subject: intro to cyborg anthropology

date: february 2001

 

so enkidu and i are taking a UT extension class called "cyborg anthropology." our professor is a woman who did extensive research on childbirth in the western world (with a technological focus) until she started to get interested in cyborg anthropology after the sub-discipline started to coalesce in about 1993.

cyb-ant (my neologism; i'm getting tired of typing "cyborg anthropology" already) is primarily concerned with the blurring boundary between humans and machines, but due to donna haraway's foundational essay "A Cyborg Manifesto" in 1985, it is also deeply tied up with feminism and with the blurring of all traditional boundaries and dichotomies, especially those between dominant and oppressed groups. haraway believes that because dichtomies in the western world are always contructed with one half being seen as better than the other (not true in all cultures), the cyborg can function as a symbol of the way people can transgress these boundaries by taking aspects of both into themselves. transgendered people, for example, are cyborgs under this definition; they are not androgynous, but are in some sense of both genders. because they can exist in both worlds, they needn't be confined by the traditional roles of either.

i don't remember where the discussion took place, but a while back i was trying to explain the traditional male/female public/private dichotomy and doing a very bad job of it. this dichotomy goes back to a commonly held nineteenth century ideology (not that it didn't exist before then, but i think it was directly articulated during that time) that men should rule public life (politics, economics, etc.) and women private life (the home, child-rearing, etc.) due to their inborn tendencies [1]. men were believed to be active, aggressive, and competitive, while women were naturally gentle, passive, and nurturing, making them ideally suited to raise children and "domesticate" the men in the home so that the aggression needed to survive in a competitive world didn't make them violent or unchristian. these values were expressed explicitly in essays of many disciplines and implicitly in art, plays, novels, etc.

here are some other traditional dichotomies that appear in folktales, art, philosophy, etc. in western culture over the centuries:

nature/culture
chaos/order
earth/sky
evil/good
emotion/reason
profane/sacred
animals/humans
left/right
woman/man

these images show up with especial frequency in religious art; one common protrayal of adam and eve is to have adam standing while eve sits, putting her closer to earth (and to the devil) while adam is closer to the sky (and to god). the dichotomy between emotion and reason, with the latter being masculine and preferable, is especially emphasized in greek writings, which were "rediscovered" during the enlightenment and came to form the basis of christian enlightenment thinking.

haraway sees the image of the cyborg as capable of breaking all these boundaries, not only by drawing from both opposites, but also by denying that the opposites are halves that make a whole. in haraway's cyborg myth, there is no garden of eden, no original wholeness broken into two halves, good and evil, man and woman. the cyborg just is what it is, never whole, but never seeking wholeness. it takes new things into itself without regard for constructed boundaries; it never says, "i cannot be that because i am a human and it is a machine/because it is an animal and i am a human/because i have a body and it does not." all these boundaries and more have become leaky; the oppressiveness of the traditional boundaries above have become clear. for haraway, "a cyborg manifesto" is "an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction." if we will be confined, it will be by boundaries that we choose, not by those our society chooses for us.

******

so that's my introduction. admittedly, i'm most interested in the philosophical dimension of cyborg anthropology, and that's my bias; a lot of the stuff we're reading has to do with technology much more directly. but as i write my short papers for the course, i'm going to put them up here for comment. a lot of the ideas i'm encountering are incredibly exciting to me, and i'd like to hear what the rest of you think. yes? yes. :>

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"To be One is to be autonomous, to be powerful, to be God; but to be One is to be an illusion, and so to be involved in a dialectic of apocalypse with the other. Yet to be other is to be multiple, without clear boundary, frayed, insubstantial. One is too few, but two are too many." --Donna Haraway on dualisms, from "A Cyborg Manifesto"


[1] this is called "the doctrine of spheres" (public/private spheres) if you want to find it in a history textbook.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christine Hoff

ANT 324L Davis-Floyd

February 5, 2001

Paper #1

 

The Evolution of the Cyborg:

Survivalism in a Technological Society

 

"Cyborg" was once a specific technological term, coined to describe a fusion between organism and machine, and later blurred in science fiction books and films to include a wide variety of technological monsters and threatening hybrids. In the hands of Donna Haraway, however, "cyborg" has expanded to include the more general cultural phenomenon in which traditional boundaries and dichotomies are becoming increasingly problematic. Today, "cyborg" can describe any individual, group, or culture that transcends its limitations by taking on the qualities of an often taboo other. In the same way that Jacques Elull's "technique" encompasses technology but also refers to the methods used by the state and in the economy, the term "cyborg" applies both to technological hybrids and to the diverse effects of postmodern fragmentation on our culture.

