Once declaring that an individual is a “montage of loosely assembled parts,” and furthermore that when “you are on the phone or on the air you have no body” (p. xxix), Marshall McLuhan (1962) dismembered the body. Our media might be extensions of ourselves, but they’re also prosthetics, amputating parts as they extend them, turning us into cyborgs. If we are and always have been cyborgs (Clark, 2003), then where does the body end and the media begin?
Judith Butler (1990) reassembles the body as “culturally intelligible” (p. 167). That is, as one that is recognized by the members of its society, what Sandy Stone (2001) calls the “legible body” (p. 195). On the phone, on the air, or online, you are “read” as a member. Stone also postulates the “illegible body” that exists “quantumlike in multiple states” (p. 196): “Their social system includes other people, quasi people or delegated agencies that represent specific individuals, and quasi agents that represent ‘intelligent’ machines, clusters of people, or both” (p. 196). Bringing Bulter, N. Katherine Hayles, and Donna Haraway together, Arthur Kroker’s Body Drift: Butler, Hayles, Haraway (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) tackles these theorists and their theories in turn. His “body drift” is not just the fragmentation of the body into different codes and constructs, as Stone does (e.g., gendered, sexualized, augmented, virtual, etc.), but also the fact that concerns about the body haven’t been marginalized by technological evolution as largely predicted. Just as telecommuting de-emphasizes place (i.e., we can work from anywhere) as it reemphasizes it (i.e., where we are matters more), not having a body or having a technologically mediated one now matters in a different way. Under the themes of contingency, complexity, and hybridity, Kroker provides an introduction to and synthesis of the thought of three major feminist critics and what it means for the body to drift.
Even from a steadfastly feminist stance, we tend to focus on the narratives and discourses surrounding issues of the body more so than their material systems and conditions (Rotman, 2008). The Others lurk in the structures of modernity, and as Haraway (1990) puts it, “The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self” (p. 163): Cyborgs are “simultaneously entities and metaphors, living beings, and narrative constructions” (Hayles, 1999, p. 114). In such a meddled milieu, the control of these analogies and their boundaries is where the power lies.
Another term for the feminist in Haraway is the posthuman (Howell, 1995), and Rosi Braidotti pushes the analogies and boundaries of the body past postmodernity in her latest book, The Posthuman (Polity, 2013). Hayles (1999) defines the posthuman using the externalization of our knowledge, writing, “When information loses its body, equating humans and computers is especially easy…” (p. 2). Cybernetics defined humans as “information-processing systems whose boundaries are determined by the flow of information” (p. 113). Braidotti pays special attention to these flows, building from three areas of thought: moral philosophy, science and technology, and anti-humanist philosophies of subjectivity. Globalized network culture decentralizes the humanist subject’s stability in space and time. The upending of anthropocentrism upsets the hierarchy of the species and the technologically mediated subject problematizes body normativity. All of which Braidotti employs toward a “move forward into multiple posthuman futures” (p. 150). She continues:
We need an active effort to reinvent the academic field of the Humanities in a new global context and to develop an ethical framework worthy of our posthuman times. Affirmation, not nostalgia, is the road to pursue: not the idealization of philosophical meta-discourse, but the more pragmatic task of self-transformation through humble experimentation (p. 150).
Braidotti praises interdisciplinary scholarship within the Humanities (e.g., feminist studies, media studies, environmental Humanities, Digital Humanities, etc.) as an “expression of its riches, not of its crisis” (p. 155), but she calls for more fragmentation, not less, writing that the dis-unity of the Humanities “points to over-abundance, not lack” (p. 156). The posthuman research agenda is not a unified “grand theoretical discourse” (p. 157) but a call for “specific theory” (Lyotard, 1984), one that is “grounded, accountable but also shareable and hence open to generic applications” (p. 157). Braidotti concludes by outlining her methodological golden rules not only as building blocks for posthuman critical theory but also as a way to bridge the Two Cultures via mutual respect. The Posthuman is an important and generative step toward new theories and scholarship and a welcome addition to Braidotti’s already formidable canon.
Moving beyond the body (as we know it) means subverting any extant grand narrative or theory of The Human and any attempt at a new one. It means rejecting the demonization of science and technology. It means embracing the nonlinearity of our posthuman times, the further fragmentation of our selves, and the permeability of our bodily boundaries. Haraway (1990) writes, “It means both building and destroying machines, identities, relationships…” (p. 181). It means rethinking the lines we’ve drawn through the ones we’ve crossed.
Butler, Judith. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
Clark, Andy. (2003). Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. New York: Oxford University Press.
Haraway, Donna J. (1990). Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.
Hayles, N. Katherine. (1999). How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Howell, Linda. (1995). The Cyborg Manifesto Revisited: Issues and Methods for Technocultural Feminism. In Richard Dellamora (Ed.), Postmodern Apocalypse: Theory and Cultural Practice at the End. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 199-218.
Kroker, Arthur. (2012). Body Drift: Butler, Hayles, Haraway. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Lyotard, Jean François. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis, MN: University of MInnesota Press.
McLuhan, Marshall. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Rotman, Brian. (2008). Becoming Beside Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Stone, Allucquère Rosanne (Sandy). (2001). Will the Real Body Please Stand Up? In David Trend (Ed.), Reading Digital Culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp. 185-198.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.