Bastards of Technology

Chris Hables Gray, ed.,
with Heidi Figueroa-Sarriera
and Steven Mentor

The Cyborg Handbook


WHAT DO ROBOCOP, a dialysis patient, and a Gulf War bomber pilot have in common? They're all cyborgs--humans linked to mechanical devices upon which their physiologies (or job descriptions) depend. First named in 1960 by space-age research scientist Manfred E. Clynes and clinical psychiatrist Nathan S. Kline, the term initially referred to "self-regulating man-machine systems" designed for extraterrestrial life. Since then, the cyborg has achieved a trickle-down persona, growing from a mostly fantastic construct to a complex and contradictory reality.

The Cyborg Handbook, a hefty compilation of writings that span decades and continents, attempts to address this reality, and does so both literally and metaphorically. It includes reprints of historic NASA papers; a critique of high technology in the Persian Gulf War; a deconstruction of a McDonnell-Douglas help-wanted ad; writings by sci-fi legend Philip K. Dick and transgender techno-theorist Sandy Stone; and a lengthy biblio/filmography. The scope of the book is a bit dizzying. But the picture it paints of our cultural romance with cybernetics is a compelling one.

That romance blossomed in the years immediately following World War II--and it's no wonder. The atomic bomb had been designed and deployed, the U.S. economy was booming, and we had a new enemy on whom all national problems could be conveniently blamed. What better creature to represent American omnipotence than the strong, efficient, and rational cyborg?

And what better venue for it than outer space? Übermensch life in space became a central preoccupation for cyborg progenitors Clynes and Kline. Their first essay, which dates from the psychopharmacopoeia-happy '60s, proposes the drug-induced modification of astronauts--men who were truly merged with their machines--including prolonged cycles of hibernation and wakefulness. ("For flights of... even a few months," they blithely proclaim, "... it would appear desirable to keep the astronaut continuously awake and fully alert...") In a subsequent and oddly poignant essay, Clynes concerns himself with the effects on the astronaut of long periods of isolation in space, describing a series of meditative exercises designed to console the astronaut by guiding him or her through a full range of sentic (emotional) states. These essays bracket two poles of cyborg theory: on one hand, an unbounded enthusiasm for the benefits conferred by the machine aspect of the human/ machine pairing; on the other, a response to the human needs emergent in new and unfamiliar situations.

Recently, cyborg theory has expanded to address more intimate man-machine pairings (i.e., prosthetic devices), as well as the cyborg's capacity for fluid self-representation. It's the latter which has captured the imagination of many social critics. The cyborg represents a metaphoric opportunity to get beyond issues of gender and race: Without nationality, color, or sex, the cyborg implies an identity unhindered by taboos against homosexual, interracial, or cross-cultural contact. In a way, it's a radical analog of the identity blurring which the Internet makes possible, where invisible users can assume identities at will.

But cyborgs, at least as manifest in pop culture, have yet to catch up to the theory. Cynthia J. Fuchs, in her deconstruction of RoboCop, the Terminator films, and other genre movies, considers the simultaneously permeable and phallic 'borg a projection of white male heterosexual anxieties about the end of masculinity. In other essays, cyborgs are shown to reflect our most stereotypic social and political constructs: Men wear enhanced weapons systems, as in the Persian Gulf War, extending their agency into the world. Women conceal internal mechanisms like so much subdermal Norplant, or become the anonymous, legally accountable technology that the human fetus (or pre-natal cyborg, if you will) depends upon. We sit attached to our Macs, while our kids are attached to their Nintendos. Instead of moving closer to each other, we become more estranged.

So where does this leave us? I like Bruce Mazlish's take most of all. He considers the cyborg the outcome of a human rite of passage, the last in a series of attempts to assimilate what he terms the four discontinuities: the cosmos, our relationship to other animals, the unconscious, and, finally, the machine. Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud each in their turn provided answers to these questions. We rely upon the human construct called cyborg, which in its turn raises questions about the very meaning of being human--questions which The Cyborg Handbook, voluminous as it is, only begins to answer.

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