Monday, February 27, 2012

How Sci-Fi Loves to Fear the UnHuman

One of the things I really enjoyed about reading How We Became Posthuman was its connection to literary texts—specifically science fiction ones. When I was an undergrad I took every sci-fi related class I could get my hands out. Somehow, as I moved into graduate school I moved away sci-fi and eventually away from reading very much literature at all. Still—books, films or otherwise, I’m always drawn to sci-fi. Seeing how Hayles uses science fiction in How We Became Posthuman helped me to understand why I’m drawn to this genre in some ways.

I think it has much to do with the way in which the genre of sci-fi often plays with humanity’s fear of becoming unhuman. So many essential sci-fi texts (novels, comics and also films) deal with this fear.

Source (all images): IMDB

These are just three examples that pop into my mind first. It seems Will Smith has even made a career in fictitious battles against the unhuman. However, what Hayles shows us is that no matter how much fear (or cybernetic anxiety) we have about technology leading us to a place where we cannot tell human from machine, the “toasters” are already amongst us. 

She says, “Cyborgs actually exist. About 10 percent of the current U.S. population are estimated to be cyborgs in the technical sense, including people with electronic pacemakers, artificial joints, drug-implant systems, implanted corneal lenses, and artificial skin. A much higher percentage participates in occupations that make them into metaphoric cyborgs, including the computer keyboarder joined in a cybernetic circuit with the screen, the neurosurgeon guided by fiber-optic microscopy during an operation, and the adolescent game player in the local video-game arcade” (Kindle Location 2503). 

Hayles goes on to introduce a term called “terminal identity.” She explains,  “Scott Bukatman has named this condition, calling it an ‘unmistakably doubled articulation’ that signals the end of traditional concepts of identity even as it points toward the cybernetic loop that generates a new kind of subjectivity” (Kindle Location 2503). As it turns out, Bakatman hasn’t simply coined this term, but he wrote to book on it. It seems that this book, which takes the term’s name, Terminal Identity, attempts to redefine what human identity looks like in the age of new media. 

I think what’s unique about how Hayles and Bukatman approach the post-human identity and the way that the sci-fi genre typically does is that in sci-fi these identities are always the root of the horror of the film. The unhuman is the bad guy; the human saves the day. Maybe it’s even because of some element of humanity that the human is able to save the day. Hayles acknowledges the fear of the unhman, but she also suggests that the dreadful versions aren’t all there is to consider or all that is possible. She says, "Although some current versions of the posthuman point toward the antihuman and the apocalyptic, we can craft others that will be conducive to the long-range survival of humans and of the other life-forms, biological and artificial, with whom we share the planet and ourselves" (Kindle Location 6057). 

In the end, I think How We Became Posthuman helped me reconsider what I thought it meant be cyborg or posthuman. You don’t have to be the Terminator to be posthuman. It helped me realize that posthuman is not really something to fear but to recognize is already happening. What it means to be human in our world of smartphones is not what it meant to be human in the 1980s when no one I knew had a computer in their home. Yes, we will have to negotiate it in the same way we negotiate other societal changes, but it’s not something we have to assume will be bad. Still--perhaps our sci-fi texts keep us safe in some ways by keeping the fear alive so that we think carefully about what it means for our iPhone to become an extension of ourselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment