Disabled Cyborgs In Space

Donna Haraway’s ironic, binary busting cyborg has deeply influenced the study of the relationship between the human and the technological since she published A Cyborg Manifesto in 1985.  Providing a template for  her cyborg was the 1961 paper by Nathan S. Kline and Manfred Clynes  (K&C)  Drugs, Space and Cybernetics: Evolution to Cyborgs.

K&C’s purpose was to find a path to a space-exploring society unencumbered by the technologically unmediated bodies of “man” poorly evolved to living in a vacuum.

Haraway repurposed this to theorize the path to a feminist-liberatory society unencumbered by  technologically unmediated  female bodies poorly evolved to living in the patriarchy.  She redefined “cyborg” as a hybrid  made to live not in outer space but in the space of social reality.

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction.

She rejected the earnestness  and otherworldliness of spirituality with its origin myths and lineages proclaiming the famous line “I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess”.

K&C, in their use of “cyborg” had equated technologically mediated “Participant Evolution” with a spiritual quest – science as a lineage of progress, simultaneously an eso/exo-teric knowledge.

 The challenge of space travel to mankind is not only his technological prowess, it is also the spiritual challenge to take an active part in his own biological evolution.  The great scientific advances in the years to come may be utilized to permit existence under environments radically different  from those provided by natural circumstances today.  This task of adapting his body to whatever milieu he chooses will be made easier by increased knowledge of homeostatic functioning, the cybernetic aspects of which are just beginning to be investigated and understood….

That said, their project turned to the practical problems of using a small pump to  release various drugs regulating body functions that would otherwise fail in space.  With a cybernetic system sensing the need for, and  then triggering the release of these drugs, man, they theorized, would be “able to live in space qua natural.”

Man would create “New Frontier” of possibilities once he was no longer “insistent that he carry his entire environment with him…”

A Cyborg for K&C is a man with an “artificially extended homeostatic control system functioning unconsciously”.  They summarize their paper with this:

It is proposed that man should use his creative intelligence adapt himself to the space conditions he seeks rather than take as much of the earth environment with him as possible.  This is to be achieved through the Cyborg, an extension of organic homeostatic controls by means of cybernetic techniques. .. The necessary change of these controls for space survival cannot be conveniently supplied to us by evolution; they have to be created by man himself, using  his acquired knowledge of cybernetics and physiology.  Thus, man’s man activity in this regard complements evolution, freeing him from the need of conscious attention to the regulation of his own internal environment

They worked for NASA for several years researching ways to make their ideas practical.  Perhaps they were merely ahead of their time and lacked the technical tools necessary for such an approach. For example, the manipulation of neural genes  is  a promising component of current research into cyborg-making not available to them.

Meanwhile NASA, looking for quick success, hired Playtex to build the spacesuit it needed to send men into space.

In an interview in BLDGBLOG, Nicholas De Monchaux, author of Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo discusses this project, and how it related to the Cyborg approach of K&C:

The idea of the cyborg, then, is the apotheosis of certain utopian and dystopian ideas about the body and its transformation by technology, and it has its origins very much in the Apollo program.

But then the actual spacesuit—this 21-layered messy assemblage made by a bra company, using hand-stitched couture techniques—is kind of an anti-hero. It’s much more embarrassing, of course—it’s made by people who make women’s underwear—but, then, it’s also much more urbane. It’s a complex, multilayered assemblage that actually recapitulates the messy logic of our own bodies, rather than present us with the singular ideal of a cyborg or the hard, one-piece, military-industrial suits against which the Playtex suit was always competing.

That “messy logic” is of course the cue for the entry of Haraway’s cyborg.

Since then these two visions of the cyborg have enabled the conceptualization of an endless number of “cyborgs”. The hybrids of the hardware-based view of K&C and the socially constructed view of Haraway proliferate cyborgs promiscuously.

These two visions and their numerous variants parallel and eventually converge with the varying and numerous conceptions of disability as each travels the curved non-Euclidean space of the body.  Many disability theorists argue that an individual’s impairment does not automatically entail disability.   It is the norms and expectations of a society about what constitutes an acceptable body that determines if an impairment is a disability.

The weak vision of permanent technological progress is perhaps a vision in which humans are permanently impaired.  The strong vision is one in which humans are permanently disabled.  Cyborgs then are always impaired, and always fraught with disability.

An intimacy of hardware and messy bodies is not sufficient to make either  Disabled Persons or Cyborgs.  Completing the process is the specific building up and wearing away of societal norms concerning what constitutes a person.  When everyone is equally Disabled or Cyborg, will anyone be Disabled or Cyborg?

