[-empyre-] Podcasts and Culture Labs: Westworld
Margaret J Rhee
mrhee at uoregon.edu
Sat May 20 08:29:33 AEST 2017
Many thanks to Sarah and Betsy for their engaging and insightful
comments on Why Westworld!
I also agree, and appreciate Sarah's ability to unpack popular culture
through a feminist lens, and how much of television film, tells us about
the worlds we are living, or the world we hope to live in.
Betsy's point drawing from her interview with Ted Chiang is really
fascinating, especially around guilt and human and robot autonomy.
Both Sarah's and Betsy's points really prompt questions on world
building, patriarchy, and violence:
"I think Westworld also tells an interesting story about who makes our
technology and how their personal interests guide what gets created.
Westworld is a theme park made and run by men with money—and winds up
being a place built for recreational rape and murder. The show asks us
to examine who is in charge of both this microcosm of society and the
larger world beyond the walls." -- Sarah
"For some humans who seem to feel no guilt whatsoever at their abuses
of the robot hosts, is it because they simply cannot see that the
robots are capable of or desire autonomy? Or is it that they don’t
care if the robot hosts are self-aware and exhibit volition and
desires because they are made of different “stuff,” not human
born? Or that whether they are human or robot, and whether they are
self-aware and desire autonomy, are all irrelevant because they are
there to serve at the pleasure of the human guests, and so nothing
else matters?" -- Betsy
I think these questions of guilt, and the world being a place for
recreational rape and murder for men, really connect together on how
artificial beings teach us how to be human...As you both mention, the
robots also rise up, and resist the RUR like settings, and offers
insights on agency. Which is so resonant during these particular
I guess the other part of Why Westworld, is, whether there is something
special or evocative to engage with the show, that goes beyond the world
it offers, or the questions around robots?
Currently, I am working on finishing an article on the film Ex-Machina,
and unlike Westworld, I find the film not to be one that I would have a
desire to discuss with others. Not like Westworld. I actually rarely
watch TV, but I watched all of Westworld, (actually when I was
housesitting for Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian for the most lovely
first "residency" in SF). I planned to write some new work at their
inspiring place, but ended up watching Westworld, and the generative
opportunity to talk with Sarah.
I thought it was uncanny we all wanted to talk about the show, or how
Westworld is resonant in so many ways. Perhaps, I want to offer a
possible gesture, of the inclination to the show, also provides an
optioning to the possibility of utopia, by way of a dystopia.
This dystopia, as Betsy writes that includes characters like Felix
(which I know is one of Sarah's favorite characters), that make the
world also so different, and pleasurable from what we see and know of AI
Is utopia, the act of reaching out?
I dunno, I guess when I think of the work done in world building, by way
of media conversations or curation, there feels like something special
happening there in terms of intervening in this dystopia.
Is there is something connected to the inclination to a show like
Westworld, to building our own digitalized SF worlds?
I guess a question would be possibly, how do we define utopia, and how
do we remake our world, this dystopic world?
Thanks so much again for your insights, open to any thoughts if you have
On 2017-05-18 19:43, Betsy Huang wrote:
> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> Thanks to Margaret for prompting us to think about Westworld, and
> thanks to Sarah for reminding us that pop culture is a crucial vehicle
> for introducing the complex implications of artificial life to a
> general audience.
> Why Westworld? Because it asks so many of the questions we have about
> what aspects of human life we feel should be replaced or filled by
> artificial life because they are too difficult, too undignified, too
> guilt-inducing, too sad for humans to perform. And here I am thinking
> of the two classes of robots we’ve become accustomed to seeing in
> science fiction, especially pop sf: as servants or laborers (the most
> familiar) or as some form of entertainment (toy robots to be built,
> controlled, or designed/played online). In Westworld, the service
> robot and the entertainment robot converge in the robot hosts, which
> asks questions about what kinds of labor are uncompensated and
> exploited in the leisure industry. When I interviewed science fiction
> writer Ted Chiang about robots, he said that ‘the original promise
> and appeal of robots [was] that they would be slaves without the
> guilt. You can call them servants, but they are essentially slaves
> because they have no options and no real autonomy. I think that is
> the unexamined assumption of science fiction that depicts humanoid
> robots or human-like AI. These works are suggesting that it might be
> possible to have slavery without guilt” (Huang, “Interview with
> Ted Chiang, Part II). To me, this question of guilt is an interesting
> one to examine in Westworld. We could say that the robot hosts were
> created for the human guests to partake in guiltless rape fantasies.
> And many of the humans in the park – guests and employees alike –
> do rape seemingly without guilt. But Ted Chiang’s observation
> suggests that human guilt is connected to robot autonomy. That is, if
> the robot has no autonomy, then humans won’t experience any guilt.
> So, what happens when the robot hosts in Westworld begin to not only
> exhibit cognition, self-awareness, desires and volitions, but to
> demand autonomy and self-determination? It has been interesting to see
> how the show’s writers depict guilt, or lack thereof, in the cast of
> human characters. Why are some wracked with it, while others are not?
