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by Decoder
The Arachnet Electronic Journal on Virtual Culture
ISSN 1068-5723 - February 28, 1994 Volume 2 Issue 1 - JAMISON V2N1
P. K. Jamison
Indiana University


I provide a brief exploration of the seduction of the cyborg discourse and the expanding integration of living organism and machine found in a variety of settings. The question I ask about cyborgs is, "What tension lies in a discourse that envisions machines as facilitators of pleasure?" The cyborg discourse, seen in relation to the concept of pleasure, is one example of a contradiction that is constructed during inquiry into the "meaning" of social reality.

1 Cyborg-Pleasure-Seduction

[1] CYBORG. I have discussed the cyborg in previous work (Jamison, 1992-1993). One dictionary definition of cyborg reads "a person whose physiological functioning is aided by, or dependent on, a mechanical or electronic device" (Webster's New Unabridged Dictionary). But, such definitions only hint at the actual experience of symbiosis of machine and human, and misses the depth of the cyborg image as it has been imagined in films, videos, books, popular magazines, and computer games. What is missing is a conceptualization that goes beyond the human-machine dyad as a technical relation, and imagines the cyborg "person" as a multiplicity of social experiences, desires, and complexities as hinted by Toffler (1970), Haraway (1990), Gibson and Sterling (1991), among others. Therefore, it is more appropriate to envision the cyborg, much like Haraway (1990), as a "discourse about the integration of organism and machine. The organism could be plant, animal, or other living thing (a virus, for example). The machine can be artifact, technique or a construction (instructional systems, for example). Curriculum, then, is a cyborg" (Jamison, 1992-1993).

[2] PLEASURE. I envision cyborg pleasure as an experience that has both social (group and individual) and technological implications. In fact, cyborg pleasure is one of the primary outcomes promoted in depictions of the integration of technological systems with social systems. A social system "consists of individuals with their specific interests, capabilities, and values" and, as in any technological society, the behavior of individuals "depends upon their particular characteristics and upon the context set by the technological system" (Scholz, 1990, p. 235). The representation of the possibility of cyborg pleasure assists the promotion of an aesthetic dimension to human-machine relations. This aesthetic dimension, though, tends to "trivialize" the relationship. In a discussion on modern organizations, Witkin (1990) explores the emergence of the "machine aesthetic" and its impact on organizational life. This type of aesthetic exploits the "rational and technical features of mechanisation," that are "appropriate to the demands of modern organizations" (p. 325). As Witkin illustrates, the aesthetic dimension in organizational life is "closely identified with sensuous gratification, with the experience of pleasure, and of pleasing the senses" (p. 327). However, the aesthetic experience is much more, and pleasure alone does not fully describe the aesthetic dimension; "while these are certainly important in aesthetic experience, this aspect has to be seen in the context of the importance of the aesthetic as a mode of understanding, as a mode of knowing, and as intelligence" (p. 327). Thus, pleasure, as it is often promoted in relation to the cyborg discourse, assigns the "aesthetic to the sphere of consumption and conspicuous leisure" and the "separation of the sensuous aspect of aesthetic experience from knowing and understanding" (p. 327) has resulted in a lack of exploration of the substance of the social impact of the cyborg (not just its presentation), and a lack of concern for the integral role that cyborg pleasure plays in social relations and social development.

[3] SEDUCTION. Seduction, in this essay, refers to a wide array of experiences, relations, and kinds of knowing about the world altered through the cyborg discourse. The goal of the cyborg discourse is seen as more than the creation of an underlying feeling of one being willingly lead astray and persuaded to commit sin. The cyborg discourse induces particular social relations; its image and discourse is both alluring, as it "leads us away," entices, and fascinates societies in order to win over, attract, entrap, charm, infatuate, and captivate. But, in the wake of reckless abandonment, something must also be relinquished, resigned, surrendered. The seduction of the cyborg discourse impacts humans, organisms, and social relations in a variety of ways. For example, it is seductive to imagine the replacement of points of human frailty with machines. The potential for replacement also signifies other kinds of loss.

