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The case of Neil Harbisson


Neil Harbisson calls himself a Cyborg, a real representation of what was once only possible through science fiction. Although he never considered himself disabled, he was born with achromatopsia, a disorder that prevented him from seeing colours. For that reason, he lived, the first years of his life, distanced from other human beings who expressed themselves in a language permeated by colour. Perceiving the world in black and white meant that he couldn’t understand concepts such as “green light”, “Red Cross”, “green card”, “blues”, among others. So, despite not having an external trace of his condition (no one could see his abnormality) he was different from the rest of us. He represented a deviation from the norm of how humans were supposed to see reality.

Notwithstanding his disorder, his decision to become a Cyborg was not to befit normality. On the contrary, he wanted to preserve the advantages of his condition and instead, broaden his senses, in order to speak the same language of colour as the rest of us. It was a political decision inspired by the need of speech; of having the ability to participate in the same space as other individuals. Thus, he became one of firsts Cyborgs in history that has implanted a cybernetic organism in order to expand his senses rather than to correct a deficiency. It was precisely this intention that made his case controversial; challenging the limits of technology and highlighting the ethical and political problems of this new power of humanity to self-evolve.

“In the debate on the adoption of capacity-enhancing practices versus therapeutic ones, cyborgs pose an ethical dilemma when an individual's consciousness is modified by the merging of human body and machine (Park, 2014; Schermer,2009). According to Warwick (2014), the cause for concern is not so much the therapeutic uses, but the modification of an individual's nature as a result of the linking of human and machine mental functioning.”[1]

The implications of his decision transformed him from being an invisible anomaly to a visible monster; that is now challenging the politics of the human body, its limits and its possibilities. After all, he is confronting the basic concept of humanity, having built his own utopian body. A body that has allowed him to expand perception beyond his physicality, as he is no longer tied by presence and can perceive through the internet any colour around the universe.

This transgressive act made me question the relationship between monstrosity and utopia and even further, between utopia and nature. In the 60’s Georges Canguilhem opened up a debate that questioned whether monstrosity was a break of nature or was actually an action of nature itself. For Carguilhem, the world of the imaginary, the world of the monstrous is the counterpoint of understanding that there are no exceptions in nature, that nature is what allows its own deviation to occur.[2] Thus, if nature is what persist in violation of its own law, would that make utopia (and its dystopian nemesis) an intrinsic part of nature?

In order to examine this question, I will study Neil Harbisson monstrousness as opposed to the abnormal, to be able understand the transgressiveness of his actions and its necessary relation to fiction. This would allow me to analyse the development of the concept of the Cyborg, how it challenges the idea of the monster as a utopian body, and how it opens up new questions in terms of free play and sets a new distribution of the sensible. I will finish with an analysis of Carguilhem’s approach on the monstrous to comprehend whether or not utopia could be considered the non-place that allows us to visualize the irregularity of existence, and what that would bring as a consequence.

The monstrous vs the abnormal

To be able to understand the subtle distinction that Harbisson made with his own body it is important to differentiate between what has been understood as the abnormal vs the concept of the monstrous. Many different historians, philosophers and biologists have studied both concepts in order to understand its existence and its relation to nature and culture. They have jumped from mythology to science, from ethics to phenomenology, from law to science fiction, trying to circumscribe and understand the individuals that could be identified as such.

However, in the 60’s and 70’s both Michel Foucault and Georges Canguilhem comprehended that the problem with previous analysis was that they framed both concepts mainly as a recognition and conceptualization of their alleged opposite: the normal. The norm that served to both designate the accordance with the mean and, simultaneously, describe the ideal. Therefore, at first glance, both the abnormal and the monstrous were intended to refer to a deviation of the mean and a break of the ideal.

Nevertheless, as Canguilhem concluded, “to affirm that truth is in the type, but reality is outside of it, that nature has types but that they are not realized- is this not to render knowledge powerless to grasp the real?”[3] In other words, the idea of being only one norm negates existence itself, its own particularities and individualities. Consequently, the abnormal would not be the negation of the norm but rather the existence of other norms. Other norms that haven’t been successful enough to render themselves as mean, but that could potentially be. This was precisely the original case of Harbisson, where he was able to argue that his “abnormality” was actually another norm set for human beings that allow him to look better at night, distinguish shapes better and be able to have a broader field of vision.[4]

Now, having said that, his transformation into a cyborg elucidates a difference between his original condition and his consequent decision. Although the abnormal and the monstrous carry a new set of norms, their process of naturalization is what distinguishes them from each other. As Canguilhem argued, “life is poor of monsters, while the fantastic is a world”[5]. The monstrous remains in another dimension necessarily inflicted by fiction, by the imaginary. Much like the Freudian distinction between the reality principle and fantasy, the positivist minds of the 19th century have naturalized the abnormal within the reality principle and have made the monstrous remain on the realm of useless fantastic.

