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Cyborgs: unashamedly tainted

Lecture by Karin Spaink, held during Wiretap 5.12.

It's a very catchy phrase, this 'cyborg' thing, and it holds all kinds of sweet promises. Of cybernetics and organisms all nicely fused into one new verbal hybrid, something that is both natural and technical. Images of flashy, brightly clad slim bodies immediately appear in the mind's eye. Modern, isn't it, this cyborg thingie? Ah yes, surely. State of the art technology and ditto theory, too! Wow. Where can I get some, and far more important: how do I get to become one? It's this year's fashion, isn't it, and I don't want to look outdated. Outmoded. You know, like Windows 3.11.

Ah, but that's not what it is. At present, cyborg theory is often reproducing the same old hierarchies that we were brought up with all along. The same dull mind / body split that cyborg-theories could very well disrupt are more often dressed up all anew, invoking modern lingo to conceal how old-fashioned at heart they are. Because although these images seem shiny, attractive, and vanguard, usually they are just rearranging and redefining stale terms. We are witnessing the development of a new interpretation of a very old dichotomy. Only this time it is not phrased as 'body versus mind', but as 'meat versus RAM'. Is all this talk of the free-roaming mind in cyberspace, of the surfing mind that hooks up to computers at will, of travelling at the speed of light, and of the interfaced body not simply a redefinition of, and a broadening of, 'mind'? And is the dislike - and sometimes utter disgust - that we find among cyberactivists and cybertheorists for what is sometimes referred to as 'just stupid meat' (to quote William Gibson) and 'meat space' not simply a rephrasing of 'mind over matter', couched in a modern vocabulary? Isn't it just that we are stretching our definitions of what 'the mind' is, is supposed to be and what it can, or may achieve - meanwhile paring down the vast space and reservoir of meaning that is encompassed in the word 'the body'? In linguistic terms, everything that has the word 'cyber' attached to it, is plainly imperialistic. It colonises terrains and disciplines, calls it theirs, and it robs many good terms of their meaning.

The derogatory neglect of the body in many speculations on virtual reality, cyberspace, and cyborgs, is self-deceiving. People are - if you really want to couch them in computer terminology - first and foremost wetware, the missing link between software and hardware. The body is, just like the mind, a pre-requisite; without it there is no cyber-nothing. We need it, if only "to drape the computer around. You won't get rid of your body [in cyberspace], instead it becomes the heart of the machine," as Dutch journalist Marianne van den Boomen correctly stated. "The machine literally becomes anthropomorphous. What is happening is not transcending the body, but rather a form of appropriation, of making the machine more humanlike."

I dislike discussing bodies and minds as if they were separate entities, nor do I believe that nature and technology can be so easily parsed and distinguished. As a matter of fact, I do not favour such dichotomies. The categories on either side of a dichotomy are always antagonistic, binary and - now that's funny - they presuppose each other. Neither of them can stand on their own. (A body without a mind is a stiff, a mind without a body is superstition.) Such binary oppositions form closed, self-reproducing systems where the one presupposes, or constructs, the other. 'Nature' is such a category. 'Nature', rumour has it, isn't doing too well these days; and therefore, 'nature' needs to be protected and shielded and saved. But perhaps this division between nature & culture is not a valid one to begin with; if there ever was an untainted nature, not influenced by culture, it got tainted from the moment when man-like creatures started to roam the earth. (But hey - aren't humans part of nature? We didn't arrive from outer space, did we? So were we indeed the ones who tainted nature? But if we are a part of nature, then how can we --- )

The point is that what we nowadays consider to be 'nature' is a carefully tended cultured phenomenon. 'Nature' is a Disney park, with tray cans and road signs along its paths. 'Nature' is a jungle scene in a Marlboro ad. 'Nature' is a computer enhanced photograph of a microbe under a microscope. 'Nature' is imported US ladybirds, to be used in Dutch greenhouses, where they are to eat the lice. 'Nature' is breeding programs in zoos, developed to prevent species from extinction. 'Nature' is a draught in North Africa, and a creeping desert, which came about because the soil was overexploited and died.

'Nature' and 'culture' interfere with each other, and change one another profoundly, to the point where one becomes the other. When European governments noticed that phosphates in washing powders stimulated the growth of algae to such an extent that other river inhabitants were dying due to of lack of air, endless deliberations ensued about the question how washing powder manufacturers could reduce the amount of phosphates in detergents. Currently, almost every washing powder is phosphate free - but the ecosystems of rivers had meanwhile adapted so well to high phosphate levels, that it transpired that reducing the level of phosphate disrupted the balance (yet again) and caused a new problems. (This brings to mind the hilarious image of addicted rivers.) And by the way, a recent survey of vegetation in Amsterdam showed that there was more variety and a greater range of rare species in Amsterdam than in those regions surrounding it that were marked as 'natural areas'.

