Hidden desires – Wiener and the Cyborg Mirror

N. Katherine Hayles discusses in “Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled…” the blurring of lines between human beings and technology systems that occur when considering the cyborg:


“…the cyborg violates the human/machine distinction; replacing cognition with neural feedback, it challenges the human-animal difference; explaining the behavior of thermostats and people through theories of feedback…”


“When the body is revealed as a constant, subject to radical change and redefinition, bodies of knowledge are similarly apt to be seen as constructs, no more inevitable than the organic form that images [imagines?] them.”


In Hayles’ world view, and possibly also Wiener’s and Donna Haraway’s, cybernetic theory provides a way to re-imagine the human body and remap it. Things can become compartmentalized. Persons can be broken down into parts; the parts can be examined and analyzed separate from the whole. Imaging the body as a great mass made up of separate pieces—separately functioning systems—working together as a whole allows the language applied to the body (and also the attitudes in thinking of a body) to be altered. It becomes easier to imagine the body as an information system, more like a cyborg. Hayles:


“Mingling erotically charged violations with potent new fusions, the cyborg becomes the stage on which are performed contestations about the body boundaries that have often marked class, ethnic and cultural differences.”


A cyborg cannot be black or white; nor can it be biologically male or female. A cyborg may have built-on genderized components, but it is impossible for it to have a “natural” sex. Furthermore, a cyborg doesn’t come equipped with instincts or emotions. Though it may be programmed to mimic human behavior, it is incapable of actually feeling, or acting based on any trigger other than what its internal scripts direct it to act on.


As the cyborg body is the “stage” onto which directions and demonstrations are forced/given/applied or performed, the cyborg body is subordinate—dis-empowered—it is always the recipient or conduit; something that is acted upon. It resembles the traditional female role in the binary opposites equation—the part made for input—the piece on the receiving end that the output of the dominant being is inserted into.


As Hayles described Wiener’s love for metaphor, this genderization of the cyborg/subordinate applies in that we, as the human makers formed it, so we own it and control it, and so is it subservient to our wants, needs and desires; docile to our motives and intentions.


But here is where a number of theorists, philosophers, scientists and even fiction writers grow cautious and weary. In considering our control and birth of the cyborg, and with the utility of cybernetics in our power, we are repeatedly warned not to allow a reversal. There are blaring warnings about the use of power and that as humans we must not lose control and allow ourselves to be governed or become slaves of our machines.


Hayles writes about Wiener’s apprehension with blurring the lines in the cyborg/human body politic:


“contemplating the penetration of cybernetics into social and humanistic fields, he found himself confronted with some disturbing questions. Where should the cybernetic dissolution of boundaries stop? At what point does the anxiety provoked by dissolution overcome the ecstacy?” (Hayles 85).


Hayles imagines Wiener constructing the “cyborg mirror,” looking into it, but then backing away because he feels censored by his own repressed feelings and desires, she speculated, for the human/’borg co-mingling. She compares the scenario to an example that Wiener writes about in “Information, Language, and Society,” when he imagines himself meeting an “intelligent savage” who lacks a common language, but who is able to participate in the exchange of information with him by trading gazes and following one another’s gestures. Hayles reads this scene as evidence of some deeply hidden homoerotic desire on Wiener’s part—his excitement to participate in the exchange of the “gaze” and do “those things that men do” when they are out in nature together. She interprets this into Wiener’s anxiety and where he draws his boundaries and withdraws from the mirror.


I think she might have taken this reading a bit too far.


Certainly Wiener had his weaknesses as a scientist. As his colleagues reported, he seemed to be somewhat inept in performing lab work, too clumsy to be effective in handling empirical evidence. She also calls him “complicit” in reacting to the observed capitalist imperialism in purposing cyborgs and the potential for this to grow out of hand. She does give mention to the “rigid machine” constructed somewhere in Wiener’s writings; his idea for an alienating machine that contains all of the qualities that Wiener hoped to “purge from cybernetics, including rigidity, oppression, militaristic regulation of thought and action, reduction of humans to ant-like elements, manipulation, betrayal, and death. … he offered no remedy other than the platitude that men must not let machines take over.”


Perhaps Wiener felt that way because he grew up with a strict, controlling father that wanted to make him into a prodigy and an emasculating, anti-Semite mother who seemed to hate him. Perhaps he never wanted to see those ugly human traits repeated or mimicked by a cyborg.


Perhaps looking into the mirror and seeing in his cyborg reflection the manifestation of all of his repressed inner secrets and desires was not what caused Wiener anxiety and forced him to withdraw. Human-directed injury, destruction and death upon our fellow humans through the tools of wielding cyborg muscle. Perhaps the theorists foresaw agony, torment, torture and death to human autonomy; reliance on machines for life and function and a lack of freedom stemming from the human/cyborg merger, and that was the terror that caused him to turn away.



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