The narrative of cyborgs in various master/slave scenarios is still
powerful to me because it touches on themes of authority, obedience,
and race and/or ethnicity.
I find the ethnicity of cyborgs---especially as it relates to the race
and ethnicity of humans---very interesting as presented in the film
_Bladerunner_, which was referenced in Ekmel Ertan's introduction on
July 1. It features bio-mechanical characters that are referred to as
"replicants" (in this post, I am using "cyborg" and "replicant"
interchangeably). While I am aware that bringing up old frameworks
imposes a different meaning on cyborgs, as pointed out by Dr.
Lanfranco Aceti, it seems that the point of the provocative topic at
hand---ethnic cyborgs---is at least partially intended to reveal and
examine existing hierarchies to better understand them. I already
described and made commentary on this film in March, during the
discussion of "artists as inventors / inventors as artists" in the
context of the fiction, narrative, and what was described as "the
invention of the self." (To avoid repetition, here's the link to that
However, I would like to elaborate on it for the current topic of
As in the current discussion, especially in relationship to Roger
Malina's proposition of "cyborgs in burkas"
eyes---and by extension vision and the soul---are focal points in the
film. A single eye is shown twice in extreme close up at the beginning
of the film with the landscape reflected in it (one could interpret
this image many ways---as a cyborg view of the city, a surveillance
view, etc.). However, it was clearly modeled on human vision. Eyes are
central in identifying cyborgs (an eye examination is used in relation
to an empathy test). The eyes of human-shaped cyborgs and artificial
animals (most prominently an owl) often appear in the film with
exaggerated "red" reflective light from their retinas (this is
familiar to many as an often-undesirable effect from flash photographs
or snapshots, but is not usually seen deliberately used in motion
pictures). A genetic designer has a specialty of designing eyes (an
escaped slave cyborg says knowingly to him, "If only you could see
what I have seen with _your_ eyes"). Genetically engineered eyes are
physically handled in his shop by him and, later, by a cyborg that is
seeking information about how to locate its author/creator; the cyborg
places some of the eyes on the genetic designer's shoulders and head
as an odd and immature threat. A cyborg kills its author/creator by
puncturing his eyes with its thumbs as it crushes his head in its
hands. The "creator" wears enormous glasses with complex colorless
lenses. Eye color also figures prominently---mostly a blue-green
color, which is even donned by one of the few non-white characters.
There is also an ongoing theme of origin, with the central questions
of where one comes from and the definition of consciousness underlying
the story, which I think is relevant to the current discussion of
ethnic cyborgs. Sensitive questions about fathers, mothers, and
families appear throughout the film, with one replicant referring to
herself (when asked about her family) as an orphan. A genetic designer
tells a replicant that he is not lonely because he "makes" friends,
meaning he designs his friends in the form of an eclectic group of
cyborg-like bio-mechanical creations, which often have anthropomorphic
qualities and mostly behave like house pets. Even memories evoke
reproduction and the life cycle. For instance, a human childhood
memory is implanted into a cyborg; the memory consists of having
watched a spider build a web one summer and when its large egg hatched
its baby spiders devoured the spider. A morning scene features
chicken-size eggs boiling in water in a tall, narrow, cylindrical,
colorless pot that looks as if it were borrowed from a lab. A
replicant dips her hand in the roiling water, slowly grabs an egg, and
tosses it to a human, who drops it immediate because it is so hot.
Also, a replicant is asked to "Describe in single words only the good
things that come into your mind about your mother." The replicant
responds, "Let me tell you about my mother," and shoots the
questioner. A cyborg is led to believe it is a human and clings to a
fictive photograph representing itself with its "mother" as evidence
of her human origin. Another cyborg collects photographs, which seem
to symbolize memories and reproduction. The main character, a
detective, prominently displays evidence of a family and a history
through photographs but no members of the family materialize in the
film. The city (Los Angeles, 2019) is densely populated, showing over
In environmental ruin, the city is host to diverse races and
ethnicities (most prominently a blending of the people of the pacific
rim). However, the main cast of the film is mostly white, including
the actors playing the cyborgs. It's worth noting that a police chief
in the film refers to cyborgs with the pejorative "skin jobs,"
revealing where they fit in the social hierarchy. They are illegal on
earth and only used "off-world," as slave labor.
As I mentioned previously, the language in the film is particularly
resonant with U.S. viewers in its specific slang in relation to
masters and slaves. When talking with two replicants a genetic
designer is proud to affirm his suspicion of their make and model
(Nexus 6). He had worked on developing their design and blurts out,
"There's some of me in you." This is actually a threatening phrase
that has been used by white people to taunt light-skinned blacks (and
their families) to demonstrate a kind of dominance of whites over
blacks through rape, especially during slavery (meaning that some
"white" is in them). Lastly, in the climax, a replicant that is about
to expire says, "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe." This
is a cleverly twisted insult. "You people" is a common pejorative when
referring directly to someone of a different race or ethnicity.
