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Cyborg Citizen: Politics in the Posthuman Age

Author: Chris Hables Gray
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2001
Review Published: February 2004

 REVIEW 1: Danielle R. Wiese

Chris Hables Gray, editor of the foundational work, The Cyborg Handbook, takes on the role of prophet in his popular new book, Cyborg Citizen. Michael Dercy (2001) of Wired magazine calls Gray’s new tale a "ripping good yarn" as it twists and weaves its way through a variety of contemporary social crises inspired by the power of technoscience and the birth of cyborgs. For Gray, cyborg-culture presents the possibility of liberation enmeshed in the potential for human destruction. With predictions as frightening as a Julian Simon book (if not quite so well-written) and a knack for personal observation and anecdote, Gray’s Cyborg Citizen is an insightful collection of thoughts and speculations on the relationship between humans, machines, and Western political institutions such as rights, citizenship, and democracy.

While this book (perhaps deliberately) lacks the argumentative structure and coherence necessary to secure a place in a more academic-leaning cyber-studies canon, beginning students and readers will find the scope of topics -- ranging from philosophy to sex toys -- to be a provocative and accessible introduction to the field. More advanced readers will be reminded that the impact of technology, and specifically the move to digital communication, puts more at risk than the fate of interpersonal interactions. What’s at stake, Gray argues, is the outcome of our current postmodern crisis. What’s more evident at the end of the book is that new advances in cyborg technology will require new models for how laws are applied in a very modern democracy.

The story begins with a claim that "[a]lmost all of us are cyborged in some way" (1). For Gray, a cyborg is any "self-regulating organism that combines the natural and artificial together in one system" (2). I’m reminded of Jeff Foxworthy’s comedy schtick -- "you must be a redneck." For Gray, if you wear contacts . . . you must be a cyborg. If you vacuum the living room . . . you must be a cyborg. If you drive your car . . . you must be a cyborg. For Gray, almost any interaction between the environment, animals, or humans, and machines meets the cyborgian condition. In fact, the definition is so broad, it allows Gray to substitute "technology" for "cyborg" in a familiar doomsday prediction that as humans seek a continual transformation to a cyborg society in the name of progress we threaten our way of life. Gray writes:
    The irony is that we will almost certainly bring about our end ourselves, either directly through chemical, biological, or nuclear war or ecocide, or through the creation of our successor species: cyborgs. Deep down we know it is our hubris that will seal our doom -- our hubris and our great talent for making and remaking even ourselves. (2)
According to Gray, the solution to our desire for "participatory evolution" is "participatory government" in the form of "grassroots" decisions about the future of cyborgs in society.

Amping up the urgency for his call to cyborg-politics is Gray’s contention that we are experiencing a postmodern crisis. In argumentation circles we call this a "threshold" argument -- act now because at any point we could slip across the boundary between reasonable technological progress and a cyborg nightmare. Postmodernism is transitory, however, and therein lies the prospect of escape. Following Katherine Hayles (1999), Gray argues that both history and discourse are cybernetic systems shaped by what goes on inside them. Determinism is a construct unseated by the creative articulation of a "safe" cyborg future. While some critics, such as Mark Dercy (2001) and Barbara Warnick (2002), have argued that Cyborg Citizen falls short because it fails to successfully construct a new political theory for cyborgs (isn’t "participatory government" simply two words for democracy?), this criticism eclipses an important subtlety in the text. For Gray, what is said about cyborgs is almost as important as what gets done. In the next three sections of the book Gray eschews consistency and direction in thought or argument, instead choosing to depict a picture of cyborg-contexts, filled with tension and contradiction, in hopes of leading the reader’s judgment to the "right" side of questions about the relationship between humans and machines.

Part I of the book is "postmodern politics." In this section, Gray begins by situating the consideration of cyborg politics within the tradition of cyborg studies, beginning with cybernetics and moving into what David Silver (2000) would label critical cyberculture studies. Following Donna Haraway (1991), Gray argues that cyborgization correlates with a cyborg epistemology of "thesis, anithesis, prothesis and again" (12). The ideals of postmodernism and posthumanism are embodied in this worldview and it is this epistemology Gray attributes the potential for cyborgs to implode the power of modern politics by collapsing the totalizing control of master narratives and opening space for a cacophony of voices in the public sphere. In the international arena, this postmodernism is characterized by the end of the Cold War, the rising power of non-governmental organizations, and the slipping boundaries between nation-states. The result is a new "cyborg bodypolitic" that prompts reconsideration of democratic ideals and practices.