Nature's not what it used to be, you can say that again. But on the other hand, neither is culture.

Most cyborg theory is of no use, precisely for that reason. Most people tend to forget that 'natural bodies' and 'technological bodies' can no longer be separated, that there is no 'hidden' part in us that is natural and which has overlays that are technological. Technology is no superposed structure that can be removed, and underneath which something 'pure' may be found.

In that sense, and only in that sense, I find it very useful to point out that we - you and me - are all cyborgs already; stating this is a good means to explain there is no split between technology and bodies; that we are, in fact, technological by nature, and natural through technology.

Some examples.

For medical reasons, people are operated upon and for health's sake - or sometimes in order to function a bit more effectively - we append instruments and fixtures in, or to, our body. People wear glasses, contact lenses, dentures, hearing aids, have by-passes, plastic septums in coke-crazed noses, artificial hipbones, a colostomy, metal heart valves, plastic arteries, a pace-maker, a second-hand kidney, silicon breasts, a prosthesis to replace an arm or a foot. And we nevertheless still refer to ourselves as creatures of flesh and blood.

We add extensions to our body in order to communicate: a walkman, a portable phone, a beeper or portable phone we never leave home without and which we carry in a jacket's inside pocket. We can temporarily or permanently adapt our body by technical or biochemical means and change its looks, its workings and its design: with hair implants, anabolic steroids, liposuction, a different jaw line or a smaller nose, tinted contact lenses, resin nails, hair dye or perms, braces or tattoos. Women can get beards, men breasts. We regulate birth, conception, illness and death.

We can modify our senses, our emotional state and perception: we swallow uppers or downers, experiment with smart drugs and vitamin boosters, take cocaine, xtc or mushrooms, sleeping pills, alcohol or antidepressants.

I am not saying that medical technology is perfect, and that bodies are makeable at will; they are not. And not only is medical technology not as capable as some would have it; our bodies themselves are far more fragile than we would like. But what I am saying is that we restructure and rebuild our body with a vengeance, and that this has somehow become a very ordinary thing to do. We try to remake ourselves. We do not fuse with the adaptations we engage in, but it's a close shave.

In that sense, we are cyborgs. There is hardly anything 'natural' left in our bodies. Or to be more precise: the difference between nature & culture, between given & gotten, between matter-of-course & extra, between constitution & contribution, has become very diffuse. We have outgrown the stage of mere flesh and blood. Perhaps we now consist of flesh, fibbers, texts and chips; of blood, bytes and data networks.

For a book I did on cyborgs, I traced the way how medical technology and prostheses went on a journey inwards, into the body. It won't be long before more operations will be executed to put artefacts into the body than operations to get sick parts out. But the fact that technology has become part and parcel of our bodies, is something we very much try to ignore; both the physical changes we undergo as a medical necessity and those that we choose of our own free will, tend to be concealed, hidden. 'Looking natural' is very much our aim, and the definition of what constitutes a 'natural look' are getting more restricted every year. Almost all adaptations are now made under the skin; the skin serves both as an excellent guise for these operations and as the perfect proof of our health. "See, no scars and no wrinkles. I'm still natural." Skin deep, that is. And even the skin itself is helped and interfered with to look 'more natural'. Natural meaning: healthy, slim, young, etceteras. As if ageing, gaining weight, falling ill and getting disabled are somehow no longer natural.

The reason why I like to use the cyborg as an image is not because it makes good theory. As a matter of fact, there are hardly any good cyborg theories around; most suffer from such silly inherited dichotomies as outlined above.

Now the really big trouble with dichotomies is that they're hierarchical. It's mind over matter, culture over nature, male over female - there is always one dominant category. And - and that is the most bitter part - the dominant one is always the starting point, the touchstone, the norm. It needs no explanation; it is the opposing, non-dominant category that needs description and that deviates from the rule. One never has to explain why one is male, white, heterosexual, healthy and Western; that is the precisely prerogative of power. It is power's privilege to not be questioned; power resides in being the obvious.

Liberation movements try to get rid of these normative normalities and fight the supposed neutrality of the dichotomy: they point out how easy one ranks A higher than -A. Usually, their aim is to achieve balance. Gays should have the same rights as heterosexuals, black people are no less than white, men should not be preferred over women, humans should not consider nature as something which can be pillaged, and animals have rights too. Liberation movements, in short, want their fair share and demand to be on a more equal footing.

But this is where things go wrong. Dichotomies tend to be reproduced, even by those who fight them; precisely because using and living this dichotomy has distorted both categories. As a matter of fact, it might not even be helpful to keep thinking of 'two sides' that need to be 'balanced' or 'rearranged'. The definitions of what each 'side' amounts to, and what is and what is not comprised in it, are severely influenced by the fact that this dichotomy has been constructed; we thereafter tend to believe that there must 'thus' be a constituting difference, and that all we have to do is find it and pin it down. Perhaps, instead of fixating on that difference or on either pole of the dichotomy, we had better squint, and look askew. This is where cyborgs are useful, as a tool.

