I’m nervous at night when I take off my leg. I wait until the last moment before sleep to un-tech because I am a woman who lives alone and has been stalked, so I don’t feel safe in my home on crutches. How would I run? How would I fight back? Instead of taking Klonopin, I read the Economist. The tone is detached. There is war, but always elsewhere.
When I tell people I am a cyborg, they often ask if I have read Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’. Of course I have read it. And I disagree with it. The manifesto, published in 1985, promised a cyberfeminist resistance. The resistance would be networked and coded by women and for women to change the course of history and derange sexism beyond recognition. Technology would un-gender us. Instead, it has been so effective at erasing disabled women1 that even now, in conversation with many feminists, I am no longer surprised that disability does not figure into their notions of bodies and embodiment. Haraway’s manifesto lays claim to cyborgs (‘we are all cyborgs’) and defines the cyborg unilaterally through metaphor. To Haraway, the cyborg is a matter of fiction, a struggle over life and death, a modern war orgy, a map, a condensed image, a creature without gender. The manifesto coopts cyborg identity while eliminating reference to disabled people on which the notion of the cyborg is premised. Disabled people who use tech to live are cyborgs. Our lives are not metaphors.
Disabled women, Deaf women and neurodivergent women are never mentioned in the ‘Cyborg Manifesto’, which is strange, because the manifesto is full of appellations that have been, historically, applied to us (such as ‘monster’ and ‘creature’).2 Haraway does gesture briefly toward the 1969 novel The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffery. The premise of the novel is that parents of children with disabilities may choose to stunt their growth, contain them in a titanium shell, and plug their brains into circuitry. In 2004, the parents of a six-year-old white disabled girl, named Ashley X, ordered her hysterectomy, the removal of her breast buds and an appendectomy. This would make it easier for her parents to care for her, relieve her of menstrual cramps, prevent pregnancy and remove the threat of sexual abuse by caregivers. Her parents consider the treatment a success. First we read about this in a sci-fi novel, then in a feminist manifesto, and finally in the medical journals.
‘They are trying to give me tech I don’t want,’ a cyborg says.
‘Oh fuck. I had hoped for better news,’ I reply.
It can be a bit intimidating to claim cyborg identity. I feel like it is an impossible task to define myself against the cyborg wreckage of the last century while placing myself in the present and projecting forward. I worry that the cyborg is sometimes just a sexy way to say, ‘Please care about the disabled,’ and why should I have to say that? I worry that the cyborg is too much an institution, an illusion of the nondisabled, the superhero in the movie, the mixed martial artist, the bots who either make life easy or ruin everything. Yet I recognize the disabled who double as cyborgs. On Instagram, we are @aannggeellll, a white woman with a bionic arm and a plate of cupcakes. We are not threatening. We stay on the cover of Enable magazine and never cross over to Netflix. We sell our image for the motherboard company, Otto Bock, who in turn sells our arms to us for $75,000 each. We are @mamacaxx, a black woman with brightly colored and 3D-printed legs. We have paid sponsorships from Mon Amie jewelry, Mercedes Benz and Alaska Airlines.
They like us best with bionic arms and legs. They like us deaf with hearing aids, though they prefer cochlear implants. It would be an affront to ask the hearing to learn sign language. Instead they wish for us to lose our language, abandon our culture and consider ourselves cured. They like exoskeletons, which none of us use. They would never consider cyborg those of us with pacemakers or on dialysis, those of us kept alive by machines or made ambulatory by wheelchairs, those of us on biologics or anti-depressants. They want us shiny and metallic and in their image.
