Thematic Research: The Cyborg

November 15, 2011

I got my folders back today along with my submission essay for last module, so I figured I might post part of it here for the hell of it. I didn’t want to put it up before as it was still being marked – eep – but the blog’s been feeling a little light on theory stuff lately and some of the research I covered was pretty interesting  – well if you’re as much of a nerd as me that is ;)

Bits of it retread older territory and it is part of a larger whole, but hopefully it should standup on it’s own. It’s a little longer than what I usually post so I’ve thrown some pictures in to break it up a little and added a few additional links for good measure.


During a trip to London in July, I happened to visit the British Library and their ‘Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as you know it’ exhibition running at the time. By the entry, visitors were met with an introductory statement: ‘The imaginary worlds of science fiction can inspire us to re-examine our own world.’ Besides being an apt summary of what I respect about the genre as whole it is of particular pertinence to what I’ve discovered of cyberpunk and its subject cyborg technologies in my research.

The term ‘cyborg’ itself was coined by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline in 1960 in their proposal for an enhanced astronaut able to survive in space without an externalised oxygen environment.*1 However this is predated by the term ‘cybernetics’ – frequently used in description of the latter – coined in 1948 by Norbert Weiner, broadly covering a ‘unified science of communications and control theory’ the more startling detail being that it was devised for an anti-aircraft predictor.*2 It’s between worryingly militaristic origins such as these and idealistic intentions of Clynes and Kline that the dual potential of the cyborg in both fiction and reality is most readily apparent; and it is a duality which I too wish to explore through my comic ‘Branch’.          

On the other side of the fact/fiction divide the cyborg tends to be characterised by considerably more extreme representations but it is a divide which is by no means impermeable. To cite one recent example I might draw attention to the Terminator statue inside Deka Research Corp and the referencing of Luke Skywalker’s bionic hand from Star Wars in the naming of their prosthetic limb.*3 Inevitably fiction influences reality and reality influences fiction.

It’s a concept used as a basis for Donna Haraway’s seminal Cyborg Manifesto (1991) to communicate the potentially liberating or crippling consequences of our future technology. As she puts it Contemporary science fiction is full of cyborgs – creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted.’ (Haraway, 1991, p149). While, the cyborg described here is a fictional being, the ‘ambiguously natural and crafted’ world might be a succinct way of describing our own and as such reflects her additional use of the cyborg as a metaphor for our technologically driven society. With the literal cyborg inherently being composed of both natural and artificial components, a key question Haraway and many like her pose is whether this constitutes a legitimate continuation of human evolution or a perverse deviation. Even as she praises the possibility the concept offers for ‘regeneration’ she also refers to it being ‘monstrous’.*4

Again, in reference to science fiction she makes an analogy of the cyborg’s inevitable otherness and disconnection to the humanity of old:

‘Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein’s monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden; that is, through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate, through its completion in a finished whole, a city and cosmos. The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project. The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust (…) But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.’

(Haraway, 1991, page 151)

While on some level it might seem illogical, it’s this contradiction which makes the human-machine meld such a compelling concept. The text emphasises the obvious disconnection from nature but suggests an enduring human uncertainty at the end regarding the will of offspring, disturbingly mixing technological invention with parenthood.

The portrayal of humanity as an elastic concept which is more often warped than replaced has formed the thematic basis for Branch’s narrative and indeed my entire project from an early stage. In essence; the idea that we humanise machines through their application just as easily as we might be dehumanised by our reliance upon them, as I stated before – a dual potential.

To offer a fictional illustration of this concept, take Chris Cunningham’s music video for Björk’s All is Full of Love (1999)*5. As Wegenstein and Hansen describe it in Getting Under the Skin (2006) ‘robots with interfaces resembling Björk interact with each other erotically in a human, lesbian way. The robots, in other words, behave humanly, but are themselves built according to the image of the posthuman.’ (Wegenstein, Hansen, 2006, p15) The video was doubtlessly made with aesthetic appeal in mind, but it does inadvertently capture much of the essence to the perverse reciprocal relationship between human and machine.

