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.

I love the contrast between the shiny, placid, space-age heroism of the former and the nuclear-era paranoia evoked by the latter. Despite the obvious parody of the image from Popular Science (“But would you still think of him as human?”), the article itself (which can be viewed in full at Hoggett’s post) is very much in line with the Kline-Clynes cyborg, advocating investigations into body modification that would result in something called the “Optiman” (Freedman and Lindner 189). It was, moreover, imperative for the authors that this happen as soon as possible, because “If we don’t, the Russians will” (189).

The discursive invention of the cyborg was, quite clearly, a product of Cold War politics and the particular biotechnological challenges of participation in the arms/space race. In an article published in the September 1960 issue of Astronautics, Clynes and Kline suggest addressing the problem of sending men into space through technological manipulations of the human body intended to establish homeostatic relations between it and the extreme “fields of operation” it is expected to encounter (Clynes and Kline 29). Interestingly, their recommendations revolve largely around the use of pharmaceuticals administered via internal osmotic pumps to regulate everything from fluid intake and output, to oxygenization, to cardiovascular control, rather than more elaborate machinic augmentations.

There is an overt spiritual dimension that the authors maintain throughout the article. They open with the suggestion that “Space travel challenges mankind not only technologically, but also spiritually, in that it invites man to take an active part in his own biological evolution” (29). For these scientists, humanity fulfills itself in a spiritual manner through its own possessive self-creation, through the overcoming of its terrestrial limitations. Cybernetic technology is eminently enabling for this process. Because the technological adaptations to external (and internal) conditions would occur “unconsciously”, the human is liberated from what would quickly become the overwhelming technical challenge of merely surviving. If our space-farer had to constantly fiddle with the things that kept him alive, the authors argue, he would be no more than “a slave to the machine”: “The purpose of the Cyborg… is to provide an organizational system in which such robot-like problems are taken care of automatically and unconsciously, leaving man free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel” (31). The cyborg, for Clynes and Kline, is a (self-)creative being in its plasticity and capacity for adaptation. It is, in addition, a thoroughly environmental being, in a relationship with the physical conditions within which it is inextricably embedded. On the one hand, there is a certain decentering of the subject here, as the body engages in a becoming relative to its environment without the conscious control of the individual. There is an acknowledgment of the forces, operating quite apart from the subject, that enfold the body in its natural and technical surrounding. On the other hand, the liberal humanist subject is shored up in that technology is a tool through which man can undertake his self-interested endeavours, unhampered by even the most extreme of conditions.  Through his technical capacity, a sovereign human subject may master even the impersonal forces of his living, the very material body that so limits his capabilities in the form given to him by the “natural” processes of heredity. Far from dehumanized, this model of the cyborg is what I like to call, more humanist than human.

Works Cited

Clynes, Manfred E. and Nathan S. Kline. “Cyborgs and Space.” Astronautics (Sept. 1960): 26+.

Freedman, Toby and Gerald S. Lindner. “Must Tomorrow’s Man Look Like This?” Popular Science (Nov. 1963): 77+.

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