The Cyborg Emancipates Us from Liberal Humanism

Over at The Atlantic, Tim Malay does a quick genealogy of the term “cyborg.” It’s quite interesting:

He focuses on the “emancipatory” potential of the cyborg. However, I do think he misses the critical function of the term–that is to say, he misses how the figure of the cyborg is actually emancipatory. That is to say, he doesn’t seem to quite get how people like Haraway use the idea of the cyborg to critique hegemonic notions of “the human”. For example, Maly argues:

So now our guest list needs to include everyone who’s ever been alive. A definition this expansive is troubling. The worry is that the conceptions of thinkers like Haraway, Battles, Kelly, and Sloan run the risk of defining the term to the point of meaninglessness. After all, if we’ve been cyborgs all along doesn’t the word just mean ‘human’? If we’ve all always been cyborgs, why aren’t we already emancipated? This isn’t an ‘everyone’ party, it’s a cyborg party.

We have been cyborgs all along, and this means that the category “human” is an invalid one. To be a cyborg means that we’ve never been “human,” that “human” is just as thoroughly a constructed (and politicized) category as “cyborg.” As critical political thinkers (e.g., feminists, postcolonial and critical race theorists, queer theorists, etc.) have argued, the category “human” has always been used to dole out access to privilege. Those who are members of “normative” or dominant identity categories are read as fully “human,” and thus granted access to things like rights, protection from the state, and relatively unimpeded social and economic activity. Those who belong to subaltern identity categories are not read as “human,” and for this reason are denied access to things like rights, protection from the state, and relatively unimpeded social and economic activity. So, for example, the U.S. Constitution classifies blacks as 3/5 of a full human, and denies full enfranchisement (and full humanity) to women. To say that we’ve never been human–i.e., to say that we’re all always already cyborgs–is emancipatory because it undercuts one of the main ways kyriarchy (i.e., white straight capitalist patriarchy) creates and maintains relations of privilege and domination. Zizek’s reading of Blade Runner (in Tarrying with the Negative) makes more or less the same argument. To say that we’re all cyborgs is to claim that no one person or group can be more or less authentically “human” than another, and demonstrates that all such claims are really attempts to privilege some groups at the expense of others.

Put simply, Malay seems to assume a classically liberal notion of “emancipation”: cyborgs emancipate us because they allow us to do more stuff. However, as I and other critical political theorists assert, cyborgs liberate us from the humanist (read: racist, sexist, heteronormative, bourgeois, Eurocentric) politics of classical liberalism. If you want to know more on the sexist, racist, and otherwise exclusionary politics of classical liberalism, may I suggest Pateman and Mills Contract and Domination, or Sheth’s Towards a Political Philosophy of Race?