Moving into more practical factual examples, these ideas of blurred lines where human qualities are extended or replicated by technology might be noted in our ever developing set of prostheses too. High tech artificial limbs such as the Deka ‘Luke Arm’,*3 or Touch Bionics’ ‘I-Limb Pulse’*6 while invariably artificial and inferior to their organic counterparts, ultimately seek to replicate their function as effectively as possible. There are even signs of these creations beginning to (or at least attempting to) supersede their forerunners, as Chris Shilling outlines in his paper ‘Body in Culture, Technology and Society’:

‘Other developments with a robotic dimension to them have also weakened the boundary between humans and machines. Runners’ legs made for competitive athletes, for example, imitate the flexion of the cheetah’s leg and resemble ‘the suspension band in a pickup truck more than a familiar articulated leg’. Even more dramatically, some researchers are using computer technology with micro-surgery to create neuronal prostheses designed to recreate vision for blind people, while others are working on a new generation of hand prostheses ‘that will communicate with computers and bypass the keyboard hardware’. Such radically innovative prostheses seem to reveal a continued human desire to transcend the currently encountered limits of the body’

(Shilling, 2004, page 178)

As outlandish as these concepts may seem I would still argue they all have a basis in either human application or – as in the case athlete’s leg imitating a cheetah’s – a natural template to draw upon, moving them away from the dehumanising qualities so beloved of dystopian sci-fi. As different as they are, there are also familiar aspects to be found.

That said, it would be narrow minded to suggest there wouldn’t be any dramatic changes following and in the build up to the advent of a posthuman society. Selecting one of the largest potential alterations, let us consider gender in the case of an artificial body connected to a human brain; even supposing there were substitutes for genitals and gender characteristics, could we really deem it to be female or male in the traditional sense? Again returning to Haraway’s Manifesto, a reoccurring point in her argument (or possibly the whole point) is how the status of women in society will shift with these technologies accordingly:

‘One important route for reconstructing socialist-feminist politics is through theory and practice addressed to the social relations of science and technology, including crucially the systems of myth and meanings structuring our imaginations. The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self.’

(Haraway, 1991, page 163)

I mentioned before how she uses the cyborg as both literal construct and metaphor, in this case symbolically to represent how our ‘post modern’ identities will be disassembled and reassembled into a hybrid identity – a ‘reconstruction of self.’*7 I purposefully chose a female cyborg protagonist in my comic with the intention of perhaps exploring a similar notion of reassembled gender, introducing more typically masculine features along with the terminology ‘procedure’ for the cyborg transition creating possible connotations to a sex change – connecting it to a real topic for additional credibility while possibly presenting a challenge to the concept of stereotypical gender roles in narrative.

Returning to the topic I started with though, there’s no promise that the cyborg would necessarily result in utopian progression as the aforementioned continuation of human characteristics could likely result in the stagnation of our more regrettable tendencies. I already mentioned the military origins of cybernetics, something Shilling supports in criticism of Haraway’s more optimistic stance, referring to the cyborg as ‘a creature of the battlefield’*8. Once again, this statement can be seen reflected in a great deal of cyberpunk fiction, with Yukito Kishiro’s Battle Angel Alita (1990) and Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995) both presenting the subject cyborgs as physically hardened beings orientated towards combat.

For better or worse, following my research I feel much of it affirms my belief in the equal potential for advancement and disaster embodied in the cyborg, a creation that should neither whole heartedly be condemned or condoned. Taking Haraway’s metaphor of society as a cyborg, can we really say ‘posthuman’ is even an appropriate term for a future concerning human-machine hybrids when so much of the concept is already present now? We already have what might be considered symbiotic relationships with phones, the internet and innumerable other technologies, so the question begs: are we already entering a cyborg society? It is in such notions that I hope to connect with relevant contextual issues, offering my work a greater depth than mere fantasy might afford.


  1. Clynes ME, Kline NS (1960), ‘Astronautics/September: Cyborgs and Space’, Rockland State Hospital, Orangeburg, N.Y, page 27
  2. Shilling C (2004), ‘Body in Culture, Technology and Society’, Sage Publications Inc., page 180
  3., 19/11/2010, ‘Luke arm’ online article
  4. Haraway D (1991), ‘Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature’, Routledge, page 181
  5.,7/2/2011, ‘All is Full of Love’ music video
  6., 26/8/2011, ‘I-Limb Pulse’ news video
  7. Deitch J (1992), ‘Post Human’, Idea Books, page 33
  8. Shilling C (2004), ‘Body in Culture, Technology and Society’, Sage Publications Inc., pages: 186

‘Cyborg’ origins

November 8, 2010

It’s about time I made mention of some research on here, so I figured what better place to begin in line with my subject matter than with the origin of the term ‘cyborg’.

