The Race of Machines: A Prehistory of the Posthuman
In this digitally saturated age, the cultural influence of technology has seeped into all areas of social, political, and individual life. At the same time, discourses of technology have long proceeded as if matters of social, political, and individual identity are incidental to technological development. Specifically, themes of technology and themes of race have long been understood as separate and unrelated. I contest this understanding through a sustained examination of the occluded, repressed, and otherwise forgotten truth that American technology arose in a society in which some people were once legally—formally—things, and that these legal forms are nothing other than race. To that end, I read broadly across American cultural production, examining canonical fiction, genre science fiction, and a wide range of ephemera to argue that the culture of the machine age, including the emergence of genre science fiction, was always already a racial project.
This dissertation begins by theorizing the racial history of the human. It builds on the work of Sylvia Wynter, Saidiya Hartman, and Fred Moten, who have explored the way modernity depends on blackness for coherence and power, and applies these approaches to the intersection of science, technology, and fiction, putting these scholars in conversation with scholars of speculative fiction and cultures of technology like Leo Marx, N. Katherine Hayles, Mark Seltzer and John Rieder. The first chapter, “The Machine in the Garden was Black,” for instance, focuses on the place of slavery in Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden, reappraising many of Marx’s own sources to expose a foundational conflation of slavery and machines in early American culture.
Later chapters focus on the figure of the Steam Man, on racial passing in early pulp science fiction, on the emerging post-racial ideologies of John W. Campbell, and on the critiques and anxieties of agency that followed. The dissertation ends with an epilogue posing the question: what if science fiction was always black? This epilogue reframes what came before, dwelling in the Alternative, aiming to clear some ground for a newer set of genres—genres of science fiction and the human alike.