cyborg

The OED defines a cyborg as “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 functions; an integrated man-machine system.”  The term emerged as a blend of cyb[ernetic] – pertaining to Norman Weiner’s cybernetics, “the entire field of control and communications theory, whether in the machine or animal” – ad org[anism] – “an organized body, consisting of mutually connecting and dependent parts constituted to share a common life.”  The cyborg was a human, but its non-human extensions make it something else entirely.  Like Marshall McLuhan’s “extensions of man,” the cyborg represents the relationship between organic bodies and media technologies that extend either “bodies through space” or the “central nervous system itself” (3).

The figure of the cyborg depends on a systems-based understanding of organisms.  The systems model draws an analogy between neural and cellular human physiology and the electronic circuitry of computers.  The brain acts like the central processing unit of the body, directing and controlling the operation of its individual parts.  A prosthetic can be incorporated into this system and the brain will interact and synthesize with the “machine of other external agency” to form a cyborg.  The machine aspect of the cyborg is a medium for the communication of human consciousness and the organic body of the cyborg is a site of synthesis and integration.

As a hybrid creature, the cyborg has no parentage.  In “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway suggested that “the cyborg has no origin story in the Western sense” (151-52).  However, the character of the cyborg originated out of the emergent field of cybernetics in the 1960′s.  Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline helped coin the term in 1960 as a concept that would “allow man to optimize his internal regulation to suit the environment he may seek” in outerspace (Clynes, 32).  Along this line of history, cyborg creations are positive additions to the human body that improve upon its capabilities.  Such instantiations of the cyborg might also include “anyone whose immune system has been programmed through vaccination to recognize the polio virus” (Gray, Mentor, Figueroa-Sarriera, 2-3).  Along another line of history, the cyborg takes its origin from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein .  Frankenstein’s monster is often cited as the first cyborg (Gray, Mentor, Figueroa-Sarriera, 5).  Not born of woman, Frankenstein assembled his monster on the operating table.  The history of  the cyborg as monster evokes modern society’s “profound anxiety that we have lost control of, and may even be destroyed by, the technology we have created in the modern age (Gusterson, 109).

Thus, two dominant types of cyborgs emerge in their history: the cyborg as a reconceptualized post-human body and the cyborg as machine-controlled monster.  Because the cyborg is a symbiotic relationship between human and machine and is equally faithful to its organic components and its machine attributes, its manifestations vary according to which aspect is attributed dominance or materiality.  At the same time, representations of cyborgs deny clearly defined boundaries between human and machine.  Yet, in defining the cyborg as a hybrid entity, the “integrated man-machine system” subsumes issues of control and dependence, communication and connection, hiding these in its technological structure.  Thus, the cyborg is fundamentally ironic and contradictory (Haraway, 154).  Its character is “a condensed image of both imagination and material reality” (150).

As a utopian fantasy, the cyborg body is an improved and superior body.  Perhaps the most significant text in this history of the cyborg is Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto.”  Her “ironic political myth faithful to feminism, socialism, and materialism” develops the character of the cyborg as “a creature in a post-gender world; it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-oedipal symbiosis, unalienated labour, or other seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity” (150).  She conceives of the cyborg as the final end of humanity – the last stage of human evolution as the symbiosis of humans and their creations.  For Haraway, the cyborg is an exemplar of the possibilities of creating communities through transcending boundaries and she argues for ” pleasure in the confusion of boundaries” (150).

Cyborgs are both political reality and mythical, discursive subjects.  As N. Katherine Hayles suggests, “cyborgs are simultaneously entities and metaphors, living beings and narrative constructions” (“The Life Cycle of Cyborgs: Writing the Posthuman,” 152).  The cyborg functions both really and fictionally as a way of reconfiguring identity in an era of emergent biotechnological possibilities and fractured subjectivities.

As a real body, the cyborg is a kind of posthuman.  The posthuman model of the body situates consciousness as a “function of the organism, not an organ [i.e. the brain]” and repudiates the claim that the human has fixed boundaries (Pepperell 13).  The cyborg body has the potential to think of the body more holistically.  The virtualization of sense perception in a game powered by the human’s central nervous system in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ might provide one example of a cyborg.  But cyborgs also have the potential to improve the body.  Cyborg humans with pacemakers, prostheses, or other “enhancements” have altered the functioning of the human body to restore, modify, or improve their capabilities.

