Corporate Cyborgs or Cyborg Cooperation?
By Kristina Semenova & Hannes Raßmann
In science fiction worlds, the iconic image of the cyborg, a human/animal-machine-hybrid which comes in many forms, has always had an ambiguous role to play. In the imaginary of technophile-progressivist circles, it has been a signifier of technological progress, a techno-secular man-machine-prophecy about outpacing ageing, abolishing disease and overcoming the impermanence of the human body.1 On the other end of the spectrum, bioconservatists would regard cyborgs as an unethical transgression of the clear separation between natural and technological spheres, yet another way of further aggravating the gap between the "capable" and the "incapable", the rich and the poor, those with access and those without.2 Dystopian versions of the cyborg have populated movie screens for many decades – figures such as Robocop, the Borg from Star Trek, Darth Vader from Star Wars represent an uncanny merging of technology and the human body. Depicted as the offspring and the cumulating of hyper-technical civilizations and their military-scientific complexes, those negative cyborg images were somewhat dominant in popular culture. Only recently can one notice a shift towards more appealing images of cyborgs such as in Marge Piercy’s cyberpunk novel "He, she and it" in which the cyborg becomes so human that it ultimately raises the question of what it actually means to be human in the first place.3 Caspar Battegay writes for an exhibition in the Jewish Museum in Berlin that Piercy’s cyborg "also contains a promise of freedom" and that the "secret of artificial intelligence is not its intelligence, but the moment of liberation." 4
Somewhere in between those two poles of affirmation and refusal, post-human thinking and tinkering explores the possibilities of new affinities and alliances between humans and other lifeforms, the ways in which technology might foster the multiplicity of modes of existence which could arise in a post-anthropocentric world. If in the past, those disputes about the potentialities and threats of a merging between organism and machine would be fought out merely in relation to what could be. Now, it is becoming clearer that cyborgs have simultaneously inhabited and co-evolved both science fiction and real worlds. Due to this new materiality of the cyborg, now being a real-world phenomenon, the discursive confrontations have become more fierce between transhumanism and posthumanism. While the former can be regarded as a heterogeneous gathering point of advocates of various techno-fixes for human ailments of all sorts and, the latter serves as a banner under which feminist, post-gender, radical D.I.Y. and open source/access activists and scholars gather. Posthuman thinkers such as Rosi Braidotti, Donna Haraway, Katherine Hayles argue against the neurocentric imperative of transhumanist obsession with the brain as the only body part that really matters.5 But what are all the exchanged words and thoughts, books, pamphlets, manifestos and scientific publications good for?
Today, it seems, profit-driven technological acceleration in many areas of science and technology has reached a point which makes it rather difficult to keep up with. Research and development of multi-billion dollar corporations is creating facts of its own and most new technologies are readily put on the market and bought into by consumers without hesitation. Small, slim and barely noticeable gadgets, wearables and implants are making their way into mainstream culture. Smartphones, smart homes and smart cities are weaving a cyborgish environment around us while transplantation and bio-medicine serves as a vehicle of pioneering the subdermal application of technology. Meanwhile, bionics, the science of constructing artificial body parts, is virtually exploding with the application of new technologies and materials.6 Together with genetics, biomedicine and design, many industrious minds dedicate all their ingenuity to radically altering the prospects of what can be done with and to a human body today and in the years to come. Google’s director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil, probably the most prominent transhumanist and propagator of the technological singularity, wants to "live long enough to live forever".7 And with every new invention in those aforementioned fields, it seems that his wish becomes a little more likely. 8
One of the most well-established bionic technologies and an example of the transgression of the human body and its sensual (in)capacities is the Cochlear Implant (CI). Since its invention in 1957, the implant has been constantly developed and was since then implanted in hundreds of thousands of people. Since its introduction, the CI has been controversially debated among members of deaf communities worldwide where it is perceived by some as a threat to deaf culture. While some fear the normalizing pressure of prostheses, others view them as tools to experiment with in order to overcome ones own bodily limitations. The CI implantee and self-proclaimed cyborg Enno Park, chairman of the association Cyborgs in Berlin, has pointed out the possibilities of such an endeavor: "I’d love to be able to hack