Note: This is one of 50 posts about cyborgs, a month-long series put together by Quiet Babylon‘s Tim Maly commemorating the 50th anniversary of the term ‘cyborg‘.You can read the rest of the posts by checking out the Tumblr, or searching for the #50cyborgs hashtag on Twitter and elsewhere. It might go without saying, but I highly recommend you do; the whole series has been truly excellent. You can also listen to Tim talk about the series here on CBC’s Spark.
It is often said of actor Peter Sellers that he was so skilled at his craft because he had no identity of his own – only that of the characters he played.
Peter Sellers would have loved the internet.
* * *
The shy and the introverted take refuge in the internet. So often characterized as an outlet for their failings – well, our failings – the web is seen as a corrupted and impure space for a kind of corrupted and impure interaction. Unable to deal with what is characterized as ‘the real world’, the web becomes the introvert’s substitute for the immediacy and give-and-take of face-to-face interaction.
Or so that line of thinking goes.
But what if the web as social prosthetic – as the cyborg component of consciousness we send out in search of connection – weren’t an end to something but a means? And rather than a tool to achieve a specific external goal, it were somehow different: a conduit that reconfigured the self from the outside in? A tool for the quiet and internal to grapple with the strange paradox that is the uncomfortable and threatening imminence of the immanent.
* * *
In 2009 film Coraline, the titular character is beckoned into another world by a doll version of herself. The film begins with the image of an unknown entity sewing a mini-Coraline together. Coraline is sutured into another world by her stitched-together avatar.
The other world is glorious and strange: hyperbolic and hyper-real. Like Alice down the rabbit-hole, Coraline is delighted by a world that seems to exceed the limitations of her rain-soaked, leaky real life. But leaks sprout in the other world, too; soon, Coraline finds the other world – and her Other Mother – is not what she had wanted. To become Other carries far too high a price: the replacement of her natural, human eyes with buttons. She must look through new eyes to look the part.
The only thing that isn’t a replicated, iterated, perverse version of an original is Coraline herself. After spending her time facing challenges and collecting glowing red orbs, she returns to the real world reconfigured, brave and mature. She passes into, out of – and through – the re-created world in order to move forward and grow.
Clearly something is going on here.
* * *
After the invention of writing, subjectivity has always been inherently linked to self-presentation. In fact, the need to represent oneself to oneself is built into language itself. When Descartes tries to establish the solidity of the relationship between his subjectivity and the world, he makes two contradictory moves: he erases the external world, banishing everything except for the internal; and then he paints a scenario in which to test himself. Even after banishing the outside, our friend Rene cannot help but conjure images in his mind in a space that is inevitably ‘outside’. It is the externality of the interior imagination. This is the old contradiction of the self: locked into its interiority, it is only composed of those things that were put into it from the outside. A permeable cell-membrane surrounds the subject, and it only allows things in – but does not let that interiority out.
What writing does is allow the self to become a thing to be considered at a distance, out there. The web takes this one step further; rather than allowing for self-presentation in either the imagination or in the referential structure and syntactic gestures of the sentence, it allows the subject to become an object-made-public: a visual and textual metaphor of the self that disseminates and scatters.
Fortunately, for the shy, that is not all it does.
* * *
Art has a funny way of getting at things. If you believe Frederic Jameson’s take on Hamlet, the Danish Prince’s indecision is not only a meditation on ‘how should one act?’ – Kafka’s parable from The Trial pre-written four-hundred years earlier – but a literary representation of the impossibility of seeing over a historical horizon as feudalism gave way to mercantilism and capitalism.
Maybe something is also happening in Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani.
Jas – a meek, shy teenage boy – occupies a new ‘desi‘ subject position. All gruff posturing, masculine aggression, capitalist excess and hard-won maturity, Jas grows. He self actualises – in that strange teleology of the bildungsroman – by temporarily becoming someone else. Like Bart Simpson rowing in an imaginary paradise with his soul for a partner, Jas becomes an avatar of himself in order to become ‘full’ and ‘complete’.
Unlike Coraline, Jas does not move through a tunnel between worlds. But he may as well.
The logic of the avatar is creeping its way into art.
* * *
The web is the mechanism by which we send out pieces of our self out into the world.
But the notion of the online self as social cyborg – of a series of fractured images that signify and refract endlessly across the rhizomatic network – is only half of the equation. Like writing before it, the web is also the exteriorization of that which is radically interior: subjectivity. What you might, if you were picky, call the temporal simultaneity of the subjective and prosthetic selves – the here-and-there-ness of it in the same moment – means the web is also a prosthetic for subjectivity. An external extension of the interior self, a stitched-together composite of the avatar and the soul. A cyborg whose subjective pathways are composed of neural networks and masses of fiber optics, indistinguishably intertwined.
* * *
If Peter Sellers had the web, he might have become the cyborg par excellence. A shell looking for an outlet, he might have engaged the strange, paradoxical inscriptive power of the web: as he wrote out his multiple selves and sat, with this new form on the screen just ahead of him, the dull blue glow that pulsed from his monitor would have reinscribed itself, morphed and revised, onto his body.
The body as canvas, as page, for a writing made of light.
Between the eyes and the screen is air – a nothing. But if sight is the impinging of light on rods and cones; and screens are made to project light out; perhaps, just hovering there, it is the space-in-between the self that looks out and the screen that burns in – that leaves an invisible trace – that is the home of cyborg soul.