The body’s mistake: technology and an inclusive model of the posthumanAbstractThe novel Antibodies, by David J. Skal, explores a dilemma between the body as adispensable space and the technology as the utopian answer for the body‟sinsufficiency. Considering that the disembodiment is just one more version of the issueconcerning the continuity man-machine, this paper argues that a body‟s place which isonly connected with technology is a mistake. Instead, this paper sustains the need for anethical and inclusive model of the posthuman that shall encompass the idea of the bodyas a utopian space, in the sense that the body is a transitorily utopian space. This modeloverlaps the pluri-scalar use of technology and has some points in common with thetranshumanist view of human nature as a work-in-progress, which means that thecurrent humanity is not the endpoint of evolution. This paper concludes with atheorization of the “wrong place” or “mistake”, a speculative and heuristic concept ofimagining a new model of belonging-in-transience where the body fits.Keywords: man-machine interaction, technology, science fiction, society, body, utopia
1. Technology and disembodimentThe impact of informationalism in the social and cultural domain is defined by Castellsas the emergence of a „culture of real virtuality‟ (Castells, 1996,2000). We perceive theworld as a succession of electronic signs that not only represent reality but increasinglybecome reality. This is explained, amidst other reasons, since we are living in an audio-visual multimedia environment. In this way, what is created is “a multifaceted semanticcontext made of a random mixture of various meanings” (Castells, 1996:371). It is, in asense, a homogenized culture. Receivers still interpret this cultural context butindividually, not starting from common cultural codes, or do so to a lesser degree. Thisgenerates fragmentation but at the same time leaves room for collective actors tocommunicate and participate in the system, as no single actor, most even largecompanies or governments, can completely control this system. Unfortunately, thisemancipator power of the new system is only realized in principle because computer-mediated communication is unevenly distributed and the prosperous, the wealthy, andthe skilled are far more likely to participate in it than others.This brings us to another aspect of the network society, that is, power relations.Networks lack a single centre and have no clear-cut hierarchy. Networks are clusters ofrelations that can change in number and intensity, unbound by a fixed space or time inthe interaction with changes in their environment. Networks are, therefore, at odds withterritorial and hierarchical organizations such as nation states, churches and schools(Castells, 2000:19). As far as the nation state is concerned, it loses some of its powers ina network society because of the aggregation of interests and policies at a supranationallevel and the tendencies towards decentralization (Castells, 1997). As a result, nationalidentities are waning and new identities are being built on the basis of other cultural,ethnic, social or geographical elements. This can lead both to a rejection of the globally
networked society and a turn towards local, narrow cultures or to new forms ofdemocracy embracing local democracy, electronically stimulated participation andcommunication and political mobilization (Castells, 1997). Furthermore, some thinkersas, for instance, Arthur Kroker, perceive technology as a basis for national identitywhile others, like Marshall MaLuhan or George Grant emphasize the technology‟sinfluence on people. However, one of the most accessible sources of information aboutdifferent discussions on technology is literature, particularly, science fiction literaturecharacterized by a fascination for computer technologies and their fusion and interactionwith human beings, corporate economies and the darker elements of ultra modern urbanculture. The reasons for this are clear; it is argued that „cyborg imagery can suggest away out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools toourselves‟. Haraway has asserted that the dissolution of three crucial boundaries ordualisms is what makes cyborgdiscourse possible: a) the distinction between humans and other living beings; b) Thedistinction between animals-humans and machines, c) the boundary between thephysical and the non-physical.Fátima de Oliveira thinks that the main question about cyborgs (which is the future ofall of us) is to choose what kind of cyborg we will be. In Antibodies the problem is thatthe disembodiment is just one more version of the issue concerning the continuity man-machine, with all of its worries, namely in what regards the fear that such mixture maylead to new forms of domination, loss of intensity and human singularity.The ideal type of the network society will take on a different form in specific societiesbecause each society has its own history, its own culture and its own institutions. On
