Cyborg Life and Paschal Mystery
Q: Is cyborgization and technological evolution another process of the paschal mystery, letting the old self die- allowing new birth to take place daily?
Ilia: To answer this question, we must understand more clearly the meaning of cyborg, the process of cyborgization, and the role of death in relation to God.
The cyborg is an abbreviation of “cybernetic organism” and expresses the capacity of biological nature to be joined to or hybridized with non-biological nature, such as the machine. The cyborg has its root in cybernetics, developed by Norbert Weiner who first thought of a way to maximixe human potential in a world that is essentially chaotic and unpredictable. Wiener defined cybernetics in 1948 as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.” The science of cybernetics enabled astronauts to be hybridized with equipment to support physiological function in outer space. Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline who coined the term cyborg in a 1960 paper envisioned that a cyborgian man-machine hybrid would be needed in the next great technohuman challenge of space flight.[i] A cyborg is a person whose physiological functioning is aided by or dependent on a mechanical or electronic device. The cyborg, in other words, was born in the dreams of scientists of a man-machine that could function in the transboundary situation of extraterrestrial space.The cyborg played a prominent role in the 1982 movie, “Blade Runner,” in which enhanced humans, cyborgs, are engaged in mining operations in the farther reaches of space. Thus we see that the basic idea of cyborg was to fuse the human and that which is not human, such as the machine, so as to enable the human to work in an environment that required such a fusion. Cyborgs therefore are hybrid entities of different nature in which human nature is joined with other than human whether it is animal or technological artifice. They appear where boundaries are transgressed.The cyborg disrupts persistent dualisms (for example, animal and human) challenging us to search for ways to study the body as a cultural construction rather than a given.
The cyborg symbolizes the ability of nature to change.The word nature is derived from the Latin word, natura, literally meaning “birth.” Natura is a Latin translation of the Greekword physis (φύσις), which originally related to the intrinsic characteristics that plants, animals, and other features of the world develop of their own accord. Our understanding of nature as something fixed, lifeless, subservient to humans is erroneous. Anne Kull writes that “nature is artifactual—it is made but not just by us.[ii] Rather nature itself is techne: creative, inventive and information processing.
The emergence of the cyborg as hybrid organism tells us something about nature that jars our prevailing understanding of nature as fixed, biological and physical.[iii] In a sense, nature has never been clearly defined. Rather, nature is an emerging process of evolving life that is now marked by a co-creation among humans and nonhumans, machines and other partners. We cannot assume to know what is human or what is nature because what counts as human is not self-evident. Nature begins with relationships; it is a constant co-creative process. Nature is capable of being hybridized in which there are no fixed boundaries or biological essences. Given the right conditions, tools and circumstances, nature can be transformed into something new. Nature is an ongoing construct in relation to the environment.
The cyborg is a key interpretative symbol for the human person today, offering us a way out of the maze of dualisms (for example, male/female, black/white) in which we have identified ourselves. The dualisms are in our ideas, not intrinsic to nature itself. Cyborgs indicate that the old mechanistic framework is giving way to something new. The cyborg signifies that human “nature” is not self-evident. In this respect, the boundaries between human and animal, organism and machine, physical and non-physical have become imprecise giving rise to a new understanding of social subjectivity. Cyborg tells us that boundary-crossing changes human identity It has radicalized the modern subject, dismantling the centered and masterful subject as an affirmative project, ending not in the absence of the subject but in new and positive conceptions of social subjectivity. Integral to this new conception is the idea that a cyborg body is not bounded by the skin but includes all external pathways along which information can travel. Boundaries have meaning only for particular, locatable and embodied subjects.[iv] As we become hybridized with our technologies, we are refashioning our understanding of the body as a material entity and a discursive process; hence what counts as human is not self-evident.
In her magnum opus “The Cyborg Manifesto” Donna Haraway says that the cyborg is not only about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, but also about “dangerous possibilities.” For example, the cyborg can portray all of natural reality dominated by science and technology, in which all persons and cultures are reduced to their opportunity for technical manipulation. From another perspective, “a cyborg world might be one in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (Haraway 1991, 154). We are challenged to recognize the profound possibilities that are opened up by the ambivalent double vision that sees both danger and possibility. This is the challenge that faces us today. Hence, we must give much more attention to how this dangerous element of human nature can be the source of possibilities and hope.
Living as boundary-crossers is a way of saying that we cannot live in only one world at a time. Our experience tells us that we do in fact live in many worlds at once. The cyborg extends across many worlds because it joins different worlds together. Hence consciousness plays a fundamental role in what we become at any moment. Life is choice and decision all along the way, as we navigate across fields of information.
Now what is less evident is that Christianity posits the cyborg as symbol of its core doctrine, the incarnation. Two radically different natures are united in a single union symbolized by the person of Jesus Christ. The early Church did everything it can to avoid the concept of hybridity by coming up with the solution of two distinct natures in one person, joined by a communication of properties, a sacrum commercium. It is a strained formula that satisfied the warring factions of the early Church, but it really does not say very much other than Jesus is of God and humanity. The difficulty in defining the person of Jesus Christ lay in Aristotle’s philosophy of nature which the Church Fathers borrowed to help make sense of the incarnation: Being is substance composed of form and matter. Based on the understanding of Being and essence, the early Fathers opted for two natures in one person, to avoid saying either that Jesus was not divine or not really human.
