Cyborgs In Scientific Literature

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This article explores the idea and presents some of the different variations of the term “Cyborg” as well as the context in which they were introduced. Moreover it deals with the philosophical concepts of cartesianism and empiricism and their relation to the definitions of the term. The essay concludes with the paradigm of a character taken from the science fiction literature and how the term “Cyborg” applies to him. Cyborg, a novel by American Science-Fiction author Martin Caidin was published in 1972. In 1974 the novel was adapted for a television serial and gained a certain renown. Indeed, one might easily remember the adventures of Steve Austin, the Six million dollar man. However, such a superhero figure seems today completely out of date. Our task is not to enumerate Science-Fiction studies on cyborgs. We will rather aim at choosing a few relevant works, which will allow us to develop original questions about this new figure of humanity. We will also leave to others the duty to proceed to a genealogy of the cyborg in fiction. This could easily date back to 1940 (to the superhero figures that are, in the United States, Captain America, who is transformed by a serum in order to fight against the Nazis, and one of the associates of Captain Future, scientist Simon Wright, a human brain integrated into a robot).


In the modern literature a new trend has been emerged in form of Science Fiction which has often been considered a minor genre of literature. However, an increasing number of works show that Science Fiction is not just a mirror, more or less entertaining, of social representations in a given period of time. Its relationship to reality is complex. Sometimes, its intuitive approach, taken over by the specific structure of a fictional narrative, gives a surprisingly perceptive survey of certain social tendencies, should it be in literature or cinema. As examples, we can cite Featherstone and Burrows (1995) dealing mostly with the cyberpunk current, and Bukatman (1993), who offers fascinating insights into the discrepancies between reality and virtuality. We could also consider Breton’s works (1995) which greatly contributed to the history of artificial creatures (from the Golem to Isaac Asimov’s robots, and Dr. Frankenstein’s monster). However, it is not our purpose to give an exhaustive bibliography which would soon become daunting. In my point of view, it is judicious to consider Science-Fiction like a “detour”, as French anthropologist Georges Balandier (1985) expresses it. Indeed, in order to make the most of the whole potential given by Science- Fiction, we are forced to go beyond its simple status of an object of knowledge that one must dissect and analyze. However, it is out of the question to put Science-Fiction and scientific discourses on the same level. For the researcher wanting to understand social changes, particularly those linked to the development of science and technology, an incursion into Science-Fiction proves a very fruitful source of original ideas and new relationships. Science-Fiction often manages to link things that one could not have immediately imagined being together. In a previous article, I explored cyberpunk novels such as William Gibson’s in order to show that the multiple transformations of the human body (electronic implants, genetics, etc.) and its disembodiment in cyberspace could be compared with the high demand of flexibility in the contemporary business world. A similar approach allows Arnold (1998) to show that the film series Terminator, which notably present the evolution of humanoid robots, can be paralleled with the transformations of the industrial model of Fordist production.


