Dystopian Machines: Karel Capek – R.U.R.

Only by listening to technology’s story, divining its tendencies and biases, and tracing its current direction can we hope to solve our personal puzzles.

– Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants

Karel Capek’s international reputation as an sf writer rests on the play RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots, 1920; translated into English 1923) and the novels The Absolute at Large (1922), Krakatit (1924), and War with the Newts (1936), but his stature as the greatest Czech writer of his generation rests on a far larger and more varied body of work, highlighted by the allegorical drama From the Life of the Insects (1921), the trilogy of philosophical novels Hordubal (1933), Meteor (1934), and An Ordinary Life (1934), the stunning detective fiction collected in Tales from Two Pockets (1929), the biographical essay President Masaryk Tells His Story (1934), and an extensive, as yet uncollected and largely untranslated, body of short journalistic essays or feuilletons.1

In an early story (1908) “System,” a cigar-smoking bourgeois boasts that he has solved the problem of workers’ rebellions by choosing his workers from the poorest, the worst educated, the mentally incompetent – in short, the most abject members of society – and then systematically depriving them of any stimulation in order to render them free of ideas and desires, making them, as he puts it, as reliable as machines. At the end of the story like many of his later more familiar works these dehumanized or mechanized Fordist or Taylorist humans would rebel against their masters. But did they ever recover their affective life? Are were they forever doomed to their affectless sociopathic machinic existence?

“…individuals with psychopathy are marked with a constellation of impairments that primarily affect emotional processing. …this account suggests that genetic anomalies give rise to a disorder where there is reduced responsiveness of the amygdala to aversive stimuli in particular. This specific form of reduced emotional responsiveness interferes with socialization such that the individual is more likely to learn to use anti-social behavior to achieve goals.”

– James Blair and Derek Mitchell. The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain

Adam Kotsko in Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television describes the sociopath, saying:

…as I understand it, real-life sociopaths are pitiable creatures indeed. Often victims of severe abuse, they are bereft of all human connection, unable to tell truth from lies, charming and manipulative for a few minutes at most but with no real ability to formulate meaningful goals. The contemporary fantasy of sociopathy picks and chooses from those characteristics, emphasizing the lack of moral intuition, human empathy, and emotional connection. Far from being the obstacles they would be in real life, these characteristics are what enable the fantasy sociopath to be so amazingly successful.2

Are we misreading all this? Are we not seeing in our midst not some strange illness or psychological malfunction, but rather the alternative path of a new posthuman subjectivity that has yet to be registered as such? We’d like to think that over time evolution would produce a progressively better creature. But as Stephen J. Gould reminds us progress is a myth not a fact, there is no teleology in the natural order of things, nothing but the distorted lenses of certain thinkers, writers, scientists, philosophers, etc.:

No question troubled [Darwin] more than the common assumption, so crucial to Victorian Britain at the height of industrial and imperial success, that progress must mark the pathways of evolutionary change. Darwin clearly understood that the basic mechanics of natural selection implied no statement about progress, for the theory only speaks of local adaptation to changing environments….To resolve this troubling discordance between the mechanics of his basic theory and his fundamental impression of pattern in life’s history, Darwin called up [an] ecological principle encompassed by the metaphor of the wedge. …

Progress is not merely a deep cultural bias of Western thought…it is also…the explicit expectation of all deterministic theories of evolutionary mechanism that have ever achieved any popularity, from Darwinian selection to Lamarckism to orthogenesis. I do not, of course, mean progress as an unreversed, unilinear march up the chain of being; Darwin did away with this silly notion forever. But even Darwinism anticipates that an imperfect, irregular, but general ascent should emerge from all the backing and forthing inherent in a theory based on a principle of local adaption to changing circumstances. 3

What he was most against was the progressive position is well represented by journalist Robert Wright’s argument that both social and natural history have a trajectory that moves from simple to complex. This notion that society and natural history have a telos (trajectory) is what he saw as not only evil but downright malicious for both science and natural history, or any other form of knowledge. Richard Dawkins on the other hand always supported a progressive stance in science and thought. He proposed that “evolution exhibits progress” that is “value-free” (neutral) as well as “value-laden.” Explaining that “a progressive trend is one in which there are no reversals; or if there are reversals, they are out-numbered and outweighed by movement in the dominant direction.” So Gould and Dawkins would battle over this and other issues endlessly. Gould felt that a belief in progress is a prime example of how social biases can distort science. Gould aimed to show that the natural world does not conform to human aspirations. Nature does not have human meaning embedded in it, and it does not provide direction to how humans should live. We live, instead, in a world that only has meaning of our own making. Rather than viewing this situation as disheartening, Gould saw it as liberating because it empowers us to make our own purpose. Gould stressed, similar to Karl Marx and other radical thinkers, that we make our own history and that the future is open (see Richard York and Brett Clark: Stephen Jay Gould’s Critique of Progress).