Postmodern citizenship, in this view, is porous because individuals can choose to participate, and be citizens of, any number of collectives outside of the nation-state. Organizations, bioregions, and even the world, can mark their own conditions of citizenship. In Western democracy, Gray argues, "citizenship is freeing itself from gender, race and class and making itself a question of competent communication in a discourse community" (22). Cyborg Citizen would benefit here from an exploration of how standards of communication and methods of democratic practice are shifting in a cyborg world. Instead, the key question for Gray turns not on the type of politics practiced in cyborg-democracy, but rather, on whom is allowed to participate in the new postmodern regime. How, for example, will we respond to an Artificial Intelligence that demands the right to vote?

One of two original contributions to cyborg-theory includes Gray’s proposal for a cyborg Turing Test that would allow other citizens to decide if a cyborg should be granted the rights of citizenship. Potential citizens would be required to persuade a group of twelve peers that they can "communicate" well enough to be included in the conversation of politics. An interesting proposal that for Gray, exposes the fact that citizenship is an embodied condition. A disembodied politic would be dangerous because the separation between intelligence and the body may build support for more surveillance in the form of drug tests, x-rays, military monitoring, and lie detector tests. Our cyborg bodies need protection and representation that Gray offers in the form of a "Cyborg Bill of Rights," which includes amendments such as the freedom of travel, the right to death, and the right to political equality based on "the quality" of your arguments in the public sphere, rather than your wealth and social position. While Gray does little work to justify the odd breadth of his amendments, his point is more philosophical than substantive. He explains that our continued desire to find technological solutions to life’s problems is dangerous without an accompanying set of legal rules to protect cyborg citizens.

Gray is guilty in the next chapter of conflating "cyborg" with "cyber" in a discussion of the relationship between the Internet and grassroots democratic politics. Cyberspace is the site of another cyborg contradiction. Drawing from examples in Bosnia and China, Gray argues that the Internet is contributing to democracy by building coalitions among marginalized groups. The danger, of course, is that cyber-communication may promote alienation. Unfortunately, Gray’s replay of the cyber-democracy debate does little to expand on current scholarship. However, given recent on-line protests against the War in Iraq, such as ones like this, he offers a poignant statement on the potential for cyber-activism such as flash mobs and virtual "sit-ins." According to Gray, the problem with hacktivism is that it creates an unproductive separation between the "real world" and cyberspace. He writes, you can "disrupt the fabric of the net without putting your body at risk at all" (43). For Gray, face-to-face communication is necessary for real revolutionary change.

In the final chapter of this section, Gray takes up the relationship between the military and machines. This is perhaps the most complete and thoughtful component of the book. Postmodern warfare is heavily influenced by technoscience and dependent on cyborgs. As information warfare and nanotechnology take the forefront of new military campaigns, Gray cautions that we are moving towards a militarized politics through the imposition of a continual state of crisis. He describes the physical transformations taking place as the U.S. military works to deal with the threat by striving to produce stronger and more efficient soldiers through the use of mechanical and digital implements. As technoscience continues to produce more dangerous weapons of mass destruction, the trend, according to Gray, is towards apocalyptic destruction. But there’s hope. Cyborgs are working simultaneously to collapse the dominant military doctrine by calling into question assumptions about gender and sex in the military. For example, cyborged soldiers challenge the traditional categories of "male" and "female" and thus policies that govern women in combat and gays in the military.

Similar identity questions are taken up in part two of the book: "promulgating cyborgs." Gray begins by examining the relationship between humans and medicine as technoscience pushes to extend life through the development of antibiotics, vaccines, and artificial implants. Cyborg questions come into play as scientists work to extract new living cells from fetal tissue and other natural organisms such as plants and animals. Both life and death are cyborgs. Pregnant women rely on technology to manage their labor, delivery, and post-birth options. The ability to separate conjoined twins is cited as an example. Cyborg technologies battle death by advancing equipment for life-support, yet, embrace the after-life by throwing into question what it means to really be dead. The impact of cyborgs is felt in the practical application of policies towards assisted suicide and organ donation. Gray provides an interesting commentary on how the modified human body (from prothesis to penile extensions) challenges ideas about self-image and dependency. Gray argues that willingness to accept scientific adjustments to the body shows that "body image and cultural attitudes toward technologies are relatively flexible, constructed and reconstructed in society and its subcultures again and again" (104).

