Encoding Race in Westworld

Curator's Note

From its genocidal belief in manifest destiny to its melancholic preservation of a conservative social order, the Western has historically been a white supremacist genre. It is perhaps surprising, then, that race seems absent from today’s most prominent Western revival: HBO’s Westworld. While the show’s cast is racially diverse, neither race nor racism exist as a discourse in Westworld. Is this the post-racial, colourblind world that we hear so much about?

No. Race is Westworld’s structuring principle, insisting at the subterranean level of code.

The show depicts the lives of programmers, technicians, executives, guests, and android ‘hosts’ working at a futuristic amusement park that commodifies the 19th century American West with techno-utopian nostalgia. Whereas the 1973 film on which the show is based portrays hosts’ malfunctions and repairs occurring at the level of hardware, HBO’s hosts are programmed and controlled through their source code, reflecting the ways that neoliberalism dematerializes labour. Like the perforated roll in the title sequence’s player piano, source code scripts the hosts’ timelines, revealing the technics of control that paradoxically underlie the Western’s favourite maxim: "Every man’s gotta have a code."

Westworld’s title sequence shows that Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man has gone cybernetic. The conceptual basis for the platitude that "we are all human," this icon represents the universal essence that ostensibly coheres humanity and therefore polices its contours on Eurocentric terms. More recently, the Vitruvian Man has served as the logo for the Human Genome Project, which defined the human blueprint in genetic code.

Today, the belief in human-as-code undergirds the popularity of genetic genealogy services such as 23andMe, which conceive of race as a bioinformatic fact disarticulated from the social reality of racialization. As Kim TallBear has demonstrated, biogenetic understandings of race depend on a circular logic that presupposes the existence of racial essences in order to generate data that confirm those taxonomic assumptions. Digital source code animates this fantasy when it encodes racial logics in computer simulations. Whether cloaked in the language of trolls and elves or hosts and guests, such simulations functionally embody the mechanics of the racist imaginary by programming difference as an intrinsic, immutable, insurmountable fact that determines behaviour and ability. This logic pervades Westworld, where hosts are ontologically disenfranchised and subjugated, programmed according to the asymmetrical rules of racial capitalism. Racism is not only structural in Westworld, it is digitally encoded.

Comments

Brian Steinbach's picture

Whiteness Studies

Great post!

West World of course “others” the hosts in its narrative, but it also seems to group the programmers, technicians, executives, and guests as one large, collective binary opposite to them. This seems oddly class-blind as well, where race is concerned.

I’m thinking of David Roediger’s book Wages of Whiteness, when I think of how much the show seems to be emphasizing the park’s class structure, but also doesn’t seem to engage in racial hierarchies that have historically be intwined therein. The park has lowly workers in the system of racial oppression (perhaps technicians like Leonardo Nam’s “Lutz” and Ptolemy Slocum’s “Slyvester” who we spend a lot of time with in the first season. And we have constables like Luke Hemsworth’s “Ashley Stubbs” who is more or less a stand in for the poor white slave catcher), but the show never seems to engage with the ways in which racial hierarchies are deployed as a means of quelling class inequities. I’d love to hear your thoughts here.

Again, great post!

Sasha Crawford-Holland's picture

Nuance

Thanks for your comment!

I completely agree that this totalizing binary loses important nuances about power. Your point about how this ‘racial’ hierarchy is deployed to quell class anxieties is really compelling - it’ll be interesting to see how much that unravels this season. The show stages many of the difficult realities of labour under late capitalism (dematerialized, affective, casualized, individually customized, specialized, endless) but doesn’t really think through the hierarchies therein in a sustained way. For example, you mention the Lutz character - I remember at one point in Season 1, he mentions that he would never be able to afford to visit the park as a guest; he is evidently exploited too. I suspect/hope that we’ll see some of these nuances emerge in Season 2 as (spoilers) the uprising binary begins to fracture (hinted at in Dolores and Maeve’s confrontation in episode 2) and as more complex coalitions begin to form.

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