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Manfred Clynes and the Cyborg

Chris Hables Gray

 

By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism: in short, we are all cyborgs.

-- Donna Haraway (1989b, p. 66)

 

The twentieth century human body can be conceived of through any number of rich and insightful metaphors. In important ways it is a disciplined body, a textualized body, a gendered body, and a resisting body. But more and more it seems that one of the most fruitful metaphors is to conceptualize the human body as a rhetorical and material construction, a creature that combines informatics, mechanics, and organics. In other words, a cyborg.

It was Manfred Clynes who coined this term in 1960. His colleague at Rockland State Hospital's Research Laboratory, Nathan Kline, had been asked by NASA to participate in a conference about human space exploration. They proposed a number of ways humans could be modified to survive in space. The great insight Clynes had was to think of these modifications systematically because the only possible way to engineer man for space was to see the human and the spacecraft as interpenetrated systems which shared information and energy. So Clynes created the term cyborg from cybernetic and organism, marrying the reality of the organic body with the idea of cybernetics.

Norbert Weiner's elaboration of the concept of cybernetics, of a technoscience that explained both organic and machinic control processes as parts of informational systems, was the culmination of many different currents in Western culture. The mechanization of war, the automation of work, the electronization of information, the commodification of culture, the triumph of mass media, the spread of global networks, and the triumph of cybernetic metaphors in science and medicine, all contributed.

Long before Clynes and Kline wrote their paper the idea of the organic-artificial creature existed in human culture. It has old roots in Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Western culture where myths about created beings and gods with metal limbs are thousands of years old. In the middle ages the alchemists tried to grow "little men" called homunculi and dreamed of talking heads and artisans from France to Japan made automatons and puppets of incredible verisimilitude. But it wasn't until the 19th century that the increasing power of science and medicine began to make the realization of such fantasies possible. Mary Shelly's monster, Frankenstein's creature, was the first fully realized cyborg and he was followed by many others, such as L. Frank Baum's Tin Man. The first serious scientific proposal of cyborgs was by the great British scientist J. D. Bernal, who wrote in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1926), that humans involved in colonizing space should take control of their evolutionary destiny through genetic engineering, prosthetic surgery, and hard-wired electric interfaces between humans and machines that would allow them to attach "a new sense organ or...a new mechanism to operate..." (Bernal 1929, p. 26)

By the end of World War II it was very clear that the mechanization of the human, the vitalization of the machine, and the integration of them both through cybernetics was producing a whole new range of informational disciplines, fantasies, and practices that transgress the machinic-organic border. This marks a major transition from a world where human and tool, human and machine, living and dead, organic and inorganic, close and distant, natural and artificial, seemed clear (even if they really weren't) to the present where all of these distinctions seem plastic, if not ludicrous.

Many humans are now literally cyborgs, single creatures that include organic and inorganic subsystems. Inorganic subsystems can range from complex prosthetic limbs to the programming of the immune system that we call vaccinations. In the industrial and post-industrial countries, a cyborg society has developed where the intimate interconnections and codependencies between organic and machine systems are so complex and pervasive that, whether or not any particular individual in that society is a cyborg, we are all living a cyborgian existence. It was Manfred Clynes' who invented a word that would encompass this new relationship between humans and our technologies.

The term cyborg will certainly last as long as the English language. Perhaps it took someone of the unusual qualities of Manfred Clynes to create the perfect word for this fundamentally extraordinary stage of human development. Clynes combines the artistic sensibility of a world-class pianist with a relentless technical genius powered by a restless intelligence and an exuberant enthusiasm for knowledge. It is a unique combination. It is hard to imagine anyone else coming up with cyborg. But he did more than coin a neologism. Since 1960 Clynes has been contributing to cyborgology both with his philosophical reflections as well as his technical research.

Clynes and Kline concluded their seminal article with the comment that cyborg developments "will not only make a significant step forward in man's scientific progress, but may well provide a new and larger dimension for man's spirit as well." (Clynes and Kline, 1960, p. 33) How right they were. Humans, for good or ill, are clearly embarked on a path of "participant evolution" as Clynes and Kline argued earlier in that same article. The end of this road is unclear but Clynes is certainly right when he argues that cyborg transformations will continue and become more profound. In an interview he granted me in 1994 he charts at least five levels of cyborgization, ending with the potentially incredible changes of genetic engineering which he labels Cyborg IV and perhaps some day in the distant future, even disembodied intelligence (Cyborg V). (Clynes 1995b) In other reflections on cyborgs he has focused on the importance of his theory of sentics for cyborg space travel. (Clynes 1995a)

Perhaps he is making his most powerful contribution to the cyborgian process with his work on sentics, a field he has created himself, that seeks to understand on a technical level human emotions. Clynes attempt to specifically map the physiology of human emotion is explained elsewhere in this volume (see Chapter ?) but what is striking is how this research, like his work on computer biosensors such as CAT machines (see Chapter ?) and on computer music (see Chapter ?) combines innovative science, concrete engineering, and the dreams of an unrestrained imagination.