The paradox for Gray, of course, is that while cyborgs may generate fluidity, they may also be an element of a self-fulfilling prophecy that threatens to overrun us with technoscience. We live with "the common belief that technology gives us more control over our lives, even if things are already out of control precisely because of technology" (89). Nowhere is this more evident than in the field of genetics. For Gray, genetic engineering is the manifestation of a "body for sale" mentality that commodifies humanity’s natural processes such as reproduction. This section of the book offers a solid historical overview of the dispute over gene patents and government policies toward cloning. Gray's purpose, however, is to warn us about the dangers of mixing cyborgs with the marketplace. He writes:
    If we become nothing but our genes, we will have bled most initiative and choice out of the world. And inequalities such as racism and sexism, which people have struggled against for centuries, will become enshrined for all time by science, even if things seem "nice" on the surface. (125)
In section three, "cyborg societies," Gray reveals a similar concern about the danger of cyborgs in other contexts. Cyberspace, the oceans, and the marketplace are "spaces" transforming as cyborgs enter the scene. Similarly, as cyborgs break the boundaries of gender identities, our understanding of the family will shift as well.

Section three of Cyborg Citizen, "cyborg societies," imparts a similar tone as Gray speculates on the legal control of cyberspace, and the oceans, the makeup of families, gender, sex, and the marketplace. While each topic is taken up only briefly, Gray’s argument remains the same: throughout many contexts, cyborgs are taking control and the outcome is uncertain.

Overall, Cyborg Citizen reads like the prose of a passionate public speaker. Political commentary is spliced with personal anecdotes that make it difficult to resist finishing the story. For example, when discussing cyborg medicine, Gray recounts a trip to Greece, where, as young man, he was approached to sell his blood for the black market. Popular figures such as Christopher Reeve and Star Trek’s Data make it into the text as support for Gray’s claims. His experiences with NASA and personal interviews with cyborg scientists lend credibility to his somewhat excited claims. What Gray lacks is a connection between thoughts and chapters that is difficult to describe in a review, because, by nature, I’ve done that work for him in order to summarize Cyborg Citizen here. Similar gaps in argument are also challenging. Gray’s decision to label even the most modest interaction between humans and machines a "cyborgian" experience, for example, makes it hard to sustain the urgency of a postmodern "crisis." Little effort is made to detail what is unique about the current symbiosis between human and machine that makes the 21st century any more than a replay of the invention of the printing press.

Furthermore, Cyborg Citizen would be a more honest sell if presented as a survey of cyborg-culture, rather than a stab at a cyborg political philosophy. Gray, who proclaims himself to be an anarchist in favor of postmodernism, denounces the marketplace, libertarianism (in a lengthy passage), and communism, all in support of a reinvigorated democracy. The inconsistency here is hard not to notice. The result is a collection of propositions that embrace a liberal notion of the public sphere (where people "vote" on citizenship) without any attempts to justify that framework. It’s hard to see how the political equality Gray aspires to could be achieved in a system that fails to start on a level playing field.

On a final note, Cyborg Citizen offers an additional curiosity for cyber-scholars. The book is published with a companion website where Gray claims to deal with "all of the issues" left out in the printed text. While the website failed to further elaborate on Gray’s plans for cyborg society, it did contain a number of useful links to information about organizations and topics discussed in the book. As an example of digital rhetoric, Cyborg Citizen, with its companion site, is an interesting venture into the way that hypertext and intertext are transforming and broadening the conception of "text." Gray’s website also includes links to his previous work, upcoming projects, and interview notes. This type of layering, at a minimum, challenges critics to reconsider what it means to complete a simple "book review." For Gray, I imagine, it is just one more example of how cyborged we really are.

Dercy, M. (2001, May). The gist: A social contract for a prosthetic society. Wired, 9, p. 11.

Haraway, D. (1991). The cyborg manifesto and fractured identities. Simians, cyborgs, and women: The reinvention of nature (pp. 149-161). New York: Routledge.

Hayles, N. K. (1999). How we became posthuman: Virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Silver, D. (2000). Looking backward, looking forward: Cyberculture studies 1990-2000. In D. Gauntlett (Ed.), Web.studies: Rewiring media studies for the digital age (pp. 19-30). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Warnick, B. (2002). Analogues to argument: New media and literacy in a posthuman era. Argumentation and Advocacy, 38, 262-270.


Danielle R. Wiese:
Danielle R. Wiese is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa.  <danielle-wiese@uiowa.edu>

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