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Il Cyborg: Saggio Sull'uomo Artificiale

Author: Antonio Caronia
Publisher: Milan, Italy: ShaKe Edizioni, 2001
Review Published: October 2001

 REVIEW 1: Antonio A. Casilli

It was fifteen years ago that the Italian publishing house, Teoria, first published a book by Antonio Caronia [*]. Its prophetic title was Il Cyborg: Saggio Sull'uomo Artificiale (The Cyborg: An Essay on Artificial Man). During the 90s, it enjoyed several reprints, and, in 2001, ShaKe Edizioni, one of the most significant underground publishers in Italy, released a completely new edition.

Caronia (born 1944) is an engineer, a philosopher, and a radical activist for cyber-rights. As an author, he tries to detect cultural change as it unfolds and to anticipate trends. Indeed, Caronia's Il Cyborg was published one year before Donna Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto" and his Il Corpo Virtuale (Muzzio, 1996) hit the booksellers three years before N. Katherine Hayles' How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. His career is full of such exploits, but unfortunately -- Italian being his main language -- the international audience hardly knows him.

This updated version of his essay about hybrids between human and machine is still convincing after a slew of new technological developments including the Internet, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and genetics, a testament to how well the book has aged. The first part of the text provides a genealogy of Cyborg discourse, itself originating in the science fiction novels of the 1920s and 30s, where, in order to enable survival in outer space, humans were wedded to automatic parts. But the Cyborg is not simply an electromechanical "soft robot." In the second part of the book, Caronia analyses the new generation of hybridized human beings, moving from the chemical Cyborg of Clynes and Kline's pharmacological experiments in the 1960s [1], through the cyberpunk utopias of 1984, and to early 1990s VR avatars and contemporary genetic manipulations. Caronia thereby expands the discourse of the artificial body to include many applications of chemical, physical and informational technologies.

As audacious as it may seem, such an expansion of the discursive field is now a matter of fact in the scientific and pseudo-scientific literature of the last ten years, as found in science fiction, cyberculture studies, and Wired-like magazines. Technologies have intruded the body, simultaneously contaminating and empowering it. For citizens of the global age, the dualism between nature and culture is no longer relevant. The notion of the body as flesh that uses technology seems now to be only a remnant of old-fashioned philosophical traditions. It has been replaced by the idea, widespread in the rhetoric of the post-biological body in the late twentieth-century, that every technology is a practice of the self-inducing bodily mutations according to a particular anti-ergonomics.

For example, my ear listens to foreign voices through the latest Motorola cell-phone; my face confronts the interactive TV screen; my hand manipulates icons with the PC mouse. These are not only instances of a Cronenbergian communion between technology and biotissues, but are examples of the tools, or rather the limbs, of a new digital flesh, a flesh completely different from the one to which classical anatomy had made us so accustomed.

From this point of view, it is true that cyborgs are among us. Technology has now become something extremely intimate. It has penetrated "under our skin" as Bruce Sterling would say [2]. However, as Caronia points out, to this inward movement of invasion of the physical body there corresponds an outward movement that goes from the inside of the body toward its symbolic and material outside. Here it is a question of the creation of virtual worlds. The dreams and emotions of millions of people are now flowing online in the great consensual hallucination of cyberspace.

In this way the author explains the birth of the "cyber" body as an evolution of the "Cyborg" body. Extending and disseminating him/herself on the Net, the digitalized Cyborg hyperlinks to everything, constantly deterritorializing and reterritorializing his/her fractal subjectivity. Further, these Cyborg "happenings" do not leave the "natural" body untouched. Representations of the so-called natural body dovetail with Cyborg mutations. Since the Human Genome Project and the pioneering experiments in virtual anatomo-pathology in the 1990s at the University of North Carolina, the body has come to be seen as a collection of recombinatory infinitesimal elements. And today anatomy is less and less often studied by dissecting real corpses in university laboratories.