this matter, what Antibodies (1987), one of the science fiction novels written by DavidJ. Skal, questions is precisely this notion of diversity or cultural diversity in favor of theabove mentioned homogenized culture, but also as somehow feminist culture in linewith the Feminist work on computing technology that has for the most part concentratedon concepts of cyborgs and notions of (dis)embodiment in cyberspace. However, asargued by Martina Gillen, these conceptions have outstripped the realities of thetechnology and that an alternative and technically realistic model is that of thedisembodiment (Gillen, 2002). The disembodiment has all the positive theoreticaladvantages of the cyborg, as well as the added benefits of being in existence now asopposed to the product of science fiction, and disembodied beings may be capable ofuse as a tool for education and activism.2.Technology as a driving forceThe network society could not have developed without Information and Communicationtechnologies (ICT), which has become an important part of social life since the 1960s.The existence of ICT and the level of use of its instruments strongly influences thedevelopment of the network society. Inversely, too, the network society contributes tothe development and dissemination of ICT. In other words, there is a dialecticalrelationship between the network society and ICT.In the novel Antibodies, Skal tells us a story about a young woman – Diandra -searching for immortality at the expense of bodily existence and an agingpsychologist/writer - Julian Nagy - who specializes in the shock deprogramming of cult-addicts come together for a bizarre confrontation of wills that erupts in a violent andgraphic finale. Disturbing in its implications as well as in its explicit descriptions, thisnear-future story – Antibodies - is, nevertheless, compellingly written. A body is a
system and all systems develop some features to maintain competitive efficiency.Among these features, as stated by Alexander Chislenko (1997), is liquidity, which is amean to allow transformations and growth. By liquidity, the author means two things:one is independence of structure from the physical substrate, facilitating morereplication and other functions. Structures originally imbedded in the substratedeveloped more independence; the other concerns growth, that is, the possession ofinternal structural liquidity. “Functional structures should be able to modifythemselves and combine with each other, to optimize behavior, to adapt to changingconditions, and to occupy new domains. This liquidity requires generalized layeredarchitectures, modular adaptable designs, common communication interfaces, etc”(Chislenko, 1997).Recently, Spanish researchers have carried out a study looking into the potential futureimpact of robots on society. Their conclusions show that the enormous automationcapacity of robots and their ability to interact with humans will cause a technologicalimbalance over the next 12 years between those who have them and those who do not.All agreed on 2020 as a technological inflection point, because by then robots “will beable to see, act, speak, manage natural language and have intelligence, and ourrelationship with them will have become more constant and commonplace”, said LópezPeláez. This will follow a revolution in robotics after which they will no longer besophisticated machines, but tools to be used on a daily basis, helping us with a largenumber of work and social activities. 3. What will robots do for us?
Automation currently exists in areas such as water management or unmanned aircraftthat fly and shoot missiles, but whole new areas of robot use will open up in future. Onesuch use will be in a medical context, as exoskeletons to help disabled people move,helping to make them less dependent on others.Even more significant will be the insertion of robots into our bodies, such as intelligentimplants in the brain, which will improve our rational thought, and nanorobots to bereleased into the blood to clean our arteries.Another important role will be the replacement of people working in the areas ofsecurity, surveillance or defence. According to Professor López Peláez, it is predictedthat 40% of armies will be automated with robot soldiers by 2020 “just as a car factoryis today, which will result in less human deaths during violent conflicts”.Robots will be intelligent machines to be incorporated into both domestic and industriallife: they will help us to clean our houses, will milk cows on farms, and will beprogrammed to work 24 hours per day in factories without resting, with a yieldequivalent to three day shifts. In addition, replacing human labour with robots willprevent workers from being exposed to dangerous, stressful or unhealthy environments,thus reducing labour-related risks.The most striking feature of this technological revolution are social robots, machineswith artificial intelligence, and with which we will have emotional and even intimateinteractions. “A robot might be a more effective partner and a better person than thehumans we actually have in our immediate lives: just as you can see dog owners talkingto their pets today, soon we will be talking to robots,” says López Peláez – to such anextent that sexual robots are currently being designed to carry out pleasurable personalinteractions. These will be equipped with the required sensorial abilities, such as touch.
