Perspectives – Cyborg

When I tell people one of my interests is cyborg theory, probably one of the most common reactions is “what the heck is that?” That, and “ooh, robots! neener, neener” My answer usually goes something like this.

When we employ the term “cyborg” from our 21st century English lexicon, we’re referring to one of two distinct connotations of the word. The first, and probably the one that most readily comes to mind (at least for the “ooh, robots!” people of the world) derives from pop-culture variations on the dictionary definition. According to the OED, a ‘cyborg’ is “a person whose physical tolerances or capabilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by a machine or other external agency that modifies the body’s functioning”. OED cites the NY Times as the first use of the term in 1960, which attempts to describe a plausible scenario:

A cyborg is essentially a man-machine system in which the control mechanisms of the human portion are modified externally by drugs or regulatory devices so that the being can live in an environment different from the normal one. 22 May 31/1

But even with such a banal description, the imagination runs wild. That’s how we get the traditional notion of the “cyborg”– a science-fiction combination of man and machine. The operative word being “fiction”, as the mainstream is saturated with popular narratives that illustrate a plethora of fantastical interpretations (take, for instance, the Borg from TV’s Star Trek: TNG). “Man-machine systems”? For me, this evokes the thought of the replicants from Bladerunner, as well as the entire ethical discourse it’s steeped in.

The second connotation occurs when someone stops thinking of cyborgs as science-fiction and starts to perceive them in light of the real, everyday practices of a modern society. Not just how elaborate developments in cybernetics and robotics exercise some degree of influence on society, but how we interact directly and daily with technology in the course of lives. Ironically perhaps, it’s the authors of science-fiction that first dared to suggest such a relationship. Consider Arthur C. Clarke’s Glide Path (1963), admittedly the least of Clarke’s “science-fiction” and probably more accurately described as semi-autobiographic, which recounts WWII British experimental trials with the “talk-down radar”. Implicit in the novel– and any multitude of sci-fi novels– is the idea that technology can be more than just tools but extensions of the senses and of the self. The technology-user, at least momentarily, becomes superhuman.

According to the NY Times, ‘drugs’ are also included as a technological device to enhance human abilities. Think for a moment about the constant hype surrounded Olympic athletes and drug-testing. Consider also all the legal products that pharmaceutical companies advertise. Is a man who takes viagra to improve his libido, then, a cyborg? The athlete that takes drugs in order to surpass his physical limitations?

Cyborg theory is based on the idea of technology as an extension of the self and the notion of ‘cyborg’ that evokes the real and the everyday.

Futurist Alvin Toffler was able to predict a post-industrial age in which society became populated with cyborgs; essentially, he believed, mankind would evolve into a species of man-machines (The Third Wave, Future Shock). In 1970, ten years after the NY Times defined the “cyborg”, Toffler wrote:

Advanced fusions of man and machine–called ‘Cyborgs’–are closer than most people suspect. (185, Future Shock)

The fundamental question that preoccupies anyone who dips their toes into the pools of cyborg theory is, what do such “advanced fusions” actually consist of? As an introduction to cyberliterature, I’ve located several perspectives that attempt to answer it.

The Cyborg

By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. Ths cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation. (Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto”. 1991.)

The internet and “cyborgization”

The internet can be perceived as an extension of oneself, much like other ‘cyborgs’ of the past. which helps us form a separate but representative identity. (Ted Kaiser, “The Internet Cyborg”, Half-Empty. 1998.)

“Cyberfeminism”: Cyborg Mommy

While movies and fiction depict the Cyborg as a futuristic superhuman or technological monster, I propose that it is actually your average Mother and Housewife that are among the first so-called Cyborgs. The machine has extended the body of the mother for centuries as she tended the stove, cranked the washer, peddled the sewing machine, and vacuumed the house, but she hardly exists in discussions of technological culture, except as a consuming unit for manufacturing and advertising or in the case of reproductive technologies – the body that carries the baby. (Pattie Belle Hastings. Cyborg Mommy. 2004.)

The “Posthuman”

Everything is constructed within a humanized reality, without rhyme or reason but for the people that speak of it, eminently reconfigurable, debatable, relative. There is no Humanity of itself, neither Good nor Evil, nor Gods or Devils (especially with capitalized letters). In a way, the posthumans live the aphorism that, for our part, we still consider inspiring, that of the 19th Century anarchists, “Neither God, nor Master”. The future is not written. It will certainly play out at least partly as we will it, but it will certainly not be the way we would like to see it today. It will emerge every day from a cosmological evolution that the posthumans, if they handle themselves well, will witness and assume the roles of its central players.

[Tout est construit à l’intérieur d’un réel humanisé n’ayant de sens que pour les hommes qui en parlent, éminemment reconfigurable, discutable, relatif. Il n’y a pas d’Humanité en soi, ni de Bien ni de Mal, ni non plus de Dieux ou de Diables (surtout avec des Majuscules). D’une certaine façon, les posthumains retrouvent le mot d’ordre que pour notre part nous continuons à considérer comme magnifique, celui des anarchistes du 19e siècle ” Ni Dieu ni Maître “. L’avenir n’est pas écrit. Il sera certainement pour une part tel que nous le ferons, mais il ne sera certainement pas tel que nous voudrions aujourd’hui qu’il soit. Il émergera tous les jours d’une évolution cosmologique dont les posthumains, s’ils se débrouillent bien, pourront être des témoins et des acteurs influents.] (Transl. Eric Forcier. Jean-Paul Basquiast. “Le Posthumanisme”, Robotique, vie artificielle, réalité virtuelle, no 56, revue mensuelle. 2004.)

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