Sunday, May 25, 2008

To what commodity end are concepts of the ‘post-human’ and the ‘cyborg’ marketed? Give screen and theoretical examples of each.

The culture industry is ruthless; just about everything you can think of has been modified, altered and then commoditized for mass consumption.

As Adorno and Horkheimer claim, “the whole world is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry” (1993: 33). The concepts in discussion of ‘post-human’ and ‘cyborg’ are no exception to this process.

We shall explore these concepts functioning in the commodity world (which is to say, everywhere) and their representations on screen and in theory-based examples.

In fact, Haraway (2000: 294) already suggests the essence of modern machinery, describing them as “quintessentially microelectronic devices: they are everywhere and they are invisible”. Have we ever taken notice of their existence only when we actually realize it, or are we simply too accustomed to their presence already? Have we ever given a thought to what lies beneath all that wiring and hardware and radiation to heat our hot water flask? Don't worry, you're not alone.

So what are ‘post-human’ and the ‘cyborg’? And how are they related to commodity culture?

The Post-Human
The idea of post-human essentially refers to a form of modification by technology. Another loose definition is an alternative interface integrated with another body to connect and interact with oneself and the world. According to World Transhumanist Association (2002-5), a post-human is a hypothetical future being "whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to be no longer unambiguously human by our current standards." A post-human was once a human, either in its lifetime or in the lifetimes of some or all of its direct ancestors.

So at what point does a human become post-human? Steven Pinker, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of How the Mind Works, poses the following hypothesis:

Surgeons replace one of your neurons with a microchip that duplicates its input-output functions. You feel and behave exactly as before. Then they replace a second one, and a third one, and so on, until more and more of your brain becomes silicon. Since each microchip does exactly what the neuron did, your behavior and memory never change. Do you even notice the difference? Does it feel like dying? Is some other conscious entity moving in with you?

We have Iwakura Lain of Serial Experiments Lain, a meek and conservative junior high school girl who later develops multiple and bolder personalities, both in the physical and Wired (a term for the Internet) worlds. As the show progresses, we see Lain immersing herself in the cyberspace network, allowing her consciousness to be plugged into the NAVI mechanism.

Psyche, a special chip was released for NAVIs that would allow one to use his own mind as a co-processor, thus boosting the speed of the processor and the NAVI itself. The Psyche is introduced in Layer 03: Psyche, where Lain is sent this mysterious computer chip in which she is unaware of the hidden powers it contains.

Accela, a form of micro-machine drug is also introduced in Layer 02: Girls. According to the episode, it is “a type of smart supplement, which uses nano-mechanisms to oscillate a specific frequency within the body, triggering the secretion of a specific hormone. It is said that when secreted, this hormone affects the time-sense of the human mind, making it seem as if one’s awareness is accelerated. Not only the consciousness, the workings of the brain itself are altered, multiplying the brain’s operational capacity by 2-12 times”.

The effects of Accela are demonstrated in the video below.

A familiar screen example would be the 2004 remake of ‘The Stepford Wives’, where women were implanted with computer chips in their brain to become the ultimate ‘Stepford Wife’ for their husbands. In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, one of the lead vampires Spike, due to the lack of a soul, had an electronic implant to provide him with a prosthetic soul/consciousness in order to survive (Colman, 2003).

NAVIs, an abbreviation of ‘knowledge navigators’, is used in lieu of the more commonly known ‘computer’ or ‘PC’ in the show. We see Lain getting a new and more powerful NAVI in Layer 02: Girls and eventually becomes obsessed with the complexity of the hardware.

There is a specific product placement here for Steve Jobs’ Apple products. The brand of the NAVI is ‘Tachibana’, which is the Japanese name for ‘mandarin orange’, which can be seen as a reference to Apple computers. The NAVI was also a vision of John Sulley, the CEO of Apple from 1983 to 1993, the 21st Century prototype of Apple computers (Colman, 2003). Another in-text example would be where the title at the beginning of each episode is announced by the Apple Computer Speech synthesis program PlainTalk, using the voice "Whisper".

The Cyborg
The concept of a ‘cyborg’ is similar to that of a ‘post-human’, however with slight differences. Haraway’s (2000: 291) definition of a cyborg is “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction”. While a post-human is basically founded on the human body, a cyborg is created with the death of the flesh body as it becomes unnecessary.

Cyborg bodies are rendered as workers and labor for the benefit of capitalism. According to Colman (2003), “the aesthetics of the cyber-cloned body is that of capital flesh”. To reinforce this point is Haraway (2000: 293) who describes the cyborg as “the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism”.

