One of the things I’m did this past spring was an independent study—a vehicle by which to move through my dissertation’s tentative bibliography, at a pace of around two books at time, every two weeks, and to write short comparative analyses of the texts. These books covered intersections of philosophy, psychology, theology, machine consciousness, and Afro-Atlantic magico-religious traditions, I thought my reviews might be of interest, here.

My first two books in this process were Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and David J. Gunkel’s The Machine Question, and while I didn’t initially have plans for the texts to thematically link, the first foray made it pretty clear that patterns would emerge whether I consciously intended or not.

[Image of a careworn copy of Frantz Fanon’s BLACK SKIN, WHITE MASKS, showing a full-on image of a Black man’s face wearing a white anonymizing eye-mask.]

In choosing both Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and Gunkel’s The Machine Question, I was initially worried that they would have very little to say to each other; however, on reading the texts, I instead found myself struck by how firmly the notions of otherness and alterity were entrenched throughout both. Each author, for very different reasons and from within very different contexts, explores the preconditions, the ethical implications, and a course of necessary actions to rectify the coming to be of otherness.

For Fanon, that otherness is that of the Black man in the west, in the 1950’s and 60’s, specifically the consideration of how Blackness is and always has been defined in relation to whiteness. For Gunkel, the otherness is a more wide-ranging process of Othering, in which that to which we owe moral consideration is defined in reference to what it is not, and how we need to consider that the potential moral positionality of machines might well reflect the space occupied by nonhuman animals and many other categories of human beings.

In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon outlines a mode of thinking about the nature of Blackness as something that is unknowable, in its present situation, and claims that he’s not looking to simply theorize about the condition of the Black man, in the world, but rather to discuss ways to change it. Blackness is unknowable because it is a category defined always in the negative, as against white, and by mechanisms of oppression and resistance. When not engaged in that resistance and phobia of their skin and their supposed animal nature, Black people have their Blackness erased by being told the converse: That they are so close to being white that they “aren’t really black.”

Fanon notes that the faculties and tools Black people have to use are those of Western European colonization and, as such, are subject to the same double thinking: If you use it to agree with white Western European colonial mindsets, then you’re “white enough” for your thinking to be accepted; but if you use those tools to seek to deconstruct them, then you’re “not reasoning correctly.”

[Image of the cover of David J. Gunkel’s The Machine Question]

In The Machine Question, Gunkel describes the need for a new way to understand moral agency and moral patiency and to extend them to the ever-widening category of machines with which humans live and interact. He lays out the standard picture in which in order for something to be a moral patient—that is, something worthy of moral consideration—it must first be capable of being a moral agent, or acting with an understanding of itself and its moral situatedness, in the world, and that many believe that in order for that to be the case, one has to first be a conscious agent.

Gunkel rightly describes the problems with these and other views, all hinging primarily upon the fact that we do not have solid definitions for categories like “consciousness” or “suffering” that we can reliably apply to other human beings, let alone being able to definitively include or exclude other nonhuman entities from them. But, Gunkel says, anthropocentric exclusion is exactly what we do, in all ethical system. Even when we seek to build systems such as Luciano Floridi’s Informational Ethics, which is founded on the proposition that any and all things which exist as “coherent [bodies] of information” are worthy of moral consideration, we are still engaged in colonial violence toward whatever is told it doesn’t fit our criteria.

Both Fanon and Gunkel’s works examine the ways in which the colonial Western project is replicated throughout categories of people, or even who gets to be considered a person, but both writers have curious lacunae in the case studies and precedents from which they draw. While Fanon is clear at the outset that he is focusing on the nature of the Black Man in France in the Mid-Late 20th Century, his reasons for excluding Black Women as a particular perspective of inquiry are not well developed. Similarly, his language rife with what might easily be seen as homophobic and transphobic undertones, even beyond that which would be explained away by the era in which he wrote.

In a similar vein, while Gunkel somewhat offhandedly repeats that women and people of colour were not always accorded full personhood status, he does not mention the very real and very pertinent issues disabled people still face, to this day, in being seen as full agents and self-directed patients. When the topic of consideration touches so closely to issues of mental capacity and capability, such a lack should perhaps at least be highlighted with a “though I lack the space to do so, here…”

Capek play.jpg

[A scene from Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. , showing 2 humans (left) and 3 robots (right).]

Ultimately, both Fanon and Gunkel end with calls for constant critical examination, and exhortations that, though there might not be any self-evident answer at the end of their works, the questions they pose must be asked. The works possible thing, for each of these writers, would be to assume that the problems they highlight will be solved by the external setting of some limit, definition, or criterion to which all entities must fit, in order to be considered valid claimants of the title “person.” For Fanon and Gunkel, the question of who/how/why/what is included in the header of the “We” is always an evolving, relational stance, and to best engage it we need a “condition of possibility,” rather than some godlike arbiter of morality; we must allow things and people to determine themselves, of themselves—to be, as Fanon says, their own foundation.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. (1952), (1967 translation by Charles Lam Markmann: New York: Grove Press).

Gunkel, David J. The Machine Question: Critical Perspectives on AI, Robots, and Ethics. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2012.