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On surrogates and cyborgs

[Read Part 1]

Clynes and Kline (1960) introduce the cyborg as an “artifact-organism system which would alter man's [the specificity of man feels important here] bodily functions to meet the requirements of extraterrestrial environments.” As such, the cyborg is meant to represent a new possibility for technology. The novelty, and radical potential, of the cyborg lies not the fusion of organism and artifact, but rather because it is a technology that reverses the relationship between the human and its environment.

When thinking and teaching about technology in general, I like working with this definition from Lewis Mumford, who is, or was, a sociologist and, importantly, a historian on technology. In his book Technics and Civilisation (1934) he writes:

In back of the development of tools and machines lies the attempt to modify the environment in such a way as to fortify and sustain the human organism: the effort is either to extend the powers of the otherwise unarmed organism, or to manufacture outside of the body a set of conditions more favourable toward maintaining its equilibrium and ensuring its survival.

So, in its primary articulation, technology comprises the tools and processes that are intended towards towards the survival of the living organism – that is, the fortification and sustenance of the human organism. This survival is ensured by means of tools or machines attached to the body that extend its powers, thereby ensuring its protection and propagation. Or survival is ensured by adapting the external environment to the needs of the body and life.

The cyborg, however, represents the possibility of adapting the body internally – that is, of modifying its functions – in order to suit a given environment. The aim of the cyborg – as Clynes and Kline admit – is to take active part in one’s biological evolution; or, as more recent scholarship on cyborgs describes it, to hackevolution. The cyborg is intended to ensure the survival of the human organism, certainly. But this survival is not related to the given environment – rather it is survival within chosen environment. As such, at the heart of the cyborg – as originally conceived – is not survival but exploration and conquest.

Here are Clynes and Kline again:

Cyborg - Frees Man to Explore: If man in space, in addition to flying his vehicle, must continually be checking on things and making adjustments merely in order to keep himself alive, he becomes a slave to the machine. The purpose of the Cyborg… is to provide an organizational system in which such robot- like problems are taken care of automatically and unconsciously, leaving man free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel.

That the cyborg emerges in the context of the cold war and the space race is not therefore surprising. It is the manifestation of the imperative for economic and political domination. But, importantly, the cyborg is also a product of coloniality.

Recalling Mumford’s definition, it may be argued that technology is not inherently about mastery. To repeat: technology comprises the tools and processes that are intended towards the survival of the living organism. There is no necessary relationship between survival and mastery. Insofar as a relationship exists, it is epistemologically manufactured. In other words, if we perceive a link between survival and mastery, this is only so because coloniality has instituted mastery at the core of what is to be Human.

In this context, survival, as the propagation of life, comes to be subjugated to the imperative of self-determined, or rational, world-making activity. Exploration and conquest – as practices of world-making – have thus become idealised expressions of mastery, and therefore, of humanness.

In this context, the space age is an instantiation of world-making that requires liberation from the limits of the naturally given body, to make possible the mastery of extra-terrestrial environments. The cyborg, having “hacked evolution”, overcomes embodied constraints so as to be “free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel” wherever it may go. And it is through this transcendence that the cyborg comes to represent the promise of this more perfect human.

But what if we decentre extraterritoriality from our considerations of the cyborg – to account for what Gill Haddow calls everyday cyborgs – and still hold onto the definition of the cyborg as an artifact-organism system which overcomes the bodily limitations in order to master any given environment.

Let’s consider, again, the surrogate body. This body exists as an artifact-organism system; that is, as a fusion of the “natural” body and ART. ART modifies the bodily functions of the surrogate in order to adapt it to the given environment. This environment is not naturally but socially given – it is the environment structured through the individual desire for and social imperative of reproduction, on the one hand, and the imperative of economic security and advancement, on the other.

The surrogate body, as artifact-organism system, tries to transcend the limits of naturally given bodies – both its own as well as that of the intended parent or parents – and to adapt to this specific environment. This bodily modification that facilitates adaption to the given environmental cannot, however, be recognised as world-making activity.

As I noted earlier – surrogacy work affirms the self-determined world-making activity of intended parents, and hence their mastery over the given environment. The surrogate body is the site through which this mastery is exercised. The surrogate themselves are not a world-making actor but their cyborgised body is a tool – a technology – of world-making. To paraphrase Mumford again, the surrogate body manufactures outside of the bodies of intended parents a set of conditions more favourable toward maintaining the latter’s equilibrium and ensuring their survival.

It is for this reason that I think of surrogates as abjected cyborgs – artifact-organism systems that overcome bodily limitations to adapt to a given environment yet are absented from the will and capacity for mastery, for world-making. Unlike the cyborg, which represents a more perfect human, striving determinedly towards an uncharted future, the surrogate exists still as not properly human, a reminder of both, an imperfect, restrained human past and of a more perfect future not yet arrived. Surrogate bodies are a reminder of the failure of humans to fully master the given – the failure to fully transcend the limits of one’s own body and adapt it to one’s environment.

And in the ideal world of cyborg humanity, these abjected cyborgs eventually will, or will be made to, disappear.

So why does this matter?

First, cyborg humanity is here. Cyborgs are not a thing of speculation. Cyborg bodies exist already in many different forms. And importantly, they signal the direction of the evolution of humanity. There is, likely, no turning back or perhaps even away, from this.

Second, as Mumford notes, all technology is

the result of human choices and aptitudes and strivings, deliberate as well as unconscious, often irrational when apparently they are most objective and scientific: but even when they are uncontrollable they are not external. Choice manifests itself in society in small increments and moment-to-moment decisions as well as in loud dramatic struggles; and he who does not see choice in the development of the machine merely betrays his incapacity to observe cumulative effects until they are bunched together so closely that they seem completely external and impersonal. ... The machine itself makes no demands and holds out no promises: it is the human spirit that makes demands and keeps promises.

The cyborg, as we currently know it, is an effect of coloniality, of a logic driven by mastery, that cannot accommodate other expressions of humanness. The surrogate body, I believe, demonstrates the outcome of persisting under this logic.

But this needn’t be. Coloniality isn’t inevitable. It is a choice.


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