What do heretics and cyborgs have in common? They are harbingers of the apocalypse, bringers of the message that the world as we know it ends with the millenium. A thousand years ago religious dissenters saw God's judgement on sinful humanity approaching with the portentous onset of the first millenium, and predicted the end in biblical terms - terms, we now see, of natural apocalypse; fire, flood, plague. A thousand years later the parameters and deus ex machina of the apocalypse have altered somewhat, but the outcome remains the same: the extinction of humanity.
If the new millenialists are to be believed, twenty-first century humanity faces a kind of planned obsolescence, almost an evolution beyond itself which comes about as a result of its own control over nature through technology, the final laying to rest of the spectre of natural apocalypse. Initially this technological breakthrough, which, we should remember, is still in its infancy, meant that we could destroy ourselves with our very own technological apocalypse, the nuclear holocaust, but latterly this has become less of an immediate concern. What preoccupies the millennial mind now is a gentler apocalypse, a New World Order of technoculture in which the human merges with its technology in a kind of utopian Frankenstein scenario with a Hollywood ending. That is, many influential commentators on the impact of technology on cultural beliefs and practices (such as Baudrillard, Haraway, Jameson and dating back at least to Benjamin via McLuhan) see the current and ongoing proliferation and refining of what we might call the prosthetics of technology as epochal. They see, in what technology does as much as in what it might be, the mechanism of a rupture or a shift in the nature of human history and humanity's thinking about itself. Such a shift might be viewed as postmodernist or simply millennial in the sense of an ending that word contains, but the technology which drives it takes many concrete forms. It might manifest itself as the human genome project or the information superhighway and internetworking, as, in its subcultural parlance, the `new flesh' or the `new edge', but these technologies have similar outcomes for how we understand our culture. That is, they putatively alter intersubjective human relations and ultimately disturb the negotiation between our natural or instinctual elements and our cultural ones. It is that fragile negotiation which, it is argued by contemporary commentators, is under threat from late twentieth century technology, and it is this consideration which makes heretics, cyborgs and technocritics objects of or participants in probably the ultimate and most characteristic ontological enquiry - that into the nature of human being.
Despite the portentousness of these opening remarks, I wish to make no large claims, however, and ask no imponderable and thus rhetorical questions in this paper. Instead I want to attempt to answer, or at least further problematise, two questions: 1) does the millenium and its technology imply, as is often asserted, an apocalyptic obsolescence for humanity and thus the heralding of the New World Order of the human/machine hybrid of the cyborg, and 2) what does the preoccupation with obsolescence imply for our thinking about ourselves as psychological subjects?
To begin examining these questions, something of a methodological digression is necessary, one that is central, however, to any consideration of technology and ontology. It is always significant for me that the commentators fascinated (and I mean that term in its proper psychological sense) with ontological questions of technology and humanity so often choose science fiction as an evidential field for claims which cannot yet be made empirically, such as the existence of a non-metaphorical cyborg body. Though not an unusual phenomenon in the human sciences, the use of literature as evidence in `harder' sciences like cybernetics and artificial intelligence begs a lot of questions regarding the relationship of art, especially in this case popular art, to scientific thinking and production. In other words, when discussing ontological issues of humanity's relationship to new forms of technology, is it possible and valid to use literature as evidence for the possibility of scientific knowledge? Such a potential difficulty is not only a consequence of disciplinary or knowledge boundaries, but foregrounds the thorny question of the sometimes radically underspecified status of an analogy between what happens in a fictional narrative and what happens in a laboratory. In the case of science fiction the problem is exacerbated by the traditional provenance of the genre. That is, sf has purported not only to imagine the social future and impact of technology, but to predict its forms and consequences. Science fiction has thus always had a strangely skewed commitment to realism, a realism paradoxically in advance of representation. A famous recent example of the process, and the increasing imbrication of the realms of science and art, was the decision by computer technologists to adopt the term `cyberspace' to describe the virtual `realm' of electronic information exchange enabled by the intercommunication of different computer systems throughout the world. The term was first coined to describe just this virtual realm, but one set in the