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Cyborg Babies: From Techno-Sex to Techno-Tots

Editor: Robbie Davis-Floyd, Joseph Dumit
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 1998
Review Published: November 1999

 REVIEW 1: Rekha Rosha

Cyborgs, for many of the contributors to the Robbie Davis-Floyd and Joseph Dumit-edited Cyborg Babies: From Techno-Sex to Techno-Tots, are a part of the prosthetic development of human identity. We have grafted technology onto our bodies in multiple ways, ranging from the everyday use of eyeglasses, for example, to the more sophisticated, corrective laser eye surgery. But this prosthetic dimension of humanity calls into question the kind of human animal we are. What is the ground of our experience? Where does the self stop and the tool begin? As the stop between the two becomes little more than a pause, the need to investigate the moral costs of such a radical reconfiguration of the boundaries between human and machine gains urgency. Clearly, cyborg studies, as well as cyberculture studies, are situated along these very boundaries as both posit a continuum of human existence that includes machines. Cyborg Babies moves the boundary a little further back by examining cyborg existence in utero. The writers here examine the relationships between the cyborg as concept and cyborg conception, between the methods of human-techno reproduction and the child that results.

Of course, eyewear and laser surgery are the least of it. We are using technology to create life by means of artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization. The story of origins, as it begins with mothers and fathers, for many now also begins with nurses, doctors, and clinicians, monitors, egg donors, needles, cryogenics, and so forth. When the fertility clinic replaces the boudoir, things get tricky where life begins and it is here where many of the writers in this work focus their efforts. In fact, the editors have grouped the essays into four general categories that correspond to stages in child development: "Cyborg Conception," "Techno-Fetus," "Cyborg Birth," and "Techno-Tots." The collection is meant to be what cyborg-theorist Donna Haraway once claimed could not exist, an origin story of cyborgs [1].

As the editors define it, cyborgs are "symbiotic fusions of organic life and technological systems" (1). Overall, the essays in this book pose two conceptualizations drawn from this definition. In the first conceptualization, the cyborgs' "organic" side is emphasized. The cyborg appears as the good and helpful offspring of technoscience. In the second conceptualization, the cyborg is all "technological systems;" it is a nightmare machine that defiles and dehumanizes us all. Many of these essayists lean toward the concept of the cyborg as more machine than "man," and call for a balanced view of cyborgs. We must, the authors advise, maintain holistic hopes while accepting our cyborg reality. While this is meant to express a peaceful bargain with technoscience, as a both/and position, it resembles a kind of theoretical cyborg. In the end, the compromise serves to strengthen the position of the cyborg rather than neutralizing it. Let me add quickly though that this view is balanced by a number of writers in this collection who are alarmed by the threat cyborgs pose to any and all hopes for a more nature-based and less machine-based reality.

Eight of the nineteen essayists are anthropologists and their interests, not surprisingly, are in the impact and use of technology in social relationships. They range from studies on familial behaviors ("Refusing Prenatal Diagnosis") to institutional behaviors ("Witches, Nurses, Midwives, and Cyborgs" and "Babies Don't Feel Pain"). These provide an interesting look at how the meaning of human identity is negotiated within specific cultural contexts. Two other essays, "Baby's First Picture" and "The Logic of Heartbeats," make striking claims against the way in which technology invisiblizes women's bodies. They argue that the use of ultrasound imaging, which electronically makes the fetus visible, is a disturbing step in displacing the mother. By redirecting the location of the fetus (both at the moment the grayish blur appears on the screen and after in the form of an ultrasound photograph), the fetus is distanced from the mother's body. Consequently, the fetus becomes a "techno-image," a separate entity which can now be seen with its own subjectivity. A third set of essays, including "Inhabiting Multiple Worlds" and "Cyborg Babies and Cy-Dough-Plasm," examines "techno social" object relations and children with less illuminating results. Though the idea of games as important tools of cultural inscription has an impressive history, what this had to do with cyborgs was unclear to me. It may be that the editors took on more than was necessary. Perhaps instead of modeling this collection on the four stages of child development, the editors might have considered limiting it to three general categories.

