"Only We Have Perished": Karel Capek's R.U.R. and the Catastrophe of Humankind.
In Karel Capek's R.U.R., the mass production of an artificial workforce precipitates several catastrophes that culminate with humanity's extinction. For Harry Domin, Central Director of Rossum's Universal Robots, to build Robot slaves is to liberate human beings from the brute necessity of work and secure unconditioned and unconditional self-realization. Yet the attempt to achieve human autonomy through the automation of labor ultimately results in an autoimmune disorder, in which human life extinguishes itself. Drawing upon Hannah Arendt's argument that automated labor represents an intensification of nature's "devouring character," I argue that the play does not present the well-trod cautionary tale of technology run amok, but rather a biopolitical horror story of uncontrollably voracious life. In so doing it offers insight into the relationship between technology and finitude, and invites reflection upon the responsibilities we hold toward future generations, both human and nonhuman.
A mixture of automatism and whim, man is a robot with defects, a robot out of order. If only he remains so, and is not some day put right!
IN KAREL CAPEK'S R.U.R. (ROSSUM'S UNIVERSAL ROBOTS), THE MASS production of "artificial people" has obvious and predictably catastrophic results-predictably, at least, from the perspective of a twenty-first century audience now long accustomed to the trajectory often taken by stories about robots. The narrative action takes place on the island factory of Rossum's Universal Robots, where the "factory production of people" takes place (Capek 4). The play opens with a "Comic Prologue," in which Helena Glory, the President's daughter, arrives on the island to seek audience with Central Director Harry Domin. He proceeds to relate the remarkable history of the company, beginning with the elder Rossum's chemical synthesis of living matter, a breakthrough that his industrially minded son would appropriate and direct to more lucrative ends. After some debate over the ethics surrounding the company and its products, Helena reveals that she has come on behalf of the "Humanity League" to assess the Robots' treatment and to offer them the League's assistance in liberating them from servitude. A somewhat farcical discussion follows between Helena, Domin, and the upper management, during which Helena learns that that the Robots have been deliberately designed without appetite, will, passion, or soul. (There are, however, plans in place to introduce a capacity for pain and suffering as a technical means against accidental self-damage.) By and by, the managers leave, and Domin wastes no time asking for Helena's hand in marriage. She vehemently refuses the proposal, calling Domin a "brute." He responds with the assertion that "A man should be a bit of a brute. That's in the natural order of things" (24). Domin then violently seizes hold of her, offering a disturbing glimpse of the will to dominate that his very name implies, and the curtains close. (1) When they open again, it is exactly ten years later, and the audience quickly discovers that Domin has managed to win over Helena, though not before the characters drop several hints about the looming threat of the Robots' own brutality.
Indeed, following the Prologue, the play mainly concerns how the island's residents respond to the crisis of a worldwide Robot revolt and the specter of human extinction. Capek utilizes this scenario as a means to stage a philosophical dialogue about the tension between humankind's brutal nature and its more rarefied potential; between its bestial or animal life and, for want of a better word, its divinity. What I find intriguing about R.U.R., and what I feel makes the play most relevant to current conversations (both academic and popular) about the posthuman, is the suggestion that we are most brutal when we strive to secure an authentically "human" life and being. To this end, I read the play, not as a futurological science fiction, but rather as a theoretical and ethical critique of modern liberal humanism--at least, a traditional form of humanism that seeks to distinguish, with epistemological and ontological certainty, that which is human from that which is not. (2)
Shortly after the 1921 premiere of R.U.R., Karel Capek would write, "It is hard for us to think of humanity as a dead or dying race. Yet imagine yourself standing at the grave of mankind; even the most extreme pessimist would surely realize the divine significance of this extinct
species and say; it was a great thing, to be human" (qtd. in Klima xvii). This sentiment directly echoes a line spoken in the play by Hallemeier, head of the institute for Robot psychology and education at Rossum's Universal Robots, in the final moments before the annihilation of the human species: "It was a great thing to be a human being. It was something tremendous" (68). I believe that these words are not without profound irony, on at least two counts. First, I wonder if it might have been not so very difficult after all for Europeans, barely two years after the devastation of the Great War, to "think of humanity as a dying or dead race." Second, the play itself offers a counterpoint to the conviction that, faced with the catastrophe of human extinction, standing before the catastrophe of catastrophes (for us at least), one would hold, with absolute surety, the conviction that being human was "something tremendous," a "great thing," a thing of "divine significance." Indeed, Domin offers a markedly different sentiment as the fate of humanity draws near, exclaiming, "No one can hate more than man hates man! Transform stones into people and they'll stone us!" (58). With this profound ambivalence, a simultaneous self-apotheosis and self-loathing, Capek's drama confronts the afterlife of humanity as it reflects upon the condition of our finitude and, subsequently, poses a question of our posterity, that is, of what legacy we might leave to our inheritors.
