The Cyborg Handbook

The Cyborg Handbook is a strange collection of documents, as strange as the subject it introduces. It remarks in its introduction that there can hardly be a handbook for cyborgs, seeing as the discursive conditions that enable handbooks of any given topic to exist are not present when it comes to cyborgs. While there are many kinds of cyborgs around, alive and kicking, they are not the kind you purchase and whose functionality is outlined in technical documentation. Quite the opposite: many of the practices related to actually existing cyborgs have been left undocumented and unexamined. Which necessitates a handbook – if only to underscore why a handbook does not and can not exist.

If these remarks seem slightly more postmodern than they ought to, then it is because the discourse on cyborgs is intrinsically linked to the discourses of modernity and postmodernity. Not only because of the works of Haraway, but also because of the origins of the word and the contexts it developed in. It began as a straightforward exercise of the self-confidence of modernity and the notion of eternal progress, and ended up with complex interrogations of class, gender, sexuality, race and other aspects of what it means to be human. If that is the proper word for it.

The Handbook begins by presenting these origins, in the form of technical documents from NASA. These documents pertain to the feasibility of long-range space travel, and the challenges posed by being in deep space for extended periods of time. One such challenge is the human form. Keeping humans alive as they are in small confined spaces is difficult at best, and a technical nightmare at the level of implementation.

Since those brave souls sent out into the unknown will, for all intents and purposes, be in a state of symbiosis with the ship they are sent in, it would be prudent to look into changing the human passengers to facilitate such a state. And it is with these changes the notion of a cyborg is born: someone who is altered to better interface with the machines that keep them alive. A technical solution to a technical problem – modernity at its most blunt.

While these documents fall mostly within the realm of scientific speculation, they do set the tone for what is to follow, albeit inadvertently. As technology moved along from the 1960s onwards, it sought to provide technical solutions to technical problems, and it did. And it did so within the frameworks of modernity – militaries, bureaucracies, medical discourses, capitalism, the sciences, legal systems, the familiar settings. Each added their own flavor of cyborgness to the present, and have all played a part in bringing us here.

The Handbook does not explicate these developmental lines, but it does indicate them, and provide interesting first reads for those interested in pursuing further readings. The cyborg is at once both a metaphor and a lived contemporary experience, and by pointing out this duality, the Handbook provides us with a lens through which to view what we already know. Once seen, the ever present artificiality of what it is to be “human” cannot be unseen.

Nowhere else is this as hypervisible as in the medical discourses, especially as they intersect with legal ones. Especially when the former advances their scope and demand clarifications from the latter. What does it mean, for instance, that a human being does not need to be born in order to become a medical subject, a patient? When ever more refined instruments and adjustments are brought to bear on the fetus, it slowly emerges more as a technical property than as a new life in advent. And the mothers, subsequently, become systems which these instruments and adjustments apply to. The relationship is no longer mother-child, but mother-child-technology; technomoms and cyborgs.

It is no accident that abortion is at the forefront of many political discourses. Even less that transgender issues have begun to take on a similar legal frenzy in recent times. As science has progressively moved towards a loosening of the notion of biological sex, and medicine has begun to provide ever more efficient treatments that engender transitioning from a given identity to another, the political and legal frameworks are obliged to respond. Suddenly, there are cyborgs walking among us, and their very existence as legal subjects requires established legal practices to change in order to remain coherent.

The same goes for the intersection of law and the armed forces. Drones are seeing more widespread use as time goes on, and the legal status of these machines in relation to their operators grows ever more complex. If a drone malfunctions and kills unintended innocent targets, is responsibility to be placed on the operator or the manufacturer? Where in the interplay of wetware and hardware is the legal subject to be found? And if such a subject cannot be found – where then can the bereaved seek to find justice?

