The Works of Philip Kaveny
Jack the Robot Sings the Blues
by Philip Kaveny
Originally published in Janus, Vol. 4, #2-3, Summer/Autumn 1978
The pronoun “per” has been substituted for sex-specific pronouns as an experiment; also, since a robot technically has no sex, it more correctly denotes the robot as a subject than a sex-specific pronoun would.
To read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as science fiction, I propose that the protagonist’s narrative be treated as if it were a readout from a highly sophisticated information-gathering computer housed in the body of a human-like robot. The computer-robot, known as Jack or Jack the Bear, has been programmed in such a way as to give us as much information as possible about per’s encounter with a world that is totally alien to us. Jack’s program is based on one major and several minor axioms. First, the world in which per functions is divided into two classes of intelligent creatures that are identical except in each other’s perceptions. But also, the two classes differentiate themselves on the basis of the amount of pigmentation or melanin in the outer layer of their skins. The two classes are thus named black and white with white superior, while black = inferior.
Jack is black and does not know per is a robot. Per accepts per’s inferiority and looks at skin color as a kind of curse that is to be escaped from. This escape is to be achieved through a series of complex interactions which take place almost entirely with whites. To make Jack as authentic as possible and so that per will not “blow his cover”, per has been programmed to feel that there is a thing per can do to lose this blackness.
In interpreting Jack’s readout, we will make a major shift of perspective which will bring the background against which Jack functions into a sharp, multi-dimensional focus. We will leave aside such questions as character motivation and development, as they have no significance for a robot and also in order that we might gain some understanding of the structure, values, and dynamics of this alien world.
The time frame for Jack’s investigations is a three- or four-year period just before the outset of several industrially developed nations on the planet Terra. Jack’s activities are localized in a place called the Deep South, where per attends an educational institution called a university, and in a living area which is a section of a large Northern city. The city is called New York, and the section of it in which Jack lives, Harlem.
In the first section of the readout, it seems per is suffering from an acute information overload. It is as if per’s memory has been welded into a kind of overlapping matrix of associations which move in and out of temporal-spatial relationship almost randomly. (As a point of information, Jack is a model which is much in advance of the current state of the art. Per’s information is stored in a topological-contextual manner. This leads to a much more confused readout than one might get by using a binary flipflop system. However, it is hoped that the new process will allow us to more accurately approximate the behavior and operation of what is referred to as human intelligence.)
From a cave of white light deep beneath the earth in Harlem, Jack’s readout moves in and out of time. Per says that, not too long before, whites held blacks as property, but that this is no longer the case. Jack tells us per is invisible. This invisibility has caused per to take predatory, even murderous action against a white who did not acknowledge per’s existence after they had bumped into each other on a street corner. Yet, we know that blacks can certainly see whites. Jack asks, “What did I do to be so black and blue?”
It would seem that the basis for the relationship which causes Jack to ask this question lies in a number of contradictory expectations that whites and blacks have for each other. For example, at the start of Jack’s narrative per is making a speech, accepting an honor bestowed for per’s intelligence and scholarship. This honor will allow per to go to a Negro college where per hopes to lose much of per’s rudeness. (College is a place where young, intelligent blacks go in the hope of losing their blackness.) Before Jack makes per’s speech, per must first watch a naked white woman be mauled by the serious men who are the leading educators of per’s community. After per is titillated by watching this white woman, per must engage in what is known as a battle royal. This is a blindfold fight in which ten black boys are stripped to the waist and made to fight till all but one can no longer function. The crowd seems to want to kill them all. The fight ends after all the young blacks scramble for money, which is actually fake, on an electrified rug which burns them badly. Against this background, Jack makes a slip of the tongue on a key word. Per substitutes the term “social equality” for “responsibility”. One wonders how the choice of a word almost cost Jack’s life. Jack’s program has been designed to accommodate a superhuman level of contradiction.
It is important to note that Jack feels that per’s actions are appropriate in this context. We feel a certain sympathy for per, but we must remember not to look at the material from per’s perspective. Remember, we are reading science fiction. Jack may closely resemble a black human, but per is a robot.
Do blacks exist simply as objects of torture and scorn for whites? Later sections of the readout indicate that this statement is far too simple. At college, Jack comes in contact with Dr. Bledsoe, a black man of great power, who presides over a small college on a small section of pastoral land beautifully decorated with ivy-covered buildings. The college is in marked contrast to the poverty and apparent backwardness of the rest of the community of rural blacks. I earlier mentioned that this was a place where young blacks, designated as intelligent human beings, were taught to hate their blackness. Bledsoe’s power lay in his ability to manipulate this factory of self-hate. Another aspect of Bledsoe’s power lies in his special relationship with certain white men from the North who are referred to as trustees.
Jack’s interaction with the trustee Norton, a Northern factory-owner, highlights the complexity of the relationship between whites and blacks. Norton tells Jack that Jack is part of his destiny. This destiny is tied somehow with the sanctification of the death of Norton’s daughter. Norton tells Jack that she died in late puberty because she was too pure for life. Norton has heavily endowed the college, perhaps to fill the void created by her death. At this point, it is important to note that one of the most important taboos in human society is the prohibition of intercourse between parents and children. Incest is thought of as a loathesome, subhuman act.
Jack is told by Norton to drive into the countryside away from the college so that Norton can see the black folk at their simplest. Norton is taken to the Trueblood shack where he notices that both Trueblood women, mother and daughter, are pregnant. Trueblood has violated the incest taboo and his life has never been better. He tells the story of his sexual encounter as if it were a complex lyrical dream in which his daughter has been transposed through time and space to recreate a beauty that was perhaps the high point of Trueblood’s life. Seldom has the sex act been portrayed with more power and beauty. Jack is appalled by Trueblood’s account. Norton is enthralled by the story. Trueblood tells us how he was persecuted by those uppity folks from the college. “I went to see the white folks and they gave me help. That’s what I don’t understand. I done the worst thing a man could ever do in his family and instead of chasin’ me out of the country, they gave me more help than they ever give another colored man, no matter how good a nigguh he was.” Norton awards Trueblood with a hundred dollar bill for his account of the event. It appears that, for doing one of the most unspeakable things possible, Trueblood has been protected and rewarded by whites.
Why has Trueblood done the proper thing in his dealings with whites? First, he has reaffirmed the local whites’ expectations of his own baseness by committing incest with his daughter. He has also acted out Norton’s most hidden compulsion. Trueblood has confronted his own chaotic feelings of lust and shame. This represents a strong element of vicarious wish fulfillment, not only for Norton, but for the whites for whom he tells and retells his story of incest.
Jack must pay the price for Norton’s experience. Norton is taken to the Golden Day, a saloon for mad black veterans, after he is overcome by the heat of the sun and the heat of Trueblood’s experience. Here, he is helped by a brilliant black doctor who has chosen insanity as a haven from a world in which white is right and from all that follows. Norton is forced to focus on the contradiction upon which so much of his power is based. White is right, the lie told by slaves and pragmatists alike. This is the same axiom by which the robot, Jack, is motivated. It is clear by now that Jack is running as fast and as hard as possible from per’s blackness. Jack is expelled from college for being either subversive or stupid. Per, however, is given letters of introduction to trustees in New York, the contents of which remain hidden. The fact that these letters remain unopened shows us the power of the axioms upon which Jack’s behavior is based. Per is selectively screening out black voices that might help per to survive. Jack’s program has a very strong learning component. This learning component works in a manner similar to human experience. Jack is continually integrating per’s experience with the axiom that white is right. Bledsoe, though black, speaks in a complex extension of white voices that control Jack’s life. Even in the text we find the voice of the insane doctor refer to Jack as a robot. Jack’s persona is a set of conditional responses which are nothing more than per’s attempts to understand what expectations the various white voices in per’s life have for per. Because these expectations are manifold and contradictory, Jack suffers greatly.
