Engineering Cyborg Ideology

Engineering Cyborg Ideology

1995-12-30
Cyborg: Engineering the Body Electric
Cyborg: Engineering the Body Electric
Mac and Windows, $49.95

N. Katherine Hayles discusses what happens when postmodern writers theorize in a void.

Have you seen a cyborg today? Would you know it if you had? A creature of science fiction novels, electronic engineering, and postmodern theory, the cyborg is like the white heron of Sarah Orne Jewett’s story, often discussed but seldom glimpsed. The ambiguity of what one means by a cyborg rumbles through Diane Greco’s electronic hypertext Cyborg: Engineering the Body Electric as she plays a series of electronic riffs on Donna Haraway’s now famous essay “The Cyborg Manifesto,” giving it, to my Los Angeles ear, an unsettling quality not unlike the queasiness I feel when I go through the mountain tunnel of the Universal Studios tour. Designed to simulate an avalanche, the tunnel rotates while the hapless passengers move straight ahead on a rail line, resulting in a sensory dissonance that makes one feel as if one were teetering on the edge of a precipice, falling and yet not falling. So it is with Cyborg, which moves with cursory speed (in the double sense of a moving cursor and of topics briefly treated) through speculations which ought to be profound but are finally simply unsettling, because they are so little grounded in the terra firma of historical specificity and technological practice.

Greco’s inquiry starts from the premise, articulated by Haraway, that the cyborg is a hybrid creature who has no particular reason to be faithful to the origin myths, patriarchal structures, or military funding that spawned her. Part machine, part woman (or man), part plugged-in-cybernaut, the cyborg has the power, Greco claims, to destabilize accepted boundaries and open spaces for liberatory action. “The cyborg conflates, confuses, and reassembles technology and social reality. Technology provides the tools for interactions with others, and from this interaction, cyborgs (like us) construct narrative histories of selfhood that acknowledge limits of self and other, limits thrown into relief by the very visceral awareness that this technology interpenetrates the body.” But what (or who), exactly, is a cyborg? Are we talking about people who have had literal technological interventions on their bodies, such as my friend and colleague Vivian Sobchack, who has written and lectured about herself as a cyborg, now that she has an artificial limb? If so, parts of the argument do not make sense, as when Greco claims that “unlike the essentialist critics of the past who implied that one’s biology must restrict one’s destiny, no one forces or delimits the intimate relationship between her body and her self; ‘cyborg’ is an identity she chooses on her own, with an eye towards its limits as well as its possibilities.” People who have had these kinds of interventions in their bodies generally cannot choose, or they choose only in the Hobson’s sense of having an artificial limb or no limb.

Perhaps then, Greco means the term to be taken metaphorically. She intends us to think not about actual cyborgs but ourselves as postmodern subjects wired into the electronic circuits that make it possible for me to write this review and you to read it. But here again, parts of the argument work only if we think of the cyborg in a more literal sense than the plugged-in subject, as when Greco wants to insist that the cyborg body is “essentialist” because it is the object of conscious technological design. “Because she has no clear boundaries, and connects with the technology to create an interface with it, the cyborg is in some sense the essentialist creature of which feminism has so long been wary. She is her body, but don’t forget - it’s an ironic body, a body that is not merely physical, but technological, and definitely more than the sum of its parts.” Such pronouncements are possible, I think, because this is theorizing in a void, theorizing that starts with the abstract idea of a Cyborg and then tries to work out its implications. Anything that the term might be taken to mean becomes what it in fact means, as if the free play of the signifier translates instantaneously and effortlessly into physical and social realities.

Here’s another sample. “Although encouraged by the technology to inscribe the world only in terms of an individual perspective, the cyborg situates her knowledge in order to be accountable for that part of the self that she constructs, and for how the part is reflected.” The gritty complexity that comes from engaging what one thinks something ought to mean with what it signifies to actual people enmeshed in particular circumstances is, in this study, almost completely lacking. What is being fashioned here, in short, is cyborg ideology.

If we read it as an ideology, it has many salient points to make. It takes as given that the postmodern body is an amalgam of biological processes and technological prostheses. It uses the technological component of the cyborg to reintroduce physicality into the body’s construction, arguing that the body must be understood technologically and biologically as well as discursively. It invokes Elaine Scarry’s analysis of pain as the place where language breaks down to underscore that the body is alarmingly vulnerable in its physicality, a vulnerability no amount of discursive analysis can erase. Following N.O. Brown, it suggests that one way humans deal with this vulnerability is through technology; “technology is the symbolic fantasy of a sublimated inability to cope with the forces in the world beyond individual control.” (Marshall McLuhan, who carried this argument further than Brown, is oddly not mentioned.) It asks whether technology combats this inability to cope or extends it, shrewdly observing that there may be hope in the fact that technology, despite being the “fantasy cathexis of the body,” is nevertheless reassuringly mundane and comprehensible. When it doesn’t work, it can be fixed. Finally, it argues that a given line of technological development is never inevitable. We choose our technologies and how to use them. All things considered, this is not the worst ideology one could espouse.

Although I have been summarizing the text as if it puts forth a coherent argument, in fact the writing is dispersed across multiple hypertextual links and lexias, leaving to the reader the task of figuring out how they all go together - or if they go together. In a parallel seldom made explicit but resonant throughout, Greco has made use of hypertext technology to create a cyborg text, composed of heterogeneous parts joined together by electronic circuitry, including varying font sizes, different typefaces, multiple voices, and thousands of potential narrative paths. “The point is that you are doing it yourself,” one lexia proclaims, presumably addressing the reader as well as the writer. “Creating a world of electronic impulse, blips, patterns in the ether - out of writing. It’s where the world and the word meet in the late age of print. Entangle them, however briefly, and you’ve got a hypertext designer, the hybrid of textual artist and software engineer.” Greco is currently employed as a software consultant by the start-up company Eastgate Systems, a small firm that publishes the Storyspace software that she uses to create her text as well as such hypertext titles as Cyborg. I wish that she had developed this part of her argument more fully, for it provides a potential body of practice that she might have used to ground her arguments and give them more specificity.

Despite its flaws, Cyborg is an interesting attempt to find a discursive style and articulate an ideology that fits electronic hypertextual writing. Perhaps the best tribute I can pay it is to acknowledge that I cannot imagine it as a print text. Its hybrid form is so completely interwoven with the electronic prostheses through which we encounter it that the cyborg body is the text, and the text is the cyborg body. Which, I take it, is precisely Greco’s point.