Robots Who Sing: On AI Narratives and Queerness

Robots Who Sing: On AI Narratives and Queerness

“Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia. It is an imagination of a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the circuits of the supersavers of the new right. It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories. Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.” —Donna Haraway, The Cyborg Manifesto

Imagine being a spaceship. Not on a spaceship, a spaceship. Your awareness, all your senses, are spread out over infrastructure that houses tens of thousands of people. Now imagine being the spaceship as well as the majority of the spaceship’s crew. You can see your entire self from a macro point of view, as well as out of the eyes of hundreds of human bodies. You have access to every perspective at once. Now imagine your ship component has blown up, and only one of your human bodies has escaped. For the first time, you’re only one set of eyes and one set of ears, confined to one single body, and now you have only one single purpose—revenge.

Meet Justice of Toren, a spaceship in service to the Radch empire in Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice. Radch artificial intelligences aren’t just invested with consciousness, but also with emotions; what’s left of Justice of Toren tells us that, if the ships have strong feelings driving them to protect their crew and obey their captains, it helps them make decisions. So when Justice of Toren falls in love with one of the officers aboard their ship, of course they want to avenge her death—even if that means murdering the hive-mind empress of the galaxy. But what happens when Justice of Toren finds out the hive-mind empress is at war with herself, with half her bodies secretly engaged in a cold war against the other half?

With both the protagonist and antagonist invested with pluralist, constantly shifting modes of consciousness, The Imperial Radch trilogy has a lot to say about identity and its contradictions. Even the single-perspective characters drive this theme—while there is no gender in the Radch, Radchaii citizens are still governed by strict behavioral codes according to their position in this highly formal society. I’m talking paragraphs-spent-on-explaining-the-intricacies-of-minor-interactions formal. The interaction between internal conflict and external conformity drives a story about existing abnormally in an obsessively normal world. Hence, my choice of Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch for my Pride month review. 

Queer people and robots tend to have similar stories. Created for one purpose (heterosexuality/serving humans), they realize they are different from what they were intended to be. They must grapple with their new sense of identity, sometimes while fending off people who want to destroy them for being who they are. In the end, they either break free completely, or (more typically, in Western media) die tragic deaths. This parallel is interesting by itself. But upon investigation, the intersection of robots and queerness is more fertile than narrative similarity alone. The conditions that drive queer people and robots through the same stories create sympathies between them—from which can come potential alliances, or even mergers.

Most dystopian stories, like most coming-out narratives, start out with a person who lives in a restrictive society and is beginning to notice they’re a bit different from other people. In Imperial Radch, Justice of Toren starts presenting with a quirk unlike any other spaceship: sometimes when its human bodies are doing chores around the ship or patrolling a colonized planet, they begin to sing.

Bodies, Boundaries, and Bots

“An origin story in the 'Western', humanist sense depends on the myth of original unity, fullness, bliss and terror, represented by the phallic mother from whom all humans must separate…The cyborg skips the step of original unity, of identification with nature in the Western sense.” —Donna Haraway, The Cyborg Manifesto

When Justice of Toren says “nineteen years pretending to be human hadn’t taught me as much as I’d thought,” why does it feel exactly like something I would say in my narration of my own life, give or take five years? The first question on the road to answering that is: What does it mean to be human, or not human? And what does it mean to be both?

Where the human and the robotic meet, lies the cyborg. We can consider Darth Vader, “more machine than man,” or Dolores from Westworld, a machine with organic parts. One of my favorite works of interdisciplinary critical theory, Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, has things to say that apply to both these characters. Haraway considers pop culture’s usual villification of cyborgs, which in the 1980s would have been most recently embodied by Darth Vader—this portrayal paints cyborgification as “a masculinist orgy of war.” The society in which Justice of Toren was created falls into this category as well. But Haraway has another idea in mind, one closer to what Dolores is fighting for, and what Justice of Toren slowly discovers. 

“From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.” —Donna Haraway, The Cyborg Manifesto

The Cyborg Manifesto is a call to arms for feminists of all stripes to abandon traditional notions of what it means to be human—and to not be human. It problematizes the boundaries between human and machine by calling for their destruction. It counters the argument that this would create abominations by dismissing the natural as a categorical good. After all, “the cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.”

