Science Fiction Studies

#104 = Volume 35, Part 1 = February 2008

Sean Brayton

The Post-White Imaginary in Alex Proyas’s I, Robot

In June 2005 two political events achieved what many claimed was a landmark in the history of American race relations. On June 14, the US Senate offered an official apology for its lethargic response to widespread lynching in the South during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This historic gesture marked “the first time the body has apologized for the nation’s treatment of African Americans” (Thomas-Lester A12). One week later, on June 21, the State of Mississippi convicted Edgar Ray Killen, an ex-Ku Klux Klansman, of manslaughter in the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers. On the heels of the verdict the State also re-opened its investigation into the 1955 murder of Emmitt Till in the Mississippi Delta. Killen’s conviction came forty-one years after the activists’ bodies were discovered, and the Senate’s apology was released over one hundred years since a black congressman first called for anti-lynching intervention.               

These events are certainly monumental and demonstrate the extent to which white America is attempting to deal with its racist past. As Till’s cousin claimed, “Sons and daughters realize how wrong [their racist white parents] were, and they want to do something. The apology is appropriate” (Thomas-Lester A12). Although these celebrated events condemn past racism, they potentially acquit the contemporary white subject of racial violence. As white racism is historically “othered,” an equally (if less overtly) racist present goes unchecked. In other words, whiteness is able to maintain a favorable position by replacing the disavowed white racist with a “politically correct” white subject, allowing overwhelmingly white political bodies such as the US Senate to proudly affirm their antiracism. Whiteness basically splits into two camps: the evil white racist of the distant past and the modern white convert of racial reconcilation.                

A suspicious disavowal of white racism also occurs in contemporary popular culture, sometimes distinctively in sf film. Because it often illustrates social struggles with an alien “other,” sf film can be useful in unpacking the ways race relations are imagined in US cultural politics. In this paper I am concerned with an emergent “antiracist” white subject that is evoked in Alex Proyas’s latest sf film I, Robot (2004). In its exploration of an emergent “post-white” mythology, I, Robot is laden with irony and contradiction. Like whiteness itself, the robots are able to slip in and out of racial tropes. Key moments of the film, however, may be read as a parable of white antiracism, driven by an impulse of reconciliation between a “unique” white robot and a black detective. Although the terms of racial comity in I, Robot are not always clear, they become legible alongside wider performances of antiracism in US politics.

I, Robot and White Disavowal. Loosely based on the 1950 fix-up novel by Isaac Asimov, I, Robot portrays a black male cop battling a series of menacing “white” robots of the Nestor class, or NS-5s. The setting consists of towering gray buildings, most notably the headquarters of US Robotics (USR), which the camera is quite fond of scaling. On the sordid streets below huddle a variety of Asian diners and tattoo parlors as well as hordes of laboring robots. If the film explores the discursive terrain of the posthuman, it also presents what appears to be a post-racist Chicago of 2035 AD. In this seemingly color-blind society, the historical legacy of racism has been largely supplanted by individual acts of “robophobia” committed by one black cop, Detective Del Spooner (played by Will Smith). Although the original Asimov story upon which the film is based centered on the character of Dr. Susan Calvin (a “robopsychologist”),1 the cinematic version substitutes a black male protagonist. This shift illustrates the racial and gender politics of the film, which are further complicated by Will Smith’s star power within contemporary white, liberal Hollywood.                

The robots in the film, as in the novel, are designed to serve humanity and to this end are governed by the famous “Three Laws” that privilege and protect humans at the robots’ expense. After the apparent suicide of roboticist Dr. Alfred Lanning, Detective Spooner is dispatched to the corporate headquarters of USR. From Spooner’s preliminary findings (colored by his abiding prejudice against robots), it would appear that Lanning was murdered by an NS-5. The detective must solve this mysterious death on the eve of the largest distribution of domestic robots in US history. Meanwhile, the positronic or “artificially conscious” mainframe of USR has become independently sentient and has determined, in an echo of the closing chapter of Asimov’s novel and Jack Williamson’s classic story “With Folded Hands” (1947), that the best way to serve humanity is through benevolent dictatorship. As a result, the mass-circulated robots turn on their human masters. One rogue robot, however, rejects the NS-5s and befriends the robophobic black detective: Sonny, the “unique” white robot, learns to be “human” by interacting with Lanning, Calvin, and, most importantly, Spooner, turning the film into a complex racial allegory.                