All of these essays, to one degree or another, touch on the discursive nature of cyborg creation. What really makes cyborgs, the writers in this collection seem to suggest, are various kinds of rhetoric: science-as-progress; the metaphors comparing reproduction to gambling; the rhetoric of the marketplace; and rhetoric of medical empiricism. Yet, it seems many of the writers swerve away from the implications of this claim. If cyborgs, which are part human, are discursively constructed, does this mean humans are as well? Is the discursive practice an organic one or a technological system? How does determining this change the definition of "cyborg?" What then is a cyborg? Granted, the term is a slippery one, but then why not grapple with it on these terms first, then diagnose the situation afterward? If you want to tell the origin story of the cyborg, you might as well start at the beginning.

More than a few of the authors have the frustrating habit of working up to a large claim then stopping short of it in the final moments. For example, in the essay "Quit Sniveling, Cryo-Baby. We'll Work Out Which One's Your Mama!" (a truly unpleasant title), Chris Cussins examines how technology muddies the gene pool and the rules of genetic kinship. In the process of in vitro fertilization, donor egg, and/or surrogate fertilization, the divisions between mother, father, donor, and surrogate become unclear and certain behaviors, Cussins persuasively argues, are needed to adjust and return the techno-reproductive process to a more socially comfortable one. In one of the several, fascinating examples Cussins gives, Flora, a woman in her fifties, asks her daughter to donate eggs to be fertilized with the sperm from the mother's current husband (the daughter's step-father) and then re-inserted into the daughter's womb. This would make Flora the mother and grandmother of her own child. The threat of technical incest makes the process of establishing clearer, less weird ties of kinship rather delicate. Cussins observes that this process is done through conversations and cues not mediated by technology. In the case of Flora, Cussins notes that she would often emphasize the genetic link between her and her soon-to-be child. In the end of her essay Cussins writes, "the mere fact of establishing a pregnancy does not sort out the chains of kinship by itself" (63). Though I agree, I would go a half-step further and argue that this evidence suggests that maternity and paternity are not based on biology but on intent. For Flora's daughter, the surrogate "mother," the biological relationship between the fetus and her body is immaterial because it is someone else's baby (genetically and contractually). In the end she's not really the mother because she has no intention to keep it. For Flora, her biological relationship to the fetus is equally immaterial because of the genetic link that either exists or that she imposes. In the end, she is the mother because she wants to be. Though she sets-up this very connection, for some reason Cussins never actually makes it.

Even more pressing, for me, than the problem of kinship relations, is how the processes of alternative reproduction have placed genes and gametes as commodities in a free market enterprise. Cussins does not seem to find this jarring nor does she attempt to gauge the influence of the marketplace on her subjects. Her research would have been better served if she had acknowledged that Flora and the others were behaving as relatives and as consumers. Perhaps the issues that surround buying DNA have been settled for her, the editors, and some of the other contributors, but I don't think so. Regardless, I doubt that these issues have been settled for their readers. And this is where I find the gravest error in this collection, its focus is too narrow and it leaves many of the larger issues practically untouched. While important issues such as the contemporary cultural definition of biology and parenthood, the consumerization of reproduction, the intrusion of science into the human body, and the exploitation of women's bodies are all mentioned, for me they are never fully addressed. In many instances it is how technology redefines human identity that disturbs these writers, not that technology is redefining. Maybe that too is an already settled question though I hope not.

1. Donna Haraway, "Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminist in the 1980s." Socialist Review 15(2): 65-107.

Rekha Rosha:
Rekha Rosha is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at Brandeis University. Her research focuses on the discursive production of marginal subjectivities in American literature.  <rosha@brandeis.edu>

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