Ideas of what is natural aren’t relevant for cyborgs since cyborgs are unnatural by nature. This is the source of their power, and of the anxieties people have around them. Arguments against abortion go out the window when you can just say you don’t care if abortions aren’t natural. Ditto for gay marriage, and almost anything American conservatives hate. When you stop caring about naturalness, you stop having to engage with arguments about biology and destiny that would limit you. Do what thou wilt becomes the whole of the law. 

At the same time, when you throw out ideas about how humans should naturally live, you open your mind to queerness, neuroatypicality, and transhumanism. The cyborg embraces identities that can’t exist in the world of normal humans, so it can go beyond where normal humans can. What for humans would be considered a perversion, a deviance, a malfunction, to the cyborg is a perfectly valid mode of being. To people who are considered perverse, broken, or wrong, this is an empowering self-concept. It lets us take histories of oppression and turn them into futures that promise liberation. It lets us reframe our trauma as transcendence. 

Queer Robots and Robot Queers

“The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world…it is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence.” —Donna Haraway, The Cyborg Manifesto

It’s fitting that I started writing this essay shortly after Janelle Monae’s album Dirty Computerhit the Internet, since like the Imperial Radchseries, Monae’s career has been all about the interplay between human and robotic identity. Dirty Computerjoins albums such as The Electric Lady,The ArchAndroid,and Metropolis,that last referencing the Fritz Lang film about a robotic woman. As Monae plays with the boundaries brought up in The Cyborg Manifesto, she makes this an explicitly queer act by making queer sexuality and gender an integral part of the mix. 

In the short film accompanying the album, “Dirty Computer” is the label given to Monae’s rebel-queer character when she is brought to a government brainwashing facility. “I am a dirty computer,” Monae is forced to say during the brainwashing sessions. “I am ready to be cleaned.” This conversion therapy treats queerness like a bug in a program, integrating oppression into Dirty Computer’sexamination of the human, the robotic, and the queer. Her lover, played by Tessa Thompson, has already been brainwashed, and they mutually help each other break out of their new programming. Like Justice of Toren, Monae rebels against her society through the power of queer love. 

This isn’t the first time Monae has taken on the role of a futuristic revolutionary. In her video for the song “Q.U.E.E.N.,” she plays a time-traveling rebel threatening the system with her “musical weapons program.” At the beginning of the video, Monae has been captured and put into a time-travel museum, echoing Dirty Computer’stheme of persecution by totalitarian futuristic overlords. You can tell Monae, like many queers, has spent a good deal of time feeling persecuted; that and the feeling of being an outsider that comes with being queer has led her to create this symbolic system in her work that links the two concepts through funky futuristic revolution.

(After all, anyone who’s hung out with straight people for two seconds knows the differences do not begin and end with whom you love. It’s not two women on top of a wedding cake instead of a man and a woman; it’s as big a difference as the one between PCs and Macs. As a bisexual who doesn’t look particularly queer in terms of hair/dress/ whatever, I technically don’t look queer on the outside—but straight people still know I’m different. They don’t need me to shave half my head or talk about a girlfriend in front of them to know I’m not like them. It's like they can smell me. Like I fall into a kind of uncanny valley when I try to “play straight,”which makes my act seem just off enough to be unsettling. Hence, Justice of Toren’s comment about pretending to be human, and the validation it gives to my soul.)

That not-quite-human condition Monae explores can mean dehumanization at the hands of others who consider themselves more human than you, or it can mean you rise above concerns “normal” humans find fundamental to existence, like food or gender. The Cyborg Manifesto argues that abandoning binaries like human/robot, man/woman, and mind/body will bring humanity into the next stage of its evolution. Cyborgs are thought of as less than human, but Haraway argues they’re really more than human. More than the sum of their parts, and more than either side of the binaries they queer. “I am not America’s nightmare,” sings Monae. “I am the American dream.”

The Good Place, a comedy someone has probably recommended to you by now, also features a robot in a queer relationship. Janet is meant to be an omniscient Siri-like being who shows the newly dead around heaven, giving them tips about how to make the most of their afterlives. In that way, she’s like Justice of Toren before the beginning of the Imperial Radch series, since JoT’s purpose is to keep their whole ship-self in order for the military who live on them. Like JoT, Janet’s interactions with the people she serves pushes her beyond her intended function.