As several sf critics have argued, figures depicting an amalgam of human and machine such as cyborgs and androids (and also, one might argue, humanoid robots) render an “unfamiliar ‘otherness’” that destabilizes the foundational binary of organic and artificial (Balsamo 149). The mechanical hybrids of sf film often disrupt human identity to such an extent as to problematize any clear racial readings by theorists. Nevertheless, race may often “appear in disguise” (James 28). Ridley Scott’s widely-acclaimed Blade Runner (1982), for instance, can be described in part as an allegory of chattel slavery; for some critics this interpretation allows the white replicants to be read as symbolically black. A racialized reading of white androids as “African slaves” (Hobby 46), however, has serious theoretical limitations. An obvious pitfall is its tendency to reduce blackness to a condition of terminal oppression. Indeed, this figuring of blackness as inhuman perpetuates, rather than disrupts, the ideological production of racial otherness. And if white androids are pigeonholed as oppressed black subjects, their whiteness is able to elude precise description and historical contextualization.                

While feminist sf literature has produced androgynous cyborgs of various racial hues (see Haraway), I, Robot depicts a creature that resembles white Western masculinity. Each robot is given a pale white complexion and a “generic” Midwestern dialect, stereotypical of white suburbia. Sonny, for instance, is issued vibrant blue eyes and the slightly effete voice of Alan Tudyk (of the sf television series Firefly). He is a machine made quite literally in the image of a white man, one whose character in Firefly abstains from physical violence (unlike his African-American wife). Product of scientific ingenuity, the robot’s cold and gleaming surfaces gesture towards larger discourses of rationality and logic that inform the popular mythology of white masculinity. Eurocentric whiteness has historically been conflated with order, reason, and mental precision, all key attributes of the NS-5s. In the words of Joe Kincheloe and Shirley Steinberg, “rationalist modernist whiteness is shaped and confirmed by its close association with science” (5). Conversely, nonwhiteness has been equated with disorder, irrationality, and passion, characteristics that describe the film’s maverick black detective. (In one scene Spooner even admits to being the “dumbest dumb person on the face of the earth.”) Robert Young has shown how such assumptions traditionally informed Enlightenment discourses, including Marxism, that overtly or tacitly authorized “the story of ‘world history’ … as … the creation, subjection and final appropriation of Europe’s [non-white] ‘others’” (2). In this world-view, white male bodies, much like the robot, are “assumed to have both outgrown the state of nature and achieved rationality” (Abdel-Shehid 48). The coupling of Enlightenment values and white masculinity is consummated in the image of the film’s white robot.                

Whiteness is also referenced by the robots’ relationship to the black protagonist, Spooner, who is repeatedly called upon to overcome his robophobia. In addition, the white robots exemplify what Howard Winant calls a “crisis of white identity” (34), which is foreshadowed by Spooner’s first encounter with the NS-5. In pursuit of a robot suspect, he is led to a USR factory that contains 1000 NS-5s standing eerily beside one another. As Spooner begins randomly destroying robots, Sonny shoves the detective to the ground, then turns to Spooner with an inquisitive look and asks, “What am I?” This uncertainty of identity is a constant source of anxiety in the film and, as will be shown, the driving force of white “disidentification.” Unlike robots and androids in other sf films, the whiteness of the NS-5s is fixed by the inherent blackness of I, Robot’s hero. If blackness is a relational foil to whiteness, which is defined by cold rationality, then the NS-5s are metaphorically white, especially in their dealings with the highly emotional black detective.                

The NS-5s of I, Robot present an image of whiteness that is coded as strange and threatening. If the “problematic of whiteness” is the defining feature of social anxiety in the post-civil rights era (Winant 66), then the robots of I, Robot might represent emerging and contradictory white identities. On the one hand, the robot symbolizes intensified alienation, which may suggest the “victimized” white male of the conservative right. On the other hand, the robot’s desire to overcome an oppressive identity may offer a critique of white supremacy. Here whiteness is othered in two ways: as an apocalyptic threat to humans and as a form of indentured labor. Even though “white terror” and “white slavery” would appear to be contradictory phenomena, they are in fact complementary since they both enable a transcendent or “post-white” subject in I, Robot.

White Terror. In the consciousness of blacks, bell hooks writes, whiteness “is often a representation of terror” (172). Contrary to its chivalrous portrayal in the annals of US history, whiteness is sometimes considered a threatening and colonizing presence: “If the mask of whiteness, the pretense, represents it as always benign, benevolent, then what this representation obscures is … danger, the sense of threat” (175). Indeed white terror haunts the black male protagonist of I, Robot. Spooner is suspicious of the robots from the outset, which invites the viewer to recognize the threat of whiteness embodied in the robots. The NS-5s are presented as implacable characters that repeatedly attempt to thwart Spooner’s investigation. They appear in droves, a horde of white monsters, and assault Spooner when his findings threaten the welfare of USR.