The cyborg body is not necessarily one which is physically infused with a machine, but it could refer to human interaction with technology, such as me typing on this computer right now. (I’m a cyborg!) Colman’s theory of cybernetic aesthetics and capitalism explores the commoditized society, whereby various forms of technology function to orient the audiences within material realms. Likewise, Haraway’s gives an example of the army and its arsenal with the soldiers armed with rifles and traveling by massive tanks. This image has been witnessed multiple times on screen, particularly movies with war themes.

It has been suggested that there are 2 levels of tele-visual commoditization which involve the setting up of value systems such as behavior, characteristics, gestures, speech in everyday life and the multiplicity and repetitiveness of them. This will be further explored with screen examples.

“The body functions as a machine to produce society’s most precious commodities: the newly born, the labour force of tomorrow” (Fortunati, cited in Katz, 2003: 72). This immediately creates the image of a woman in labour in the hospital, giving birth to a new generation of workers, who would eventually produce the next and so on and so forth. While this is a possible interpretation, we are also interested in how our current generations are being utilized as society's "most precious commodities" in other ways, with one example given below.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones provides, as the title suggests, the ultimate display of physical bodies multiplied into armies for the sole purpose of conquest, conquer and control. Paul Ricoeur, author of Lecture on Ideology and Utopia (1986), describes this process as “market ideology at work”, whereby the bodies are mediated and modified into “a complicit fighting machine”. We witness the numerous clone bodies warring, not unlike the repetitive image of countries at war in movies such as ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ and 'Pearl Harbor’.

May the force be with you.

Likewise, Lain plays an integrative role with her body of a worker serving capitalism and the network. The physical being is a hindrance and “causes a censorship to the cyber-medium’s possibilities”. Hence, Lain sacrifices her ‘physical life’ for her cyber consciousness to exist eternally within the Wired (Colman, 2003).

How many of us have succumbed to the need of technology that it has already been embedded in our everyday lives? We are constantly exposed to the technoculture via technology; we watch television and see the 'Ironman' trailer; we use them in nearly every aspect of our lives from using our microwaves to make popcorn and plugging into our iPods (this term should be in the dictionary already) while doing essays in the library.

Digressing, Lain's role is comparative to the wikipedia contributors who provide the informative stubs we access to gain knowledge on various issues.

Colman (2003) states that screen texts undoubtedly “communicate the aesthetic experience and consciousness of the body in its materially constructed world”. Lain and the Clones (and the briefly mentioned Stepford Wives and Spike) are “products of late C20th post-industrial, technologically advanced, privileged, and ethically corrupt consumer cultures”. As “our culture’s mode of operation, as commodities of capital, they perform a social project that is economically invested”.

In the current wave of advancements in technology, the concepts of ‘post-human’ and ‘cyborg’ seem to be the most intriguing of all. The culture industry would never creep on them, pounce and devour their bodies into one of their many assemblage machines. Not.

As Colman (2003) asserts, “commodity culture is interested in packaging the narratives and gestures of society as aesthetic consumables”. What we have witnessed is the dismantling and reorganizing of the concepts of ‘post-human’ and ‘cyborg’ (basically technology) into screen texts into commodities or commodities then screen texts or both simultaneously.

Technology + Capitalism + Culture Industry = Commodity = Rich in flavour and pockets

Just look where Apple is now.

and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on...

Other 'cyborg' shows to look out for:
Artificial Intelligence
Zettai Kareshi (Absolute Boyfriend), a Japanese Drama (sorry I couldn't find one with subtitles)

"Real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies" (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1993: 34).

How true.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


Adorno, T. and Horkheimer, M. 1993. “The Culture Industry: enlightenment as mass deception”, in The Cultural Studies Reader, ed. During, S. London & New York: Routledge.

Colman, F. ‘The Sight of Your God Disturbs Me: questioning the post-Christian bodies of Buffy, Lain and George’. “Uncanny Spaces and Gods in the Multiverse”, in The Refractory: a Journal of Entertainment Media (Volume 3, 2003). Retrieved on 19 April, 2008. At:

Fortunati, L. 2003. “The Human Body: Natural and Artificial Technology”, in Machines that Become Us: The Social Context of Personal Communication Technology, ed. Katz, J.E. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction

Haraway. D. 2000. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”, in The Cybercultures Reader, ed. Bell, D. and Kennedy B.M. London: Routledge.


Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV series) (dir. Joss Whedon, 1997-2003, The WB, UPN [USA])

Serial Experiments Lain (TV anime series) (dir. Ryutaro Nakamura, 1998, TV Tokyo [Japan])

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (dir. George Lucas, 2002, 20th Century Fox, Lucasfilms [USA])

The Stepford Wives (dir. Frank Oz, 2004, Paramount Pictures [USA])