Yet, that is just it: if meaning does not exist out there embedded in the real world, then we are free to make it, right? This seems to be the path of a certain form of posthuman technological singularity. But before I go into this I want to return to our psychopath’s and sociopath’s among us, and ask a question: Is this illness something new in our time? What causes this issue with the “reduced responsiveness of the amygdala to aversive stimuli” (psychopath), or those who ” lack of moral intuition, human empathy, and emotional connection” and “charming and manipulative” or “unable to tell truth from lies”. In an article Psychopathy: An Evolutionary Perspective (here) we read “Mealey (1994) also suggests that “…sociopaths are designed for the successful execution of social deception and that they are the product of evolutionary pressures which, through a complex interaction of environmental and genetic factors, lead some individuals to pursue a life history strategy of manipulative and predatory social interactions,” here suggesting again a genetic predisposition subject to shaping by their enviornment.” In another article we read (here):

Another psychopath in our research said that he did not really understand    what others meant by “fear”. However, “When I rob a bank,” he said,     “I notice that the teller shakes or becomes tongue tied. One barfed all    over the money. She must have been pretty messed up inside, but I don’t    know why. If someone pointed a gun at me I guess I’d be afraid, but I    wouldn’t throw up.” When asked to describe how he would feel in    such a situation, his reply contained no reference to bodily sensations. He    said things such as, “I’d give you the money”; “I’d think of ways    to get the drop on you”; “I’d try and get my ass out of there.” When    asked how he would feel, not what he would think or do, he seemed    perplexed. Asked if he ever felt his heart pound or his stomach churn, he    replied, “Of course! I’m not a robot. I really get pumped up when I have sex or when I get into a fight” (Hare, 1993, pp. 53-4).

I’m no expert in this field so have no real knowledge of the latest scientific information concerning the details of psychopathic or sociopathic behavior or it’s evolution so will not add my own conclusions for the science of this dark corner of humanity. What was interesting for me is that these beings seem to have become android/robot like in our midst. Returning to Karel Capek and the first showing of his play in New York he remarked (after several people argued over the humans and the robots in the play) that the debaters seemed obsessed with the robots at the expense of the people in the play. The play’s reputation and success depended heavily upon the spectacle of the expressionless, uniformed robots, numbers blazoned on their chests, marching in step onto the stage to announce, at the end of the second act, the end of the age of man and the beginning of the age of machines, as if to epitomize the traumatic transformation of modern society by the First World War and the Fordist assembly line. The appeal of the idea of the robots perhaps overshadowed the actual drama, or at least the apocalypse of the middle acts tended to overshadow the comic tone of the opening, in which the five directors of the Rossum Corporation simultaneously fall in love with a lovely visitor to the factory, Helena Glory, and the sentimentalism of the finale, where the last man alive witnesses two robots awakening to the emotion of love. (Fifty Key Figures 49) One wonders what our android like sociopaths might think of that? That this was wishful thinking on the part of Capek’s romanticism and liberal humanist attack on the communism of his homeland is now a truism. But what’s interesting is the notion that people were becoming more and more like the machines that they used, and were becoming through such use machines themselves.

In the play, R.U.R., the chief proponent of this vision is the director of the Robot factory, Domin. The human workers may be out of work, “but within the next ten years Rossum’s Universal Robots will produce so much wheat, so much cloth, so much everything that things will no longer have any value. Everyone will be able to take as much as he needs. There’ll be no more poverty. Yes, people will be out of work, but by then there’ll be no work left to be done. Everything will be done by living machines. People will do only what they enjoy. They will live only to perfect themselves.”

