How does Cyborg Studies help us to understand the world?
Humanity has always faced the question of its own nature. Since ancient times philosophers have questioned the rules of the world is and man’s place in it. Over the centuries many different approaches have been established, most of which assumed some form of duality of human and nature. Most of these Western mainstream approaches were also based on a foundation that man is in some way special, exceptional. They have something that nature lacks and there is no symmetry between them (Pickering, 2008a:1). Relatively fresh, at least for Western thought, is alternative approach due to which the whole idea of human exceptionalism is misleading as people are inevitably linked with things in every aspect of their being.
In my essay I will first try to focus on describing the approach that is called cyborg studies as I understand it and I will think of some examples. Next I will try to sketch out possible implications of its application to our thinking and finally make an attempt to answer whether it is justified to give priority to cyborg approach at the expense of ideas implying human exceptionalism.
In social sciences since their establishment in 19th century the major focus has been put on the divide between the social and the natural. The social has been strictly related to the human. The latter has been perceived, and still is, as exceptional, different in quality from the natural. On one hand we have human who is omnipotent and on the other hand nature that is passive and devoid of agency. The relationship between them is unilateral and founded on humans’ supremacy over nature. There is humans’ command and control attitude towards nature (Asplen, 2008:164). As a consequence there always has to be state of conflict between them. Humans attempt to overpower nature to reach his goals. There is no other way, but to oppose to nature and make it our slave. It is enough to give a few examples to prove the approach is wrong. To just mention the most recent – flooding in China in 2010 that caused death of thousands of people and many more of them losing their houses (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_floods, 2014) , the Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami in 2004 – almost 300 thousands of people dead (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lists_of_earthquakes, 2014), the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 in March 2014 that is still missing, the Savar Building Collapse in Dhaka in 2013 – 1129 people killed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_industrial_disasters, 2014) or the Ebola virus disease epidemic that is still spreading all over the world. I am not going to describe these examples. I have just mentioned them to explain the arrogance of the claim that nature is without agency. It is quite obvious then that the dualistic approach may not be the best one to describe the way of human functioning in the world.
It seems quite reasonable to use cyborg approach instead. It is founded on the assumption that there is some symmetry between the human and the material in terms of agency. Mainstream understanding of agency implies that there has to be some will or intention behind actions (Pickering, 1993:565), while cyborg approach argues that this is not required. Thus, the material world can have its own agency as well. It comes from the fact that both humans and nature do things in the world, so considering this aspect they are of the same quality. The difference is that human’s agency has intentionality. People usually have some motives for their actions, though – what is especially important – what they do is (as it is in case of nature) temporally emergent in time (ibidem, 561-564). It means that even if you have some conception of what you want to do (what distinguishes you from nature) it will take its actual shape in the time of your action. For example, in building a house, one would start with a plan (intentions), but during construction some unforeseen problems may arise: a need to use more cement due to marshy land, lowering construction due to dangers of strong seasonal winds, or lightning strikes which force the project to start again from scratch (an extreme but certainly possible example). So, as a result, the eventual shape of the building may not even resemble the one that was planned. On the whole the process intentions don’t play key role. Actions made to build a house emerge in the time of doing and cannot be planned before as the nature of the human engagement in the world is unpredictable per se. That is why it is more suitable to replace the term ‘agency’ with the notion of ‘performance’. Performance is understood as getting along in the world what can be noticed in the example given above where permanent fitting decisions to the changing conditions are required. But things are getting along as well, so basically there is nothing special about us in the way we function in the world. The difference is ontological (Pickering, 2014:1-3). By applying cyborg approach we obtain decentered perspective. The view that humans are no longer at the centre of the world is described as posthumanistic. It in turn means that humans stop being not only an exclusive source of agency, but also that they stop being the major. There is no more place for dualism as it is replaced by ‘ontology of becoming’ (Pickering, 2008b:3). The way people are in the world is not given in advance, it is emergent in time in the dance of agency with things (Pickering, 2014:2). During the dance people are adapting themselves to the nature that is resisting. And it is the adaptation to environment, what is especially important in cyborg approach. According to Clydes and Kline in terms of biological survival this is much more beneficial strategy than fitting the environment to our needs (Clydes and Kline, 1960:30).
