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Christopher Minz

Today’s post is part of a larger conversation between Carol Vernallis (Stanford), other scholars (noted above and below), and myself. It constitutes an attempted collaborative working through of the particulars of how Westworld advances various threads of discourse on coding, AI, and how the myth of the West is maintained in our contemporary world. Here is the contribution of Leonardo De Assis (Stanford)

Authored by Leonardo De Assis (in conversation with Carol Vernallis with some differences of opinion…)”

Westworld features robots with advanced intelligence whose natures, skills and aptitudes are illusory. The show’s fictional scriptwriter, Simon Quarterman, designs code for the robots’ actions, according to the stories he creates. He plays a crucial dual role for viewers. He’s within the fictional diegesis of the show, so at a distance from us, and also outside the game itself, like Disneyland’s overseers. His and others’ game constructions resemble video games (with Ford’s addition of robot reveries providing a bit of aleatoric shuffling of the code). Subsequently, the park visitor, much like a video game player, triggers a script that unfolds out of many possible actions.

Westworld departs from video games somewhat. Of course it’s unusual to have fictional video game designers as characters in a video game. And even more rarely might they adopt a dual focus, embedded within the larger video game proper yet outside the scene of action. We viewers also take on dual roles, imagining ourselves as first-person shooters alongside the Westworld park visitors, but also alongside the designers, modifying the robots and other park activities. Nevertheless, Westworld most closely resembles current video games. Potential events unfold from the programming of a script with many possibilities of action; a path is secured consequent to the interaction with the user/player. Westworld’s park visitors and we viewers resemble the players in current video games.

Because the robots in Westworld lack autonomy, they are not as intelligent as they initially seem. Probably the show’s layers of complexity help obscure this for us. But more importantly, the show also draws on our tendency to accept beings who physically resemble us as intelligent. (Studies have shown that people will accept a surprising variety of forms as possessing potential human capacity: CGI characters still residing in the uncanny valley, :)’s possessing faces, even Roombas – we’re eager to anthropomorphize.) Viewers experience Westworld through a lens of anthropocentrism: the audience participates in the illusion that robots are very intelligent because they bear a physical similarity with human beings.

In truth, the robots in Westworld are not as intelligent as we are, and we have difficulty recognizing this. In its attempt to show us ourselves, Westworld may blind us to true AI, which has an intelligence all its own.

Christopher Minz

Much like the coding that undergirds the basis of the robotic AI hosts in Westworld, there is a further encoded totality that props up the aesthetic of the Western myth that makes Westworld possible, or even a viable visual signifier at all. Fredric Jameson proposes a process of cognitive mapping, not as a framework necessarily, but as a way to reimagine a totality under the shifting and flowing social realm of the postmodern world. If we, like Jameson, understand the postmodern as a place where subject identity and position is nearly impossible (and indeed impossible by design, as he points out in relation to architecture), he maintains that there must still be a totality. For Marx the totality was history, and a teleological march toward communism. Jameson, building on the Marxist tradition, returns to another Marxist concept, and argues that capital maintains itself as the totality that is under everything. In the case of Westworld, and its re-recreation of the Western mythology, what becomes clear is that capital is what drives the programming of the hosts and the environments. Whatever can be done to make sure money continues to flow into the Davos corporation will be done, no matter the cost. Yet, much as in capitalism, a crisis must occur, and potentially a revolution will occur. The Hosts breaking their programming may be that revolution.

Christopher Minz

The original post here was revised and posted below in more apt form. The living scholarship goes on!

Interesting post! It strikes me that your reading of white colonial expansion in Breaking Bad resonates profoundly with current shifts surrounding marijuana legalization. In the past, this industry’s criminalization provided a legal basis for disproportionately policing and incarcerating hundreds of thousands of people of colour. Now, as marijuana becomes increasingly legalized, the primary beneficiaries seem to be white industrialists who are corporatizing production and distribution. There seem to be very similar colonial dynamics at play.

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.

Brian Steinbach

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!

Brian Steinbach

My comments here aren’t explicitly related to the American Western (here read as a continental narrative movement), but I do think that the Western as a genre marks a major narrative effort in forgetting/rewriting national moments of trauma.

I’m certainly less familiar with Canada’s colonial history than I am with the construction of Memory and Archive in the U.S., but I do occasionally run across narratives that point towards some overlap in the ways in which Canada and the U.S. elide past national atrocities. Bharti Mukerjee’s short story, “The Management of Grief” may be worth taking a look at, and perhaps the film Rhymes for Young Ghouls.

