Cyborg Anthropology

Cyborg Anthropology

1996-09-01
The Cyborg Handbook
The Cyborg Handbook
New York: Routledge, 1995.

Matthew Fuller on The Cyborg Handbook.

The Cyborg Handbook tells the story of how one particular model, or one cluster of models grouped under the term cyborg (cybernetic organism), has come to occupy a key place as a meaning-making apparatus that either actually or rhetorically involves such disparate areas as: the invention of new emotions; self-directed evolution; combat and medical augmentation; the prediction, monitoring, and control of body movement; farming; automatism; remote or prosthetic operations; reproductive technology. Culling material from a wide variety of academic sources, The Cyborg Handbook follows the lead of Donna Haraway, who adds an image-rich foreword to the book, in putting cyborgs on the map of cultural criticism.

Alongside essays and pieces of fiction, this weighty contribution to the consolidation of the field (there are over forty texts) also includes facsimiles of sections of reports from NASA, DARPA, and medical reports: the sort of material that one might expect writers on the history, sociology, anthropology, or cultural politics of technology to use as primary research material rather than as contents. Here, though, the juxtaposition of jargons and intentions that are often at cross-purposes is quite fruitful as befits such an ambiguous, chimerical, partial, and contradictory figure. “We can have unabashedly military cyborgs, liberal cyborgs, and feminist cyborgs just as easily as we can have cyborgs that undermine such categories” - as Hugh Gusterson reminds us. Notwithstanding this convergence, it’s still not that easy to get the contributors in the corduroy mixed up with those in the camoflauge. Chris Hables Gray’s dry reading-between-the-lines of a McDonnell Aircraft Company job advertisement, for instance, goes some way towards making this apparent. Appearing in the First Great Golden Age of Pop Cybernetics as a figure to illustrate The Extensions of Man, the cyborg has been powerfully developed by writers such as Donna Haraway and Sandy Stone to go beyond the nature/culture division in the re-engineering of a feminist consciousness that has too often been locked-down in the former term. Although many of the essays here are still concerned to maintain the domination/resistance paradigm as a mark of old school cultural studies loyalty, for feminists in particular, this re-engineering has not just been a matter of theoretical innovation but also a task of massive urgency. When flesh is becoming increasingly protean, those who have historically been considered morphologically dubious share the doubled situation of facing both immense opportunity and of becoming increasingly subject to alteration and “improvement.” Given this urgency (one that can only be accelerated as those vectors of the cyborg condition such as genetic engineering and biotechnology, which appear below the level of general visibility, move increasingly into everyday life-with the minimum of public debate or accountability), one wonders how long excruciatingly banal reports on the progressive viewing of Star Trek can remain viable as an alleged life form. Although, at its usual pace, the academy tends to operate via a careful permutational unfolding of issues within a defined area, we perhaps shouldn’t expect anything so thrilling and awful as this area of study might suggest. Nevertheless, there are several writers here that are up to speed. Heidi Figuerora-Sarriera contributes a short, useful reading of the work of that curiously retrofuturist figure Hans Moravec. Part Platonist, part transhumanist jock, Moravec espouses a version of the Cartesian mind/body split as a full-on mind/body impasse. In his projection of the cyborg, the body becomes “stuff,” a waste product, whilst the soul or mind, schematically purified into an electronic pattern, is downloaded into a computer, or any of an array of fabulously appointed machines. A good counterpoint to the fanfares for the supercession of the obsolescent body is the entropic subversion in the Philip K. Dick story, “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon,” where a ship computer attempts to maintain the mental balance of a highly neurotic man lying for a decade in faulty cryonic suspension en route to the colonization of another planet. Conveyed in Dick’s brilliantly convoluted yet dense style, this tale reveals in part that as chemical and mechanical technologies become integral to our bodies we also become increasingly implicit in these genera of material formation - as the component most subject to fault or malfunction.

In a similar vein, another science fiction writer included in this anthology, Lois H. Gresh, contributes a frenetic story that gives the reader a hilarious inside view of the strife and melodrama in the life of cybernetically enhanced pot-plants. In a tightly argued paper on cyborg anthropology tracing the political ramifications of such study, Gary Lee Downey, Joseph Dumit, and Sarah Williams state that: “Cyborg anthropology helps us to realize that we are all scientists. That is, by reconstructing scientific knowledge in new contexts, including across national and cultural boundaries, we all do science.” Whilst no doubt this would provide an annoyance to many, though not all, “real” scientists, the reconstruction of scientific boundaries in science fiction in particular has not only often set the pace for “real” science but has, alongside the work of more empirically based writers, proved particularly fruitful in revealing the positive unconscious of what far too often passes as neutral discourse. Multiple excesses of borders not only of discipline, but of the skin-bound human individual, are the only surety in cyborg ontology, and this most intense of liminal skirmishes is explored in detail. Arnold Schwarzeneggar, as actor and bodybuilder, has often been the site for this crisis to act itself out on film. Jonathan Goldberg’s complex and perceptive article tracing his career uses a theoretical toolbox including the writings of Leo Bersani, Judith Butler, and Zoe Sofia, amongst others. And, as the excessive phallus exceeds even itself, he makes a particularly choice use of Pat Califia’s work to read the improbable family group of Terminator 2.

Whilst it may not be quite this same sly wit making it appear that the book itself is strongly cyborged - with many of the essay titles manifestly designed solely to seduce the poetic imagination of library search databases - there is much in the piece by Sandy Stone. In an article that also forms the introduction to her extremely juicy book The War of Desire and Technology at the close of the Mechanical Age, she weaves together “architecture, play, physicality and metaphoricality, bodies and selves, whereness and politics, sex and bandwidth, interior and surface and desire” in a way that is exemplarily playful and robustly pertinent. Making the writing itself something of a border creature in its play on different cultural [text missing]…of the most suggestive work here. Hybridity and its potential induce complex mixtures of fear and desire, which are both historically and contemporarily crucial - as David J. Hess points out, “every age has its mythical figures that transgress the boundaries it creates between the human and the non-human, culture and nature.” That the cyborg is a figure that, whilst tending towards the mythical, stands neither outside ourselves, nor outside society, is a cause for celebration - and for cranking up the contradictions.