It seems that the most important assumptions have been described as far as theory is concerned. The example with house was quite short and not very detailed, so I will try to illustrate better what cyborg studies is about. Although it is the easiest way to explain the idea of cyborg studies as a process of resistance and accommodation that takes some time (so as the dance of agency), I would rather focus on more subtle examples, where the temporal aspect is less visible. In the cases I present below the real nature of the phenomena was often wrongly perceived as dualistic while cyborg approach seemed to be far more suitable.
First, I would like to focus on a theme very close to my heart as I have been active footballer since I was eight years old: the changing styles of youth coaching. Many years ago it was believed that to get good football player it is enough if he undergoes serious stamina training, then some strength training, pace training and finally some exercises with a ball. Coaching in this way made it possible to create an athlete and decent football player, but not a good technician, let alone a real magician. The problem laid in the separation of young players from the ball, so many of them at the age of 14 were quite strong and fast young man, not knowing how to play football well. Over the last two decades it has changed and a thing that should be obvious in this kind of sport – that the more contact with the ball during training, the better – had been recognized. Now it is widely believed that young players should first learn how to play football and then visit the gym to gain strength and stamina. Thanks to the Internet it is possible to visit Youtube and compare games played 30 years ago with those in last few years: the change in the game’s pace and players’ technique is visible. The switch from dualistic thinking to cyborg approach caused the difference. Recognition that people and things are coupled played essential role in achieving success in this case.
It is interesting to note that there is a big debate within Sociology of Sport whether so called ‘e-sports’ should be recognized as a sport or not (http://www.threetwonine.com/tminus/2014/9/6/e-sports-in-mainstream-culture-a-sociological-perspective., 2014) There are some criteria that make it possible to define sport, but the issue seems to be more about the level of the material engagement. Let’s compare archery, a popular Olympic sport, and playing Counter-Strike, a popular First Person Shooter computer game. In both cases required features are: precision, concentration and recurrence. The difference is that to do the former a bow is needed and to do the latter a computer set. Both archers and Counter Strike players spend long hours to become the best, in both cases it is physical kind of effort. Both have to tune themselves with the devices they use. The first is recognized as a sport, the latter is not – there seems to be some socially assumed extent to which material engagement is allowed and makes the recognition as a sport possible. Though the presence of (not necessarily justified) dualistic thinking in this case is quite interesting, it has to give place to issues I find more important.
Generally speaking, there are many more matters whose functioning could be described using e approach. Nonetheless, instead of revealing true nature of those that has been veiled to our eyes by dualist perspective, I will rather try to give now few examples on how cyborg approach can change our way of thinking about different issues.
First of all, it is very crucial to keep in mind that cyborg studies and the posthumanistic perspectives it offers doesn’t refer exclusively to materiality. It is also about perceiving people as ‘(…) malleable, mangle-able, always liable to become something new in interaction with each other as well as with thing’ (Pickering, 2013:37). In various socio-material contexts a person can become very different. The process of adaptation to different environments can lead to very diverse outcomes. Though presently I am myself an immigrant I don’t find my story interesting enough. I will use a story of my Albanian friend instead. He moved with his family from his motherland in 90s to Italy as an illegal immigrant. Without going too much into details I can say that first they adapted themselves to the language, food, law system and (not wholly of course) mentality. In the contact with new culture different qualities emerged. On smaller scale it happens to us in everyday life all the time: we meet new people, grasp new ideas, visit different places and discover animals of which we were previously unaware or simply tune ourselves to things we didn’t know before. In contact with the world we cannot predict what will happen as there is no pre-existing plan that can give us absolute confidence to the way things will go. Every time something new appears and we may have a pre-existing plan, but it can never be fulfilled with complete accuracy as our actions always depend on the world that is not given in advance, but is emergent in time as we do.
Cyborg studies makes me also realise that in the material world personal growth is not possible outside the dance of agency. Of course, our whole life is inseparably tied with the dance, but some people seem to believe that it is possible to avoid contacts with the world more than the others. In fact, I think it is rather question of scale as we all feel some respect for the world. Anyway, if we follow dualistic approach and consider ourselves as absolutely qualitatively different from the world, it paradoxically becomes harder to act as we can believe that entering the world may be only possible with our plan and when it is absolutely ready and everything is signed and sealed. Assuming cyborg approach as a true description of the way world works we can get rid of these doubts. Of course, I am not trying to convince anyone that he should parachute when first opportunity appears if he hasn’t done it before and has absolutely no knowledge about that. I am rather trying to stress that our actual actions emerge in the time of doing as a game between us and material’s world agency, so there should be no fear in us that something can go wrong.