“Once monstrosity has become a biological concept, once monstrosities have been divided into classes based on invariable relations, once one prides oneself of being able to bring them about experimentally, the monster is naturalized, the irregular is brought back to the rule and the prodigy to predictability. (…) Back in the ages of fables, monstrosity exposed the monstrous power of imagination. In the age of experiments, the monster is taken to be a symptom of puerility or mental malady; It indicates debility or a breakdown of reason.[6]

This subtle but substantial distinction is what Harbisson manifested and questioned. Before he transformed himself into a cyborg he was a mere abnormal, something that deviated from the norm of how humans should see and presented a new norm of colour blindness. Many medical institutions tried to correct him and, as many others that have aimed to include the machine into their bodies, they wanted to use technology in order to reverse his pathology. Instead, he resisted. Highlighting the power of imagination, he created himself as an art practice; what he calls Cyborgism. A practice in which “artist expresses themselves through new senses created by the union between cybernetics and their own body. [Where] artists no longer use technology as a tool for creation: it constitutes part of their body as an extension of their capacities for sensation and perception”[7].

Cyborgism, the monster as a utopia

The nature of his monstrousness lies, precisely, in its utopian-dystopian quality; in his adherence to the non-place of the imaginary where the cyborg resides. What distinguishes him between being utopic or dystopic is an element of value that I will analyse below but that nonetheless, places him above any other form of nature so far. His intention to remain in this other realm lies on the very fact that he calls himself a Cyborg; a concept whose metaphorical origins control the way we perceive him and “adjust” him to society. A metaphor that inspires both owe and fear and makes his case so particularly distinct.

Although the first references to a man-machine date before the 20th century, it was film that permeated this monster into the collective imagery. In 1927 the German film Metropolis portrayed one of the first Cyborgs in cinema in order to achieve what Herbert Marcuse described as the only utopian project possible nowadays, i.e. to contradict biological laws such as returning the dead, eternal youth, controlling life, among others[8]. Marcuse’s critique to utopia permeated this film (despite its years in advance before the philosopher’s words) pointing out the utopian and dystopian quality of man’s relation with the machine. What was a utopia for the “upper” part of society was the dystopia of the others. Technology manifested its potentiality to both liberate and enslave society as a whole. But ultimately, it gave rise to the question of a new theory of man, of a new concept of being. A concept of being that is precisely going to be exploited by Harbisson.

To understand this new concept of being, it is important to evaluate before the cyborg’s constant transition between its own dystopian and utopian character. At first, as the Cold War advanced, the Cyborg’s relation to its dystopian nature remained as the predominant view of its nature. In 1974, Darth Vader’s appearance in Stars Wars showed a side of man who “in American mythology [became] the uninitiated hero who is seduced by power and the tools that extend it- so much so that he becomes a tool himself. If his hubris remains unchecked, his kind gives rise to the “ghost in the machine” that terrifies us, the Frankenstein’s monster that actually does rise from the laboratory table and turn on his inventor.”[9] The cyborg became the feared monster that betrays human nature and turns its back against its creator. As it is manifested in Darth Vader, this betrayal occurred as he lost part of his humanity by its attachment to the machine. What it was supposed to be the supreme dominance of nature by mankind, turned out to manifest the opposite fear, the dominance of mankind by the machine. In Hocker and Frentz words, the subject was replaced by its own objects.[10]

Thus, the allusions of merging man with machine were only initially used in situations where men were forced to reconstruct themselves through mechanical apparatus, but that in turn, by losing some of its humanity, would gain further super-human capabilities that could be both feared and revered. The latter was the case of DC comics action hero Cyborg. In the 80’s this superhero was born after the tragic incident of losing most of his human limbs, and his father being forced to reconstructed him as a machine. Whilst he is being transformed he even says to his father “if you take my biological components you take out the best part of me, the part that makes me who I am”[11] His being reflected the paradox of the Cyborg. Negating Jameson’s (1982) assertion that science fiction’s affinity for the dystopian is a reflection of the atrophy of our utopian imagination of our inability to imagine a future, is actually his dystopian/utopian character what allowed the future to exist.