There are some of the new trends and approaches have been introduced and actually they are of poor literary quality, Martin Caidin’s novel is of interest because it probably influenced a great deal of the representations that one has of the cyborg nowadays, i.e. a human being whose limbs and other body parts (eyes, for instance) are replaced by electronic prostheses. Such artefacts would increase the physical abilities of the modified subject. However, considering the scientific article that coined the term “cyborg” (cybernetic organism, Kline & Clynes, 1960), we can notice that the emphasis is mainly put on aspects we can call pharmacological. Indeed, it was mainly a matter of modifying body chemistry by using various sorts of products, medicines, stimulants, etc. The first goal was to allow the human body to adapt and explore this new kind of environment: the extra-terrestrial space. It is of course much more spectacular to narrate the adventure of a man who can record images with his eye-camera or who can run a hundred meters in three seconds. Such a choice is made in Cyborg, in 1972. The novel has a utopian dimension. The project leading to the repairing of Steve Austin (a fighter pilot victim of a terrible accident) and to his transformation into a Cyborg is a total success. Sent on a mission by the American Army, he reaches all his goals and the novel finishes with a happy-end, him falling in love with a charming secret agent. Everything is going beautifully. The novel eventually tells the success-story of a new weapon belonging to the United States once more fighting against the communist enemy. This new weapon, although human, allows
science to succeed in a flawless project. Things become much more interesting thirty years later with Andreas Eschbach’s novel. Explicitly inspired by the figure of Steve Austin, the German novelist tells about Duane Fitzgerald’s daily difficulties as a retired cyborg of the American army, who is discreetly established in a village situated on the Irish coast in northern Europe. In fact, a negative perspective is given: if Fitzgerald is the “last representative of his species”, it means that the cyborg’s creation project completely failed. Although capable of exceptional achievements, the different cyborgs have been forced to retire or died precociously because the requisite technology has never been sufficiently mastered. Computer bugs and system breakdowns that paralysed or killed these soldiers, guinea pigs of the American army, are innumerable. It is not our purpose to list the various episodes leading the secret services to try to get rid of this last living cyborg, bothering because he proved the failure of a project that must be kept secret. On the contrary, it is much more interesting to describe Duane Fitzgerald’s daily life. Indeed, Andreas Eschbach’s cyborg is no superhuman but rather a simple man with all the ensuing physiological and psychological constraints. One must try to imagine his face, distorted by the weight of his bionic eye, much heavier than his “normal” remaining eye. He eats tasteless porridge because his intestines have been cut and shortened in order to implant an “onboard” computer. He is frozen in full action by a system breakdown as the software of a computer with a bug would be. One must imagine this invalid and pre-retired cyborg being lonely, reading Seneca[1] when suffering from bouts of melancholia. One must also notice the impossibility of any sexual life, because Fitzgerald’s physical strength would be too dangerous if he lost emotional control. Besides, the beginning of the novel sets things up at once; Duane Fitzgerald is confined to bed due to a momentary paralysis. In brief, the cyborg isn’t working as expected.

Cyborgs were introduced into feminist discourse in Donna Haraway’s “Manifesto for Cyborgs”, published in the Socialist Review1985. In this “Manifesto”, Haraway brought together the contextual arguments of the postmodern philosophers with awidespread, deepening disillusionment with the mainstream political feminism of the1960s and 70s. Haraway argued for the cyborg’s usefulness as “a fiction mapping our social and bodily reality and as an imaginative resource suggesting some very fruitful couplings.” The social reality to which Haraway was referring was the one in which gender politics were tied into the divided into an array of dualisms of “mind and body, animal and machine, idealism and materialism in the social practices”, a feminist reflection of the power dynamic described by Foucault. Haraway was asserting the transgressive potential of the cyborg both in and out of fictional narratives, in its capacity for challenging clear delineations between traditional polarities like male/female, mind/body,and science/nature.

While analyzing Gibson’s novel and comparing it to all kinds of scientific and technological projects or with vulgarized or techno-prophetical literature, what is striking is not so much the absolute originality of techno-scientific developments that one can find in Science-Fiction literature. What really changes is the setting or rather, the context, and the social environment. For too many scholars, engineers or popularisers, the social world is disconcertingly simple: everything goes, as if technologies were invented in a social vacuum, as if the surrounding world did not exist or at least, was motionless, without constraints and resistance. A utopian world, rigid and stiff, outside time and space. In contrast however, Science-Fiction re-establishes technologies in fiction, narratives, movement, society. In such a society, there are power struggles, needs for domination, there are human beings, desires, conflicts. Despite the apparent freedom or liberation provided by cyberspace, the characters in Neuromancer are no less typically submitted to constant coercion. Torn between the interests of multinationals, states, criminal organisations or autonomous artificial intelligences (usually very powerful), these characters do not really have free reign in having their bodies transformed. The labour market somehow dictates their choices. There is a sort of generalized competition leading to the wildest corporeal transformations. For instance, let us consider the ensuing consequences for a computer scientist: does he or she really need a body for programming? A contract killer, a prostitute, a packer in space? Wouldn’t it be useful to have several supplementary arms?