Clynes and Kline first proposed the term "cyborg" in a 1960 paper on space travel, using it to describe an organism to which exogenous components had been added for the purpose of adapting it to new environments, i.e. outer space (Cyborg Handbook, 31). In the same paper, the term was applied to a mouse that had had a pump permanently inserted under its skin in order to allow the controlled injection of certain chemicals. Clynes and Kline emphasize that in order for an organism to become a cyborg, the exogenous components must function without any attention on the part of the organism, thus allowing the additions to become, as far as the organism is concerned, simply part of the daily unconscious functions of the body. Through this application of technology, Clynes later asserted, they hoped to "liberate man from [the] constraints" imposed by his evolution on Earth (47).

Interestingly, in her revision of the term, Haraway has encorporated much more than Clynes and Kline's basic idea of the organism/machine hybrid. In her "Cyborg Manifesto," she articulates what she calls the new myth of the cyborg, in which the human race, letting go of its previous myth of original unity, embraces boundary transgression as a means of evolution and survival. Just as Clynes and Kline saw cyborg technology as a means to adapt human beings to outer space, most likely with the long-term goal of making a new home for human beings there, Haraway sees physical and mental cyborgism as a means for human beings to adapt to new environments both physical and cultural.

Speaking of cyborgs in science fiction, Haraway writes, "Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence [wholeness], but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other" ("Cyborg Manifesto,"175). This survival is deeply tied up with not only the awareness that boundaries can be and are being transgressed, but that in order to survive, human beings must take responsibility for the construction (and deconstruction) of those boundaries (150). As Haraway concludes towards the end of the essay, "We are responsible for boundaries; we are they" (180). Haraway argues for the willing embrace of the cyborg as a means to control and construct one's own identity, thus escaping from traditional, limiting dichotomies such as gender, man/animal, organism/machine, and physical/non-physical. For her, the image of the cyborg is a promise of liberation for all groups oppressed by the mythology of our culture, as well as a dream of true self-definition.

This postmodern vision of liberation is very much at odds with the ideas expressed in Ellul's The Technological Society, in which he argues that technique (all methods the final goal of which is efficiency, including but not limited to technology) is a dehumanizing, autonomous force that separates man from his natural environment and even from his essential nature. In the face of this force, man is without agency and helpless, and Elull predicts that mankind's fate will be domination by a totalitarian state in which the techniques of propaganda and psychology keep the citizens docile and eager to fulfill the requirements of the economy. Though not fiction, Ellull's book recalls the great dystopian novels of the twentieth century and even goes beyond their bleak visions by arguing that such an end, without the intervention of war or some other crisis, is inevitable. Technique, once invented, must and will be used, he argues; technique treats all things as means toward the end of ultimate efficiency, and so long as that ultimate efficiency has not yet been reached, it will mold humanity into the form it needs to reach that universalizing goal. Though technique will not make all societies exactly alike, Elull adds, there will be one system of technique in each society that is most efficient. Insofar as things may be done only one way, this rigidity will characterize all societies.

The clash between Elull and Haraway is in many ways a clash between modern and postmodern thought. Elull sees the development of technique as headed toward a monolithic system, "embracing all the separate techniques" and "form[ing] a whole" (94). Elull also seems to accept the very myth of original wholeness that Haraway rejects, arguing that man was created for a certain kind of universe and is unable to cope with the new, technical one he finds himself in: "He [Man] was created with a certain essential unity, and he is fragmented by all the forces of the modern world" (325). Elull's mistake in Haraway's terms is to see man and technique as entirely separate, with man dominated by technique. As products of postmodern thought, Haraway's cyborgs reject the search for a total theory and, understanding how dichotomies like the above produce oppression, instead become hybrids, overstepping the boundaries that threaten to confine them. Just as Clynes and Kline's theoretical cyborgs adjust to new environments by taking technology into themselves, the answer to Elull's dystopian vision of mankind enslaved by technique is for man to adjust to the technical world by taking technique into himself. Though Elull's statement that man was "created" and "intended" for a certain kind of environment would likely make this monstrous to him, Haraway argues not just for the necessity of such transgressions, but also that the confusion of boundaries is liberating and pleasurable (150).

Perhaps Elull's most deep-seated difference with Haraway is his implied belief that human beings lack agency, that they are helpless before the irresistable force of monolithic technique. Haraway counters this with the idea of oppositional consciousness, the awareness of having been dominated that allows oppressed groups and formerly oppressed groups to take control of their own identities. In Haraway's eyes, it is not technique but rather the mental and social boundaries generated by inflexible dichotomies that enslave people. By using out-of-the-box thinking and transgressing those boundaries, by allowing old identities to fracture and taking control of the new, Ellul's dichotomy of the helpless human menaced by an unnatural technique environment might never come to pass. From this point of view, Haraway's final assertion makes a great deal of sense. If a belief in original unity means one cannot survive, then it is only reasonable to prefer living as a cyborg to dying as a goddess.