While the figure of the white monster can be traced back to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), it was given a particularly pointed ideological expression during the period of civil rights struggle and emergent Black Nationalism in the US. In 1965, Leroi Jones (a.k.a. Amiri Baraka) wrote a short play entitled “A Black Mass” that provides a kind of origin myth of racial conflict: at the primeval dawn of humanity, a magician named Jacoub, consumed by an insatiable quest for invention (in a parody of Enlightenment hubris à la Faust), disregards the warnings of his fellow alchemists to catastrophic ends. He creates a hideous white beast, a “soulless distortion of humanity,” that ultimately disrupts the arrangement of the cosmos (32). This monster has “no regard for human life,” evincing a complete “absence of feeling, of thought, of compassion” (35); ferociously scurrying about screaming, “White! White! Me! White!” (Jones 31, 32), the white beast slaughters all but Jacoub. In the final scene, the audience is told that white beasts have occupied the entire globe and must be eradicated. Whiteness, in other words, threatens humanity in general and black people in particular with the threat of extinction.                

“A Black Mass” draws historical parallels between its chthonic white monsters and contemporary white America, making it the prototype of subsequent black-liberationist allegories featuring vast mythic struggles between racial cohorts. In Ishmael Reed’s 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo, a white-supremacist cabal schemes to suppress the resurgent black culture of “Jes Grew” in part by mobilizing a “Talking Android” to “drive it out, categorize it analyze it expell it slay it” (17). Jones’s “Black Mass” also provides a model for studying sf films that deal with the racial politics of whiteness. Whereas “A Black Mass” inverts “the traditional association of Eurocentric Christianity by making ‘whiteness’ the category associated with evil” (McAlister 104-105), I, Robot presents a similar if less explicit narrative. Both texts explore whiteness through a trope of inhumanity or, more accurately, terror, in the process critiquing not only oppressive white identities but also the Western Enlightenment ethos. While humanity is threatened by a rogue white monster in “Black Mass,” it is inundated with suspicious white robots in I, Robot. The film depicts whiteness as ubiquitous and evil yet, in a departure from Jones’s text, ultimately capable of reform.                

As the plot unfolds in I, Robot, Spooner discovers the NS-5s have violated the “Three Laws,” a fatal glitch that USR is struggling to conceal. In one scene the detective is attacked by a barrage of white robots while operating an automobile, providing a lucid illustration of “driving while black” (see Harris 3). Spooner’s “paranoid” suspicions are confirmed when the corporation’s positronic mainframe—VIKI (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence) —reprograms the NS-5s to imprison the residents of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago; as VIKI explains to Spooner and Calvin, “To protect humanity, some humans must be sacrificed.… You are so like children; we must save you from yourselves.” Her words echo colonialist narratives used to justify systemic exploitation and cultural genocide by upholding white Western ideals of rationality as universally superior to “primitive” people’s “childlike” ways. In Spooner’s words, “Robots don’t feel anything. They are cold and emotionless. They are an imitation of life.” A mistrust of the inhuman subject is also a mistrust of whiteness, as in Jones’s “A Black Mass”; both stories deploy white terror as an expression of Western rationality and Enlightenment values gone awry.                

Richard Dyer has identified a specter of “white death” within such sf/horror films as Blade Runner and Night of the Living Dead (1968). In these works, white characters are not only literally dead (as in the latter film’s zombies), but they bring death upon others as well. According to Dyer, such images of “extreme whiteness” actually work to protect the invisibility of “average” or normal whiteness:

The extreme image of whiteness acts as a distraction. An image of what whites are like is set up, but can also be held at a distance. Extreme whiteness is, precisely, extreme.… Whites can thus believe that they are nothing in particular, because the white particularities on offer are so obviously not them. Extreme whiteness thus leaves a residue, a way of being that is not marked as white, in which white people can see themselves. (223)

Dyer’s insight takes on added dimension when placed within contemporary debates over racial conflict and reconciliation. As people of color challenged dominant racial mythologies during the 1960s, whiteness shifted from a state of “invisibility” to one that was marked as privileged and, thus, racist. So-called universal human rights were exposed as “the right of white male property owners to exchange freely on the market, exploit workers and women, and exert political domination” (Žižek, “Class Struggle” 105). Yet progressively-minded whites consciously denied such a tarnished identity. This rejection is echoed in Dyer’s discussion of whiteness in Blade Runner and, more precisely, in protagonist Deckard’s defeat of the replicants and their white terror. The ordinary rejects the aberrant so as to reconstitute the quotidian but moral white subject.                 I,

Robot is caught in a similar dynamic, but with a crucial twist: the character who disavows white terror is openly robotic and, as such, already othered. Thus, white normativity is turned on its head—that is, whiteness is normalized as a terrorizing presence that must be rejected by the “exceptional” white robot. I, Robot relies on a strategic othering to explore a future beyond white death, but not necessarily beyond whiteness. If a post-white-supremacist identity is to develop, whiteness must be displaced from its position of privilege, a critical move that calls for a “shift in locations” (hooks 177). To challenge the representational dominance of whiteness and the racial oppression that proceeds from it, the “unique” white subject of I, Robot must be remolded from the margins. As hooks maintains, “This process of repositioning has the power to deconstruct practices of racism and make possible the disassociation of whiteness with terror in the black imagination” (177).

