R.U.R. - Literary Origins of Robots & the Threat of Post-Humanity

2009 April 26
by Zachary McCune

capek_play

Karel Capek’s R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots) is an 85-page play which reads like a veritable fountainhead for many of the themes and concerns of cyberpunk. In particular, R.U.R. meditates on what the continued production of advanced technology might mean for humanity at large. In the effort to continuosly “better” human life, the technological arc of R.U.R. eventually arrives at the robot- a production of the human as thing not person. Devoid of emotion, personality and thus agency, the robot is introduced to the reader of R.U.R. as an object of technological preversion; man altered to the point of being labor alone, not love or creative intellect. It is humanity without the spark.

Helena, the Natural Human

Helena, a particularly sentimental human, is the play’s object of attention. Helena’s humanity is manifest in her pronounced emotions is continously contrasted with the robots to emphasize the gap between what appears to be human (as the robots look like people) and what it is to be human. Helena is preoccupied with liberating the robots, but is rebuffed by their lack of receptivity. Frankly, it seems that Capek is being cynical about revolution in his characterization of Helena, as she represents a romantic revolutionary whose ideals cannot penetrate practice (embodied by the laborious existence of the robots).

As a woman, Helena also operates as a sort of ideal, a feminine ideal to be exact, that works as a sort of symbol for nature (mother nature) in the text. Disgusted by which she percieves as an injustice to the natural order of things, Helena sees the robots as human rather than other. The male humans, by contrast, see the robots as commodities (the play is a pretty satirical treatment of capitalism, but not explicitly communistic in its indictment of labor for labor’s sake).

Domin(ance) - Male Power

Eventually, Helena’s attempt to liberate the robots is subjugated by her semi-forced marriage to Domin, the boss of the factory. As an individual, Domin is as his name suggests, domin-ating. He continually lords himself above Helena, often by treating her as an object of a chivalry, who must be honored and venerated like a piece of art unable to be involved with the actual world. He is also introduced to us at the beginning of the play as a personality who channels (and thus controls) knowledge. He alone has access to the secret manuscript of “Old Russom” which contains the secret of producting robots.

Producing Artificial Life

The production of robots is another example of perverting nature. Rather than existing as a mechanical objects (automaton) Capek’s robots are biotechnological, literally objects of flesh and blood, but factory produced flesh and blood. Like Herr Virek in Mona Lisa Overdrive, this biology is vat based, a chemical process that begets a humanity which is engineered not born. Several times in the text, the humans re-iterate the fact that robots are not born, they are produced.

Eventually, the production of robots is subverted to enable their liberation. Helena, who is still interested in the liberating of robots despite (or perhaps because 0f) her marriage to Domin, pressures the scientists to begin giving the robots a soul. This is where everything starts to go wrong, as the addition of a soul finally makes the robots “aware” of their situation, and their rights to agency not slavery.

The Problem with Souls

Interestingly, the adoption of a soul first manifests itself in the robots ability to feel pain, which was an early concern about the robots, who occassionally killed themselves because they didn’t know what they were doing to themselves. So Capek is suggesting that pain (which is a cybernetic feedback system of humanitiy) is a possible origin of its soul. Or rather, the ability to feel in the literal sense eventually begets the ability to feel metaphorically.

As one scene near the end of the play goes:

Second Robot: We were machines, sir, but from horror and suffering, we’ve become…

Alquist: What?

Second Robot: We’ve become being with souls.

Fourth Robot: Something is struggling within us. There are moments when something gets into us. Thoughts come to us that are not are own.

(Penguin Edition, 75)

“Thoughts… that are not are own” are not necessarily a soul, but they do seem to be some kindling of extra-agency which could be read as a development of a human element. One of the things that this dialog asks, and it is question repeated throughout the text, is who can you produce a thing like a human (visually, productively, mentally, physically) that is not a human. Capek’s text suggests that eventually that made in the image of the human becomes human. In fact, the play ends with a invocation of Genesis, as the last living human calls to love-struck robots “Adam and Eve” and recites “God created man in his own image” clearly invoking the idea that a spark was transmitted by humanity to robotics by the transmission of the image of humanity to the robots. Man is a god, but as Nietschze would have it, god is dead.

Post-Humanity

The rise of the robots obliterates humanity. It is snuffed to a last man, who dreams of his species alone. This vision of the technology of humanity overrunning it is a theme prevalent in science fiction, and surely passed on to the Matrix where humanity is enslaved by its own product, who reverses the dynamic of the relationship and makes man the commodity. Gibson also channels this post-humanity to a more subtle degree in his presentation of technology as a space for post-corporeal humanity. The Tessier-Ashpools and Count Zero both wish to inhabit a private technological cosmos where they are no longer, particularly human.

The end of humanity is presented as a missed opportunity for capitalism. The last surviving humans realize that they can survive the robot apocalypse if they trade the Russom Manuscript (containing the secret of robot production) to the robots. This trade is a complicated move, as it means robots will multipy and take over the earth entirely, where destroying the manuscript means the end of the robots eventually (a final blow from the hand of the maker to the product). Just when you this is the major debate of the play however, you learn that Helena has already destroyed the manuscript. She saw it as an unnatural knowledge, and as nature incarnate destroys the document to right the wrongs of humanity. But at a terrible cost, as it seals the fate of all humans.

Man as Robot, Robot as Man

One man, Alquist, is left by the robots because “He is a robot. He works with his hands like a Robot” (70). So in fact, he turns out to be the least helpful human to leave alive as he cannot reveal the secret of robot production, which the robots so desperately require.

At the end of the play, it appears that robotics like humanity is destined for total death. But a glimmer of hope emerges, as two robots, one of whom is called Helena, and the other Primus, seemed to manifest human qualities in their behavior towards one another. In brief, they are in love, which prompts Alquist to see a future of redemption for robots and humanity as a hybrid form of the two has emerged and promises a certain fertility. These two robot-humans also represent an reversal of Alquist himself, as they are the robotic becoming human (where he was described as the human who is robotic) and their duality (manifested by a need for one another) overcomes Alquist’s incapicitating loneliness. The future of Capek’s R.U.R. is thus a return to “nature” where love replaces labor, and the robot as dualistic unit replaces the robot as an individual agent of labor. Hybridity of man (manifested as a dynamic) and a machine (a physical ideal) is the realization of a future.

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