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Always Already Cyborgs

Cyborg futures We have a tendency to think of cyborgs as a pure science fiction concept – a thing to come. But ever since Donna Haraway published her Cyborg Manifesto in 1985, a whole new perspective on cybernetic organisms has emerged: we were always already cyborgs.

In her seminal postmodern feminist essay, Haraway states: “We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.” The claim being made is that the distinctions we make between our biological matter and the technological world in which we live are largely artificial, or even contrived. Following in this vein, Professor of Architecture Andrew Ballantyne writes:

Just as for the hen, the nest and the eggshell are machines – one made internally in the body, the other made externally – so our houses are machines that help us to live, and we are parts of the mechanism that allow our houses to live. We are always already cyborgs. It is a matter of indifference under this description whether the parts of the machine are permanently connected (naturally developed within the body, or surgically implanted) or whether we just connect with them when we need them (as tools, casings, clothings, buildings).

The cultural theorist Joanna Zylinska links this train of thought to the work of the philosopher Bernard Stiegler, who reassessed the early palaeontological narratives and presented a new view of the history of early humans as “always already technological... emerging in-relation-to, and in-difference-with, his tools”. She notes: “The human is thus for Stiegler always already technological: he is co-constituted with and through technology (a flint, say) and depends on... "non-living organs" for his survival.”

From this foundation, Zylinska takes a bold step: she asks us to consider “what if the cyborg rather than the human had been adopted as [bioethics'] foundation? Or, to put it another way, what would a bioethics for humans, animals and machines look like?”

Welcome to the bioethics mini-campaign.

Next Tuesday I'll be running a review of Zylinska's new book Bioethics in the Age of New Media (which I was invited to endorse, and after reading it was delighted to do so), and later I'll be following this with a special dialogue with the author herself. Zylinska's work forms the Rosetta stone for this ethical adventure; her call for a new way of thinking about both life and the ethics of life will serve as inspiration for the pieces that follow, and I shall be riffing off her ideas while simultaneously working through my backlog of ethical topics including explorations of the ethical dimensions of reality TV, plastic surgery, and an entirely new look at the ever-inflammatory topic of abortion.

I hope you enjoy the “mini-campaign”, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts and considering your arguments in the comments over the weeks to come.

The opening image is Cyborg Futures by crescentsi, which I found here, part of his Flickr photostream. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


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Stretching the boundary that far is instructive. But then, how far does it stretch? Is the hen a cyborg, with its nest? Is a single-celled organism a cyborg, the sensitive innards protected by the manufactured cell wall? If not, how do the two cases differ? If so, what meaning (if any) remains in the term "cyborg"?

Peter: In the sense being used here, "cyborg" refers to an organism for whom personal development is affected by the technology that they have access to. The hen's nest is the full extent of the hen's technology, so I might say "proto-cyborg" for the hen (there is not much variety in the personality of hens produced by variation in their nests). The protozoan has no technology beyond its biological remit and so is not a cyborg in the sense used here.

So in answer to your question, the boundary of "cyborg" as used here is probably at the rook and the ape, whose tools may create different potentialities for the organism, but the full potentiality of the cyborg is currently expressed solely among humans.

This is consistent with Gregory Bateson's cybernetic descriptions of biological and ecological systems. I strongly approve.

[I had to delete your original comment, whomever you are, because your name entry was too many characters and caused problems with Typepad]

This is Crescentsi (usually known as Simon). Thanks for using my picture, in a very relevent way. Also interesting writing :-)

Very happy for you to use my picture as you have linked to my Flickr page and you have credited me as the artist.

I'd wish you'd let me know though!!
Best wishes

Simon: Sorry for not notifying you! An oversight on my part. Many thanks for the permission to use the image!

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