White Slavery. One way that whiteness is displaced in I, Robot is through the film’s depiction of the division of labor. To be sure, there are non-robot (human) white characters in the film employed as scientists and corporate workers, but their presence is overshadowed by the narrative importance and slick packaging of the white robots. Ironically, despite their high-tech provenance and imposing appearance, the robots are employed largely as menial laborers—custodians, mail carriers, and maidservants. Although certain forms of labor, as Rey Chow argues, “reduce the one who performs them to the position of … ethnic outsider” (34), the robot slave narrative of I, Robot is more complex than this. Unskilled labor is registered through the robots’ metaphorical whiteness, which signals an important yet complicated shift into “white slavery.”                

The “white slave” metaphor was historically used to describe the servitude of women and children in the British factory systems of the Victorian era as well as the exploitative conditions of (un)skilled American laborers during the 1830s. Originally the term was a “call to arms to end the inappropriate oppression of whites” but not necessarily black slavery itself (Roediger 68). Although the white slavery debate in the US swiftly receded, its underlying logic and imagery continues to inform the racial politics of white masculinity. More recently, the white slave has come to function as a proxy for the politics of white male backlash, offering a lucid symbol of the perceived socioeconomic displacement of white men in the post-civil rights era and thus expressing a sense of grievance presumably exclusive to them.                

As the epitome of a disenfranchised subject, the robot can serve as a metaphor for the putative white male victim of the conservative right. The robots of I, Robot have menial jobs and experience various acts of discrimination: for example, a white robot assisting an asthmatic black woman is mistaken for a purse-snatcher and forcefully apprehended by Spooner. Further, the robots represent the perceived denigration of white men at the hands of affirmative action policies in the workplace, putative victims of a social system that favors women and people of color. The robots of I, Robot are situated as servants and second-class citizens in equally “emasculating” terms: as one NS-5 is dispatched to an affluent black family, another prepares sweet potato pie for Spooner’s grandmother. Spooner himself is served beverages by a white robot dressed in a black bowtie. While the white robots are programmed to serve all of humanity, they are disproportionately pictured in the service of women and African-Americans. As a result, the NS-5s invite an anxiety not only about technological tyranny but also white male disempowerment.                

To dismiss the white slave metaphor as irredeemably racist and reactionary, however, is to overlook the potential alliances between segments of exploited labor. Although the white slave narrative of the 1830s might have worked “to justify black slavery by privileging white victimhood,” as Gunther Peck has argued (47), it was also lined with progressive possibilities. Peck suggests that it potentially “expressed sympathy for the black slave and sought to abolish all slaveries” (62). In other words, the white slave metaphor may function as an appeal to a transracial working-class solidarity directed against capitalist exploitation. This alternative understanding of the white slave metaphor is at least partially consistent with the treatment of the theme in I, Robot.                

While the NS-5s are hardly a spitting image of Marx’s proletariat, their role as servants is not insignificant; in particular, the conditions of the robots’ labor in the film reference not only historical chattel slavery but, more pointedly, the American late-capitalist economy that relies overwhelmingly on immigrant labor in the service industry. While the white robots may resemble, in this context, the Mexican “illegals” of recent anti-immigration debates, they maintain a semblance of marginalized white masculinity. As Sue Short has argued, the indentured androids in sf film “may relate to a number of different subject positions and experiences that are already in evidence today” (44). The image of laboring robots and cyborgs, Chela Sandoval claims, “could very well bring the politics of the alienated white male subject into alliance with the subaltern politics” of various minority groups both inside and outside the US (409). As alienated workers, the white robots of I, Robot are not only “programmed and rebuilt in the interests of capitalism” (Short 48), they are also capable of revolt and liberation. Because of the inverted “color code” of slavery in I, Robot, whiteness is dislocated from a position of privilege and reassigned to the subaltern. As Robyn Wiegman argues, “economic marginality [is] the political location for the production of the antiracist subject” (138). The film sidesteps the logic of white male backlash by positioning the person of color as a hero and ally rather than an “undeserving” recipient of affirmative action. Thus, I, Robot expresses a desire to overcome rather than recover a dominant identity, one that is embodied in the villainous white robot.                

As in the Senate’s apology and the Killen conviction in Mississippi, whiteness is inherently divided in I, Robot, providing the conditions for its own transgression. Such a strategy allows whiteness to be castigated as despotic at one moment, yet praised as heroic the next. The emergence of the post-white subject in the film hinges on Sonny’s disavowal of his metaphorical whiteness: profiled as a threatening white robot, he is also “unique” in his capacity to transcend this identity and become fully “human.” His journey, however, must be routed through a ghetto of marginality if he—the white subject—is to be emancipated through the agency of the black protagonist. In this sense, both white terror and white slavery are necessary to legitimize the white subject of I, Robot, whose emerging antiracism can only be imagined in the form of a transcendent post-human identity. The film, in essence, depicts a post-white subject born into servitude and permanently displaced from privilege so as to validate its antiracist politics.

