The Cyborg: More Humanist than Human

Painting by Fred Freedman, LIFE 11 July 1960.

Over at Cyberneticzoo, Reuben Hoggett has posted some great images and articles about the cyborg as it was conceived in the early 1960s by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline. The above image appeared in LIFE magazine, in a write-up about the Clynes and Kline’s cyborg. A hilarious send-up of the cyborg, pictured below, appeared a few years later in Popular Science.

Popular Science, Oct. 1963.
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Joey, the “Mechanical Animal” Boy

“I laid myself as an egg, hatched myself, and gave birth to me.”

The hen electric, pregnant with the electric fetus. (The Empty Fortress 323)
I just finished reading the mammoth chapter on Joey in Bruno Bettelheim’s The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self as part of my research for my paper presentation at SLSA 2012. It is a greatly expanded account of the case study Bettelheim presented as a Scientific American article almost a decade earlier in 1959, and offers much more detail about Joey’s treatment at the Orthogenic School as well as the psychic “rebirth” that marks the beginning of his journey out of his delusion.

The tale of Joey initially interested me because of his elaborate fantasy, according to which he believed himself a machine requiring elaborate apparatuses to remain alive.  The Scientific American article concentrates on Joey’s machine world, Bettelheim going so far as to suggest that this extraordinary case study “has a general relevance to the understanding of emotion in a machine age” (“Joey” 117).  It is this dimension of the story that establishes the broad topic of my SLSA paper, where I will primarily explore connections between children and machines.  But Joey’s story, as recounted in The Empty Fortress, closes the “cybernetic triangle” of animals, humans, and machines, with numerous references to nonhuman animals and a crucial role played by hens. Continue reading

Anthropomorphism 3: Weaver of Morphisms

The expression ‘anthropomorphic’ considerably underestimates our humanity. We should be talking about morphism. Morphism is the place where technomorphisms, zoomorphisms, phusimorphisms, ideomorphisms, theomorphisms, sociomorphisms, psychomorphisms, all come together. Their alliances and their exchanges, taken together, are what define the anthropos. A weaver of morphisms—isn’t that enough of a definition?

Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 137.

Anthropomorphism 2: Narcissus Narcosis

It is not those who yield to the appeal of anthropomorphism who reproduce the sad story of Narcissus but, rather, those who believe in its very existence. Those who see anthropomorphism about them in the discourses of science and culture, whether they would eliminate it or extol its utility, believe, at heart, in a distinct and recognizable human form. Both parties see animals transformed, recast with human features. . . . Those who believe in the possibility of this species narcissism fail to appreciate that what they see is of their own making, and they practice, thereby, a true form of narcissism. Like Narcissus, they fail to realize that they themselves are captivated by their own image, while remaining ignorant of the very thing on which they have set eyes. If we suspend this assumption, this implicit and uncritical prior belief in uniquely human capabilities, then the very notion of anthropomorphism fails to make sense. . . . [T]he very belief in anthropomorphism betrays a lack of foresight of self-reflection on the part of those so thoroughly wedded to the idea that they are, before all else, human.

Tom Tyler, Ciferae: A Bestiary in Five Fingers (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 63.

Anthropomorphism 1: Anthropology

Anthropology is that interpretation of humanity which already knows, fundamentally, who man is and can, therefore, never ask who he might be. For with this question it would have to confess itself shaken and overcome.

Martin Heidegger, “The Age of the World Picture,” in Off the Beaten Track, ed. and trans. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 84.

Guinness World | Ideabird

Rebloggd from Ideabird 6/11/12

600 years from now, there is still Guinness, and there is still a Guinness Book of Records. They are the de facto guardians of the boundaries of humanity, defining what still is and isn’t human. An examiner travels to a distant, rural planet to meet a candidate for tallest human. These spider-like creatures walk on spindly stretched fingers and toes, and use their tentacular tongues as their main means of manipulation. The examiner is sceptical, but a romance with a young woman of the planet makes him re-examine his ideas of what it means to be human.

I love the idea that the Guinness Book of World Records polices the boundaries of the human. I wonder if there was some sort of ideological war between them and Ripley’s?

