Barbara Safran de Niverville Peter Rostovsky, Faculty Advisor 01 October 2012

 

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The Cyborg Metaphor: Humanity, Machine and Nature After thousands of years of interactions with the natural environment, we now depend on machines to an ever-greater extent, communicating constantly through electronic devices, controlling our surroundings with computer technology and industry, manipulating the world to our own ends. The implications of this technology for our future are unknown and unsettling. Have we created monsters or made improvements? Have we been successful in dominating our environs or are we entering an era of “nature’s” backlash1? What has the “cyborg”2 the potential to reveal to us? Television’s science fiction heroes, battling insidious forces, which threaten our universe, leave lasting impressions upon us and become integral parts of our popular culture. The “borg,” of the television series Star Trek: the Next Generation, portray humanoids subjugated and transformed into hybrid mechanical drones. The “Cybermen” and the “Daleks,” of the television series Dr. Who, are similar creatures encased in metal, enemies of the fully human heroes who                                                                                                                 1     In  this  paper,  I  follow  a  working  definition  of  “nature”  as  “everything  which  is  not   human  and  distinguished  from  the  work  of  humanity.”  See  Soper  p.15.  
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See  “Cyborg:    a  bionic  human.  Miriam-­Webster’s  Collegiate  Dictionary.  

                         11th  ed.  2007.  Print.   -­‐-­‐-­‐.  “Bionic”  Def.  2  :  normal  biological  capability  or  performance  enhanced  by  or  as  if   by  electronic  or  electromechanical  devices.    

 

 

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oppose them. Hybrid entities corrupted by their machine components, these sentient beings enact their evil agendas and play on our dread of demented uses of technology. Just as the monster Dracula conjures fear and fascination in movie fans (Jones qtd. in Caroll)3, the images of these late twentieth and twenty-first century monsters reflect our fear and fascination with technology and its electronics. Such portrayals continue in the tradition of the horror film, incarnating nightmarish “archaic and conflicting impulses.” (Carroll 17-18). One method for composing fantastic beings is fusion. On the visual level, this often entails the construction of creatures that transgress categorical distinctions such as inside/outside, insect/human, flesh/machine, etc. (Carroll 21) The cyborg is such a creature, a fusion of our repulsion and our anxiety towards machine intelligence, along with our dependence upon it; the fear of technology in the wrong hands. The cyborg operates outside the ethical traditions of the Judeo-Christian West. However, as a metaphor, it serves to reveal aspects of our social fabric, which we tend to take for granted. Donna Haraway’s foundational essay, A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century (1985), is known for its criticism of feminist theory and strategy and its discussion of cyberculture. ( Reid) In this essay, she wrote: The cyborg appears in myth precisely where the boundary between human and animal is transgressed. . . . Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert. . . . . Modern machines are quintessentially                                                                                                                 3     Ernest Jones On the Nightmare. London:Liveright 1971. qtd. in Caroll. p.16

 

 

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microelectronic devices: they are everywhere and they are invisible. . . .Writing, power, and technology are old partners in Western stories of the origin of civilization, but miniaturization has changed our experience of mechanism. The electronic gadget has become pervasive in our culture, as mobile phones take on the multiple functions of personal computers and our desire to stay “connected” leads us to further dependence on the speed and accuracy of machines. Donna Haraway’s essay has become a seminal text, rich with metaphors and protest against established cultural norms of western society. Matthew Gandy comments: Since its inception as a critical intellectual concept in the 1980s the cyborg metaphor has been deployed to challenge disembodied, dualistic, masculinist and teleological bodies of knowledge. It has infused science and technology studies with feminist epistemological strategies. It has opened up new possibilities for the understanding of relations between nature and culture. . . (27) Michael Pollan, in his book The Botany of Desire, comments on the restructuring of our ideas about these relationships from a different, botanical angle: The metaphors we use to describe the natural world strongly influence the way we approach it, the style and extent of our attempts at control. It makes all the difference in (and to) the world if one conceives of a farm as a factory or a forest as a farm. Now we are going to find out what happens when people begin approaching the genes of our food plants as software. (191) Pollan asserts that the essential identity of a plant is being breached by biotechnology. The genome of the plant becomes domesticated into human culture through genetic alteration. Elements of the cyborg world can be found in the odd combinations of cross-species genes

 

 

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engineered to ward off pests in agriculture. For the first time in history, breeders can seemingly bring qualities from anywhere in nature into the genome of a plant. Luminescence from fireflies, frost tolerance from flounders, disease resistance from viruses and bacterium from the soil are examples of deliberate introductions of genes into plants from unrelated sources. (196 – 97) What we eat is becoming the product of cyborg technology. Roxy Paine is a contemporary artist engaged in exploring the issues surrounding the reconception of machine and organism. Paine’s work Distillation, which fills an entire gallery space, seems to be a visual representation of the cyborg concept; organic living forms integrated with industrial machine technology. Valves, tanks, vacuum bulbs of powder combine with polished steel kidneys attached to renal vessels and tree-like branches. His PMU (Painting Manufacture Unit) and Scumak series question the relationship between the artist and his tools, increasingly blurring the divide between creator and drone, between concept design and industrial or digital machine. Painting Manufacture Unit 1999-2000 features a computerized system for producing paintings. PMU No. 6, 2001 (36” x 59” x 4”), and PMU No. 17, 2005 (39” x 59 ¼ x 4”), are quite beautiful, textural renditions of dripping white on natural beige linen canvas. “To make just one painting, the process [the machine follows] may repeat itself between 80 and 200 times without any intervention whatsoever from the artist. . . .” (Rothkoff qtd. in Betancourt)4 This complex machine dispensed paint every hour to produce a painting every four weeks. ( National Gallery of Canada) Scumak 2, 2001 (98” x 276” x 73”), a computer-operated sculpture machine, produced organic-looking mounds of extruded