This is, in my perspective, the critical break of the monster Cyborg. Once imbedded with a negative quality of what we do not want to achieve, turned out to be the only insurance of the survival of the individual, the inevitable change that nature has to endure in order to have a future. In other words, its utopian/dystopian character exists not only to project the future but ultimately, to allow it to occur. In the words of Donna Haraway,

“that is why cyborg politics insist on noise and advocate pollution, rejoicing in the illegitimate fusions of animal and machine. These are the couplings which make man and woman so problematic, subverting the structure of desire, the force imagined to generate language and gender, and so subverting the structure and modes of reproduction of “western” identity, of nature and culture, of mirror and eye, salve and master, body and mind.”[12]

Harbisson’s actions, by advocating for this new utopian body, have hence pushed the buttons to encourage the necessity of human beings to change. His Cyborg Foundation is now inspiring others to reconstruct themselves with no other purpose whatsoever than to expand the limits of their senses (adding not replacing). Backing Marcuse’s utopian idea of freedom of play, his artistic qualities and motivations allow him to remark how it is possible for freedom to appear on the realm of necessity; of organising oneself on the bases of play. Most of his projects give testimony to this motivation: he has turned colour into voice performances; he has created dishes out of colour combinations produced by songs of Lady Gaga; he has designed sound portraits of people faces; among others.

Despite the apparent uselessness of its projects, his unique sense has allowed humanity to question stigmas of race by attesting that the sounds of everyone’s face never show black or white but different shades of orange; it has challenged identity and nationalism by claiming a new nationality as some of his current body parts (the electric antenna) come from Sweden; it has confronted the idea of presence in perception, as he can now be actually everywhere perceiving the colours of space without leaving his room.[13]He became indeed “the zero point of the world.”[14]

As Marcuse intended, his actions not only produced a new concept of being but a new human in a biological sense. The medical community has not attested yet as to how his brain is now operating. He is now intending to add what he calls “a sense of time” that would allow him to feel Einstein theory of relativity; expanding our relationship with the space-time continuum. Harbisson is thus venturing into what we consider our own basic need by presenting new ones and asking others to do the same. He is now creating a new aesthetic, where “the artwork happens inside the artist. They are the only audience of their own art. In Cyborg Art; the artwork, the audience, and the museum are all in the same body.”[15]

But as the monster that he is, the tension between his utopian and dystopian character remains and with it a new distribution of the sensible. His new aesthetics have ventured beyond the art world and have permeated into the essence of our being. Challenging our own ability of speech, his goal is to give new and unique senses to each individual. Allowing the possibility to have new unique senses that will create one of the biggest dissensuses in history; each individual would be another type of human being, with their own singular language (if it can be even called that) and could eventually evolve into their own separate species. The Cyborg paradox survives, as the only thing that would allow us to survive is the fact that we would be each one a cyborg, separate and distinct with the common language of our difference.

The monstrous and nature

The new possibilities that Harbisson is presenting is what allows me to problematize the part that utopia has to play in the configuration of nature; and the role the monstrous play among the two. As the monstrous lies one step forward of abnormality, it has produced an individual whose nature hasn’t been naturalized. It has remained in the edge of the imaginary, open to multiple possibilities and in turn allowing existence to have new types of failures. A passage to a new species that has not yet been understood. “Because they appear equivocal as to species, monsters ensure the passage from one species to another.”[16] Whilst at the same time ensuring the continuation of nature.

Harbisson’s existence allows me to understand Canguilhem’s claim that the monstrous is what allows nature to occur; it is what allows it so includes its own deviation without having to contradict itself. The monstrous is therefore this utopic world that Canguilhem describes, filled with chaos and abiding no laws; it is the counterpoint of understanding the positivist claim that there are no exceptions in nature. “When seen from the perspective of those who haunt it after having created it, believing everything to be exceptionally possible in it, and who forget that only laws permit exceptions, this anti-world is the imaginary, murky and vertiginous world of the monstrous.”[17]

The monstrous is the utopic, it is what lies as a potential exception to the non-existent law. That is why it lies in an imaginary non-place waiting to become the bridge that would allow nature to exist, to remain alive; because if nature does not produce any abnormality it would die. But, according to Canguilhem, the monstrous must remain in the fantastic world, it can only exist insofar as it remains a non-place, because, once its exists in nature, it is naturalized as a new norm among the other norms of nature. A new norm that has the power to replace the rest and transform itself from being an anomaly to become the new parameter of normality.

What would then be the case of Harbisson? If we agree with Canguilhem, just like utopia, when a monster is actualized, naturalized, it ceases to exist; it jumps to the subsequent species, to the new norm. Has he been naturalized? Has he ceased to be a monster, or does he still dwell in the imaginary? Can he be the break of a new humanity?