R.U.R. initially manufactures the Robots on an industrial scale for the purposes of creating a cheap, flexible workforce. The word "robot," after all, derives from the Czech robota, which means something along the lines of "forced or indentured labour," carrying connotations of serfdom and slavery. It is cognate with the German Arbeit: a toiling labor rather than a creative Werk. The audience learns, through various reports over the course of Act 1, that the Robots' introduction to the world has precipitated a global economic meltdown and provoked reactionary violence on the part of human workers. As these conflicts escalate, the Robots are deployed as soldiers, first to quell labor disputes, and then to wage war on behalf of beleaguered nation states. Ultimately, the Robots gain a certain degree of self- (or class-) consciousness, form an international union, and stage a rebellion against humankind. By the end of Act 1, the protagonists finally get a hold of the "heinous" manifesto the Robots have published:
Robots of the world! We, the first union of Rossum's Universal Robots, declare man our enemy and outcasts in the universe.... Robots of the world, you are ordered to exterminate the human race. Do not spare the men. Do not spare the women. Preserve only the factories, railroads, machines, mines, and raw materials. Destroy everything else. Then return to work. Work must not cease. (47-48)
Over the course of Act 2, they besiege the island factory and finally succeed in massacring the inhabitants, save for one man: Alquist, R.U.R.'s chief of construction, who is spared because "He works with his hands like the Robots" (70).
Certainly, the play depicts a narrative of catastrophe in the prevailing sense of a sudden over-turning of a previous order, a world turned upside-down into chaos. But I also read R.U.R. as a catastrophe in the dramatic sense: as a denouement, the untying or unraveling of a plot or history--what Bernard Stiegler calls a "process through which one history exhausts itself by undoing itself' (Decadence 3). Specifically, I wish to argue that the play stages a final undoing, not only of the human species, but also the conceptual exhaustion of modern liberal humanism. The action of the plot and the philosophical musings of its characters dramatize the catastrophe of an anthropological project that seeks to rarefy the divine autonomy of human being as it purges the hateful automaticity that appears to govern the natural world. For me, the Robots of R.U.R. are figurations of the fulfillment of this project by technoscientific means, a fulfillment that affects the erasure of the human as such. Capek's vision of human annihilation thus presents an opportunity to reflect on the significance of the "end" of the human, whether we consider that end to be the potential dissolution--a dissolution, that is, by way of a fulfillment--of an epistemological problem for modern Western thought--as Michel Foucault suspected--or the much more immediate and concrete possibility of our species' extinction.3
A number of moments in R.U.R. make me wonder if the extinction of humanity is not so much a cataclysmic event, a disaster out of the blue, but rather the unraveling of a process well underway even before the invention of the Robots. In Capek's play, it would seem that man, both blessedly great and singularly hateful, has been in danger for a long time--and everybody seems to know it. Early in Act 1, Dr. Gall, head of the physiological and research divisions at Rossum's, claims that humankind is an "anachronism" (39). Later, Busman, the company's general marketing director, muses that all of humanity's lofty ideas and ideals "serve no other purpose than as stuffing for a specimen in a natural History Museum exhibit labeled: MAN. Period" (60). And Domin, in his final moments, begins to experience the unfolding of events as spectral after-images of things long-passed: "We were probably killed a hundred years ago and only our ghosts are left haunting this place. We've probably been dead a long, long time and have returned only to renounce what we once proclaimed ... before death. It's as though I'd experienced this all before" (55). As an event that haunts, that occurs as a recurrence, the extinction of the human species is not the climax of a story, of a history, the moment of peak tension, but the denouement, the aftermath. It is the aftermath of a nihilism of which our self-hatred and self-adoration are reciprocal expressions.
[N]o doubt about it, man is getting 'better' all the time ... Right here is where the destiny of Europe lies--in losing our fear of man we have also lost our love for him our respect for him, our hope in him and even our will to be man. The sight of man now makes us tired--what is nihilism today if it is not that? ... We are tired of man.
For Harry Domin, whose very name echoes notions of dominion and domination, the purpose of building Robots to labor as slaves for human beings has to do with liberating the latter from necessity, creating an economy of abundance and thereby securing the possibility for unconditional and unconditioned self-realization: "But within the next ten years Rossum's Universal Robots will produce so much wheat, so much cloth, so much everything that things will no longer have any value. Everyone will be able to take as much as he needs.... People will do only what they enjoy. They will live only to perfect themselves" (21). A dangerous nihilism lies in this humanitarian sentiment, however. For Martin Heidegger, the danger attendant to modern technological development involves a relentless magnification of human will upon the world in general, which easily takes on an ideological guise of universalized philanthropy:
What has long threatened man with death, indeed with the death of his essence, is the absoluteness of his sheer willing in the sense of his deliberate self-assertion in everything. What threatens man in his essence is the willful opinion that through the peaceful release, transformation, stockpiling, and delivery of natural energies, man could make man's being bearable for all and happy in general. However, the peace of this peacefulness is merely the undisturbed, lasting frenzied restlessness of self-assertion deliberately thrown back on itself. ("Why Poets" 221)
The impetus to make the world universally happy and bearable for humankind drives technoscientific development toward what Heidegger elsewhere calls the "injurious neglect" of all things nonhuman, a disregard for the well-being of anything that does not fit an anthropomorphic model ("The Turning" 48). Such neglect, Heidegger argues, which proceeds from the injunction to order the things of the world for human purposes, "flattens out each ordo, that is, each rank, into the uniformity of production" ("Why Poets" 221). Thus, the apparent nobility of Domin's wish, that people achieve the ability to enjoy their lives without condition, leads to a world where "things have no value," not only in an economic sense, but an ethical sense as well. Unlimited production ultimately results in a flattened ontology of anthropocentric self-production without meaning.
