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Anne Anlin Cheng on Gender, Technology, and Racial Embodiment

In this episode, we chat to Anne Anlin Cheng, Professor in the Department of English at Princeton University and author of Ornamentalism. We discuss how Asiatic femininity has historically been associated with ornamental extravagance and objecthood, and why we see so many of these stereotypes in visions of the future, like Ghost in the Shell, Bladerunner and Ex Machina, which are populated with geishas and concubines.


Anne Anlin Cheng is Professor of English, and affiliated faculty in the Program in American Studies, the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies, and the Committee on Film Studies. She is an interdisciplinary and comparative race scholar who focuses on the uneasy intersection between politics and aesthetics, drawing from literary theory, race and gender studies, film and architectural theory, legal studies, psychoanalysis, and critical food studies. She works primarily with twentieth-century American literature and visual culture with special focus on Asian American and African American literatures. She is the author of The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief; Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface; and, most recently, Ornamentalism. Her work has appeared in journals such as Critical Inquiry, Representations, PMLA, Camera Obscura, Differences, among others. She is also a contributor to New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Huffington Post.


Transcript:


KERRY MACKERETH:

Hi! We're Eleanor and Kerry. We're the hosts of The Good Robot podcast, and join us as we ask the experts: what is good technology? Is it even possible? And what does feminism have to bring to this conversation? If you wanna learn more about today's topic, head over to our website, where we've got a full transcript of the episode and a specially curated reading list with work by, or picked by, our experts. But until then, sit back, relax, and enjoy the episode.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Today, we’re talking to Anne Anlin Cheng, Professor in the Department of English at Princeton University and author of Ornamentalism. We discuss how Asiatic femininity has historically been associated with ornamental extravagance and objecthood, and why we see so many of these stereotypes in visions of the future, like Ghost in the Shell, Bladerunner and Ex Machina, which are populated with geishas and concubines. We hope you enjoy the show.


KERRY MACKERETH:

Great, thank you so much for being with us today. It is such an honour. We were wondering, would you mind introducing yourself, telling us a bit about what you do, and what brings you to the topic of gender, racialisation and technology?


ANNE ANLIN CHENG:

My name is Anne Cheng, I'm a Professor in the Department of English at Princeton University. I am affiliated with the programmes in American studies in the programme in Gender and Sexuality. I have been writing about comparative racialisation in the US for my career. I'm really interested in a relationship with the, in the confrontation actually, between aesthetics and politics. And so I, I came to technology actually through, I think of as a very old-fashioned notion of the word, that is now in fashion, that is, that I'm really interested in what the Greeks called techne, right, which is to say, the, the making, the doing, the art, the skill behind the manner through which a thing is made in which I think is made to, to matter, right. And so I'm really interested in, you know, the technology of personhood, the technology that funded the beginning of racial distinction, gender categories, and etc. So, and of course, I think those technologies have a very intimate relationship with technology as we know it. That is to say, I think for most people, when they think about technology, they're thinking of, you know, 20th and 21st century high tech, right? But actually, technology has a very long history all the way back to the long 19th century, preceding even the actual so called Industrial Revolution. And we know that the Industrial Revolution was deeply implicated with Western imperial ambitions, conquest, colonisation, and etc. And in so far as Western Imperial conquest and colonisation has always been deeply invested in racial and gender distinction, I think that the history of technology and the history of race and gender are so deeply braided with one another that you see - that is, it's impossible to actually think about technology without thinking about these other categories.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Yes, absolutely. We also think of technology and the relationship between technology and humanity, in terms of what Bernard Stiegler calls techne and his theorisation of the co-constitution of humanity and technology, this very close imbricated relationship where technology is more than just a tool, it is the original prosthesis of humanity.


ANNE ANLIN CHENG:

Right.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

So that's why we take it so seriously.


