Cyborgs: The Effect upon Identity of the Technological Modification of the Body



Theoretical Context

Identity, the Body, and the Cyborg - three strands of enquiry which interrelate closely, for the figure of the Cyborg is precisely where questions of the embodiment of identity are thrown most sharply into focus. To establish whether or not there is an affect upon identity wrought by the technological modification of the body, we must first establish the nature of the relationship between the body and identity.

The central theoretical context within which the research is to be situated is the ontological standpoint of Performativity, as explored primarily by Judith Butler. This places the concept of Identity at the heart of the research, establishing from the outset that Being is in the Doing of it, and that this enactment of being is an embodied affair. Butler's Performativity is informed by the work on the performance of roles in social interaction done by Erving Goffman, and integrates into a theoretical base on 'technologies of the Body' established by Michel Foucault in a philosophical terrain of transversality laid out by Deleuze and Guattari.

A secondary theoretical context is provided by the work in the Sociology of Technology carried out by Bijker & Law, Poster, and Latour, covering the politics of artefacts, the message in the medium, and Actor-Network theory. The social construction of the individual in social interaction with non-human social actors, and the politics and message of these actors, is thus highlighted. The duality of the humanist mind/body split is of particular importance here, and the standoff between a holistic approach to a human being constituted as a mind/body unity, and a modularised, mechanistic picture of a human being constituted as an organic machine inhabited by a separate human intelligence.

All this leads into an appraisal of Posthumanism - the study of that cultural figure, and the third main concept of the research: the Cyborg. Theorists like Haraway and Gray have helped to establish an entire field of study variously titled 'Cyborgology' or 'posthumanism', devoted to theorising about the phenomenon - though largely unsupported by empirical evidence, and encouraging a great deal of hype and theorising which is often pure rhetoric. Hayles, on the other hand, provides an impressive theoretical link between the issues of dualism and embodiment, and the figure of the Cyborg.

It is the hope of this research to establish that, on the theoretical level, it is the mind/body split of the humanist era, brought over into the post-humanist present, that has spawned the Cyborg, but that the embodiment of identity, the mind/body unity of a more holistic conceptualisation of human being, is supported by the actual experiences of those whose bodies have been modified, and those who are exploring the Cyborg from a non-scientific standpoint. Prostheticians and geneticists currently at work in the academic-medical-scientific world are clearly of especial interest to this enquiry, as are the military research and development projects funding such work. The non-science based individuals most directly involved with the cyborg phenomenon are cyberpunk fiction writers, disabled performers exploring the disabled identity, and performance artists exploring cyborgism through their performance work.

The sites wherein this enquiry will take place are therefore as follows:

  • the figure of the cyborg in fiction
  • the experience and ideas of disabled performers
  • the practices and hopes of prostheticians and geneticists
  • performance artists' experiments and ideas
  • the military establishment's ongoing research and development
Research Questions

In light of the above theoretical contexts, there are a number of important questions raised concerning identity and the body:

  • If, as the concept of performativity describes, we 'do' being our bodies, who are we when we are part (bio-)mechanical, or genetically engineered?
  • What affect does the introduction of technology into the body have upon the never-culminating process of the construction of the individual?
  • When a prosthetic or implant is introduced to the body, what changes are wrought upon our identities?
  • How and in what ways do such changes occur?
  • What defining cultural codes do we repeat, in such circumstances, and how do we learn them?

It is the purpose of my fieldwork to try to put together a range of personal experiences, attitudes, ideas and experiments from relevant individuals, and, through interpretation of this material, discover evidence of the process of identity changes, and to learn both about it and from it.

Further questions raised concerning the sociology of technology include:

  • If the definition of the identity of the individual social actor through the repetition of cultural codes is increasingly controlled by the technological rationalisation of society, is the dissolution of the barrier of the skin, and the intrusion into the genetic coding of our bodies, just the logical next step in the social construction of the self?
  • Is the organic, 'natural' body enhanced or compromised by this development?
  • Is this invasive rationalisation process observable in identity changes?
  • Is the post-evolutionary, posthuman world of the technologically advanced future somewhere we, as a species, really want to go?
  • Where are we going with this new phenomenon, and why are we doing it?
  • Is it a 'utopian' or a 'fatal strategy', (Baudrillard 1986), is it 'progress' or just 'profit', the 'new age' or 'ecocide'.

Finally, as a research problem to directly and feasibly test:-

  • How do the work and attitudes of disabled and non-disabled performers and performance artists enhance our understanding of the affect upon performed identity of the introduction of technology into the body? And what conclusions for the future of technological embodiment should we draw?

Plan of Work

Abstract | PhD Proposal | Conference Paper | US Research Trip | Cyborg Links
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