Author’s Note: This essay is the first in a series introducing a cognitive/psychosocial dynamic theory based in part on insights developed through my reflections on the uncanny valley and its intersection with my experiences living as a black woman in the United States.
I have chosen to call this theory, which was developed over the course of several years, the Uncanny Perception-Cognition Theory since the notion of the uncanny valley was the final magical ingredient that brought clarity to my ruminations about the psychosocial dynamics of racism. This is first and foremost a theory of cognition grounded in the philosophy of mind. It is not an aesthetic theory.
As will become clear throughout this series, this theory is actually a synthesis of a number of other theories from a variety of fields including cognitive, social and developmental psychology, critical race theory, intercultural development theory, artificial intelligence, epistemology, philosophy of mind, biology, and physics. Details on how the theory was developed including additional references will be found in Part 9: Reflections and End Notes.
The Uncanny Valley
The Uncanny Valley refers to a strong feeling of revulsion one experiences when a non-human object begins to resemble a human being. The negative feelings are a response to the person’s inability to resolve the cognitive dissonance created by what the brain perceives as a visual distortion.
In 2014, a study by the University of Virginia found that between the ages of 7 and 10, white children internalize the belief that black people experience less pain. This notion that black people experience less pain is a frighteningly common one that is held by white and black Americans alike. What this study revealed is how incredibly early this belief is internalized by white children in particular. Previous studies with African American children, particularly the black doll-white doll test, show that black American children start to internalize negative beliefs about black people as early as four years of age.
The mirror neuron response is a key component of how humans develop a universal theory of mind. That is, an understanding that others have a mind similar to one’s own, and have similar experiences of the world, including, of course, the perception of pain. Having a theory of mind is critical for healthy human functioning given that we are social animals. Without a robust theory of mind, a complete and coherent cognition of reality becomes impossible.
While there is still some ongoing debate among researchers about what this lack of a mirror neuron response actually really does to human cognition, we can infer what it does by analyzing how humans respond to objects for which they naturally lack a mirror neuron response, as will be clarified momentarily.
My conjecture, and the central idea of this theory, is that without the deeper automatic (visceral, unconscious) cognition of black people as really human, the normal unconditioned subjectivity response (i.e., the empathic/mirror-neuron response) is replaced by the unconditioned objectivity response as reflected in the uncanny perception-cognition schema. Note that none of the objects in the uncanny schema outside of the zone of humanity (see diagram below) tend to elicit an empathic mirror neuron response in a healthy human mind.
Minds versus People
At this point in the discussion it is important that I clarify my use of various terms. Throughout this series I will speak of minds and people. Moreover, I will speak of white minds and purple minds*, and white people and black people.
White minds is not equivalent to white people nor is purple minds equivalent to black people. Humans of any race may have either mind.
The white mind has been defined as “the mind conditioned by bias that believes that some humans feel less pain.” As this discussion is explicitly about the perception and cognition that minds develop under white supremacy, I have called this mind a white mind.
The purple mind has been defined as “the mind unconditioned by bias that believes that all humans feel equal pain.” (This notion of a *purple mind is a direct reference to the results of this research paper).
To illustrate more clearly how this uncanny perception-cognition schema is operationalized under white supremacy, let us take a moment to consider history and its intersection with the elements of the uncanny valley diagram.
The industrial revolution in the Americas began not with the steam engine or the cotton gin, but with the advent of the slave trade, and particularly the enslavement of Africans. Africans were not viewed as or treated as human beings, rather they were regarded as a kind of organic industrial humanoid robot.
This notion that Africans were more robot than people gives another context for explaining how and why the white mind invented the illness “drapetomania” to explain the behavior of runaway slaves. Robots do not exercise free will (at least, not yet…), they simply malfunction. Even the average life span of a slave brought from Africa to the Americas was comparable to that of an advanced industrial robot – approximately 8 – 10 years. [As an aside, though committed racists are likely to miss the point entirely by pointing out that the life span of a slave was frequently longer in the United States, even that extended life span still matches that of a well-maintained industrial robot. The Babe does her research.]
The slope on the left side of the uncanny valley diagram represents the diminishment of black life under white supremacy. I call this section of the diagram Humanoid Hill.
The Valley of Death (or more simply, the death trap) follows Humanoid Hill, and when we consider the facts of history this makes perfect sense. The industrialized slave trade generated literally millions of dead black bodies during the three hundred plus years that it existed in the Americas.
The Zone of Humanity emerges from the valley of death, and it is within this limited range that the empathic human response actually operates. The actions of white supremacy can be seen as an ongoing effort to keep black humans permanently stuck atop humanoid hill. Any attempts to ascend to the zone of humanity is thwarted by the existence of the uncanny death trap.
This social/industrial process of converting African humans from humanoid robots into dead bodies is what I have come to think of as The Corpse Factory. (Humanoid Hill + Valley of Death = Corpse Factory).
The Corpse Factory
The United States of America maintained the African corpse factory for well over three hundred years. As such, for the white mind, the African corpse factory is a part of its experience of cognitive equilibrium. Indeed, the greatest disequilibrium the US has ever experienced was due to the disruption of the corpse factory process, and equilibrium was quickly restored post-disruption with the implementation of Jim Crow laws.
Because of the duration of its existence, corpse factory cognition and culture is deeply embedded in the white mind’s collective unconscious. This is readily apparent in America’s toxic culture of overwork and lack of care, both of which emerge from the fact that the enslaved African became and remains the unconscious prototype for the “hard worker” under white supremacy.
