JHI-CDHI Digital Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow, 2022-2023

April 27, 2022 by Sonja Johnston

The JHI is excited to announce our 2022-23 JHI-CDHI Digital Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow—Khanh V.N. Vo. Khanh will join us during our Labour theme year.

Khanh Vo (Ph.D. College of William and Mary, 2021) completed her doctorate in American Studies and has consistently worked toward a career that spans academic teaching, public history, and the digital humanities, which she approaches through the lens of digital culture, game studies, and scientific and technological discourse. She was a founding member of the Equality Lab at William and Mary College, a collaborative and interdisciplinary digital humanities hub devoted to ethical and inclusive principles, and throughout her doctoral career has engaged in cross-cohort and interdisciplinary mentoring with fellow graduate and undergraduate students, faculty, and library staff on a variety of projects that sought to bring digital humanities work to the wider public audience.  Her research examines how the labor of marginalized groups can be understood through the discourse of robotics and automation, and more broadly, how discourses on robotics within the humanities and within science and technology communities have diverged.

Fellowship Project

“All the Work Without the Workers:” Robotic Labor in the America Imaginary

My dissertation argues that the technological and mechanical labor we have come to expect from our machines and robots has always been enacted onto the bodies of marginalized American laborers. I critically re-examine American labor history through the ideologies and mechanisms of deskilling and dehumanizing labor practices. Through archival research and visual analysis, I show the historical relationship between mechanization and human labor by using the figure of the robot to think through how the posthumanism of the past is both raced and gendered. The arguments are based on a survey of varied sources ranging from 19th century advertisements to 21st century films. As a result of this intensive research, my project offers new interdisciplinary interpretations for the history of human-machine labor.

During my fellowship, I will transform this dissertation work into a book manuscript and publish an article based on one chapter. The book will be the first monograph to comprehensively connect different domains of labor performed by people of color within situations of biopolitical precarity. I utilize three case studies of the marginalized workers (the enslaved worker, the (im)migrant worker, and the domestic worker) to examine human-machine interaction, cooperation, and co-existence. Through these case studies, this project examines how the processes of mechanization are superimposed onto laboring bodies while at the same time maintaining a continual denial of their mechanized bodies. By looking at who has been marginalized and their labor erased and eclipsed, my project emphasizes colonialism's continued influence to reframe and decentralize bodies of color and the racial and gendered violence done to them. The recognition of our robotic or cyborg self and all its hybridity dismantles the power structures that place the Western subject (and the human itself) at the ontological center of the ecosystem.