Individual Work
Cyborg: Engineering the Body Electric

This entry results from a visit to the Electronic Literature Lab (Washington State University Vancouver) and the research conducted under the project "Shapeshifting Texts: Keeping Track of Electronic Literature" (2015-2017) supported by the University of Bremen and the European Union FP7 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions under grant agreement n° 600411.

The term “cyborg,” a portmanteau of the words “cybernetic” and “organism,” was coined by Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline in 1960 and was first used to describe an enhanced human being which, aided by technology, could endure the harsh conditions of outer space. Since then, this term has acquired different meanings, some of them conveyed by Diane Greco’s Cyborg: Engineering the Body Electric (1989). Published five years after Donna Haraway’s seminal essay “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” (1984), Greco’s work continues several discussions raised by Haraway. Diane Greco demonstrates that a cyborg is not only a hybrid creature inhabiting fictional worlds. In fact, a “cyborg” is presented as a metaphor of human existence in a technological world, where devices can be used to control, but also, empower citizens. As Greco claimed, “[w]ith hypertext, as with any technology that transforms the relation of persons to machines, individual bodies can be possible sites either for domination or for transformation and resistance” (Greco, 1996: 23). According to Eastgate, Greco “explores the significance of the cyborg in 20th century writing, from Thomas Pynchon and William Gibson to Haraway and Derrida” (Eastgate, 1989). Greco’s work highlights the different shapes incarnated by this entity. As such, the “cyborg” mentioned in the title is able to mutate into a postmodern construction, a discursive experiment, a subversive entity that challenges boundaries and preconceptions, or a hybrid being made of cogs, data and flesh.

Haraway demonstrated that the cyborg metaphor allows us to go beyond dichotomies “between mind and body, animal and human, organism and machine, public and private, nature and culture, men and women, primitive and civilized” (302). Due to its hybrid nature, the cyborg metaphor provides neutral ground on which feminism, as well our relationship with technology, can be freely examined. As Greco claims: “[t]o imagine that a machine thinks, feels, and behaves like a human being is one way to get around the human/machine split. Using this interpretive scheme, we can avoid the temptation to segment the self – to classify the body as ‘meat,’ and to establish women as the inevitable consequence of this classification: ‘meat puppets’, prostitutes, objects” (Greco 1989a, “behaviorist approach”). The “body electric” mentioned in the title, an obvious reference to Walt Whitman poem “I sing the body electric” (1855), refers both to the work’s materiality and to the body’s electrified state when traversing cyber highways. In his poem, which can be described as a celebration of the human body, men and women are said to share “The same [old] red-running blood" (96). The binary opposition men/women is thus dismantled and the reference to Whitman’s “body electric” emerges in representation of cyborg's androginy.

Besides using the cyborg metaphor to address the Cartesian mind-body dualism, Cyborg also promotes what N. Katherine Hayles has described as “cyborg reading”. While reading a digital text, the computer mediates all communication between reader and author/authors (Maduro, 2012: 323). As Hayles explains, the symbiotic relationship with machines is foregrounded: “[b]ecause electronic hypertexts are written and read in distributed cognitive environments, the reader is necessarily constructed as a cyborg, spliced into an integrated circuit with one or more intelligent machines” (Hayles, 2004: 85). In Greco’s work, as N. Katherine Hayles observes in her essay for the electronic book review, “the cyborg body is the text, and the text is the cyborg body” (Hayles, 1995). Written in Storyspace, Cyborg can be regarded as part of the group of works which make use of hypertextual structure to represent the postmodern theme of shattered identity, as well as the postmodern deviation from literary conventions. Among those texts, we can find Patchwork Girl (1995) written by Shelley Jackson, in which the reader is invited to stitch the text’s disperse body parts together in order to keep reading. Once again, since Patchwork Girl invites the reader to collect the disperse blocks of texts in a manner reminiscent of Victor Frankenstein, the reference to “body electric” in the title gathers a new meaning: the process of juxtaposing (or stitching together) the windows of Cyborg can be compared to the process of infusing life into the electric body of the text.

