Black Panther: Machines as the Measure of Civilization

Black Panther: Machines as the Measure of Civilization June 15, 2018

No spoilers, I promise!

On a recent flight overseas, I noticed someone watching the Disney film Black Panther on the seat back TV monitor. I had seen the movie some weeks back and thought it was a good action movie. However, there’s an aspect of the film that always bothered me.

Techno-Fetishism: It’s Not Just For the Future Anymore

In the film, the nation of Wakanda is a hidden civilization whose monopoly on an element known as vibranium has produced a technologically advanced utopia free of poverty and sickness. The secret kingdom is shown as a gleaming, futuristic city with flying cars; the king’s sister is a scientist whose lab churns out indestructible battle costumes and instantly restores bullet-severed spinal cords.

The irony is that scientific advancement has long been the basis for the West’s disdain for African civilizations. The Enlightenment program that gave us scientific inquiry was riddled with racism, and one of the aims of its drive to classify natural phenomena was to “discover” racial and social hierarchies that validated the existing social order in Europe.

In his intellectual history of European colonialism Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance, Rutgers University professor of history Michael Adas points out that European modes of scientific thinking became the standard for measuring the degree to which non-Europeans could be considered civilized. This criterion, not surprisingly, was used to characterize Africans as subhuman savages motivated by superstition rather than science:

European perceptions of African religious beliefs, marriage patterns, and political institutions continued to be the main attributes by which African societies were evaluated. But in an age that celebrated reason and insisted upon the application of scientific procedures to the study of humanity, inventiveness and especially the capacity for scientific thinking grew in importance as gauges of African achievement and potential. Unlike most travelers of the early period of expansion, eighteenth-century observers provided fairly detailed descriptions of African tools, and an apparently low level of technological development became for the first time important supporting evidence for claims that Africans were inherently inferior to Europeans. Though discussions of their science remained rare and brief, African medical practices and views of such natural phenomena as eclipses received some attention. More critically, in view of the growing debate over the quality of the Africans’ mental endowment, numerous eighteenth-century writers tackled the question of their capacity for scientific thinking. Scientific criteria also began to shape European attitudes in a very different way as a small minority of authors, claiming to be scientists or to be using scientific procedures, set out to demonstrate empirically that African were a different species from Europeans.

And this way of thinking was so self-validating that it conditioned European expectations of the aptitudes and abilities of Africans in general. When presented with disconfirming evidence of their beliefs about Africans, such as the architectural marvels of the Great Zimbabwe ruins, Europeans merely assumed it was the handiwork of non-Africans.

Ethnocentrism – What Could Go Wrong?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing Black Panther for being a comic-book fantasy. However, the myth it concocts of an El Dorado-like civilization full of riches and wonders plays on the same prejudices that have always defined Western attitudes toward Africans. That is, the movie implies that Westerners were wrong to denigrate Africans for their lack of scientific aptitude because Wakanda represents a level of technological progress that surpasses even that of Western civilization. I submit that Westerners were (and are) wrong to denigrate Africans because it’s wrong to measure the worth of societies strictly by standards that are arbitrarily chosen to benefit the ones doing the measuring.

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  • ….one of the aims of its drive to classify natural phenomena was to “discover” racial and social hierarchies that validated the existing social order in Europe.

    [standard yet powerful science rejoinder]

    But, even though its original goals were corrupt, the scientific investigation of biological and social phenomenon inexorably led to the dethroning of those foundational assumptions about the natural order, such that today much to the horror of those who started these disciplines, the current machine-aided and technologically instrumentalized present state of said disciplines underwrites the undoing of social reactionaries.


  • Anthrotheist

    Huh. So Enlightenment writers imposed the standards of scientific technological advancement as the measure of any society’s worth; and Black Panther simply uses that exact same racist standard by making Wakanda the single outlying exception to Africa’s historic “failure” to meet the standard that was essentially invented for the express purpose of devaluing all Africans.

    And all of the superiority of Wakanda in the movie is limited to its technological advancements. Nowhere does the movie address the issues like how Wakanda’s justice system works; all we see is its system of governmental succession, which is anything but peacefully democratic.

  • igotbanned999

    Wakanda has been depicted that way ever since it first appeared in comics in the 60s. They’re staying true to the source material. And you have to admit that said source material was super progressive for the 60s. The super techno utopia setting was pretty much par for the course in the 60s Fantastic Four comics, which is where Wakanda and the Black Panther first appeared. It was more about serving the needs of the story than trying to make social commentary.