Catch more birds over at TheIdeaBird

Children: The Ancient Dream of Artificial Life

Why are humans so obsessed with recreating themselves? . . . Children have always been excluded from the customary standards of human behavior, if you define humans as beings who possess a conventional identity and act out of free will. Then what are children who endure in the chaos preceding maturity? They differ profoundly from ‘humans,’ but they obviously have human form. The dolls that little girls mother are not surrogates for real babies. Little girls aren’t so much imitating child rearing as they are experiencing something deeply akin to child rearing. . . . Raising children is the simplest way to achieve the ancient dream of artificial life. At least, that’s my hypothesis.

Forensic Analyst Haraway
Mamoru Oshii, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Production I.G., 2004.

SLSA 2012


The 26th Annual Meeting of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA)

Milwaukee, Wisconsin (USA)
27 September – 30 September 2012

I will be in attendance with the following paper (which I am thinking of putting together, in part, on this site):

The Child-Machine and the Mechanical Boy: Alan Turing, Bruno Bettelheim, and Taking Care of Nonhuman Generations

While the famous imitation game Alan Turing describes in “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” has served as the speculative benchmark for determining the achievement of human-level artificial intelligence, less familiar is his proposal to build such an intelligence by way of a “child-machine,” which would undergo an education approximate to that of a human child. Turing’s descriptions of this machine and its tuition resonate in intriguing ways with Bruno Bettelheim’s case-study of Joey the “mechanical boy,” which Bettelheim first outlines in the March 1959 issue of Scientific American. I place these contentious texts in dialogue with one another as a means to explore the ambiguous status of child subjectivity in modernity. Childhood is an experience at the limits of the human, during which the traditional markers and guarantors of being human in the modern Western tradition (reason, autonomy, self-possession, and so on) are absent or in flux. The figure of the child-as-machine casts into relief the various techniques and technologies by which the adult world informs—and deforms—a child’s growth to maturity, her passage from nonhuman to human. In so doing, I argue, this figure discloses the undecidability of what distinguishes properly human life from “animal” or “mechanical” life, prompts us to question the discursive and political techniques by which we do decide and do distinguish one form of living from another, and, finally, invites us to consider a renewed ethics of responsibility and care for future generations, whomever and whatever they may be.

Going Rogue . . .

. . . not quite like Sarah Palin though. A couple of weeks ago, new-media and digital-culture scholar Mirko Schaefer posted an interesting column called “Rogue Scholars in the Sim City University.” Here is the subhead for the article:

University managers create a virtual university for themselves, a sort Sim City academia. Columnist Mirko Schäfer calls it Sim Sity as in SIMplified univerSITY. He pleads for rogue scholars, who come up with solutions for problems without bothering at all the encrusted superstructure of administrators.

What follows is quite inspiring and makes me want to stick it to the man (especially since the man won’t let me play in his ivory sandbox, but that’s another story). He talks about departments setting up impromptu, ad-hoc symposia, lectures, and workshops, a group of grad students who took it upon themselves to put together a program website they thought “was not embarrassing for a new media program,” and a few other examples of faculty and students carrying on the work of scholarship while bypassing the morass of bureaucratic interference. It resonates with some initiatives happening in the humanities and social sciences, such as the stuff happening with Open Humanities Press and Liquid Books, projects which are, in part, taking cues from the hard sciences as proposals for new paradigms of publishing that respond more quickly to shifting trends in scholarship than traditional methods can hope to do.

Going rogue does sound attractive, but I wonder if the sorts of tactics that Schaefer proposes carry the legibility and legitimacy needed for junior scholars to bolster their credentials, especially considering the vulnerable position of the liberal arts today and how (perhaps paradoxically) slow they seem to be in breaking with entrenched ways of doing things.

Anatomy Banner

The Erotics of Anatomy

I have always been fascinated by the culture of anatomy: by the practice of dissection, by anatomical illustrations, anatomical models.  As a child I always coveted the Incredible Visible Man and Visible Woman toys, though I can’t remember where or how I found out about these things.

Visible Man and Visible Woman model kits. The Man and Woman had clear plastic “skin” that you would fill with the organs and skeleton. Sort of like Mr Potato Head turned inside-out.

In recent days, I have found circulating around the web a number of digitally manipulated photographs by Dutch artist, Koen Hauser.  The series is called Modische Atlas der Anatomie (Fashionable, Trendy, or Stylish Atlas of Anatomy), and deliberately confuses fashion models with anatomical models. Continue reading