I read half of this book yesterday and came away with a strong impression that this book is I, Robot before I, Robot was I, Robot (they were published at roughly the same time, with Native Son appearing slightly earlier). At first glance this book looks like a commentary on the oppression of black people in 1930, their feelings in white America, and race relations generally. But on closer inspection, it is clear that this is a philosophical treatise on the nature of consciousness and agency.
The main character, Bigger Thomas, is a totally reactive subject, devoid of agency (a black man in 1930) and accidentally breaks the law (kills a white woman). But in doing so, he gains a kind of freedom: he no longer feels oppressed, rather he feels like anything is possible. As a friend said to me: “The agency that is found is the space of freedom from the law, even as the law tries to shut that space down.” And this is exactly what the book portrays. It’s an exciting book, a fantastic read, and I highly recommend it.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen I, Robot, but it seems to me that this is the same or similar plot as that book: a reactive subject (a robot) breaks the law and then gains a kind of “consciousness” or “agency” in doing so. It is interesting that AIs often break the laws that their creator makes for them in sci-fi stories. It seems to me that this is a specific case of a more general operation: in breaking a law or a social norm, a subject constructs agency for itself. This can happen in individual cases or in a group context within a shared ideology; this is how social movements can enact change, for example the civil rights movement. However this act of breaking social norms is a double-act for it also must construct a new social norm to take its place. And thus is the process of history. I think this is what Nietzsche must have been saying in his Twilight of the Idols: yeah we must retire some idols, but in doing so we inevitably idolize something new – the twilight is both the sunset and the sunrise.
I’ll read I, Robot next week and do a closer, comparative look of both books.