Robots, Cyborgs, and the Master/Slave Dialectic

So over on his blog, my partner Christian, who is an artist, has been thinking about the difference between the practice of robot-making and the practice of making cyborg prosthetic devices. Here’s the link to his post, but I”ll reproduce it, and my comment (plus some additional thoughts) below:

Here’s Christian’s post:

like I said in my previous post, I’ve been thinking about robotics as a production model for new ideas on cyborg prostheses, bodies, auto-mechanical instruments, etc. I’ve also been thinking about robots theoretically, and how they may be conceptually in opposition to the cyborg.

I first started to problematize robots back in November 2009 after watching the Vanguard documentary Remote Control War – exploring the current trends in military robotic technology. this led me to think about robots as this tool, these bodies of military + industrial capability. recently I came back to this idea, wondering how to locate the robot in terms of systems of power. the origins for the term robot is Czech – robota – meaning labor and work, but with the implications of serf, or slave, labor. Hegel’s master-slave dialectic would tell us that robots are these things that mediate labor and further distance the operator from the body. these robotic drones are operated by soldiers trained on video game systems, and the violence of war, the violence of the body, is abstracted and removed from the operator’s embodied experience. watching Iron Man 2 last night, Robin made the comment that war doesn’t really exist without killing – and I began to imagine scenarios where two opposing sides enter armed conflict against each other. instead of human soldiers, the fighting takes place between armed drones and killer robots. I’ve heard the argument that this future of war is preferable, because there’s no loss of life. but, when capitalism produces an endless supply of robotic soldiers, there’s nothing at stake, and the war could never end.

of course cyborgs are also a product of capitalism and the military, but rather than using technology to further remove and mediate the body’s experience, I wonder if the cyborg’s use of technology allows for creatively exploring new possibilities of embodiment. in other words, the cyborgian body opens up possibilities for hyper-abilities, while the robot immediately disallows any exploration and creative use of the body.

so I’m wondering how to negotiate this position in the studio and when navigating an art community (esp. new media) that seems to value (I won’t quite say fetishize) the robot-as-art-(maker.) on one hand, I’m enthusiastic and actually really like folks like Eric Singer + LEMUR, and there’s no doubt any of the hackers making graffiti-bots have any military or capitalist intentions. I’m also the last person to have any vested agendas in any sort of artist’s-hand-gestural-mark-making-purity; that kind of old-and-new sincerity snake oil doesn’t have any currency in my studio. No – I’m wondering if there’s something to be hacked and subverted from robotics, applying to the body in order to instigate creative ideas outside a tired man/machine dichotomy.

Here’s my response:

Can I try to flesh out the Hegel reference in a way that (I think) clarifies that you’re not striving for greater bodily immediacy or receptivity, but rather, the actual ability to work on/change one’s body.

So, you say that robots, as the slaves, allow us, as the masters, to stay at a greater “distance” from our body. I think it’s not the distance that’s the problem, but the stasis (and apparent fixity, inherency, etc.). Here’s why:

So, OK, Hegelian dialectic: imagine one term as static “being,” one term as empty “nothingness,” and the point of the dialectic as putting being and nothingness into some sort of motion and creating becoming (or transcendence of one’s present state, or change, however you want to think of it). In the Master/Slave dialectic, the Master is being, and the Slave is nothingess. The Slave works on the world–literally evacuates his labor into the objects he makes, and thus is nothing–to produce objects that the Master then consumes and enjoys. The Master never has any contact with the world, never works on the world, never faces any problems that he then has to be creative and solve. Because the Master never changes (never has new ideas, never transforms/is transformed by the world), he is being. It’s the Slave who actually experiences any and all change, development, or, you guessed it, becomming.

So, what I think you want to argue is that robots create a Master/Slave relationship: We’re the static Masters who never transcend/create/etc., and the robots are the slaves (who also experience, according to Hegel, an imperfect becoming…that’s why the M/S dialectic is only about 2/3 of the way through the Phenomenology of Spirit). Real, actual becoming happens when the M/S dichotomy is broken down, i.e., when we work on and are worked on by things, when we’re both subjects and objects.

So, I think what you are arguing is that the cyborg can be (I don’t think you want to say it necessarily is, just that it can be) a way out of the Master/Slave dialectic.

…And here are some further thoughts:

a) I think we need to be very concerned not to re-romanticize wholeness or lack of alienation (as, say, Marx does). I think we can avoid this by focusing on the Beauvoiran ambiguity that the M/S dialectic suggests: we practice “transcendence” only by being both subjects and objects.

b)Robot logic depends on dehumanization/oppression (i.e., the robot is not me, it is Other, it is merely a means/merely an object), but cyborg logic relies on the trans- or post-humanization of the self. So, in robot logic, somebody stays “human” and thus priviliged, whereas in cyborg logic, the “human” itself is de-centered.

c) Robot logic masks the way that capital and labor produce the producer, whereas cyborg logic makes this very transparent.

Other thoughts?