and modify my cochlear implant in order to do all kinds of interesting things with it. For example enable myself to hear ultrasound, so I could hear not only the chirp of the birds but also the one of the bats." Despite of his interest in modifying his implant, Park was not able to due to the strict regulations (e.g. intellectual property rights) of the required information (software) and the providing company’s monopoly on the implant (hardware). (Bio)hackers like Park use open source technology or hack conventional devices in order to implant them in their bodies. Be it a tiny magnet under the skin of the fingertip which vibrates when the implantee is near electromagnetic fields and thereby adds a new sense to its wearer. Or a device which is located under the skin in the arm and records various body functions that can be read out simultaneously. There is an innumerable amount of modifications, implants and wearables the bio-hacker movement has already come up with in gloomy basements, maker spaces and wet labs. Instead of normalizing the body, they aim to change it and transgress its given boundaries.9 This and similar examples show that a prosthesis and hence forms of cyborgization can serve as a means of either normalization of the body (e.g. hearing) or, contrary to that, as a means of self-determined bodily transgression.
When it comes to making sense of the developments in those contested discursive fields, not only science and technology studies, philosophy or social anthropology have had important contributions to make. Both historically and in current discourses, artists from various fields engage with the most pressing questions that we see ourselves confronted with by somewhat unchecked technological developments.
Hybrids between human and machine are quite an early image in the visual arts. "Dada-cyborgs" calls the art historian Matthew Biro the art experiments of the Berlin DADA-movement with newly invented photo montages which "explore the mutable characteristics of human (and often female) identity in modern technological societies."10 By blurring the static borders between different genders through hybridization of human body parts and machines, Hanna Höch created in her collages like "The Beautiful Girl" (1919-1920) or "Russian Dancer (My Double)" (1928) the image of the "new woman", which suggested "open-ended forms of female existence and resisted narrow definitions and one-sided role models".11 At the same time, in the beginning 20th century, the founder of Russian Cosmism, Nikolai Fedorov, demands that people ought to use science and technology to overcome death itself. In his utopia, he doesn’t merely include the living but instead proposes the resurrection of all the people who have lived on earth, in his opinion, the only feasible way to do justice to all. Despite his universalist aspirations, he speaks only about sons and their fathers in his depictions of the "common cause".12 Females, in contrast, are not so much in the focus of what we today could very well interpret as a post-human cyborgean present. In spite of such biases, one might ask, when all humans become either super individualized (customization!) cyborg entities or merge into a cyborgish post-individual collective, where would be the need for such humanely things such as reproduction, love or intimacy?
Fast forward more than half a century and several waves of feminist struggles later, a positive vision of woman-machine alliances was developed by Donna Haraway in the 1980s, conceiving both social and bodily realities and the universal notion of women’s shared experience.13 The figure of the cyborg in her work "operates as a positive indicator of what might emerge from the alliance between feminism and technology." 14 Haraway (re)constructs the image of the cyborg, "the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism" as a departure point from which to start a journey into unknown territories of gender abolition, post-anthropocentrism, a post-essentialist world of affinity instead of identity politics which is based on the free association of groups and individuals. She writes that "my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work."15 Even though Haraway embraces technology for her vision as well, the emphasis here is on "lived social and bodily realities", on practices and relations instead of a reified body. She wants to resolve "the opposition between the organic and the technological, the animal and the human" and is more interested in the "contact zones" and what kind of frictions and entanglements are taking shape in them.
In regard to this very idea of the contact zone, artists can make an important contribution to enliven them in their art practice. If back in the days of modernism, artists used the potentiality of a hybrid figure to think into the future, a place of imagination rather than interaction, contemporary artists approach the cyborg with what has by now a very material basis. What are the implications for artists who work in a field which is increasingly populated by real cyborgish humans instead of images of the future? What new opportunities of collaborative work with "cyborg audiences" arise and what ethical implications must a posthuman art deal with?