Cyborg is comprised of eight sections (“Introduction”; “Your Body Is Meat”; “Machine Dreams”; “Mind, Body, Anti-Body”; “Cyborg Visions”; “Communication & Control”; “Writing The Cyborg”; “What Do Cyborgs Know?”) and - contrary to other works published by Eastgate - rather than being a fictional work, Cyborg is a fragmented essay on human-machine and mind-body relationship. Remnants from cyberpunk works such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) can be found while reading the blocks of texts or the fragments of thoughts shared by Greco. In the lexia “Why this project?,” Greco claims that her work

examines representations of the body in cyberpunk science fiction, in order to explore how fictional appropriations and reworkings of technology de-stabilize traditional notions of gender, and identity. By illuminating the contingency of these categories, cyberpunk sf suggests that that [sic] which is taken for granted as static and unchanging might conceivably be otherwise (Greco, 1989a).

According to Greco, hypertext reformulates the idea of identity and contributes for a refashioned perspective of literary theory by taking into account the “material and social conditions of textual production” (Greco, 1996). Greco considers hypertext as aligned with postructuralist theory: “[b]ecause hypertext invites readers to immerse themselves in a mass of shifting textual and graphical objects whose relations to each other may be far from obvious, hypertext actualizes the abstract emphasis on links, networks, webs, paths, and interweaving characteristics of much poststructuralist (or, more generally, postmodern) literary theory” (idem.). Inscribed in the cybernetic canvas, hypertext emerges as a representation of the postmodern shifting identity and multilinear works.

To read Cyborg , the reader will need to install the work (only available on floppy disk or CD) in a computer. Readers can choose among three viewing options and access the different spaces through a map, a hierarchical chart or an indented outline (Greco, 1989a: 5). Two windows will be available along the way: “The Text Window” and “The Map Window”. Cyborg contains “text links” or “image links,” and a “Toolbar” which allows the reader to follow a default link or to choose among links. However, since Cyborg is arranged thematically, not hierarchically, the up and down arrows are not considered “particularly useful” (7). A previous reading can be saved and the reader can keep track of spaces already visited by accessing the “Links Dialog Box”. Released on floppy disc and CD ROM, this work cannot run on recent computers (a 2002 iMac was used to read this work), and therefore, is at risk of disappearing. A copy of Cyborg is available for consultation at the Electronic Literature Lab, Washington State University Vancouver, USA.

This entry was based on readings of this copy performed during a research stay at the Electronic Literature Lab.

Photos taken at ELL were published with permission of ELL's director, Dene Grigar.

Eastgate Systems (1989). Cyborg: Engineering the Body Electric [catalogue entry].
Greco, Diane (1989a). Cyborg: Engineering the Body Electric [CD-ROM]. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems.
Greco, Diane (1989b). “Getting started with Cyborg: Engineering the Body Electric for Macintosh.” Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems.
Greco, Diane (1996). “Hypertext with Consequences: Recovering a Politics of Hypertext.” Seventh ACM Conference on Hypertext, Washington DC, USA, March 16-20.
Haraway, Donna (2001). The Cybercultures Reader , edited by David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 291-324.
Hayles, N. Katherine (1995). “Engineering Cyborg Ideology,” in Electronic Book Review.
Hayles, N. Katherine (2004). “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis,” in Poetics Today 25.1, pp. 67-90.
Maduro, Daniela Côrtes (2012). “Cadáver esquisito, leitor ciborgue e inscrição magnética: três visões do texto eletrónico” [Cadavre exquis, cyborg reader and magnetic inscription: three perspectives on electronic text],” in Revista de Estudos Literários. Coimbra: Centro de Literatura Portuguesa.
Penley, Constance and Andrew Ross (1990). “Cyborgs at Large: Interview with Donna Haraway,” Social Text, No. 25/26. (1990), pp. 8-23.
Whitman, Walt (2007). Leaves of Grass. The Original 1855 Edition. New York: Dover Thrift Editions, pp. 92-97.

Author statement: 
Part human and part machine, the cyborg is a familiar figure in cyberpunk science fiction. But this figure looms ever larger -- as metaphor and as reality -- in all our lives. Today, cyborgs are real; in cyberspace, we are all cyborgs.