[4] In the cyborg discourse, the human body is no longer a place, but a collection of "parts." In particular, women's bodies become extremely fragmented. Hoyt (1993) in a discussion of the female body describes the womb as a "place" and suggests that modern women do not have wombs, "I think the reason that modern women don't have them is because a womb is a place and a uterus is a part. It is more agreeable to remove parts from women than places. I am troubled over women having their wombs removed. I have read that our bodies contain stories. If their wombs are removed, does that mean they can't remember certain things, or does the ghost of memory live like the ghost of a arm or leg which has been amputated" (p.2). Indeed, the body is often symbolized as replaceable and secondary to the mind in cyborg discourse. The continued separation of the body and mind dismisses the idea that the body "knows." It is important to explore how the cyborg discourse seduces women, and fails to embrace woman's body as a "body of knowledge" that is a "vessel and discourse about physical contents and social realities. the female body is still the site of power for others. a woman's agency is not valued. for woman, her body is her social reality. fragments of women's knowledge and experience are expressed through type and graphic. the body, a living typeface, reflects the social landscape" (Jamison, 1992-1993).

[5] It is highly likely, then, that the cyborg discourse reconceptualizes social motifs that have long been in place into new seductive ideologies. True knowledge and experience are represented in the possibility of heightened sensual awareness, the bodily cavorting of living organisms playfully situated in a cognitive trance through the result of relations with machines (again, machine as artifact, technique, or construction) inducing feelings of desire, experience, "knowing" that even for a fleeting moment might result in overwhelming transcendence. Such images are highly seductive at a time when many feel sublimated to the "hard" reality of late industrial society.

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2 Images of Pleasure and Seduction: Angels and Dragons

[6] There are angels and dragons in the cyborg discourse, and both are necessary to understanding its importance in the development of social relations.

[7] The angels of cyborg discourse "provide an image that works across multiple layers of meaning" (Lather, 1993, p. 10). While, as Lather suggests, "angelizing is dangerous practice: sentimentalizing, romanticizing, otherwizing, resonant with images of vacuous cherubs and/or simpering Christianity" the angels of the cyborg discourse are placed into action whenever societies are "faced with the unbearable" (p. 11). Information culture, the environment of the cyborg, is alien to most humans but is made to feel safe and secure. Tempered with heavenly transcendence, cyborgs are viewed by humans seemingly frozen in the earthen base of material culture. The unbearable visible is made opaque through the less visible, less tangible reality of angels. And, such images are not new to human-machine discourse. The dials and faces of the ornate diapasons (organ clocks) of Handel and Clay created during the 1700s were decorated with figures of angels floating above humans (Dirksen, 1987). Earth and heaven, together, were embedded within the mechanics, devices, and scales of organs and clocks. A strange juxtaposition between human and machine, technics and art; i.e., time, change, aesthetics, pleasure, and social reality has surrounded and embraced humans for centuries.

[8] In an attempt to promote greater interaction between humans and computers, companies that develop cybernetic technologies participate in a variety of seductive strategies that embody the cyborg discourse. Some of these strategies persuade individuals to concede to particular philosophies, such as the argument that technical artifacts and instrumental reasoning are necessary for effective social development. For example, companies such as IBM publish their own magazines (like "Multimedia") that act as "informed advertising." In recent popular magazines, such as "Wired" and "Kids and Computers," articles suggest the potential for realms of cyborg possibility, amidst calls for social responsibility, management, and balance (Donovan, 1993; Leslie, 1993; and Schwartz, 1993). Such magazines reveal new technologies and their use among the "public" in well written and illustrated articles. The magazines are attractive and educational, but more importantly, they sell the cyborg discourse. Such seductive acts employ pleasure in visual, textual, and experiential ways in both media products (books, magazines, computer and video) and social/educational frameworks (Papert's "Logo", cognitive "constructivism," and "educational technology"). These utopic visions of human-machine relations are the angels of cyborg discourse.