I went looking for a word to name the Donna Haraways of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, a word inclusive of cyberfeminists and transhumanists, a word that captures the theft of cyborg identity, and mocks the thieves a bit. I call them tryborgs. They have tried to be cyborgs, but they are stuck on the attempt, like a record skipping, forever trying to borg, and forever consigned to their regular un-tech bodies. They are fake cyborgs. They can be recognized because, while they preach cyborg nature, they do not actually depend on machines to breathe, stay alive, talk, walk, hear or hold a magazine. They are terribly clumsy in their understanding of cyborgs because they lack experiential knowledge. And yet the tryborgs – for reasons that I do not understand – are protective of cyborg identity. I often find my bio re-written by a tryborg: ‘She claims to be a cyborg’ or ‘she calls herself a cyborg’. Imagine if they said this about my other identities: ‘She claims to be a woman. She calls herself white.’
I keep waiting for Haraway to amend her manifesto, or at least acknowledge the disabled bodies upon which her work is built. Instead I find her, in a 2016 interview with Theory, Culture & Society, saying, ‘You know, I run through some old-fashioned klutzy categories. Race, class, region, sexuality, gender, species. I pay attention.’ No mention of disabled people.
tryborg concerns: The Anthropocene, Texting, Networking
cyborg concerns: Can I afford my leg? Will a stalker, a doctor or the law kill me?
The cyborg is the engineer’s dream. The engineer steers and manipulates the human to greater performance. As a common cyborg, I subvert that dream. I do not want to sell any of their shit for them. I am not impressed with their tech, which they call 3C98-3, and which I am wearing, a leg that whirs and clicks, a socket that will not fit unless I stay in the weight range of 100-105 pounds. I am 88 per cent charged in basic mode and I have taken 638,402 steps on this leg. The last one they gave me was a lemon. Maybe this feeling of trial-and-error, repetition and glitch, is part of the cyborg condition and, by extension, the disabled condition.
cyborg concerns: Caution: There is a problem with the component 3C98-3. Walking is possible with restrictions. Possibly no switching into safety mode. Conduct a self-test of the component by connecting/disconnecting the battery charger. If this feedback occurs again, use is no longer permitted. Contact your orthopaedic technician immediately.
tryborg concerns: I hate it when you can see they are writing something, those three dots, but then nothing appears. Or when you send a text and then it’s a terrifying wait to find out if they will answer. It’s much safer in the middle of the thing. I hate it when they send a huge block of text. Why do they do that? Maybe to provide context for a confusing situation or sometimes to rant or if they need to explain something to you or put something sweetly to you. I hate it when I have a text ready to go, but I am waiting for their reply first and then whatever they reply makes my text irrelevant. I hate it when autocorrect doesn’t catch it. Sometimes I can’t bear the wait, so I just shut it down. I feel like I’m going to die. I get so anxious.
cyborg concerns: I’m told by the technicians to maintain an average amount of walking on a daily basis. Don’t go overboard, but don’t be lazy either. Stay in the middle. The insurance company could pull my data and decide I haven’t used my leg enough to justify the next one.
selling cyborg parts on ebay
Hello, any chance you have a moment to answer a few questions?
1. Why are you selling this leg/arm?
2. Have you decided to go with Ossur? Or something else?
3. It seems like a very fair price. How did you arrive at the price?
4. What has been the most joyous moment in your life?
1. I am selling this knee for a couple reasons. One being I do not use it anymore. It is sitting in my closet collecting dust. I feel that someone out there could benefit greatly from this knee unit. Hopefully someone who doesn’t have access to this technology via insurance.
2. I have gone with an Otto Bock C-leg. Not by choice. I purchased my C-leg out of pocket from a private seller because my insurance has denied a MPK knee for the past 4 years. So far though I have no complaints with the C-Leg.
3. Morally it is not a good price. It’s a horrible price. And I feel horrible selling it. NO ONE should have to pay $1,200 to walk and lead a normal life with used components.
4. 99% of the moments I share with my daughter are the most joyous, but in relation to my amputation it would be time spent in the Gulf of Mexico. I have not been in the ocean in 18 years, I have lived with in 1 mile of it for the past 8 years. I was able to finally put together parts for a water leg a year ago. My ass limped to the water line and I went for it. I spent 3 cold hours just sitting there letting the waves hit me. Hypothermia, jelly fish, and sharks wouldn’t have made me get out.
