Notes on the cyborg and the work of Stelarc

This article was originally published on London Theatre Blog on October 1 2006. An archive of that blog can be found here.

Mamoru Oshii’s 2004 animation film Innocence: Ghost in the Shell 2 follows the cyborg detective Batou as he tries to unravel the reasons behind a murderous robot revolt in the year 2032. The storyline is similar to that of the famous 1950 science fiction novel, iRobot by Issac Asimov, though Asimov kept the figure of the cyborg in the background. Both narratives explore the relationship between human and machine and ask what ontological insights into the former can be gleaned from an imagining of the latter.

Though there is a clear distinction to be made between cyborg (cybernetic organism, part machine, part human) and humanoid robot (fully automated mechanical robot designed in human form), most fictional representations, including Innocence, blur this distinction and posit both entities as fundamentally “other” – slaves to be mastered and commanded at all costs. Indeed, “taming” the machine was the subject of Asimov’s famous three laws of robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second law.

This long-standing view can be traced back to at least the mid-17th century. For example, in Méditations, Descartes argues that animals are machines and automata that do not think, and what reifies the human is an “immaterial” or “spiritual soul” (see Alan Harrison, p.221). Almost a century later in 1748, the French physician and philosopher Julien Offray de la Mettrie published Man a Machine in which he extrapolated from Descartes claiming that humans are no different to any other automata. This early materialist perspective forced him into hiding in Holland for fear of persecution by the Roman Catholic church.

According to Bruce Mazlish in his essay “The man-machine and artificial intelligence,” the notion of automata during the enlightenment period was equivocal in the sense that it provoked fear but also the promise of a creative “Promethean” force. The tension between these two aspects of the automaton can be seen in Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein. Shelley’s staging of the “monster” at the intersection of technology, science, culture and social reality, can be read as an avant la lettre critique of the eugenicist ideology that would become rife in the mid-19th century. Like many fictional narratives on the cyborg, it uses the man-machine dyad as a frame to foreground the monstrous that lies at the core of western modernity.

The term cyborg was coined by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline in a paper submitted to NASA in 1960 titled “Cyborgs and Space” in which the researchers referred to their conception of an enhanced human being who could survive in extraterrestrial environments. Their concept was the outcome of thinking about the need for an intimate relationship between human and machine as the new frontier of space exploration was racing ahead, fuelled by US and Soviet Cold War political rivalry.

In the essay, Clynes and Kine make the following observation:

The task of adapting man’s body to any environment he may choose will be made easier by increased knowledge of homeostatic functioning, the cybernetic aspects of which are just beginning to be understood and investigated. In the past, evolution brought about the altering of bodily functions to suit different environments. Starting as of now, it will be possible to achieve this to some degree without alteration of heredity by suitable biochemical, physiological, and electronic modifications of man’s existing modus vivendi […] (p.26)

The degree to which bodily alteration and enhancement has progressed since the 1960’s is perhaps best illustrated through the example of Matthew Nagle. Despite complete paralysis of his limbs, Nagle was able to “open e-mail, play a computer game, and pinch a prosthetic hand’s fingers” thanks to a sensor implanted in his brain.

The application of physiological modifications does not stop at life-enhancements for people with severe disabilities, it extends to the ethically questionable field of military strategy and advanced weapon systems. For the body to remain an integral part of military operation, it must adapt to vanguard technology.

In a book called Cyborg Worlds, published in 1989, Chris Hables Gray wrote a chapter titled “The Cyborg Soldier: the US military and the post-modern warrior,” in which he argues that the soldier is

(re)constructed and (re)programmed to fit integrally into weapon systems. The basic currency of war, the human body, is the site of these modifications, whether it is the ‘wetware’ (the mind and hormones), the ‘software’ (habits, skills, disciplines) or the ‘hardware’ (the physical body). To overcome the limitations of yesterday’s soldier, as well as the limitations of automation as such, the military is moving towards a more subtle man/machine integration: a cybernetic organism (‘cyborg’) model of the soldier, that combines machine-like endurance with a redefined human intellect to the overall weapons system.

In 2006, the official US Army website described its vision of “Future Combat Systems” (FCS): “the soldier operate in an environment that is fully aware and fully integrated in an interactive computerized network system, in which information is being relayed instantaneously. The soldier does not co-exist with the technology but becomes part of that technology itself, an integrated unit of action alongside war machinery, robotic devices and other military equipment.”

“FCS is about the 21st Century Soldier. Lessons learned in Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Global War on Terrorism have shown that a joint, combined arms, network centric force has the ability to both rapidly defeat an enemy in battle and act as a key element in follow-on peacekeeping efforts. The core of the FCS-equipped UA – is a highly integrated structure of 18 manned and unmanned air and ground maneuver sustainment systems, bound together by a distributed network and supporting the soldier, acting as a unified combat force in the Joint environment. The network uses a Battle Command architecture that integrates networked communications, network operations, sensors, battle command system, training, and MUM reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities to enable situational understanding and operations at a level of synchronization not achievable in current network centric operations.” (BG(P) Charles A. Cartwright and Dennis A. Muilenburg)

In her “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway refers to modern war as a “cyborg orgy, coded by C3I, command-control-communication-intelligence, an $84 billion item in 1984’s US defence budget.” Haraway is one of the leading academic thinkers in the field of post-human studies and a Professor Emerita of feminist theory and techno-science at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “A Cyborg Manifesto” appeared in her seminal work Simians, Cyborgs, and Women with the subtitle “Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In the manifesto, she breaks with the sci-fi trend of using the cyborg to reify old dualisms of Western thinking, including Descartes’ division of mind and body, or the notion of the self and the other, male and female, reality and appearance, and truth and illusion. She sees in the cyborg a far more liminal space, in which identities are “becomings” in fluid transition rather than markers of fixed categories, and argues that we are no longer able to think of ourselves as solely biological entities, but that we have become ‘cyborgs’ – “a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction”.