Of course, Domin's humanitarian sentiment slips easily into a rhetoric of selfishness and domination as the language of autonomy becomes that of sovereignty. Late in the play, he rails:
I did this for myself, do you hear? For my own satisfaction! I wanted man to become a master! ... I was fighting against poverty! I wanted a new generation of mankind! ... I wanted to transform all of humanity into a worldwide aristocracy. Unrestricted, free, and supreme people. Something even greater than people. (54)
There is a palpable trace of Nietzsche in Domin's longing for a new breed of aristocratic humanity, made explicit with Alquist's immediate rejoinder that Domin is speaking of transforming men into "Supermen." Domin's appropriation of Nietzsche rings out as well in his assertion that "No one can hate more than man hates man," an exclamation that resonates with the bitter diagnoses, set forth in On the Genealogy of Morality, that man is sick of himself, ashamed of himself, tired of himself, and so on. Domin's adoption of Nietzsche is a naive one, however: what he actually voices is the culture of nihilism that Nietzsche so vehemently decried. This man, this conception of human being, which is tired and ashamed and sick of itself, filled with a superlative self-hatred, drives restlessly toward self-negation. For Domin, the act of aristocratic self-perfection occurs, not as an affirmative act of overcoming and creative transvaluation, but rather as a reactive negation of imperfections and limitations in the human condition--all of which resonates in contemporary posthuman sentiments of the singularitarian, transhumanist, extropian varieties, exemplified by figures such as Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec. (4)
The Robots themselves are clearly figures for a nihilistic, technological world-picture. Stripped of everything that "would lend itself to omission or simplification" (8)--including anatomical superfluities such as the appendix, tonsils, navel, sexual organs, as well as the more abstract complexities of culture, feeling, and desire--Rossum's Universal Robots are hyper-rationalized and eminently utilitarian. They are cheap because they have the "fewest needs" and thus require no wages (9); they are disposable because they do not possess any qualities that would make them otherwise valued or valuable once they "wear out" (10). Their existence emerges by virtue of the flattened uniformity of production; they possess a life with neither birth nor death, a being without time, for whom continuity rests in the injunction that "work must not cease." Capek's Robots thus prefigure what Hannah Arendt would later call animal laborans, a vain creature that can only labor to produce and reproduce, never to create or procreate and thus bring into the world things that can both endure within and renew the world. The Robots, like Arendt's animal laborans, sacrifice ideals of "permanence, stability, and durability" to that of abundance (126). The concomitant to an economy of abundance, where things have no value, is the existence of a waste economy, "in which things must be almost as quickly devoured and discarded as they have appeared in the world" (154). The Robots of Capek's drama not only provide the technical conditions for such waste, but are also themselves its victims, being sent to the stamping mill whenever they wear out, resist, or become otherwise recalcitrant.
Yet, in some ways, it is the human that appears to be most expendable in Capek's vision. Domin explains that the young Rossum, who employed his father's discovery of artificial life to build the company, "chucked everything not directly related to work, and in so doing he pretty much discarded the human being and created the Robot" (9). Fabry, R.U.R.'s engineer and general technical director, recalls this notion when he declares that "the human machine ... was hopelessly imperfect. It needed to be done away with once and for all.... It was less than efficient. It couldn't keep up with modern technology" (17-18). The human machine, from the standpoint of modern industrial production, manifests its imperfections on at least two fronts: on account of its materiality and its contingency, its various complex needs, its tendency to break down physically, but also on account of its recalcitrance toward objectification. A human being is, as the young Rossum once complained, "something that feels joy, plays the violin, wants to go for a walk, in general requires a lot of things that--that are, in effect, superfluous" (9). The human machine is one that fancies itself more than a machine, more than a laboring animal, its superfluidity at odds with modern technology.
For Domin, to remove the imperfect human machine from a mode of production for which it has become unsuitable is to lift from humankind the burden of material necessity, which can only impoverish and debase. The Robots, then, represent for Domin a means to realize a more fully human mode of being. The negation of an historical and temporal life in the Robot, that is, the properly "human" life, the bios, the enduring spirit or soul that encompasses all those "superfluous" things of human desire--joy, playing the violin, going for walks--has its point of symmetry in the negation of the life of labor that Domin, in his final moments, laments had too long "enslaved mankind, that degrading and terrible work that man had to endure, filthy and deadly drudgery" (54). Roboter macht frei: the Robot is the abstraction of labor, the lifting-away of Arbeit, from the human condition. Just as the Robot is simplified anatomically in the interests of technical perfection at the same time it is denied the complexities of a soul, all in the interest of industrial progress, so is the human simplified ontologically in the interests of its spiritual and self-creative perfection. With the invention of the Robot, upon whom is heaped all that makes life conditional, Man is born. But in so becoming, in placing Man at the heart of everything once and for all, humankind finds itself possessed of a more lifeless life than that of the Robots. Domin's wish for a new generation of free and supreme people gives way to humanity's self-annihilation.
