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the uncanny : the soft machine
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The Soft Machine
Bruce Grenville's The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture
by Jean-François Chassay, translated from the French by Claude Lalumière

Williams S. Burroughs wrote that the body was a soft machine invaded by parasites. This oxymoron expresses perfectly the reality that cybernetics has slowly - but with increasing speed - developed around (and in) us for the last few decades.

In the 1970s, the humanities began to reflect on cultural diversity, to explore the meanings that a (fluid) identity can take in today's increasingly global "village," and to tackle the question of gender. Science and technology, however, went much further, as their artifacts provided radical new modes of conceptualization.

It is the very degree of "humanity within the human" that we now question: technology increasingly penetrates the body, casting us into the universe of the cyborg. It is not surprising that the name "Prometheus" has been appearing so often in the last few years, in articles about genetics (and also its ethics) and, more generally, about body and consciousness modification. The Pope himself - should we be surprised? - has denounced the "Promethean attitude of man, who believes he can erect himself to the status of master of life and death."1

It is true that, without being against technological progress, we can nevertheless sometimes question those breakthroughs that open a veritable Pandora's Box (Pandora being the wife of Epimetheus, and thus Prometheus's sister-in-law!). At the very least, it is normal to suffer vertigo in the face of what we are potentially being offered: a complete redefinition of the "nature" of humanity. The book The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture, adorned with numerous very attractive illustrations from the eponymous Vancouver Art Gallery exhibit, invites us to reflect on this new cybernetic universe.

It is no surprise that art so quickly became interested in such a notorious subject, located at the "interzone" proposed to our consciousness by the universe of cyborgs. Bruce Grenville, head of the exhibit and editor of the collection, presents a long piece that synthesizes the subject's genesis and history, going as far back as the philosophical debates of the seventeenth century (but strangely skipping over the eighteenth century's reflections concerning automata and their construction). He concentrates mostly on the twentieth century, showing us (through discussions of touchstones such as Duchamp's paintings and Lang's film Metropolis, Jean Tinguely's constructions and Sterlac's performances) how the age of mechanization led, in conjunction with techno-scientific accomplishments, to a new conception of humanity in art.

One of Grenville's main goals is to situate the singularity of these partially (or almost totally) human machines within Freud's pronouncements on the uncanny: "[T]his uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old - established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression," wrote the father of psychoanalysis.

Alongside numerous new texts dealing with the analysis of artistic works recontextualized within contemporary epistemology, we find four older texts reprinted: Freud's essay "The Uncanny;" a piece by psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim on the case of Joey, a child schizophrenic who believed he was a machine; an excerpt from William Gibson's famous cyberpunk novel Neuromancer; and Donna Haraway's essay "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century."

What emerges from the juxtaposition of these four texts is quite interesting. It concerns the association of interiority (consciousness and unconscious) and exteriority (machine and network technology). Scientific rationalization spills out onto these margins, into what constitutes its blind spot (to once again use a Freudian concept). From this perspective, art is a way to deal with cyborg culture at a remove: "the cyborg object" allows an interrogation of the subject and a reflection on human consciousness (which has always been the function of artistic manifestations) in an epoch resembling a new Renaissance. We do not want to fall into hyperbole. Still it remains that, at the beginning of the third millennium, the elimination of certain boundaries commonly considered inherent - between certain disciplines, but also between human beings and machines, nature and culture - is eloquently imbued with the uncanny that is at the heart of this book. To add to this uncanny effect for Westerners, several articles here deal with the manifestations of cyborg culture in Japan.

Between psychoanalysis and cyborgs, this book offers a space to reflect on a question that essentially belongs to science fiction (which is increasingly our reality): "Is the cyborg man or machine? What is self or identity for the cyborg ma(chi)n(e)?"

Jean-François Chassay is a novelist and essayist. He teaches literature at the Université du Québec à Montréal. The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture was edited by Bruce Grenville (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery/Arsenal Pulp Press, 2001).

Note :
1. Translated from a quotation in: Dominique Lecourt, Prométhée, Faust, Frankenstein: Fondements imaginaries de l’éthique, Paris, Synthélano, 1996, p. 9-10.

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