CYBORG VS POSTHUMAN: OBVIOUS DISTINCTIONS

I’m celebrating this week the success of my doctoral student Jaume Llorens, who has been awarded the highest grade for his brilliant dissertation on the icon of the posthuman in science fiction. It is my aim to publicise here a little bit the main point he makes, which might seem obvious to many but, believe me, is not.

You may perhaps be familiar with Donna Haraway’s famous “Manifesto for Cyborgs” (1985, 1991), an essay which is possibly the second most frequently quoted academic text in the Humanities after Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. I met Haraway once, already ten years ago, when the research group I belonged to (‘Body and Textuality’) invited her to offer a lecture at MACBA (May 2006). The lecture had the ambiguous title of “An Encounter among Species: Feminism after Cyborgs”, which seemed to point in two radically different directions… The group chose me to present Haraway simply because I speak English and I found myself in quite a bizarre situation: I had a long list of questions to ask Haraway, on behalf of my colleagues, about cyborgs but she only wanted to discuss… her relationship with her dog. That was the core of her lecture, namely, that we should approach humanity as just one animal species among others on Earth. An approach some are beginning to call ‘posthuman’.

This is not, however, the kind of ‘posthuman’ which Jaume Llorens means. He means the new humanoid species that might replace us as the dominant species on Earth. You might think that this is a prolongation of Haraway’s cyborg but it is actually a radically different concept, so let me explain.

Haraway’s manifesto is a declaration in favour of using technoscience for subversive, feminist, socialist ends, in ways very different from those habitually connected with the masculinist, militarist figure of the cyborg. Back in 1985, the word cyborg was mainly connected with James Cameron’s 1984 film hit, The Terminator, although it turns out that the robot covered in synthetic human flesh played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in this movie is not a cyborg at all. You need to think, rather, of the popular 1970s TV series The Six Million Dollar Man (1974-78), based on Martin Caidin’s novel Cyborg (1972) to get the right idea. In this series, actor Lee Majors plays former astronaut Colonel Steve Austin who, after a terrifying crash, develops superhuman abilities thanks to a series of cutting-edge implants inserted in his shattered body. Austin, partly human and partly mechanical, is a cyborg that celebrates the achievements of 1970s utopian technoscience. In contrast, Robocop, which appeared only one year after Haraway’s manifesto, in 1986, presents the cyborg as the human victim of rampant capitalism. Here the victimised body is that of a police officer viciously attacked by criminals, who is resurrected to become the cyborgian replacement of the police force in Detroit. Omni Consumer Products, the corporation that turns Alex Murphy into a dehumanized cyborg, believes there is big business in this.

I am not too keen on Haraway’s manifesto, which seems to stubbornly deny the dystopian direction which the cyborg was taking in the 1980s both in real-life research and in science fiction. I believe, besides, that many readers tend to overlook the opening paragraph in which she warns us that she is being ironic and playful. My student Jaume shares this mistrust with me and, so, he formulated a basic research question: taking into account 1990s and early 21st century science fiction, can we argue that the idea of the cyborg is obsolete? His answer is that, certainly, the cyborg needs to be reconsidered, for the merger of the human and the non-human is no longer central either to science fiction or to real-life research. The dominating model is the transcendence of the human, which is, incidentally, the title of his dissertation. His inspiration, by the way, is another woman: N. Katherine Hayles, author of the indispensable How We Became Posthuman (1999).

The central idea is very, very simple but not that obvious, I insist: whether modified mechanically, digitally or organically, the cyborg is an exception, an individual that, supposing s/he has children, cannot alter the whole human species. In contrast, the posthuman tends to carry genetic modifications or to be part of a digital environment that will substantially alter humankind itself. In short, Robocop is a cyborg, the X-men are posthuman (and so is Frankenstein’s monster, incidentally). Of course, things are never that easy and, so, for instance, in Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, there is a mixture of cyborgian and posthuman elements. Takeshi Kovacs, Morgan’s protagonist, has been ‘enhanced’ (as the current by-word is for humans no longer purely homo sapiens) by genetic and bio-chemical manipulation. He’s also part of a digital environment that allows for personalities to be transferred to different bodies by means of inserting a cortical stack (a sort of black box, the author explains) in new ‘sleeves’.

Most stories about cyborgs, then, deal with our fears that our individuality may be radically and tragically disrupted by the insertion of non-organic materials and devices in our bodies (despite Haraway’s optimistic take on this iconic figure). In contrast, stories about posthumans deal with the fears that the whole human species may be altered by the genetic legacy of individuals whose genome is no longer ours. This is mostly associated with the dangerous transhumanist dream of interfering in the course of natural evolution by forcing humanity to move towards a certain posthuman model (read Hayles, please). However, in Greg Bear’s novel Darwin’s Children it simply happens that a virus alters all unborn babies at the foetal stage. Suddenly, no more homo sapiens are born and, since the new species has abilities quite superior to ours, we risk becoming obsolete. Of course, transhumanist leader Nick Bostrom argues that conventional humans and posthumans could live in harmony, in the same way we, potato-coach non-athletes, accept even with admiration individuals like super-athlete Usain Bolt. This, naturally, is disingenuous, for if Bolt turned out to be a mutant and likely to have posthuman children against whom no human athlete could compete things would be very, very different.

Jaume Llorens, and myself, declare ourselves moderate posthumanists. We both abhor the transhumanist dream of a eugenically modified posthumanity, complete with digital uploadings into supercomputers that will guarantee our immortality (perhaps online, perhaps using synthetic bodies for temporary downloads). We both believe, however, that technoscience will relentlessly advance to eliminate the main human bodily flaws and to free humans who suffer unnecessarily from their pain. The ethical problems posed by eugenics are already looming in the horizon but, let’s be frank, while using genetic selection to breed only blond, blue-eyed babies is monstrous, who would say no to getting rid of unwanted genetic defects? It is already happening on a daily basis.

Jaume claims that science-fiction writers are mainly producing a fantastic version of the posthuman, quite beyond the current state of technoscience. A sort of ‘worst-case scenario’, playing with deep-seated fears. I keep on telling him that by telling stories about posthumans we are actually indirectly facing our secret guilt that we’re responsible for eliminating all other human species from Earth. Yes, think of the Neanderthals but also many others that used to share Earth with us. We fear very much becoming the Neanderthals to a posthuman species because we know what we did to our others. This means that I’m not personally afraid or concerned that homo sapiens might disappear for, in my humble view, we’re nothing but vermin to our beautiful planet. What worries me sick is that we’re replaced by even worse vermin rather than by the superior humans every SF writer imagines. Or by the fascist regime that the transhumanists preach, based on the very selfish idea that we, homo sapiens, are so wonderful that we deserve to become a better version of ourselves, immortality included. Here’s my point: there is no better version, for we are fundamentally flawed. I’d rather support Bear’s mutant children, or the X-men (um, not the Magneto faction…).

Now, read science fiction for, really, this is the only kind of fiction that understands not so much our future but what is going on today, right now, beneath our very noses.

And congratulations, Jaume Llorens!!! May we soon see your PhD dissertation online and in print.

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