In R.U.R., the attempt to make human autonomy unconditional through the automation of labor precipitates a deadly autoimmunity disorder, as Derrida would call it, which finally extinguishes human life altogether. For me, one of the most intriguing aspects of the narrative lies in Capek's decision to couple the overt threat posed by the Robots' violent revolution with a more insidious menace. Somehow, the advent of Robot labor is linked to a mysterious infertility in the world's women, which ultimately causes the global natality rate to bottom out. The vital link between toil and childbirth, labor in its double sense, is strikingly figured in the scenario. Indeed, the world of Capek's play is actively hostile toward children, which are, as Fabry tells the audience, just one more superfluity in a modern technocratic era: "It's great progress to give birth by machine," he tells Helena. "It's faster and more convenient. ... Nature had no grasp of the modern rate of work. From a technical standpoint the whole of childhood is pure nonsense. Simply wasted time. An untenable waste of time" (18). An untenable, nonsensical waste of resources too, since children, especially infants, cannot produce or reproduce, only consume. "Production should be as simple as possible, and the product the best for its function," Domin states near the beginning of the play (9). Where life itself is produced for the function of increased production, the contingencies, complexities, and dependencies of something like childhood and adolescence, which require long-term investments of nourishment and cultivation, pose untenable economic risk.
There is also an ontological threat that birth and childhood pose to the type of sovereign humanity for which Domin so desperately hopes. As Anne O'Byrne points out, natality is a condition of mortal existence that discloses our finitude and contingency "in the recognition that there was once a time when we were not, that we owe our existence to others, and that those others are nevertheless not the ground of our being" (7). O'Byrne challenges the existentialist tradition that grows out of Heideggerian thought, which takes death as the primary "cipher for our finitude" (9), arguing that natality is perhaps an even more profound source of the existential anxiety that leaves us feeling not quite at home in the world. Our being-toward-death attunes us to the uncomfortable fact that our existence is limited by its eventual and undisclosed termination. This realization is, for Heidegger, the condition for an authentic mode of being. In other words, the anticipation of our death is what make it possible for each of us to see ourselves as individual (human) beings (Being and Time 308). (5) Yet a careful reflection on our birth reveals the vertiginous awareness that our being could very well never have been in the first place. This realization comes to the fore when we ask after the reasons for our birth:
We want an explanation for our coming to be, but we are at a loss as to what could count as an adequate explanation, that is, what could count as an appropriate response to the question 'Why was I born?' This is, after all, the existential version of the first question of metaphysics, 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' Without a way to even develop criteria for judging any possible answer, we are left with the thought that there is no appropriate response because there was nothing in the world as it existed before my coming to be that determined that I should come to be. We are children of chance, and there is no reason or ground for my having been born. (26-27)
Even with the prospect of genetic manipulation, which nevertheless operates by statistical regularities (as it will continue to operate, despite the wildest futurological speculations), the reason why any one particular individual--this boy or this girl, rather than some other--cannot be recovered. It could always have been otherwise.
Birth, then, is the introduction of something new that fundamentally precludes sovereign will and self-assertion. O'Byrne reminds us that, for the baby, birth is a passive event: I was born, it was something that happened to me (42). In a certain sense, my birth is a profound violation, a violence perpetrated on (my) being. It is the result of innumerable circumstances--a constellation of interpersonal relationships; a series of decisions and actions that frequently involve legal and spiritual covenants; an enormous set of social and economic institutions; countless biological processes--circumstances to which I did not consent. The petulant teenager's protest, "I never asked to be born!" which echoes the more profound lamentations of the Biblical Job or Adam in Paradise Lost, speaks a fundamental truth about this violation. In this sense, Fabry is absolutely correct: childhood is nonsense--it eludes any reasoned or reasonable sense.
In the course of Act 1, Helena asks a number of people on the island factory why babies have stopped being born. Though she receives no definitive answer as to a direct cause of human infertility, the consensus is that the Robots are at the root of it all. Dr. Gall gropes for an explanation that emerges as a muddle of economic and evolutionary reasoning, before it retreats to a clumsy naturalism:
DR. GALL. Yes?
HELENA. Why have children stopped being born?
DR.GALL. I don't know, Mrs. Helena.
HELENA. Tell me why!
DR. GALL. Because Robots are being made. Because there is a surplus of labor power. Because man is virtually an anachronism. Why it's just as though--bah!
HELENA. Go on.
DR. GALL. Just as though nature were offended by the production of Robots.
HELENA. Gall, what will happen to people?
DR. GALL. Nothing. There's nothing we can do against the force of nature. (39)
That the Robots' superiority over anachronistic human beings means their conquest in a social-Darwinist battle for survival is a motif that recurs in a number of spots in R.U.R. What strikes me in Gall's explanation here is the onus he places on the surplus of labor power, a Marxist twist on the biopolitical situation that Capek's play describes.