[9] Conversely, in an attempt to criticize the technologizing of social reality, other representations of the cyborg that depict unpleasant and misanthropic qualities (a lack of pleasure, a displacement of the individual and of social relationships) have been developed that negatively frame the cyborg discourse. These are the dragons of the cyborg discourse, and unlike humans "dragons are creatures of chaos" (Sievers, 1990, p. 211). Dragons, like cyborgs, intimate uncertainty. In dystopic discourse, the cyborg is a symbol of coming to terms with postmodern life: chaos and uncertainty mark the end of reason, and what is left of human reason (often confused with life itself) can only be continued through the unfortunate symbiosis of a necessary human and machine relationship, the cyborg. Films such as Lang's (1926) "Metropolis" (1926), Scott's "Blade Runner" (1982), and Crichton's "Westworld" (1974) are examples of the dystopic vision. Others, such as Chaplin's "Modern Times" (1936), express the tragedy of the human- technology relationship in seemingly comic mishaps. In texts, such as Lem's "Futurological Congress" (1974), Gibson and Sterling's "Difference Engine" (1991), Gibson's "Mona Lisa Overdrive" (1988), Piercy's "He, She and It" (1991), Crichton's "Jurassic Park" (1990), and Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle" (1963), the absence of pleasure acts to signify dysfunctional social relationships and the contradictory moment in which humans and machines are embedded.

[10] While the dystopic view might be criticized for creating a "dark vision of the future" that generates a society of "future-haters" and "technophobes" (Toffler, 1970, p. 263), the utopic view promotes an "ironclad consensus about the future of freedom" (p. 263) that accentuates "maximum individual choice" (p. 263) as the democratic ideal and a "refusal to imagine the future " (p. 215) in any other way.

[11] In most traditional utopic views of human-machine symbiosis, the cyborg impacts societies, individuals, artifacts, and living in separate and clearly identifiable ways, such as changes in time, work, and sexual relations. However, in the dystopic postmodern analysis, the human-machine dyad is situated in integrated, dynamic, open, social relations that are constantly changing. The social reality of the cyborg is not "fixed." Furthermore, this implies that the seduction of the cyborg is embedded in social relations, and that each influences changes in the other. There is, then, necessarily a utopic-dystopic polarization embedded in the human-machine discourse that situates the cyborg within a contradictory space.

[12] The greater meaning of either the utopic or dystopic perspective relies on the existence of this contradictory space. Therefore, the dystopic is itself utopic, and the utopic is dystopic. While I draw attention to the angel in relation to the utopic discourse and the dragon in relation to the dystopic discourse, paradoxically angels and dragons signify possibility and limitation across both perspectives. For example, one might think of Rutger Hauer's role in "Blade Runner" and imagine a dark angel, one who is situated perilously between dark and light. In "Metropolis," the character Maria, her arms draped with loose cloth and reaching towards the heavens, is obviously a traditional female angel figure. Both films rely primarily on the dystopic view as central to their stories, but they employ angel figures throughout their discourse as signs of possibility and hope.

[13] In the utopic discourse, pleasure is utilized as a seductive element to draw attention to the benefits of the human-machine relationship. In the dystopic discourse, cyborg social reality has possibilities, but also severe limitations. Therefore, to inquire into the human-machine relationship in more meaningful ways, these examples suggest that the "cyborg" is best examined as a social discourse rather than as a strategy or artifact, and that it might be better to explore, as some would argue, the notion of "social technologies." In this way, I am not merely questioning the mechanical or structural qualities of particular social (educational) frameworks and media (computers), but I am gaining insight into the meaning- making of the cyborg discourse and its implications for societies.

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3 Cyborgs, History and Chaos

[14] Like the angel and dragon, the cyborg has a history, despite the lack of evidence of its actual existence, "Today we may be convinced that there is no such thing as a dragon and that dragons never really existed, but nevertheless we are surrounded by countless symbolic representations which prove that there were times in which our predecessors considered dragons to be as real as either the particular hero who attempted to kill it or the horse he rode upon" (Sievers, 1990a, p. 208).

[15] An exploration of pleasure in relation to the cyborg discourse deconstructs the meaning of cyborg history present in many social frameworks. Rather than focus on outcomes, goals, or behaviors of the human-machine dyad, the examination of the cyborg as a discourse of pleasure provides an opportunity to pursue questions of meaning, relationship, and freedom in education and society. For example, I believe the cyborg discourse perpetuates the historical illusion of democratic culture (preceded by the notion that technology promotes social progress) in which the embodiment of pleasure acts to signify democracy.

