Defining Cyborg Anthropology

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Defining Disciplines

There are three (complimentarily) approaches to defining a discipline:

  • Definition through object of study
  • Definition through methodology of discipline/ negative definition through already established disciplines
  • Deifition through specific history of the discipline

Definition through object

The object of study for Cyborg Anthropology is the cyborg. Originally coined in a paper about space exploration, the term cyborg is short for cybernetic organism. A cyborg is traditionally defined as an entity with both organic and inorganic parts. The term is inextriably tied to Hayles notion of techno-genesis (the perpetual becoming/mutual-redefinition of humankind through increasingly sophisticated technology). In one sense, the use of any tool that functions as an extension of one's being qualifies one as a cyborg, but cyborgs are more narrowly understood to have actual, physical technological extensions/prostheses.

broadest sense of cyborg: all technological interface (our techno-sphere). This definition runs the risk of being so broad that the discipline cannot be defined.

narrowest sense of cyborg: physical prostheses, bionics, brain implants, pacemakers. This definition is too narrow to capture many of the systems that go beyond this very specific notion of cyborg.

Thus Cyborg Anthropology studies humankind and its relations with the technological systems it has built, specifically modern technological systems that have reflexively impacted notions of what it means to be humans.

Another way to think about the object of study of Cyborg Anthropology is through the discipline of Cybernetics. Cybernetics was originally the study of control, communication, and information, but it has mutated into a host of other disciplines that fall under the general label of informatics. informatics include: robotics, AI, information science, bionics, nanotechnology, genetics, artificial life, cognitive science, neuroscience, and all the spaces in-between. These disciplines' commonalities are 1. their historical link with Cybernetics 2. their consequential metaphor of man=>machine, machine=>organism, everything=>information. Cyborg Anthropology is particularly concerned with advances in the informatic disciplines and their implications for humanity.

See Hayles (1999) for an elaboration of informatic disciplines and their historical links to Cybernetics.

Definition through methodology/contrast

Another way to define Cyborg Anthropology is to through its methodology. Anthropology is the study of humanity, and historically grew out of colonial experiences with the savage "other" (more on the ramifications of this later). A host of disciplines and sub-disciplines have arisen to study technology: STS (Science, Technology, and Society), Philosophy of Science, History of Science, communications, sociology of technology, etc. This section will attempt to explain how Cyborg Anthropology is different from these already established disciplines.

The philosophy of science tends to focus on epistemological questions of the meaning of scientific fact. One is likely to read Hume's theories of causation, Kuhn, Latour, and other thinkers that question what scientific knowledge is qua knowledge.

The history of science, as the name implies, tends to focus on science/technology's impact on history. More of a sub-set of history, one will often find oneself reading about Galileo, the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and other notable moments when science and technology had massive impacts on society and culture.

STS is a little more tricky. STS is almost the self-reflexive humanities branch of cybernetics. They actively employ systems analysis (with the concepts of homeostasis, +/- feedback loops, information) to understand society. It is directly situated within the paradigm that cyborg anthropology studies, and seeks to use this paradigm to study society as a cybernetic system. In this sense it is closer to sociology than anthropology. This being said, STS is perhaps the closest analogue to cyborg anthropology.

Anthropology generally differs from sociology in three (very) broad ways:

1. anthropologists are more prone to studying other cultures, while sociologists generally study their own society 2. sociologists generally rely more on quantitative data/statistical data, while anthropologists generally use qualitative data/observation/literary theory to understand cultures. 3. sociologists more often have an explicit normative program built into their research (partially stemming from point 1), while anthropologists generally try to regulate their analysis to ethnographical description.

These are simplifications of fields that are increasingly converging and becoming harder to distinguish, but important nonetheless.

Digital Anthropology: seems more (self-reflexively) concerned with how digital advances is changing how we do ethnography than cyborg anthropology, but I need to do more research into this. Also, cyborg anthropology looks at disciplines like genetics, nanotech, (general informatics), which are not strictly "digital". Cybernetics/informatics covers the range of cyborg advances better than the label "digital".

Definition through specific history

Cyborg Anthropology originated as a sub-focus group within the American Anthropology Association's (AAA) annual meeting in 1993. It is very closely related with STS and the Society for the Social Studies of Science (SSSS) (Floyd reference). If there were a patron saint of Cyborg Anthropology, it would be Donna Haraway. Recently, Amber Case has been responsible for setting up the Cyborg Anthropology Wiki and explicating the concept of cyborg anthropology to the general public.

If donna haraway is jesus, amber case is paul? (lol)

[need to do more research into the specific players in forming the field, ask amber]

Derivative qualities of Cyborg Anthropology


Donna Haraway's 1985 "Cyborg Manifesto" could be considered the founding text of Cyborg Anthropology. Haraway celebrates the cyborg as the ultimate postmodern boundary-defying chimaera. She specifically uses the example of sex and gender to show how the cyborg can be utilized to break down our conceptions of gender/sex as physically determined and instead offers a wonderfully grotesque utopia whose technologies (virtual avatars, artificial insemination, sex changes, AI, etc.) break down the notion of gender to the point of irrelevance. Haraway's uses feminism as her central example, but also writes extensively on the many other dichotomies that will collapse in our postmodern cyborg condition. Insofar as feminism is concerned with identity, body-politics, collapsing gender/sex distinctions, feminist theory seems to find a natural compliment in Cyborg Anthropology. This has also been a historical trend in the discipline, with two of the best scholars in the field both situating their analysis within a feminist critique (Haraway, Hayles). However, cyborg anthropology is primarily concerned the cyborg, which collapses all distinctions it encounters (life/death, artificial/natural, virtual/real, space/place, human/animal/computer, etc.). This includes distinctions that are very relevant for feminism (and masculinity studies as well), but the discipline extends well beyond these particular approaches.

