The Cyborg and the Net: Figures of the Technological Subject

By Gaggi, Silvio | Bucknell Review, June 2002 | Go to article overview

The Cyborg and the Net: Figures of the Technological Subject


Gaggi, Silvio, Bucknell Review


AT this moment in the evolution or devolution of the postmodern, technological subject, two figures have emerged that evoke the dreams and anxieties associated with an imagined future into whose reality we are rapidly rushing. The cyborg and the net: the cyborg, an incarnated, material, entity, a bricolage constructed of organic and inorganic, natural and artificial elements; the network, a conceptual, electronic space navigated in a way analogous to the way one finds one's way through an unknown city, struggling to build a conceptual map, getting lost and confused, blissfully or frightfully decentered, like playing in a labyrinth whose organization we fear we will or will not master. These two figures recapitulate an ancient binarism: the material, the carnal, the real; the mental, the spiritual, the ideal. But the distinction between them is not always so clear--a cybernetic prosthesis is a virtual limb; the Internet is a mental prosthesis--and their implications spill one into the other in many ways, as well. These figures, which recur in the artistic production of the contemporary world, are also realities that we experience in the technology of everyday life. They embody both the positive and negative hopes and possibilities we experience as we enter the new millennium.

In a sense, humans always have been cyborgs because they have always used tools to supplement and extend themselves, physically and mentally as well. However, at this point technological supplements have become so ubiquitous, the relationship between the human and her tools so intimate, and the line between them at times so seamless, that a new entity, one that transgresses categories of human and technological, has emerged. It is not just a matter of using tools to extend our "selves." It is a matter of becoming "one" with our tools. But this is a "one" that is fluid and provisional, a "one" constructed of parts that can be deconstructed and reconstructed, that can morph slowly or quickly into different "ones." It is a one that, because it is so obviously provisional, challenges the notion of a permanent and unitary subject and provokes us to doubt the existence of that subject. Or, at least, to attempt carefully to locate whatever residue of an abiding subject there is that may remain, to look for the "ghost in the shell" (to appropriate the tide of the Japanese anime film in which cyborgs figure significantly).

For Donna Haraway the cyborg is a central reality and metaphor for the subject in the contemporary world. The body is extended and the skin is penetrated by inorganic, technological supplements that create a hybrid subject that transgresses conventional categories: categories of gender and race as well as the categories distinguishing machine and human. In her "Manifesto for Cyborgs" she writes, for example, that "'women of color' might be understood as a cyborg identity, a potent subjectivity synthesized from fusions of outsider identities," and she identifies three broad categories of boundary transgression that are signaled by the cyborg: the boundary between the human and the animal, the boundary between the organic and the machine, and the boundary between the physical and the nonphysical. (1)

The technological penetration of the body may be experienced as a violation, a kind of technological rape; the history of technology as a tool for violation, incarceration, surveillance, and psychological and social invasion hardly needs to be argued. But technology need not be used this way, or at least that is the hope. Many writers and activists are struggling to identify strategies for turning technology into a tool for checking hegemonic power and enlarging rather than limiting freedom. A collection of essays entitled Technoculture describes various such strategies, utilized by individuals involved in activities such as computer hacking, rap music, and alternative video. (2) Haraway describes a strategy of working in the "belly of the monster," (3) of relinquishing the dream of change brought about by agents working from an "objective" position outside the system and instead entering the system of late capitalism in its high-tech mode and altering that system as an agent from within, surrounded by it. …

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