As a metaphor, the cyborg can be used to draw connections between things that would otherwise remain disparate fields of knowing. As a lived experience, it surrounds us in more ways than grammar can convey. The human subject sees itself as human, but the technological systems that surround these subjects might not, or might have a different frame of mind when it comes to the specifics of humanness. And while certain political factions make very loud noises about gender, race, class and sexuality in some way being ‘optional’ topics when it comes to public policy, the cyborg persists. An unavoidable result of the project of modernity. A metaphor come to life.

Do not be fooled by the fact that the Cyborg Handbook was published in 1995, over twenty years ago. The hardware is still more or less applicable to the documentation, and the same goes for the software. A fact illustrated very clearly by one of the chapter titles, authored by Cynthia Fuchs: “Death is irrelevant: Cyborgs, reproduction, and the future of male hysteria”.

The future, it would seem, is now.

The Cyborg Handbook

Vega: Tom’s Diner

Life consists of moments. First one moment, then another, then another, each one as unique as the one before. Once a moment has passed, it is gone, and will never return again. The closest thing we can do to recover it is to remember it, or to replicate the conditions which prevailed during it. Yet the second pass will only ever be a replica, an attempt – the experience of that first instance wasn’t there the first time around, and will color any future moments.

Of course, most moments are relatively undramatic, and large portions of our lives consist of moments that are of little note. While each moment is unique, the elements of repetition and routine make sure to add a certain predictability to the state of things – we know how to act in most situations, and those around us also know, and our mutual understanding of the particular moment we’re in assure that nothing in particular will happen right here, right then. We live in terms of iterations upon themes.

A key portion of any given moment is the intentionality with which a subject enters into it. These words somewhat obfuscate the simple idea they convey – that the act of going to the store with the intention of buying milk is a different experience than going there with the intent of armed robbery. Both intentionalities are possible, yet the lived moment is different depending on which you adopt. And human beings are capable of adopting a vast range of intentionalities when they are out and about in the world, assuring that no two moments will ever be alike, no matter how similar they might be in material terms.

Suzanne Vega’s famous song Tom’s Diner is a description of a particular moment at a particular time. It describes an unnamed protagonist getting a morning coffee at the aforementioned diner, and the momentary thought processes occurring as they occur. A quick summary of what actually happens would be both quick and uninteresting – the man behind the counter only pours half a cup of coffee as he becomes distracted by a woman entering, and instead of arguing about it, our protagonist retreats into a newspaper, and a moment later notices another woman outside the diner, watches her for a spell and then finishes their coffee in order to set off for the train. These are the things that happen, but they are not the interesting things.

The interesting things are the implied intentionalities of the various actors of the scene. The setting itself implies various intentionalities – a diner is a place to get food, and the information that this all takes place in the morning adds additional information. The time and place in and of themselves suggests that this is not a place where our protagonist is likely to spend an extended amount of time, and the last lines hints at the overall intention of our protagonist: to grab a quick coffee before boarding a train to destination unknown. A transitory moment in transit, as it were.

Most moments are of this nature. We do not exist in the world in general, nor do we interact with people in their abstract particularity. We always find ourselves at a particular place at a particular time, and navigate the situation accordingly. There are things to be done, places to be, people to meet and deadline to complete – things on our minds that define what we’re about right there and then. Things that preclude us from being in the moment, as it is.

Of course, the least interesting lesson to take from this is to try to shed these states of mind. While intuitive and culturally resonant (“live in the moment”), it falls into the regressive trap of being a state of mind in its own right, which rather defeats the point. A more interesting lesson is to take note of the intentionalities with which we approach situations – and of those of our peers. Knowing ourselves and what we are about is universally useful; knowing others more so.

Vega’s downscaled description of an ordinary, in many ways unremarkable everyday scene puts subjectivity at the fore. While we are not told much about the people involved in this scene, we are given enough information to understand their general situation and what they are about in the moment. It’s subtle and efficient, and suggests a more general point: the possibility of squeezing many points of empathy into small signifiers. The smol things.

All we have to do is pay attention.

Vega: Tom’s Diner