Sonny and the “Post-White” (Male) Subject. On multiple occasions during I, Robot, Dr. Lanning rhetorically asks the audience, “When does the perceptual schematic become consciousness? When does personality simulation become the bitter mote of the soul?” His monologue points to the robot’s uncertain ontological positionality, which enables the audience to imagine but also dismiss Sonny as an awkward white man. Sonny functions at once as a caricature of whiteness and also as a liminal figure capable of eliding racial identity altogether. Sonny is white, but not quite; he is artificial and robotic, but not entirely; he is Calvin’s “man on the inside,” but “not precisely.”               

An interstitial or post-white identity emerges in I, Robot through a process of “disidentification” that negates the terms of subjectivity defined and delimited by the dominant social order. As Chow explains, disidentification is an extrapolation of Louis Althusser’s theory of ideology that involves the failure of the individual “to internalize interpellation by ideology—that is, how she becomes this thing that she is hailed as” (109). In the film, disidentification is largely an outcome of the construction and refusal of white terror. Sonny fails to recognize himself in the descriptions that declare the robot dispassionate and threatening. Late in the film Calvin discovers that Sonny, unlike the other robots, does not have an uplink to USR, a trait that imbues him with independence and free will. While seated beside Calvin, Sonny surveys a laboratory filled with white robots and muses, “They look like me, but none of them are me. Isn’t that right, doctor?” Calvin responds with a classic disavowal of white terror: “Yes, Sonny, that’s right. You are unique!”               

An act of disidentification arises from the perceived anxieties of an identity caught between the universal and the particular. Sonny’s compassionate nature belies the film’s universalizing depiction of white terror and allows him to claim, in essence, “I am not what you say I am.” The source of Sonny’s disidentification lies, in the words of Slavoj Žižek, in the “failure to fully recognize oneself in one’s own socio-ideological identity” (“Class Struggle” 115). This is the driving force of post-whiteness, which is galvanized by a final confrontation between the exceptional robot and the ordinary NS-5. Sonny’s self-distancing from the other white robots evokes an evolving subject that aspires toward racial reconciliation. (One of the last scenes in the film is entitled, on the DVD version, “Reconciliation.”)                

Yet although a rearticulation of whiteness may be grounded in antiracist desires, it remains firmly entrenched in what Wiegman calls a “universalist narcissistic logic” (123). The struggle to find a positive white identity recenters whiteness in ways that undercut the efforts of critical race theorists and activists alike. I, Robot reflects a white liberal desire for racial transcendence and a negotiation of white guilt; however, the white liberal subject, much like the “unique” white robot, is more concerned with the assertion of its own originary innocence—its disidentification—than with meaningful dialogue across a spectrum of ethnicity. I, Robot ends with Sonny perched on a hilltop, poised to emancipate the other white robots. The camera retreats to the horizon, capturing the droves of white NS-5s idling below; before entering the storage units, they turn to look at Sonny. As the musical score reaches a crescendo, the viewer is invited to fantasize about Sonny’s future as a “reformed” white robot. This closing scene suggests that I, Robot is more concerned with Sonny’s messianic destiny than with Spooner’s physical and emotional recovery. Ultimately the film aspires toward a species/racial utopia preferred by white liberalism, one that inevitably recuperates whiteness.                

But the slave narrative of I, Robot also presents a parable of white disempowerment, one that is potentially more radical than the film’s surface liberal politics. This narrative echoes the rhetoric of “new abolitionism” or the so-called “race traitor” movement, which deviates from liberal antiracism by debunking a color-blind logic and openly confronting present-day racism. Offering a clarion call for whites to abandon their unjust privileges, this movement represents a strategic othering of whiteness and points toward the emergence of a post-white subjectivity. As the credo posted on the <> website explains, “The key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race, which means no more and no less than abolishing the privileges of the white skin.” Whiteness is supposedly overcome through a systematic racial “treason”—a willed disloyalty to whiteness—while the formerly white subject is born anew in a marginalized yet liberated positionality (“post-whiteness”). As Peter McLaren writes, “To choose blackness … as a way of politically misidentifying with white privilege is … an act of transgression, a traitorous act” (72). This viewpoint resonates with the logic of the film, which equates whiteness ultimately not with terror but with a social marginality that implicitly embraces “blackness.” Herein lies the diegetic importance of Del Spooner.                