About a month ago while I was reading The Observer I conveniently stumbled upon a small- article celebrating 50 years of the cyborg, or rather 50 years since the word was coined given that we’re still some way off making them a reality…or are we?

Among more extreme fictional examples such as Robocop and Dr Who’s Cybermen the article highlights some everyday examples of man-machine hybrids which are almost completely overlooked. Pacemakers and prosthetic limbs already supplement our natural body functions in a symbiotic manner, as neuroscientist/inventor Manfred Clynes is quoted saying:“You could even say that if you’re riding a bicycle or wearing spectacles, that fits the cyborg concept. There’s feedback there. You don’t have to go into space!”

Fitting words from one of the men who helped propose the cyborg concept in the 1960’s, the other being psychiatrist Nathan Kline. Much as Clynes & Kline may sound like a comedy duo their paper ‘Drugs, Space and Cybernetics’ was the first to propose the idea of ‘the cyborg’, outlining how implants delivering controlled drug doses and other modifications of man’s biology could aid long distance space travel.

Intrigued, I attempted to find the original paper, something I have thus far been unsuccessful in – I did however find an article closely based off it Cyborgs and Space which was published in the September 1960 issue of Astronautics. This reprint may actually have been more useful to me anyway as it apparently summarises the key concepts of the paper, likely giving a scientific dunce such as myself a better chance of following.

As with their original paper, the article outlines the possibilities the proposed cyborg might offer to space exploration while also making an argument against the practicality of the existing externalised life support:

‘Biologically, what are the changes necessary to allow man to live adequately in the space environment? Artificial atmospheres encapsulated in some sort of enclosure constitute only temporizing, and dangerous temporizing at that, since we place ourselves in the same position as a fish taking a small quantity of water along with him to live on land. The bubble all too easily bursts.’

As with the fish out of water analogy, the typical space craft presents a sizable risk of the environment being punctured and destabilised along with the constraints of a finite air supply, placing an immediate limitation on the distance which can be covered by astronauts. The solution? To make adjustments to the astronauts themselves.

That’s right, no craft or spacesuit, man in space ‘qua natura’ as they put it, sounds insane right? But they manage to suggest a solution to virtually every body process which would be effected by the vacuum. This is not to say any of these solutions are particularly pleasant or fool proof, I suspect NASA would have a hard time finding volunteers willing to have their gastrointestinal tract sterilized or be kept in state of controlled hypothermia for reduced metabolism. It’s all far from perfect, but they make a firm point of almost all required technology being in existence and in some case having already been tested (that’s right, cyborg rats). That this tech was available as far back as 50 years makes the mind boggle.

Technicalities of the solutions aside, there’s an interesting paragraph where they emphasise the importance of all said systems being made to function autonomously, without need for management or maintenance on the part of the subject lest they become ‘a slave to the machine’. This idea fascinates me – that as soon as we must continually operate a machine in order to survive, then the control is no longer in our hands, as we are in a sense being controlled by the machine. Ironic when I consider my own dependence on plumbing, refrigerators and cookers – am I a slave to these machines because I need them to live?

The article hits another sizable obstacle near the end and a fundamental point in any cyborg concept when it approaches human psychology. No matter how well thought out it may be in practical terms, there is always, always the unpredictable human element to deal with; in this case the main problem being the sensory deprivation that comes from long exposure to a featureless void (as you might have with a space suit). Humans have an inevitable ‘desire for action’ and when they attempt to fulfil it with no feedback from the surrounding space to demonstrate it as being ‘purposeful’ the likely result is psychosis.

To summarise the point in broader terms, no matter how much machine you put in the man, there’s still going to be a human mind in there somewhere along with all associated baggage. It’s these themes that I wish to explore in my own project, considering how drastic human modifications might function in everyday life, and for that matter, whether they’d really function in a desirable fashion at all.

The articles final paragraph concludes optimistically, that:

‘Solving the many technological problems involved in manned space flight by adapting man to his environment, rather than vice versa, will not only mark a significant step forward in man’s scientific progress, but may well provide a new and larger dimension for man’s spirit as well.’