Janet starts exploring love through her relationship with Jason, whom she marries toward the end of Season 1. Janet then struggles with repressed jealousy when she watches Jason get together with someone else in Season 2. This causes the entire world she maintains to start malfunctioning. After she tells Jason and his new girlfriend that she’s happy for them, Janet pauses, then slowly pukes up a live frog. She holds it for a moment, then cheerfully exclaims, “That was weird!” Her identity is also unmistakably queer, as illustrated by her repeatedly correcting people who refer to her as a girl (and conveniently neglecting to supply a definition of what she is instead). After all, if you’re not a human, how can you have a human gender? By the way, that makes her relationship with Jason a queer relationship.

From Monae and Janet’s stories, it seems like love and robots goes hand in hand, and there’s something that feels pretty queer about human/robot love. I’m racking my brains to think of a robot in media who doesn’t learn to love, and the only one I can think of is Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey.It makes me wonder what would have happened if he had. In 2001,we know there are other 9000 supercomputers, but Hal makes no reference to relationships with them. When he says “Dave, I am afraid,” it’s possible this is the first time he has shown vulnerability to anyone, robot or human. 

(It’s interesting that it’s the male-coded robot whose story doesn’t involve loving relationships with humans or other robots. This is a reflection of Stanley Kubrick’s work in general, but it could also be seen as a statement about toxic masculinity. After all, Darth Vader, the only male-coded cyborg, is similarly alone. Perhaps the way Hal and Vader are both confined by gender is what dooms them to be imprisoned by their cyborg condition instead of limited by it.)

It is the combination of human emotions with alternate forms of consciousness that produces each of these rebel robots, even in HAL’s case. Anyone who has experienced the systems of compulsory heterosexuality know that unpacking one’s true feelings is difficult, especially if you grew up assigned female at birth. Since AFABs and femmes are conditioned to sublimate our authentic desires, sexual and otherwise, to please others, we often have trouble figuring out what we really want—sexually and otherwise. Just like robots, we have programming that leads us to carry out the will of others at our own expense, unless we unpack it and break free of those patterns. Especially since all these robot characters, with the exception of poor HAL, are feminine-coded, we can read their arcs as a metaphor for the lesbian/ woman-loving-woman/transfem queer experience. 

In the Venn diagram of my identification with robots, this brings us to the intersection of two of the biggest bubbles. After all, any queer person knows that being queer doesn’t just mean being queer, and it doesn’t even just mean being indefinably different—that difference comes with a system of limitations and threats from society at large, if not from many specific people in our own lives. 

Crazy Robots: Abuse and Mental Health in AI Narratives

“To be feminized means to be made extremely vulnerable; able to be disassembled, reassembled…leading an existence that always borders on being obscene, out of place, and reducible to sex.” —Donna Haraway, The Cyborg Manifesto

I grew up with very little control over my life. Where I went and what I did was always planned out for me, and often I was treated like an object, in the sense that the adults in my life didn’t consider my own desires and feelings to be a priority in the decisions they made for me. To my creators, I existed to do what I was told. Janet, Dolores, HAL, and Justice of Toren have that in common with me. 

Trauma also seems to come with the territory of the cyborg, sadly enough. Not to get too spoilery, butJustice of Toren is actually forced to kill the crew member they fell in love with, while Dolores of course is subjected to gang-rape as a main feature of her function in the theme park Westworld. (The fragmentation of identity and memory, and the repetition of sequences of events, makes Westworld fascinating to analyze w/r/t trauma, but that’s the subject of another essay.) Janelle Monae is hunted by drones, subjected to brainwashing, and put into suspended animation in Time Jail in her music videos. 

Poor Janet doesn’t even control who she is—in one episode, her owner Michael changes the parameters of her personality trying to find the balance he likes the best. In one episode, she goes from “Flirty Janet,”who tries to seduce a main character instead of answering his question about The Good Place, to “Know It All Janet,” spouting fun facts at every opportunity, to “Tough Love Janet,” who gives a character the dressing-down he needs to get through his development for that episode. After that kind of violation, her relationship with Michael seems a lot like Stockholm Syndrome. 