[16] Still, several studies on work, organizational culture, computerized information systems (CIS), networks, and human-machine dyads (such as the "symbolic value of the CIS" or the "organizational symbolism" of computer culture) indicate the desire to explore, interpret, and reveal more than the efficiency of cyborgs and their supposed capability to undo the "problems" of late industrial society (Pihlajamaki, 1990; Scholz, 1990; Sievers, 1990b; Tatum, 1994; Witkin, 1990). There is a desire to understand and to make meaning of the developing history of cyborgs, the development of their behavior and culture; the two interconnected through hands, wires and electronic mechanisms that bend the technological discourse towards cultural as well as digital ears.

[17] The connection between the cyborg with an(other) cyborg is important too, not just the connection between the human and the machine. This is a history, under construction, too. Cyborgs suggest desire, and as such become "desiring-machines" (Ronell, 1989, p. 454) that once again conjure up images of seduction and aesthetics, albeit through "the psychological breakdown of social reality. the prosthetic extension of human discourse through communication. machines. psychology. mental illness. psyche" (Jamison, 1992- 1993). The cyborg age is witnessing the ongoing juxtaposition of art and technics (Mumford, 1952), pleasure and purpose, but as much for the cyborg, as the human. Oddly enough, there is the strong likelihood that the only witness to cyborg history and of the desire for humans to obtain pleasure through the cyborg discourse, will in the end, be the cyborg.

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4 Contradictory Spaces

[18] An examination of the cyborg discourse unveils the contradictions of the illusion; when faced with the possibility of pleasure and fantasy in utopic cyborg worlds, societies in turn choose to acquire, learn about, and explore such pleasure through technical paths. The cyborg appears to provide greater levels of pleasure that humans cannot attain without cybernetic machines: a seductively wired existence tied to a particular kind of knowing not previously experienced through technologies such as television and radio. In the recent film "Demolition Man" (1993), even sexual relations are experienced through a virtual reality system which has been promoted as better than human sexual relations due to its efficiency, safety, and cleanliness. The brain (the mind), not the body, continues to be constructed as the site for experience.

[19] It is important to acknowledge that the conceptualization of the pleasure of the cyborg discourse is often dictated by two technocratic premises: technological determinism and technological instrumentalism. In order to achieve pleasure, the cyborg discourse maintains the utility and necessity of inherited past knowledge and experience of pleasure (determinism), and the application of knowledge and technology as means to an end, i.e., the attainment of pleasure: instrumentalism. Pleasure is no longer a subjective ongoing experience, but an object to be captured, marketed, sold, and experienced immediately. The commodification of the knowledge and experience of pleasure raises some disturbing questions (Jamison, 1992). For example, there is the possibility that only particular conceptualizations of pleasure might be manifested throughout the cyborg discourse. While there is not room to fully discuss this problem here, it is important to consider the other forms of pleasure in social relations, such as intimidation and terror, that manifest themselves through domination. The cyborg discourse, then, is not only a discourse about the domination of societies through machines and electronics, but is also about the promotion of particular social realities through the domination of social relations and representations (as in Lem's (1967) "Futurological Congress"). The cyborg discourse becomes a psychological, social, and political deviation, not merely a hardware development. If one thinks about pleasure and seduction as being not only confined to individual human-machine interactions, but also influencing the construction of psychological, social, and political interactions, cyborgs are seen as highly constructive and value laden social systems, that are certainly not neutral. Cyborgs, like all technology, embody social discourses (Jamison, 1992).

[20] The utopic and dystopic views of humans and cyborgs present extreme visions of human-machine lifeworlds that cannot provide any final understanding of the cyborg discourse. But, the existence of their opposition and the contradictory space created between their polarization, provides a break, juncture, or space in which to explore greater meanings about the cyborg discourse. Pleasure, while only one aspect of the cyborg discourse, is contradictory, and as such is a particularly powerful human emotion that shapes human-machine relationships and social frameworks in paradoxically seductive ways.

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Copyright of articles published by Electronic Journal on Virtual Culture is held by the author of a given article. If an article is re-published elsewhere it must include a statement that it was originally published by Electronic Journal on Virtual Culture. The EJVC Editors reserve the right to maintain permanent archival copies of all submissions and to provide print copies to appropriate indexing services for for indexing and microforming.

Ermel Stepp, Marshall University, Editor-in-Chief
Diane (Di) Kovacs, Kent State University, Co-Editor

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