In her reading of Marx, Arendt foregrounds life's fertility as the key to the critique of labor. Marx grounded his critique, she claims, "on the understanding of laboring and begetting as two modes of the same fertile process. Labour was to him the 'reproduction of one's own life' which assured the survival of the individual, and begetting was the production 'of foreign life' which assured the survival of the species" (106). For Arendt, the labor of animal laborans is something of a positive feedback loop that only amplifies itself:
[T]he productivity of labour power produces objects only incidentally and is primarily concerned with the means of its own reproduction; since its power is not exhausted when its own reproduction has been secured, it can be used for the reproduction of more than one life process, but it never 'produces' anything but life. Through the violent oppression in a slave society or exploitation in the capitalist society of Marx's own time, it can be channeled in such a way that the labor of some sufficed for the life of all. (88)
That the labor of the few meets the needs of the many is, of course, the economic dream that Domin is banking on. In the Prologue, Busman claims that "even with fodder a Robot costs only three-quarters of a cent an hour" (Capek 20). Having only the barest of needs, the Robots produce an enormous surplus of labor power channeled directly into feeding the human populations of the world. Thus the burden humanity carries in reproducing its own life is lifted entirely. Yet, in the world of Capek's play, life without necessity becomes unnecessary life; the surplus of Robotic labor renders humankind superfluous. (6)
When Helena asks Alquist the reason for the dearth of babies, his answer hinges on an indictment of Domin's utopia, where labor and suffering have become unnecessary and humans need nothing but to enjoy themselves. "Helena, there is nothing more terrible than giving people paradise on earth!" Alquist exclaims. In this new Eden, he laments, life comes to a standstill: "And we people, we, the crown of creation, do not grow old with labor, we do not grow old with the cares of rearing children, we do not grow old from poverty! ... And you expect women to have children by such men? Helena, to men who are superfluous women will not bear children!" (35). Without finitude, life drops out of history. With nothing of value to elicit care and concern for the world, there is nothing worth tending to. If none grow old, nothing encourages the creation of "foreign" life. And without the emergence of the new or the fading away of the old, the sense of life as biography, as meaningful story and history, withdraws. Indeed, it is on this very point that Arendt invokes the ancient Greek distinction between bios and zoe. Life transcends zoe (the mere fact of subsistence, growth, and decay exhibited by any plant or animal) to become bios (a more properly "human" life of significant social and political activity) when it takes the form of a biography (Arendt 97). Following this conceptual division, the unstoried lives of Robots and ageless men are equally bare and barren. "Without a world into which men are born and from which they die," writes Arendt, "there would be nothing but changeless eternal recurrence, the deathless everlastingness of the human as of all other animal species" (97). With this cue, it seems to me that to grasp more firmly the biopolitical, or better yet, zoopolitical, stakes of R.U.R. we must take a closer look at the animals lurking in the text of the play.
Life beyond Sovereignty
The only successful philosophies and religions are the ones that flatter us, whether in the name of progress or of hell. Damned or not, man experiences an absolute need to be at the heart of everything. It is, in fact, solely for this reason that he is man, that he has become man. And if some day he no longer feels this need, he must give way to some other animal prouder, madder than himself.
In the play's final act, we find a harried, aged, and dying Alquist, who for the past two years has been pressed into service by the Robots to help them learn how to reproduce, the machines that once birthed them having long broken down. As these machines cease to function, the Robots come to a horrifying understanding: "The only thing we cannot produce is Robots. The machines are turning out nothing but bloody chunks of meat. The skin does not stick to the flesh and the flesh does not cling to the bones. Only amorphous lumps pour out of the machines" (73). Unfortunately, Capek's last man lacks both the expertise and the knowledge to make their bodies coherent once more, since the manuscript containing the secret to the manufacture of artificial life was destroyed by Helena in the hours before the Robot revolution stormed the shores of the island factory. When confronted by the Robots, Alquist berates them: "If you want to live," he chides, "then mate like animals!" (74). But the Robots were created with neither sex nor sexuality, and are therefore unable to couple in the manner of beasts.
Oddly enough, this line, in which Alquist explicitly connects animality to natality and thus to the continuance and renewal of life, contrasts with other instances, in Act 3 and elsewhere in the play, where life, as animal life, is placed under erasure. Earlier in the same conversation, when the Robots first complain that they cannot reproduce, Alquist states, "Only people can reproduce life" (73; my italics). A few lines later, after Alquist's various admonishments, one Robot anxiously predicts that, should he fail in his task, then "Life will perish" (76). It seems disconcerting to me, considering the abundance of nonhuman life on Earth, that life in toto would necessarily perish along with the extinction of humans and their robotic progeny. This tension, between a life qualified as animal life and an absolute life that equates to the life of human (oid) people is crucial, especially to the resolution of the play as I read it. We might recall here not only Arendt's distinction between zoe and bios along existential lines, but also Giorgio Agamben's appeal to the same distinction in his discussions of nuda vita over the course of his work on biopolitics and sovereignty. (7) Yet I would rather highlight the zoological aspect of zoe, and pay attention to the nonhuman animals that prowl in the text.
The first thing to note is the antipathy that animals--domesticated animals in particular--hold toward the Robots. In the Prologue, Domin recounts to Helena the history of the Rossums' discovery of the means to produce artificial life out of a synthetic protoplasm discovered by the Elder Rossum. Domin describes this first successful concoction as "some phlegm of a colloidal jelly that not even a dog would eat" (6). Domin mentions another dog only a few lines later, when he explains how the old Rossum set his mind to "taking life out of a test tube": "First he tried to create an artificial dog. That took him a number of years, and finally he produced something like a mutant calf that died in a couple of days. I'll point it out to you in the museum. And then old Rossum set out to manufacture a Human being" (7). The matter-of-fact progression, from the gruesome failure of the artificial dog (which, evidently, someone thought fit to preserve and put on display), to the decision to go for broke and make a human being is certainly a wry send-up of Frankensteinian hubris, but I believe it also points once again to a refusal, rejection, or dissolution of nonhuman animal life. The creation of artificial life so quickly becomes a self-serving recapitulation of the self, an endeavor that is fundamentally autistic, that is, a pathological particularity of the autos, suggestive of a human subjectivity unable to communicate or imagine a community beyond itself.
