[-empyre-] What is robot poetics? How/why should we teach it?

VANDERBORG, SUSAN VANDERBORG SJVANDER at mailbox.sc.edu
Fri May 5 12:39:07 AEST 2017


Sean, like you and Michael, I read Radio Heart as an interrogation of identity construction and in terms of queer love poetry--it's no coincidence that Alan Turing is evoked at the beginning with his question of "Can machines think?" brilliantly replaced by "Can machines love?" Turing's imitation game model, which Margaret includes, also involves being able to identify the sex of an unseen responder as male or female just by their language use--and then replaces one responder with a machine. While Radio Heart richly engages histories of racism, sexism, and stereotypes about sexual orientation, it is also difficult to identify specific speakers and addressees beyond robot versus human. There are few third person pronouns to identify sex, for instance. Asking students how these speakers/addresses seem raced or sexed often gets them to think about their own cultural stereotypes--and in a few poems I found myself querying what specifically mandates that a particular speaker is human, especially in the algorithm poems. What a great context, too, to teach it juxtaposed with Futurama and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. 
________________________________________
From: empyre-bounces at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au [empyre-bounces at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au] on behalf of Pessin, Sean E [sean.pessin at csun.edu]
Sent: Thursday, May 04, 2017 8:07 PM
To: soft_skinned_space
Subject: Re: [-empyre-] What is robot poetics? How/why should we teach it?

----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
Hello everyone!

Thank you all so much for the recommendations and ideas that have been shared here. While I have been trying to figure out how to participate in this discussion, I have been delighted in these various approaches to considering the robopoetic. There is much here already to consider and this thread will sustain me for some time.

I taught _Radio Heart_ in a special topics class on Queer Theory and Science Fictions that is supposed to be a kind of culminating class. Students in this class are supposed to be given materials and then they are supposed to develop and finish projects on their own. To facilitate this, the class emphasized the kinds of play that queer theorists and science fiction writers perform. To that end, my inclusion of _Radio Heart_ exposed students to queer experimental science fiction poetry, as I am also inclined to read the book as exploring its central relationship in a queer way.

The method of the class was to provide incremental exposure to a lot of material that is supposed to disorient the students so that they may reorient, or to give them opportunities to turn from one way of thinking and to another, to borrow Sara Ahmed’s framework in _Queer Phenomenology_. We started with Lucian’s _True History_, and then worked through classics like Judith Butler’s _Gender Trouble_ and Ursula LeGuin’s _The Left Hand of Darkness_, setting the stage, so to speak, for all manner of gender play and science fiction imaginings that students could then use to explore in their own critical/creative/hybrid projects through sustained play.

Once my students opened up to considering the possibilities of gender expression, and how those possibilities were present in science fiction texts, as a class we then asked how bodies may perform or manifest those expressions in textual forms. We covered as part of one of our conversations _The Rocky Horror Picture Show_, an episode of the television show _Futurama_, “Proposition Infinity,” and, of course, _Radio Heart_ in our session closest to Valentine’s Day. It was no coincidence—using the holiday as a backdrop, we took on as our conversation’s starting point, what to make of constructed lovers? Their desires? The expression of these desires? and of their lovers and creators: Who made them and for whom?

We looked at _The Rocky Horror Picture Show_, when Dr. Frank N. Furter defends the aesthetics he demonstrates in his creation, Rocky, to Janet: “I didn’t make him for you!”; when the robot Bender Rodriguez defends his robosexual relationship with Amy Wong _Futurama_: “After all, our love isn't any different than yours, except it's hotter, 'cause I'm involved;” and at the moments when in _Radio Heart_’s “Beam, Robot” the speaker considers the robot lover’s constructedness: “you’re all made so uniquely…” “who programmed you?”

Further questions raised by this paring came from the students: What kinds of play inform the perspectives of these works on the constructed lover? Why is it that the creators of these beings are incapable of “keeping” them? (Rocky escapes Frank N. Furter’s bed and seduces Janet, Amy returns to her fonfon ru (a kind of non-legally binding marriage) Kif, when Bender doesn’t want to be monogamous, and, by the title, we expect the robot lover and the speaker of _Radio Heart_ may not continue on together, and by the description of the lovers’ encounters, we know that the speaker did not construct the robot lover). The constructions here are articulating the limits of this body (of work), about the desires of the creator being in conflict with the desires of the construct.

And: How is it that in these examples the couples are raced? What is the effect of this? _Radio Heart_ explores the human/robot pairing, and “Traced,” as Susan pointed out, addresses the preprogramming of race; Amy is human, Kif is Amphibiosan, and Bender is a robot; and after all, Frank. N. Furter is an alien: “just a sweet Transvestite, from Transsexual, Transylvania,” while his Rocky seems all too human despite being construct.

What was most interesting to my students about these texts was the way that the construct stood in for or replaced bodies on which clear expectations were otherwise marked, bodies that many of them recognized as their own. For me, what was interesting about this recognition was that while there are many anxieties about machines replacing people playing out in the news, my students were reading them as metaphors for themselves.

Because of this, I am interested in previously mentioned speculation about the _Radio Heart_ speaker projecting onto the robot what the relationship is.

Best,
—Sean

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