Culture Machine, Reviews

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Chris Hables Gray (2001) Cyborg Citizen: Politics in the Posthuman Age.

New York and London: Routledge. ISBN 0415919789 (hbk), 0415919797 (pbk)

The politics of the prosthetic

Pramod K. Nayar

Chris Gray after his sterling work in The Cyborg Handbook and Postmodern War takes on an ambitious subject here: the possibility of a posthuman politics when everyone and everything is cyborgised.

Gray begins with a survey of postmodern politics, with a focus on the question of citizenship and cyberdemocracy. Putting forward a working definition of postmodernism as 'the result of social and scientific technologies hegemonic in both the so-called First and Second Worlds' (16), Gray moves on to argue for an 'embodiment' of citizenship -- his basic thesis and informing assumption. He claims that cyborg citizens are 'real political bodies' (29), and presents a detailed 'Cyborg Bill of Rights' (27-29). Gray points out that the Net is simply a part of the 'real' world, and that one cannot disrupt the 'fabric' of the real world without damaging or risking one's real body. Gray's argument is summarised in his statement that 'the kind of protest that has the potential to make fundamental political change is embodied' (44). Discussing international manifestations of posthuman/postmodern politics, Gray's analysis of the cyborgisation of war concludes with the argument that nanotechnologies and infowars will soon 'blur the line between business competition and politics/war and crime' (65). Such nanotechnologies, Gray believes, may also lead to nanosurveillance and nanosabotage on the part of the companies or governments.

In his section on infomedicine, Gray argues that contemporary developments such as the Visible Human Project, medically modified human bodies and transplantation call for a rethinking of themes such as 'the gift of life' (organ donation is one such 'gift'). Gray points out that cyborgisation has effectively demolished the difference between machines and human-animal bodies. Gray also looks at the illegitimate organ trade, the export of organs, and the unequal economic conditions that cause an 'organ-drain' from Third World countries to developed ones. Moving on to cyborg medicalisation, Gray looks at postmodern pregnancy, cyberchildren and postmodern childcare. He discusses issues such as voluntary vaccination, individual and societal 'good' (a theme that informs all discussion of euthanasia, health care and bioethics), and privacy. Building upon the work of Robbie Davis-Floyd and Joseph Dumit, Gray explores what it might mean to 'be' a fetus or a mother, especially when technology facilitates the keeping alive of a dead mother (as a cyborg womb) until her baby is born. Gray concludes: 'if the courts can order a dead mother be turned into a cyborg womb, then it is only one more step to insist that living mothers be defined as primarily wombs', thus putting into crisis issues of woman's rights (92).

In his chapter on 'enabled cyborgs', Gray discusses the increasing rehabilitation of disabled humans. The linkage of a human body to a machine entails more than an adjustment to a life as a cyborg: it reinvents relationships when such cyborgs begin to rely on, and relate to, the people prepared for medical and mechanical emergencies. Gray steps into really murky areas of bioethics where he maps the various positions on legally dead, medically dead, cadavers and immortality. Genetic engineering, cloning and other extremely controversial issues within the biotechnological revolution are Gray's subject in subsequent sections. He looks at 'pharming' -- cloning large mammals, genetically engineered to develop products such as skin, organs, bone marrow, cartilage that humans need -- and the ethics of gene alteration.

Analysing contemporary cyborg society, Gray looks at cybersex, pornography, stalking and the 'prosthetic territories' of outerspace and aquaspace. His detailed exploration of this theme enables him to comment -- though hardly surprisingly, since the book so far has indicated much the same -- that 'humans can survive in the deep only as cyborgs' (140). Extending the realm and possibility of cyborg space to include the family, Gray explores the impact of the new reproductive technologies on notions of the family. Technology now redefines what we mean by family, 'blood ties', and childbirth. Legislations such as the unsuccessful 1995 Oregon bill that sought to prohibit an unmarried woman from being artificially impregnated, Gray suggests, are actually discussants in a larger debate involving the economics of medical technology, feminism, and democracy. (It is a question of 'who decides?'.)

