Nov 21 2010

Sharon Boyd

Cybershamans and Technopagans

Posted at 12:58 pm under Cyborg, Posthumanism, Reading

In the course handbook, Block 3 outlined the idea of the cyborg and how “human subjectivity is altered through our relationship to, or ‘fusion’ with, technology”. This post is a bit of a wander through thoughts, please feel free to feed in and help me clarify my musings :)

What struck me from the readings over the past two weeks is that we have not yet resolved the “human-animal” relationship, nevermind the “human-plant” relationship or the “man-machine” conundrum. Even adding technology into the mix, we are effectively just “[recycling] the old ideas of human spirit and body upon which early academic humanism was founded” (Muri, 2003).

It seems we return through time to reflections on what it means “to be human” with reference to everything else in our lives. What interests me is the focus on “being human” – we understand that with reference to other species, other “ways of being” in comparison to ourselves, and the same may hold true for machines. It is interesting that Donna Haraway moved on to study companion animals, as in my classes on companion animal behaviour, it is the comparison of a specific behaviour pattern with the student’s own personal experiences that leads to better understanding, while at the same time avoiding the trap of assuming exact behaviour “matches” between species. Haraway shows the same process of reflection in her writing, and each of the other texts we read adds or expands on a point she raised (a remarkable piece, even if it took me two weeks to try and grasp it!).

Coyle’s (2006) article was superb – it focused on this divide, this “giant chasm” – the “imagined human-animal divide”. It made me smile to see Sian’s image choice for these weeks – the devil – the human-animal hybrid “antithesis to human morality”. How often also do we see human/animal hybrids as gods or guides in various world religions or spiritual beliefs. Shamanistic practice (as with the Buddhist in Coyle’s article) sees the “interconnectedness” of all life – I see us as “becoming” (or perhaps just me – others may already be there!) – Thacker (2002) quoted in Coyle “a transgressional state of between-ness”. If I haven’t crossed the chasm yet, I’m pottering across the bridge.

The concept of the cyborg seems to be, like the hydra, a creature of many heads:

  • merging of man/machine (coupled with the ethical and species purity/spiritual(?) concerns of the animal/plant/human hybrid (e.g. Haraway, Coyle)
  • human “robot” – the automating of bodily processes (Muri 2003) – and would this include computer/machine prostheses grafted onto human/animal body?
  • disembodiment (“transcendance”) through computer networking (Muri 2003)
  • the human mind extracted and inserted into a machine form (and what of the soul?)
  • the creation of new life in machine form

(For the last two, Sterling’s Schismatrix as mentioned in Muri – Mechanists and Shapers). Or a weaving of all these – as Derrida (in Badminton 2003), echoed in RL in Gajjala and Mamidipuni (2002). Each aspect brings with it a range of fears and challenges to us as we reflect on what we would be prepared to accept (considering the thoughts of the New Zealander’s in Coyle’s article on biotechnologies).

Being posthuman carries responsibilities. In Coyle and Haraway – the importance of humans as “guardians” of the animal/plant world, in Nakamura (2008) the impact on Asian workers – the supporters/ground workers behind the “empowering possibilities of the Internet”. As Muir states (p80), the “disregard for the desires of the lower-order working bodies by the privileged, literate intellectual” (refl on the work of McLuhan).

I’ve been dipping in and out of Davis (2004) Techgnosis throughout this course, and he speaks of the connection between the concept of the cyborg and the drive for interstellar travel – man “escaping” the planet. This is seen in Muri with the idea of an over-populated world where we can “escape” the crowding and pollution by being “digitised” – transcendance to pure thought (cyborg ether form – “I want to walk in the snow and leave no footprints” Gies, 2008). But what of those who are “left behind”? What do the “transcendant spirits” leave for them?

It’s the “apocalyptic” viewpoint, looking at ways of escaping the mess (of the planet, of ourselves; cyberbody adaptations as fashion – giving both Hayles and I the heebie-geebies) versus the optimistic utopian view that we will find a way to co-exist – plant/animal/human/machine weaved, merged, supported and whole (holistic?).

Wherefrom the post title? Reading Davis, I found that, should I wish to be pigeon-holed, I might be considered a technopagan – recognition of the “magic of technology” – and the scientific, performaning, creative, literate, artistic, communicating, healing merge of the cybershaman (with apologies to Nakamura for using a dated term). The readings this week led me out into the “web” of sites for shamans and pagans – to groups on SL and thoughts about World of Warcraft – people communicating, finding “spirit”, divine in creativity – posthuman culture that incorporates as much of the past (immediate and distant) and creating to fill the gaps in forgotten knowing. A trippy experience.

The old ideas don’t fade away – they adapt, develop, absorb new times and technologies – posthuman evolution doesn’t stop here.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Cybershamans and Technopagans”

  1.   James Lambon 22 Nov 2010 at 8:39 pm 1

    Hello Sue,

    I really like your line:

    ‘Being posthuman carries responsibilities’

    I think this would fit seamlessly into Lisa Nakamura’s piece. As Nakamura suggests, the Internet doesn’t represent some form of victim-free utopia-without-losers. Equally, the ability to ‘hide one’s race’ should never be confused with ‘dealing with racism’.

    Nakamura’s juxtaposition of the liberating, multi cultural, democratizing claims in the ads of Internet providers, with the reality that our poorer cousins in less developed countries spend their days taking apart our throwaway PCs, was excellent. It almost said to me, ’sorry to burst your Western utopian bubble here, but the digital tools that make you feel good about yourself wreck lives in the countries that you like to think are emancipated by the power of the Net.’

    As you so aptly put it, being posthuman comes with responsibilities – something I’m more aware of following Nakamura’s article.

  2.   Sharon Boydon 24 Nov 2010 at 2:14 pm 2

    Thanks James :) it is something that has been spilling around in my mind since reading Haraway, and I was excited to see that Nakamura expanded on that. I’m seeing more on that concept of responsibility in Edwards article – where he says that “central to this post-human condition… could be… fallibility… and responsibility” – that responsibility as learners, and as teachers/guides in the educational process – or should that be the living and learning experiment? :)

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