I read an article titled ‘Computer says . . . From our AI Correspondent’. They trained a computer program on their in-house style and content. The human writer introduces the artificial intelligence by plagiarizing Facebook’s old motto (‘go fast and break things’). The human writer concludes that the text composed by the artificial intelligence ‘lack[s] meaning’. But whose meaning? Who says what means? My heart goes out to the artificial intelligence. I believe she/he/they/it has written one of the most beautiful sentences I’ve read in the Economist. ‘A single organ is a large amount of energy, which is particularly intense.’ Yes – fellow cyborg! – so intense. In another sentence, the artificial intelligence attempts to bridge the gap between person and nonperson. The artificial intelligence reaches after us, tries to find us: ‘A person with a stretch of a piece of software can be transmitted by a security process that can be added to a single bit of reading.’
‘It’s such an imposition to read what they have written about us when there’s no reciprocity. They don’t even believe we exist,’ I say.
‘Yes, of course. The cyborg is the normate’s wet dream. Not a real identity that’s already taken up, populated, breathing over here,’ a cyborg replies.
Before this futurism, there was another futurism. Before this fetish for the machines, there was another fetish for the machines. Before Ray Kurzweil said, ‘In 2045, human character will change,’ Virginia Woolf said, ‘On or about December 1910, human character changed.’ Before a group of Americans moved to Silicon Valley, a group of Americans moved to Paris. Why Paris? It had been bombed to smithereens. Rent was cheap. You could drink. Before the American futurists, there were the Italian futurists, and one poet among them stepped forward.
‘I am a futurist,’ said Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, except in Italian, and this was his creed: ‘Time and space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed.’
These new futurists resemble those old futurists. Kurzweil, the Director of Engineering at Google, writes, ‘Singularity? It’s a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.’
As a common cyborg, I have been talking to Kurzweil in my preferred code, poetry, and occasionally prose. I figure if I talk to him in multiple genres, across the ocean, then one day I will get the man on the phone.
Something happened. He used to work with us. His early machines were developed for the Blind. Now he surrounds himself with other tryborgs: men who add tech to their bodies for pleasure and to live forever. Their version of the cyborg is a kind of early Christian. Here is a letter addressed to Diognetus in the 2nd century. The anonymous writer describes the early Christians. It reads like Kurzweil describing the cyborgs of the Singularity. Instead of the word heaven, let us substitute nanotube circuitry.
They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of nanotube circuitry. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives.
The closest I got to Ray Kurzweil was a ‘hang-out’ with his employer, Google. What department? I forget. I don’t have perfect memory. And when you are actually a cyborg, you may be dismissive of Google. Do they make arms and legs? Do their algorithms re-start your heart?
There were many more of them than I expected on the call. I was at the desk in my office. They were around a conference table in a room with whiteboards. I kept thinking: This is clinical and corporate. I am supposed to be afraid, but I do not know of what. I asked them to invent things for us, the cyborgs who are already here, already alive. I remember feeling lonely and wishing for other cyborgs on the call.
‘There are no disabled people in our department,’ the Google employee said.
‘There are no Jews in Futurism,’ Marinetti said, though he slept with the Jewish poet and futurist Mina Loy.
‘How many people are in your department?’ I said.
‘Sixty,’ the Google employee said.
‘Oh, there are. You just don’t know who. They don’t feel safe telling you.’
1 In this essay I use identity-first language (‘disabled women’) instead of person-first language (‘women with disabilities’). Beyond the political and collective reasons for this choice (#SayTheWord), I don’t like the preposition ‘with’. Prepositions are for relationships; I am not in a relationship with disability.
2 The only time the lived experience of disabled people is mentioned in Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’: ‘Perhaps paraplegics and other severely handicapped people can (and sometimes do) have the most intense experiences of complex hybridization with other communications devices.’
Image © Jillian Weise: Author’s thumb on the screen of her phone, with caution message.