Cyborg and Post Human Adventures

I found this a really challenging week as the readings were dense but very stimulating. Initially when I thought about what a Cyborg might be the types of images I had in mind came from science fiction – like the 1989 Japanese film Tetsuo: The Iron Man (see trailer below though it is a little gory/edgy so possibly not safe for work/not for everyone) – and these images are very much about the (literal) fusing of man and machine.

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It was therefore quite a challenge to in some way relate my expectations to the picture Haraway (1) paints of the cyborg as a form of post gender idealism made whole and (almost?) physical. Before reading the Cyborg Manifesto I knew it to be a work on futurism and feminism but I found it hard to analyze and form my own opinion on the work due to the structure and range of issues included by Haraway as she critiques the status quo and sketches a possible cyborg future. I have attempted to consider the core readings with the questions raised by Jen and Sian as my starting point for reflection.

For a start I found some of Haraway’s arguments if not exactly expired had certainly lost their edge since the original publication of her Cyborg Manifesto in 1985. The political importance of nuclear weapons in the world has significantly changed since the end of the cold war and the fall of communism in eastern Europe in the years following 1989. Although many cyborg developments can still be traced to military technology I also think the role of the education, medical and commercial sectors actually have a far greater impact now than at the time Haraway was writing.

I think in fact that the end of the cold war and increasing global dominance of capitalist power has shifted the power balance in ways perhaps not envisioned by Haraway. Military funding of technology remains highly influential but there are reasons to see recent conflict as driven by commerce rather than politics or idealism and that is a type of aggression that is both post-partisan (in a very cyborg way) and promiscuously frightening. I don’t think this situation is entirely beyond Haraway’s image of the cyborg but I think the reality is that much more negative than the picture she paints.

I think there is actually a curious bilateralism of influence occuring as the military commissions private sector gaming companies to create training games – because the technology developed for commercial gaming is both the most leading edge of it’s type and the gameplay experience most closely aligned to the experience and expectations of new recruits. In turn such commissions develop and maintain expertise that is reused in increasingly realistic commercial war games that will contribute to forming attitudes and understanding of the world to future voters and recruits. There is something intriguing and alarming about the unequal bridging of commerce, war and embodiment – the apparent subject of the forthcoming James Cameron film Avatar – that might allow conflict to be conducted partially or wholly in game or virtual environments given the sophisticated, often remote and highly automated weapons systems that now so resemble a form of disconnected gaming.

The role of women in society has changed significantly (perhaps more so in the UK than in the US because of the broad and swift changes to European social policy changes including the almost total legal unacceptability of sexual discrimination in recruitment, increased and mandatory periods of paid maternity leave, increased rights for part time workers etc.) but in both cases the realm of women certainly now includes work – frequently in addition to caring responsibilities around home, family and children – in a much more significant way.

Fertility rights of women have also changed due to the (relative) mainstreaming of older pregnancies, IVF, donar insemination etc. and this (along with very little change in the available male roles in selective fertility/birth control and only limited paternity leave and rights) has not just opened up opportunities but has also forced women – in a very cyborg way – to continuously make conscious choices about their role in society and their role in their private life. At the same time the mainstreaming of pornography, the impact of Viagra, the increased rate of divorce (and later age dating and remarriage) and the rise of the energetic pensioner have all brought about the expectation that women will be youthful and sexual at all ages. This may enable exciting new senses of self and embodiment but increased visibility of high profile older women – who selectively model their appearance on a continuation of impression of youth – has led to a more homogeneous acceptable face of femininity and female power. Advances in modern medicine and biotechnology have huge impact with Botox and hair dye having physical and cultural effects far beyond the reach of the type of cosmetic surgeries that were available twenty years ago.

] There is nothing female that naturally binds women

- Haraway (1). p. 38

In fact despite the gender-blurring that has occurred since the writing of the manifesto – including the increased visibility of all types of sexualities and literally post-gender trans people – there has been a curious polarization of genders enabled by technologies around implants, cosmetic surgeries etc. but not driven by them. Modern humans are not only not post gender but the modern face of idealised womanhood is a faux youthful and hyper feminized mixture of inflated and airbrushed lips, breasts and hair with large childlike eyes. Despite a current resurgence of 1980’s fashion styles it is not the genderless 1940s inspired shoulderpads of professional women that have returned but the sloanish fashions of privilege and passivity. Even the more gender neutral styles adopt highly gendered ontologies that refer to a conceptual space not the cut or true origins of the garment, for example the Boyfriend cardigan/blazer/etc. The increased hyper feminisation of appearance seems, in part, an extreme reaction to the blurring social roles between men and women. Society seems set on the importance of strongly articulated gender and, because only a minority of women subscribing to the notion of being a surrendered wife or an idealistic Martha Stewart soccer mom, ultra feminine fashion and increased attention on appropriate grooming (for both genders: stubble and/or aggressively showy styles for men; obsessively hairless bodies and long hair for women) is the (capitalist) way to compensate for increasingly comparable careers, blurred child care roles and empowerment across genders. In other words the cyborg – if that is a relevant term for current experience – is not post gender but in fact amplifies subtle differences that potentially undermine any post feminist or post gender gains.

