How the Cyborg Remade Us All
By Robert Maharajh
Within Lee Bul’s Gropius Bau exhibition Crash, pristine white cyborg figures stand in proximity with the quivering pink or putrid-flesh coloured organic forms of the Monster series. At first glance the two might seem to be radically different: in fact, as the artist has said, they can be viewed as doppelgangers – the very word “cyborg” is a hybrid formed from “cybernetics” and “organism” – and the story of their entanglement is vital to an understanding of our own collective evolution.
In 1984 the American philosopher Donna Haraway published A Cyborg Manifesto. This hugely influential text – now recognised as a feminist political classic as well as a formative way to think about the ramifications of then-emergent technologies that have come to dominate our lives- treats the cyborg in many forms. It is a social reality – even at the time of writing, Haraway notes, cyborgs were everywhere: in medicine, manufacturing and warfare (of course this reach has extended enormously in 2018). But more importantly Haraway addresses the cyborg as metaphor – one that has come to change human, and in particular female, experience forever.
The growth of technology in the wake of World War II, Haraway says, has led to a major rewiring of world-wide social relations. Fundamental categories of human existence have been re-written along cyborg lines by the inroads of technology in a process that is ongoing, indeed accelerating. For example, the category of reproduction, which now has to include cloning, fertility treatments and genetic engineering, moves ever closer to replication; image representation shifts from drawings and photographs to livestreaming and virtual reality; warfare that previously involved trenches, soldiers and handguns becomes a matter of satellite surveillance and targeted drone strikes. Because these new innovations cannot be coded as “natural”, they necessarily subvert the naturalistic coding of the original categories as well. As a result, it now makes little sense to speak about essential components of phenomena: far better to consider them in terms of interconnected networks, or what Haraway labels “cyborg semiologies”. “Any objects or persons can be reasonably thought of in terms of disassembly and reassembly; no ‘natural’ architectures constrain system design…The entire universe of objects that can be known scientifically must be formulated as problems in communications engineering”, she writes. Technology has rendered “the translation of the world into a problem of coding”. If this sounds sinister, it’s supposed to: the cyborg is, after all, the child of the military industrial complex, intended as “a grid of control on the planet”. But the cyborg is not necessarily true to its origins and its rebellious, hybridising aspect has potential as a means to subvert all totalising narratives, right across the political spectrum, and Haraway sees hope in this: “The cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints”, she writes.
Because we can no longer rely on familiar categories of “natural objects”, the focus is now on what Haraway labels “boundary conditions and interfaces”. It’s exactly this boundary zone that Lee Bul evokes with her works of this period. Both cyborg and monster are of indeterminate gender; at the same time, each explores different limits of territories culturally designated as “female”. The cyborg’s exoskeletal figure broadly follows the proportions of hyper-sexualized manga fantasy figures, with stylized techno-breasts and flaring hips (redundant since cyborgs do not procreate); at the same time, they echo the poses of classical western statuary that has represented a female ideal – one that carefully omits the reality of secretions, veins, bulges – since antiquity. By contrast the Monster series, unwieldy bio-assemblages of fleshy tuberous growths, inevitably recall philosopher Julia Kristeva’s idea of the “abject” – bodily wastes or excrescences that serve to remind us of our own terror of dissolution, and which are inextricably bound up with the concept of woman.
It’s not only Lee Bul’s contemporaneous 90s works that can be illumined by a cyborg “reading”. The recent installation Via Negativa incorporates the writings of Julian Jaynes, an American psychologist who in the mid-70s speculated that humans originally experienced the dictates of what we might now call the unconscious as an “external” voice – often taken for the voice of a deity. As the species began to face increasingly complex challenges, Jaynes theorised, this “dual mind” was subject to more and more internal questioning, the maze of echoes ultimately developing into modern self-consciousness.
