From the Series: Keywords for Ethnography and Design
A cyborg is an amalgamation of designed parts and biological body parts. Cyborg, as a word, emerges from twentieth-century technoscience. A derivative of cybernetics, the study of complex technical systems, cyborg connotes a system linking biological and mechanical elements. Ethnographers study the design of systems and mechanical technology, and as such are bearers of technologically enabled selves.
As an ethnographer studying disability, I pay attention to how enabling technologies come to be considered unremarkable, therapeutic, or pathological. This has led me to think about the body of the ethnographer and to conclude that ethnography, as an exercise and practice, is designed not only as a Eurocentric enterprise, but also an ableist one: prototypically, the ethnographer is the bearer of a bodymind imagined to be more mobile and more sensorially enabled than that of the ethnographic subject.
Popular culture depicts cyborgs as bodymachines, tracing the outermost edge of human technological capacities. The very word evokes potent imaginaries about possible horizons for human sociality or the possibility of technology challenging humanness itself. Cyborg is sci-fi and science reality: mice with human ears growing out of their backs, a titanium knee joint, or aesthetic enhancements (see Hogle 2005). The notion of the cyborg suggests that not only the habits of a body but also its actual components are culturally mediated or designed.
In scholarly genealogies, though, the concept of the cyborg troubles the premise at the core of this sci-fi strangeness: that the natural and the technological are distinct spheres. The suggestion that some components are natural body parts and others artificial enhancement relies on the premise that human culture is outside of nature. In an essay on the cybernetics of self, Gregory Bateson (1972) characterizes the human self as a set of systems in an ecology of heterogeneous elements. Bateson (1972, 318) writes:
Consider a blind man with a stick. Where does the blind man’s self begin? At the tip of the stick? At the handle of the stick? Or at some point halfway up the stick? These questions are nonsense, because the stick is a pathway along which differences are transmitted under transformation, so that to draw a delimiting line across this pathway is to cut off a part of the systemic circuit which determines the blind man’s locomotion.
A cyborg is more than the sum of its parts: a human bodymind plus technological objects, irreducible to their components. Cyborgs trouble boundaries like human/tool, human/animal, animal/machine, body/mind, and physical/nonphysical. In Donna Haraway’s (1991) classic “Cyborg Manifesto,” cyborgs expose the biological determinism that ties social capacities to biological bodies. These cyborgs live between the material and the digital. Their selves extend beyond the boundaries of physical bodies, their sensory capacity and ways of knowing about the world blinking across handheld devices and wireless networks, flickering as avatars, photographs, and nearly forgotten blog posts. I imagine the fluid self that extends outward from such a body peeking around corners, permeating what is knowable in terms of the spatial and sensory awareness of the supposedly natural human body. More than bodies encountering machines, technological systems are the ecological landscape on which communication unfolds.
The word cyborg suggests the many ways in which a body, as well as its capacities, might be designed. Our bodies are how we move and know in the world—and for ethnographers, our primary research instrument. In short, what Natasha Myers and Joe Dumit (2011, 243) call the “bodies of the scientists and the materialities of their experimental apparatuses” matter, and deserve attention not only in technoscience, but in ethnography itself. “Design,” writes Arturo Escobar (2018), “is a key element in who we become because of the kinds of practices designed objects and tools call on us to perform.” The variable potentialities of our unevenly technologically enabled bodies have real implications for the politics of knowledge production.
When I was conducting fieldwork in Petrozavodsk, Russia in 2012, I was gathering examples of poorly constructed disability access ramps in the city. I thought interlocutors might contribute photos to a collaborative blog of local examples. After two months, almost no one had contributed. I asked one of my interlocutors—who has a mobility impairment, while I am more typically ambulatory—why he hadn’t contributed photos. Sardonically, he looked at me and asked: “Cassandra, when am I going to go out and photograph ramps? I can’t get over the steps to get out of my apartment building. If I’m going to get someone to take me out, it had better be for something more interesting than that.” Although I had recorded myriad interviews about the difficulty of going out, the unevenness of our respective mobilities had snuck up on me. The prosthetic politics of knowledge production matter.
Consider your own fieldwork: what objects do you pack? Not only tools of the trade—recording devices and notebooks—but the mundane ephemera of personal fashioning: hairbands, shoulder bags, regionally appropriate cosmetics, a best ethnographer’s dress (cf. Newton 1993)? Perhaps you bring medications, toiletries, or running shoes. What vantage points, passages, and modes of observation do each of these technical enhancements of the body enable? Where does the tool end and the ethnographer’s self begin?
The technologies that propel our ethnographic consciousness outward into the world shift with designs for mobility, productivity, and the creation of evidence. Ships, trains, planes, and social networks. Paper, pens, wax cylinders, typewriters, film cameras, video cameras, cassette tapes, minidisk recorders, laptops, digital cameras, and iPhones. Which assistive devices are considered tools and which are pathologized prostheses?
Ethnography has centered the concerns of nondisabled bodies in study design, subject selection, and training future generations of ethnographers. As feminist, Black, and indigenous anthropologists have asked, what has the discipline taken for granted about the body of the ethnographer? Currently, some prostheses are unremarkable (eyeglasses, iPhones), while others (like wheelchairs and speech aids) garner wary glances that suggest the unacceptable, pathological, or excessive. Even hearing aids seem an unusual enhancement. When certain bodies don’t get to be ethnographers’ bodies, sensory worlds are excluded from the ethnographic record (Kasnitz and Shuttleworth 2001; Shuttleworth 2004). Ethnographic research—and, in turn, theorizing—is enabled by designed prosthetic technologies of mobility, observation, and documentation. Ethnographers cannot ignore the ecologies of knowledge production that enable our technological selves.
Bateson, Gregory. 1972. “The Cybernetics of ‘Self’: A Theory of Alcoholism.” In Steps Toward an Ecology of Mind, 309–41. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Escobar, Arturo. 2018. Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Haraway, Donna J. 1991. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 149–81. New York: Routledge.
Hogle, Linda F. 2005. “Enhancement Technologies and the Body.” Annual Review of Anthropology 34: 695–716.
Kasnitz, Devva, and Russell P. Shuttleworth. 2001. “Anthropology and Disability Studies.” In Semiotics and Dis/ability: Interrogating Categories of Difference, edited by Linda J. Rogers and Beth Blue Swadener, 19–41. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Myers, Natasha, and Joe Dumit. 2011. “Haptics: Haptic Creativity and the Mid-Embodiments of Experimental Life.” In A Companion to the Anthropology of the Body and Embodiment, edited by Frances E. Mascia-Lees, 239–61. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell.
Newton, Esther. 1993. “My Best Informant’s Dress: The Erotic Equation in Fieldwork.” Cultural Anthropology 8, no. 1: 3–23.
Shuttleworth, Russell P. 2004. “Stigma, Community, Ethnography: Joan Ablon’s Contribution to the Anthropology of Impairment-Disability.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 18, no. 2: 139–61.