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Metal and Flesh: The Evolution of Man: Technology Takes Over

Author: Ollivier Dyens (Translated by Evan J. Bibbee and Ollivier Dyens)
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001
Review Published: July 2003

 REVIEW 1: Bryan Alexander

As cyberculture studies derives and iterates its tropes and major problematics, several cross-disciplinary foci emerge. Artificial intelligence was, for the longest time, the exemplar of this trend, mobilizing (or raiding) psychology, computer science, epistemology, and neuroscience, among others. In its scholarship and teaching, multimedia authoring arcs between narrative and media studies, while encompassing production (composition and software skills) and critique (cultural studies), connected uneasily by design.

Among these, the cyborg insists on consideration. From Haraway's great essay to Negri and Hardt's characterization of global labor as cyborged, the cyborg remains one of our most visible tropes [1]. It is, or we are becoming, the figure of our cybertextuality, the interactive meshing of biology, software, and hardware that describes our interaction with new fictions [2]. The cyborg is, in Steven Mann's hands, the sousveillant insurgent, capable of counterscanning power while forming new, posthuman societies; for new SF writers like Linda Nagata (1998) or Greg Egan, it is perhaps only the bridge to further posthumanity. The literature has raced ahead, and also reached backwards to encompass the cyborg's military-medical roots. The Cyborg Handbook, for example, playfully mimes how-to manuals, archiving Clyde and Kline's (1960) original papers, along with decades of experimentation and developmental praxis.

Ollivier Dyens' lean, meditative Metal and Flesh situates itself in this textual exploration, in order to accomplish two tasks: the delineation of a cyborg's imaginative, semicanonically literary lineage; and the production of a posthuman, cultural model of the cyborg. The book complements the Chair et Metal site, which Dyens edits, a rich journal/anthology of brooding design. The first section of Metal and Flesh lays out the biological landscape, gridded by an epistemological shift from a medical basis to a cultural-medical splice (or "entanglement," 1). The second, drawing on this approach, then explores modernist and SF literature for textual instances of the cyborg. The book's grand scale in short space begs argument and cases at every instance, suggesting in its brevity something like an extended McLuhanesque probe, an instrument to spark resistance and reconsideration of assumptions.

To begin, Dyens, an Assistant Professor of French at Concordia University, marks out an extremely broad field in order to slide our view of it off an anthropological axis -- namely, the human construction of the biological, both anatomical and external. The text powers this sweep by grand statements, vast copulatives such as "we are" and "life is." "Born of human memories and emotions, art is a universal current" (37). "The living is dethroned by culture" (15). "The planetary web is woven by culture" (6), and that culture is anything patterned (or memetic, 22ff) resulting from intelligence, human or animal. Intelligence is, in fact, the new ground: "We are not becoming cyborgs . . . [instead] the intelligent assets of the world increase" (8). Alongside this posthumanist move, Dyens reiterates the Baudrillardean simulacrum, seeing the totality of human perception and nonhuman, natural existence as inextricably "entangled" with technology: "Everything is contaminated" (12). Postmodernism leads unsurprisingly to the cyborg, because of this remediated, contaminated perception. Returning to media and mimesis from this perspective, cultural products are memes in a strong sense. "The resulting [cultural artifacts] are neither cyborg, nor animal, nor insect, but an entirely new life-form made from genetics and semiotics" (23). Darstellung is superceded by memes as collections of representations.

This collective point is critical for Dyens' arguments, for it houses his reconception of intelligence, and therefore culture, and thereby biology. Intelligence scales upwards from the personal subject, housing itself in distributed forms across heterogeneous assemblages of objects. The late Heideggerean notion of technology as Enframing is implicit, here, based on the book's assigning technology to constellations of objects, motivated by force (32). Across such objects, intelligence plays, applying techné, and deriving intelligence. One is reminded of Bruce Sterling's alien cluster in "Swarm" (1982), which grows an intelligence organ because it seems useful to do so; it can retire, later, once it defends the group, and perhaps adds to it. "[C]yberspace is . . . as alive as a wetland," teeming with organisms and thoughts, "a living fog" (30). The question of a program's reality, for instance, is sidestepped, since what interests Dyens is the agglomeration of forces, what appears in the interpenetration. He draws on Pierre Levy's notion of "collective intelligence," dynamically self-transformed networks of heterogeneous thinking elements (48).

