Race and Computation: An Existential Phenomenological Inquiry Concerning Man, Mind, and the Body

Dilan D. Mahendran. Race and Computation: An Existential Phenomenological Inquiry Concerning Man, Mind, and the Body. Ph.D. dissertation. Advisors: Paul Duguid and Kimiko Ryokai. University of California, Berkeley. 2011.


This dissertation is concerned with two phenomena, race and computation, their emergence in modernity and their convergence today in our modern technological epoch. From the perspective of the traditional disciplines the concepts of race and computation are wholly incommensurable. Formally, race refers to a hierarchical taxonomic schema for classifying humans while computation refers to the formal mathematical logic of digital machines. I argue that race and computation share a peculiar modern conception of the body in relation to cognition. According to this modern schema one is more fully human if one appears toward the pole of the mind and therefore less or not human at all if one appears toward the pole of the body. It is this artificially strained relation between the body and the mind that had come to define the human in modernity and persists in our current epoch. In this way race became the measurement of the polarity between the mind and the body and as such the modern measure of humanity.

The distinction that race makes is not lost in computation because it inherits this narrow model of the human as animal rationale and mechanizes it. I argue that this defining characteristic of the modern human as rational is both computational and racial and finds itself historically anchored in the normative conception of the human as Man [homo humanus]. My chief aim in this dissertation is not to indict modern technology as racist but to show how race and computation reveal the bipolar aspects of our normative schema for human being, one that has had a long "romance with disembodiment."1 Could both race and modern technology share a common origin in Western modernity? Could race and computation share a fundamental philosophical ground which the sciences themselves take as a priori? More urgently, what could race and modern computational machinery tell us about what it means to be human in our current age? Does the origin of the modern subject lay the framework for both the development of race and computation?

These radically disparate objects, race and computation, are grounded on a peculiar relationship between Man, his body, and thinking. By Man, I mean what has come to be accepted as the modern norm for human-being, the autonomous rational animal. The concept of the rational animal places thinking, the sine qua non of the secular human, in opposition to the body. The basis of my argument is that the historical idea of Man, as the secular human, had been developed through the violent devolution of bodily experience, in favor of detached calculative rationality, from which computation and race have emerged. This has placed Man over and against the natural world that extends beyond the mind, especially the body and others who are constituted outside the norm of Man. It is well known that Descartes inaugurates the modern concept of Man as the thinking subject by articulating this norm as the distinction between mind as thinking substance [res cogitans] and everything external to mind [res extensa].

I argue that this normative distinction between mind and body finds a more radical expression in Alan M. Turing's concept of the digital computer, a founding theory of computer science and information technology. On the one hand the digital computer decouples the bodily from existence, proof of the teleological development of a technological rational humanity. On the other hand, race limits existence to the bodily, as a fundamental barrier to humanity. It can be said that modern computation is the angelic ascent from one's body, while race is the hellish descent into one's body.


Last updated:

September 20, 2016