Another dog slinks into a conversation between Helena and her nurse, Nana, a georgic matron whose animosity toward the Robots derives from a rustic piety that equates the grace of God with earthly fertility:
NANA. You hate 'em. Every human being has to hate 'em. Why, even that hound hates 'em, won't even take a scrap of meat from 'em. Just tucks its tail between its legs and howls when those unhumans are around, bah!
HELENA. A dog's got no sense.
NANA. It's got more'n they do, Helena. It knows right well that it's better'n they are and that it comes from God. Even the horse shies away when it meets up with one of those heathens. Why, they don't even bear young, and even a dog bears young, everything bears young (26-27)
The Robots, manufactured by machine and lacking the ability to mate carnally, are dissociated from animal being in an obvious way. They labor in only one sense of the term: they are able to produce and reproduce, but not procreate. The work they do merely feeds back upon itself in a sterile dynamo that readies the things of the world for consumption, but generates nothing lasting and nothing new. Yet it is only moments later that Helena and Nana discover that human beings likewise bear no young. Divorced from animal necessity, they have become inanimate. Arendt writes that the pain and effort of labor "are not just symptoms which can be removed without changing life itself; they are rather the modes in which life itself, together with the necessity to which it is bound, makes itself felt. For mortals, the 'easy life of the gods' [or, in Domin's words, the 'free and supreme' life of a 'worldwide aristocracy'] would be a lifeless life" (120). Indeed, for Arendt, the "prescribed cycle of painful exhaustion and pleasurable regeneration" is the condition for the "elemental happiness that comes from being alive" (108). To be happy is to ensure that one lives a life that makes itself felt. There is a profound ethical appeal in Arendt's argument
here if we take into account her debt to Aristotle, who, in the Nicomachean Ethics, maintains that true happiness (eudaimonia) is the condition and the result of living and acting well (1095b). (8) It appears to me that Arendt is saying that, in order to act well, one must act sensitively, with full feeling. The scandal of a life free of the burden of labor is that it would be a benumbed existence, insensitive to the pains and efforts of other embodied creatures. We might say, then, that an ethical life is one possessed of and fostering a "sense" found in any horse or dog.
The biopolitical or zoopolitical stakes that the play raises hinge precisely on the automation of labor, yet Arendt's analysis offers a surprising insight. For her, there is a theoretical distinction between labor and work that has to do with temporality and sociability, the ability to establish both individual and collective biographies. Work refers to the creation of tangible things that institute and maintain social relations, creating a human "world" that, most importantly, transcends generations. The things of work not only stabilize an enduring temporality, but also offer a common substrate into which newcomers arrive, allowing them to make sense of the world as well as to innovate upon it. Labor is closely tied to, if not congruent with, the natural cycle of the life processes, to zoe as opposed to bios: "Life is a process that everywhere uses up durability, wears it down, makes it disappear, until eventually dead matter, the result of small, single, cyclical, life processes, returns into the over-all gigantic circle of nature herself, where no beginning and no end exist and where all natural things swing in changeless, deathless repetition" (96). Arendt's characterization of nature as an infernal, ahistorical whirligig is undeniably problematic, especially after environmentalist criticism, ecofeminism, animal studies, and the posthumanities at large have made pains to historicize and therefore politicize the nonhuman. Nevertheless, the link she draws between labor and life (as in "natural" or zoological life) makes for a useful heuristic wedge to pry open the significance of artificial life and automation.
Let us return to the moment when Alquist instructs the Robots to mate like animals. In response to this advice, Damon, the ruler of the Robots, falls back on Fabry's old dream: "We will give birth by machine," he declares. "We will build a thousand steam-powered mothers. From them will pour a river of life. Nothing but life! Nothing but Robots!" Alquist responds to this hyperbole more or less with common sense: "Robots are not life. Robots are machines" (75). Yet, it might be a mistake to heed too closely to Alquist here and insist upon a strict opposition of life and machines. On the contrary, in the biopolitical horror story depicted in R.U.R., the Robots may better be interpreted as a deluge of insensitive and voracious life.