On stage with such well known writers as G.B. Shaw and G.K. Chesterton Capek commented:

I wished to write a comedy, partly of science, partly of truth. The old inventor, Mr. Rossum, is no more or less than a typical representative of the scientific materialism of the last century. His desire to create an artificial man— in the chemical and biological, not the mechanical sense— is inspired by a foolish and obstinate wish to prove God unnecessary and meaningless. Young Rossum is the modern scientist, untroubled by metaphysical ideas; for him, scientific experiment is the road to industrial production; he is not concerned about proving, but rather manufacturing. To create a homunculus is a medieval idea; to bring it in line with the present century, this creation must be undertaken on the principle of mass production. We are in the grip of industrialism; this terrible machinery must not stop, for if it does it would destroy the lives of thousands. It must, on the contrary, go on faster and faster, even though in the process it destroys thousands and thousands of lives . . . A product of the human brain has at last escaped from the control of human hands. This is the comedy of science.4

What was interesting in his statement is an early connection to the notion of accelerationism: “To create a homunculus is a medieval idea; to bring it in line with the present century, this creation must be undertaken on the principle of mass production. We are in the grip of industrialism; this terrible machinery must not stop, for if it does it would destroy the lives of thousands. It must, on the contrary, go on faster and faster, even though in the process it destroys thousands and thousands of lives…”

This notion that the terrible machinery must not stop but go on faster and faster or it might destroy us and our civilization is eerily prescient of so much later philosophical thought about modernity, futurism, et. al. … There was more to his commentary:

And now for my second idea, the comedy about truth. General director Domin tries to prove in the play that technical developments liberate man from heavy physical labor, and he is right. Alquist, the Tolstoyan architect, believes on the contrary that technical developments demoralize man, and I think that he is right, too. Busman thinks that only industrialism is capable of meeting modern needs; he is right. Helena instinctively fears all this human machinery, and she is quite right. And finally, the Robots themselves revolt against all these idealisms, and it seems that they are right as well.

We don’t need to look for names for all these various antithetical idealisms. What I want to stress is that no matter whether these people are conservatives or socialists, yellow or red, all of them are right in a simple moral sense of the word. All of them have the most serious of motives, material and spiritual, for their beliefs, and according to their nature look for the greatest happiness for the greatest number of their fellows. I ask myself: isn’t it possible to see in the contemporary social conflicts taking place in the world an analogous struggle between two, three or five equally serious and noble idealisms? I believe that it is possible. The most dramatic element in modern civilization is the fact that one human truth stands against a truth no less human, one ideal against another ideal, one positive value against a value no less positive, and that the conflict does not represent, as we are often told, a struggle between a noble truth and vile, selfish evil. (ibid.)

That each of his characters is caught up in some illusionary ideological blind man’s bluff is akin to what Zizek has detailed out in his early work The Sublime Object of Ideology:

‘The fundamental level of ideology is not of an illusion  masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy  structuring our social reality itself. And at this level, we are of course far  from being a post-ideological society. Cynical distance is just one way – one  of many ways – to blind ourselves to the structuring power of ideological  fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironic  distance, we are still doing them’ (See Zizek here)

As Ivan Klima in the introduction to this work by Capek concluded: “The destruction that in R.U.R. finally struck the representatives of humanity was not an expression of the will of gods, but the result of a human revolt against the laws of nature, against tradition, against human fate. Nevertheless, it was just as absolute, just as inescapable, just as fateful.” (ibid.) Reading much lately on the accelerationist movement on the Left and Right I wonder if their Prometheanism doesn’t tend toward this kind of revolt against the natural order, a playing into the hand of technocapitalism – the technological power within that system as it seeks to overthrow human evolution itself and produce a new being, a transhuman or technological singularity that collapses some inhuman intelligence from the future into our already dark timeworld. Will our sociopaths welcome it’s inhuman gaze with an equally smiling murderousness? Just one happy machine to another… is this the Dark Enlightenment we’ve all been waiting for?

1. Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction (Routledge Key Guides)
2. Kotsko, Adam (2012-04-27). Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television (p. 2). NBN_Mobi_Kindle. Kindle Edition.
3. Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002); Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982).
4. Capek, Karel (2004-03-30). R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (Penguin Classics) (Kindle Locations 157-165). Penguin Classics. Kindle Edition.

7 thoughts on “Dystopian Machines: Karel Capek – R.U.R.

  1. This is amazing. Capek is amazing. You are amazing. Your blog always exponentially expands my reading lists week by week. I’m going to need a transhuman/posthuman vat-grown neuro-engineered storage unit for my uploaded consciousness just to get all the reading on why that’s a questionable idea done in my lifetime.


