How the concept of the cyborg
has changed human self-perception

by Chris Thorp

The concept of a cyborg has changed the understanding of what it means to be human. Many old questions have been asked again. Questions like: what does it mean to be human, what differentiates human from nonhuman, when does a human lose their humanity, and many others. The dualisms that currently define humanity are finally being challenged. They are not being challenged by the educated elite; they are being challenged by the authors of fiction. These authors are asking the questions and presenting situations that will change how we view ourselves as human. Because these authors are leading the way, my analysis will focus on the imaginary worlds, creatures, and lives of several fictional cyborgs. The first cyborgs that I analyzed are complete or nearly complete cyborgs - cyborgs that were not created by the union of an egg and a sperm. My second analysis centers on the deconstruction of binaries. I will then discuss how cyborgs have impacted gender and sex. Finally, I will discuss what makes a cyborg.

The Replicants in Blade Runner were almost entirely human. They had fully conscious thought. They were genetically engineered humans that were brought into life as full size, adult beings. In Blade Runner, the cyborgian replicants were used for tasks that were considered boring, dangerous, or mundane. The replicants tasks included: kick murder, house keeping, sexual pleasure, and combat among other things. Their minds were imprinted with the knowledge that was necessary to complete their tasks, but they were not given any emotions. Dr. Tyrell claimed that a replicant could not handle emotions without a childhood. The prototype replicant named Rachael was experimentally given the childhood of Dr. Tyrell's niece, but she was only a prototype. Most replicants' lack of emotion made them better able to so their job. It facilitates the "desirable" mind/body split. Tyrell Corporation's motto is: "more human than human." I interpret this to mean that they are attempting to make the "ultimate" human; a biological cyborg that embodies the highest mental and physical goals of humans. Tyrell and his corporation did not just succeeded at their goal, they completely surpassed it. The replicants' lack of emotion highlights the human dependence on it. Humans cannot make a decision or observation that is not affected by emotion. Because the replicants did not have any emotion, I do not consider them complete cyborgs. This is because their lack of emotion would probably cause them to fail the Turing test.

In Marge Piercy's He, She, and It, Yod, who is a cyborg, made his argument for citizenship based on his emotional attachment to Shira and her son. "'I want citizenship,' Yod said, 'because I want to live with Shira and help raise her son. I want to be registered as a partnership. I can't do that if you don't think I'm a real person.'" (Piercy, p.406) Yod's argument has two facets, both of which are centered on the question of humanity. Yod's first claim is that he has a human emotional attachment to Shira and her son, Ari. By embracing something that is considered an exclusively human trait, he tries to demonstrate his humanity. Yod hopes to widen the category of creatures able to form emotional bonds while Shira's friend, Hannah, sees that as very odd. "How close? ... What does it mean to be close with a machine?" Hannah asked Shira. (Piercy, p.406) The second, although related, argument is an unspoken one. Yod tries to create a familiar emotional tie, that is somewhat analogous to the feminist "sisterhood" of the 1960's, with the council members through his fatherly role; a role that council members can feel a personal association with. Being "included" with humans makes the cyborgs much more effective tools of change.

There are many parallels between cyborg identity and LGBT (et al.) identity. Both are often seen as a societal "other;" something that is less than desirable. Humans tend to fear things that are different or that have some type of "mystic" power. The cyborg or golem that has superhuman strength and does not require sleep often cause fear, at least initially. This fear usually leads to the creation of a self-reinforcing dichotomy: there are things that are "us" and things that are not "us." If the "other" is considered bad, it reduces association and learning about it. This increases the mysteriousness of the unknown other, which further reduces the association, and on, and on. At some point, the definitions of the dichotomy become so unrealistic or so mysterious that people begin to examine the basis of the differentiation; to deconstruct the myth. Upon initial examination, the differences that support the dichotomy seem clear, but when the differences are looked at more closely, they are almost entirely artificial. The replicant Rachael from Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and the cyborg named Yod from Marge Piercy's He, She, and It are both good examples of cyborgs that were initially considered human, but then become a nonhuman other after their true cyborg nature is revealed. If a machine can pass the Turing test, which involves convincing a human that the machine is human, then it should not matter how it was created. These machines/cyborgs blur the boundaries of what is human. Once these full cyborgs are realized, human conscious will no longer be unique; humans will have lost one of their major defining characteristics that separate us from other organic/mechanical life forms. The destruction of these and other binaries will remove barriers to human and technological advances. Because of this, I do not see Gimel and his other eight brothers as failures; they just were not human enough for Avram, Yod and Gimel's creator. Nothing will ever be"perfect." Humans need to view themselves as a work-in-progress in much the same way Gimel was a work in progress. Humans are continually evolving and changing, as such, their own self-definitions are flexible to an extent.