Diachronic analysis

Technology has always been implicated in the question of what it means to be human, but since WWII and the proliferation of informatic disciplines this question has gained whole new dimensions and horizons. Technology is radically changing the way we interact--faster than any other point in history. Traditionally, the central unit of analysis in anthropology is the ethnography, a synchronic snapshot of how a culture functions as a whole (often with some recourse to the notion of the "structure" of a culture, a metaphor that is steeped in connotations of unchanging stability). In this sense anthropology often leaves the diachronic analysis to historians, and instead tries to understand how the culture functions as a whole. Cyborg Anthropology seems different in this respect. Because technology and interface are changing so fast, cyborg anthropology is much more likely to note the changes over time in culture and use this diachronic analysis to understand the ramifications of our cybernetic condition. The rhizome (a cybernetic, feedback-looping, adaptive, descentralized network) is the metaphor that replaces static structure. Insofar as Cyborg Anthropology is studying what seems to be the most recent evolutionary jump in history, it seems to be inextricably tied to diachronic analysis and theories of interface r/evolution.

Continental Philosophy

Since Levi-Strauss' structuralist revolution, Anthropology has been the social science home of Continental Philosophy. Kicked out of most philosophy departments in the USA, Continental Philosophy draws from such figures as Kant, Nietzche, Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida (as opposed to the logical positivists that generally make up analytic philosophy). Continental Philosophy is of particular use to Cyborg Anthropology in several respects:

1. Continental Philosophy questions/engages the social conditions that led to science/logic and is hyper-aware of the dangers of solely relying on these paradigms for understanding the human condition. 2. Continental Philosophy recognizes that all thought/praxis is socially/historically/materially conditioned, a necessary pre-requisite for understanding our techno-human-cyborg condition. 3. Continental Philosophy is infatuated with the concepts of self/other. Since this is the main distinction put into question in our cyborg condition, it makes sense to use this wealth of scholarship to analyze this dynamic. They also scrutinize the role of the observer in analysis, a hallmark of both second-wave cybernetics and Cyborg Anthropology (since we are all cyborgs we need to question our own assumptions). 4. last but not least, almost all the central thinkers of Cyborg Anthropology are already somewhat situated in the literary theory/continental nexus.

This section should also help clarify the difference between Anthropology and Sociology, since Sociology relies much less on Continental Philosophy.

Networked Based Analysis

Questions of subjectivities, agencies, actors, and structures have been of perennial interest in Anthropology. In Cyborg Anthropology the question of what type of cybernetic system constitutes an actor/subject becomes all the more important. Is it the actual technology that acts on humanity (the internet), the general techno-culture (silicon valley), government sanctions (net-neutrality), specific innovative humans (Steve Jobs), or some type of combination of these elements? Actor Network Theory (ANT), as proposed by Bruno Latour, has proven to be one of the most valiant theories of understanding how these different elements work together to produce techno-cultural phenomenon. Latour situates actors/subjects as actor nodes that function within larger distributed networks of mutual interaction and feedback loops. Through this approach, Latour avoids the two extremes of a purely materialist system in which humans have no agency (exemplified in Mintz' "Sweetness and Power') and a radically anthropocentric approach that mitigates any agency of supra-human elements (humans are the only agents). Cyborg Anthropology needs to be able to analyze the fluid exchange between technological actors and human actors, especially since the technologies being studied actively dismantle our ontological pre-suppositions as to what constitutes a "human" or "technology".

Questions on the table

Industry vs. Academia

One of the central questions of Cyborg Anthropology is the relationship between scholarship and technological implementation. Anthropology was originally practiced in the context of colonial expansion. Early scholars (claiming objectivity) would analyze a foreign culture, only to find their analysis utilized by the colonial powers to further colonialism, religious conversion, oppression, etc. Anthropology was the intellectual arm of colonial machine, and still survives in this sense with anthropologists working side-by-side with the military in Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. This dynamic still haunts the discipline, and whole libraries have been written on the relation between the anthropologists, their object of study, and the range of interactions resulting from studying a culture. The same dynamic exists in Cyborg Anthropology. Haraway's idealism for our post-modern cyborg future is admirable, but does not address the fact that the most advanced cyborgs currently in existence are in the US military. Cyborgs themselves are morally neutral, but specific applications of cyborgs can cause great harm or good. Cyborg anthropologists are always in danger of writing an analysis that is implemented by forces that they disagree with. Again, this is a danger inherent to all of Anthropology, but given that technology is specifically concerned with implementing ideas in material form, this dynamic is all-the-more prevalent.

Establishing a Discipline vs. Trans-discipline scholarship

There are many disciplines that study technology and society, so the question of why we need another will inevitably arise. Cyborg anthropology lies at the intersection of anthropology, STS, informatic disciplines, sociology, philosophy, psychology, etc. There are already many scholars that would qualify as cyborg anthropologists that have never heard of the discipline, and almost all the scholarship could be categorized under a different discipline. But there is a need for a study of technology from an anthropological perspective, a study that uses the resources of continental philosophy, the collective scholarship of anthropology, and rigorous ethnographic description, to analyze (arguably) the most important cultural change in the history of humanity.