But modern scientific concepts, including cybernetics, can help us understand the person of Jesus Christ in new ways. The cyborg is an appropriate symbol of Christ because the union of divinity and humanity conveys to us that God can and does become something new without collapsing divinity into materiality. What counts as God is not and should not be self-evident. God becomes something new and the newness is integral to God’s own life.To say that Jesus Christ is the exemplary cyborg means God is to be found in a life recognizably like our own yet also uniquely other. Anne Kull writes:
The incarnation of Jesus the Christ can be understood, then, as neither a biological nor a sociological category but as a point of overlap between the physical, the symbolic, and the material social conditions. He would be the one who comes in many guises, and cannot be represented once and for all, and for everybody’s satisfaction.
The cyborg exemplifies the fact that we do not have a clearly defined, exhaustive concept of humanity, let alone divinity. Kull states, “the concept of cyborg urges us to see in the Incarnation, and generally in embodiment of any kind. . . emancipation and choice.” It also means that life’s lawfulness is not binary or dualistic (heaven and hell; matter and spirit; body and soul; God and human; divinity and humanity).
When the divine Word becomes flesh (Incarnation), God transcends the boundaries of separation (between divinity and creation) to become something new within the boundaries of space-time. Teilhard said that without creation, something would be absolutely lacking to God, considered in the fullness not of his being but of his act of union. God enters into bounded existence, yet these boundaries are not fixed because God constantly transcends the boundaries God creates in pursuit of new, more unified life. The cyborg symbolizes the cybernetic loop of God and created reality, such that a complexified divine-world relationship must be resolved in new expressions of personal love. God is the source of creativity and creative relationships, exemplified by Jesus, are the personalization of God.
Jesus is fully divine and fully human and yet his person cannot be reduced to either divinity or humanity; hence Jesus is a trickster because he changes the rules for what is defined as human and divine by contradicting them. As a hybrid creature, Jesus shows the arbitrariness and constructed nature of what is considered the norm. His life and ministry disrupted traditional values. Jesus as cyborg means that no one person or existent can exhaust the presence of God; God is always the more of anything that can exist. Transcending boundaries and forming new relations define the person of Jesus Christ.
To say that Jesus is cyborg means that materiality is transcendent and porous, able to move beyond itself because it is capable of receiving divinity into it. Embodied nature has a structural law of openness, kenosis and orientation toward the fullness of life.
Cyborgization is the ongoing process of hybridizing life which means life is constantly open to newness. The name God points to the absolute future of ever newness in love so that cyborgization is the law of the spirit in relation to God. It is the ongoing future of embodied personhood whereby one becomes a fully relational being. Death is part of the openness to the ongoing fullness of life. Death is the definitive act of full freedom of personhood. In death, the openness to new life in God is given its definitive character. Our capacity for full freedom of personhood is sealed in the embrace of God’s eternal love.
The life of Jesus shows us that to live within fixed boundaries of the expected, which seem to provide stability, security, and certainty, is to be dead even when alive.To be open and ready for the unexpected is to be open to the creativity of life in which death has a fundamental role for new life. The cosmic Person (the Christ) can only emerge when persons are willing to let go of isolated existences for the sake of greater union. The power of love which evolves the cosmos toward personalization is love unto death for the sake of new life. A Christian theology of the cross awakens the human capacity to love in the face of opposition and deadness. Richard Kearney states, “Christian caritas as a refusal of exclusivist power is a summons to endless kenosis.”[v]
To be free in love, we must know ourselves as being loved and this means accepting ourselves as lovable. Jesus was free in love because he lived in the truth and authenticity of being. He was the integrated One in whom divine light and love flowed freely through him into the cosmos. Rather than speaking of “two natures united in one person” it is more consonant with cyborg life to speak of a cosmotheandric whole; not a union of fixed essences but an ongoing cybernetic dance of divinity, humanity and cosmos exemplified in the person of Jesus Christ. His death and resurrection evoke a new consciousness of God’s immanent presence and empowering love toward wholeness and unity.
The distinction of Jesus, therefore, is not a mysterious union of natures but a radical empowerment of divine love marked by a new spirit of creative newness. What happens in Jesus is anticipation of the future of humanity and the cosmos; not annihilation of creation but its radical transformation through the power of God’s life-giving Spirit. In Jesus, God arrives as the future. What is truly Christological and salvific must reside in porous relationships, novelty and freedom, not in ontological essentialism. We are called to live on the cusp of new connections. Openness to cyborgization requires our conscious participation as co-creative agents of love; to penetrate the truth of the Christ mystery within ourselves, in other persons and non-human creatures as well. To live the mystery of Christ is to live in the freedom of the Spirit (2 Cor 3:17); to recognize that connectedness is a basic reality of our existence.
Cyborg life is the paschalization of cosmic life unto the fullness of life. We are porous, permeable, transcendent beings in love, wholes within wholes. Death and resurrection mark the whole of life. As we extend our beingness through hybridization, we must constantly ask, am I moving toward the fullness of life or am I diminishing life? Christian life as cyborg life should liberate us from all oppression, for we believe that creativity and new life is the power of the future.
[i] Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, “Cyborgs and Space,” Astronautics (1960): 27-8.
[ii] Kull, “Embodiment and Incarnation,” 283.
[iii] Donna Haraway, “A Comment on the Nature of No Nature,” in Cyborgs & Citadels: Anthropological Interventions in Emerging Sciences and Technologies, ed. Gary Lee Downey and Joseph Dumit (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 1997), 210.
[iv] Kull, “Embodiment and Incarnation,” 281, 283.
[v] Richard Kearney, Anatheism: Returning to God After God (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011) , 55.
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