Research

Citizen robots: biopolitics, the computer, and the Vietnam Imaginary

The Vietnam War coincided with an intense period of technological change that marked a significant turning point in the relationship between the citizen and the state. While Michel Foucault describes Vietnam as ‘the gates of our world’, my thesis argues that Vietnam stands rather as the gates of our biopolitical world – a period in which Foucault’s original concept of biopolitics is reborn in the computer age.  It reads technological, social and political developments alongside key works of American science fiction literature published during the ‘Vietnam Imaginary’ (1955–1975). In doing so, it charts how human subjects are complicit in the means of their own oppression, and the ethical implications of the blurred line between the human and the machine.

These theories reached new heights during the Vietnam War, in a period I have described as the ‘Vietnam Imaginary’. As computer technology found new and deadly uses on the field of battle, it also increasingly found its way into people’s homes. This ambivalent and often troubled relationship is reflected in the science fiction literature of the period and feeds back into academic and social discourse surrounding the relationship between the human and the machine. As the state seeks to ‘robotize’ subjects through monitoring and surveillance, we must ask: How and why are humans transformed into compliant robot subjects? Are robots truly the ideal citizens? Is the AI the ultimate destination for the biopolitical state?

To find out more about this project and my other related interests, browse my research blogs. You can also see my researcher profile on the Lancaster University website.

  • 'War Stories' and 'The Final Frontier', in Fuzzy Revolutions (2020)
  • 'Lessons from Science Fiction: Frederik Pohl and the Robot Prosumer' (2020)
  • 'The Trouble with Joi' in Blade Runner 2049 and Philosophy (2019)
  • 'Microfascism and the Double Exclusion in "Flowers for Algernon"' (2019)
  • The Darkest Hour [novel] (2019)
  • Conscripts from birth: War and soldiery in the grim darkness of the far future
  • Performance, Gender and the Trouble with Joi
  • The gates of our world: Vietnam and the (re)birth of biopolitics
  • Exclusions through time: Charlie Gordon and the biopolitical paradigm
  • The Literature of Drones: Ethics and Remote Killing in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game

Feedback for my work...

In 2014, I completed my MA in English Literature at Brunel University, Greater London. I received an A+ for my Masters dissertation, with the following feedback from my supervisor, Professor William Watkin:

I think it is safe to say this is the best dissertation I have marked on an MA program at Brunel. It is simply excellent in all areas and would easily function as a chapter in a PhD in my opinion. It also marks an important moment for me as a marker and teacher. It clearly develops ideas on Badiou, Deleuze, Agamben and Derrida that have featured as part of the undergraduate and graduate programs that I have been involved in in recent years. I know this because I know that they would not have met this kind of material anywhere else. To see a candidate take this material and make it their own in this way is of immense satisfaction to me, although all the credit should do to the candidate who has transformed everything he has read and produced a work of lasting originality. This is certainly all their own work.

As I specialise in these areas perhaps I should make some simple things clear. At present, there is almost no one even at a profession level writing across Agamben, Badiou, Deleuze, Foucault and in terms of mourning and animality, Derrida. That the author gets one or two of these right would be wonderful. If they related one thinker to another correctly that would be astonishing. That they do this across five thinkers each of which presents unique and complex challenges, I just haven't seen that. Alone this would excite me at a PhD level. So there is that. But then there is also a talent for relating the ideas to the texts in a clear, developmental and original fashion. Expertise in theory often hampers clarity of textual exegesis but here the two sit together absolutely perfectly in my opinion. I have to say I have nothing critical to say and that almost never happens (it never happens). Even when he speaks about Agamben and potential, where in my opinion most go wrong, he does it with subtlety and grace.

Then there are the four chapters. The third chapter on death, one of my other areas of research, is excellent. It takes the debate away from central concerns, refreshes the intellectual palate, raises a radical consideration of communicability/ intelligibility, and just transforms the debate by bringing in Butler, Derrida and so on. What is expressed there in terms of Butler's use of Agambenian discourse analysis would be a chapter on its own. When one returns to Chapter 4 which is more in line with the first two, it is then that Badiou is engaged. This is simply brilliant structural awareness as to how to build and develop and advance argument. And of course the conclusion is exceptional. Using a kind of side-comment from Hallward and locating the novels within this structure is totally original. To close, the grade here doesn't matter, it is work beyond the confines of an MA in my opinion. What should happen next is that someone intervenes and makes sure this person gets on a PhD course as soon as possible and develops this project to its full potential which, I am certain, is immense. Thank you for submitting something of this quality it was a privilege to read and I urge you to make sure this is not the last piece of theoretical work you ever write.

Prof. William Watkin
William Watkin
Professor of Contemporary Philosophy and Literature