Science Fiction Studies

#94 = Volume 31, Part 3 = November 2004


Veronica Hollinger

Technoculture All the Way Down

[T]he more technological options that exist, the less possible it is to choose options that do not involve technology.—Barbara Katz Rothman, qtd. in Cyborg Citizen, 88

Understanding human cognition will increasingly mean analyzing the affordances that suture us into the flows of information as we are incorporated into systems that are at once material and conceptual, virtual and real.—N. Katherine Hayles, Foreword, Prefiguring Cyberculture, xiii

Chris Hables Gray. Cyborg Citizen: Politics in the Posthuman Age. New York: Routledge, 2002. xiii + 241 pp. $28 hc.

Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson, and Allesio Cavallero, eds. Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History. Sydney, NSW: Power Publications, 2002 & Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2002. xiv + 322 pp. $32.95 hc.

Here are two quite different but equally significant additions to recent scholarly attempts to come to some understanding of the effects of contemporary technoculture on both individuals and communities. Apart from their usefulness as exemplary technocultural studies, I consider that anyone with an interest in the fortunes of science fiction will find these books particularly worthwhile. Each of them recognizes in science fiction the narrative genre most in tune with the future-oriented hi-tech present, the most suitable genre through which to dramatize the potential consequences of ongoing technoscientific development. Cyborg Citizen is a critical overview of some of the ways in which the individual subject is being constructed in/by technoculture, with a particular focus on the political implications of such constructions. In contrast, Prefiguring Cyberculture, as its title suggests, is a wide-ranging collection of essays aimed at exploring some of the wealth of historical ideas and events that have helped to shape contemporary technoculture itself.

Cyborg Citizen. As Oscar Valparaiso—political-hack hero and manic embodiment of genetically-engineered posthumanity—notes in Bruce Sterling’s political satire Distraction (1998), “These aren’t normal times.... We’ve used up all our normality. There isn’t any left” (228). Chris Hables Gray’s latest study, Cyborg Citizen, is an astute and very readable demonstration of just how deeply abnormal the times have become—although it might well be equally accurate to state that Cyborg Citizen provides an excellent introduction to the new normal. As editor of the very large and influential Cyborg Handbook (Routledge, 1995) and author of studies such as Postmodern War: The New Politics of Conflict (Guilford, 1997), Gray has long explored the political import of technology in our lives, and Cyborg Citizen is a worthy contribution to his ongoing project. After reading Cyborg Citizen, it’s difficult to ignore the sheer multiplicity of the ways in which technoscience is shaping, and will continue to shape, the lives of those of us for whom technology increasingly functions as a kind of second nature.

It is Gray’s contention that “We live in a cyborg society, no matter how unmodified we are as individuals” (2) and that this society is in the throes of an ever more rapid evolution. Although he tends to maintain his focus on the results of the human/machine interface, his introductory remarks provide a more inclusive description of “cyborg” than is often deployed by post-Harawayan scholars1:

A cyborg is a self-regulating organism that combines the natural and the artificial together in one system. Cyborgs do not have to be part human, for any organism/system that mixes the evolved and the made, the living and the inanimate, is technically a cyborg. This would include biocomputers based on organic processes, along with roaches with implants and bioengineered microbes. (2)

Gray borrows the idea of “participatory evolution”—that is, the artificial process through which human beings are currently contributing to their own bio-genetic and technological transformations—from Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, the scientists who in 1960 coined the term “cyborg.” For Gray, this process of “participatory evolution” is “a fundamentally new development in the history of the human” (3):

Artificial evolution ... now includes the direct modification of human bodies and genes. Our interventions are presently crude, but new technosciences promise that soon we will be creating creatures from ourselves that cannot even be classified as humans. Whatever the motivations ... this process is fundamentally political. Politics will determine what values we build into posthumanity. (11)

In his view, the most significant consequence of technoscience is the increasing cyborgization of the human subject.

This is a cusp moment in human history. The postmodern, Gray argues, is a transitory phase and it is leading us toward a future at once promising and threatening. It is thus necessary to develop a politics for the new cyborg citizen of the technologically-inflected future/present. Like Donna Haraway and others, Gray sees in the cyborg a potentially powerful metaphor, “a signifier of postmodern times” that deploys the “tactic of science fiction ... to tell stories about the here and now that do not paint the present as an inevitable product of the past. This means that the future is not determined either” (90). Recognizing the centrality of science fiction’s role in thinking about the human-machine interface, Gray intersperses his commentary with glancing but incisive references to key sf texts by writers such as Bruce Sterling, Frederik Pohl, Robert A. Heinlein, Maureen McHugh, Isaac Asimov, David Brin, Mary Shelley, and John Varley.