Cyborgs are dense in some respects, they can't understand categories that are basic to most ordinary people, or they just understand them differently. They do not fetishzes technology, nor are they afraid of it. They do not attach much importance to gender-and-or-sex. Apart from that, cyborgs are flexible, which gives them a headstart: in half a shake they relocate a limb or add a sense to their repertoire, and when that doesn't help they simply try running another program. They mix categories. They mingle with them. They blend.

Cyborgs are inconstant. On even days they might be female and on odd days male, on weekdays they make out with gents and in weekends with ladies, or just the other way round, and when the sun shines they're transsexual (that is, when they feel like it); they may be yellow, red, black, pink, striped or chequered according to whim, but they are always shiny. Cyborgs disrupt binary oppositions and giggle softly while doing so, because they already immersed themselves in neural networks a long time ago.

In short, I like the cyborg because of the opportunity it offers to play around, and to mess with our heads.

Please allow me to give you a few examples.

I.

From time to time, a trail-making article gets published in which a scientist cracks tough nuts on the genetic or the hormonal basis of homosexuality. Articles in which researchers explain that the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the homosexual brain has suffered expansion, in which hereditary genes are tracked, or in which a relationship is proven between left-handedness and lesbianism. (Really, there was such an article once; and quite serious, too.)

It is such a shame that most leftist people are angered at or frightened by such research. How old-fashioned. The more research into such matters, the better - I consider them to be small steps for scientists and giant steps for mankind; they put us nearer the land of plenty, the perspective of pansexuality. We are since long convinced that the body is clay, basic material that we, or specialists, can remould into a more desirable shape; this seems to be the next logical step.

We might manage the acquisition of a detrained body single-handedly, perhaps aided by membership of the local fitness centre. As for moulding for the advanced, there is a legion of plastic surgeons available; with a few operations we're able to present ourselves in a more up-to-date design. Even life itself appears to be makeable in ways that previous generations could never have imagined: artificial insemination, test-tube babies, donor egg-cells and clones, soon with modified DNA. All on retail sale via private hospitals, with special offers every once in a while: 'Now! New! Babies with in-built Super-Ultra-XL! While supplies last! Use you free coupon!'

And now this possibility of homosexual hormones. Or genes. Or whatever. Perhaps this enables us to cross the next border: to freely mould sexual desire. It grieves me no to end that the gay movement unflinchingly repudiates all research into the possible biological basis of unheterosexual behaviour - a typical example of defensive strategies, methinks. Throw a party, dance to the tune: at last die-hard heterosexuals can be freed of their restricted options and true freedom will be within reach, at last teenagers can not only chose their educational and professional course but also their sexual course, and expectant parents will have to ponder the question all doctors will ask them at the turn of the century, immediately after having established whether they want a boy or a girl: 'Would you, provisionally of course, prefer a gay or a straight child?' American daddies will be surprised by daughters who, upon finishing their exams, do not ask for a breast correction but for this pill which zips up their lesbian desires. I even predict subversive actions compared with which the fluoridation of the drinking water is peanuts.

On a more serious note: the question underlying such 'causal' research is always recursive. Researchers of genetics, anatomy and endocrinology study homosexuals to find out what makes them homosexual, but they never quite know who they are studying because nobody knows exactly who is homosexual. Cohorts are divided along fictional lines, as if homosexuality and heterosexuality are fixed, instead of changing qualities. 'Why should gender identity be concentrated in a small anatomical area, and why would exactly this tiny group of cells form an island within an otherwise interactive and generating brain? What evidence is there to assume that there is a one-to-one relationship between a few cells and personal identity? Why should gender identity be a fixed quality, some-one's 'nature' settled once and for all, while identity components such as memory and thinking, emotion and motivation, are considered to be variable and to represent samples of processes spread all over the brain?' sneers gender-critic Ines Orobio de Castro.

Aided by a combination of educated guesses and cultural coercion, it is more or less possible to discern what is male and what is female in biological terms, although in doing so those who are unmasked at birth as intercreatures must be operated upon. But nobody, as of yet, has been able to forge a conclusive definition of what, or who, amounts to being homosexual. The common definition is: someone who has proclaimed himself or herself (or is known) to be one.

But is the decently married heterosexual guy who entertains secret longings for boys a heterosexual? The gent who lives with a lady and who goes cruising once a month, is he straight? The circumstantial gay boy, is he gay or straight? Is the political lesbian 'really' a lesbian, or is she 'in fact' heterosexual? The heterosexual who once cherished long-forgotten puppy-loves for his class-mates, is he really straight? The man or woman who in mid-life falls in love with a member of their own sex? The closet queens? The official gay and lesbian, certified by their membership of the Gay & Lesbian Task Force, who sometimes fantasise or engage in heterosexual encounters, are they gay? And those who call themselves bi-sexual, where do they fit in, or those who refuse any label and merely find themselves seriously in love with another human being?

