Westworld as the Internal Enemy

I have a notes document on my iPhone that keeps track of scenes from tv shows and movies that I might want to incorporate into my classes. (I’ve blogged about my use of these video clips at the Junto.) Let’s just say that I made quite a few entries while watching HBO’s Westworld this last week. (I know–I’m somewhat late to the game.) There is plenty of tensions and anxieties displayed in the series that could work with a wide range of historical topics. One of the most obvious is its engagement with determinism, which I plan to invoke when discussing predestination with my American religious history students in the future. There are several clips that contain poignant rumination on free will, choices, and liberty that should start a good discussion. But one theme stood particularly prominent for me: the fear of insurrection.

(Quick side note: finding usable clips from this series is especially challenging for two reasons. First, a number of important speeches take place in the presence of grotesque nudity, like when the discussion of the confederados and their lost cause is framed by a friggin’ orgy; and second, many of the other significant quotes are tethered to plot spoilers. Why didn’t the series’s creators think of the classroom?!?!?)

We spend quite a bit of time on slavery in my US history survey courses. (According to some of my more critical students, sometimes a bit too much time.) I think it’s essential to emphasize how central the slave institution was to American culture prior to the Civil War. And one of those elements is the slaveowners’ constant fear that their slaves might one day rise up and kill them. This was a constant anxiety during the American Revolution, as several recent books have highlighted. When writing to a fellow Virginian slaveholder about rumored slave insurrections, James Madison counseled that, “It is prudent such things should be concealed as well as suppressed.” The next year he similarly remarked that if word of their vulnerable position spread, “we shall fall like Achilles by the hand of one that knows that secret.” Alan Taylor’s award-winning Internal Enemy charts how deep this fear went during America’s first half-decade.

Previously, I’ve referenced Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained when discussing this fear. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is laughably ahistorical, but the bloody fighting scenes were a fun way to emphasize slaveholders’ consistent nightmares. But Westworld captures the anxiety just as well. Consider this scene:

“The only thing stopping the hosts from hacking us to pieces is one line of your code.”

This fear is present throughout the entire season. Humans are surrounded by those that could be their executioners. This required a careful implementation of rules, regulations, and protocols—in other words, slave codes—to make sure everything stayed in control. But there was always the legitimate concern that too much time, too much suffering, and too much punishment would eventually lead to a bloody apocalypse. In nineteenth-century America, many anti-slavery advocates, even those who retained racist theories concerning black potential, wanted to disband the practice because it was destined to climax in a war for extermination. It’s clear that those who worked in Westworld feared the same.

Even the fictional Dr. Robert Ford’s theory on the importance of suffering—and I’m trying not to give spoilers!—had historical echoes. Here, for instance, is Thomas Jefferson on why descendants of slaves could never integrate into a society with descendants of slaveholders:

Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expense of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one or the other race.

Memory of suffering, according to Jefferson, was a primary mover of the human will. Dr. Ford would have agreed.

The analogy could of course be taken so far. The past few decades of scholarship on slavery have sought to emphasize the agency of enslaved persons, so I admit that it may very well flirt with the respectability line to bring up any comparison to quasi-sentient beings. And associating humans with robots who were created solely for the purpose of their creators is itself an extension of the slaveholding mentality. So it is important to emphasize the differences here in order to make a clear point. But if we can compartmentalize the issues and focus on a historical feeling, there are usable tools for the classroom.

And for a show that seems at least partly dedicated to exploring the limits and purposes of feelings, that seems appropriate.

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