Resisting a Mechanized Consciousness

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As cool as it may sound, no one in America should want to be a machine. To be a machine means you are expendable and exploitable. It means that you are just a number and that there are a hundred more behind you who are ready, willing, and able to do the kind of work you do. It means having a devalued sense of self-worth and adopted fatalism that speaks to your contribution to the world as being transient. We need to conceive of strategies that limit this sort of thinking in the Chicano/a community which aspires to move thinking beyond the attributes of labor.

by Christopher Gonzalez

It has long been a tactic of erstwhile colonizers and modern-day hegemonies to depersonalize those humans most affected by their imperialist policies. Call an indigenous person a “savage,” and you can run roughshod over him with impunity. Use the power of public outlets and media, and see how easy it is to turn individuals with dignity into buffoons and caricatures. Today’s scapegoat-of-the-moment happens to be Chicanos/as of the American Southwest—hardworking brown people who take proffered labor jobs and are scared silent by Arizona’s SB 1070 and the ramifications thereof. Some (who can blame them?) have left the state altogether, while many others live in perpetual fear of harassment or other forms of violence. And therein lies the true danger of a law such as SB 1070. Even if we could sleep soundly at night knowing that officers would not abuse an already unconscionable law, the despicable act of a lone gunman in Tucson should put everyone on notice: such laws embolden anti-immigrant vitriol with the ever-present threat of violence.

Oscar Zeta Acosta’s The Revolt of the Cockroach People exposed the rampant metonym of Chicano/a-as-vermin. Undoubtedly, white supremacists such as the self-proclaimed “Minutemen” continue to equate border crossers (as well as those brown people who have been here for generations) as pests to be squashed out of existence. (Incidentally, Robert Rodriguez depicts this real-world hunting of border crossers—problematically, I would argue—in his latest film Machete, particularly in the scene that has Don Johnson’s character shoot a pregnant woman who has crossed the border). There are those American nationalists whose overwhelming myopia refuses to allow them to see the inherent truth of the situation. Namely, that Chicanos/as are here to stay, that there is no clock to turn back, anymore than there is for those Native Americans who would turn the clock back on this continent’s original “illegals” (i.e., Europeans). Though the sheer number of so-called illegal immigrants numbers in the millions, that is not, in itself, the reason they are here to stay. The reason has more to do with the cheap, uninsured, transient, faceless labor which they provide at a handsome profit. America’s capitalist engine has reached the pinnacle of its achievement—a self-propagating labor force that doesn’t complain, doesn’t ask for rights, doesn’t ask for equal treatment, and doesn’t ask to be released from its feudal serfdom. Those employers who hire day laborers, often for weeks at a time while refusing to pay, enjoy free labor with impunity. The fear of deportation keeps such exploited workers silent as they suffer in the shadows of society. And as laws place the onus on the immigrant and not the employer who wishes to bilk the American tax system by paying a paltry wage in cash to an undocumented worker, the labor environment has enabled a new metonymic paradigm: the undocumented worker as machine.

America is obsessed with the technological device. Hundreds of bleary-eyed people will wait outside an Apple store for hours in order to get the latest silicone-based do-hickey, in part, because it promises to make their lives better. But we’ll never see employers line up to get their hands on the latest upgrade to the undocumented worker. They don’t have to. Now, this is nothing out of science fiction (though, for an interesting and relevant take on this, see Alex Rivera’s 2008 film, Sleep Dealer). The Chicano/a labor force need not be transmogrified into a cyborg with artificial parts. This is not Donna Haraway’s conception of the cyborg. Nor is this Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. The dehumanization and exploitation of brown people continues unabated, and the reason is stunningly clear. There only needs to be a particular shift in the way of thinking—something akin to a mechanized consciousness—for the devaluation of self to be initiated. Those that draw upon and exploit this vital segment of America’s labor force have understood for decades this mechanized consciousness whether they realized it or not. To be sure, there are certain jobs that the ongoing Industrial and Technological Revolutions will never be able to mechanize literally. It would cost too much to create, say, a device that scrubs toilets or makes a hotel room or harvests onions. Instead, American capitalists have set about creating (consciously or not) the conditions that have allowed human beings to willingly adopt the mentality of a machine.

This is not only outrageous, it is dangerous. In science fiction literature, this man/machine debate is typically at the crux of an ethical dilemma. Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics,” rules of programming that allowed robots to understand their place within society. The rules were created as a safety mechanism for the human hegemony and as a system in which to keep the robots in perpetual thrall. Here, too, there is an ethical dilemma. America’s capitalist system has no problem on the one hand of deriving gain and profit from the labor skill-set of an undocumented worker. Yet on the other, nationalist fervor wishes to eradicate this so-identified infestation of illegals while tending to ignore the profit stimulation generated by these brown bodies. Produce is affordably available at your local grocery thanks to migrant workers paid cents for the bushel harvested, for example. The danger in this profit derivation/legal persecution paradigm is twofold. The consequences of foisting a mechanized identity onto undocumented workers most certainly puts them in harm’s way. Because they lack documentation, their labor skill-set typically lacks specialization as well, proponents of racism and violence can more readily see the undocumented worker as expendable. But perhaps more dangerous still, the adoption of a mechanized consciousness by undocumented workers themselves pushes them to remain silent and exist in quiescence as long as they are able to do so. They must learn to live with, and work through, pain and disease: they often have no health insurance and they are afforded no recourse to taking time off from their living-wage-earning jobs. The fact that they are human should not depend on a government-made designation of geographic position. Yet, because they intuit that their very survival is dependent on their ability to sell certain skills for a wage, they seek to minimize the harm incurred on their physiology, psychology, and biology. Consider migrant workers who choose to remain silent when working on farms rife with cancer-causing, gene-mutating pesticides and insecticides, when they ought to be guaranteed a safe work environment just like everyone else. Day laborers work themselves past exhaustion and often towards injury for fear that the next job may be long in coming. Mothers, fearing deportation or separation from their children, unwittingly endanger their children by lack of doctor visits. I could conjure more examples of crucial, life-and-death decisions that are unduly influence by this mechanized consciousness.

As cool as it may sound, no one in America should want to be a machine. To be a machine means you are expendable and exploitable. It means that you are just a number and that there are a hundred more behind you who are ready, willing, and able to do the kind of work you do. It means having a devalued sense of self-worth and adopted fatalism that speaks to your contribution to the world as being transient. We need to conceive of strategies that limit this sort of thinking in the Chicano/a community which aspires to move thinking beyond the attributes of labor. Perhaps there ought to be an infusion of arts and humanities within the Chicano/a community. We show and express our humanity through storytelling, through visual and performing arts, through shared cultural experiences. What if undocumented workers began “documenting” their experiences in order to show how they are more than the sum of their nimble hands and strong backs? What would happen if they began to resist this mechanized consciousness by engaging in those very practices that define us as human? And I’m not talking about the kind of journalism that has an insider go and document the lives of these people, such as the work of Luis Alberto Urrea. While this is necessary and valuable work, I’m speaking of a project that allows this faceless, alienated, and villainized group the power of speech and narrative, using their own words and voices. Brown people need to move beyond the soundbite. There are not only many questions to be answered, there are many still waiting to be asked. But come what may, we can no longer continue to allow these human beings with valid thoughts, experiences, opinions, who are subject to joy and pain, happiness and trauma, to be regarded as nothing more than profit-producing, industrialized machines. We begin to lose our own humanity if we do.

Christopher Gonzalez is a doctoral student in English at Ohio State University with a focus on Latin@ cultural studies. Graphics: Arturo Aldama archive.

Copyright © Christopher Gonzalez. All rights reserved.
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