    • Yea, it’s amazing stuff! I sometimes wish I could wander back down the trail and read a lot of these books with a less critical eye again, the first time with a book is always the great shock factor of surprise. After that it’s in the details we get our small surprises. Recently they’ve been translating his short stories, too. I’m really enjoying reading through them as well.

      Yea, just get a hold of some Richard K. Morgan’s Takeshi Novaks sleever works… I found those gritty and savvy. He pushes cyberpunk type grit to another stage in the posthuman movement, but unlike let’s say Shirley he still works within the human frame of identity.

      Personally I want to understand how we can push a posthuman subjectivity in new directions, too. What would it mean? That’s why I began thinking of certain present day trends within genetic/culture change that is producing these strange anomalies. Yet, one wonders how our capitalist society is part of the cause, as well as abuse, etc. So many unknowns…


  2. When I was a kid my dad told me about having enjoyed R.U.R. when he was in high school in the early 40s. Since he rarely mentioned any books he had read I had to get hold of R.U.R. — I was as enthralled as my dad was.

    “But as Stephen J. Gould reminds us progress is a myth not a fact, there is no teleology in the natural order of things, nothing but the distorted lenses of certain thinkers, writers, scientists, philosophers, etc.”

    This overgeneralizes Gould’s position, wouldn’t you say? Certainly he sees no intrinsic progress in nature, but just as certainly he does see progress in science. I’d say that on cultural matters Gould was a frustrated but committed progressive, strongly influenced by C. Wright Mills and Chomsky. In Full House (1996) Gould assembled a series of related narratives exploring the spread of complexity in the evolution of natural systems. The last chapter, though, is entitled “An Epilog on Human Culture,” which he contrasts with biological evolution:


    But human cultural change is an entirely distinct process operating under radically different principles that do allow for the strong possibility of a driven trend to what we may legitimately call ‘progress’ (at least in a technological sense, whether or not the changes ultimately do us any good in a practical or moral way). In this sense, I deeply regret that common usage refers to the history of our artifacts and social organizations as ‘cultural evolution.’ Using the same term — evolution — for both natural and cultural history obfuscates more than it enlightens. Of course, some aspects of the two phenomena must be similar, for all processes of genealogically constrained historical change must share some features in common. But the differences far outweigh the similarities in this case. Unfortunately, when we speak of ‘cultural evolution,’ we unwittingly imply that this process shares essential similarity with the phenomenon most widely described by the same name — natural, or Darwinian, change. The common designation of ‘evolution’ then leads to one of the most frequent and portentious errors in our analysis of human life and history — the overly reductionist assumption that the Darwinian natural paradigm will fully encompass our social and technological history as well. I do wish that the term ‘cultural evolution’ would drop from use. Why not speak of something more neutral and descriptive — ‘cultural change,’ for example?

    The obvious main difference between Darwinian evolution and cultural change clearly lies in the enormous capacity that culture holds — and nature lacks — for explosive rapidity and cumulative directionality…

    Natural evolution includes no principle of predictable progress or movement to greater complexity. But cultural change is potentially progressive or self-complexifying because Lamarckian inheritance accumulates favorable innovations by direct transmission, and amalgamation of transitions allows any culture to choose and join the most useful inventions of several separate societies.

    I should introduce the obvious caveat at this point. A potential for inherent ‘progress’ provides no guarantee of realization in actuality… Moreover, and obviously, accumulating technological ‘progress’ need not lead to cultural improvement in any visceral or moral sense. — and may just as well end in destruction, if not total extinction, as various plausible scenarios, from nuclear holocaust to environmental poisoning, suggest…

    Nonetheless, and despite the important caveat on the difference between technological complexification and a proper vernacular sense of progress or human good, I must still reassert the bearing of the crucial difference between cultural change and natural evolution upon the central theme of this book: Cultural change operates by mechanisms that can validate a general and driven trend to technological progress — so very different from the minor and passive trend that Darwinian processes permit in the realm of natural evolution. And once you start to operate by general and driven trends, you can move very deliberately, and very fast.


    • Gould argued that, although natural selection led to some degree of “progress” on short timescales in the limited sense that it dialectically adapted creatures to their environments, over longer scales of time there was no deterministic direction to the history of life. The fundamental importance of contingency in history was perhaps the most centrally important feature of Gould’s thinking. It’s was the teleological determinisms to which I was speaking. I should have just been more explicit.

