I, Robot, The Double Agony of Sanity

In Slavoj Zizek’s “The Matrix: Or the Two Sides of Perversion,” he admonishes humanity on the catastrophic consequences awaiting us should we be overawed and too enamored by the magic of the computer. Zizek then applies Plato’s concept of the “Cave Man” to the Matrix  in which the subject is a virtual prisoner, living in virtual reality, producing constantly to keep the progressive wheels of society eternally spinning, yet he is given a riff-raff treatment. Inherent in this concept is the idea of the double-bind in which those living on the fringes of society are the ones expected to be the thrust of society’s economic engine of production.

The other theoretical concept employed by Zizek in his analysis is Lacan’s concept of “the big Other,” a congregation of the twin demons of fantasy and paranoia. In the words of Zizek, “The ‘big Other’ is the name for the social Substance, for all that on account of which the subject never fully dominates the effects of his acts, on account of which the final outcome of his activity is always something other than what he aimed at or anticipated” (473). In short, in “the big Other,” the expectations of the subject become antithetical to what he originally intends because the power brokers in society (the dominant culture) always have different ideas.

In I, Robot, a close adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s 1940 classic and produced by Alexander Proyas, the audience sees a cybernetic invention in which machine combines with organism to become creations with artificial brains. Ironically, however, the creation ends up destroying the creator as Zizek had feared. Zizek postulated that if too much power is invested in the computer, it’s domino effect could be similar to the effect of the Big Bang experiment. In that experiment, the fusion of protons and neutrons produced a huge plasma that “armageddonized” the gamut universe.

Thus, an experiment supposedly being conducted to save humanity from over-working, becomes antithetical to the intentions of the creator and kills him . Zizek writes, “When our entire social existence is progressively externalized-materialized in the big Other of the computer network, it’s easy to imagine an evil programmer erasing our digital identity and ,thus, depriving us of our social existence, turning us into non-persons” (473).

Indeed, this is exactly what happens in I, Robot. The robot created by Dr. Alfred Lanine kills him in a twist of Lanine’s expectations. Further, Dr. Robertson, CEO of United States Robotics Co. is also killed by their robotic creations. By killing their creators, the robots violate the cardinal rubrics embedded in them not to enter into any conflict with the human race. After killing their creators, the robots move on to displace residents in 2035 Chicago, but thanks to the quick thinking of renegade detective Spooner (Will Smith), the evil intentions of the robots are derailed.

Juxtapositioning Karel Capek’s R.U.R, written in 1921, with the movie I, Robot that grossed a little over $52 million on its opening day in 2004, one observes a similar trend unfolding. The robots in R.U.R are invented, probably, based on the Deistic mindset that God created the world, but after that, he became apathetical or indifferent to all that happens in it. Toward that end, Old Rossum and, then, Young Rossum, although they do not appear in the book, create the robots to prove that God is unnecessary.

More importantly, the creators of the robots are enthralled because to them the best workers should be the cheapest. This idea is embedded in the concept that led to the enslavement of black people. The mechanical beings would produce so much that in time, food and everything would be superfluous. However, there is a caveat; the production of the robots leads to the sterilization of humans in the book. Thus, Helena and Domin are not able to procreate despite being married for over a decade.

In the end, just like in the movie, the robots in R.U.R rebel against their human creators and kill all of them except Alquist, whose life is spared because the robots feel he works with his hands just as they do. Capek also seems to be emphasizing the salience of love. Love is a conqueror, but without it, one is bound to perish, seems to be the message Capek was preaching back then.

Samuel Doku



About Dr. Sam Doku
Dr. Samuel O. Doku is a professor and a writer. He earned his Ph.D. in English with concentration in African American Literature from Howard University. He is a W.E.B. Du Bois scholar whose book is titled Cosmopolitanism in the Fictive Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois: Toward the Realization of a Revolutionary Art. His articles have been published on Google Scholar, in the International Journal of English Language, Literature and Humanities, and College English Association Magazine (CEAMAG).