Understanding Robots Through Derrida

This post is written in response to weekly readings for HUCO617: Posthumanism.  This week we were reading Jacques Derrida; specifically in the context of this response, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, Writing and Difference, pp. 278-293.

In “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, Derrida casts the use of discourses as a way of criticizing the discourse itself, of invalidating its own premises.  At this point, I don’t pretend to completely understand the significance of what Derrida is saying (I suspect I’d need months or years at a minimum to fully grasp it), but this notion of the destruction of a thing by its own means, its own contradictions, strikes a chord with me.  Specifically, the opposition of human-machine and the anxiety prevalent in almost all narratives about the robot seems to embody this principle in microcosm; we fear our own destruction or substitution at the hands of what we have created, artificial beings cast in our own reflection.

I use Karel Čapek’s perspective on the robot, as I’ve used it before, as an emblem of the opposition at the heart of defining what is human (https://cyborgia.wordpress.com/2010/02/08/robots-frozen-the-snow/).  Čapek’s 1921 play R.U.R. captures the fearful aspect of what results from the human endeavour to duplicate the creation of the Biblical God, to make life in our own image.  From a structuralist position, the “robot” is the centre of this discourse; the “robot” represents both the perfect human and the monstrously not-human, and as such exists both within and outside of the discourse depending on one’s approach.  From this we can already recognize the paradoxical difference Derrida suggests with post-structuralism.

The comment I want to make (and am probably making a hack job of it) is that perhaps the anxiety critics feel towards post-structuralism, like Harold Bloom from our previous readings, is at least similar if not identical to the anxiety we feel towards robotics.  We see this anxiety expressed in literature in innumerable ways: from Shelley’s monster to Rossum’s robots, Asimov’s laws to Dick’s replicants, Star Wars‘ droids to Gibson’s Neuromancer, they all represent the tension between progress (both technological and existential) and the fear of replacement (or death).  And isn’t that the same tension that exists in post-structuralism?  To take the concepts of a given discourse and employ them “to destroy the old machinery to which they belong and of which they themselves are pieces” (284); in other words, using principles from an existing system in order to re-imagine it, recreate it.  The tension is between method (the instruments of a system) and the truth (the “objective signification” it represents), borrowing from the language Derrida uses in his analysis of Lévi-Strauss.  Or is the tension between the old and the new in the continual act of re-constructing and replacing of the system from within itself?   All of these examples bring to mind the image of the Ouroboros, the snake biting its own tail in a perpetual cycle of re-invention.

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