Flickering Signifiers & Cyborgs

What’s a cyborg? Both Katherine Hayles (“Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers”) and Donna Harroway (“A Cyborg Manifesto”) write about them; this blog post is an attempt to work out their ideas in relation to the boundaries (or, rather, lack of boundaries) existing between human and machine. (Disclaimer: I’m still working out these connections for myself!).

Harroway immediately draws attention to the centrality of boundaries: “This chapter is an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction” (Harroway 292). Harroway notes three specific boundary breakdowns—that between human and animal, organism and machine, and also between physical and nonphysical (Harroway 293-4). These three boundaries are interrelated and collectively suggest that we—as human—may not be as different from both the non-human animals and technologies with which we are surrounded. A “cyborg world,” as Harroway conceives of it, is one that “might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (Harroway 295). An awareness of “partial” identities ultimately clears the way for coalitional politics and is also reflected in writing (Harroway 295-6). In writing, the boundaries between organism and machine can be lessened and exploited for their potential power.

According to Harroway, writing is the “technology of cyborgs” (Harroway 312). She writes:

Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism. That is why cyborg politics insist on noise and advocate pollution, rejoicing in the illegitimate fusions of animal and machine. These are the couplings which make Man and Woman so problematic, subverting the structure of desire, the force imagined to generate language and gender, and so subverting the structure and modes of reproduction of ‘Western’ identity, of nature and culture, of mirror and eye, slave and master, body and mind. ‘We’ did not originally choose to be cyborgs, but choice grounds a liberal politics and epistemology that imagines the reproduction of individuals before the wider replications of ‘texts.’ (Harroway 312)

Cyborg writing embraces the “illegitimate fusions” of organism and machine; it is through this embrace that the phallogocentric origin myths that abound can be refocused. This writing is possible specifically because the human is fused to the machine, because the human’s “sense of connection to our tools is heightened” (Harroway 313).

It seems to me that it’s possible to draw a connection here to Katherine Hayles’s work on flickering signification, which “brings together language with a psychodynamics based on the symbolic moment when the human confronts the posthuman” (Hayles 33). Ina potentially posthuman world, writing—and reading—is necessarily mediated by one’s relationship with technology. This relationship is so important because the boundaries between human organism and technology have become increasingly difficult to discern. Thus, reading is akin to decoding:

What binds the decoder to the system is not the stability of being a member of an interpretive community or the intense pleasure of physically possessing the book, a pleasure that all bibliophiles know. Rather, it is the decoder’s construction as a cyborg, the impression that his or her physicality is also data made flesh, another flickering signifier in a chain of signification that extends through many levels, from the DNA that in-formats the decoder’s body to the binary code that is the computer’s first language. (Hayles 47)

Reading is, for Hayles, an embodied experience: we read to decode because we have been accustomed to be more familiar with the flickering nature of signification. Reading is therefore no longer related to the idea of community, but rather to the close relationship between the codes of language and the physical body. Just as Harroway’s cyborg is a mixture of human and machine, Hayles conceives of readers who are capable of decoding messages as if by muscle memory. While meaning cannot be entire, it is—both Hayles and Harroway agree—capable of superseding the materiality of text itself. Reading is no longer neccessarily the experience of holding the physical text in one’s hand; it is, with increasingly frequency, the experience of decoding messages that indicate the lack of boundaries between human and computer.

Overall, what I take away from Hayles and Harroway is the potentiality inherent in the interrelationship between human/machine. Through this melding of flesh and technology, humans are capable of writing new narratives and interacting with information in more intimate ways.