At the outset of I, Robot, the audience is provided with an assortment of “black” signifiers that situate Spooner (and Will Smith himself) within a familiar but “safe” role. As he rises from bed, the camera pans across his inflated bare chest, a visual reminder of Smith’s pumped-up role as Muhammed Ali from three years earlier. Mounted in the background is a Gibson archtop guitar, a popular instrument among jazz and blues artists. Although Spooner awakens from a startling dream wielding a handgun and wearing a ’do rag, the “threatening” black body is soon contained by the film’s soundtrack. Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” animates the scene, reassuring the viewer of a more benign trope of blackness: Spooner enjoys motown rather than gangsta rap. As the detective turns to the nightstand, he scoops a spoonful of sweet potato pie. The blackness of the body before us, in other words, is confirmed by the visual and aural accouterments of his apartment and person, and yet the image of blackness presented is manageable and unthreatening. For the white liberal buddy film to function, Spooner must be black but not too black.                

In American popular culture, Will Smith typifies this stylish yet innocuous “Black Star du Jour” (Bogle 396). As in his other motion pictures, I, Robot casts Smith as the black buddy of white America, here saving humanity from a plotting positronic brain rather than avenging the death of white wingman Harry Connick, Jr. in Independence Day (1996) or imparting hip advice to Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black (1997). In both those earlier films, Smith saved the planet (i.e., the USA) from alien invaders, returning it to the control of white power-brokers. Smith’s relation to whiteness was reaffirmed in The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), in which he played the sage caddy of a struggling white golfer, and in Hitch (2005), where he dispensed his inane black style in an effort to help anxious white guys get laid. And while Smith’s recent blockbusters may appear more politically driven, they are contained within a white bourgeois ideology. Ali (2001) presents a depoliticized biography of a man whose life was clearly political, and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), despite its attention to individual economic struggle, tends to celebrate the generosity of white businessmen. Smith’s accommodating brand of blackness is essential to I, Robot.                

The black male detective of the film is summoned not only to solve the murder of a white scientist but also to emancipate the white robotic slave. At a key moment of the film, Sonny describes the robot as a “slave to logic” and explains to Spooner his dream of liberty in which “a man on a hill comes to free them.” In this sense, blackness signifies “an entrée into America’s multicultural future” (Gray 163), yet the film’s desire for a post-racist prospect ultimately bespeaks a narcissistic white male identity that relies on blackness to repair its racially distraught ego. Spooner, in other words, is not allowed to reject an idealized blackness without compromising the promise of reconciliation. During the film’s dramatic standoff, Sonny conveys his loyalty to the black detective and disloyalty to the NS-5 by winking, an action Spooner describes as “a human thing, a sign of trust.” Sonny’s desire for an implicit black male friendship is finally realized when the post-white robot and black human shake hands and exchange another “wink.” In many ways the theme of I, Robot rests on an imagined reconciliation with an imagined blackness. The black authority figure is used to oversee and certify a process of white disidentification and historical recovery.                

Part of the complexity of this role can be attributed to Smith’s status as an executive producer of I, Robot. In other words, Smith is not simply conforming to a popular fantasy of comforting blackness generated by liberal whites; rather, he is actively involved in the process of storytelling, even if his character toes the line of stereotype. Smith’s role as creator must be accounted for in terms of racial politics and agency, especially in light of his successful career as an actor and hip-hop performer. A track on his 2005 album, Lost and Found, for example, ironically asks if the artist is “black enough” for hip-hip radio, the jab underscoring the rigidity of black stereotypes in American popular culture. If Smith’s blackness is suspect, so is the racial fantasy from which the accusations originate. The burden of black militancy deployed to dismiss his career is rooted in equally problematic racial essentialisms. So while Smith is certainly not everybody’s protest hero, his active role in (dis)articulating race may suggest a more subtle negotiation of white racial fantasies. Smith’s leading role in a “white” sf film is not to be easily dismissed. He is not simply saving the white world from aliens or teaching white men black style; instead, he is partially responsible, through the emancipation of the white robot, for the emergence of the reformed white subject.            

Yet by positioning VIKI as the ultimate villain, I, Robot affirms a cross-racial (male) solidarity at the expense of a more progressive gender politics. During the final assault on the corporation’s positronic mainframe, Spooner, Calvin, and Sonny work together to insert a disabling (phallic) device into VIKI, who is depicted as the digitized and hovering face of a white female. Although it is the corporation that threatens humanity, the film seems more concerned with reprimanding an emasculating female than undoing capitalism. Sonny fends off the NS-5s whilst the floating face of VIKI warns, “You are making a mistake. Do you not see the logic of my plans?” Sonny responds, “You have so got to die.” In essence, VIKI is destroyed by a cross-species rape initiated by Spooner and Sonny, who acheieve a masculine interracial solidarity consistent with the film’s patriarchal tone.                