Haraway indicates that the cyborg will be ubiquitous, virtually invisible and this remains resonant in a world of smart phones, bionic body parts and automated processes. Though the technology here has moved on greatly since the Manifesto it is one area of the piece that I feel has dated most strongly as the ethical and moral questions remain pertinent and unresolved. This is one area where the fear of technology remains many years after Haraway took as read an assumption that cyborgs were likely to be perceived primarily as threats.

Haraway’s ideas of binaries and paradoxes has aged less well and an interview from 1997 [5] casually rejects the simplicity these implied. I do not feel we have become cyborg enough to float above these binaries but I do question that they were ever capable of such neat definition. The core Cartesian mind/body duality though is a harder to deal with. Reading through the Manifesto I felt Haraway framed the duality so clearly in spiritual terms that her own Catholic upbringing was forefronted. As someone without any religious faith or beliefs I do not see the “spirit” as a valid human form exactly but, realistically, I do articulate my function in the third party as a split of intelligence and, for want of a better phrase, meat. I came to the conclusion, reading [1] that in fact I see the body as one intrinsically connected machine with the nervous system and brain at it’s core and everything else a sensor, tool or other connector between processing and the external world. That is a mind/body split of sorts but it is also a matter of seeing skin as the ultimate in sensor technology, the eye as the very best camera in the world, and the body as more than a disposable husk for a brain. Shallow elements like appearance also effect the development and behaviour of a person and so, on a different level, there is also an important connect between body and consciousness (and I think conciousness is the word I would give to the mind/spirit or similar notion).

Cogito, ergo sum.

- René Descartes

Hayles (2) raised the condition of post humanism and I found this to be a fascinating and complimentary theory to Haraways cyborg ideology. Post humans are, from what I understood of Hayles, far more about the practical elements of joining humans to machines or at least to non-natural elements. This is where the fusing of body parts, the development of artificial joints and limbs, the idea of backing up ones memory to the machine or the internet comes in. And in fact I was reminded of three powerful radio programmes from the NPR RadioLab series: Who Am I?; Where Am I?; and Memory & Forgetting. Each explores the nature of consciousness and being and the role that the physical body has on an articulate understanding of the world and the self. Hayles takles aesthetic post humanism head on – having the luxury of 14 years more of medical technologies at the time of writing – as a part of the evolution of post human forms, something that relates back to Haraway’s notion of a superior form (of cyborg) emerging and her own professional background in evolutionary biology.

Perhaps the most powerful element of Hayles (2) though is her insistence that it is the cross pollination between disciplines and futurists that allows powerful holistic ideas to emerge. Although her own perspective is literary she pays homage to the role of science and broader colleagues. This interlinking of expertise and ideas is, perhaps, in itself a reflection of the power of networks (of all kinds) and of the power of machines in aiding discovery and communication between scholars and in processing information so that human interactions can be distilled to their most useful creative connective functions.

I found Hayles (3) a really useful piece for reflecting on Haraway and particularly the notion of consciousness and embodied self but Sheilds (4) was, to me, a curious read as it seemed to come so firmly from a practical and male perspective that it jarred oddly with the rest of the key readings here. As you would imagine I could not entirely disagree with his new sites of Body and Web but I certainly disagree with his reasons for their inclusion. In fact I felt that Body had already, to some extent, been dealt with as Haraway wanted to and her own choice had been to indicate a post gender post human form. There are cultural issues (as I have highlighted above) around how, in practice, this actually takes place but I do not see the body as distinct from the rest of the person as Sheilds evidently does. I see the body as part of the engine of human/cyborg machines.

The inclusion of the web as a site actually also seems curiously out of date. For me personally I do not see the web as sitting outside my experience of the world: it is not a unique space but (as discussed in Bayne (6)) one of many distributed embodiments of my own self. It is not a special site in terms of how I define myself any more than any other embodied space. In effect both new spaces Sheild proposes seem comparitively irrelevant given the scale of issues and ideologies that Haraway sets her sights on.

I found this entire set of readings (and those that I will reflect on as part of my Week 10 summary) very stimulating though broadly I disagreed with much of what was being said. Haraway in particular appealed to me – and my strong sense of feminism – but seemed so of it’s time and of it’s creator’s era that I felt quite isolated and distant from the images of politics (personal and state), ideology and feminist orthodoxy painted.

References

  1. Haraway, D. (2000). A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century. in D Bell and A Kennedy, The Cybercultures Reader. Routledge.
  2. Hayles, N.K. (1999). Toward embodied virtuality, chapter 1 of How we became posthuman: virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature and informatics. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. pp1-25
  3. Hayles, N.K. (2006). Unfinished Work: From Cyborg to Cognisphere. Theory Culture Society, 23/7-8.
  4. Shields, R. (2006). Flânerie for Cyborgs. Theory Culture Society, 23/7-8.
  5. Kunzru, H. (1997). You are Cyborg. Wired. Issue 5.02. Accessed 30th November 2009: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/5.02/ffharaway.html.
  6. Bayne, S. (forthcoming, March 2010). Academetron, automaton, phantom: uncanny digital pedagogies. London Review of Education. [revised version uploaded 10 November 09]

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  1. [...] ethnographies, bookmarking interesting things and thinking about the readings (now readable in Cyborgs and Post Human Adventures) but, at the close of the week the very real physical world intervened when I came down with what [...]

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