Thursday, April 03, 2008

the cyborg candidate

  1. This is not a post about the governor of California.

  2. I'm no conspiracy theorist. Calling Obama the cyborg candidate doesn't mean I think he's remote controlled through a chip in his brain by extremists. (Although I expect that rumor's already circulating somewhere; last week I received a forward that Obama is the Anti-Christ. Which, as Scott Freeman points out, doesn't really tell you whether the Left Behind-ists will vote for or against him...)

So, now that the crazy options are out of the way you may be wondering just what the heck I do mean. Well, while I sincerely try to avoid discussing my dissertation topic when in polite company, I do occasionally vent my enthusiasm for the posthuman here on the blog.

But this cyborg stuff isn't all academic. In the beginning, the cyborg was political, not academic. And while this aspect of the cyborg may indeed have gotten "lost" along the way, it's not been lost on me; and the bottom line, evident in Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto, (or you may prefer the comic version), is that the cyborg is about dropping essentialisms and identity politics so we can get together and finally get some things done.

Now, does that sound familiar, anyone?

Before I go any further, let me unpack a bit. What is a cyborg? A cyborg is a creature that breaks down the ontological boundary between organism and machine: part organic, part mechanical. The word was coined in 1960 by a couple of scientists dreaming up ways to explore space; it seemed like a lot of trouble to engineer a mobile life-sustaining environment to meet all of the needs of the earth-bound human they thought, why not engineer the body to dispense with those needs, or meet them some other way? Of course we haven't quite achieved this yet, although the cutting edge technology in things like prostheses and silicon chips that allow quadriplegics to manipulate computer cursors is pretty damn amazing. But that's not really the point. The point is, the cyborg represents a form of life that refuses to fit neatly into our conceptual categories: person/thing, alive/inanimate, human/machine, etc. The cyborg has a foot in both worlds, and to ignore that fact means pretending it doesn't exist, refusing to see it as it is.

Writers in postcolonial theology muse on cultural/social/racial hybridity in a parallel way: neither one category or the other, they forge identity out of between-ness, the both/and, the neither/nor. And this brings us to Obama, who is hybrid in a way similar to these postcolonial theorists: the son of a white mother and a black father.

The disappointing thing to me about the Rev. Wright stuff is not really in what the man said, or even how what he said was twisted around and used against, not him, but someone if, should Joe Hays ever do/say something crazy prophetic, it would somehow reflect on me personally. (Joe, I know you're crazy prophetic all the time. Keep on.) No, what's disappointing to me is that this in effect reintroduces, with a vengeance, into the campaign discourse the very thing Obama has been seeking to transcend: identity politics. If he stands with Rev. Wright, then he's too black and scary for comfortable white folks, too revolutionary, too angry to be trusted...If he disowns Rev. Wright, then he's too white and scared for righteously angry black folks who understand the truth in the Reverend's prophetic utterances. It's all about trying to make Obama declare himself: are you white, or are you black? Are you or aren't you running as a black candidate, to become the first black President?

The fact that Obama's response to this provocation was a speech on race in America indicates to me that he gets it. It's not really enough to claim a hybrid pedigree personally, although I think it's evident that growing up with a sense of not knowing to which category you belong--and constantly being recategorized as the Other by everyone you come across--shapes your experience in a way that makes the limitations of those categories painfully obvious. Obama's not simply the cyborg candidate because he's the offspring of a black-white hybrid family. He's the cyborg candidate because, like Haraway, he realizes that it's not desirable or even possible to dream of uniting people on the basis of common identity anymore. That's not what we want. That's not the goal. It doesn't work. Haraway's point about the cyborg is that there's nothing basic, essential, on which we can unite. Haraway realized this in 1985, reflecting on the fragmentation of the feminist movement in the U.S. Even white women in America, who briefly came together and united on the basis of a fabricated common identity as Woman, found out the hard way that oops, we're actually a bunch of women who are all different...and that was before we learned the even harder lesson that we shouldn't have left out the black women, the Latina women, the Chinese- and Japanese- and Korean-American women (not Asian-American! Asia's a continent not an ethnicity!), all the women in other global contexts who have something to tell us about their own experiences and needs and hopes.