Cyborg Citizen opens with the question: “Does participatory evolution require participatory government?” (vii). The text itself is Gray’s affirmative response: his second chapter, for example, develops a list of ten amendments to create a “Cyborg Bill of Rights.” Among these amendments are “Freedom of Electronic Speech,” “Freedom of Consciousness,”2 “Right to Death,” Freedom of Information, and “Freedom of Family, Sexuality, and Gender.”3

Cyborg Citizen is a study of embodied subjects. Gray insists that “Citizenship will always be embodied in some sense, although not necessarily in living flesh,” and he goes on to note that “feminist philosophy ... has made the embodiment of citizenship undeniable in the postmodern era” (29). Whatever else it may be, the cyborg subject, located at the interface of the organic and the technological, is still bounded by matter. While we—or beings that used to be “we”—may yet achieve the digital existence so extolled by AI theorists such as Hans Moravec and so brilliantly imagined in the science fiction of Greg Egan, Gray’s focus is on the present and the foreseeable future. For now, we are corporeal creatures and it is our physical experiences in/of technoculture that demand the most pressing critical responses.

To read Cyborg Citizen is to understand just how far into the future we’ve been precipitated; it’s a kind of mini-exercise in future shock. Gray considers an astonishing array of current technological practices and researches-in-progress as he maps some of the features of a contemporary moment that seems already to have been invaded by the future. While the breadth of his coverage inevitably results in a certain loss of depth and detail, this is, I think, a deliberate choice on Gray’s part: he is more concerned to outline a large territory in broad strokes than to offer detailed renderings of its particular features.

The book is divided into fourteen chapters organized into four sections. The first section, “Postmodern Politics,” develops Gray’s theoretical ideas about the political implications of cyborg posthumanism, including a consideration of political participation via the Internet, and concluding with a chapter on “Cyborg Warriors” drawn from his previous work on postmodern war and human-machine weapons systems. The second section, “Promulgating Cyborgs,” contains chapters of particular relevance to those of us living in the hi-tech West, on “Infomedicine and the New Body” and on “Cybernetic Human Reproduction,” for example. “Enabled Cyborgs, Living and Dead” provides a fascinating look at everything from prosthetic penises to “neomorts” and the variety of ways in which one can now be dead, thanks to the supports and interventions of medical technologies. The third section, “Cyborg Society,” considers how technoscience is causing radical changes in definitions of family and sexuality, and includes an astutely critical look at both education and athletics in the chapter on “Taylored Lives.” Gray’s fourth section, “Cyborgology,” concludes with a chapter on “Posthuman Possibilities” that considers the necessity of developing a cyborg epistemology (thesis, antithesis, synthesis, prosthesis, and again [184; Gray’s italics]), as well as cyborg ethics and subjectivities appropriate to the future in which we now find ourselves. Not unlike other analysts of the technoscientific environment,4 Gray finds this to be a profoundly ambiguous “place,” at once beguiling and sinister. Cyborg Citizen remains balanced between an alarmist reaction to its dystopian potential and a political commitment to participation in its ongoing (re)construction.

As a last comment, it’s important to note that Cyborg Citizen is itself a cyborg text/technology: it extends beyond the printed page onto the Routledge Web site (at <>). There readers will find an expansive array of related material, including a wealth of bibliographical information and links to sites of related interest. I’ll leave you to the enjoyment of exploring this virtual and hypertextual extension of Cyborg Citizen for yourself.

Prefiguring Cyberculture. If Gray’s study tells us some of the things that can be said about present-day technoculture, Prefiguring Cyberculture tells us some of the things that can be said about how we got here. Darren Tofts and his co-editors have put together an impressive collection of essays and meditations aimed at historicizing the productions of technoscience. The authors of these pieces are involved in reading backward, as it were, in order to appreciate more accurately the complex, heterogeneous, and constantly shifting landscape of present-day bodies and technologies known as “cyberculture” or “technoculture.” How has this terrain been shaped by earlier currents of philosophical thought, political interest, popular story-telling, theoretical critique, and scientific and technological development? How has conceptualization shaped implementation? In the words of its editors, Prefiguring Cyberculture seeks to “illuminate the rich intellectual history of cyberculture by probing ‘framing texts’ drawn from fiction, science and philosophy” (x). The result is a wide-ranging, if inevitably incomplete, assemblage of commentaries—by scholars, critics, artists, and scientists—that is as thought-provoking as it is enlightening.