The section of New York called Harlem is different from anything else in Jack’s experience. For the first time, he sees black and white moving together in crowds. He thinks of touching white women, but darts away. Harlem could be an explosion of freedom for Jack, but it is only another place for per to listen for the proper white voice. After finding by accident the true nature of per’s sealed letters of introduction, Jack is given a job working for the Liberty Paint Company. It is interesting to note that the interaction between black and white workers represents a basic principle which seems to keep individuals with similar interests from taking collective action. Black and white workers are kept apart by the reinforced perceptions that they have about one another. Jack is excluded from a union of white workers basically because, in their minds, per’s color is equated with untrustworthiness. Though the white workers are human, their behavior is very similar to Jack’s. What I have referred to as the axiom of black is an integral part of this society. Since neither black nor white worker benefits from this, what purpose does it serve?
Jack tells us that the product of Liberty Paint Company, “optic white” paint, is made perfect by including a drop of black paint into the white paint, which then acquires the perfect hue. This paint is used primarily to cover national monuments. Here, of course, we see that black is something to be used to cover unsightly surfaces. The products and operations of the Liberty Paint Company reflect a general process by which this society maintains itself. Jack misunderstands this process and spoils a batch of paint, for which per is sent in disgrace into the depths of the factory. Here per works with an old black man in a room full of gauges, and high pressure steam lines, pigments, dopes, and dyes. The old black man who runs this room is a kind of wizard who holds the secret of “optic white”. For this he is rewarded by being allowed to work in a kind of dungeon of his own hate and fear. Even in the depths of the factory both black men cannot escape the operation of the axiom, “white is right”. The two beings fight, as they must: the older to protect the secret which keeps him in the basement and the younger out of a feeling of rage and frustration. Jack reassures the keeper of the secret that per is not after that secret by attacking him. As they fight, there is an explosion, which injures Jack badly.
I think that at this point we see Jack defining per’s limits for dealing with contradictions. There are white voices inside and outside of per’s head, but they are lost in the scream of the explosion. Per is physically injured and emotionally dysfunctional. In the factory hospital per is treated as if per were some broken-down piece of equipment. Why is it not discovered that per is a robot at this point? The answer, I think, is simply per has behaved perfectly according to the expectations of the whites to whom per has listened all along. Jack does not understand that this is what per was supposed to do all along.
Earlier in the readout, we gain information about the relationship between black and white sexuality. In the hospital, they play around with the idea of removing Jack’s testicles as a cure for per’s dysfunction. This is not done, but it is important information to try to integrate later into the readout of Jack’s experience. Jack really never is able to use this set of white expectations to per’s benefit because they are tied to a blackness which per is trying to escape. Jack’s sexuality, which is defined by a white-dominated political movement with a certain political vitalism, is discovered through an accident.
Jack is moved when per sees an elderly black couple evicted. Per associates the material objects of their modest lives with a set of broken expectations that start at the end of the period called “slavery” and extend through 70 years of pain. Jack speaks, and thus incites a riot. The experience is too powerful, and Jack is suddenly free from white voices for just this instant. This point represents a burst of energy which can only briefly override per’s basic program. At these points, Jack’s data became almost incomprehensible. It is not random, but it is chaotic.
Through Jack’s interaction with the brotherhood, we see per’s program gradually reassert itself. Jack is again looking for the right thing to do to escape blackness, and per looks to white voices to give per the word. The brotherhood’s understanding of Jack is in many ways tied to a rather complex set of sexual expectations that Jack, with per’s allegiance, embodies. Jack has the power, in per’s words, to move both blacks and whites to action. This emotion is set in a strong contradiction to the brotherhood’s perception of the logic or internal dynamism of historical process. Jack’s role with the brotherhood is one of the most compelling sections of per’s narrative. Per tells us that the brotherhood is pragmatic and opportunistic at per’s expense. It is clear that per considers perself to be the victim of per’s environment rather than per’s own perception.