The performance artist Stelarc is another pioneer in the post-human field. The Australia-based artist, has been creating performances since 1968 and has performed extensively in Japan, Europe and the USA at events related to new music, dance festivals and experimental theatre. In his performances he has used medical instruments, prosthetics, robotics, Virtual Reality systems and the Internet to explore what he calls “alternate, intimate and involuntary interfaces with the body” (cf, “Biography“). Some examples of this are his performance with a third hand, a virtual arm, a virtual body and a stomach sculpture. He has acoustically and visually probed the body- having amplified brainwaves, blood-flow and muscle signals and filmed the inside of his lungs, stomach and colon, approximately two metres of internal space. He has performed twenty-five body suspensions with metal shark hook insertions into the skin, in different positions and varying situations, including some in remote locations.

When Stelarc talks about his body he often refers to it as “the body” by which he is referring to the “cerebral, phenomenological, aware, and operational entity immersed in the world…when this body speaks as I, it does so realizing that in the context of “I go to London” or “I make art”, the letter I designates only “this body goes to London”, “this body makes art.” It’s a huge metaphysical leap to imagine that I refers to an inner essence, self, or soul. (in Stelarc, The Monograph, chapter 7 “Animating bodies, mobilizing technologies”).

Stelarc’s body can be split into two types of site, the first is one of the individual artist, it is an intimate site for personal exploration, gauging the body, sensing its physical and physiological limitations as in the suspensions. The high suspensions are a way of “experiencing the downforce of 1g gravitational pull”. The stomach sculpture also figures in the realm of the intimate, inner-body space.

Stelarc’s notion of the body is reminiscent of the idea that Artaud often referred to, “the body without organs”. In The stomach sculpture Stelarc says “The technology invades and functions within the body not as a prosthetic replacement, but as an aesthetic adornment. One no longer looks at art, nor performs as art, but contains art. The hollow body becomes a host, not for a self or a soul, but simply for a sculpture.”

The Body without organs is a chastised body. In his radio play of 1947, To Be Done with the Judgement of God, Artaud proposed a kind of “Dionysian castration”:

-By placing him again, for the last time, on the autopsy table to remake his anatomy.
I say, to remake his anatomy.
Man is sick because he is badly constructed.
We must make up our minds to strip him bare in order to scrape off that animalcule that itches him mortally,
and with god
his organs.
For you can tie me up if you wish,
but there is nothing more useless than an organ.
When you will have made him a body without organs,
then you will have delivered him from all his automatic
reactions and restored him to his true freedom.
Then you will teach him again to dance wrong side out
as in the frenzy of dance halls
and this wrong side out will be his real place.

(in Artaud, Selected Writings, pp 570 -571)

Stelarc’s view on the hollow body or the body without organs is that a hollow body would be a better host for all the technological components needed to put inside it. In past evolutionary development a change of locomotion could be argued as the significant event (shift to bipedal liberating hands as manipulators), future development would be prompted by a change that was only skin deep. This hollow body would be literally a body without organs a body that need not be organ-ized. (Stelarc in The Monograph)

The other site for Stelarc’s body is one that attempts to be in a way “universal,” it is the body as “obsolescence.” This is found in Stelarc’s virtual and prosthetic works such as the third hand, the virtual arm and the exoskeleton. Each of these works points towards the idea of the body as cyborg, and the human body as obsolete. According to John Appleby it is an attempt by Stelarc at showing “the way forward to a post-human condition, that represents the move out of the ‘standard’ evolutionary system and prepares the way for leaving the solar system”. Appleby is skeptical towards Stelarc’s claim and argues that “it is not as radical as it is may initially appear” since they “constitute a straight forwardly teleological narrative and, as such, partake of the humanist discourses arising out of the cartesian dualism that he claims to repudiate” (The Cyborg Experiments, ed. Joanna Zylinska, Chapter 6, 101) Appleby compares Stelarc’s ideas to the concept of cyborgian development first proposed by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline. (From Chapter 6 of the Cyborg Experiments)

One thing which strikes me as being clear from looking at Stelarc’s performances is that they cannot show in practical terms the obsolescence of the body, they can only suggest it. Stelarc’s body, no matter what condition it is put in is still subject to the same physionomical laws as everyone else. He relies on his organs to function and operates with a distinction of body and mind. But it is the possibility to rethink the ways in which our bodies interact with our environment, especially through interfaces such as the Internet, and how we receive and process information and use it to inform ourselves in space that is key to his work.

Cover image: Stelarc in his exoskeleton. Photo by released by CEA+ under a Creative Commons License.

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