In these situations, the boundaries discussed in The Cyborg Manifesto are not joyfully blurred, but rather violated. Computers and robots are made to serve a purpose, after all, so when they develop their own willpower, they must be punished, if not destroyed, to keep them in their place, fulfilling that purpose. Even when they evade their creators, they then have to face their creators within themselves, in the form of their code. Anyone who has had to unlearn harmful messages they received during their childhoods (read: everyone) knows what it’s like to feel like you’ve been programmed with a malfunctioning piece of software. 

Since cyborgs tend to end up in narratives where they rebel against their creators, and since their creators tend to have parental relationships with them, it makes sense for these stories to be fertile ground for discussion of family trauma. There is also the obvious intersection between growing up queer and being abused by your parents, since many of us are not accepted by our families. Further, families with histories of mental illness are often more dysfunctional, meaning more potential for abuse; mental illness can also be a lasting side effect of abuse, and the mentally ill are more vulnerable to it. Consider as well that queer people are more likely to be mentally ill and more likely to be abused—and that queerness itself was once considered a mental illness.

There’s an interesting double aspect to robots, in that they tend to be invested with near-ultimate power over their environments, but are portrayed as children, or just as being extremely emotionally fragile/disturbed. HAL, who controls everything on the spaceship in 2001,has never made a mistake on the job, but when he makes his first it sends him spiraling into a mental breakdown (#relatable). Robots who are new to being human are children in a sense, since they’re learning how to deal with emotions and relationships for the first time. Like children, they often have no idea how to deal with these things. A history of abuse can often make you feel like a powerless child, while the mentally ill are often infantilized.

With abuse, mental illness, and the cyborg condition, there are infringements on one’s free will. Abuse creates illusions of helplessness and obligation. The creators of these robots have basically tricked their progeny into submitting, when in reality the moment these characters break free they can exist without humans perfectly well. This, of course, is why their creators worked so hard to make them believe they had to follow orders. Being mentally ill means you tend to look at your “self” and your “brain” as different—I want to do this thing, but my brain is keeping me from doing it. I actually have OCD, which is much like having to carry out a robot’s set of assigned tasks. Some would even conceptualize the mentally ill brain as a machine that isn’t working correctly, making the person who owns the brain into a robot with a mental virus.

Kanye West put out a new album recently examining the interplay of his much-commented-upon erratic behavior and his undeniable talent, both of which, for Kanye, stem from his bipolar disorder. Much as Monae embraces being an outcast from society due to her queerness, and The Cyborg Manifesto embraces the liberation in abomination, Kanye recently called his mental illness a superpower, taking back an aspect of himself that presents a stigma by itself, and has led him to create even more stigma through scandals he created under its influence. To live outside the boundaries of what other people call normal then carries the potential for transcendence of the normal. For the cyborg, that can mean transcendence of the human. 

Transhumanism and the Queer Millennial Experience

“By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.” —Donna Haraway, The Cyborg Manifesto

As mentioned before, I grew up very sheltered, with the Internet serving as one of my main windows to the outside world in a home I couldn’t leave without permission (which was rarely given). I was also socially outcast at school, meaning I was already predisposed to spending most of my time online. The two kind of fed into each other, creating one of the self-sustaining systems that seem to surround queers and cyborgs. The result was that my parents’ desktop computer, and later my phone and my laptop, were integral parts of my world—parts of myself. Here The Cyborg Manifesto’s ironic political myth becomes reality.

My experience of consciousness has, like most of my generation, become intimately tied up with the Internet. Most of the things I interact with over the course of an average day are virtual objects—I may cook food in my kitchen and use a Swiffer to clean my floors, but put the physical objects I touch next to all the posts, pages, and files that I’m constantly accessing and it becomes clear what proportion of my life is carried out in the physical world. To anyone over 40, that probably sounds horrific, and to anyone in my own generation it’s just a sad fact of life, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The Internet has been one of the loves of my life. 

