encounters with them to perform physical feats for his amusement. Far from an innocent bystander, Sebastian is the owner and operator of a kind of slave zoo; and his death represents an end to this particular cavalcade of horrors. Only when the film is viewed from the vantage of the slave—when the pertinence of the question of replicant humanity is refused from the start—can his death appear for what it is.

[1] Of course, this actually places them further from the origin of the term; from Rossum’s Universal Robots, in which the term ‘robot’ translates an Old Slavonic term for ‘slave.’ Notably, in RUR, just as in the film, the titular ‘robots’ are biological rather than mechanical in form.

[3] Frank Wilderson, “BLACKS AND THE MASTER/ SLAVE RELATION” in Afropessimism: an Introduction.

A Question Regarding Agamben

As a student whose research deals prominently with what Gil Anidjar refers to as the ‘Christian question’–the significance of Christianity for the distribution of things like the divide between religion and politics, philosophy and economy, etc.–I’ve found my attention drawn in most of my recent work (including my dissertation research) to materials that are probably best periodized as ‘medieval.’ That means that something that I find myself needing to think and rethink on a regular basis is the relation between two divides: the divide between the secular and the religious, and the divide between the medieval and the modern. As an old post of Adam’s points out, this puts me in the middle of a fairly common set of problems in political theology.

As someone who comes to these questions from (more-or-less) continental philosophy as the closest thing I have to a ‘home’ discipline, this puts me pretty squarely in the neighborhood of Giorgio Agamben. This is probably intensified by the fact that I’m working on medieval debates over categories we’d probably characterize today as economic, and by the fact that for better or worse, The Kingdom and the Glory still seems to be the most well-known take on the genealogy of economy, despite the existence of multiple takes that are at least as compelling. As a result, both for the sake of figuring out what exactly it is I’m doing in my own research and for the sake of a paper idea I’ve been kicking around for a while, I’m trying to think through my relationship to Agamben on the questions of Christianity, ‘secularization,’ and method.

One thing I find interesting in Agamben is that while secularization is a concept that he’s willing to schematize fairly specifically, Christianity isn’t–or at least (and I may be missing a very obvious reference here) he doesn’t seem to. That’s not to say that Agamben isn’t concerned with Christianity; on the contrary, it pops up everywhere in his work, from reflections on monastic life, to reflections on trinitarian debates, even contributing to the ‘turn to Paul’ in continental philosophy. But I can’t think of a place where Agamben reflects on Christianity ‘as such,’ despite a consistent concern with Christian materials.

Right now, I’m playing with a methodological hunch, and what I’d like from you–reader–is to know whether this sounds right or if there’s some reason to think that I’m totally off. I’m increasingly starting to think that it’s at the points in Agamben’s work where he’s most closely concerned with Christian materials that he’s also forced to be concerned with issues of genealogical method. Usually, this takes the form of explicit reflections on Foucault. From what I can tell, Agamben’s most sustained reflections on Foucault tend to appear in his writings between about 2005 and 2008. Extended meditations on Foucauldian concepts and methods appear in Profanations, “What is an Apparatus?,” and The Kingdom and the Glory, and are sustained through The Signature of All Things. All of these texts have in common a sustained attention to Christianity, and to the Christian-secular or medieval-modern divides. Foucault maintains a presence throughout the Homo Sacer series (starting with the first volume in 1995) as a resource for borrowed concepts and concerns. What doesn’t occur until this later period however, (as far as I can tell) is an explicit reflection on the nature of Agamben’s debt to Foucault. It may be, I’m tentatively suggesting, the form of the ‘Christian question’ that provokes Agamben to feel a need to give such an account. Or, more specifically, approaching the question of Christianity means that Agamben is forced to directly confront the relay by means of which ‘Christian’ concepts find their distribution across ‘political,’ ‘theological,’ ‘economic,’ and other ‘domains.’

What do you think, reader?

A Note On the Concept of Neoliberalism

On Facebook today, Adam noted a strange issue that appears repeatedly in David Harvey’s Brief History of Neoliberalism. Harvey insists that financial bailouts, of the sort that would later follow the 2008 crash, contradict neoliberal theory despite the fact that these sorts of provisions are manifestly consistent with the work of a number of neoliberal theorists, given any reasonably charitable standards of interpretation. In other words, Harvey insists on a contradiction between neoliberal policy and neoliberal theory where none need be posited. The question that arises then is why? Adam raised the point that Harvey’s Marxism may be part of what’s in play here: squaring theory and policy isn’t crucial here because Harvey is beginning from the assumption that neoliberal theory can’t be more than a superstructural factor. I wonder, though, if there’s a more basic issue in play though, one that gets to the heart of some of the ambiguities in the concept of neoliberalism itself.

I’ve been thinking lately that there’s a fundamental semantic confusion in play with regard to the concept of neoliberalism. In recent theory, the term neoliberalism is often used in order to name not one, but at least three more-or-less distinct notions. First of all, it names [1] a set of theoretical positions in economic theory or political economy. In this sense, it is a position primarily associated with members of the Walter Lippmann colloquium, the Mont Pelerin society, and—most specifically—the ideas of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman. Second, it can name [2] a policy orientation, and third [3] a generalized ‘situation’ or ‘dynamic’ in ‘late capitalist’ society. In the first two senses, we may refer to neoliberal ‘theories’ and neoliberal ‘policies’ or ‘movements;’ each of which are things that could be said to act ‘on,’ for instance, markets, societies, and institutions. Only in this third sense, however, does it make sense to specify ‘markets,’ ‘societies,’ and so on as themselves neoliberal.

Generally, it’s hard to talk about more than two of these at once without losing hold of neoliberalism as a name for anything specific, so a theorist is forced to pick. Harvey emphasizes [2] and [3], insofar as it’s policy (2) as a response to inherent contradictions in post-Fordist production (3) that drives neoliberalism. As a result, he can’t integrate [1] without losing resolution, but that causes the aforementioned slips. Other theorists make different choices of emphasis. Wendy Brown, e.g., really pushes [3] in Undoing the Demos and ties in [2] and [1] as loose subordinates. The concept, in other words, is tasked with pulling together such a wide variety of referents that it doesn’t seem to be able to support them all. Brown, in fact, recognizes the issue explicitly, calling the term’s expansion across difficult to connect spheres a “paradox.” (Undoing the Demos, 21) What Brown doesn’t do, however, and what I’m increasingly suspicious that we should do, is question this situation, and the pertinence of a catch-all concept like neoliberalism that has a tendency to expand to include new data rather than to specify. To use an Adam-ism: what do you think, readers?