ANNE ANLIN CHENG:

Right, and I think also, as a race scholar, I'm really interested in the ways in which human bodies are part of the machinery, right, the ways in which human, certain kinds of human bodies have been made to be part of the technology of capitalism, of industrialization, etc. So that bodies are always already implicated, especially in the capitalist, an imperial economy, bodies are always already implicated by technology.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Absolutely. So this is why this question that we're asking on this podcast, we think is so important. As we are called The Good Robot, we're asking what makes good technology? Because that question responds to this idea that technology and it being good, is very important for humanity and how we define ourselves. So what does good technology look like? And we want to ask you if you think that good technology or the study of technology might inform our understanding of gender and race, and if better technology might be able to create a different grammar of racial and gendered embodiment?


ANNE ANLIN CHENG:

Yes, that's such a great question. And first, I want to say I don't know what good technology is, mostly because I don't have a moral parameter, right, to make that judgement. I think they are good questions that we could ask about technology and I think they are very important questions we have to understand around the deployment of technology, the unspoken assumptions underneath some kind of technological invention, or coding, all those things need to be unpacked. And I think, you know, it's not so much a question of good technology, to me it’s the question of, the question of, the ethical question, surrounding technology, right, the ethics of its use, the ethics of its production, and the ethics of its terms, because I think technology is, you know, it's a language, it is a set of codes, like literature is a set of codes, and I think our thinking critically about how these codes function is super important around race and gender. Because, you know, we talk so much, certainly in the academy, about systemic racism or sexism. And when we say that, we, what we really mean are two things, right? One, that these ideologies have a historic precedent that they've been around. And two, we mean that these ideologies have been built into, baked into, encoded into social, cultural and technological systems. And so in order to address the systemic, we have to actually really think critically and unpack the codes that went into the making behind the technology. So I think it's a question of ethics. And, for me less a question of good or bad.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

So when thinking about ethics, there's obviously many routes to ethics. And we are concerned with whether ethical frameworks that are being deployed by companies actually respond to some of the key issues you've been talking about, and are potentially non-performative, So they don't actually respond to harms. They are ways of signalling that there is something going on or that the company is concerned with being ethical and not actually doing very much. And that's where we think that your work, and that feminism and Gender Studies more broadly can influence technology. So we want to know, how does feminism and gender influence your understanding of technology, what it is, and what it can be?


ANNE ANLIN CHENG:

So I definitely want to answer that question. But I want to preface my answer with just a quick observation that I think has always been an ongoing tension in the, in the field of the sciences, and its relationship with the humanities, right, which is the ways in which science has not, not exclusively, but has so often wanted to imagine itself as an objective field that is separate from questions of ethics. And I remember this being dramatised for me very clearly, very … several years ago, when I ran a series in my home institution called Critical Encounters, where the whole point is to bring people, two people, at least two people from very different backgrounds to talk about a shared interest. And so one, one of the programmes that I did was a conversation between the editor of Science magazine from London, and, and a bioethics professor from UC Berkeley. And they basically got into a very, very professional but intense argument, right, where the editor from Science magazine basically said ... I don't really care (I'm paraphrasing, he was much more eloquent than I am). But he basically said that, you know, it's not the scientist job to worry about how an invention is used, or deployed socially or culturally and politically, their job is pure science, whereas the bioethics scholar was very much like, oh yes, this is very much part of what you have to be concerned about. And having them, just having watching that conversation just reminded me of 1) how, how, how that conflict is an ongoing issue, but at the same time, also how productive it is when we have a conversation about it. When these two people came together and had this, basically, this argument, it was actually extremely enlightening, and I think they both left with each other's words in their minds. And so this is why I actually think your programme is so fascinating, so important. But I guess I just want to make the observation about this tension between science and humanities. Like for me, I think that the question of technology and in particular, in my work, I think a lot around the question of artificial intelligence, and in particular the figure of the cyborg is of great interest, and of course, I mean, for feminist scholars, the cyborg has always been a figure of interest. And is because, you know, it is a feature of, of hybridization, right, of heterogeneity. And it's a particularly fascinating sight, of course, to think about the distinction between the human and the inhuman, which is, I think, the fundamental philosophical underpinning of race and racism, right? Who is a human being and who doesn't count as a human being. So the cyborg has for me been a particularly interesting way to think about, you know, the question of the human, the inhuman, the posthuman, you know, and so forth. And the cyborg is also interesting because, for me, because it is so racialized in the sense that the cyborg is an extension of the slave logic. Right? So you know, where did we place the Black labouring slave body with the Chinese coolie, you know, after, you know, after slavery was outlawed - “let’s replace that with the coolie” - and then eventually we replace the Coolie and other kinds of working bodies with the robot. And so the robot is itself an extension and expression of the slave logic. So to me, this makes the cyborg a particularly fascinating, rich and gendered configuration, right. And, you know, people have long observed that there's a really intimate connection today between technology and tropes about Asia or Asiatic tropes. And people have called these for example something like techno-orientalism, right? That's a term that scholars have used. And so you can see it, you know, very easily in popular culture, certainly in cinema, from Blade Runner to Disney's what is it, Big Hero Six, right, we see this connection between Asiatic tropes and technology. And, but I think that instead of just seeing techno-orientalism, as another instance of Orientalism that's just being played out on the stage of technology, I think that it's actually a very particularly interesting, powerful moment to think about how Asia as techne may help us think about as you say, a different different logic, type of embodiment, and how this different logic of embodiment tells us something about the the human and inhumanities, of racialized subjects, and of gender subjects, and women in particular I think, is, you know … and of course, the relationship between Asiatic women and stereotypes like geishas and concubines and so forth gets played out a lot in today's science fiction, as the robot, the android, the cyborg. And you could think about, you know, Ex Machina, or the live version of Ghost in the Shell, you know, there's so many many examples, even in Blade Runner there was a lot of, you know, Asiatic geisha robot figures running around. So I think techno-orientalism is a really powerful way, not just to point out racist stereotypes, but a way to rethink what is the logic of embodiment, how race enables ideas of embodiment or disembodiment, how gender enables or disables that embodiment, and how human flesh may have been, maybe something more imbricated with technology than we have thought. You know, that we have this idea that Western personhood is this organic, integrated, usually masculine, like what John Locke thought. But, in fact, I think the human, the idea of the person has been much more indebted to the inorganic and the synthetic than we think. I mean, even legal personhood, if you think about legal personhood, it's not built on an organic person. Anything because it's not that we can actually today say something like a corporation is a person, at least legally, right?


KERRY MACKERETH:

Absolutely. Thank you. That's so fascinating. And I have to admit, one of my favourite lines or concepts that comes out of your work on Asiatic femininity is this idea of the yellow woman as an if not the original Cyborg and pointing to you know, the idea that techno-orientalism, it's not just sort of, you know, this kind of new iteration Orientalism but there's, you know, a whole history of violence and personhood and its relationship to objecthood that is really central to understanding what embodiment means. And so I'd love to actually talk a bit more about how your work centres on the figure of the yellow woman in response to this kind of death of critical scholarship that focuses on the racialization of that figure specifically. And I'm really interested in the decision that you made to use the term 'yellow woman' rather than Asian American woman or Asian woman in the West. So would you mind talking a bit more about what you're doing with this term? And the process of choosing it and how that decision has been received?


ANNE ANLIN CHENG:

Yeah, I think that, um, first of all, I want to say that, it’s half about therapy [laughs] for myself, it is an ugly term. And it's a term that for most of my adult life, I couldn't say, didn’t want to use and didn’t want to hear, although no one uses it. Really. I mean, that's the other thing, you know, it did occur to me that we talked about Black women, white women, brown women but we don't say yellow women, and I think about that absence as actually quite revealing, because it says something about her non-place in the in the racial conversation, it also says something about a particular kind of imagine... aesthetic quality that has been attributed to this figure. So that you know, so that she is too, too exotic, too aestheticised to be considered racially ugly, though we know that that is a definition of racialization. So I think, for me, I just want ... I want to make note that I do not use the term yellow woman in a ... I do not want to redeem the term, you know, not like, you know, there are words that have been redeemed by scholarship, critical thinking and activism like queer, right, for example, I actually don't want to redeem yellowness, I want to say it to register the painful racialization that is often unacknowledged surrounding this figure. So I say it as a kind of, as a little bit of an assertion of our need to recognise this particular kind of racialization that goes around this figure. And you know, and thank you for mentioning my book, because I do think that one of the things that people, especially given the recent violence in the US, the shooting in Atlanta, for example, I think people don't really understand how extraordinarily old this idea of the yellow woman as someone who is conflated with thing-liness, decorations, superficiality, excess, how old that is, almost in antiquity, when Plato was talking about the evils of sophistry, and how sophistry can be deceptive in its ornamentation, in its excessive aesthetic construction, he calls it oriental. So there has been a very, very long history in European letters and philosophy, associating Asiatic femininity with ornamental extravagance and thing-liness and, and if you look, you can see this in art history very easily, you know, and if you just go from you know, Impressionism all the way to American Rococo to the show called China Through the Looking Glass at the Met just a couple of years ago, you will see this extraordinary association between Asiatic femininity and ornamental thingness, to the point that to this day, you can invoke the full vibrant sensuality of Asiatic femininity, without even having a real body, all you need is a swish of a silk, perfume, you know, some ceramic, whatever. I mean, there's a way in which, you know, the thingness of the yellow woman has been so much part of her racialization and construction for the West, that what I meant when I said that she is, in many ways, the original cyborg.


KERRY MACKERETH:

Thank you. And I really appreciate the way in which, you know, you've so carefully put forward like here, but also in your work this idea that this isn't a reclamation, but that there's just this urgent need to be able to name this violence and to be able to name this process, which for so long has been just so like physically difficult to even speak and that itself being such a function of this kind of racialization. So what do you think that you're kind of specific theorisation of the yellow woman brings to understanding the relationship between gender racialization and technology?


ANNE ANLIN CHENG:

So I think, so, I'll give you … it's easier to think in terms of an example rather than in the abstract. I was thinking a lot about how a figure of the cyborg or the android, right, has this sort of unsettling articulation that hovers between the human and the inhuman. The whole point of the android is that it's not an inhuman machine, right? At least, at the very least, it looks human right? But I think that race and gender plays ... have such a fascinating and complicated role that the robot, the android in particular, is a messy interpenetration of race, machine and gender. And what I tried to do in my work is to actually parse out how that dynamic works. So one of the examples that I think about, and that I think is hopefully accessible to a lot of people, is if they have seen the live version of the film Ghost in the Shell. And in it, Scarlett Johansson plays Major Kusanagi who is a cyborg, right? And then at the end of the movie, we find out - now she's mostly machine, but there is like a little kernel of her brain and soul inside the machine and it turns out that this ghost in the machine was actually a young Japanese girl who got lost and her family and lost her her life, right, and most of her body, to the trauma of basically Western Imperial capitalist presence in Japan. And so, you know, the big reveal in the movie is that this white robot cyborg, Scarlett Johansson, turned out to be a Japanese girl right? And part of what I thought was - part of the argument that I tried to make about that particular figure is that, that reveal about the ghost in the machine is actually traumatising something that has been around in the Western cultural imagination for a long time, which is what I said earlier the ways in which the Asiatic woman is almost always somehow already a machine right? Prosthetic to, ornamental to and prosthetic to real persons, that’s basically what we mean by subjects, right. And so what I thought was particularly interesting about the play of race and gender, in a figure like the Major in Ghost in the Shell is that race and gender both chart a history of dehumanisation. But it is also the very agent for re-animating the human in our fantasies of the machine, right that is to say, on the one hand, you know, the figure of the Major erases - deracinates - the racial origin of the Major. On the other hand, it is only when we discover that she was really Japanese that suddenly we have an empathy for her, right, as a human being, rather than just merely a machine, and the whole movie is about the trauma of whether or not she herself considers herself a human or not. It's actually very interesting that race and gender are both the dehumanising elements that enable the cyborg to be born but at the same time, it is the thing that's repressed, the things that are repressed, but at the same time it is pulled forwards whenever you need to humanise the machine, right? So there's a kind of double, there's a double bind there going on. So that race and gender becomes the very toggle on which we can switch between the human and the inhuman. So I think it’s easy, well, not easy, but I think it's one thing to say, Oh, you know, race and gender play a role in machinery. But when you sit down and really try to unpack the logic of - the cyborg logic - then we see the complicated and often contradictory ways in which race and gender come into play.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Your wonderful analysis of Ghost in the Shell combats this divide between theory fiction and politics. And it does this by highlighting the role of imaginative cultural production in shaping the contours and vocabularies of political. And I'm also really interested in the importance of cultural production in shaping politics and technological innovation because some of my work looks at how technology has been narrativised in science fiction written by women, and I've spent a lot of time immersed in, for example, Aliette de Bodard’s Vietnamese-inspired space operas in which technology takes on really different forms. Her Mindships, for example, are amalgamations of spirit, ancestor, animal, human, and technology. So we're really interested in your take on the question of why representations of technology really matter?


