This is a segment of a longer paper I worked on with Sarah Cohen Shabot back in 2004.
I presented it at the The International Conference of Feminism and Television, Video, New Media and Audio, “Console-ing Passions” in New Orleans, 2004.
It’s been a while. It’s symptomatic of its time. This rainy afternoon I found this specific passage amongst the ruins of a blog I kept between 2002 and 2007, and am re-blogging it here.
"I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries."
-Major Motoko Kusanagi, elite Cyborg officer, Section 9 Security Force, in Mamoru Oshii and Kasunori Ito’s Ghost in the Shell (1995)
The hyper-sexed cyborg
The first issue that I want to address in order to explain how the cyborg may present a dangerous figure to the postmodern-feminist thought is the hyper-sexuality that the cyborg can be an expression of. By hyper-sexuality I mean a reinforcement and an exacerbation of the classic, binary divisions of the sexual bodies and identities. Thus, in spite of the important intends of such an influential theorist as Haraway to present the cyborg as a possibility of liberating the dissolution of classic categories, the fact is that science-fiction literature and films, which function as the cyborg-terrain par excellence , present most of the times a cyborg that can be seen mainly as a recreation of an exaggerated masculinity or femininity.
William Gibson's cyberpunk trilogy – Neuromancer (Gibson, 1984), Count Zero (Gibson, 1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (Gibson, 1988) – together with films such as The Terminator (1984) and Robocop (1987), shows us indeed the way in which the cyborg – instead of reverting the usual categories and the normative sexualities – may be responsible of the opposite outcome, namely, an exacerbation of the normative sexual identities and sexed bodies. In other words, the cyborg appears as a hyper-sexed body, as if it was the glorification, the supreme expression of the normative body and sexual identity.
In a discussion about the hyper-masculinity that characterizes films such as those mentioned above, Claudia Springer (1999) analyses the way in which a bridging of the classical divide human/technological does not bring, by itself, a bridging of other classical categories such as male/female. Moreover, Springer argues that in fact, while the dissolution of the binary human/technological appears within the cyborg-literature mostly as a pleasant experience (often described as a sexual act), the dissolution of the normative categories of sex and gender constitutes, by the contrary, a threatening, frightful experience, that is to be negated and erased. The anxiety caused by the menace of this dissolution, then, is “solved”, in psychoanalytical terms, by a radicalization of the classic, binary features of normative sexuality.
The cyborg, then, – while being an important tool for bringing together in an ambiguous figure the human and the technological – often presents a total reluctance to create ambiguity concerning gender or sexuality. As cyberspace and cyborg literature are still created and controlled mainly by men, they are still dominated by the anxieties about masculinity (Fuchs 1995, Hollinger 1999, Wolmark, 1999).
The cyborg, then, is created as a hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine figure in order to “save” us – so it appears – from the threat of ambiguous gender identities. It may even be argued that the ambiguity of the cyborg regarding the human/technological divide is in a way responsible for the reluctance to create ambiguity in the gender and sexual realm: the reinforcement of the normative gender and sexual structures is the only way – from the point of view of the structures of power – to avoid a pervasive ambiguity that will turn everything into chaos and will completely destroy the foundations of domination. In other words: at times when a certain kind of ambiguity (in this case, one concerning the human/technology divide) is present, other binary structures (as the gender structure) are reinforced for fear of “losing everything” as a consequence of a pervasive, chaotic and total blurriness.
Thus, it seems that the fear of losing the human body may be defeated, but not so the fear of the patriarchal order to lose masculinity as the center of power. This is in fact what these “hyper-sexed” figures of cyborgs show us: it is easier to give up the human body, to give up the body as flesh and blood, than to abandon the idea of a masculine body as a “basic fact” and as the center of domination. Through the hyper-masculine cyborg, then, as Springer puts it, “…masculine subjectivity has been reconstituted, suggesting that there is an essential masculinity that transcends bodily presence” (Springer 1999: 48).
By now, the danger that the hyper-sexed cyborgs present to the postmodern-feminist project, may be seen as obvious: reinforced stereotypes of masculinity and femininity leave the essentialist myths of “manhood” and “womanhood” untouched, and with them, they also leave unquestioned the roles that “men” and “women” “are due” to play in society (mostly “technological domination” and “military control” versus “reproduction”, respectively).
Creating an ambiguity and uncertainty regarding the place of the human body in the postmodern world is clearly not enough: as long as the categories of sex and gender will remain fixed (or, even worse, will be radicalized), the status of the dominant and the dominated will not change, and women will still be confined to the same conservative roles even within the most avangarde science fiction literature and films.
Springer, C. (1999). “Pleasure of the interface”, Cybersexualities. A Reader on Feminist Theory; edited by Jenny Wolmark; Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Fuchs, C.J. (1995). ”Death is Irrelevant” The Cyborg Handbook; edited by Chris Hables Gray, Heidi Figueroa-Sarriera, and Steven Mentor; New York: Routledge.
Hollinger, V. (1999). “Cybernetic deconstructions: cyberpunk and postmodernism”, Cybersexualities. A Reader on Feminist Theory; edited by Jenny Wolmark; Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.