For Arendt, the essence of mechanized labor is nothing mechanical--it is part of an "unnatural growth of the natural" (47). In fact, one might even call mechanization "organic," insofar as it factors into the "organization of laboring" particular to industrial modernity. In a remarkable passage, she argues that automated labor and the practices of production and consumption it would make possible first and foremost pose a biological threat:
Painless and effortless consumption would not change but would only increase the devouring character of biological life until a mankind altogether 'liberated' from the shackles of pain and effort would be free to 'consume' the whole world and to reproduce daily all the things it wished to consume ... The danger of future automatization is less the much deplored mechanization and artificialization of natural life than that, its artificiality notwithstanding, all human productivity would be sucked into an enormously intensified life process and would follow automatically, without pain and effort, its ever-recurrent life cycle. The rhythm of machines would magnify and intensify the natural rhythm of life enormously, but it would not change, only make more deadly, life's chief character with respect to the world, which is to wear down durability. (132)
So the crisis of automation consists in an accelerated metabolism that subjects the world to an empty cycle of consumption and preparation for consumption, coupled with a pervading apathy--that is, a suffering from a lack of suffering, an unfelt life--which strips all value from those things that are consumed. Human and Robot alike are "sucked" into the eternal to and fro of an insatiable, valueless, nihilistic nature.
This paradigm of accelerated, intensified consumption radicalizes Foucault's formulation of biopolitics as the right and the power to "make live and let die" (Society Must Be Defended 241). On the one hand, the generation of artificial life forms intensifies the first half of this formula, translating the injunction to "make live" into an endeavor to make life itself. Given that speculations upon developments in artificial intelligence and artificial life so often invoke narratives that involve the end of humanity--whether by way of a revolutionary uprising of intelligent machines that exposes the human species to the peril of extinction, or by way of an evolutionary merger with our artificial progeny that promises to thrust humanity toward a transcendent, posthuman, postbiological stage of being--such speculations and promises probe the very limits of a biopolitical order. For me, Capek's robots serve as figures for what Foucault calls an "excess of biopower," which, he argues, "appears when it becomes technologically and politically possible for man not only to manage life but to make it proliferate," thus creating forms of life that extend biopower "beyond all human sovereignty" (254). On the other hand, R.U.R. posits a world that subjects organic life to a logic of industrial-technological development and an economy of aggressive innovation, according to which successive productions can only compete with what came before. Within such an economy, the passivity of "letting die" shifts to an autonomous process of obsolescence, in which lives are consumed, neglected, and disposed of, as their productive value is exhausted and surpassed. Here we find a normalization, even a naturalization, of waste that, in Bernard Stiegler's argument, precipitates a "generational confusion," eroding connections between generations and degrading familial, social, and natural environments (Taking Care of Youth 42). I contend that this degradation stems from a larger attitude toward (human) finitude within a biopolitical context, where suffering, senescence, and death are rendered wasteful afflictions to avoid, eradicate, or exclude--more often than they are affirmed as necessary experiences that demand response rather than remedy, care rather than cure. Such a negligent attitude threatens to detach the lives that follow one another from those that came before, fostering generations that are irresponsive and hence irresponsible to one another.
What Capek's play presents to us, then, is not so much the well-trod menace of technology run amok, but rather that of overabundant, uncontrollable, life. In so doing, however, it offers insight into how we might think about and mobilize technology in order to reflect upon finitude with fresh creativity, as well as to cultivate a renewed ethics of responsibility and care for future generations, whomever and whatever they may be.
Not for Us
Still, I remember when the dog licked my face and hauled its shaggy bulk onto my bed, and I remember its warm breathing beside me, and sometimes, I miss it.
At the end of Capek's play, hope resides with two Robots, Helena and Primus, who reveal themselves to be only two years old. In the months prior to the Robots' revolution, Dr. Gall had been performing experiments with some of the Robots at Helena's request, in which he "changed the way they were made. Just certain physical details, you see? Mainly ... mainly their ... temperament" (56). Though he claims that he was only able to alter the Robots physiologically, he nevertheless states that these alterations "transformed them into people" (57). As Helena explains her reasons for making the request, it is clear that the humanitarian mission that brought her to the island in the first place did not end with her marriage to Domin: "And then I thought that if they were like us they would understand us and they wouldn't hate us so--if they were only a little bit human ... There was such a tremendous gulf between them and us" (58). Of course, where humanity is defined as much by its self-hatred as it is by self-love, to close the gulf between the human and nonhuman, even a little bit, is to trigger an auto-immune response:
HELENA. Is this ... this hatred of theirs another human characteristic, perhaps?
DR. GALL (shrugging his shoulders). Even that's progress, I suppose. (38)
Even so, this "progress" takes a different turn in the final moments of the play as Robots Helena and Primus, two of Dr. Gall's final experiments, enter the stage.
When these two creatures appear, they are evidently very much in love, flirting and laughing, playing with one another's hair, and generally acting too precious for words. I am particularly curious about the dogs that Helena describes as she tells Primus about a place to which she wishes to take him. When he asks her what is there, she replies,
Nothing. Just a little house and garden. And two dogs. If you could see how they licked my hands, and their puppies--oh, Primus, there's probably nothing more beautiful! You take them on your lap and cuddle them, and just sit there until sundown not thinking about anything and not worrying about anything. Then when you get up you feel as though you've done a hundred times more than a lot of work. (80)
While the imagery here is overly sentimental, it nevertheless suggests that there is more life at stake than human and humanoid life, and certainly more value to be found outside of the world flattened by industrial production and modern technoscientific development.
