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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]