“Since they will be used as objects, sexual robots may be able to act as a futuresubstitute for prostitution or pornography.” 4. The impact of a robotized societyThe study also looks at the possible repercussions of incorporating robots into society.On one hand, just as with uneven access to technologies such as the Internet, they willopen up a new gulf, this time a robotic one. This will result in a cultural distinctionbeing drawn between companies and people who can afford to buy robots to help withtheir activities – and those who cannot. The robotic gulf will also favour moreindustrialised societies, potentially widening the gap between the first and third worlds,or providing greater possibilities for success in logistics and war. On the other hand,López Peláez says argues that “just as many Japanese people today believe that theirrobots are alive, we will attribute human characteristics to robots, and we may evendefine robots‟ rights”.Another major concern is that if robots are to carry out so many labour tasks and replacehuman labour, unemployment may rise just as it did in the 19th century with theinvention of textile machines. The robotics experts interviewed for this study claimedthat factories with high robot use will retrain workers to work in other, though possiblymore poorly paid, areas. However, they also point out that the situation will balance outwith the development of new services involved in the design and maintenance of therobots. 5. A very instinctive «self»At a certain point, Veronica Tramhell, the rich, maimed sculptress who presides over anunderground network of performance art and human vivisection, asks Diandra if she has
had any training in cybernetics. “No, I have only studied art and I have been reading lotsof science fiction”, Diandra replies, which leads Veronica to think that Diandra owns avery “instinctive” intimate nature. In fact, human rules of social interaction are based onthe concept of the permanence of human identity. Without it, some social rules maybecome outmoded. For example, if a person breaks some laws, and then replicates intolots of clones, and modifies himself beyond recognition, who should be punished for thecrime? If currently you may not be allowed into a court with cameras, weapons, ordrugs, then what will they do if you could turn any part of your body into any of thesethings at any time? Would they restrict the quality of your visual memory and monitorthe chemical composition of your blood stream? (like it happens in the movie I, robot).One may, thus, say that the personal identity becomes an increasingly fluid andreconfigurable thing. At some stage, you may be able to change yourself rapidly anddramatically and whenever you want you may experience a kind of “death forward”,meaning a modification beyond recognition, in which you will lose your identity. Thisis one of the beliefs and aims of Diandra, as she considers herself as a most progress-oriented person who is not interested in a very wide identity life span and she‟sdefinitely not interested in prolonging the life of her physical substrate. She thinks ofherself as a truly morphologically free person and, therefore, she may change all herparts and configuration and preserve only the general goals that all converge in thedesire of becoming a machine. That‟s why she is true in every way to the Antibodiescult– starving and draining the blood from her body to entirely prepare herself formechanical integration. However, circumstances prevent her from completing hertransition smoothly. She is captured by the notorious hedonistic psychiatrist Julian Nagywho runs a therapy clinic to heal, and eventually exploit, those of the cult. At the sametime, her only guides through this process are vague and ominous directions from the
Antibodies authority while contending with the resentment of the public. As we can see,this novel takes many elements of our current society and exaggerates and stretchesthem into a possible future universe in which people worship and want to become thetechnology they have created. The depravity of humanity is evident as its constituentsare each proponents of some broken part of our very system. Coilhouse writes: “That‟s what Antibodies is, at its heart: a horror novel. There are no heroes here, only the deluded and the ruthlessly predatory. But for all its Gran Guignol touches, Antibodies hits home. In a rush to the future, it‟s easy to forget or ignore the wreckage that draws in the alienated and insane into any dream that offers them easy transcendence from their previous lives”.For Coilhouse, Antibodies is just a “detailed examination of how nasty it gets whenhumans try to permanently scrap flesh for metal, and how easily believing plebs are stillled to the slaughter by their puppet-masters”. However, what Coilhouse doesn‟t refer tois the reality and desire patent in many science fiction stories: the pursue for intelligententities that will be extremely fluid and highly independent from the physical substrateof this world. This means that in a real post- human future the identities may completelydissolve.Regarding the Sherryl Vints study - Bodies of Tomorrow – in which the authorexamines a large body of science-fiction writings from the last two decades, bringing tobear an array of current scientific, cultural, and ethical debates on her analysis.Championing an ethics of embodiment and an epistemology of the dynamicinterconnectedness between mind and body, Vint argues that representations of culturalpractices encountered in selected science-fiction writing can help audiences betterevaluate the ethical challenges differently composed future bodies and communities
might pose (that is, indeed, one of the roles played both by science fiction and utopia). Iagree with Vint on one of her major arguments: “we are currently in a moment ofdefining a new human subject, a posthuman subject, whose features and implicationswill be intrinsically bound up with the assumptions about identity and embodiment thatinform it” (Vint, 2007: 171). This is, as we have already seen, the main issue of thenovel Antibodies, but the problem it raises is that a body‟s place that is only connectedwith technology is a mistake, as argued in this paper. That is, machines, even the mostintelligent ones, will continue to be our tools but what really matters is an intelligenceamplification (considering intelligence as a dynamic attribute), which will not becreated, as sustained by some authors, by a complete human-computer interface. It istrue that “the bio and techno media are mutually transforming and transformed” and thatthe “relationship between the biological body and technological body will be presentedfrom the perspective of proposing a revision of the ways of understanding the twobodies, now no longer separate and distinct” (Santana, forthcoming).Instead, the argument of this paper is more in line with Vint‟s idea when she says: “As Foucault makes clear in The order of Things, the idea of man as the cogito has a specific historical beginning, and perhaps we are now reaching the moment where that vision/version of humanity has a specific historical end. Struggles over posthuman identity are thus more than strategies over technology and the ethics of various technological ways of modifying what it means to be human (…) I believe that it is important to maintain this category and struggle for an ethical and inclusive model of the posthuman because, like the category of human before it, the posthuman has achieved a status such that we cannot ignore the concept, cognizant though we might be of its dangers” (Vint, 2007: 172).