    In the Fantastic Four letters column after the Black Panther story arc ended, someone wrote a letter saying that they liked that Marvel had introduced a black superhero, but asked why he had to be an African chief instead of an African-American. Marvel’s response was simply that it fit the needs of the story they were writing at the time. (They would go on to introduce several African-American superheroes soon after).

  • Anne Fenwick

    Actually, one of the funniest scenes in Black Panther was where Martin Freeman asked if all the fancy gadgets worked by ‘magic’ and Letitia Wright says ‘No, technology’ but her eyes glaze over as she says it because she can’t believe the script has given her such bullshit to utter. I mean we’re talking magic blue rocks doing magic things by no discernible (or indiscernible) mechanism here. I just sat there thinking that at least I’d learned what the Wakandan word for ‘magic’ was.

    Please try not to read too much socio-politics into BP though. It’s a Marvel movie and nothing else. Nobody would try to offer comment on Scandinavian culture based on Marvel’s Thor, I think (I hope!)

  • martin_exp(pi*sqrt(163))

    it’s a sci-fi trope partly based on arthur c. clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    this law was apparently paraphrased by the character jane foster in “thor” (imdb):

    Jane Foster: [about the mythology book] Where’d you find this?
    Erik Selvig: The children’s section. I just wanted to show you how silly his story was.
    Jane Foster: But you’re the one who’s always pushing me to chase down every possibility, every alternative.
    Erik Selvig: I’m talking about science, not magic.
    Jane Foster: Well, “magic’s just science we don’t understand yet.” Arthur C. Clarke.
    Erik Selvig: Who wrote science-fiction.
    Jane Foster: A precursor to science fact!
    Erik Selvig: In some cases, yeah.
    Jane Foster: Well, if there’s an Einstein-Rosen bridge, then there’s something on the other side. And advanced beings could have crossed it!
    Erik Selvig: Oh, Jane.
    Darcy: A primitive culture like the Vikings might have worshiped them as deities.
    Jane Foster: Yes! Yes, exactly. Thank you.

    thor himself iterated this sentiment (at least in a trailer, imdb):

    [from trailer]
    Jane Foster: Describe exactly what happened to you last night.
    Thor: Your ancestors called it magic…
    [Thor skims through a book on Norse mythology]
    Thor: …but you call it science. I come from a land where they are one and the same.

    i’m sure shuri knows this law, too. she seems “up-to-date” on memes …

  • Jim Baerg

    My impression is that the Maori got better treatment from the British settlers than the Australian aborigines & that respect for technologies like the boats that can cross wide stretches of ocean was a large part of why.

  • Andreas Müller

    This is something that has been bugging me for years: Is it wrong for a Society to decide they have enough technological advancement? In western societies the answer seems to be yes, but I wonder. The gap between science and actual Technology is so wide. We never Focus on making optimal use of the Knowledge we have. If we’d shift our resources from accquiring more and more Knowledge to making optimal use of the Knowledge we have, couldn’t we solve the practical Problems of the here and now more efficiently and more quickly?

  • JedRothwell

    18th century Europeans did not only point to technology when comparing Europe to Africa. They also pointed to economics, social organization and the division of labor. They had a valid point. There was a vast difference, and it wasn’t only in technology. Here is a quote from “The Wealth of Nations:”

    “. . . how much commerce and navigation in particular, how many shipbuilders, sailors, sailmakers, ropemakers, must have been employed in order to bring together the different drugs made use of by the dyer, which often come from the remotest corners of the world I What a variety of labor, too, is necessary in order to produce the tools of the meanest of those workmen ! To say nothing of
    such complicated machines as the ship of the sailor, the mill of the fuller, or even the loom of the weaver, let us consider only what a variety of labor is requisite in order to form that very simple machine, the shears with which the shepherd clips the wool. The miner, the builder of the furnace for smelting the ore, the feller of the timber, the burner of the charcoal to be made use of in the smelting-house, the brickmaker, the bricklayer, the workmen who attend the furnace, the millwright, the forger, the smith, must all of them join their different arts in order to produce them. . . .

    . . . if we examine, I say, all these things, and consider what a variety of labor is employed about each of them, we shall be sensible that without the assistance and co-operation of many thousands, the very meanest person in a civilized country could not be provided, even according to what we may falsely imagine the easy and simple manner in which he is commonly accommodated. Compared, indeed, with the more extravagant luxury of the great, his accommodation must, no doubt, appear extremely simple and easy; and yet it may be true, perhaps, that the accommodation of a European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages.”