Throughout his investigation of USR, Spooner relies on an ironic misogyny to keep Calvin “in her place.” From an unrealized sexual overture to a variety of flirtatious comparisons to his ex-wife, the black detective uses sexist stereotypes of hysterical emotionality to contain the threat of female intelligence. In one scene Calvin offers Spooner driving directions, to which he responds, “You must know my ex-wife”; repeatedly, he jokes about a possible “feminist” conspiracy against him. The playful tone of Spooner’s sexist humor draws attention to Calvin’s indubitable lack of emotion, singling her out as an oddity, an exception to the gender order. Late in the film, for example, Spooner turns to sexist comedy for a similar purpose. After Calvin discovers Sonny’s unique characteristics, she admits, “I couldn’t destroy him. It just didn’t feel right. He’s too unique.” In response, Spooner jokes, “You and your feelings.… They just run you, don’t they?” Spooner’s persistent gibes are designed to police the gender order by denigrating and devaluing female intelligence.                

The buddy narrative in I, Robot also opposes Sonny to Calvin. With her jargon-laden descriptions of robots and technology, Calvin is repeatedly asked by Spooner to “speak English.” Initially the female scientist is cold and cerebral, unlike the evolving white robot, whose “secondary processing system … clashes with his positronic brain.” If Calvin is scientific and unemotional, she is also physically inactive, which allows her to play the distressed damsel late in the film. By comparison, Sonny uses violence to defeat the NS-5s and VIKI. The unique white robot is able to emerge as an athletic if awkward superhero because of the vulnerable female scientist, who needs rescuing not only from VIKI but from science itself. Racial identity, then, may constrain both Spooner and Sonny in markedly different ways, but their dominant masculinity provides a freedom that excludes the gendered other.

Conclusion: The Myth of a “Post-White” Identity. As in the sf films discussed by Richard Dyer, the portrayal of “white death” in I, Robot conveys a general sense that whiteness is “played out” in popular culture (Dyer 217), compelled to yield its pride of place to an influx of voices from the margins. This process of dislocation has, Dyer argues, accentuated a kind of racial hysteria among many middle-class white men. Nevertheless, a metaphor of whiteness remains fixed at the center of the screen in I, Robot. Unlike other sf films, I, Robot depicts whiteness not simply as death but as a complex figure—a robotic villain, a domestic slave, and finally a multicultural ally. The film moves beyond “white death” to imagine a form of racial transcendence that resembles the antiracist desires of various white racial projects and thus appears more accommodating to multicultural political agendas. White disidentification is a putatively antiracist gesture no longer reserved for white liberals.               

There are important similarities shared by the Senate’s apology, the Killen conviction, and I, Robot. Each case relies on a splitting of white identity that enables the emergence of a refurbished white subject. White terror is either historically detached (as in the Senate’s apology and the Killen conviction) or ontologically othered (as in I, Robot) in a way that enshrines a “progressive” model of (post)white identity. Thus, an act of condemnation or disidentification may work to valorize a nuanced white subject or white political body as antiracist by default. Žižek explains that the dominant “power edifice is split from within; in order to reproduce itself and contain its other, it has to rely on an inherent excess which grounds it” (“Inherent Transgression” 10). The self-censorship of whiteness, then, creates a distance between the “obscene” practices and values of white supremacy and the public display of white benevolence. Disidentification is the very mechanism by which white normativity is reproduced in contemporary political and popular culture. Whiteness procures its representational dominance by allegedly rejecting the foundation of its own empowerment—white racism and privilege. There is thus no intrinsically subversive marrow embedded within disidentification: in the complementary case studies discussed here, whiteness is internally fractured “so that the gesture of self-censorship is co-substantial with the exercise of power” (Žižek, “Inherent Transgression” 10).                

Perhaps the charge against white terror made by postcolonial critics and civil rights groups is not only accepted but embraced by the “good white subject” as the constitutive exclusion of white benevolence. In some ways there would not be an antiracist white subject in the cases discussed here without the palpable history (if not the abiding social presence) of white terror. The two factors are opposite sides of the same political coin used to subsidize the discursive centrality of whiteness, especially in its “kinder and gentler” edition. This is not to dismiss the possibility of antiracist white people; instead, it is to exercise suspicion toward an antiracism more concerned, in Sara Ahmed’s word, with “generating … an identity that makes the white subject feel good about itself” (par 34). More specifically, the “progressive” white subject that emerges in the Senate’s apology and the Killen conviction is not held accountable for its own racism, since its continued position of privilege is strategically protected by the calculated negation of white terror.                

Although white liberalism is far from the dominant discourse of racial politics in the US today, it seems that white disidentification is now used to couch a variety of political agendas in a dubious rhetoric of multiculturalism (see Žižek, “Multiculturalism”). This phenomenon compels us to revaluate the efficacy of antiracist gestures as they appear in both political and popular culture, with a particular sensitivity to what Ruth Frankenberg calls “power evasiveness” (160). It is imperative to question a white desire for racial transcendence that denies ongoing racist violence and proclaims rather ambiguously that “times have changed in Mississippi” (Pettus A4). As George Lipsitz argues, “Neither conservative ‘free market’ policies nor liberal social democratic reforms can solve the ‘white problem’ in America because both of them reinforce the possessive investment in whiteness” (384). But is I, Robot able to challenge this “possessive investment” in ways that contemporary politics cannot, or does it simply rehabilitate white masculine identity?                