Prefiguring Cyberculture is an Australian initiative, jointly published by MIT Press. Tofts, the project’s senior editor, is Chair of Media and Communications at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne; of his two co-editors, Annemarie Jonson teaches in the Arts Informatics program at University of Sydney and Alessio Cavallaro is Curator of New Media Projects at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. The editors give the first word—in the form of a Foreword—to N. Katherine Hayles, whose How We Became Posthuman (1999) is an indispensable critical-theoretical history of cybernetics and information theory. This is followed by Tofts’s Introduction, “On Mutability,” which also serves as a manifesto of sorts for the whole project:

Prefiguring Cyberculture is concerned with exploring particular historical traces of technological change that, in retrospect, seem prescient, foreshadowing the lineaments of our contemporary moment.... [It] reveals that mutability is not simply about change, but is rather ... a constancy that can be characterized by the idea of becoming. (2)

Tofts also offers an admirably succinct definition of that nebulous term “posthuman”; the posthuman, for him, is one especially resonant outcome of the turn to cybernetics in the second half of the last century:

Cyberculture, as it is being evoked in the title of this book, is to be understood within [the] context of a conception of the human that has gone beyond—hence post—the organic, a-technological vision of “man” of classical antiquity, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. (3)

Within this conceptual framework, Tofts and his co-editors have divided the collection’s 27 pieces into four broad sections, the first and the fourth of which are most directly concerned with science fiction and utopian fiction: 1.“I, Robot: AI, Alife and Cyborgs,” 2. “Virtuality: Webworlds and Cyberspaces,” 3. “Visible Unrealities: Artists’ Statements,” and 4. “Futuropolis: Postmillennial Speculations.” This generous assemblage concludes with a Coda by Mark Dery, “Memories of the Future: Excavating the Jet Age at the TWA Terminal,” a meditation on the outdated future of the 1960s that inevitably recalls Gibson’s hommage to and demolition of 1930s futures in “The Gernsback Continuum” (1981).

While there’s no entry on “science fiction” in the index to Prefiguring Cyberculture, writers such as Thomas More and Francis Bacon, Mary Shelley, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury,Vernor Vinge, and William Gibson figure prominently in a variety of these discussions. The first section, for example, includes Catherine Waldby’s “The Instruments of Life: Frankenstein and Cyberculture,” an excellent reading of the first great novel about artificial life; Elizabeth Wilson’s “Imaginable Computers,” a moving examination of Alan Turing’s ideas about the possibilities of artificial intelligence; Samuel J. Umland and Karl Wessel’s “Cassandra Among the Cyborgs,” a kind of dialogue with Philip K. Dick’s 1976 essay “Man, Android and Machine” about the nature of “human nature” in cyberculture; and Zoë Sofoulis’s “Cyberquake: Haraway’s Manifesto,” one of the best evaluative summations to date of “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” and its interactions with, among other things, recent science fiction.

Of particular interest in the second section is McKenzie Wark’s detailed reading of Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” (1951) as prefiguring some of the features of virtual-reality gaming, as well as Scott McQuire’s (re)reading of the concept of cyberspace in William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), “Space for Rent in the Last Suburb.”5 Section Four contains a particularly rich mine of sf-related ideas. It includes Margaret Wertheim’s “Internet Dreaming: A Utopia for All Seasons,” a nuanced reading of some crucial differences in the visions in More’s Utopia (1516) and Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), which also looks at how these differences continue to play out in discussions about the utopian and/or dystopian potential of the Internet; Bruce Mazlish’s “Butler’s Brainstorm,” a study of some early ideas about machine evolution presented in Samuel Butler’s eccentric Victorian satire, Erewhon (1872); and Russell Blackford’s “Stranger Than You Think,” a very nicely balanced overview/appreciation of Arthur C. Clarke’s reflections on the future (as well as his reflections on the act of reflecting on the future) during the course of his very long career in science and science fiction: “[Clarke] is the major exponent of a future that is stranger than we can yet imagine, in which ... the limits of the possible may turn out quite different from what we currently expect” (253). As if he had learned this lesson from Clarke directly, Damien Broderick concludes this fourth section by casting all future speculation into doubt in “Racing Toward the Spike,” a commentary on sf writer and mathemetician Vernor Vinge’s theory of the “singularity.” As Broderick quotes Vinge, it is more than plausible that, in the near future, “we will cause superhuman intelligences to exist. Prediction beyond that point is qualitatively different from futurisms of the past” (279).6

The range and expertise of the contributors to Prefiguring Cyberculture is striking. They include Hayles and Dery, of course, both of whom have well-deserved reputations as technocultural commentators. As I mentioned above, Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman has become a touchstone study, while Dery’s reports on key cultural features of the technosphere in studies such as Escape Velocity (1996) are some of the most useful published to date. Readers may also recognize names such as Evelyn Fox Keller, author of a series of groundbreaking feminist critiques of the science project, including Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death (1992); Bruce Mazlish, author of the very influential The Fourth Discontinuity (1993); Donald F. Theall, a longtime SFS consultant who has published widely on the “pre-history of cyberspace” in the context of studies of both James Joyce and Marshall McLuhan; the Australian performance artist Stelarc, who has become notorious for cyborgizing his own body; Russell Blackford, an experienced commentator on the sf scene in Australia; and Damien Broderick, sf author, scholar, and in-your-face Australian transrealist. (Broderick was one of the guests at the August 2004 “Commonwealth of Science Fiction” Conference hosted by the University of Liverpool and he will be guest scholar at the March 2005 International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, the theme of which will be “Trans-Realism and Other Movements.”)

