Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Default

"Black" robots in the new Transformers

What struck me watching the film was also in how ideas of race are communicated. I mean obviously they aren't "black" in a physical way, any more than any other robot (except through indirect references such as gold-capped rapper teeth). Instead this is communicated primarily through voice and language style. The line about not being able to read was really a bit cringe worthy... though I think at most it might have been more "unconscious" racism than actually asserting that African-Americans cannot read.

But it also makes me think, what about the other robots? Does this imply that other non-ethnically marked robots are defaulted to "white"? Like Optimus Prime? Is he "white"? Ask that question without the context and I believe the thinking would be that it (or he... up next) is un-raced. But in the context of the other racialized robots it seems more clear that rather there is just an assumption of whiteness. Afterall, what would mark as particularly white? Or for that matter, I suppose the default is also that they are men. If you had a female robot, that would stand out (long robot hair, breasts, etc.) in a way that "default" male robots do not. To complete the Holy Trinity, class I guess must be inserted somewhere in there (for example--that skids and mudflap can be critiqued for their "blackness" while this also is implicitly bound up with certain class ideas about race). Hard to really say what a default class is and how that is communicated within embodiment?

Anyway, further reminds me of something else at the lab. Here there is an android robot which is an extremely good copy of one of the main researchers. This robot is being taken for a conference in Europe. At one point one of the researchers told me he was thinking of using it to see whether Europeans would think of it just as a robot, or as a Japanese robot (because it looks like a Japanese man). I seem to also recall a discussion about whether having such a robot speak German would seem "unnatural" to listeners. Interesting, as I guess Engilsh also again becomes the default here... It wouldn't be unnatural for a Japanese robot (or a Japanese) to be speaking English, certainly. Nor, of course, is it impossible that some actual Japanese people speak German.

I'm not quite sure how to approach the issue of "default" methodologically though. Like how do you ask a Japanese person if their default "race" for a robot is Japanese (like I might guess it is)? I suppose it is possible that it could be white/"foreigner" as well, in particular because a lot of manga (comic book) characters are drawn as white and there is a certain structural logic in that robot are outsiders, foreigners are outsiders (gaijin, which means foreigner, is literally "outside person"). Keeping in mind that asking such a question directly isn't likely to lead to as interesting answers (like asking people whether Optimus Prime is white), how can you figure this out? And whether it matters?

Edit: brilliant

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