It’s about as sad as it is amusing that the cyborg’s greatest legacy has probably been to fiction rather to science (with rare exceptions such as the work of Professor Kevin Warwick), while it has rarely preached an idyllic man-machine symbiosis so much as tales of excess, dystopia and repression. I think it’s a safe bet this isn’t the legacy Clynes & Kline had in mind when they rote their paper all those decades ago. In the Observer article, Clynes is quoted as saying “Films such as Terminator sadden me because they misinterpret the message”. Indeed.

All  the same, it’s because of my continual affection for, and interest in the cyborg that I am doing this project now, while the allegorical comment of society’s dependence upon the machine is as relevant today (if not more so) as it was fifty years ago. Perhaps the message has been misinterpreted, but its given rise to a whole new set of fascinating questions and thinking in turn.

The story so far

October 30, 2010

Hi folks! Ozy here. Seeing as I’m just starting out it seems only fair that I give a brief rundown of how I got here and what I’m planning. The site’s a little barren for the moment given that I’m still getting to grips with WordPress (be gentle), but if you want the short version of what’s going on you can find the summary on the ‘What is Branch?’ page.

Still there? Then I’ll explain.

For the last three years I’ve been studying on Westminster’s BA in Contemporary Media Practice – think Film & TV with some stills photography thrown in – without exaggeration I can say this was an immensely valuable experience, expanding my knowledge of industry practice while also giving me plenty of creative freedom for experimentation. For the majority of these years I specialised in film production, however I always had something of soft spot for animation.

Indeed, I did a great deal of concept art and storyboarding throughout as well and it quickly became apparent that my drawing skills were my strongest asset. As a hobby, I took to making webcomics in my spare time, though given the pressures and constraints of uni work there was a limit to what I could manage on a regular basis and I couldn’t shake the feeling that given more time I could accomplish something vastly superior. As such, to date my comic attempts are modest at best.

As I started searching for suitable employment around my graduation, a familiar student scenario began to unfold. It was quickly evident that in spite of favourable qualifications they would only offer a slim chance of employment in media. As many will know, getting work in the industry is something of a Catch-22 situation: you need experience to get experience, to say nothing of today’s economy. In short things were looking bleak.

So as an alternative I resolved to continue my education in the form of a part-time MA in Art & Design to strengthen my CV and expand my skill set, this time in the more comfortable surroundings of my home city Hull. Aside from issues of funding (which I won’t go into here :p) I had a hard time thinking of a suitable project at first, all while I continued struggling to fit my comic work into a schedule. After weeks of grappling with an idea, I came up with a single solution to both problems – namely to combine hobby and study in the form of an MA project.

Thus it is that following a slightly unnerving pitch I find myself here, preparing the research and planning for ‘Branch’ – a self contained cyberpunk graphic novel of an estimated 100 colour pages.

Why cyberpunk you ask?

Well for one it’s a subgenre I’ve held a great deal of interest in for a long time and yet it’s always been something of niche genre, only occasionally rearing its head into mainstream culture, perhaps most notably during its debut in the 80’s with the most well known film examples being Blade Runner and The Matrix. In other word’s it’s firmly established but far from done to death.

Secondly, it’s a genre with themes of uncanny relevance to the society we live in. The cyberpunk fundamental of ‘high technology, low humanity’ is perhaps truer today than ever before. Specifically it’s my intention to base Branch’s story around cyborgs and the concept of the man-machine hybrid – while this may come across as outlandish fiction, to an extent we are already in symbiotic relationship with machines. How often do we utilise them every day? How many people do you know who are dependent on mobile phones, e-mail or Facebook to communicate? That I’m even publishing this through the internet right now itself is testament to our common reliance upon technology. From this perspective, we could already be regarded as cyborgs in a sense.

It’s this line of thought that leads me to believe there is ample depth and research material (real and fiction) to warrant an extended project and the resources supplied by a masters course while forming a formidable challenge to my writing and drawing abilities. There’s certainly a lot for me to be doing over the next two years, and I’m certain I’ll be pushed by the workload but all being well I’ll be looking at sizable improvements in my art, planning and general knowledge.

The final results will likely be showing up on Drunkduck while I’m certain I’ll be doing some printed copies too for those interested – publication seems I little overly optimistic but I’ll be giving everything I can go. In the meantime, I’ll be making regular progress updates right here along with relevant art and research, effectively charting the journey from concept to realisation. Constructive comments are welcome as is readership.

So how about it? Fancy coming along for the ride?