ANNE ANLIN CHENG:

Yeah, I think that it's really one question. And it's not unrelated to another version of that question, which is, why is aesthetics important? Now, if we're thinking about political materiality, why do we care about aesthetics? And I think it's because the realm of cultural production is where a different kind of imagination can happen. I have a colleague of mine, who's an Asian American scholar, Candace Cho, is very famous for this phrase that I quote all the time, which is “think otherwise”, like, how do you think otherwise? Right. And so I think that it is in the realm of the imaginative, the aesthetics, that a different kind of radical imagination can be, can take place. And I think until we can think differently, we cannot act differently. And, you know, and that's actually one of the arguments for science fiction, right, which is that, you know, science fiction imagines a different world or a new world, which then helps scientists in their real work. Right. And … but I think it's also true for, for political issues that ... I love what you said about - I love the fact that you're working on this category, this whole genre of women authors in science fiction, which we don't often think of, I mean, science fiction I think has such a - I'm not a big science fiction expert, but it seems to me has been for so long, very male dominated. And I love that you're thinking about working with female authors. But yeah, I think the site of cultural production is I think, you know, movies and things like that can of course be themselves a mouthpiece for a lot of probably unthoughtful cultural assumptions, right. But at the same time, they're also the very site for a radical reimagining. Jack Zipes, I think, has a wonderful book about fairy tales, where he says that fairy tales are places of radical politics. And I love that I think that it's true, you know.


KERRY MACKERETH:

That answer was just so wonderful. And I certainly you know, there are certain fictional authors, particularly science fiction authors, like Octavia Butler, whose work I feel has, you know, gifted me with some of the most extraordinary and profound thoughts about you know, colonialism, the forms of like exploitative symbiosis, like having to try and live in a world shaped by violence. And so yes, this treat and understand fiction is such a generative site.


ANNE ANLIN CHENG:

Yeah. I mean, I also don't think like, for me, I don't think it's an accident that in recent years, you know, several major Asian American authors or novelists have been writing in, writing these kinds of novels, right. I don't think it's an accident because I think they are both trying to negotiate an existing history, but also project the future and, imagine as well as reimagine, either following the ... either thinking about the future as an important and probably scary extension of the past or the future as a radical leap, differently organised society, and so forth. So I think that yeah, I think that - you know, as I said, growing up, I was never that interested in science fiction. My brother was, I wasn't, you know, I was reading 19th century novels [laughs]. But, you know, these days, I do think more and more I think that science fiction is a really fascinating place to think about, about politics and culture and society.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

On the fairytales note, I love Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, which is this radical feminist revision of fairytales and it's gruesome and sexy and wonderful.


ANNE ANLIN CHENG:

Yeah, I love that too. And it's also, you know, Anne Sexton has a wonderful book of poems called Transformations, which are also these reimaginings of fairy tales. And it's … you should read it. It's beautiful.


KERRY MACKERETH:

It sounds wonderful, and you've given us so much to think about and so many new things to read, and so many ideas. We just want to say thank you so much for having, you know, taking this time to talk to us. It's been really, really wonderful and we so appreciate it.


ANNE ANLIN CHENG:

Now, thank you and I'm so delighted to meet you and hear about your project. I didn't know about it before, it’s just amazing. I'm gonna have to keep an eye out and follow you guys [laughs]. Thank you.


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