The contemporary manifestation of corpse factory work culture is perhaps most readily apparent when one reflects on the disproportionate power that employers continue to exercise over the lives of their employees, especially as reflected in the fact that health care for the majority of employees in the US is entirely dependent on their employer. This directly mirrors the historical reality that the welfare of enslaved Africans was entirely dependent on the will or ability of their owners to provide healthcare.
Similarly, the lack of a living wage, paid sick leave, maternity leave, and minimal vacation time that a large pluarilty of workers currently experience are also all artifacts of a work culture built on slavery. That the United States continues to be the only developed nation that lacks these basic guarantees for workers shows the extent to which the United States remains beholden to the uncanny perception of workers as essentially expendable, much as slaves were.
In a non-trivial sense, the culture of work in the United States has never fully evolved beyond that of the corpse factory, particularly for workers who do not occupy the professional/owner class. Indeed, a stronger argument could probably be made that America’s work culture actually values slaves more than wage earners precisely because they did not have to pay the former. As such the lingering effect of romanticized slavery is an ongoing diminishment for the value of paid labor by the American ruling class.
To the white mind, black humans are supposed to be either obedient humanoid robots, or dead bodies. As such it is unable to assimilate into its perception-cognition schema the reality of a black person with full agency.
Such a being creates epistemic disequilibrium (i.e. cognitive dissonance) and ultimately, revulsion for the white minds that are fully conditioned by white supremacy. Should a black human create such disequilibrium by displaying ordinary humanity, the white mind will seek to restore equilibrium by diminishing and dismissing the black person, or demanding immediate robotic compliance to white authority. And, should non-compliance continue, the penalty is usually death or imprisonment. Sandra Bland’s violent interaction with law enforcement over a minor traffic violation is one of many vivid examples of this.
Again, I want to be clear that I am not using the uncanny perception-cognition schema as mere rhetorical device or analogy. I am making a much stronger argument, namely that the uncanny perception-cognition schema is actually operational in the unconscious minds of all people conditioned by supremacy, and thus animates their behavior in ways that they are frequently unaware of.
When we consider the many irrational beliefs that white people often have about black humans, the truth of this becomes even more clear.
The man who murdered Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. believed he had to kill him because Michael was getting ready to turn around and run through a hail of gun fire. If you viscerally understand that Mike Brown is a human being, such a belief is patently absurd. If on the other hand you unconsciously believe that Mike Brown is actually some kind of robot, such actions make perfect sense.
To be clear, the particular subhuman being attached to black bodies in the white mind’s imaginary is continually shifting to include everything from wild animals to monsters and spirits, but the fundamental understanding that whiteness attaches to black bodies is actually that of a humanoid robot.
Wild animals and even monsters are understood to be capable of feeling pain and as such white minds actually are capable of empathizing with them as outrage over the death of Harambe and Cecil the lion show, and the popularity of stories like Beauty and The Beast or even the Hunchback of Notre Dame also show that white minds believe that even monsters have some sort of emotional life and can experience pain as they do. No such grace, however, is extended to the black human by the white imaginary. Why? Because neither robots nor dead bodies feel pain.
The Sunken Place (aka The Valley of Death)
In the movie Get Out, the conceit of “the sunken place” is analagous to the death trap. Those who have seen the movie might also take note of where zombie is located in relation to the death trap in the uncanny diagram. In the movie, black people’s minds are destroyed so that the white mind can take over and animate the black person’s body. The resulting black human becomes stuck in the death trap located somewhere between a puppet and a zombie.
The reason why this movie has become so compelling for African Americans is that any black person who becomes fully conscious of white perceptions develops an implicit understanding of its “contours”. What they are often unaware of is that the white mind’s perception of them is actually based on this uncanny perception-cognition schema.
As will be discussed in the next essay in this series, this notion of mind invasion illustrated in the movie is actually a real cognitive artifact that is physically embedded in the uncanny perception-cognition schema. That is, it is an inevitable component of this kind of uncanny cognition.
The machinations of white supremacist politics in black life are also evident in the uncanny perception-cognition schema. This becomes especially clear when we consider where puppets are located on the uncanny valley diagram in relation to healthy humans and the zone of humanity.
If corpse factory cognition is particularly evident in conservative white political culture as epitomized by their support of the for-profit prison industry and poverty wages, then puppetry perception is perhaps the hallmark of racist liberal political culture which tacitly uses the threat of the death trap perpetuated by their conservative white brethren as a tool for demanding black compliance.
White liberals often pat themselves on the back because they do not explicitly endorse corpse factory culture and policies. Nevertheless, the manner and tone that they often adopt when interacting with black people, including their expectation of deference, reveal that they still view black people as fundamentally diminished and lacking in autonomy.
The uncanny perception-cognition schema also clarifies why permanent political and socioeconomic disenfranchisement of black people is necessary under white supremacy. By denying the black community the resources it needs for a plurality of its population to ascend to the zone of humanity, white society guarantees that black people will always be available for exploitation as fodder for the ongoing machinations of the highly profitable corpse factory.
Needless to say, since black people are actually humans, this ongoing social and cognitive diminishment gives rise to ongoing conflict.
In Part 2: Instrumental Mind, I will examine elements of the psychological framework that underlies the uncanny perception-cognition schema.