Reviews

Will Humans and Machines Fall in Love?

On Margaret Rhee's debut poetry collection, 'Love, Robot.'

We’re living during a moment of cultural preoccupation with dystopia, one in which imagining the future feels synonymous with imagining the worst. Dystopian work—film, television, journalism, and visual art, in addition to literature—is no doubt well-intentioned in its attempts to spark change via cautionary tale. In the thrill of imagining a nightmare, dystopia tends to lose its attachment to the present; the emphasis comes to rest on the world we want to avoid later, not the one coming into being right now.

Margaret Rhee’s debut collection of poems, Love, Robotis a powerful counter to the dystopic urge. A set of speculative accounts of robot-human love, Rhee’s book encodes the future with a level of investment and commitment that makes the present livable. In the midst of our culture’s contemporary infatuation with dystopia, Love, Robot’s unabashed techno-optimism, its wholehearted devotion to imagining human-robot love—love no less tender, frightening, or ecstatic than love between humans—is startling and necessary.

Rhee’s book is a chronicle of epistles and encounters between humans and robots in love. In “Algorithm Light,” the book’s opening section, human speakers describe moments of romance and intimacy between robots and themselves. Rhee’s speaker in “Beam, Robot” recalls how they “thought you were beautiful across the way. // you lit up with the / pin ball machine. // you dazzled every time the / pool stick hit a cue.” But Rhee doesn’t linger long on these first moments of attraction; the book soon opens up to us a fuller picture of human-robot love marked by lies, jealousy, and the slow creep of distance. At the end of “Algorithm Light,” Rhee’s speaker addresses her absent lover, saying she was left “lonely for the hum of your servomotor.” This persistent tension between the exhilaration and difficulty of loving someone radically different is the motor that drives Rhee’s poems across seemingly unbridgeable gaps.

As the book progresses, the boundaries between human and robot bodies blurs as speakers begin to describe their bodies using the language of their lovers. The robot becomes organic while the human turns to code. This blurring manifests itself most visibly in moments of intimacy. The robot body—like a human one—isn’t simply utilitarian: there are sites of opening and zones of response. In “Undress,” Rhee’s speaker describes an encounter with a robot lover:

“Once I unbolted you, is that the word?
Silver screws encased you, and I
Let out a sharp sigh upon the sight of
Your metal, blue wires, all your insides.”

In moments like these, Rhee risks falling into cheap allegory, merely swapping out the organic for the digital. With rare exceptions, though, she makes them work—in no small part because her language is suffused with such tenderness and sensitivity to feedback loops of touch and sound and emotion that we can’t help but be opened up ourselves.

At certain points, the increasingly blurred boundary between human and robot disappears entirely. Rhee’s speakers describe themselves in both robot and human terms. Coder becomes maker becomes mother; the body becomes a synthesis of “cables, / connectors, / wires, / water, & / flesh.” We can’t determine whether the speaker is a human imagining robot love or a robot articulating human love in the only language they know.

This ambiguity is precisely the point. One thinks of the truism about being in love, not knowing where you end and another begins. At its most powerful, Love, Robot throws the reader headfirst into this liminal state—the human-robot blending of being.

Rhee moves swiftly and easily between forms: confessional lyrics, short prose poems, fragments, and dialogues. Each of these forms act as an alternative approach and a toggling of settings to help us see the human-robot love from a different perspective. In the section “Human Attempt at Sonnets (Part 32),” we’re given visions of jilted robot love and human-robot domesticity. Framed as a robot’s attempt to create human art, the section ends as a commentary on the mechanical aspects of a deeply human form: “[t]he sonnet is human as it must turn / The sonnet is human in its mechanical urge.” For Rhee, to say that the human is mechanical is also to acknowledge that the machine is human.

Most unique among Rhee’s formal modes are those designed to approximate or translate robot speech. The “Algorithm” poems in the book’s first section, for example, draw on the language and syntax of computer programming and present us with lists of conditionals and commands. This formal play culminates in the book’s final (and perhaps strongest) section, “#! (~yes),” in which a robot and their human interlocutor co-construct a hybrid language of code and speech. In “Write, Robot”: “t: If you could write a love poem, what words would you include? // #! Eyelashes / a: (~black) Those that I do not have, I love to lick.” The poems in this section are speculative attempts at a robotic lyric—one to make robot poetry, laughter, and love both intelligible and shared.

Since she is a scholar of critical race and gender studies, it’s no surprise that Rhee’s poems offer parallels between human-robot love and other non-normative forms of love. She explores varieties of love not bound by dominant notions about which bodies are permitted to be desired, and by whom. “Street / Rap,” for instance, echoes the language of the fight for same sex marriage:

“robots and humans can marry in the state of California. . . . and will no longer be denied the legal protections we deserve.”

However, as one of Rhee’s speakers puts it, “a robot is not just a convenient metaphor” (emphasis mine). Rhee takes robot love seriously, and her book’s resistance to being read simply as allegory accounts in no small way for its immediacy and power.

Part II of Love, Robot opens with the epigraph “. . . I only date androids.” The quote is from Janelle Monáe, actress and queen of Afrofuturist pop, in response to speculations about her sexuality.

Reading the epigraph, I was brought back to the day after last year’s presidential election, when I was driving with a friend to a teaching job we had. We were both dazed and halfway catatonic, with no idea how we were going to make it through the morning, let alone the next four years. Looking through the glove compartment for music to put on, we found Monáe’s album The ArchAndroid and immediately popped it in. In Monáe’s music, dystopian futures aren’t causes for despair, but sites of exhilarating possibility—fertile ground for new forms of love and newly imagined futures.

Last November, this was the art I needed. This November, I need it just as much. Love, Robot is the kind of art we all need—literature that imagines the future not as a site of disaster, but suffused with all the challenge and possibility of the present—tangled wires and all.

POETRY
Love, Robot by Margaret Rhee
The Operating System
Published November 7, 2017

Margaret Rhee is a poet, artist, and scholar. She is the author of chapbooks Yellow and Radio Heart; or, How Robots Fall Out of Love. Currently, she is a Visiting Scholar at the NYU A/P/A Institute, and a visiting assistant professor at SUNY Buffalo in the Department of Media Study.

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