I have already given some examples justifying use of cyborg approach for explaining the way we function in the world and have showed some implications of it. My focus will be now on its chances – mainly is it possible to replace the dualistic perception of the world with the idea of the dance of the agency between people and things? How probable is it? Well, I think cyborg approach does have some chances. Quite unexpectedly I can see these chances in relation with the idea of post-modernity or late modernity in sociology. Presently, life is much faster than it was in the past. We have access to hundreds of different information everyday and we have to manage somehow with that. We have to remember about our various obligations (concerning people and things) and sometimes if we don’t succeed it can cause unpleasant consequences. Famous sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (2000:1-3) created the term ‘liquid modernity’ to describe conditions of our present existence. It is unstable, liable to fast changes and seems to be without specific shape. It makes of our life a flow what can help us in realising that we are in fact inseparable from the world. One could say that we are permanently in ‘the thick of things’ (Pickering, 2013:26). As a result of being surrounded by unpredictable, people try to find an asylum in their everyday life routines (Giddens, 2013:54-60). Quite important role in that play also ‘islands of stability’: material objects that we believe we are able to control (Pickering, 2014:4). It, taken altogether, gives us illusion of safety. What I am trying to show is that some assumptions underlying post-modernity theory are similar to those of cyborg studies. As the former is broadly recognized, it can, hopefully, give some foundation for acceptance the latter, or at least facilitate it.
One could think basing what I have written so far that I am absolutely against dualism and the idea of human exceptionalism. However, I am not at all. I find cyborg studies useful in understanding how we are engaged in the world and believe it to be true. However, even assuming the ontology of becoming and decentered way in which the world works, I don’t find the approach opposite to the idea of human soul. We can be engaged in worldly performance by our material part, that is – body, while soul by definition doesn’t belong to the material order and is connected with extraterrestrial order. Christianity is very clear about that – according to the Gospel of St. John Jesus said to Pilate: “My Kingdom is not of this world” (http://www.ebible.org/kjv/John.htm, 2006). I am not going to elaborate on that now and I am not going to prove that human soul exists, but I want to simply show that there is no contradiction in accepting both cyborg approach and the idea of human soul given by Christianity. It is important not to allow the sense of our exceptionalism make us arrogant or haughty and, in consequence, to veil the way the material world works, but that is all. Having said that, I feel quite relieved as I found, completely unexpectedly for myself, the ideas given by cyborg approach quite attractive.
Asplen, L. (2008) ‘Going with the Flow: Living the Mangle in Environmental Management
Practice,’ in A. Pickering and K. Guzik (eds), The Mangle in Practice: Science, Society
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Clynes, M. and N. S. Kline (1960) ‘Cyborgs and Space,’ Astronautics (Sept), 26-27, 74-75.
Reprinted in C. Gray (ed.), Cyborg Handbook (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 29-
Giddens, A. (2013) Modernity and Self-Identity : Self and Society in the Late Modern Age,
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http://www.ebible.org/kjv/John.htm, (2006), access: 12.11.2014
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_floods, (2014), access: 12.11.2014
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lists_of_earthquakes, (2014), access: 12.11.2014
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_industrial_disasters, (2014), access: 12.11.2014
http://www.threetwonine.com/tminus/2014/9/6/e-sports-in-mainstream-culture-a-sociological-perspective, (2014), access: 12.11.2014
 To be exact in the reference temporally emergent nature of human actions refers to scientific practice, but I think it can be applied to all sorts of man actions.
 Development of medical knowledge and new training facilities are undoubtedly important factors as well, but I believe the change of coaching style plays crucial role in this case.
 Particularly unexpectedly when one takes different conceptions of time and space given in these theories. On one hand, in cyborg studies, we have crucial role of time and space for the emergence of new qualities (Pickering, 1993:561-564) and on the other hand we are said that space and time are not inseparable anymore (Giddens, 2013: 23-33).
 But not necessarily ‘going with the flow’ – I don’t want to be mistaken here.
 To realize how essential the role of things is in that it is enough to think about specific feeling of panic we are used to have when something that was considered to be reliable unexpectedly breaks down.