Bibliography

  • Roland Barthes, How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday Spaces, trans. Kate Briggs, New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

  • Georges Canguilhem, Knowledge of Life, eds. Paola Marrati and Todd Meyers, trans. Stefanos Geroulanos and Daniela Ginsburg, New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

  • Umberto Eco, On Ugliness, New York: Random House Incorporated, 2018

  • Michel Foucault, Abnormal, ed. Arnold l. Davidson, trans. Graham Burchell, New York: St Martins Press, 2004

  • Michel Foucault, ‘Utopian Body,’ in Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art, ed. Caroline A. Jones, Cambridge, Ma: MIT, 2006.

  • Félix Guattari, The Three Ecologies, trans. Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton, London and New Brunswick, N.J.: Athlone Press, 2000.

  • Bruce Grenville. The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture, Vol. 1. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press Limited, 2002.

  • Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas: What's it like to be a cyborg? Talks at Google. 2016 https://youtu.be/rRU62Csr_jI

  • Neil Harbisson I listen to colour. Ted talks. 2012. https://www.ted.com/talks/neil_harbisson_i_listen_to_color

  • http://www.cyborgfoundation.com/

  • Donna J. Haraway. “A Cyborg manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century, in Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.

  • Janice Hocker Rushing and Thomas S. Frentz. Projecting the Shadow: The Cyborg Hero in American Film. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

  • Fredric Jameson, “Progress Versus Utopia; or Can We Imagine the Future?”, in Science Fiction Studies 9, 1982.

  • Catherine Kramer, Marina Pala (Ed) +Humanos, el futuro de nuestra especie. Barcelona: Centre de cultura contemporània de Barcelona, 2015.

  • Herbert Marcuse, 'Phantasy and Utopia,' in Eros and Civilisation: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, London: Ark, 1987.

  • Herbert Marcuse, ‘The End of Utopia,’ in Five Lectures: Psychoanalysis, Politics, and Utopia, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro and Shierry M. Weber, London: Allen Lane, 1970.

  • Ellen Pearlman. I, Cyborg. Performing Arts Journal, pp. 84–90

  • Eva Reinares-Laraa; CristinaOlarte-Pascual; JorgePelegrín-Borondo. Do you want to be a cyborg? The moderating effect of ethics on neural implant acceptance. Computers in Human Behavior. Volume 85, August 2018, Pages 43-53

  • Jacques Rancière, 'The Distribution of the Sensible,' in The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill, London: Continuum, 2004.

TV SHOWS AND FILM

  • Metropolis, 1927, Fritz Lang

  • Star Wars, 1974, George Lucas

  • Teen titans. The sum of its parts. 2003. DC comics.

[1] Eva Reinares-Laraa; CristinaOlarte-Pascual; JorgePelegrín-Borondo. Do you want to be a cyborg? The moderating effect of ethics on neural implant acceptance. Computers in Human Behavior. Volume 85, August 2018: 43

[2] Georges Canguilhem, “Knowledge of Life”, eds. Paola Marrati and Todd Meyers, trans. Stefanos Geroulanos and Daniela Ginsburg, New York: Fordham University Press, 2008: 146

[3] Georges Canguilhem, “Knowledge of Life”, 124

[4] Neil Harbisson I listen to colour. Ted talks. 2012. https://www.ted.com/talks/neil_harbisson_i_listen_to_color

[5] Georges Canguilhem, “Knowledge of Life”, 145

[6] Georges Canguilhem, “Knowledge of Life”, 140

[7] Catherine Kramer, Marina Pala (Ed) +Humanos, el futuro de nuestra especie. Barcelona: Centre de cultura contemporània de Barcelona, 2015: 76

[8] Herbert Marcuse, ‘The End of Utopia,’ in Five Lectures: Psychoanalysis, Politics, and Utopia, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro and Shierry M. Weber, London: Allen Lane, 1970: 63

[9] Janice Hocker Rushing and Thomas S. Frentz. “Projecting the Shadow: The Cyborg Hero in American Film”. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996: 3

[10] Janice Hocker Rushing and Thomas S. Frentz. “Projecting the Shadow: (…)”, 14

[11] Teen titans. The sum of its parts. 2003. DC comics.

[12] Donna J. Haraway. “A Cyborg manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century, in Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994: 176

[13] Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas: What's it like to be a cyborg? Talks at Google. 2016 https://youtu.be/rRU62Csr_jI

[14] Michel Foucault, ‘Utopian Body,’ in Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art, ed. Caroline A. Jones, Cambridge, Ma: MIT, 2006: 233

[15] http://www.cyborgfoundation.com/

[16] Georges Canguilhem, “Knowledge of Life”, 141

[17] Georges Canguilhem, “Knowledge of Life”, 146