Yet,  in the case of the Cyborg, Haraway and  K&C agree on one thing – that it is cybernetic hardware is what matters.

In a review of Philip Mirowskis Machine Dreams, Kieran Healy writes the following about the economic cyborg and its behavior as a hybridized economic agent that can no longer be described as, above all else, rational.

The central metaphor of cybernetics is the computer and computation generally. The “cyborg sciences”—computer science, AI, operations research, automata theory, sociobiology and game theory, amongst others—all share this central concern with entity/environment interaction via feedback mechanisms…….

Mirowski’s discussion of the relationship between economic theory and the concept of the Self is very good. Economics is all about the inviolable Self and it’s perfectly rational choices. Yet the “age of methodological cyborgism” (443) has undermined the Self many times over, and as it has imported cyborg ideas economics has joined in this process.

Or a put a bit more economically, Healy quotes Mirowski

If a long-overdue calm reassessment of the Culture Wars should ever materialize, we would eventually come to realize that it was not those wily postmodernists who wrought the most havoc … with their “decentering of the self” and their fragmentations of the body. Rather, postmodernism was itself an effluvium of the intellectual innovations in the natural sciences … Wherever the computer has cast its allure, there be cyborgs.

K&C conceptualized cyborgs as the physical means to free man from the limits of earth.  Haraway saw them as the social means to liberate women from the patriarchy.  The simultaneous development of the augmented/prosthetic body and the coded mind includes and surpasses both.


3 thoughts on “Disabled Cyborgs In Space

  1. The alternative concepts, and the difficulty of combining them, provide major themes in science fiction, and as a source often of conflict up to and including wars of annihilation, as I suppose you might expect.

    1. One of the difficulties in the K&C cyborg is containing the machine part so the cyborg remains recognizably human, rather than more machine, more alien than human. Consuming scifi only casually, I wonder if the limited space-tolerant, but basically human cyorg, rather the mostly machine cyborg, makes much of an appearance.

      1. The “modified/augmented/space-adapted” human being in my observation is more common in literary science fiction than in movies and TV. The more common trope is “emergent intelligence” as in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and the TERMINATOR movies or my old favorite COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT, or the figure of the android who cannot be morally distinguished from a human being: BLADE RUNNER, AI, the STAR TREK character “Data,” the sentient robots of SHORT CIRCUIT and I, ROBOT, and on and on.

        As we discussed before at my blog, STAR TREK also offers one typical exception, since its future history, or the pre-history of the various STAR TREK stories, is built around a war between (my terms) “natural” human beings and augmented ones, although they are genetically altered rather than “enhanced.” Yet a main nemesis of the future Federation, few to none of whose member races are represented as “cyborgic,” is “the Borg.” The name is short for “Cyborg.” They play critical roles in STAR TREK: TNG and movies spun off from it, and there’s a major Borg character in the series STAR TREK: VOYAGER.

        In recent literary sci-fi, Tony Daniel depicts various space-adapted human beings (or humanoids) in his METAPLANETARY books, which tell the (bizarre, often satirical) epic story of the war between the forces of a super-cyborgic tyrant (seeking to absorb the entirety of humanity into his voracious super-being) and the forces of different types of human and quasi-human beings banding together against him/them. In the REVELATION SPACE novels, Alastair Reynolds describes a future spacefaring humanity divided into distinct groups, including one independent, heavily mechanized and space-adapted type that maintains a mistrustful relationship with (mostly) non-adapted human beings, while being depended upon for critical services. By the end of the series, a back-story vaguely reminiscent of the STAR TREK backstory is developed and takes a more central position. Bruce Sterling’s earlier SCHISMATRIX looks forward to both Daniel’s and Reynolds’ works.

        Dan Simmons has handled “cyborgification” and transhumanism in a variety of ways as well, though without depicting obviously modified human beings – ones with prosthetic arms and eyes and mechanically augmented brains, and so on. In one series of novels that you would find amusing, I think, he depicts a future Catholic church, or perverted descendant of the Catholic church, who priests and followers wear crosses – that are in fact machines – serving dual purposes, granting their wearers effective immortality and adapting them to space travel: They’re able to endure extreme stresses because the crosses re-constitute their bodies and selves after being crushed and destroyed. Robert Reed’s MARROW books focus on also effectively immortal space-faring-adapted human beings, living for millennia while operating a super-space-ship the size of Jupiter traveling through the galaxy.

        This is just a short survey based on a period of intensive reading of recent sci-fi that I did around ten – fifteen years ago. Is much more there that someone who’s made a more systematic study might be able to turn you on to, including many additional borderline cases.

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