Encountering the Human Automaton: Ethics and Alterity in Twentieth-Century American Literature

Selisker, Scott Raymond , Department of English, University of Virginia
Wicke, Jennifer, Department of English, University of Virginia
Golumbia, David, Department of English, University of Virginia
Lott, Eric, Department of English, University of Virginia

"Encountering the Human Automaton" explores how the automaton has been a central feature of literary and cultural representations of alterity across the American twentieth century, spanning depictions of U.S. imperialism, domestic race relations, Cold War ideology, and contemporary terrorism. I show how developments in psychology, industrial management, and media technologies enabled a new paradigm for imagining others as automatic, will-less, and therefore subhuman beings. My project identifies a divide, however, between propagandistic reductions of others to automata and the literary and cinematic stagings of transformative and ethically charged scenes of encounter with automata, which often inhabit a logic of automatism only to critique it from within. My focus on such scenes allows this project to connect conversations in American Studies on the nature of transnational encounter with recent philosophical work on the ethics of encounter that these creative works explore. The project shows a new way in which literary texts participate in many of the ethical and political debates of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The first chapter examines one of the first widespread American representations of this new human automaton, the zombie, which became for Zora Neale Hurston and other modernists a symbol of the industrializing and imperialist culture of the U.S. occupation of Haiti. My second chapter offers a reassessment of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man by demonstrating that Ellison's influential satirical use of the automaton is at the heart of the novel's political engagement with both the problem of the mass man and mid-century scientific approaches to the "Negro problem." The project continues with a treatment of 1950s brainwashing discourse, where I read key brainwashing films, including John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate, as containing a critique of the brainwashing discourse's premise of a "free" American self that stands against a conditionable, totalitarian other. In the light of the many direct and indirect contemporary representations of terrorists as automata-treated in a brief coda on Don DeLillo's Falling Man-this project demonstrates how scientific logics of automatism continue to structure peculiarly American dialectics of self and other, community and abjection.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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