New York based Neil Harbisson does experiment with his own body limitation and becomes the first cyborg artist by implanting an antenna with a camera and a sensor to his skull in order to receive colors from other people’s cameras via the internet.16 American conceptual artist Lynn Hershman Leeson explores, from her early images of woman-machines like "X-Ray Woman" (1966), or "Giggling Machine, Self Portrait as Blonde" (1968) the figure of the cyborg with its promising potential for emancipation, the enabling of a post-gender situation and speculates about human and non-human forms of agency.17 The augmented body, the cyborg as a utopia, a nightmare, the trivial new normal? Those and other questions are posed in the work of transdisciplinary artist Marie-Eve Levasseur who "examines a potential situation, in which the human skin would mutate into a tactile screen" and explores notions of technology and tactility, inter-species communication, embodied knowledge archives and links those themes with topical societal developments, emerging social movements and philosophy in artworks such as "An Inverted System to feel (your shared agenda)" or "Chatroom Fabulation".18
The artistic work on posthuman conditions can create contact zones for abstraction, consideration but also concrete collaboration, allowing for the further exploration of these questions on the entanglement between technology and human. Working with not only visual, but also the biological and mechanical, artists represent scientific advancements in their art and undertake new forms of research such as documented in the collaborative art project and publication the multispecies salon.19 The artistic practices mentioned above show how meaningful and emphatic interpretations and visualizations of a reality, new bold narratives and ways of trans-species storytelling about a world of unquestioned technological acceleration are. Such artistic approaches would neither join the choir of those, heralding the arrival of a new technology driven salvation, nor would it reject technology as inherently oppressive or malicious. Rather, they would embrace the complexity and contradictions which the contact zone and frictions between constantly changing technological, cultural and biological regimes create.
1 Kurzweil, Ray (2005). The Singularity is Near. New York: Viking Books; Hughes, James (2004). Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future. USA: Westview Press.
2 Sandel, Michael (2007). The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.; Kass, Leon (2003). Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics. San Francisco: Encounter Books.
3 Piercy, Marge (1991). He, she and it. New York: Knopf
6 Since the first implantable pacemaker in 1958 the field saw some stunning successes and is by today established both in and outside of medicine. Research and development in bionic technologies is producing ever new technological facts of its own and constantly shifts the boundary between the biological and the technical. From artificial lungs, hearts or kidneys to bionic arms and retinal implants – there is virtually no limb or organ for which a near-term future bionic counterpart is planned or at least developed both in medical labs and within the greater open-source community. Meanwhile, the neurological frontier is claimed by big tech companies such as Elon Musks Neuralink which plans the first clinical trials of its newly developed brain-computer-interface for 2020, openly picturing this to be only a first step into a making the technology a "choice" for everyone who wishes (and, of course, posses the necessary funds) to merge his brain with the internet and ultimately, AI.
8 The Bionics Institute is a biomedical research institute focusing on medical bionics. See
http://www.bionicsinstitute.org/For an open source alternative company, see Open bionics which develops affordable, assistive devices that enhance the human body. https://openbionics.com/
9 Delfanti, Alessandro (2013). Biohackers. The Politics of Open Science,London: Pluto Books.
10 Biro, Mathew (2016). The Dada Cyborg: Visions of the New Human in Weimar, USA: University Of Minnesota Press, pp. 201.
11 Ibid. chapter "The The New Woman as Cyborg Gender, Race, and Sexuality in the Photomontages of Hannah Höch", pp. 199-240.
12 Hagermeister, Michael&Groys, Boris (2005). The New Humankind. Biopolitical Utopias in Russia at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
13 Haraway, Donna (1985). A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.
14 Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls - Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body, London, New York:I.B.Tauris, pp. 21.
15 Haraway, ibid., pp. 151, pp.154.