Cyborg Research Paper

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In its first definition, a cyborg—literally a contraction of ‘cybernetic organism’—was a machine human hybrid with skills and survival abilities not available to human beings alone. This definition remains wide-spread both in science and technology studies, and in science fiction. More recently, the hybrid character of the cyborg has been emphasized in additional ways. In particular, it has been defined as an active mixture of fact and fiction, intended as a political tool to transform desirable fictions into facts.

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1. Scientific, Technical, And Military Origins

The word ‘cyborg’ was coined by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline (1960) in a paper presented to a symposium on the Psychophysiological Aspects of Space Flight sponsored by the US Air Force School of Aviation Medicine.

In the context of the challenges posed to human survival in space, and reflecting on the unsatisfactory temporizing needed to provide air and other support systems, Clynes and Kline wrote: ‘For the exogenously extended organizational complex functioning as an integrated homeostatic system unconsciously, we pro-pose the term ‘‘Cyborg.’’’ They went on to write: ‘The purpose of the Cyborg … is to provide an organizational system in which … robot-like problems are taken care of automatically and unconsciously, leaving man free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel.’ They listed a series of possible enhancements including both available techniques and imaginative possibilities for enhancing wakefulness, radiation resistance, reduced metabolic demands, oxygen transport, fluid balance, and cardiovascular control.

The ‘cyborg’ reflects the development of the discipline of cybernetics in the USA in the Cold War. The central concepts of the discipline were developed in an influential series of annual conferences between 1943 and 1954 funded by the MACY Foundation. The major theme of the early MACY conferences was the primacy of information over the material. The aim was to develop a theory of communication and control applicable to humans, animals, and machines alike. The crucial move was to treat organisms and the new machines, computers, as self-controlled and self-regulating information-processing systems. Key figures in this work were Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann, Warren McCulloch, and Claude Shannon. During the 1950s and 1960s, cybernetics was closely related to work on defense and space exploration. Cybernetically informed research and conferences on bionics, human augmentation, teleoperators, and bio-telemetry were funded by the US military and NASA (1963). The concern was with the close coupling of man and machine in weapons systems, the control of human behavior in extreme situations, and augmenting human sensing, intelligence, and decision making under conditions such as combat flying and space travel. This context led to the development of the cyborg as an analytic concept and as a possible socio-techno-scientific assemblage.

2. Cultural Contexts

Cyborg-like creatures also proliferated in popular culture where they were used to explore the visionary potential of human–nonhuman hybrids and the mixture of science fact and fiction.

Much 1950s and 1960s science fiction and film was modernist, being either utopian or dystopian. Often it either celebrated or problematized modernity and multinational capitalism, with their futuristic and/or threatening visions of space exploration, nuclear energy, and genetic engineering. It also explored the social, personal, and political threats of invasion by machinelike, coldly rational, and alien others. At the same time, more ‘postmodern’ themes were also visible. Boundary disputes around the human body were explored, together with issues of otherness and difference in human nonhuman encounters. Since 1970, and especially in film, difference has become less threatening, sometimes coming close to dissolution. Aliens and cyborgs have often been pictured more like friendly relatives than hostile invaders. Sometimes, as in Ridley Scott’s 1992 Blade Runner, they appear more human or humane and less alienated than humans.

At the same time, formerly exotic technologies (cyberspace, virtual life, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, organ transplants, and xenobiology) have been commodified and domesticated. This is also reflected in cyberpunk, the science fiction sub-genre or genre that grew up in the 1980s (see William Gibson’s Neuromancer 1984). The cyberpunk literature, often cast in a melancholy mood, wavers between euphoria and nostalgia. It explores the dissolution of human nonhuman distinctions through electronic technologies, genetic engineering, and the consumer culture controlled by multinational business. Overall, this hugely popular branch of contemporary science fiction has circulated science facts and fictions to such a degree that the cyborg characters of its novels, films, and television series are familiar to an almost global audience.

At the same time, the traffic between science and science fiction is two-way. An early example of the fantasies inhabiting science is found in The World, the Flesh, and the De il (1929), a novel by radical British scientist J. D. Bernal. Since Bernal, science fiction has fuelled developments and informed research and development priorities. Science fiction influences can also be found in contemporary techno-science work on cyborgs: in immersive virtual life applications such as ‘cybersuits’; in the bio-robots of artificial life labs; in the development of the bionic chip; and in the diagnostic DNA technology, the ‘GeneChip.’

3. Appreciation

In The Communist Manifesto Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels notoriously observed that ‘all that is solid melts into air.’ This observation of the erosive character of nineteenth century capitalism prefigures a trope and movement that accelerated during the twentieth century. This is a tendency towards what might be described as ‘ontological softening,’ the erosion of distinctions between categories and realities that were previously taken to be stable and discrete. Systems thinking, cybernetics, the growth of models of reality as codes of information, and the increasing use of prostheses all tend to problematize previously more stable distinctions. At the same time, they treat future versions of those distinctions as temporarily stabilized expressions of larger, system-based, relations. In both popular culture and techno-science, the cyborg has participated in this process of ontological softening. It has blurred and rendered problematic the distinctions between people and machines, fact and fiction, mind and body, and real and virtual.

At the same time, in the more recent literatures of both social science and science fiction, it has also reflected postmodern skepticism about the limits of organization, the coherence of systems, and the centered, rational, and disembodied picture of human subjectivity implicit in the earlier work of authors such as Clynes and Kline. Instead, reasoning, conscious-ness, and conscience are seen as more or less unstable or incoherent effects reflecting the mobile and some-times multiple identities of high modernity. The cyborg has thus become a vehicle for political critique. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the writing of feminist techno-science author Donna J. Haraway, although it is also to be found by others writing within women’s studies feminist theory, postcolonial cultural studies, science studies, and cyborg anthropology.

Haraway (1985) offers a radical political analysis of the dystopic, gendered, and military character of the 1960s cyborg and the individualist and frontier oriented society from which it emerged. This critique is linked to a vision of the social world as simultaneously non-coherent and exploitative. The cyborg becomes a liberatory set of partial connections between human and nonhuman on the one hand, and a political reality and politically liberatory myth on the other. Seen as a creature located in and produced by partial incoherences, it becomes an ironic figure which participates in and interferes with the current ‘state of disorder’ to enact better alternative futures. This feminist cyborg thus both extends and rejects earlier work. On the one hand, it continues to soften ontology, but on the other hand, it no longer locates this within a single control-related cybernetic logic. Partially coherent and situated, cyborgs are radical political images that seek to take us beyond system on the one hand and individualism on the other.

4. Conclusion

The cyborg concept is a creature of the dissolving character of modernity as it yields space to post-modernity. In this, the human is no longer necessarily central and is replaced by a set of heterogeneous functions. The particular way this dissolution has taken place reflects its circumstances, and in particular US military concerns (command, control, centralization, self-regulation) and US individualism (anarchism, frontier imagery, the lone, self-reliant (usually male) person against both the system and anarchy). These two circumstances are in tension, as is visible in the differences between cybernetics and cyberpunk. But they are also in tension with a further vision of the cyborg as a form of post-individualist political interference. This resonates with a particularly US version of radical politics which attempts to avoid both holism and individualism in an area of ontological softening and mobile identities.


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