Drinking water. I want more people in the drinking water. Panta rhei!

II.

Nowadays women can get pregnant after their menopause. In Italy, there's a doctor who implants impregnated egg-cells in their womb. The present record for eldest mummy is held by a sixty-two years old mother.

There was much fuss about it. Questions abounded. Are elderly pregnancies safe, in the physical sense; isn't the age difference between the aged mother and her infant bound to give occasion problems; won't society be saddled with the medical costs of such pregnancies and births; what if the mother dies while her child is still in its teens, or worse? Some supporters mentioned that men can do their bit in the making of a child until they are well into their seventies, and that this biological inequality was now finally corrected. Most critics however stressed the fact that such pregnancies are unnatural; menopause is a biological barrier and it's not to be tampered with, there's a reason for it.

Well, of course it's unnatural, but is that a valid argument? As Ruth in Fay Weldon's book The lives and loves of a she-devil never grew tired of explaining, 'Nature has gotten away with far too much', and Ruth therefore went out to disrupt the natural scheme of things and everything blanketed under this disguise. She renovated her body, she amassed a huge capital and meanwhile she crushed lives a-plenty. Ethically speaking, her deeds were not always irreproachable, but her lack of moral considerations was amply compensated for by the pleasure of seeing a woman so purposefully preparing her revenge. And besides, Ruth was right: nature too often has things her way, and if it's not nature itself, then it's us using her as a scapegoat for our own shortcomings.

Of course it's unnatural, but then again, what isn't, these days? Aircrafts are unnatural, as are pre-packaged sandwiches, television sets, nature parks, condoms, sunbeds, bank-accounts and literary prizes. So why grumble when granny gets pregnant and announces that she is the proud carrier of the successful symbiosis of Einstein's deep-frozen sperm and the egg-cells of an aborted foetus? (Rather than booing granny, I'd advocate the foundation of tissue and egg-cell banks to preserve the bodily materials of female geniuses. Of many famous men dollops of semen are kept in deep-freeze, but of all these women of Nobelesque statute, nothing gets preserved. Talk about a bias.)

No, such arguments are fake. The things that nag me in such debates on elderly pregnancies are questions of a different kind. In fact, they are the same questions that bother me with regards to forms of artificially induced pregnancies that are generally accepted. Why, to start headfirst, do women believe it to be of such overwhelming importance to have a child of their own?

There are many orphans and half-orphans. Why not adopt a child, in case of infertility? The counter-argument runs that an adopted child is "not of your own flesh and blood", and women who strive for motherhood put forward over and over again that adopted children have not developed from foetus to baby in their own womb; it is indeed this pregnancy itself that prepares them to meaningfully bind with the infant. But wait: men do not carry their own children either. And although the quality of their parental love may be disputed (because it is often mainly a verbal matter and ordinarily it doesn't amount to exertions of the practical kind), men are able to develop an absolutely perfect binding with their child without them having felt it grow inside themselves first. You really don't have to go through pregnancy in order to truly love your child.

And this argument of flesh & blood - oh well. Many people raise children that are not their own, a tendency that will only become stronger now that many people have children, get a divorce, and meet new lovers who consequently help raise the fruits of previous engagements. With gay parents, there's 'strange' elements involved by definition. And fathers in this respect face an inherent uncertainty: they can never be absolutely sure that their children are indeed their children, a fundamental insecurity deriving from their part in reproduction. The only certainty fathers have, is that their child is born from its mother; and usually they negotiate this margin quite well. Would women really be unable to produce a similar kind of love or affection for a child that has spent the first phase of its development elsewhere?

And to further drive the point home, why are all medical efforts so one-sidedly directed towards the fertility and pregnancy of women? Almost all organs are by now transplantable; livers, kidneys, hearts, skin and lungs withstand such reallocations, and I suspect that secret attempts are being made at brain transplantations. Ripped-off hands and chopped off penises can be sewn back on. Why is there not a single researcher who attempts to implant a womb in a man's stomach? That would truly be a revolutionary step, bearing witness to visionary courage. Hormonal adjustments are easy and effective, as sex-change surgery has shown, and the fruit of his loins might be inserted via a tiny incision and taken out with a caesarean. There is such a thing as bottle feeding. Even breast feeding might not be too problematic when the father dutifully takes his hormones.

Nature has gotten her way with things far too often. It is sexist to insist on having 'your own' child. And probably the taboo on pregnant men far outdoes that on pregnant grannies.

Copyright Karin Spaink, December 1999

Reproduction only by permission

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