Obama articulates the same realization when he urges us to unite in order to work towards common goals despite differences in color, creed, and experience. What's so impressive about his candidacy is that he has somehow managed to do this--every CNN retrospective breakdown of every primary, you see votes busted up: the white vote, the black vote, the Hispanic vote, the women vote, the white male vote. And despite the fact that these categories are so taken for granted in America today that we receive this kind of categorical analysis as normal and coherent, what we see is that Obama's candidacy makes these taken-for-granted lines, drawn and redrawn in every political analysis, obsolete. Perhaps a better word than "unity," which seems to indicate a seamless whole, is Haraway's "coalition," a word Obama also employs; coalition doesn't imply melting into one another and merging into a whole that obliterates the differences between us that are real and important--those differences that make us, for better or worse, who we are. Instead it's through those differences, the recognition and communication and comprehension of them, that we come together; that is coalition. Haraway talks about it as chosen affinity, a matter of conscious alignment with one another; sometimes she talks about it as kinship--but not the kinship of blood relation, more like the kinship of adoption. A chosen affinity, a coalition of difference...but not, for that reason, any less real or potent.

In fact, for that very reason, all the more so. This is what I, very hopefully, see in Obama's candidacy. An option for coming together that skips the necessity of me being like you.

Now, if we could just learn this lesson theologically and ecclesially, maybe Jesus could come back already. Because Obama's right on something else, too: the most segregated hour in this nation happens on Sunday mornings. But if Jesus' speaking to adulterous women and traitorous tax collectors and dirty Samaritans hasn't somehow hammered the lesson that "me being like you" is not a prereq for unity, then the reiteration of that message from a political candidate, even a cyborg candidate, may fall on deaf ears; those who have ears to hear, let them hear.


J-Wild said...

Fantastic insight. The aspect of Obama and his campaign that you detail here are at the heart of why people will vote for him even in they are ideologically opposed to some of his political positions. Thanks for flushing this out.

Anonymous said...

This was exciting for me to read, especially because I've recently been introduced to posthumanism in musicology (thanks to Justin Burton). I think you drew some really great correlations between the idea of the cyborg and Obama. Thanks for writing!

R-Liz said...

My husband and I did try to get in to see Obama when he came to Eugene a few weeks ago. However, the line to see him was amazingly, impressively long. There was no way we'd get in there.

However the attempt was no way a waste because I LOVED seeing the spectrum of people represented in this line: all ages, all races (well, as much as can be said for Oregon), etc., etc. Even though there was no way we were going to get into the arena, I was just thrilled to see the wide appeal Obama has nation-wide confirmed in my own backyard.

P.S. Hillary's coming to Eugene this Saturday. A friend in the office next to mine has decided she'll get up early and try to see Hillary. We all predict the demographic will be entirely different (we're predicting baby-boomer-aged, white, women-- which is what my friend whose going happens to be). And the arena is smaller than Obama's. His seated 9,000 whereas hers seats 3,000. Should be interesting.

Justin Burton said...

Well put.

Another cyborgism of Obama is the emphasis that he and Michelle both place on their 'regularness.' He is at once a polished politician as well as a normal guy who just finished paying off school loans, a wide-eyed optimist who hasn't been contaminated by politics.

Still, even as a guy who's been supporting Obama for a long time now, I wonder...

Is this just the nature of politics? You mentioned that this is a hopeful analysis, and I wonder if Obama's hybridity is just another way to appeal to as many people as possible, different in form but not essence from Bill Clinton's ability to straddle so many fences throughout the 90s.

In other words, how long till we know it's the real thing? Does it even matter, or is it just up to us to seize this moment of hybridity and make it worthwhile, whether Obama intends to or not?

JTB said...

good question...part of what makes me hopeful is that Obama also consistently makes the point that he's not asking people to believe in him, as if he singlehandedly is going to deliver on all these promises for change. First person plurals abound. So another aspect of the hybridity here is beyond the personal and conceptual but the interpersonal, the same direct move Haraway makes from cyborg to coalition...that seems to me to depend on Obama only insofar as someone has to point out the possibility.

I think it's real but like Casey, I drank the Koolaid awhile back.