Skip to content

The Ordeal of Labor and the Birth of Robot Fiction

Juliane Strätz

Pages 633 - 648


This essay analyzes the depiction of artificial laborers in Karel Čapek’s play ‘R. U. R.’ (‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’). The play is informed by the wish to liberate humanity from work, as it degrades the individual. Nevertheless, since work needs to be done, artificial laborers are created. As they are not naturally born but artificially produced, humankind easily finds excuses to treat them as slaves. Moreover, the robots’ entire ‘raison d’être’ is utterly dependent on capitalistic enterprises. They become the materialization of the market’s demands. This dependency becomes even more obvious when the robots kill almost all humans, only to realize that they won’t be able to survive without the corporation they fought. The play is a first encounter with robots that dramatizes the capitalistic demands common in the early twentieth century. In doing so it is informed by ongoing industrialization and coupled with the horrors of WWI and a growing human sentiment against the devaluation of certain types of labor. This essay argues that the play offers a critique of the capitalist mode of mass production, which is influenced by the general perception, hopes, and fears generated by the quick progress of the U.S.-American Fordist economy.

1 Althusser, Louis. On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Trans. G. M. Goshgarian. London: Verso, 2014. Print.

2 Čapek, Karel. “The Author of the Robots Defends Himself.” Trans. Cyril Simsa. Science Fiction Studies 23.1 (1996): 143-44. Print.

3 ---. R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Trans. David Wyllie. Rockville, MD: Wildsidepress, 2010. Print.

4 Černy, František. “Die Bühnenwerke Karel Čapeks.” Maske und Kothurn: Internationale Beiträge zur Theater-, Film- und Medienwissenschaft 28.2 (1982): 125-42. Print.

5 Christoforou, Eftychios G., and Andreas Müller. “R. U. R. Revisited: Perspectives and Reflections on Modern Robotics.” International Journal of Social Robotics 8.2 (2016): 237-46. Print.

6 Cooper, Melinda. Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era. Seattle, WA: U of Washington P, 2008. Print.

7 Elbe, Ingo. “Entfremdete und abstrakte Arbeit: Marx’ Ökomonisch-philosophische Manuskripte im Vergleich zu seiner späteren Kritik der politischen Ökonomie.” Rote Ruhr Uni. Rote Ruhr Uni, 2017. Web. 29 Oct. 2017.

8 Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1995. Print.

9 Hampl, Patricia. “Comeback for Čapek.” New York Times 22 Dec. 2002. Web. 14 Sept. 2017.

10 Hegel, Georg Friedrich Wilhelm. Phenomenology of Spirit. Transl. A. V. Miller. Oxford: OUP, 1977. Print.

11 Horáková, Jana, and Jozef Kelemen. “Artificial Living Beings and Robots: One Root, Variety of Influences.” Artificial Life Robotics 13 (2009): 555-60. Print.

12 ---. “Čapek, Turing, von Neumann, and the 20th-Century Evolution of Machine.” International Conference in Memoriam of John von Neumann. Hotel Nemzeti, Budapest. 12 Dec. 2003. Talk. Conferences and Symposia @ Óbuda University. Web. 14 Sept. 2017.

13 Jaeggi, Rahel. Alienation. Trans. Frederick Neuhouser and Alan E. Smith. Ed. Frederick Neuhouser. New York, NY: Columbia UP, 2014. Print.

14 Kapila, Vikram. “Introduction to Robotics.” NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Web. 28 October 2017. Power Point presentation.

15 Kinyon, Kamila. “The Phenomenology of Robots: Confrontations with Death in Karel Čapek’s ‘R. U. R.’” Science Fiction Studies 26.3 (1999): 379-400. Print.

16 Kunow, Rüdiger. “Wertkörper: Zur Ökonomisierung des menschlichen Körpers im Zeichen von Globalisierung und Neoliberalismus.” Prokla: Zeitschrift für kritische Sozialwissenschaft 178.1 (2015): 51-66. Print.

17 Lieber, Marlon. “Rural Electrification Plus Government Power: Leo Marx, the Materialist Dialectic, and Power and the Land.” Rereading The Machine in the Garden: Nature and Technology in American Culture. Eds. Eric Erbacher, Nicole Maruo-Schröder, and Florian Sedlmeier. Frankfurt a. M.: Campus Verlag, 2014. 101-20. Print.

18 Marx, Karl. Capital Volume I. Trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin Books, 1990. Print.

19 ---. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Trans. T. B. Bottomore. Marx’s Concept of Man. Including ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.’ Ed. Erich Fromm. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. Print.

20 ---. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft). Trans. Martin Nicolaus. London: Penguin Books, 1973. Print.

21 McNally, David. Monsters of the Market. Zombies and Vampires and Global Capitalism. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2011. Print.

22 Miller, Arthur. Foreword. Toward a Radical Center: A Karel Čapek Reader. Ed. Peter Kussi. North Haven, CT: Catbird, 1990. Google Books. Web. 14 Sept. 2017.

23 Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1947. Print.

24 Ollman, Bertell. Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1971. Print.

25 Ramírez, J. Jesse. “Marcuse among the Technocrats: America, Automation, and Postcapitalist Utopias, 1900-1941.” Amerikastudien / American Studies 57.1 (2012): 31–50. Print.

26 Rose, Nikolas. The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2007. Print.

27 “R. U. R.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 27 August 2017. Web. 14 Sept. 2017.

28 Sayers, Sean. Marx and Alienation: Essays on Hegelian Themes. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 30 July 2017.

29 Sohn-Rethel, Alfred. Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology. Trans. Martin Sohn-Rethel. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1978. Print.

30 Sunder Rajan, Kaushik. Biocapital: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2006. Print.

31 ---. Lively Capital: Biotechnologies, Ethics, and Governance in Global Markets. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2012. Print.

32 Thiele, Eckhard. Karel Čapek. Leipizig: Reclam, 1988. Print.


Export Citation