A documentary film by Rory Kennedy entitled "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib"
draws parallels between a 1961 experiment by Dr. Stanley Milgram, a
psychologist at Yale University, and the U.S. torture inflicted at the
Abu Ghaib prison in Iraq. The "obedience to authority" study was
intended to observe an individual's willingness to inflict pain when
ordered to do so by someone who the subject perceived as an authority.
The subjects were chosen for the study from a group of people who
responded to a newspaper advertisement. The subjects were asked to
trigger a series of electric shocks to a person in another room by
flipping switches. The subjects did not know that the people who were
supposedly receiving the electrical shocks were actors and that the
shocks were not real. After hitting the switch to deliver the shock,
the subject could hear the "victim" scream and beg the subject to
stop. As the experiment progressed, the volts increased. In the end,
the film says that all the subjects administered shocks and the
majority did so at the maximum level, which was 450 volts. This
demonstrated how an authority figure (a person [presumably a
psychologist] in a lab coat who claimed to be responsible for the
experiment) could command people to be obedient and engage in
In "Ghost of Abu Grhaib," malevolent robotic behavior is described and
popular films are evoked. A U.S. M.P. said, "That place [Abu Ghraib]
turned me into a monster. I was very angry. You know, its being Abu
Ghraib, you know, it would change your whole mind frame. You know, you
could go from being a docile, you know, you know, jolly guy and you go
to Abu Ghraib for a few, for a few, you be in Iraq for awhile, you
become, you know, a robot." A MP and MI who are interviewed in the
documentary used movies as metaphors to describe their experience at
Abu Ghraib. One said that going into Iraq was like going into a "Mad
Max movie." Another described parts of the Abu Ghraib prison as a
combination of "Apocalypse Now" meets "The Shining," except "this is
real and you're in the middle of it."
I think these convergences of the imagination and symbols within
future-focused film, the ideas and facts of documentary film, and the
shared frame of reference engendered by more popular films provide
fertile ground for exploring a variety of power structures.
In the vast news media, the subjects of authority, obedience, and
racism (master/slave scenarios) are central to a recent incident that
involves a university professor, a police officer, and the U.S.
president that is now unfolding. (See
Obedience and racism in the U.S. are also joined in a paper on
bioethics (from a U.K. perspective) that examines the complexity of
the Milgram "obedience to authority" experiment and the Tuskegee
syphilis study in the context of their often over-simplified use as
paradigms of problematic research. (See the PDF at this lengthy Google
In the end, think the broad range of cyborgs described in this
discussion could share enough cultural traits to become their own
ethnicity. It could be one of the most diverse groups ever united.
On 7/24/09, Murat Germen <email@example.com> wrote:
> dear federica and veroniki,
> i think all this discussion is very closely related to how we think,
> live, interpret, practice, etc. there are a lot of people who live
> without questioning anything they are dictated (religion, consumerism,
> fashion, political movements, philosophical theories, generic trends,
> etc.). such people are, in my view, more robotic than any
> part/full-machine human-like droid that is taught to reason. so a
> machine can at times be more humane than a human:)
> annick was pointing to chemical support (steroids and stuff) in sports
> in her last message. a chemically boosted human racer is probably as
> much robotic as a car factory robot...
> so i guess the point here is that the boundaries are not as clear as one
> would expect...
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> On 7/23/09 4:10 PM, email@example.com wrote:
>> Dear Veroniki and Murat,
>> I think this is exactly the point, and I am happy
>> that your posts resurfaced the ethic and political implications of the
>> condition. If cyborgs are conceived as embodied (although hybrid),
>> (not futuristic) and partial (anti-individualistic) formations, then we
>> give account of all the possible connections that they can both create and
>> destroy. This means being able to account for the different cyborgian
>> through the networks, and their strategic as well as tactical employments.
>> The feminist artist and theorist Faith Wilding affirms that "the personal
>> computer is a political computer" (echoing the feminist slogan "the
>> personal is
>> political"). That is: when talking about the ways in which technobiopowers
>> transnationally altered the domains of production and reproduction, it is
>> responsibility to give account of the ways in which the same technology
>> differently relates to different indentity formations. But this also means
>> being resposible for tracing the connections and asymmetries between the
>> possible uses of the same technology. The same laptop signifies
>> differently -
>> on a material and symbolic level - when it is assembled by a woman
>> working in
>> the assembly line of a maquiladora than when it is used by a woman working
>> the academy as a professor, for example (see for instance the works of
>> Biemann, Prema Murthy, subRosa and Critical Art Ensemble...).
>> Monika also
>> quoted Rosi Braidotti for her critique of Giorgio Agamben, and I believe
>> reading "Transpositions" as well as many other essays of her can help us
>> rediscover the deeply political implications of (harawaian) cyborg theory.
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HOW TO SUBSCRIBE: click on the link to the list you wish to subscribe to. In the page that will appear ("info page"), enter e-mail address, name, and password in the fields found further down the page.
HOW TO UNSUBSCRIBE: on the info page, scroll all the way down and enter your e-mail address in the last field. Enter password if asked. Click on the unsubscribe button on the page that will appear ("options page").
HOW TO ENABLE / DISABLE DIGEST MODE: in the options page, find the "Set Digest Mode" option and set it to either on or off.