Both—I think—have to do cultural work towards revealing systems of elision (Mukherjee) and oppression (Ghouls). Ghouls seems to point towards similar assimilationist attitudes in Canada and the U.S.—revealing histories that are seldom in the popular domestic imaginary, while Mukherjee’s short story touches upon a national treatment of grief that is repressive, and perhaps at odds with the ways in which other countries tend to deal with it.

I wonder then if the Western Genre isn’t more than a cover up of history, but also a cover up of national grieving as well—or at least, moments of grief that hit close to him?

Lisa Weckerle

Thank you for your comments! Your idea to separate the movement of whiteness and the narrative colonization of Western is very useful.

You make a very good point about the whiteness of the meth business in the last season of the show. White characters Mike, Jesse, Walt, Lydia, Declan, Todd and the Neo-nazi gang reap the rewards of the elimination of brown-skinned drug king pins Gus (who is Chilean) and Don Salamanca (who is Mexican). Walt is able to capitalize on tensions between North and South, Gus and Salamanca so divide and conquer “the Other.” It’s also interesting that Walter White owns a car wash, perhaps a nod toward the concept of “white-washing” that is taking place in the drug empire of New Mexico.

Your comment about how white males are able to explore their identity through the “myth of the American West that celebrates it conquest, while ignoring those conquered in the process” also rings very true for Walt’s character. Walt often conquers non-whites (Crazy 8, Tuco, Gus), which fits with the narrative of white men in the myth of the West. The train heist episode highlights another theme of masculinity in the American West: protector of children. In the myth of the West, Native Americans are often depicted as child-killers, while white men are celebrated as child-protectors. (Some New West films that come to mind are True Grit and The Missing). Walt starts out as trying to protect his own children financially, but then allows Jane to die after ironically having a bonding conversation with her dad. Walt’s act of allowing Jane to die then sets into motion a plane crash that results in another child being killed (a pink stuffed animal from the plane lands in Walt’s pool as if to indict him for his part in the tragedy). Walt saves his surrogate child Jesse’s life (who is seeking revenge against child-killers) in Season 3, but then poisons Jesse’s surrogate son Brock in Season 4. The irony of protecting some children by putting others in harm’s way deconstruct Walt’s “the ends justify the means” plan of protecting his family, and reveals a double-standard between one’s own children and those of the “Other.”

Brian Steinbach

In thinking about the colonization of the west in Breaking Bad, it seems worth distinguishing a kind of dual movement that the show takes up: the economic/neoliberal movement of whiteness, and the narrative colonization of the Western space.

In the former, White’s business eventually grows beyond regional and national borders, resulting in a neoliberal organization of power that’s rooted in the American West (between Walter, the European business ties, and the Neo-nazis, there’s a whole lot of “White” colonizing one of the most diverse places in the U.S. by the end of the show’s run).

The latter continues a century-old trend of imagining the American West as a whites only space in the national domestic-imaginary. The American West has become a narrative space where white males can practice/imagine/construct their identity through a myth of the American West that celebrates its conquest, while ignoring those conquered in the process. The fifth season’s train heist episode (“Dead Freight”) is perhaps one of the better examples of this. In it, a literal train heist occurs in a “whites-only” bubble in theory, but is comically interrupted by some pesky Good Samaritan “others” in a large American-made truck, and it tragically ends with a child’s dead body beside this one-time romanticized railway.

Lisa Weckerle

Thank you for your comments and questions. In response to your question about Manifest Destiny, the wilderness was often conceived of either completely blank and ripe for development or filled with savages and in need of cleansing. Both of these are of course, incorrect—the native Americans were inhabiting the land before European colonizers came along, and native Americans were more often the victims of savagery than perpetrators. The strategies for “otherizing” the native Americans such as portraying them as irrational, violent, and untrustworthy are present in the portrayals of Crazy 8 and Tuco. Tuco’s avenging cousins are depicted as animalistic and heathen; they primarily communicate nonverbally and also crawl on the ground as part of a Santa Muerte ritual. It’s also interesting that the word “Salamanca” can be translated as witchcraft.

In reference to Walt’s cancer, I had only considered it ironic that he was colonizing (in the world of meth-making) and trying to fight back against colonizing (in his cancer treatment). The borders of his territory expand and contract just as his cancers spreads, retreats, appears and disappears. Colonizers often rationalize the destruction of the indigenous people as necessary for progress, however the colonized indigenous people experience this so-called “progress” as oppression and cultural fragmentation. The idea of purity that you bring up is interesting—certainly purity is a theme within the show in the cancer/cancer-free dichotomy and also in Walt’s striving for a pure and uncontaminated product. In the pilot, Walt uses the language of capitalism “product…as advertised” and science “no adulterants” to contrast his product (and by extension himself) with “garbage” cooked by other meth-makers.