The structure of all Lee Bul’s works invite and indeed require multiple readings, and tropes of the cyborg feed into and add new dimensions to this piece. Entering into Via Negativa’s labyrinthine passages we are confronted by multiple angled reflections, as if evoking the cyborg’s fundamental challenge to the idea of a unified self rooted in mythic origins. The weird geometries of the internal mirrored surfaces create a profound sense of disorientation: “In so far as we know ourselves in both formal discourse ... and in daily practice we find ourselves to be cyborgs, hybrids, mosaics, chimeras”, Haraway writes. Arriving at the inner chamber of the work we find dark surfaces – black mirrors – in which are reflected, again, our own faces, but this time as if integrated into a piece of illuminated circuitry; human and machine are inextricably overlaid in a vertiginous abyss. At this point, to quote Haraway again, “it is not clear who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machine. It is not clear what is mind and what is body in machines that resolve into coding practices...”. Again we encounter the blurred zone of interface, which here calls to mind the replicant character Rachel played by Sean Young in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, who, having believed she was human, realises that a hyper-vivid childhood memory was no more than a stock image, presumably just a few lines of code, implanted by her creator. Rachel, says Haraway, is “the image of a cyborg culture’s fear, love, and confusion”.
Haraway’s use of the cyborg metaphor is always double-edged, taking account of technology as both threat and possibility for the organism to which it is linked. One area of particular concern is that of globalised labour, and this again links her to Lee Bul, whose intricate textile and bead-work often evokes the “hand-work” done by her mother and countless women in South Korea as a way of making a living in a society where patriarchy has historically predominated (and indeed continues to predominate: the World Economic Forum ranked the country 115th out of 145 countries in its 2015 Gender Gap Report). Haraway writes about “the homework economy”, as a way of exploring the redefinition of all labour along the lines of piecemeal handwork, or traditionally “female jobs”. “To be feminized means to be made extremely vulnerable; able to be disassembled, reassembled, exploited as a reserve labour force’” she writes. But, as ever, she refuses to give in to the “ideological resources of victimization”: she mentions “real life cyborgs”, Southeast Asian village women working for global electronics firms, who are “actively rewriting the texts of their bodies and societies”.
Since the Cyborg Manifesto Haraway’s thinking has explored other directions: the systems theoretic reconceptualisation of the earth brought about by our ability to view the planet from space has drawn her towards Gaia theory, and a focus on the earth as living and threatened homeostatic system, replete with interdependent organisms (both fleshly and technological). In this context her new motif for thinking is “SF”: a blanket term that covers “speculative feminism” and “science fiction”, as well as “string figures” – the interlinking of ideas based on the ancient and culture-spanning game of cat’s cradle – where individuals work together to pick up threads, developing a larger overall pattern.
While science fiction, speculative feminism and entangled meshing together of disparate ideas and materials (perhaps another way to think about the process that curator Stephanie Rosenthal labels “crashing”) are all fundamental to her work, Lee Bul’s conceptual schema, it seems, continue to be distinctively rooted in human strivings and practices: the search for ideal societies, the construction of utopias that will inevitably fail, place the anthropos as architect and agent of historical development. Even her continuing interest in haptic spaces – a type of bare “home” that can be occupied in the same way a mollusc inhabits its shell – is fitted to the scale of the human body, as in Live Forever III, Bunker (M. Bakhtin), or Scale of Tongue.
Where the two converge again is in the imperative of what Haraway calls “staying with the trouble” – the need to address vital issues of earthly survival not via utopian hopes but as a joint enterprise. For Haraway this implies a symbiosis of all earthly creatures, and a call to think actively about ways to avert crisis; whereas for Lee Bul, whose roots lie deep in the turbulent events of contemporary Korean history, it seems to imply a communal human undertaking. Her recent work Scale of Tongue, whose sculptural shape is overlaid with intricate textile draperies, was originally conceived as a costume or piece of wearable art. But it also makes direct reference to the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster, in which 304 people died and which led to widespread critique of the government and institutions within Korea. From a certain perspective the sculpture seems to recall a foundering vessel, or a tongue that has been ripped out by the root: it might be read as memorialising not only those who died at Sewol but also countless others who in the course of Korea’s history have dared to speak out.