Harway and Lyotard: Cyborg…Godess…Inhuman

We often ask questions such as ‘What is gender?’ and ‘What is technology?’ Our answers are usually structured by binaries such as ‘Male-Female’, ‘Technology-Human’ and ‘Nature -Culture’. These binaries seem fixed, solid and impenetrable. They seem innate and natural until an object or trope is presented to us that cannot be accommodated by them.  In such a case we become aware of the binary logic that stabilizes our dichotomous thinking.  The existence of such an object or trope might demonstrate to us the limitation of our system of ordering and categorizing the world.  It might reveal the contingency of our system of ordering and alert us that we can construct and reconstruct our metaphors and other structural tropes.  On this theme, Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto introduces the metaphor of the cyborg, a “fiction mapping our social and bodily reality as an imaginative resource suggesting some very fruitful couplings.”

The cyborg condition Haraway advocates is not only literary fiction, but an “ironic political myth”. She recognizes one cannot expect the cyborg to be a final telos to the question of sexual difference. After all, how could there be a final state of being?

The word cyborg is a neologism, a mediating linguistic construct containing two important aspects: ‘cyb’ and ‘org’. ‘Cyb’ refers to a cybernetic machine while ‘org’ refers to an organic creature.  The cyborg is thus an ironic creature, neither one of either cybernetic/organic or male/female. Such a metaphor – we are told – liquidates and destabilizes the human/technological or male/female binaries by ironically demonstrating the possibility of being simultaneously human and technological (and both male and female). After all, when we think about ourselves and the world with the notion of the cyborg in mind “it is not clear who makes and who is made”.

But in order to address the most interesting aspect of The Cyborg Manifesto we must re-consider our own ontology. One of the reasons the cyborg myth is such an interesting fictional device is because it obliterates our foundational myths. As well, it is a timely myth woven together out of the fabric of the present day, explaining the world as well as the Egyptians or Plato ever could in their respective eras.  The cyborg springs from the imagination as we move:

“…from an organic, industrial society to a polymorphous information system – from all work to all play, a deadly game. Simultaneously material and ideological…from the comfortable old hierarchical dominations to the scary new networks I have called the informatics of domination”.

Haraway’s cyborg is informed by our own culture becoming increasingly enmeshed and dependent upon technology. Even our warfare is a “cyborg orgy, coded by C3I command-control-communication-intelligence”.

As well, according to Haraway we have always been cyborgs. From the moment we lifted a branch, or even were in our mothers womb, we have encountered, constructed and been constructed by objects not part of our own bodies. But our bodies are becoming increasingly laden with pacemakers and prosthetic limbs we certainly were not born with. Some of us contain organs of other humans or even animals. We take pharmaceutical drugs that regulate and control our organs.

Since, according to this position, there never was an original authentic condition, the binaries the construct gender and technology are certainly not correspondent to anything actually in the world. Haraway acknowledges our always-inauthentic condition with an ironic metaphor. This metaphor is capable of inventing subjectivities that were ungraspable prior. We might exclaim: ‘Haraway is correct, her myth is plausible…we are already cyborgs!’  But one might enquire whether the cyborg itself might eventually be necessarily drawn back into the logic of some sort of fixed thinking. The cyborg is a perfect metaphor for considering the dilemma mentioned above. Understanding our ontology as hybrid, whether this is realizable or not, contaminates binaries and dualistic thinking. It contaminates the notion of seeing categories as fixed. To have a hybrid-identity is to ironically acknowledge that there is no final state of being. Haraway writes:

The machine is not an it to be animated, worshipped and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment. We can be responsible for machines; they do not dominate or threaten us. We are responsible for boundaries; we are they.

Through this metaphor that recognizes our ontology as hybrid we acknowledge that although binaries exist, they are themselves originless and their present ordering is certainly not necessary.  In acknowledging hybridity as the overarching condition of the cyborg we remain open and incapable of expecting “perfect communication…one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism”.

The metaphor of the cyborg allows us to answer ‘What is gender?’ or ‘What is technology?’ with ironic answers, answers not structured by rigid and seemingly fixed binaries. We are capable of and free (albeit responsible as well) to pursue a limitless and playful re-describing and re-construction of our most entrenched binaries. In rebuttle to those “supersavers of the new right”, ecofeminists and technophobes that might see clear binaries and consider technology merely as prosthesis or a tool, Haraway deviously exclaims “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess”.

Now, in contrast to Haraway’s cyborg, I want to mention Jean-Francios Lyotard. Lyotard’s work often challenges claims made by so-called ‘posthumanists’ like Haraway.

In his strange essay “Can Thought Survive Without a Body?”, Lyotard suggests future bodies and forms of ‘posthuman’ life (for example the potential for thinking life existent after the death of the sun) will not be immune from sexual difference. He explains: “The human body has a gender. It is an accepted proposition that sexual difference is a paradigm of an incompleteness of not just bodies, but minds too.” By contrast, Haraway praises the posthuman cyborg which offers an ironic, genderless, form of life. In contrast to Haraway, Lyotard seems concerned about the cyborg  condition. As such, he presents a future scenario featuring  the disembodied ‘he’ and ‘she’.

Lyotard is worried about the eradication of the human by the ‘cyborg’ or posthuman theorists. In his book Postmodern Fables, he explains why the human brain is incommensurable with a Turing machine. He is, in these strange fables, concerned with the liquidation of a sense of Otherness that, he contends, has always been part of what defines the human.

This type of arguementation must, I contend, be brought to bear on any arguments vouching for the unquestioned viability of a cyborg-politics and the emergent subjectivities that are emerging out of the encounter with contemporary machines and interfaces.

Lyotard’s work advocates an “anti-inhumanism, a post-humanist humanism”  in direct contrast to the cyborgianism espoused by theorists such as Sadie Plant and Donna Haraway. Lyotard constantly draws our attention to what distinguishes human thought from the way that computers ‘think’ and process information. His is a humanism of resistance, resistance to the illusion that computer and human thought can be rendered commensurable. For example, computer thought is logical, a matter of responding mathematically to a binary code (1s and 0s), human thought on the other hand, tends to depend heavily on the use of analogy/intuition; it accepts imprecise, ambiguous data. At yet another point he draws our attention to the incompleteness at the heart the human, demonstrated most forcefully by ‘sexual difference’ and the desires of the sexes. In order for something akin to Artifical Intelligence to ever be realized, Lyotard argues, desire would have to be built into thinking machines.

Lyotard stands in sharp contrast with Haraway’s formulation of the cyborg who appears willing to live with the dangers of inhumanism and demands  a radical politics based on a combination of bodies with machines.


~ by dccohen on April 29, 2010.

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