Jack has intercourse with a white woman who claims to see per as a source of ideas, but really sees per as something to fill a great emptiness in her life. The readout would lead us to think that whites express themselves often in a language of sexual expectation which utterly transcends the realm of physical experience. This language is exceedingly complex. I can say that, within the framework of Jack’s narrative, the nature of per’s sexual encounters are nothing more than a depersonification for per. Jack has become a symbol or embodiment for per’s partners. Per could, in a sense, be interchangeable with any other young black who would embody these white expectations. For these white partners per’s sexual activity is nothing more than an extension of their narcissism. I am drawn to the section of the readout in which Jack is asked to say certain phrases to heighten the intensity of the experience. Per is asked repeatedly to utter the phrase “drop your drawers, bitch”. Jack, at this point, has become a kind of disembodied fantasy. Earlier, I noted that, to white males, Jack was both an object of hate and a source of wish fulfillment.
As part of per’s experience, Jack is forced to deal with two blacks who have the power to override per’s flight from blackness. The first is Tod Clifton, who is very similar to Jack, though a great deal less contradictory. It is interesting that Jack perceives Tod as beautiful in a way beyond comprehension. Tod Clifton has a fatal human fault. He will not run away from his blackness. Tod is young and strong, and he reacts to contradiction with his fists. This leads him to embody a death wish, which is fulfilled when he asserts himself with his fists against white police. Jack perceives that Tod dies a victim of white expectations. Does this mean that to step outside of white expectations is to be equated with death?
I noted earlier that there was a time some 70 years before our narrative when blacks were slaves or property, therefore not free. In the time frame of the present narrative, a rather subtle though powerful transposition has taken place. The physical state of slavery has been cleverly transposed into a slavery of contradictory expectations, which Jack’s experience has defined for us. On the basis of Jack’s experience in several different milieux it seems to me that the slavery of contradictory expectations is a principle of control used to maintain the existing power relationships in this society both in the rural South and in Harlem. How viable is this as a means of holding this society at a functional level? Here we are at the limits of Jack’s narrative, but not at the end of per’s readout.
We learn about the character Ras from Jack. Ras is a voice which questions the basic axiom, “white is right”. In the end, Jack mortally wounds Ras in part of a general battle and uprising which is in part the result of outrage on the part of the black community to the murder of Tod Clifton. Ras has the power in his word to break the force of enslavement of contradictory expectations. The battle for Harlem of course ends in black defeat this time, but, we ask, what about the next time and the time after?
The character Rinehart is never seen and is only identified to us by an accident of identity in which Jack, by wearing sunglasses, finds perself identified as a clergyman, a pimp, and a dope dealer. All this makes per further reject the black voices who see Rinehart as a multiplicity of identities. Jack sees this only as a reason to further scorn per’s blackness.
In the end, the readout loops back upon itself, and we find Jack the predator alive in per’s cave of light. Per is now, in a sense, ultimately dysfunctional. Per still feels the impulse to escape per’s blackness through the proper mode of interaction with whites. Jack’s readout now conveys to us a picture of a place that existed in per’s mind some 40 years ago. Per presents the sum of per’s experience in a mode of expression which is rooted in some classical tragic mode. The tragic elements lie in the constriction of per’s own experience.
Jack’s axioms are related to us by per as part of some universal moral imperative. It would be interesting to study the readout of a computer like Norton or Bledsoe, or Trueblood or Rinehart. It would be interesting to study the concept of the slavery of contradictory expectations tied in with the necessity of moral imperative in a contemporary time frame. Can we extrapolate the possibility for change in the places called the Old South, the college, the factory, Harlem, or Jack’s cave? The key, I think, is that in dealing with our computer it takes no more energy to develop these axioms than to change elements in a learning program. In the case of a human social system these same things may take more energy than those in power in this society have available. It would appear that what happens at that point might fall into the realm of what might be inferred from catastrophe theory. This is not to say that Jack’s readout represents a synecdoche for the society as a whole. It would only indicate that the data would lead to a conclusion that is not allowable within the confines of the model.