To the question of whether it was Cyborg discourse that gave shape to posthuman bodily experience or the other way around, the book provides no answer. But where Caronia does succeed is in his interpretation of the current cultural changes in the politico-economic field. Indeed, in his analysis, the Cyborg is cast as a social reality, or more precisely, as a "virtual class" living in a continual flow of information. The Cyborg is the global subject: a precariously fragmented identity ceaselessly redefining itself. Here Caronia introduces the notion of the postfordist Cyborg. In the postfordist era, business and communication grabs hold of and exploits every facet of human life, including the body and thought. That is why the figure of the Cyborg is not only a cultural metaphor -- it is the social destiny of late capitalism. What is at stake here is the way in which the body is interfaced and constantly wired to the machine. For every technological change there will be result a corresponding change in this "wiring," or interaction, and an attendant change in Cyborg discourse.

In fordism-taylorism, machines physically help humans in order to produce tangible objects. Nowadays, in postfordism, machines force humans to make symbolic efforts to produce symbolic goods. That is how the electromechanical Cyborg, emerging from the early capitalist steelworks and power plants, has now come to be replaced by the disseminated and virtual body indissociable from the new information economy.

The book concludes with a vision of "possible tomorrows." Caronia seems to agree with Foucault and Haraway's conviction in emancipation through radicalization -- that is to say, that deliverance to the Cyborg biological destiny is a way to liberate the body. But he does not trust this as a rock-solid solution. He rather opens himself to future possibilities. "Possibilism" is, moreover, a key notion in interpreting this Italian writer's other more recent works. For, according to him, we need to overcome the "traditional and deeply ingrained prejudice in western culture (...): the devaluation of the possible, of the potential reality versus the actual one, the devaluation of 'God's still unawakened intentions' in favor of those that are already realised" (119).

In waiting for tomorrow to show itself -- perhaps it will be a time of crisis, perhaps one of prosperity -- we must ready ourselves for the infinity of possible changes. The Cyborg is not only the point of noreturn of the capitalist era. It is also the beginning of a society that we are not yet able to define. With neither nostalgia nor excessive hope, at once disenchanted and impatient, Caronia ends on a positive note. After all, as French sociologist Gabriel Tarde pointed out, do not real beings spring from the possible ones preexisting them?

* This review was translated from French by Steve Corcoran. It can be freely distributed, translated and reproduced among individuals and non-profit organizations. No commercial use allowed.

1. Clynes and Kline were two biologists who, in "Drugs, Space and Cybernetics," proposed a new kind of modified body: a human body where a small capsule (a pump moved by hosmotic pression) would slowly and constantly inject active biochemical drugs, at a speed comparable to the biological one (N. S. Kline & M. Clynes, "Drugs, Space, and Cybernetics: Evolution to Cyborgs," in Psychophysiological Aspects of Space Travel, edited by B. E. Flaherty (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960/1961): 331-344).

2. This quote comes from the preface to the anthology Mirrorshades. In it, Sterling notes: "(...) technology is visceral. It is not the bottled genie of remote Big Science boffins; it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds. Technology itself has changed. Not for us the giant steam- snorting wonders of the past: the Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building, the nuclear power plant. Eighties tech sticks to the skin, responds to the touch: the personal computer, the Sony Walkman, the portable telephone, the soft contact lens." (Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, New York: Ace Books, 1986: p. 12).

Antonio A. Casilli:
Antonio A. Casilli is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales - Paris. He is also an editor, a free-lance journalist, and a writer. His publications include the book The Libertine Factory: Marquis de Sade and the Industrial System (La Fabbrica Libertina: De Sade e il Sistema Industriale, Rome, 1997) and book chapters "Cooperation" (in Postfordist Lexicon, Milan, 2001) and, with Yuri Biondi, "Universal Basic Income and Monetary Reform: Proposing an E-Wallet for Citizenship Money" (in Tute Bianche. Disoccupazione di massa e Reddito di Cittadinanza, Rome, 1999).  <antoncasilli@ifrance.com>

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