Couldn’t an actor or actress be forced to have a camera implanted in the eye? One can imagine all sorts of examples. Rather than paying the services of a translator-interpreter, wouldn’t it be faster and more advantageous to get an electronic implant in the brain? What is certain is that the reach of bodily transformations goes far beyond surgical or medical aspects. There are more important consequences and more data to consider: who can or must modify himself/herself, how and according to what criteria? It is not a simple task. In Gibson’s novels, the body thwarts the soul’s wandering and its disappearance into cyberspace. A key-passage shows Case, the hero, or rather “antihero”, during a coupling session to cyberspace: he is trapped by an artificial intelligence which has created a virtual space in order to keep him for neutralization. Things are very well organised: the hero finds himself on the beach of a fictitious ocean, where calm and serenity prevail. Linda, Case’s deceased lover appears, numerically reconstituted. Case is not far from giving way to this illusion and forgets to come back to reality, thus abandoning his body and leaving it to die. In a world of absolute mobility and total flexibility, where We did not take the questions of definition into consideration. The basic difference between cyborgs and robots or androids resides in the fusion of a human being with a machine. Despite this minimal criterion, there are thousands of ways to be a cyborg: the implant of a “simple” pacemaker, the complete transformation of the body, the eye-camera, but also artificial limbs and organs, doped athletes, a soul downloaded into a network, etc. everything should constantly move and change, there are elements of stability, foundations that have to be stabilized. Although transformed in thousands of ways, the body in Neuromancer remains a fundamental anchor for one’s identity.


It lacked history, culture, even definition, and could therefore serve as a blank slate for cultural critique and a perfect expression of the desire to escape Lyotard’s postmodern condition. According to Judith Halberstam, a feminist historian and theorist, Haraway’s cyborg was “a condensed image of both imaginative and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transformation.” This image was particularly useful for feminists who sought to avoid the ideological dangers of recourse to an “authentic” female identity, which is one of the main postmodern feminist criticisms of second-wave feminism, which will be discussed shortly. However, it seemed sensible to refer to relevant themes and precise examples in order to propose some perspectives for in-depth reflection. The next example is precisely aimed at attracting, once again, the reader’s attention by proposing a final original perspective on cyborgs. This novel does not refer to any philosophical tradition but most of the narrative takes place in law courts. One can easily imagine problems such as succession, civil rights, property which can emerge from that situation. The soul of the character being trapped into a vacuum cleaner, one can ask whether the latter has become the owner of the family house? Is his insurance coverage still valid? Can he keep his passport? Is he still the father of his children? Such pragmatic aspects make us smile. But what would happen if that bizarre vacuum image is replaced by the body of a humanoid robot? The day human beings more closely resemble cyborgs, like Steve Austin and Duane Fitzgerald, will cause these questions to emerge.


1.Arnold, R. F. (1998). Termination or transformation? The Terminator films and recent changes in the U. S. Auto Industy. Film quarterly, 52 (1), 20-30
2.Balandier, G. (1985). Le détour. Pouvoir et modernité. Paris: Fayard.
3.Marleen Barr, ed. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2000.

4.Mack-Canty, Colleen. “Third-Wave Feminism and the Need to Reweave the Nature/Culture Duality.” NWSA Journal 16, no. 3 (October 1, 2004): 154-179.
5.Caidin, M. (1972). Cyborg. New York: Arbor House Dery, M (1996). Escape velocity : cyberculture at the end of the century. New York : Grove Press

6.Alaimo, Stacy. “Cyborg and Ecofeminist Interventions: Challenges for an Environmental Feminism.”Feminist Studies 20, no. 1 (1994): 133-152.


Originally appeared in the Indian Streams Research Journal • Volume 2 Issue 9 • Oct 2012

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  1. June 6, 2014

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