future, by cyberpunk author William Gibson. And science fiction's concern with what might be called futurist realism extends also, and perhaps more significantly in the light of contemporary millennial technological developments, to the psychological consequences of humanity's relationship to technology, not just to predicting the hardware itself. Since the so-called `new wave' of sf, begun largely in Britain in the 1960s through the New Worlds magazine edited by Michael Moorcock, the genre has attempted to envision the human psyche adapting to and contesting the impact of technology on contemporary culture and its own being. Since the advent of this science fiction of `inner space', the boundaries between scientific disciplines and the arts, and different forms of knowledge in general, seem to have become increasingly blurred, spurred on by the impact in critical circles of poststructuralist and postmodernist theories which, in some versions, espouse a kind of pantextuality and the permeability of many different cultural objects and knowledge disciplines to self-reflexive interpretation. The seeming convergence of the trajectories of science fiction and postmodernist theory has been accelerated by developments in technology itself, specifically advances in digital information and computer technology. It has thus become almost banal, and certainly journalistic, to say that the world is becoming science fictional, but the direction contemporary infotech has moved in has caused, I would say, a renewal of popular interest in science fiction, and perhaps the inauguration of a more widespread theoretico-critical interest in the genre, for what it can tell contemporary culture about the consequences of an ever more rapidly advancing technology.
In this context it is no accident that a focus of contemporary critical interest in science fiction is in the figure of the cyborg. The machine\human amalgam has always been a staple narrative theme of the genre, but it has more recently become the most representative shorthand metaphor for the multivalent complex of technological processes which mark a shift in our culture from an industrial society to an information one. Partly this is because, I think, the cyborg represents the dramatised culmination of what is perhaps technology's essential feature - its role as prosthesis, as extension of human agency. However, if our technology may now become part of our bodies, it may also supercede our bodies altogether, nature eclipsed by culture. Such curmudgeonly psychological luddism takes on an even more shrill tenor when bodies might be replaced, not even with hybrids of organism and technology, but with symbolic electronic exchange itself, in the computer network.
For this reason the cyborg body, even though as metaphor it is coextensive with the history of twentieth century technology, still acts as a powerful cultural marker of the increasing prevalence of what one might call the advent of a properly technosexual culture, one which increasingly privileges the intimate relationship between bodies and technology, and threatens the epistemological or psychical status of the bodies' prior negotiation between nature and culture. Perhaps this is reflected in the nature of contemporary millenialism itself - not a preoccupation with the disappearance of thought, or cultural practices and objects, but with the disappearance of the body.
It is the possibility of that obsolescence, seen as nothing less than an epistemic shift, which encourages one to think of cyborg millenialism as perhaps the quintessential postmodern field of enquiry, particularly since it concerns mundane aspects of being a normative and productive being in society, such as performing tasks, or even communicating, on computer networks, as much as more arcane questions of ontology and sexuality.
Contemporary popular culture as much as recondite academic criticism seems to relish in analysing the impending or ongoing obsolescence of the human, particularly the corporeality and psychological stability of the body. Does this mean that it is obsolescent? I think we should begin to try to answer this question not with an internal analysis of the body itself, an ontogenetic enquiry, but with a phylogenetic one. As Mark Seltzer succinctly points out:
It is possible to trace ...a series of uneven shifts, from the mid-nineteenth century on, from market society and possessive individualism to machine society and disciplinary individualism to the control society and cybernetic "dividualism". But ...it is not possible to understand these transitions in terms of a progressive "obsolescence of the body" and replacement of bodies and matter by writing and communication - as if writing and communications were simply immaterial and as if people were merely bodies and bodies merely matter. (1992:181)
Though Seltzer's focus here is slightly different, since he is concerned with discursive shifts and writing technologies rather than strictly cyborgian questions, this passage is useful for its rigour in bringing a historical critique to millennial critical thinking. By insisting on the materiality of writing and its technology, computers and writing as work, and by distinguishing between `bodies' and bodies-with-psyches, he is able to fruitfully critique the notion of a `progressive "obsolescence of the body" ' as a typically `