Although real embodiments of the cyborg character certainly exist, theorists like Haraway and Hayles situate the cyborg as a subject position.  Furthermore, as writers like Sherry Turkle and Sandy Stone acknowledge, human-machine interactions that articulate new subject positions based on human dependence on the machine interface, qualify as cyborg relations.  These writers concentrate in particular on the possibilities of alternative identities on the Internet.  Without the surgeries required for physical prostheses, the [screen , (2)] can act as a kind of prosthesis through which race, gender, age, and shape are rendered invisible (Turkle, 1995).

When these attributes are rendered invisible, however, the cyborg identity suffers the problem of disembodiment.  Stone considers the problem of the disembodied subjectivity of cyborgs, who like the phone-sex workers in her study, are “everywhere and somewhere and nowhere, but almost never here in the positive sense” (Stone, 398).  The manifestations of such a cyborg subject position cross-pollinate with the virtual figures of cyberspace – avatars and textual embodiments.  Cyborg can be constructed as a way to reconfigure identity and to extend the possibilities of a human without a body, a body without organs.  These cyborgs share a utopian mythology that situates the “human” as dominant in the machine-human relationship.  The cyborg is a person with extensions or modifications, but the cyborg still has noticeable human traits.

The cyborg figure has not always been constructed so optimistically however.  Ironically, “the cyborg is also the awful apocalyptic telos of the ‘West’s’ escalating dominations of abstract individuation” (Haraway, 151).  The cyborg as monster reflects modern terrors of technological power.  The possibility of disposing of the body and situating consciousness inside the computer becomes the terror of the ghost in the machine.  Automation takes over the machine-human hybrid system with potentially disastrous consequences.  In 2001: A Space Odyssey , the computer HAL kills most of his spaceship’s crew when he/it malfunctions and begins to think for him/itself.  As Friedrich Kittler notes in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter , with only “a simple feedback loop… information machines bypass, their so-called inventors” (258).  The dream of Artificial Intelligence and robotics, to create a mechanical body for the human brain, has the potential to liberate the idea of “human,” but also has the risk of creating disaster and turning on humans.

Recent incarnations of mythical cyborg characters are often dangerous or violent.  The replicants in BladeRunner and the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation are examples of cyborgs whose machine/computer half has gone awry.  As the cyborg creature is about supplementing human deficiencies, disguising disabilities, and improving flaws, the terror of a cyborg creation that develops its own flaws is the nightmare of cyborg science.  The fear of machines that control and destroy stands in opposition to the possibility of machines liberating consciousness from the human body and providing useful, powerful extensions to the body.

Various manifestations of machine-human symbiosis and hybridity have descended from the original Frankenstein monster.  But not all cyborg monsters are as destructive as Frankenstein or the Terminator.  Other cyborg creations endow humans with superpowers, as in comic books or cartoons, like Swamp-Thing or Spider-Man .  Science-fiction writers, like Octavia Butler and William Gibson, have taken up the cyborg character as a way to imagine the possibilities of technologically enhanced human beings.  More recent cyborg constructions include the bodies of Stelarc and Orlan, who both use technological systems to alter their physical boundaries.  In his performance of the cyborg body Stelarc, sees a need to reposition the body “from the psycho world of the biological to the cyber zone of the interface and extension – from genetic containment to electronic extension” (560).

The character of the cyborg and its presence in contemporary culture reveals a mixture of pleasure and terror from the relationship between man and machine.  Essentializing human as body or as mind determines in part how the cyborg character is constructed.  Giving dominance to the machine or to the human (body or mind) determines how a particular instantiation of the cyborg will perform.  Part utopic fantasy and part apocalyptic monster, part automaton and part autonomy, the cyborg is a synthesis – or perhaps a dialectic, as Hayles proposes in “Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers” – between pattern and randomness.

Jessica Santone
Winter 2003

WORKS CITED

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. Semiotext(e), 1983.

Cronenberg, David. eXistenZ.

Kelly, David, ed., Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. V. 1. Oxford UP, 1998.

Nelson, Robert S., and Richard Shiff, eds. Critical Terms for Art History. University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Oxford English Dictionary online.