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Cyborg CitizenReview - Cyborg Citizen
Politics in the Posthuman Age
by Chris Hables Gray
Routledge, 2001
Review by Ian Stoner
Mar 19th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 12)

There is little doubt that the presence of technology is increasingly felt in the world of politics; representatives reach constituents through web pages, citizens vote at computer terminals, antiwar protesters organize with the help of wireless networks.  In Cyborg Citizen:  Politics in the Posthuman Age, Chris Hables Gray suggests that there is a more fundamental way in which technology is changing the face of politics.  The citizenry, he argues, has been so thoroughly permeated by technology that the people comprising our democracy are no longer humans, but cyborgs.  This shift in the fundamental unit of democracy, he says, will revolutionize the politics of the future.

In order to develop this provocative thesis, Gray's goals are necessarily twofold.  First, he must convince his readers that they are cyborgs.  Then, he must show that the cyborgization of the citizenry has implications for the political process of democracy.

On the first point, Gray has a lot to say.  He notes that the term "cyborg" commonly refers to people who have been modified or enhanced by technology.  This should bring to mind not only the bionic man, but also women with hearing aides, children with eyeglasses, men with pacemakers, and so on.  He is convincing when he suggests that the technologies that support and extend our physical capabilities have become so widespread that it is easy to forget about them.  It has probably never occurred to most contact lens wearers, for instance, that they fit even conservative definitions of “cyborg.”

Unfortunately, Gray broadens his definition to include people who interact with technology.  Thus, when I drive to the grocery I am a human-automobile cyborg.  When I check my email, I am a human-laptop cyborg.  It looks as if anyone who uses tools will fall under Gray’s definition.  And yet he widens it further.  In one of the silliest passages in the book he argues, quoting Sandy Stone, that Anne Rice’s vampire Lestat is a cyborg because he is a “liminal creature,” inhabiting the boundaries between “life and death, temporality and eternity, French and English, gay and straight.”   So a cyborg is not just a person who uses or has been modified by technology, but any person who does not fit squarely into some category.

By defining the term so broadly, Gray undermines his own political project.  Ostensibly, the goal of the book is to examine how technology is altering society by discovering how it affects individual citizens.  The problem is that, after Gray has all but equated “cyborg” and “human,” issues of technology hardly seem relevant.  If all “liminal creatures” and tool-users are cyborgs, how can he argue that cyborgization is an important feature of the present age?

As it turns out, Gray isn’t much for argument at all.  Instead of suggesting a thesis or defending a position, he prefers to amass observations, occasionally suggesting interpretations, but generally leaving it to the reader to search for connections between the observations, or connections with politics and citizenship in general.  The book proceeds episodically, first mentioning a technology, then giving a brief anecdotal history of it, and finally asserting that technology has many important political ramifications.  The anecdotes are usually interesting and often provide a glimpse of aspects of particular technologies that are not well known.  Occasionally, they have clear bearing on the larger issue of politics.  The brief section on patents, for instance, recounts the story of John Moore, whose bodily tissues were patented by UCLA.  The issue of the patentability of biological material clearly has legislative and social significance.  Typically, though, the anecdotes' connection to political issues is far from obvious.

From time to time, Gray makes proposals that purport to explain the phenomena he catalogs.  Too often, these interpretations do not make sense, even on their face.  For example, after noting that many people mistakenly believe that the name “Frankenstein” belongs to the giant reanimated monster, when it is actually the name of the scientist who created the monster, Gray claims that “this conflation signifies that the doctor is monstrous in our minds... it is doctors we fear today.”  Such a conclusion assumes a lot.  Is it impossible that the confusion arises from the fact that a picture of the monster and the name “Frankenstein” feature prominently on book covers and movie posters?  After all, “Dracula” refers to the vampire and “The Wolf Man” refers to the werewolf.  Such passages will rightly leave readers questioning whether or not they can trust any of Gray’s interpretive claims, almost none of which are better argued.

The most unforgivable shortcoming of the book is its consistent failure to connect these amassed observations and dubious conclusions to citizenship in any meaningful way.  What do dildos have to do with democracy?  Penile implants?  Cybersex?  After reading Gray's book, I have no better sense of how “cyborgization” has affected politics up to this point, or how it might affect it in the future.

Gray’s two apparently original contributions, what he calls the “cyborg epistemology” and the “Cyborg Bill of Rights” are symptomatic of the problems that riddle the text.  The “cyborg epistemology,” which, according to Gray, is “thesis, antithesis, synthesis, prosthesis,” is never argued for, or even explained.  The need for a separate field of cyborg epistemology is never argued for.  The relevance of prosthesis to a theory of knowledge is never explained.  The relationship between this “epistemology” and the bumper-sticker summary of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (“thesis, antithesis, synthesis”) is never explained.  In fact, the apparent debt to Hegel is never acknowledged, and the author’s own reading of Hegel is not offered.  Gray simply asserts that the “cyborg epistemology” is “thesis, antithesis, synthesis, prosthesis,” and then refers to it later in the text as if it made any sense.

Similarly, the 10-point "Cyborg Bill of Rights" is never explained or defended.  Point one is "Citizens shall have the right to travel anywhere, virtually or in the flesh, at their own risk and expense."  What does this right to travel have to do with cyborgs?  Is there something distinctively cyborg about travel itself?  Is our current freedom to travel threatened in world that is increasingly steeped in technology?  What is it about technology that has rendered our existing Bill of Rights obsolete?  Gray never addresses these questions.

In the end, Cyborg Citizen is a missed opportunity.  We certainly need a book, aimed at a popular audience, that does what Gray attempts:  that draws attention to the power of technology to shape both the individual and society, and calls on people to spend enough time thinking about these issues than they can play an active role in choosing their technology-entwined futures.  Cyborg Citizen, with its difficulties maintaining coherence, lack of unifying argument, and too-frequent digressions into absurdity, is not that book.

 

© 2003 Ian Stoner

 

Ian Stoner is currently pursuing a PhD in philosophy.  His primary area of interest is ethics, particularly Kant and virtue ethics, as well as applied ethics and technology.

 

Related review: Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, by Francis Fukuyama, review by Neil Levy, Ph.D. on May 13th 2002


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