Biofunk

Are we becoming post-human or simply more in love with machines?


Virginia Eubanks
August 4, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

In the late 1980s, robotics researcher Hans Moravec offered a high-tech response to a hoary desire. He predicted that humans would soon be able to transmigrate - to upload their minds into mobile robots -- becoming immortal and continuing the cultural evolution of the species unencumbered by the fallible physical body.

This summer's slew of VR-obsessed films like "The Matrix," "The Thirteenth Floor" and "eXistenZ" bring Moravec's vision back into public consciousness. Part expression of millennial anxiety, part market reaction to the public's fascination with cyberspace, these films open a window into the contemporary obsession with the post-human persona. To varying degrees, they celebrate a freedom from the banality of living in an ordinary body, portraying characters who are able to populate multiple times, shapes, realities.

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In "Mind Children," Moravec hypothesized a future in which robot surgeons puree human brains and upload consciousness into computers and robot space travelers. This summer's films make the similar assumption that human consciousness can be transferred, without slippage, between different material forms.

Two recent books are less naive. N. Katherine Hayles' "How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics" and Anne Balsamo's "Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women" not only debate the technical feasibility of achieving Moravec's dream, but also question his motives for imagining such a future.

Hayles' book deftly traces three interlocking stories how information lost its body, how the cyborg was created as technological artifact and cultural icon and how the human became "posthuman" in scientific discourse, popular literature and cultural theory since World War II. Drawing from diverse sources (from Norbert Wiener to Jacques Derrida to Philip K. Dick), she speculates that our fascination with the post-human says more about how we conceive of the self than about any real developments in biology.

She shows how the tradition of liberal humanism -- which creates subjectivity based on the idea that you own your own body -- has gradually given way to a model based on the human's role as information processor. She dubs this emerging paradigm the "computational universe."

In the computational universe, the machine becomes the primary metaphor for understanding the human. Hayles writes, "The great cosmos itself is seen as a vast computer and ... we are the programs it runs." She points out that this hypothesis, though often speculative and highly contested, even within scientific discourses, has gathered enough cultural momentum to become a common vision of our shared future.

This vision appears, not only in cybernetics and artificial life, but also within postmodern cultural studies. Hayles suggests that "the postmodern orthodoxy that the body is primarily, if not entirely, a linguistic and discursive construction" will astonish future generations. In attempting to critique Enlightenment ideals, some postmodern scholars have focussed solely on "representation" over material realities. Hayles offers instead a framework that combines both these models, focusing on the interplay between the body as a cultural creation and the physical body that society attempts to shape and train.

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Hayles uses two terms, "inscription" and "incorporation," to describe the two primary processes through which we learn. "Inscriptive practices" construct our identities through culture -- tradition, legal precedent, fashion, mass media -- and "incorporative practices" are taught through habitual action. For example, posture, walking and sitting convey the different ways men and women occupy space. Such "incorporated gestures" are often accompanied by inscriptive injunctions like "girls don't sit with their legs open" or "boys don't walk like that."

Hayles points out that incorporative practices cannot exist in the computational universe, where the body is only an informational pattern. "The Matrix" punctuates this point with particular force. In it, humans can learn anything, instantly, through a direct cortical connection between brain and computer. They carry this knowledge unchanged through various incarnations in the "real" and "virtual" worlds. In one scene, the outlaw hacker-cum-biblical-savior, Neo, absorbs a disc full of information, opens his eyes and declares, "I know Kung Fu." But Kung Fu is learned primarily through repetitive practices of seemingly illogical bodily forms until they become subconscious responses. How could such knowledge be conveyed through a computer wire? For Hayles the blurring of these two kinds of knowledge can have serious ethical repercussions.

"The very theorists who most emphatically claim that the body is disappearing," she writes, "also operate within material and cultural circumstances that make the claim for the body's disappearance seem plausible." That is to say, it becomes easier to imagine such a disembodied universe when you make a living off your informational rather than bodily labor. Further, these theorists operate within physical and social conditions -- a world that is rapidly becoming uninhabitable for human beings -- that make embodiment seem a better place to be from than to live in. The dream of disembodied selfhood allows people with sufficient wealth, leisure and resources the illusion of escape from an irreplaceable and fragile world.

Though it lacks the sweep and scope of Hayles' book, Anne Balsamo's "Technologies of the Gendered Body" tends to ask its questions more bluntly. For example, Balsamo wonders if saying that cyberspace is gender- and race-free actually means that it is male and white. Through incisive interpretation of feminist bodybuilding, cosmetic surgery, reproductive medicine, virtual reality and cyberpunk fiction, she shows how the dialogue surrounding bodies and machines not only propagates new hopes about technology-enhanced immortality, but also represses our awareness of new threats to our physical bodies.

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Like Hayles, Balsamo is concerned about where such "theories of disembodiment" might lead. She argues that virtual systems offer only an illusion of control over the essentially incorrigible realities of nature. Since Descartes formalized the mind/body split, men in our culture have been equated with the mind while female and racialized identities have been analogous or "closer to" the body. The headlong rush into the digital future, she reasons, also signals a retreat from the messiness that has traditionally characterized the gender- and race-marked body.

In arguing this, Balsamo echoes Zoe Sofia's article, "Virtual Corporeality: A Feminist View" which argues that virtual reality is simply another incarnation of the myth of the birth of Athena, in which Zeus cannibalizes a pregnant Metis and gives birth to the fully armed virgin goddess directly from his head. Sofia sees this displacement of female reproduction into intellectual production reflected everywhere in our culture -- from the horrific mothering of Dr. Frankenstein to the space fetus' miraculous arrival in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Though these ideas lack a certain subtlety, this year's crop of films bears out Balsamo's and Sofia's predictions. In "The Matrix," Neo must escape a womb-red, jellied, leaky amniotic sack to become more fully human through technology. At several points, the protagonists are umbilically connected to machines. Then there's the word matrix, which shares the same root as matriarch and can be translated as "the womb." This translation of the title puts a whole new spin on Morpheus' description of the matrix as the "world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth -- that you are a slave." The protagonists begin their narratives as "slaves" to embodiment, but end by turning away from messy births and ravaged planets to embrace a clean, white, technologically-mediated future.

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Despite my skepticism about the technical feasibility of mind transfer and concern about the motives for such an imagining, I find it heartening that people are searching for ways to define the body and the self outside the tradition of liberal humanism. There's nothing inherently wrong with searching for transcendence through technological means, and the cybernetic emphasis on feedback loops and reflexivity may teach us to break the habit of defining ourselves separately from our communities and our environment. Yet if Marshall McLuhan is right, and the medium is the message, then our bodies are our minds (and vice-versa). The body is the interface between the world of the self and the world of others -- remove that interface and you eliminate the pleasure and danger inherent in the unpredictable friction between these worlds.

Much post-human rhetoric -- whether from "The Matrix" or Hans Moravec -- panders to the feelings of self-importance nursed by the tech set, who seem convinced that they have tapped a superior reality by removing themselves from bodily contact with other people. These yearnings, while disguised with revolutionary eloquence, are as old as the Platonic fixation with essential forms or the Cartesian emphasis on a mind/body split. If we are indeed approaching "post-humanity," we have the opportunity to redefine the subject more fully, eliding old dualisms and putting the flesh back into our vision of the future.


Virginia Eubanks

Virginia Eubanks is a Luddite posing as a transcendental hacker outlaw.

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