The Cyborg Wars

We’ve discussed before how Critical Race theorists have repositioned the word “Racist” by exploiting language’s inherent mutability and sensitivity to context. They have claimed it as a neutral, factual adjective that describes any aspect of a racially unequal society, including any of the behaviours and attitudes of its citizens. At the same time, they have kept its visceral charge, and drawn on its strength, as a deeply insulting criticism. The emotional, accusatory power is smuggled into the apparently measured and sober academic discussion, infuriating their right-wing opponents, and ensuring conformity in their guilt-addled liberal allies.

Trans activists have tried, similarly and unilaterally, to reposition “Sex and Gender”, creating an artificial difference between the two terms. The distinction is incoherent, however. You see uncertainty spread across the face of anyone who dutifully attempts to explain it, as they realise their explanation doesn’t make sense! I’d expect this unstable usage to die away, over time.

I suspect these thefts of our collectively owned resources are as old as sociology itself. Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto (1985), which Underwood discusses, uses the word, and concept, of the “cyborg” to reject traditional, rigid binary definitions: the distinction between Human and animal, or human and machine. These are stimulating and engaging ideas. Haraway advocates a more liminal, perhaps phantasmagorical way of perceiving the world, claiming that all modern people are cyborgs. 

Underwood quotes her as saying the cyborg is “an agent of transcendence and neitherness whose presence interrupts ‘racist, male dominant capitalism’ through its ‘partiality, irony, intimacy and perversity.’ It is ‘oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence’” (Underwood, 2021, p79)

Haraway has taken the term as an emblem of anything indeterminate, transgressive, or marginalised. That’s fine, but it’s a long way from the original sense. In science fiction, a cyborg character can be used to explore any of these issues as part of a narrative that addresses them. In Harraway’s usage, a single word is stretched to cover all descriptions of opposition to social norms. It has become too expansive, abstract, and allusive. It is diluted: softer and more ambiguous. 

We might complain that she has hopelessly confused the original meaning and thus diminished its power, and we might question by what right she has done so. We all used this word quite happily, in a much simpler, concrete way, with a definition that now threatens to elude us. She’s privatised the demotic commons of language. 

This is partly Jillian Weiss’s objection. Jack Underwood describes her as “the cyborg Jillian Weise – who uses the pronouns cy/she/her.” (Except, presumably she doesn’t: she demands we use the pronoun “cy”, when we talk about her in her absence, thus encroaching on our freedom of speech. If enforceable, these demands would be the worst form of tyranny – literal thought control.)

Ms. Weise complains that Haraway “co-opts cyborg identity while eliminating reference to disabled people on which the notion of the cyborg is premised. Disabled people who use tech to live are cyborgs. Our lives are not metaphors.” (Underwood, 2021, p79)

Unwisely, Jack Underwood allows himself to get drawn into this petty squabble. He advises us, “it is a vitally important point; people currently reliant on technological aids to stay alive often face a daily battle for visibility, access and equal rights; if you already possess those rights, and move around a world designed with your able body in mind, claiming to be cyborg would be an offensive erasure of the actual cyborg experience.” (Underwood, 2021, p80)

This whole artificial debate is utter nonsense, including the antagonism directed by Ms. Weise at Ms. Haraway. No-one meeting a person in a wheelchair or using crutches would think, “ah, yes, there’s a cyborg.” Firstly, the common understanding of a cyborg is an enhanced being whose functions have been boosted beyond those of the norm, not someone who uses kit to compensate for some of the difficulties they face. Secondly, because of the primacy we place on the mind in the supposed Cartesian mind-body duality, these enhancements are usually include directly cognitive enhancements.

To be a considered a cyborg, the technological aspects of a person’s existence would need to interfere with their biologically-derived cognitive existence to such an extent that their inherent humanity could be called into question. There would need to be such a significant level of alteration and enhancement of the mind, and thus of their experience of being human, that an ontological tipping point is reached. 

So, neither Jillian Weise nor Donna Haraway are cyborgs. Of course they aren’t.  Weise and Underwood are right to highlight the difficulties and discrimination that face disabled people. But Ms Weise’s claim that people who rely on technology “are cyborgs”, is entirely her own invention, without the support of any common usage at all. Despite her aplomb, hers is not “the actual cyborg experience.” Her use is equally as metaphorical as that of Haraway. 

Jillian Weise’s criticism is hypocritical. She  doesn’t get to own the term more than Donna Haraway simply because she struggles with a physical disadvantage. This isn’t a game of disadvantage top trumps. After all, Haraway bagsied the word as a metaphor first!  

And Jack Underwood betrays the intellectual rigour he shows elsewhere in his book in what appears to be an attempt display his loyalty to his political constituency. 

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