> For some humans who seem to feel no guilt whatsoever at their abuses
> of the robot hosts, is it because they simply cannot see that the
> robots are capable of or desire autonomy? Or is it that they don’t
> care if the robot hosts are self-aware and exhibit volition and
> desires because they are made of different “stuff,” not human
> born? Or that whether they are human or robot, and whether they are
> self-aware and desire autonomy, are all irrelevant because they are
> there to serve at the pleasure of the human guests, and so nothing
> else matters?
> Margaret also asks Lawrence and me to think about Charles Yu's role as
> Westworld's story editor vis-a-vis the fan fiction piece he wrote for
> our Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center's "CTRL+ALT" fan fiction
> exhibit. Lawrence and I both felt that Yu’s fingerprints are all
> over Westworld’s script, but perhaps especially prominent in the
> character of Felix. More on this in the next post!
> Those interested in my interview with Ted Chiang can find it here:
> Part I: http://aalr.binghamton.edu/specfictioninterviewchiang/
> Part II: http://aalr.binghamton.edu/specfictioninterviewchiang2/
> I had also interviewed Charles Yu for the same interview series. The
> Yu interview is here:
> Betsy Huang
> Associate Professor of English
> Director, Center for Gender, Race, and Area Studies (incoming)
> Clark University
> 950 Main Street
> Worcester, MA 01610
> SABBATICAL June 2016 - August 2017
> _Contesting Genres in Contemporary Asian American Fiction_ 
> _Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History,
> and Media_ 
>> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
>> Today's Topics:
>> 1. Re: Podcasts and Culture Labs: Westworld (Sarah Mirk)
>> Message: 1
>> Date: Thu, 18 May 2017 12:49:39 +0200
>> From: Sarah Mirk <mirk.sarah at gmail.com>
>> To: soft_skinned_space <empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au>
>> Subject: Re: [-empyre-] Podcasts and Culture Labs: Westworld
>> <CAF_d6LeN44-YP2=u43_FXCFqvQxOaov9eSpfObiqo6Yn9=nKcQ at mail.gmail.com>
>> Content-Type: text/plain; charset="utf-8"
>> Hi all!
>> Why Westworld? Well, the reason I focus on pop culture on the
>> podcast is
>> because pop culture is made of the stories we tell about ourselves
>> and our
>> societies. Sometimes people are a dismissive of TV, but good shows
>> terrible shows alike tell us about our cultural values. I think
>> in particular is interesting because it explores an extreme version
>> of many
>> of the technological feelings we grapple with daily. How different
>> humans from machines? What does consciousness entail? It also
>> larger sociological questions around labor and society. If there
>> were no
>> laws, how would humans act? When we think of others as less real
>> us?when they're dehumanized?how do we treat them?
>> I think Westworld also tells an interesting story about who makes
>> technology and how their personal interests guide what gets created.
>> Westworld is a theme park made and run by men with money?and winds
>> up being
>> a place built for recreational rape and murder. The show asks us to
>> who is in charge of both this microcosm of society and the larger
>> beyond the walls.
>> Those are my initial thoughts!
>> On Thu, May 18, 2017 at 12:49 AM, Margaret J Rhee
>> <mrhee at uoregon.edu> wrote:
>>> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
>>> Hi All,
>>> To start us off, I'd love to discuss the larger points Betsy and
>>> brought up in terms of Westworld and authorship, more
>> significantly Charles
>>> Yu's contribution to the show, as a writer and story editor, and
>> how that
>>> may shape our conversation. It reminded me of how Sarah and I
>>> actor Leonardo Nam's role in the television show, while he is not
>> a robot,
>>> the show has much more racial diversity than other
>>> television or films, particularly with Black leading characters,
>> and Asian
>>> leading characters. Im also wondering how much Yu's presence is
>> within the
>>> storyline, and it is interesting that Betsy and Lawrence
>> co-curated the
>>> CLT+ALT: A Culture Lab on Imagined Futures, that also included
>> Charles Yu's
>>> work: http://smithsonianapa.org/alt/
>>> Sarah, as an artist, journalist, and a curator of feminist space,
>>> facilitates discussions and creative visions through media
>> activism, and
>>> her own comics on Oregon history: https://shop.knowyourcity.org/
>>> Her podcast with Bitch Magazine, Propaganda, is one exciting
>> example, like
>>> the Culture Lab.
>>> I guess I'm wondering if we can begin with Why Westworld? and how
>> might it
>>> connect to the culture labs you've curated for the Smithsonian,
>> and for
>>> Sarah, the podcast conversations for Bitch magazine?
>>> Is there any connection between our interests in the show, and
>> what I see,
>>> and admire so much about your respective work, on how you also
>> commit to
>>> cthe curation of dialogue?
>>> Margaret Rhee, Ph.D.
>>> Visiting Assistant Professor
>>> Women's and Gender Studies
>>> University of Oregon
>>> Margaret Rhee, Ph.D.
>>> Visiting Assistant Professor
>>> Women's and Gender Studies
>>> University of Oregon
>>> empyre forum
>>> empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au
>>> http://empyre.library.cornell.edu 
>> writer ? editor ? good ideas
>> mirkwork.com  ? sexfromscratch.com  ? @sarahmirk
>> <https://twitter.com/#!/sarahmirk >
>> 503-853-0098 
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Margaret Rhee, Ph.D.
Visiting Assistant Professor
Women's and Gender Studies
University of Oregon
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