This model underpins a very short discussion of viruses as subjects, but one that occupies the book's center. A plural rather than singular conception disorients popular considerations of the virus as mini-subject. For while an individual virus can be tracked as an intelligent entity of sorts, their key place in Metal and Flesh is as users of "networks of representation," used at the same time as "vector[s] of communication between [related] living beings" (47). They are an instance of a condensation of forces, a "density" from multiplicity, more like a shifting notion through flesh, as in Carpenter's remake of The Thing, referenced later in the book (84ff). As such, what is important about the virus is not its similarity to humans, or to some human activity (viz viral marketing), but the dense interconnectedness of the world necessary to make viruses effective. Dyens refers to this as a "hive" several times, yet his emphasis is on ready "infection and contamination" (13, 89), understanding the transfer of the virus idea from immunology to email. Such thinking is behind huge claims, such as:
    New ecosystems are emerging . . . made of cloned organs, binary blood, and electronic pulsations. Ecosystems in which roam strange and virtual ‘animals' neither completely man nor entirely machine, alive yet inorganic, made of carbon and silicon, born of the coupling of algorithms and cells, strange new animals breeding, multiplying, and surviving on the primitive fields of the new digital earth. (34)
The second half of the book shifts to the delineation of a literary heritage for the cyborg. Unlike discussions using popular film for materials, Dyens creates terrain from the early twentieth century: Wells' Island of Doctor Moreau, Kafka's "Penal Colony," and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. These texts are pressed for details that foreshadow the breakdown of what N. Katherine Hayles refers to as the autonomous liberal subject, revealing antecedents that serve as "symbol[s] of the often painful and terrifying contemporary entanglements of culture and biology" (59). Wells' blurring of the animal-human line is a clear starting point (although Dracula, the novel's contemporary, is more interesting in this regard). Kafka's story examines the collapsing boundaries between representation and body via the intricate tattoos cut into the prisoner's flesh, a collapse rendered more terrifying in Orwell's novel, where such inscriptions become much more clearly expressions of ideology and state power. After this early history, Dyens briskly treads familiar ground with the cyberpunk writers. In his theoretical and literary-historical recontextualizations, and with an ironic eye, the works of Sterling, Gibson, Scott, et al appear more contingent, less visionary than in their customary presentations.

Throughout, Dyens' prose is quite arresting, turning from critical theory terminology to a stark, suggestive vocabulary. "We are cyborgs, for only with machines can we face the sun," he writes, capturing neatly the prosthetics of technologically-assisted perception (14). His lyrical tone suggests the cybertopian, not least due to frequent Kevin Kelly citations. But Dyens' focus on horrible cyborgs, such as The Hot Zone's victims, or Holocaust survivors, unseats any anticipated optimism. Further, Dyens carefully balances cyborg discourse's tendency to over inflate possibilities against hardware details, generally succeeding in neither stretching credulity nor in burying the reader with diachronic data. The language works the balance between lay reader and critical theory audience very well, acknowledging key influences (Deleuze, De Landa) intelligently, yet pausing often enough to explain a major term. As such, Metal and Flesh would be a very pedagogically accessible work.

At the same time, Dyens' burden is more attenuated. The book aims to sketch out the near future of the human lifeworld, a sort of forward extension to De Landa's Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (1997). Rather than attempting the encyclopedia route of, for example, Bloch in Principle of Hope (1986), and lay out as many visualizations and instances as possible, Dyens offers a good set of cases to work from, leaving the world as exercises for the reader. However, one neglected topic looms large in this framework. Information as a problematic has increased in complexity and heft during the past two generations, steadily becoming an influential and semiautonomous subject. While the cyborg's cultural biology can subsume information flows and structures semiotically, the transition to that state is currently explosive and uncertain, from intellectual property chaos escalating to the expanding awareness of the poor state of digital archiving. These cyborgs' wetware looks assured, but their software needs further unpacking.

1. Cf Samuel Delany’s careful critique/appreciation, Samuel R. Delany's "Reading at Work," in Longer Views: Extended Essays. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1996.

2. Diane Greco, "Cyborg." Watertown: Eastgate Systems, 1995.


Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope. Trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Clynes, Manfred E. and Kline, Nathan S. "Cyborgs and
Space." Astronautics, September 1960, 26-27, 74-75. Reprinted in Gray, Chris Hables (ed) with Heidi Figueroa-Sarriera and Steven Mentor. The Cyborg Handbook. New York: Routledge, 1995, 29-33.

De Landa, Manuel. A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. Cambridge: MIT, 1997.

Gray, Chris Hables, Figuroa-Sarriera, Heidi J., and Mentor, Steven, eds. The Cyborg Handbook. London: Routledge, 1996.

Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Haraway, Donna. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century." In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991, 149-181.

Nagata, Linda. Vast. New York: Bantam Spectra, 1998.

Bryan Alexander:
Bryan Alexander is co-director of the Center for Educational Technology at Middlebury College, where he researches and develops programs on the advanced uses of information technology in liberal arts colleges. His specialties include digital writing, weblogs, copyright and intellectual property, information literacy, information architecture, and interdisciplinary collaboration. He has also taught English and information technology studies at Centenary College. 

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