This browser is supported only in Windows 10 and above.

Eat Me/Drink Me and the Trouble with Cyborgs

Editor’s Note: Before you read on, watch the premiere FREE here.

Who am I then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I’ll come up: if not, I’ll stay down here till I’m somebody else.
(Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

By the late twentieth century […] we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism. In short, we are cyborgs.
(Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto”)

Like Alice, you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, into a room where none of the doors leading out can accommodate the size and shape of your body. You are trapped. You are alone.

On the table in front of you: a bottle and a piece of cake.

You do not know their ingredients, and you cannot predict the consequences of swallowing either one. They give no information apart from the imperative to consume. You somehow know that each contains the promise of liberation: by modifying your body they will allow you to fit through the only door that offers a way out.

“EAT ME,” reads the cake.
“DRINK ME,” offers the bottle.
Would you partake?

If you say “no,” why not? Perhaps one reason might be because you worry that once modified you risk the danger of no longer being yourself. Indeed, Alice anguished over the same concern: “If I’m not the same,” she cried, “the next question is: Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!”

Assuming you knew who you were before this moment, how much of your body and which parts would you allow to change and still consider yourself the same person? Would the means by which you allowed those changes to occur matter?

Let me put it another way using a different example, one you may also be familiar with: there are many versions of this puzzle, but let me sum up my version of it like this:

Imagine your home is a boat built from wooden planks. Over time, the ship will need repairs. If one wooden plank is removed, and replaced with an aluminum plank, is it still the same ship? If you answer “yes,” then what if another wooden plank is removed and replaced with another aluminum one? Would you still answer “yes”? If you continued on like this, replacing wooden planks over and over with aluminum ones, all the while maintaining your residence on it, how many replacements could you make and still be committed to saying that the ship is the same one? Let’s say we proceed like this over a period of years, slowly making repairs and replacements, until we have completely replaced all the wood with new aluminum. Could you still claim that you live on the same boat? Indeed, you still only have, numerically speaking, one ship that is your home, but is it still your same home if its composite parts have undergone such radical changes?1

How would I answer? Yes. I would answer that yes, it is the same. If by definition the ship is my home, then it remains my home despite whatever tinkering over time it’s been subjected to. In fact, in its newly modified state, it’s an even better home — more seaworthy, more resilient to stress, and likely to be able to travel further.2

Throughout my life, my body has been altered by technological means in various ways, some more obvious than others. For example: there are the caffeine and nicotine compounds I ingest daily coursing through my blood stream. There are the analgesics I take to subdue sciatic pain; and metal pins keeping certain bones together after having been broken. There are fillings in my teeth to alleviate the damage they’ve suffered from years of eating too much sugar. There are glasses sitting at the edge of my nose to correct my vision. There are chemical cocktails I swallow each morning to balance the effects of perimenopause that’s beginning to transform my body as I move closer to the half-century mark. There are the residual effects of antibiotics and steroids I’ve unwittingly introduced into my body from the food I’ve consumed. There are the airborne molecules coughed out of each vehicle’s exhaust pipe that I inhale every time I stand on a busy street corner waiting for the bus.

The list could go on, and these, of course, are fairly simple and not particularly contentious examples. But that’s the point: they are commonplace and hardly likely to make you bat an eye. My body, like most bodies in the Western world, has been radically modified with biotechnology. Most of my body is still comprised of natural, organic bits, but it now, undeniably, also includes parts that have never existed before in nature. As time goes by, my body is decidedly less organic. It becomes more and more a hybrid of natural and artificial. Yet, I do not doubt that I am still the same person I have been calling “me” throughout the duration of my lifetime. And in some respects, I might even consider myself to be an improved “me.”3

In previous seasons we’ve creatively explored Science — as a methodology for inquiring into the natural world, as a social practice for generating facts and grounding epistemic authority, as a way of positioning and buttressing political claims — and biology, more specifically, through various lenses. For example: evolutionary debates about chance and contingency; nature vs. nurture; the longstanding, mutually influencing relationship between science and religion; the effects of the militarization of scientific research; and the existential and moral implications of particular kinds of scientific investigation. We’ve used it to problematize questions of identity, individuality, autonomy, agency, feminism, and freedom. This season we continue to problematize these ideas but we’ve veered a bit into kindred disciplines — technology and engineering. We’ve opened some very uncomfortable arguments about the industrialization and commodification of biology through — and as — biotechnology. We’ve ripped open some assumptions about bioengineering, biomedicine, reproductive technologies, and how biology-for-profit might affect questions of kinship, autonomy, propriety, identity, and what we consider the basic building blocks of life.

We take the EAT ME/DRINK ME question very seriously here, and we’ve framed it through the dual lens of bioengineering and experimental science.

Many years ago when Graeme was conceiving and developing the ideas for Orphan Black he asked me what kinds of works — not other works of science fiction, but rather historical or philosophical texts —  I would personally read, recommend, and use to think about clones and a feminist approach to science (and science fiction) more generally. The first that came to mind at the time was an essay by biologist and philosopher of science Donna Haraway called “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” It was, and still is, one of my favorites. To be honest, I didn’t actually think he’d read it, but sure enough her book now sits on his shelf, proudly dog-eared and worn.4

According to Haraway, “A cyborg is a cybernetic [feedback controlled] organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction. […] The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women’s experience in the late twentieth century. […] Contemporary science fiction is full of cyborgs — creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted. Modern medicine is also full of cyborgs, of couplings between organism and machine, each conceived as coded devices, in an intimacy and with a power that was not generated in the history of sexuality.”5

So we’ve fantasized Haraway’s cyborg in our own strange and disturbing ways. We mean to disturb you, amuse you, possibly even confuse you. But yet again, we’re not offering any moral, political, or ethical answers. We don’t have any.

But I’ll leave you with one last thought from Haraway:
“[T]aking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skillful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts.”

1 There are a number of ways that philosophers have tried to solve this Ship of Theseus puzzle, none of which I intend to outline here – mostly because I never much liked analytic philosophy approaches to metaphysics. Don’t hold it against me — it’s just that it always bored the crap out of me. Nevertheless, it’s not really important for our purposes here anyway.
2 Not to mention likely cleaner as well after putting all that work into it. And I do so like a clean ship.
3 Save for the coffee and cigarettes part, of course. Nothing to be proud of there.
4 No offense, Graeme. I just, you know, didn’t think you’d find the time.
5 Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Free Association Books: London, 1991. pp. 291-2.

Read More