Almost all complete cyborgs in movies or literature have a definite gender and sex. Commander Data on Star Trek: the Next Generation, the replicants in Blade Runner, and the Terminators in Terminator 2 are just a few examples of gendered, sexed cyborgs. The existence of gender and sex are cultural norms in the United States. This normality arises from the "natural" existence of gender and sex in most humans. Cyborgs are currently creations of humans, but do not necessarily need to be a reflection of them. Cyborgs do not and often cannot fit into the same categorical boxes as humans do; yet, writers insist on gendering them and putting them into a nice box. The gendered cyborgs are a reflection of the human "need" for oppositional definition. Although the cyborgs could have a very large impact on our perceptions of sex and gender, they currently do not. Until cyborgs are genderless or multigendered, they will not have much impact on our perceptions of gender because they will continue to reflect the current perceptions of society. I do not feel that cyborgs that are not complete can have any more impact on gender than someone that is wholly human. I feel that this is because they still have their "residual self image" (The Matrix) that has a gender and sex and that although it is not necessarily "normal," it is still somewhat constrained by society.

Up to this point, I have been mainly dealing with complete cyborgs. Although the line between a complete cyborg and an incomplete cyborg is fairly clear, the line between cyborg and not cyborg is much fuzzier. Although some would consider a dialysis patient or someone who has received any vaccination a cyborg, I feel that this is not a useful distinction because it is to general. (CITE THIS) All-inclusive categories are not useful. Grouping cyborgs under the category "cyborg" is as useless as grouping all Homo sapiens under the category "human" and then trying to talk about them. Chris Hables Gray's naming system for cyborgs is much more useful. It prefixes cyborg with a category that provides some basic breakdown of the type similar to the prefixes attached to human. (Gray, p.4) Instead of asking: when do we become cyborg, we should ask: when do we lose our humanity? Although this question seems to be the same, the fuzziness lies on the other end; it centers on the question of what part of a body makes us human? I feel that it is the brain. The cyborg named "Major Motoko Kusanagi" in Ghost in the Shell, has an augmented human brain and an artificial body. I argue that she is still a human because she has a human brain.

Although cyborgs have influenced our understanding of self, they have the potential to do much more. They have informed our concepts of self and our dualisms, but they have failed to affect our views of gender and sex any more than existing constructs. Because most of the cyborg discourse is still fiction, we must continue to push the boundaries. The cyborg concept is a useful tool to explore the questions of humanity. We can imagine any cyborg that we need in order to pose a question. For example, if you wanted to examine the consequences of eye color, you could discuss the question "in" a society where everyone had cyborg eyes. Once cyborgs are no longer cutting edge, they will lose much of their power to shape our understanding of humanity because they will have their own set of norms and preconceptions about them.

Works cited:

Ed. Gray, Chris Hables, et al (1995)
The Cyborg Handbook.
New York and London: Routledge

Piercy, Marge (1991)
He, She and It.
New York: Fawcett Crest

The Matrix.
Dirs. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski.
Warner Bros., 1999.

Ghost in the Shell.
Dir. Mamora Oshii.
Manga Entertainment, 1995.

Copyright 2000 Chris Thorp
Published by in the Blade Runner and DADoES Analysis Section

This analysis has been saved from extinction as the site where it was originally published is now defunct. I would appreciate it if Chris would contact me.