In his section on cybersexuality and transsexuality, Gray speaks of the 'proliferation of sexual choice' (160), while exploring the debates initiated by Anne Balsamo, Allucquere Stone and Pat Califia. He admits that cyborg technologies conserve race, class and gender hierarchies, but they also offer the prospect of individual liberation. Gray points out that even the possibility of a technology-driven (cyborgian) sexual reassignment surgery 'serves as a psychosexual tool for people rethinking their gender identity, so many do not require the actual surgery' (157). He also looks at the impact such cyborg technology has on sports and education, before moving on to 'cyborgology'. Under cyborgology Gray discusses the new sciences, epistemologies, and ethics. In his concluding section on 'posthuman possibilities', Gray summarises his arguments:

  • Technologies are political
  • Cyborgisation and politics is about bodies
  • Knowledge is power
  • Knowledge is situated.
Resisting the impulse to be a hagiographer of the new technology, Gray's conclusion is surely indisputable:
Cyborg technoscience renders mass society a thing of horror. Uniformity is technically possible as it has never been before, making totalitarianism a nightmare to be feared Â… But reaching forward toward greater democracy, stronger citizenship, and a proliferation of human and posthuman possibilities is our only choice beside a turn to the past that, since it would be in the context of postmodern technoscience, would make the Holocaust and the Gulag look like rehearsals. (201)
Gray's work is a laudably massive survey of posthuman politics. The assumption that all politics is embodied enables him to map his subject in terms of technologies of the body, rather than technology per se. Though the name of Michel Foucault occurs only once in the entire work (and that too in an epigraph), it is the Foucauldian paradigm that informs Gray's work through and through. Thus the 'situatedness' of all knowledge and knowledge-shifts is an informing assumption here. Gray's extraordinary alertness to details such as funding agencies, government sponsored research, the arms trade, and the role of the media and international affairs historicises contemporary technology after the fashion of Michael Adas and Bruno Latour (though Gray is not very sympathetic to Latour himself). Gray is keenly aware of the social conditions under which a technology is 'born' and effectively disseminated, and the manner in which it becomes 'technopower', and another means of control. He is careful, also, to focus on the ethical side of the debates. By presenting the arguments for and against any particular technological development, Gray provides both a detailed introduction and in-depth analysis of the issues involved. Then, Gray's survey is remarkable for taking into its ambit the varied manifestations and 'expressions' of cyborgisation: health and medicine, genetic engineering, ethics, sports, education, popular culture, religion, economics, interstellar exploration and others. Truly, this is a comprehensive survey of 'cyberculture'.

I can only, in deference to the monumental nature of Gray's work, point at areas where further elaboration of issues is possible. Any sustained response to, or critique of, any one issue that Gray surveys requires the kind of space that is not really available here. So pointers and points:

  • One needs to think about that unquantifiable thing of human desire to 'overcome' the limits of the body. In the age of information explosion, Stelarc writes, 'we indulge in information as if this is compensation for our genetic inadequacies. INFORMATION IS THE PROSTHESIS THAT PROPS UP THE OBSOLETE BODY' (Stelarc, 1997: 241-9, emphasis in original). Technology -- whether political or social - has always had to count with the 'problems' of Victor Frankenstein: science as a source of glory and power, and the human desire to exceed the body. Naturally, such amorphous concepts as greed, luxury or pride inform both our individual/personal and communal/collective politics.
  • As the constructivist research program in the history of technology has shown, we need to identify processes of the mutual shaping of society and technology. Information systems, nanomedicine, drug-testing in sports are all socially constructed. In many cases non-'techie' groups -- as varied in constitution and politics as media moguls, environment protection groups and women's organisations - shape society and technology. Citizens, therefore, also influence technology (Gray speaks of the impact of technology on 'common' human citizens. He omits a discussion of how interested citizens themselves may influence the dissemination of particular technologies). Questions of functionality, efficiency and desirability are asked by consuming-bodies of technologists and technology. Further, as Bijker and Bijsterveld (2000) argue, using the example of housing projects in the Netherlands (which were planned, critiqued and evaluated by women as users), models of democratic control cannot be separated from specific political cultures and specific technology.
  • A consumer culture -- a component of any politics - also designs future technologies. James Der Derian has a fascinating account of the use of games like Marine Doom in war simulation exercises in the US armed forces. Der Derian notes that there has always been a very close link between military simulations, the developments of the computer and the entertainment industry. The politics of war(-games) on video, computer-games and media-ted representations are also a crucial element in the public dissemination and consumption of technology. In short, the 'Disney-fication of war', as Der Derian (1997) terms it, is a politics in and of itself -- as TV replays of the Gulf War, Afghanistan or 9/11 demonstrate. Alongside this simulated war scenario, we also have the televising of surgery. While ER and The Operation demystify the 'theatre' of biology and illness, they also recast, as Catherine Belling (1998) has shown, both the surgeon's and the patient's roles. Rather than a master-subject relation, the two are involved with a common 'body of knowledge' (Belling's pun!), in a more equalised relationship. This demystificatory rendering of technoscience and technologists -- and these include medicine and doctors -- surely goes a long way in the acceptance of new technological developments such as prosthetics, cosmetic surgery, transplants and so on. This is also a subject for cyborgology, since, as Gray repeatedly underlines, we need to pay attention to the manner in which knowledge -- the basis for true democracy by informed consensus -- disseminates itself.
  • In the posthuman age viruses, microbes, and genes have all been given an 'enhanced ontological status' (Lash, 1998). As Lash further points out, in posthuman politics, at issue is not only posthumanist time, but also post-human values granting rights to apparent non-humans. This seems to me a fruitful area of debate. Douglas Adams once commented, in his usual inimitable style, on strange life forms emerging from polluted rivers to demand welfare and voting rights. Gray's work gestures at such a debate over values: what it means to 'be' human, to 'be' a family and so on. We need to develop a whole new set of values that are, as Gray rightly suggests, more democratic and based on an entirely new definition of life.
  • A posthuman politics that seeks to be more democratic will need (to state the obvious) negotiate between rights and duties. An area where such negotiations become especially tricky, in an age of lower government resources and the damaged nature of welfare economies, is public health. Peter Lachmann (1998) has argued that contemporary society reveals a 'faltering' in its battle against infectious disease (due to an assortment of reasons - biological ones, with the increased antibiotic resistance among bacteria and antibiotic abuse; and a non-biological one of increased travel around the world). Lachmann argues that the 'reduced fear of infectious disease with the increased emphasis on patients' rights' produces a 'complacent' situation where public health will be the first victim. Gray mentions the debates over compulsory vaccination and patients' rights (95-97), but does not quite address the issue of public health.Likewise, any consideration of the politics of cyber-technology and the new medical 'science' must also account for the concomitant ethos of the commodification of health care and patenting of life-saving technologies -- whose dissemination within a country and outside are governed by market forces and international (bargain) politics.
  • We need to also reconfigure our notions of health and medical knowledge. A paradigm shift has occurred in our conceptualisation of biology -- from an age of ignorance and inability to modify biological processes to an age of knowledge and control of them (Mori, 2000). This calls for a wholly new medical paradigm. Maurizio Mori's call to abandon the term 'medicine' in favour of 'health care' or 'health treatment' is, I think, salutary.
Most of the above 'pointers' are already indicated in Gray's work. Cyborg Citizen is a valuable work for anyone interested in cultures of the posthuman, and the possibility of radical politics

References

Belling, C. (1998) 'Reading The Operation: Television, Realism, and the Possession of Medical Knowledge', Literature and Medicine. 17.1: 1-23.

Bijker, W. E. & Bijsterveld, K. (2000) 'Women Walking through Plans: Technology, Democracy, and Gender Identity', Technology and Culture. 41.3: 485-515.

Der Derian, J. (1997) 'The Virtualization of Violence and the Disappearance of War', Cultural Values. Vol. 1, no. 2, 1997: 205-18.

Lachmann, P. J. (1998) 'Public Health and Bioethics', Journal of Medicine and Philosophy. Vol. 23, no. 3: 297-302.

Lash, S. (1998) 'Being after Time: Towards a Politics of Melancholy', Cultural Values. Vol. 2, nos. 2 and 3: 305-19.

Mori, M. (2000) 'The Twilight of "Medicine" and the Dawn of "Health Care": Reflections on Bioethics at the Turn of the Millennium', Journal of Medicine and Philosophy. Vol. 25, no. 6: 723-44.

Stelarc (1997) 'From Psycho to Cyber Strategies: Prosthetics, Robotics and Remote Existence', Cultural Values. Vol. 1, no. 2: 241-9.

Pramod K. Nayar lectures in the Department of English at the University of Hyderabad, India.