The need for an ethical and inclusive model of the posthuman encompasses the idea ofthe body as a utopian space, as argued by Pere Gallardo-Torrano (2007), but not in thesense of a quest for the body perfection. The sense of the body as a utopian space thatoverlaps the pluri-scalar use of technology has some points in common with thetranshumanist view of human nature as a work-in-progress, which means that thecurrent humanity is not the endpoint of evolution, but just a tiny step towards it. “Transhumanists hope that by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become posthuman, beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have. Transhumanists (transitional humanists) see themselves as a logical evolution from humanists and as the logical stage prior to posthumans. They defend technoscience as the obvious vehicle to reach the posthuman condition, though they are not necessarily optimistic about the results of the indiscriminate” (Gallardo-Torrano, 2007).An ethical and inclusive model of the posthuman must, instead, perceive technology notas a vehicle to reach the posthuman condition, but as a tool that should move hand inhand with the moral, intellectual and learning progress of beings. Just as the body. In acertain way it is true what Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of the magazine Wired, sayswhen he states that we have created our humanity and that humanity has been createdby technology, since our humanity is defined by things we have invented. Like thealphabet. Our culture is one thing weve created. But, he adds, there has been anevolution of morality. Culture and cultural inventions are part of the technologies,according to him. Of course there are bad technologies, but the answer to that can only
be a good technology and the answer for a good technology can only be a bettertechnology. Technology, thus, broadens our set of possibilities and choices and that isits main contribution: providing possibilities, opportunities and diversity (in a similarway that utopia does when considered as a moving target and a ongoing creative driver).We just have to replace the technologies that limit our potential and capacities fortechnologies that broad and improve them. Each choice and each possibility only workswhen there are values to guide them; values that emanate from the main purposes oflife: learning and sharing with others. Only in this manner technology can contribute forthe human being self-knowledge and evolution. This is exactly what doesn‟t happenwith the antibodies of David J. Skal as it expresses a view according to which thetechnology (a machine) is a further step in evolution, posing, however, the question ofthe commercial orientation of that “ideal” behind technology. In reality, Diandra‟smistake (and the rest of the antibodies‟ community) is that she doesn‟t understand thatthey are only replacing one technology by another; because the human body is also atechnology. In fact, it seems that, in the novel Antibodies, Skal evidences a dissipationof the site in site specificity when this means a prioritizing of its discursivity, itsdisplacement by the community. Instead, that dissipation and site specificity is exposedin relation to the dynamics of deterritorialization as elaborated in architectural andurban spatial discourse. While the accelerated speed, access and exchange ofinformation, images, commodities and, especially, bodies is being celebrated in onecircle, the concomitant breakdown of traditional temporal-spatial experiences and theaccompanying homogenization of places, identities and erasure of cultural differences isbeing decried in another. The intensifying condition of spatial indifferentiation anddeparticularization (disembodiment) – that is, the increasing instances of locational and
emotional unspecificity – are seen to exacerbate the sense of alienation andfragmentation in contemporary life.Furthermore, there is one aspect that neither literature, nor science fiction novels havebeen approaching. That aspect consists of the possibility of the parallel existence ofmuch more developed technologies in worlds parallel to ours. I mean, at the presenttime, but in a place different from ours, may already exist a high level of technologydevelopment that we, now or in a near future, may not even dream of. Obviously, thisencompasses the idea of multiple inhabited worlds. In science fiction books and filmswe have only been dealing with future possibilities of technology. However, and ifthose possibilities already exist in parallel worlds populated by more developed beings,who may influence, by several mechanisms (such as intuition), the developments madeon planet Earth as we currently know it? Technology is also what we are, but itspurpose is not to take part of us or of the substrates that hold our existence. That is, oncethe body is a temporary object which purpose is to help us (or to provide us the meansto progress moral and intellectually as spiritual beings that we are), technology willalways be hand in hand with that progress, not with the body, not even to replace it. Inother words, the more developed are we as spiritual beings the more developed will bethe technology, which will always be a tool for intellectual and cognitive practice andnot for the real configuration of the being? 6. Concluding notesCountering both the nostalgic desire for a retrieval of rooted, place-bound identities onthe one hand, and the antinostalgic embrace of a nomadic fluidity of subjectivity,identity and spatiality on the other, this paper concludes with a theorization of the“wrong place” or “mistake”, a speculative and heuristic concept of imagining a new
model of belonging-in-transience. As evidenced throughout Antibodies, even though wemay consider it as a frightening, fascinating, and perversely erotic novel, this task ofimagining altogether new coordination of technology and its relation with the body siteis an open-ended predicament. Moreover, Skal‟s book shows the critical capacity ofintimacies based on absence, distance and ruptures of time, space and dystopias, whichis very common in dystopic science fiction novels.
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