Earlier in the play, Robot Helena is deemed a "failure" by Dr. Gall "because she is good for nothing. She wanders about in a trance, vague, lifeless" (39). She is certainly not lifeless, though the sentiment about her utility is one that she herself echoes in the final act: "Really, I'm not good for much of anything. Everyone says I'm not cut out for any kind of work. I don't know what I'm good for." Nonsensical to a logic of modern industrial labor, a newborn in a world where children have no place, she remains entranced and vague in the environment of the island factory. At the end of the play, with the factory inoperative, she flourishes. To her faint worry over her utility, Primus simply responds, "You're beautiful" (80). This statement is the final affirmation that she resides outside of the brutal imperative that "Work must not cease," that her existence is undoubtedly not that of animal laborans. Beauty does not negate necessity, does not eliminate the need for the painful regeneration of life; it does, however, exceed necessity's bounds; it is an exuberance in which the two dogs and their puppies participate just as much as Robot Helena. The beautiful relationship among these nonhuman beings suggests the crucial role that aesthetic experience plays in communication and the formation of community.
Through her encounter with the cuddly canines, Robot Helena is associated with a fleshly, tactile sense of animal being, and while the question of her physiological sex remains undisclosed (not to mention Primus'), what is clear is her figurative connection to animality, fertility, and natality. Moreover, the reference to physical affection, to licking and cuddling, gives the lie to Arendt's characterization of animal life as a senseless devouring, devoid of meaning. The experience of sensuous connection among living beings points instead to a life process that exceeds mere sustenance and survival, an animal life that is about social relations and the cultivation of a "world" of sensitive community. What Helena experiences as "more than a lot of work," what holds value for her (and perhaps restores value to a world stripped of it), are sense and sensation, ways of feeling between entities that engender relations that are not fully characterized by unilateral domination. Even amidst a world where animal laborans prevails, nonhuman animals still offer the opportunity to sense the world, to communicate in a way that is not solely about insatiable consumption.
In the play's closing monologue, Alquist sends Robots Helena and Primus off to become a new Adam and Eve, quoting Genesis 1.27-28, along with its commandment to be fruitful and multiply and, troublesomely, to subdue the earth and have dominion over all the creatures upon it. Yet a recapitulation of the Biblical Genesis and its anthropogony is by no means assured, as Alquist subsequently addresses nature and life itself:
O nature, nature, life will not perish! Friends, Helena, life will not perish! It will begin anew with love; it will start out naked and tiny; it will take root in the wilderness, and to it all that we did and built will mean nothing--our towns and factories, our art, our ideas will all mean nothing, and yet life will not perish! Only we have perished. Our houses and machines will be in ruins, our systems will collapse, and the names of our great will fall away like autumn leaves. Only you, love, will blossom on this rubbish heap and commit the seed of life to the winds. (84)
For me, the promise held in the ending of Capek's play lies in the indeterminacy with which Alquist deploys the word "life" and his subsequent reaffirmation of humanity's disappearance along with all of its works. (9) As Kafka once said, there is "plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope--but not for us" (Benjamin 116). There may be no hope, no apocalyptic revelation in the catastrophe of our extinction, yet there may very well be infinite hope for the generation of new life posthumous to humankind.
In the second seminar on The Beast and the Sovereign, Jacques Derrida demonstrates that, at least as far as grammarians are concerned, the word posthumous, "posthumus with an h, appears to be a faulty spelling ... and the spelling error in it is apparently induced by the proximity with humus, earth." He continues,
In truth, postume, without an h, apparently corresponds to the superlative of posterns. Posterns qualifies one who comes after, the one who follows. Posterus is the follower or the descendant, the one who is going to come, or even the future itself, posthumous, the superlative here meaning the last follower of all, and above all the one who, being born after the death of the father, child, or grandchild, posterity, bears the testamentary future and the fidelity of the inheritance. (174)
Of course, the witness, the inheritor of the testament, will one day, finally and inevitably, not be human. There must necessarily be a posterus to the Last Man, though one whose superlative fidelity to what came before is radically in question. Throughout this seminar, Derrida, who would pass away only six months after its final session, repeatedly invokes a line from one of Paul Celan's poems: "Die Welt is fort, ich muss dich tragen." The world is gone, lost; I must bear you. Derrida points to the ambiguity of this final word, tragen, "to carry" or "to bear," a word that, especially in the context of Celan's gone-away world, calls to mind the double limits of finitude. One bears another in mourning, but also in the expectation of a birth (9). I carry you when you are unable to carry yourself: a corpse slung over my back, perhaps, but also a child in my arms. Perhaps you are still unborn, borne in the womb. Capek's play ultimately poses the question of a lost world that must nevertheless be carried forth by the posthumous.
The new life of Alquist's valediction will "take root in the wilderness," not only with love, but also with labor. While Helena's house with the puppies is undeniably pastoral, the world she and Primus have inherited is no Eden. He may be the first among a new (species of) people, and she the most beautiful, yet they have already fallen, having been born to a world already old and worn with history, a rubbish heap whose ground has long been cursed and left to an unsuspecting posterity. The play thus invites us to ask a number of pressing ethical questions about our comportment to the world we as human beings share with the nonhuman: What will be our own posterity? In the wilderness, where nobody lives (at least, nobody human), who or what will carry us, and how will we be carried? Is there a way we might think of our world-lost future without wreaking desperate violence, the restless negligence that results from our own self-willing, self-aggrandizement, and self-loathing, upon those, unknowing and unknown, who will have to bear humanity in its afterlife?
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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