At the end of his interview with me, he remarked, "After all we need to dream now, and often, mysteriously to us, we may be wiser in our dreams then we think." (Clynes 1995b, p. 53) What makes Manfred so special is that not only are his dreams protean, but he has done much to bring them to life.

Cyborgs are proliferating in numerous sites of contemporary culture and as they do they are redefining many of the most basic concepts of human existence. Advances in medical cyborg research are completely changing the meaning of death and life, for example. Working doctors and medical technologist no longer speak of death plain and simple. Patients are"single-dead," "double-dead," or "triple-dead" depending on if, or how, their organs can be harvested for transplantation (Hogle 1995). When humans venture into the depths of the ocean, the deeps of space, or the nether world of cyberspace, they go only as cyborgs. Cyborg systems are central to current military thinking (Levidow and Robins, 1989) and to contemporary manufacturing.

Scholars now even talk of Cyborg Anthropology as a subfield of anthropology dedicated to study human-machine relations (Downey, Dumit and Williams, 1995), of cyborg ideology (Hayles 1995), even of a whole discipline dedicated to studying cyborgs (cyborgology) and of a cyborg epistemology (Gray, Mentor, and Figueroa-Sarriera, 1995). Clearly, the idea of the cyborg is changing humanity and the way we think about ourselves. There are dangers in this, of course, but great opportunities as well. As Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline noted in their 1960 article, the idea of cyborg was to help liberate what is best in humans from the slavery of machinery, whether that "machinery" is organic or machinic.

If man in space, in addition to flying his vehicle, must continuously be checking on things and making adjustments merely in order to keep himself alive, he becomes a slave to the machine. The purpose of the Cyborg, as well as his own homeostatic systems, is to provide an organizational system in which such robot-like problems are taken care of automatically and unconsciously, leaving man free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel. (Clynes and Kline 1960)

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References

Bernal, J.D., (1929) The World, The Flesh and the Devil, London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner.

Clynes, Manfred E., (1995a) "Cyborg II: Sentic Space Travel," in Gray, Mentor, and Figueroa-Sarriera, eds., The Cyborg Handbook, New York: Routledge, 1995, pp. 35-42.

_____, (1995b) "Interview," in Gray, Mentor, and Figueroa-Sarriera, eds., The Cyborg Handbook, New York: Routledge, 1995, pp. 43-54.

Clynes, Manfred E. and Nathan S. Kline, (1960) "Cyborgs and Space," Astronautics, September, pp. 26-27 and 74-75; reprinted in Gray, Mentor, and Figueroa-Sarriera, eds., The Cyborg Handbook, New York: Routledge, 1995, pp. 29-34.

Downey, Gary Lee, Joseph Dumit, and Sarah Williams (1995) "Cyborg Anthropology," in Gray, Mentor, and Figueroa-Sarriera, eds., The Cyborg Handbook, New York: Routledge, 1995, pp. 341-345.

Gray, Chris Hables, Heidi J. Figueroa-Sarriera and Steven Mentor, eds., (1995) "Cyborgology: Constructing the Knowledge of Cybernetic Organisms" in The Cyborg Handbook, New York: Routledge, pp. 1-15.

Haraway, Donna (1989) "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s," in Simians, Cyborgs and Women, New York: Routledge.

Hayles, N. Katherine, (1995) "Engineering Cyborg Ideology," American Book Review, vol. 17, no. 2, Dec./Jan., pp. 3, 9.

Hogle, Linda F. (1995) "Tales From the Cryptic: Technology Meets Organism in the Living Cadaver" in Gray, Mentor, and Figueroa-Sarriera, eds., The Cyborg Handbook, New York: Routledge, 1995, pp. 203-217.

Levidow, Les and Kevin Robins, eds, (1989) Cyborg Worlds: The Military Information Society, New York: Columbia University Press.