Stephen Harper as Killer Robot
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Stephen Harper as Killer Robot

Stephen harper is not a killer robot,” claims a Tumblr blog that was active in 2011 to 2012. The subheader stresses the blog’s ironic tone: “Why would you even think that?” (Caribou). In popular culture and public discourse, especially on the Internet, the image of Canada’s former Prime Minister Stephen Harper is conspicuously characterized and caricatured as robotic and sinister. The critical popular representations of Harper that have proliferated in memes, social posts, and websites, as well as citizen journalism and mainstream news media, have prominently featured tropes of automation and automatism: zombies, Frankenstein monsters, cyborgs, and, above all, robots. Amidst popular culture’s hordes of anthropomorphized robots, Harper attained a peculiarly converse characterization as a robotized anthropomorph.

Whether it is made of metal, flesh, plastic, or software, the robot in popular culture is often characterized by two recurring features: first, it is manufactured by humans; second, it lacks human feeling or is even more radically non-human in its subjectivity. Take, for instance, the replicants devoid of empathy in Blade Runner; the relentlessly genocidal machines of The Terminator; the coolly dispassionate Star Trek android character, Data; the Cylons whom humans denigrate as “toasters” in Battlestar Galactica; and the renegade artificial intelligences (ais) in 2001, The Matrix, Her, [End Page 175] Ex Machina, and Transcendence—while some of these latter ai figures evince or simulate affect, they more importantly behave in ways radically unknowable to humans. Furthermore, many robot figures in popular culture uncannily resemble humans, even as their radically non-human subjectivity threatens humankind (Vint 119).

Since the period of the Luddite revolts, when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein (1818), the figure of the automaton has furnished a cultural touchstone for popular anxieties about labour under industrial capital—about both the dehumanization of labour and the threat of its usurpation by automation. Frankenstein’s monster stands at the head of a long line of successor automaton figures in popular culture, including the zombie as a vapid, automaton-like figure of alienated labour (McNally 258) and the robot, which, as Susan Tyler Hitchcock reminds us, Karl Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R. introduced to popular culture as a specific adaptation of Frankenstein’s creature (Hitchcock 136), and which, as Sherryl Vint reminds us, Čapek named with a word derived from the Czech word for “worker” (120). Since that introduction and coinage, popular culture has produced generations of variously mechanical, organic, and hybrid humanoid simulacra, androids, automata, replicants, and clones.

In something of a departure from the tradition in which the robot represents socio-economic anxieties about the automation of labour and ensuing loss of livelihood (Vint 119, McCutcheon and Barnetson 152), the image of Stephen Harper as killer robot figures anxieties about the automation of governance and ensuing loss of democracy. The image of Harper as robot provides a suggestive case for analyzing Canadian popular culture and the spectre of an automated body politic. This essay documents and theorizes the pattern of critical representations of the Harper government of 2006 to 2015 in popular culture, especially in digital media. Focusing on critical popular representations of the Harper government means simply focusing on texts, statements, and other cultural productions of criticism of and opposition to that government.1

The popular image of Harper as a robot arose in satirical representations of his public persona as awkward and distant. This image also represents a critical response to Harper’s particular brand of conservatism, which combined “disciplinary neoliberalism” (Smith, “The Rise” [End Page 176] para 14) and its established prioritization of corporate business interests (interests that are exclusively profit-oriented and consequently devoid of empathy; see Achbar and Abbot), and a correspondingly austere fiscal conservatism, with an evangelical-populist social conservatism characterized by an unsympathetic intolerance for minoritized and marginalized groups, an intolerance fomented amidst the Orwellian “war on terror” of the early twenty-first century. In addition, Harper’s leadership not only transformed Canadian conservatism but also transformed political campaigning (Livesey) via technologies of computing and automation that drew public comment and controversy, such as advanced data mining and robocalls. Furthermore, the Harper government’s sometimes seemingly single-minded prioritization...


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