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The Social Robot as Fetish? Conceptual Affordances and Risks of Neo-Animistic Theory

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The paper investigates a recent debate on ‘new animism’ in anthropology and related fields with regard to social robots. The conceptual potential of neo-animistic thought, especially when combined with Bruno Latour’s critique of modernity, is demonstrated and exemplified by referring to a phenomenon tentatively called Japanese techno-animism. In this context, Japan figures both as an actual place with specific traditions and idiosyncrasies and as a model of thought allowing to concretize several theoretical arguments, including a softening of the nature-culture boundary. The paper proceeds to warn about a tendency to fetishize technical objects, which entails the danger of focusing too much attention on the latter while foregoing to consider power relations and normative settings working in the background. This critical argument is supported by a discussion of the Elfoid prototype, which is a smartphone-social robot hybrid, developed in the Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratory. Missing from the debate on ‘new animism’ is a consideration of the risk of fetishization which can be understood as a kind of corrupted animism (Alf Hornborg). Thus, the conceptual affordances of neo-animistic theory have to be confronted with potential blind spots that become evident when approached from a critically modern perspective.

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  1. For a recent comparison of Japanese and UK attitudes towards humanoid robots challenging some of Kaplan’s theses cf. Syrdal et al. [6].

  2. The labelling is somewhat unhelpful as Bird-David in her often-cited article already points to the existence of a field of study under the same name that includes contributions mainly from the 1980s and 1990s [14]. This circumstance underlines the limited usefulness of employing the ‘new’ attribute as an inherent phenomenal trait.

  3. The notions of interdependency, reciprocity, iterative feedback and mutual responsiveness used by Bird-David in her description of Nayaka epistemology are quite similar to ideas expressed in the debate on cybernetics from the 1940s, most prominently in Bateson’s work [15]. Cybernetics and animism further share a disregard for ontological separations but rather focus on entities in mutual exchanges of actions and reactions, regardless of their being human or non-human.

  4. Non-modern is here used in Latour’s sense as a descriptor of practices that do not conform to modern ontological separations. It is not strictly a historical term [20, p. 87].

  5. It has to be noted though that in animistic ontologies personhood is usually not evenly distributed among entities, but concentrated on those that are important for specific communities.

  6. Having said this, the purported distanced stance of the Western scientist must itself be scrutinized more closely. On the level of epistemic practice and practical laboratory work, fusions between scientists and their subjects regularly occur [21, 22]. This is consistent with Latour’s finding that unacknowledged, mute practices often create hybrids that are not represented in the modern constitution.

  7. Peil refers to Morley and Robin’s concept of techno-orientalism [27] which itself has been inspired by Said’s work on orientalism. She warns against the tendency of Westerners to make other cultures the target of projections and attributions that they are powerless to escape. Japan is thus often stylized as progressive, future-oriented and prone to gadgets like mobile phones, robots and personal entertainment technologies.

  8. Especially the case of AIBO is instructive in this regard as it has been endowed with notions of Shinto through Frédéric Kaplan, Sony engineer hailing from Switzerland [20, p. 101f.]. The biographical anecdote is important as it points to the interconnections between Japanese and Western design and marketing philosophies and the rather conscious—and successful—accessing of cultural clichés.

  9. Diffraction as a theoretical device was first proposed by Haraway as an alternative to the more traditional practices of intellectual reflection. The purpose of diffraction is the creation of interference patterns, i.e. a critical intervention into technoscientific practices [31, p. 16]. The authors adopt the notion of cosmograms from Tresch who understands them as “external depictions of the elements of the cosmos and the connections among them” [32, p. 92] created within specific human groups. Cosmograms are materially grounded entities that present a totality and thus allow an anthropologist to get a sense of cosmological topographies, especially by comparing the vistas offered by multiple cosmograms. Thus, “an ordinary object may contain an entire cosmos” while “a cosmos may be treated as just another thing” [32, p. 84].

  10. Latour sometimes draws on pre-modern examples to support his ecotheological argument, e.g. Christian theology before its ‘privatization’, i.e. the historical developments that led to Christianity becoming increasingly concerned with individual salvation rather than with the whole of Creation [34, p. 464].

  11. This attempt resulted in the Geminoid HI-1 and Geminoid F models, among others [38, 39].

  12. This approach can be seen as an attempt to sidestep the well-known Uncanny Valley problem [40] by reducing the human-likeness of the robots to a functional minimum.

  13. An important historical origin of the Japanese tradition to design artifacts resembling human beings is the Karakuri Ningyo (

    figure b

    ), mechanical automata used mainly in the 18th and 19th century. The devices served purposes of entertainment in the theatre and the home as well as folkloristic functions.

  14. Ishiguro repeatedly makes references to the ‘phantom poke’ phenomenon that he purportedly experienced when operating his Geminoid robot twin while it is punched by someone [48].

  15. This would be a rather generic animistic interpretation, understood as “the belief in the existence of a separable soul-entity, potentially distinct and apart from any concrete embodiment in a living individual or material organism” [49, quoted in 8, p. 67].

  16. As the authors use social robots, specifically AIBO and Paro, as examples for “differently actualized cosmograms indicative of Shinto techno-animist legacies in contemporary Japan” [20, p. 102], analyzing Elfoid in this respect is suggestive.

  17. For the various histories of fetishism and an attempt of synthesizing them with respect to their underlying cognitive processes cf. Ellen [63].

  18. Money may serve as an excellent example of this surprising convergence of two otherwise incommensurate approaches. It is something undoubtedly fabricated in whose autonomous value people strongly believe—thus it acts as a stabilizer of societal value relations.

  19. A similar argument is already made by Pfaffenberger [68], who argues for the need of an anthropology of technology that is able to see technology as a total social fact in the sense proposed by Mauss.

  20. Hornborg’s departure from the Latourian premise of non-differentiation between nature and culture [23, p. 29f.], which enables him to analytically differentiate types of animated entities in the first place, is inconsistent, as Jensen and Blok [20, p. 90] point out. I would add that it speaks to the conceptual hurdles posed by a neo-animistic approach that wants to keep a critical distance.

  21. Haraway also uses Marx as key reference to investigate more deeply the hybrid fetishes of technoscience and to inquire for whom and how they work, rather than just describing them, as Latour would have it [31, p. 280].


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I thank Anders Blok, Anna Henkel, Casper Bruun Jensen and two anonymous reviewers for critical comments and suggestions to this paper.

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Kaerlein, T. The Social Robot as Fetish? Conceptual Affordances and Risks of Neo-Animistic Theory. Int J of Soc Robotics 7, 361–370 (2015).

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