Within the framework of the artist Sidsel Meineche Hansen’s upcoming exhibition OVER at MINI/Goethe-Institut Curatorial Residencies Ludlow 38, writers and scholars Anson Rabinbach and Louis Chude-Sokei give individual presentations of their research at Goethe-Institut New York, 30 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003.
Referring to the Czech writer Karel Čapek’s introduction of the word ‘robota’, Robot Means Forced Labor delivers a critique of the digital labor forms of automation and artificial intelligence from the perspective of labor power and colonial history.
Robot Means Forced Labor is initiated by the artist and co-organized together with Saim Demircan.
Tracing the historical development from 18th-century automata to late 20th-century digital organisms and artificial intelligence, Anson Rabinbach examines the rise and eclipse of the great utopias of labor. His presentation focuses on 19th-century productivism and the metaphor of the body as a thermodynamic “human motor that drives the economy through conversion of energy”. Greatly influenced by this view, Karl Marx shifted his focus from the emancipation of mankind through labor to emancipation from productive labor by increased productivity, shorter hours, and reduced physical and mental exertion.
A generation of scientists has sought to eliminate the inefficiency and fatigue that has threatened social order. Today, the classical Fordist model that linked increases in productive potential to a more equitable distribution of wages and social goods after World War II appears to be in its terminal stage. With the eclipse of the great productivist utopias, work has ceased to be the defining activity of social life, and is no longer the center for early 21st-century visions of a more productive and just society.
Anson Rabinbach is Phillip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History at Princeton University. He is the author of The Crisis of Austrian Socialism: From Red Vienna to Civil War 1927-1934 (The University of Chicago Press, 1983); The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue and the Origins of Modernity (Basic Books, 1990); In the Shadow of Catastrophe (The University of California Press, 1997); Begriffe aus dem Kalten Krieg: Totalitarismus, Antifaschismus, Genozid (Wallstein Verlag. 2009); and co-editor (with Sander Gilman) of The Third Reich Sourcebook (The University of California Press, 2013). He is also co-founder and editor of New German Critique.
Louis Chude-Sokei will present a brief history of the intersections between race and technology as manifest in the historic parallels of automata, robotics, and chattel slavery. His recent work troubles the assumption that race and technology exist in distinct and unrelated spheres, so they can be discussed or recalled without recourse to each other. In truth, their histories have long depended on each other for support, opposition, and material legitimacy, and have often come together over the course of the last two centuries.
Race and robotics, for instance, have been intertwined since at least the 19th century when two of the most pressing concerns in the transatlantic world were industrialism and slavery, while cybernetics and artificial intelligence continue to manifest these complex interpenetrations. How and why this has occurred is as much the history of science fiction as it has been the material history of modernity.
Louis Chude-Sokei is a writer and scholar currently teaching at the University of Washington, Seattle. His work includes the award winning The Last Darky (Duke University Press, 2006), The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics (Wesleyan University Press, 2016), and the forthcoming, Dr. Satan’s Echo Chamber and Other Essays (Wesleyan University Press). He is editor-in-chief of The Black Scholar, one of the oldest and most influential journals of Black Studies in the US.
Goethe-Institut New York, 30 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003