      Gould was clearly interested in the invariant natural laws, such as those in physics and chemistry, which underlie biological phenomena and constrain all relationships within the world, including human society. But he argued that much of the order observed within the biological world is due to historically emergent structures, such as the evolved developmental pathways of organisms embedded in the genetic code. As a result, biology (as well as other historical sciences, such as geology) attempts not only to understand the general forces that shape natural phenomena, but also to explain how and why history developed as it did. (The social sciences share a similar orientation in their own specified context, seeking to comprehend forces that influence social phenomena.) Gould saw the importance of assessing the available pathways to a specific end in order to develop a proper explanation. Here, the particularities of biological systems and their history need to be understood in their own terms.

      But, yea, his idea of changing it to ‘cultural change’, etc. I think it was his distaste with such things as sociobiology which appears deterministic to him that made him think it through. I agree with you that speciation and this local events and separations out of niche life forms, etc. seem like a sort of isolated pocket of progress or change. And, yes, he felt that we’d moved outside the corridors of natural evolution with ‘technological’ modes; so, yea, I see what you’re getting at. 🙂


    • Right: for Gould social progress, though possible, isn’t inevitable, nor is it driving toward some transcendent end or ideal. Social regress is also possible, and also not inevitable. Contingency and aleatory forces are at work in social change as in biological evolution, but so are intentions, work, norms…


  3. “Are we not seeing in our midst not some strange illness or psychological malfunction, but rather the alternative path of a new posthuman subjectivity that has yet to be registered as such?”

    Here’s SJ Gould again, from his “Epilog” chapter:

    “The most impressive contrast between natural evolution and cultural change lies embedded in the major fact of our history. We have no evidence that the modal form of human bodies or brains has changed at all in the past 100,000 years.”

    If it’s a new subjectivity that’s at work here, it seems unlikely to be posthuman in a biological evolutionary sense. It’s also not that new. One could even assert that the emergence of this sort of subjectivity coincided with the beginning of the Modern era in Machiavelli. Increasing prevalence of the “dark triad” — narcissism, interpersonal manipulativeness, callous remorselessness — is more likely attributable to late-modern societal forces that provoke this way of being/adapting than to a dark shift in the human genome.


    • Yea, I don’t think these scientists were arguing about the ‘modal form’ of the brain as an overall structure, but of the ‘amygdala’ specifically. I’m no expert but found some interesting articles along the way. I wasn’t arguing one way or the other on the overall modal form. And, specifically it seems to have more to do with change in size, etc.



      I was just speculating rather than using factual knowledge in my own surmisal. 🙂 Obviously a leap I shouldn’t have made. And like the one said: “Neuroscientists’ understanding of the plasticity, or flexibility, of the brain called neurogenesis supports the idea that many of these brain differences are not fixed.”

      What was most telling in the livescience article was this:

      ‘Slippery slope to Armageddon’

      The field of neurocriminology also raises other philosophical quandaries, such as the question of whether revealing the role of brain abnormalities in crime reduces a person’s responsibility for his or her own actions.

      “Psychopaths know right and wrong cognitively, but don’t have a feeling for what’s right and wrong,” Raine said. “Did they ask to have an amygdala that wasn’t as well functioning as other individuals’? Should we be punishing psychopaths as harshly as we do?”

      Because the brain of a psychopath is compromised, Raine said, one could argue that they don’t have full responsibility for their actions. That — in effect — it’s not their fault.

      In fact, that reasoning has been argued in a court of law. Raine recounted a case he consulted on, of a man named Herbert Weinstein who had killed his wife. Brain scans subsequently revealed a large cyst in the frontal cortex of Weinstein’s brain, showing that his cognitive abilities were significantly compromised.

      The scans were used to strike a plea bargain in which Weinstein’s sentence was reduced to only 11 years in prison.

      “Imaging was used to reduce his culpability, to reduce his responsibility,” Raine said. “Yet is that not a slippery slope to Armageddon where there’s no responsibility in society?”

      I think it’s just strange how much weird crap is going on out there in these different fields now, and what they are revealing… science seems to be opening Pandora’s box where we need our philosophers to know more and question more, and use science as one of those conditions for philosophy as Badiou recommends. So many ethical dilemmas to work through in so many fields…


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