Where Prefiguring Cyberculture is less successful—inevitably so—is in its third section on “Visible Unrealities,” which includes brief statements by ten visual, media, and performance artists whose work has been very directly shaped by technologies such as artificial-life programs, VR, and computer-graphics imaging. Although each of these statements is accompanied by a (for the most part) striking color plate, such two-dimensional images can give only the sketchiest impression of works designed to be interactive or meant to be viewed as moving video images—as in Justine Cooper’s work using MRI to produce “data slices” of her own body or in performances by Stelarc such as “Split Body” (1998). For this reason, I most appreciate the various (old-fashioned, in this context) photographic projects recorded here, especially Patricia Piccinini’s “Protein Lattice” (1997). This is the photograph of a supermodel upon whose naked shoulder is perched that iconic genetic hybrid, “ear-mouse,” a lab rat upon whose back is grafted a prosthetic human ear. As Piccinini comments of this image, “The significance of the juxtaposition of the attractive model and the grotesque mouse is their similarity, not their difference. To me they are both natural (organic) and artificial (constructed, retouched); both beautiful and empty, valued only for the intellectual property that they represent” (202).

At the same time that I found the “Visible Unrealities” section unable to do justice to its subject matter, I am pleased that the editors included it, if only as a salutary reminder of the increasingly complex interactions of technology and artistic production in today’s cultural scene. It is well worth keeping in mind the extent to which some visual, media, and performance artists are producing probing explorations of technoculture in a variety of media that have only recently come into existence.

The New Normal. At the conclusion of her Foreword to Prefiguring Cyberculture, Hayles describes it as “a collection whose time has come; or rather, a collection that, through its insightful and compelling interventions, helps to define the moment to which we have come” (xiv). I certainly agree with Hayles’s evaluation and would apply it as well to Cyborg Citizen, but it is difficult to read this comment without also hearing in it a certain unintended irony. This is especially true when the reader reaches Section Four of Prefiguring Cyberculture, “Futuropolis: Postmillennial Speculations.” In their introductory comments to this section, Tofts and Jonson, drawing on McLuhan’s observation that we can only ever see the future through a rearview mirror, make the case that “The future is always history” (210). In itself, Prefiguring Cyberculture demonstrates clearly, albeit unintentionally, that this is the case. Both it and Cyborg Citizen clearly went to press with no opportunity to address the events of 9/11 and so each just missed taking account of this particularly disastrous “spike” in the historical trajectory. One result is that “the future” as it is conceived of in these studies is no longer quite “the future” in which we find ourselves today, here on the other side of the fall of the World Trade towers. From this perspective, Dery’s Coda to Prefiguring Cyberculture, his observations about the increasingly rapid obsolescence of our visions of the future, is at once poignant and deadly accurate. The future is indeed always history and, as Dery so astutely notes, “nostalgia for the future, at once deeply sincere and deeply ironic, is an essential part of our post-millennial hangover” (295).

1. Like cyberculture theorists Zoë Sofoulis and Allucquère Rosanne Stone, Gray studied with Donna Haraway in the History of Consciousness Program at UC, Santa Cruz.
2. In part this amendment reads: “Individuals shall retain all rights to modify their consciousness through  psychopharmological, medical, genetic, spiritual, and other practices ...” (28).
3. In view of the current political battles being fought in Canada and the United States (and elsewhere) over issues such as same-sex marriage and the ever greater complexities of technology-assisted reproduction, this amendment is particularly pertinent. In part it reads: “Congress shall make no law arbitrarily restricting the definition of the family, of marriage, or of parenthood” (29).
4. See, for example, the studies by Best and Kellner, Dery, and Hayles listed in my Works Cited.
5. It’s been two decades since Gibson’s first novel was published; twenty years on and it reads like a historical document of sorts.
6. Vinge’s “technological singularity” is a wall of looming technological development “blocking the future from us,” as he puts it (qtd. Prefiguring Cyberculture 278). His own position is that “the singularity” will be the result of artificial-intelligence research.

Best, Steven and Douglas Kellner. The Postmodern Adventure: Science, Technology, and Cultural Studies at the Third Millennium. New York: Guilford, 2001.
Dery, Mark. Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. New York: Grove, 1996.
Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1999.
Sterling, Bruce. Distraction. 1998. New York: Bantam, 1999.

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