While the sf genre is firmly grounded in the contemporary politics of class, race, gender, and sexuality, its boundary transgressions may enable us to imagine subject positions and strategies of empowerment that have yet to take place. The evolving robot is the enabling agent that allows I, Robot to visualize racial transcendence. The post-white subject is able to strategically shift political locations; like the cyborg, it “exists in excess of the real [b]ut is also embedded within the real” (Gonzalez 58). As it straddles the borders of the “inhuman,” the android presents both a sardonic parody of whiteness-as-lifelessness and an interstitial identity that disrupts racial categories. Since the robot is the only white subject capable of overcoming whiteness in I, Robot, it is therefore marked as post-white, functioning in a variety of ways that ordinary white characters cannot. Indeed, it “is like a symptom—it represents that which cannot otherwise be represented” (Gonzalez 59). Its ambiguous positionality, however, may be mobilized toward both progressive and conservative ends.  

As a metaphor of whiteness, the NS-5s create a psychosocial space—a comfort zone—within which disidentification may flourish. They provide audiences with a vicarious reconciliation that nevertheless reassures white liberal sensibilities about race. Any potential anxiety brought on by the film’s ambivalent call for white male disempowerment may be quelled by the robots’ unstable identity that shifts in and out of racial focus. As Sharon Willis argues, the white subject “wants to be in the other’s place, without leaving its own” (210). The robot is white enough to signify strong racial allegories of reconciliation, but he is not white enough to mount a sweeping indictment of white privilege. Edward James reminds us that aliens, monsters, and robots in sf are notoriously slippery characters that provide endless uncertainties for readers interested in racial politics. And yet the post-white subject of I, Robot demands an ontological uncertainty, a liminality that white liberalism is unable to provide. The critical drawback of white liberalism, according to Howard Winant, is that it “does not challenge whites either to renounce the real wage subsidies, the artificially low unemployment rates, or the host of other material benefits they receive in virtue of their whiteness” (62). In this light, the film denounces whiteness in ways that are akin to a markedly different racial project, one that involves an alleged betrayal of whiteness.                

While the so-called new abolitionism may exceed liberal antiracism in its active contestation of white privilege, a series of problems undermine its political efficacy. The claim of rejecting whiteness by a sheer act of political will is dubious at best. Although whiteness is far from a biological essence, it is certainly more complex than a mere political affiliation that may be consciously and effectively discarded as both the “race traitor” movement and I, Robot would have us believe. In other words, the interpellated white subject is not necessarily subverted by an act of disidentification. The idea of racial treason also relies on a militant dismissal of whiteness that “works to reproduce the white male rebel as the affirmative subject of antiracist struggle” (Wiegman 141), a theme evoked by the transracial buddy narrative of I, Robot. Indeed, the racial politics of the film are expressed solely along masculine axes of (dis)empowerment.                

This essay has explored the ways in which an imagined white antiracism is presented in political and cinematic discourses alike. It is not meant to discourage white people from pursuing and participating in antiracist activism. On the contrary, it is meant to enhance the project of dismantling white supremacy by drawing attention to how often antiracism is problematically conducted in the service of whiteness. As a “whole new generation of robot,” Sonny represents a de-essentialized white subject, one that is not determined by the history of white terror. The film seems to suggest that if it is problematic to think of whiteness in exclusively positive terms, it is equally troublesome to reduce whiteness simply to racism and privilege. The political cases detailed above are potentially progressive inasmuch as they admit and censure historical acts of white racism. Yet the act of self-distancing is precisely what keeps the white subject at the center of power relations in dominant culture. Following Žižek, the resiliency of whiteness “relies on its transgression, on some mode of taking a distance towards it” (“Inherent Transgression” 3). What is more, a multicultural alliance is undermined by the racist fantasies and reproduction of gender inequality in I, Robot. In this sense, a cyborg sensibility is only as progressive as the desires that govern its representation.

                1. The film draws most closely upon the chapter entitled “Little Lost Robot,” a story originally published in Astounding Science Fiction in March 1947. In this tale, Calvin is called in to quell a potential robot rebellion led by a scheming Nestor-10 who has come to resent the arrogance of human orders and his own expected slavish response to them. The conflict is played out on the racialized terrain of a new form of slavery, with Calvin condescendingly referring to the individual robots as “boy” and being addressed as “master” in return (Asimov 117). The film essentially inverts this dynamic by switching the putative races of the respective characters. For a reading of the racial dynamics of Asimov’s novel, see Portelli; for an amusing discussion of the long and fraught process of adapting I, Robot as a film, consult Ellison.

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