                                                                                                                4     Rothkoff, Scott. Roxy Paine. New York: James Cohan Gallery. 2001:21-25 qtd. in Betancourt.

 

 

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polyethylene, evoking huge, world-shaping processes reminiscent of volcanic eruptions cooling to form mountains. (Volk 2) Michael Betancourt asks: What is at issue with these works is the question of human agency in the creation of art: what role must the artist have in relation to the creation of the art for it to be immediately acceptable as art? (Betancourt 17) It seems that Paine is also questioning human agency in the environment with the tanks and industrial elements he fuses with steel forms reminiscent of trees in his Dendroids series. Betancourt describes another “strain” of the artist’s work involving botanical forms crafted from industrial materials and then painted by hand. He adds: These fictive versions of nature, which he calls Replicants, seem real and have fooled many viewers. . . . Bad Lawn is a synthetic tabletop version of a yard consisting of nothing but weeds, scraggly grass, worn areas and sprouting fungi. This work, a hilarious send-up of suburban taste, celebrates exactly what many fear and try to control: natureʼs unruliness. . . . (Betancourt 2) While intractable nature is a theme I have taken on in several recent paintings, Paine’s combinations of machine and organic forms seem to go much further in exploring human agency. Inserting references to fragments of common, industrial machines in my work is a strategy that I had considered before viewing Paine’s work. Although his sculpture is enormous and industrially produced, while I am currently working manually in small dimensions, the ambiguity Paine has created by combining machine references and natural forms is an area of exploration with a great deal of potential for me. The focus of such work may become the

 

 

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complexity of an initial concept combined with a simplified manner of execution. Such an approach will be a challenge, enriching the images and projects I produce. By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. Th(i)s cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation. (Haraway) There are no simple answers to the big questions. The cyborg as a concept has become diffused throughout the Western world and we are still learning what it can show us about ourselves. Nature vs., culture, man vs. machine and other simplistic dichotomies are no longer effective ways to interpret our surroundings. The metaphor of the cyborg may help us to navigate these intersecting realms, which artists like Roxy Paine bring to our attention through the diverse media they employ.

 

  Works Cited

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Betancourt, Michael. "Intellectual Process, Visceral Result: Human Agency And The Production Of Artworks Via Automated Technology." Journal Of Visual Art Practice 7.1 (2008): 11-18. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 18 Sept. 2012. Carroll, Noel. “Nightmare and the Horror Film: The Symbolic Biology of Fantastic Beings.” Film Quarterly , Vol. 34, No. 3 (Spring, 1981), pp. 16-25. Jstor. Web. 26 Sept. 2012. Gandy, Matthew. “Cyborg Urbanization: Complexity and Monstrosity in the Contemporary City.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. Vol. 29.1 March 2005: 26-49. Wiley Online Library.Web. 26 Sept. 20012 Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge:1991. pp. 149 – 181. Web.17 Sept. 2012. <http://www.egs.edu/faculty/donna-haraway/articles/donna-haraway-a-cyborgmanifesto/> National Gallery Of Canada. Exhibitions: Roxy Paine. Painting Manufacturing Unit. 12 Feb. to 27 Mar. 2011. Web. 30 Sept. 2012. Paine, Roxy. Distillation.“Man of Steel’s Industrial Web, Mirroring Nature.” Hillary Sheets. New York Times. Oct. 13, 2010. Web. 26 Sept. 2012. ---. Dendroids. 2010-2011. New York Times. ---.PMU No. 6. 2001. James Cohan Gallery. Web. 27 Sept. 2012. <http://www.jamescohan.com/artists/roxy-paine/> ---. PMU No. 17. 2005. James Coahn Gallery. ---. Scumak 2. 2001. James Coahn Gallery.

 

  ---. Bad Lawn. 1998. James Coahn Gallery.

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Pollan, Michael.The Botany of Desire. Toronto, Canada: Random House.2002. Print. Reid, Alex. “Fingering Prefingering.” Electronic Book Review. 02 May 2004. Web. 1 Oct. 2012. <http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/criticalecologies/tempered> Soper,  Kate.  What  is  Nature?    Cambridge,  MA:  Blackwell  Publishing,  1995.  Print.   Volk, Gregory. “Roxy Paine.” Art In America. October 10, 2010. Web. 18 Sept. 2012. <http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/features/roxy-paine/>