Embodiment and Cybernetics: A Politically Potent Revised Humanism?

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

The notion that our bodies play an important role in our identities shouldn’t strike anyone as totally radical. Physical appearance is of paramount importance in western culture, and an obsession over bodies, particularly women’s bodies, is a staple of popular culture.However, the assertion that bodies play an active role in cognition and subjectivity is more unusual in western culture, more liable to be written off as unverifiable, associated with mental illnesses like paranoia or hypochondria, or with the overly-intense, probing gaze and eerily sedative voice of one’s new-age, ex-hippie aunt. In short, the idea that bodies have the capacity to remember, or even to think, is vaguely unsettling, and is largely deemed scientifically useless. As Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret M. Lock have argued in their 1987 article, The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology, western cultures would be well-advised to consider the body more seriously. More recent research on organ transplant recipients yields startling findings, which point toward Cellular Memories as a reality.
Going beyond medicine and anthropology, N. Katherine Hayles, whose works engage the cultural importance of cybernetics, has called for the reintegration of embodiment into a revised, “posthuman” humanism. Hayles begins by pointing to a fallacious dichotomy between materiality and information in the context of information technology, emphasizing the basic necessity of a physical medium for information to travel through as indicative of a deeply interpenetrated relationship between the medium and the information: “Only when technological infrastructures have developed sufficiently to make rapid message transmission possible does information come into its own,” she writes, in The Condition of Virtuality, “From this we can draw an obvious but nonetheless important conclusion: The efficacy of information depends on a highly articulated material base.””Embodiment,” writes Hayles, in her later, seminal work, How We Became Posthuman, “makes clear that thought is a much broader cognitive function depending for its specificities on the embodied form enacting it. This realization, with all its exfoliating implications, is so broad in its effects and so deep in its consequences that it is transforming the liberal subject, regarded as the model of the human since the Enlightenment, into the posthuman.”In citing the transformative implications for “the liberal subject, regarded as the model of the human since the Enlightenment,” Hayles brings our attention to the politically charged potential that the integration of embodiment into a revised humanism entails. She points out that a disembodied conception of subjectivity has apparently served the powerful political agenda of hierarchical and patriarchal rationalism for centuries, with penetrating repercussions. Using the fundamentally interactive environment of cybernetic systems as a guide, Hayles combines interactivity and embodiment to formulate an alternative ontology of the human subject. Hayles takes it up a political notch when she transgresses the boundaries of the human body, and outlines an ecological perception of selfhood and subjectivity where body parts and objects or technologies in its environment dynamically interact with the mind, leading to cyborg posthumanism, grounded in a theory of distributed cognition and subjectivity.For anyone who has read Donna Haraway’s famous Cyborg Manifesto, the figure of the cyborg as an embodied political heuristic may be familiar. For anyone currently on a laptop or a cellphone, a prosthesis-like relationship to these technologies may also be familiar. But how can this relationship constitute productive political articulation or action? A typical allegation, made most famously by Frederic Jameson, is that in postmodern culture, the recourse to a political voice is stymied by the collapsing of private and public spheres, precluding the possibility of “critical distance,” or any kind of distance at all, from which to speak out or criticize.As I see it, the embodied cyborg heuristic offers an alternative performance of the critical perspective: The deliberate affiliation of the human organism with the category of “object” (as opposed to “subject”) that is inherent in the word “cyborg” (which concatenates “cybernetic” and “organism” into one word) serves as a clue here: Critical perspective is associated with an ostensibly “objective” standpoint, so the cyborg fusion of organism and object physically performs the concept of an objective standpoint.Does this alternative mode actually translate into something viable? For instance, does our conscious and daily collaboration and interaction with computers or the internet hold the key to politically potent articulation? A grand moment of meta-self-referentiality engulfs me, the blogger, and my fingers, and my keyboard, etc. as I pause with this question…As colleagues in my department are conducting research on the effect of Web 2.0, blogging, and internet-based political activism on democracy in developing countries it is clear that this is a fascinating and important question in many capacities.I have found that the collage-based works of up-and-coming visual artist Wangechi Mutu, which can be viewed on the gallery websites of Susan Vielmetter and Sikkema Jenkins, constitute a compelling performance of cyborg posthuman bodies, and reflect a complex and potent political articulation. While Mutu’s work, which has become greatly popular in the art world, fetching impressive price tags (30-90K apiece, last I checked), is not performed on or through computers or the internet, the figures that she creates reflect a powerful cyborg and posthuman embodied sensibility.
As an African-American woman originally from Kenya, Mutu does not occupy the privileged Enlightenment-ideal position of the autonomous and patriarchal white male, and she brings to her works significant political resistance and resilience. “All of their history is written upon their bodies and in their hair,” explains Mutu in a recent interview, “It’s very clear where they’ve been. Some of them are missing parts, or have gained a new part, be it an animal part or a machine part, as they’ve gone along.”Bionic prostheses and pathology play a prominent role in these works, producing a breathtakingly beautiful visual performance of social illness and dysmorphia, responding particularly to racism and objectification of women. Mutu’s works offer a new vision of what human bodies are or can be, implying a new ontology of humans, period, along the lines of Hayles’ revised humanism.Does the success of Mutu’s works indicate that they are a viable example of cyborg politics? Further, does their success indicate a cultural shift (if not explicit) toward a revised humanism that would can accommodate Hayles’ and Haraway’s political visions?