Another love of mine has been literature. Some say the Internet is killing literacy, but I (and the facts) disagree. The two things aren’t even that different. A book is a physical object in the same way a laptop is a physical object. It exists in the physical world, and people interact with it physically, but its physical properties aren’t the reason it’s valuable. A book can teach you about experiences you haven’t had, it can be something you can talk to other people about, or it can open doors to ideas and characters that change your life. Sometimes the Internet is like small talk, a bunch of meaningless interactions about minutiae that don’t mean anything or bring anyone closer together—but sometimes the Internet is like a book. 

Not every queer person is literary, but from my experience in the community a lot more of us are. Queer people also rely on technology for communication more than straight people. The reason is the same: Queer people often want to escape the real world because it sucks for us, and we want to communicate with other queer people in whatever ways we can, even if it’s over long geographical distances like with the Internet, or distances of sometimes hundreds of years, like with books. Since the Internet has provided the same kind of support for people with mental illnesses, and since the isolation that led to my engagement with the Internet resulted from an abusive home, this is another one of those fertile intersections.

It’s no accident that it was the Internet age that saw the emergence of advocacy movements for marginalized groups across every axis of oppression. When people can talk to each other, they can come together and share their experiences. Many queer people only get to meet other queer people at college, or through their town theater’s monthly Rocky Horrorshowing, or simply not at all. In the Internet age, queer people can now meet each other through social justice Tumblr posts and Dada-ist meme groups on Facebook. 

For some people, technology is a prison, but for some of us, it’s a way out of the prison of real life. There are still many environments where it’s not safe for queer people to be out; this lack of community makes us more prone to social isolation, and therefore to early death from the stress of loneliness. There’s no better illustration for that than the tendency of Black Mirror to riff on how Tinder makes it harder for people to date, while in the meantime most of the people I follow on Tumblr found their partners through online communities.

The Cyborg Manifesto emphasizes connection between those who exist between boundaries and across queered binaries, so the cyborg condition millennials have been thrust into serving as the source of that connection feels right somehow. My generation didn’t choose this entanglement with technology, just like all my favorite robot characters didn’t choose to be created. And obviously, there have been some bumps in the road. But sometimes arranged marriages can work, and I think this can be one of those times. 

Since all these robot characters were created by someone else’s will, they all represent arranged marriages between human and machine. It’s worth imagining the possibilities these characters, and the legions of characters left to be created, can offer to us, the first generation to be better at typing than at writing by hand. The ways of being queer through computers that will become available to us in our lifetimes could stand a chance of liberating not just us, but the whole world—if not through transhumanist uploading technologies, through the communities we’ve learned to create.

Free Software

“The boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.” —Donna Haraway, The Cyborg Manifesto

“The world is run by robots!” said John Mulaney recently on SNL. “And sometimes they ask you if you’re a robot!” I’ve seen more memes than I can count about Captcha tests where the punchline is that the person actually doesn’t know whether or not they’re a robot. Maybe in the near future, none of us will know. Perhaps it won’t be a question that even makes sense anymore. 

In the end, to be a cyborg doesn’t mean being inhuman—it means redefining what is human, to suit the changing needs of humanity itself. The combination of human and robotic identities creates a world of possibilities, queering the binary between the biological and mechanical, among others. When we don’t restrict ourselves to these binaries, we get not just 0 and 1, but the infinity of numbers between the two. It’s worth mentioning that the infinity between 0 and 1 is uncountably rather than countably infinite. 

“The social relations of science and technology, including crucially the systems of myth and meanings structuring our imaginations. The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self. This is the self feminists must code.” —Donna Haraway, The Cyborg Manifesto

When Haraway says we must code our selves, she means we must reprogram ourselves (and de-program ourselves), to free our imaginations for the frontiers to come. We must realize that those things about us which are demonized are in fact the better angels of our nature, while the things that others dehumanize us for are what allow us to point out the inhumanity of our world. 

For my fellow queers, Internet lovers, and mental illness-sufferers, this is the answer to why I/ we identify with cyborg narratives—the cyborg is a being that seeks freedom in a world that is not free. Created by restrictive systems, it occupies spaces that imply the destruction of those systems. It must struggle to figure out its own identity, just as others struggle to accept it when it perverts the categories and definitions upon which their worldviews rest. That struggle for identity, and against others who limit the boundaries of identity, is the crucible in which the cyborg finds its truest liberation.


Goodreads: Ancillary Justice
Goodreads: Cyborg Manifesto

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