IIn modern life, the first Cyborgs were black slaves captured
and taken to the Americas to work on vast plantations, which were run not
as communities but as capitalist enterprises. These man-machines were not
expected to have feelings or ideas of their own, but to work and produce
offspring that would work; they were maintained and bred selectively for
different kinds of labour. Treated not so much as animals but as man-machines,
semi-human but undeserving of human status: at the heart of the masters'
dread was the knowledge that they could never control what they had created.
The Otherness of the black slave and repeated denial of his human-ness engendered
a fear and anxiety in colonial-antebellum society that is mirrored in the
unease and anxiety toward the Cyborg man-machine in 20th century culture.
The application of proto-industrial capitalist ideologies and methods is what distinguishes modern Western slaveholding from that of the ancient world or, indeed, from that existing concurrently in the Near East and Africa.
It is not only racial exploitation which has engendered Cyborgian Otherness and thus tapped into the "uncanny" unease; as Sadie Plant points out, "Look[ing] at for example the historical connection between women and machines. The way in which women have been effectively used as machine parts for the reproduction of the species." (Plant Switch, 1999) Of course, the monstrous, reproducing female is a motif recurrent in both Western and Eastern cultures, and is a subject Korean exhibiting artist Lee Bul has explored in her performance work. And given recent developments in reproductive technologies (the possibilities of cloning, stem cell research) this issue has an urgency and relevance in a time when western discourse on women's control of their bodies has been pronounced over and done with.
The time of the Cyborg is already with us. The machine can uplift and give new life to that clapped-out, limited, hunk of flesh, Man. Rationally, goes this dogma, Man is already a kind of faulty machine - his life and habits can be improved through mechanistic, controlled prescriptions. This is the capitalist context of the Cyborg. Even in the domestic sphere, consumer machinery promises freedom and improved life. The machine becomes a part of you: the part that does the dishes, exercises the flab away, mows the lawn, cleans the house, cooks the food and so on. Once used, the machine becomes as indispensable as if fuelled by arteries and attached by flesh tendons.
And so, through the application of science and reason to human life, the mechanistic notion of market and the industrialisation of labour, we create the ideal minion: the half-man, half machine, half-mad Cyborg-peasant, a semi-robot, dependent on machines and made dependent by the purchase and upkeep of the machines. And perhaps it's not just "machines." Until the end of the 80's brought the arms race - at least for now - to a close, the 20th century belonged to physics. By the mid-90's, as nuclear physicist Vitaly Ginsberg noted, "now it's the era of Dolly the Sheep. The next century belongs to biology, and the horrors we humans create for ourselves will be biological." So we can say goodbye to the Robocop-like image of the cyborg.
But is this the case? Or is this the view of ourselves that we have been sold? As Masonori Oda says:
>> I cannot remember when I started to hate robots and Cyborgs. Probably from the time when nature was lost, since we are now living in a condition like that of the techno-aided robots. By now, we ourselves are Cyborgs and the Cyborg is me. Hatred towards Cyborgs is the hatred owing to close relations. So then, what am I plugged into? Or what am I manipulated by? And who programmed my consciousness and memories? (Oda, "Welcoming the Libido..." The Uncanny, 260)
Nina Levitt's installation, "Wave" features one of the most haunting images in the show: grainy black and white footage of the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova - a tiny human embedded in a large cosmonaut helmet and suit, looking down at us from uncomprehensibly far away, and waving. Such a basic, human gesture.
Which brings us to the other, alternative reading of the Cyborg in contemporary culture. Does there have to be a dichotomy? Does the Cyborg have to be a powerless puppet of capitalism's excesses? Does there have to be a choice between "Nature" and "culture?" And if so, who decides what's "natural" or "cultural?" Do we have to keep trying to remake and perfect the human?
If we are already creating a Cyborgian future for ourselves -- by embracing the possibilities of virtual reality, cyberspace and so on, and sliding out of the traditionalist boundaries of race, gender, national identity and culture, which can't keep up with technological reality -- then maybe we can also claim our Cyborg selves and instead of accepting a certain reading of Cyborgism foisted upon us, choose instead to be autonomous Cyborgs, the Cyborgs we want to be. So in this way, the Cyborg identity becomes an agent of resistance.
However, plus ca change:
>> The real problem is that science and technology are developed, deployed, and controlled by the predatory system of pan-capitalism.["production, consumption, and order"] The mainstream development of knowledge and technology is guided by increased efficiency in militarized production of violence and/or by potential corporate profits in civilian markets. If a scientific producer cannot demonstrate a connection with at least one of these two possibilities, little if any investment in scientific initiatives will be forthcoming. (Critical Art Ensemble Flesh Machines)
In the end, as Bruce Grenville concludes, "we must look at the image of the Cyborg as a cipher, effectively shifting and evolving with our own anxiety and desire so that we may give meaning to the technological ethos in which we live." (Grenville, The Uncanny, 48)
Gillian McIver 3.15.02
Gillian McIver grew up in Vancouver, Canada and works in video, photo-art and site-specific installation. She has lived in Europe since 1990. She studied film, video and digital arts at the University of Westminster in London. She is a founding member of the Luna Nera international group of artist/curators.
Year01 Forum Index
house mechanic working on steam pump, 1925
Installation view of "Wave" from Gravity, 1997-98
The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture. Edited by Bruce Grenville. Vancouver Art Gallery/Arsenal Pup Press, 2002.
Donna J. Harraway, "Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleManŠ_Meets_OncoMouse." Feminism and Technoscience. New York and London: Routledge, 1997.
Critical Art Ensemble,Flesh Machines
Survival Research Laboratories http://www.srl.org/
"Survival Research Laboratories was conceived of and founded by Mark Pauline in November 1978. Since its inception SRL has operated as an organization of creative technicians dedicated to re-directing the techniques, tools, and tenets of industry, science, and the military away from their typical manifestations in practicality, product or warfare."
Lee Bul http://www.leebul.com
Tony Oursler http://www.oursler.net/tonyoursler.html
Takashi Murakami, curator. Superflat Henry Art Gallery http://www.henryart.org/superflat.htm
Sadie Plant Switch 1999 http://switch.sjsu.edu/web/v5n1/plant/ Sadie Plant Interview by Brett Stalbaum and Geri Wittig http://www.t0.or.at/sadie/intervw.htm http://www.altx.com/int2/sadie.plant.html