Issue 10.2, May 1995

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Essay Excerpt

Cyborg Anthropology

by Gary L. Downey, Joseph Dumit and Sarah Williams

The following is the text of a paper we presented at the 1992 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco. It represents a first attempt at positioning cyborg anthropology in a late capitalist world that situates academic theorizing alongside popular theorizing. We view cyborg anthropology as a descriptive label that marks a cultural project rather than an elite academic practice. In other words, cyborg anthropology is not just for anthropologists or other professional intellectuals. Although we cite broad social and intellectual movements, we do not detail specific relations of affinity through references. We are publishing this statement because we think it provokes important discussions.

We view cyborg anthropology both as an activity of theorizing and as a vehicle for enhancing the participation of cultural anthropologists in contemporary societies. Cyborg anthropology brings the cultural anthropology of science and technology into conversation with established activities in science and technology studies (STS) and feminist studies of science, technology, and medicine. As a theorizing activity, it takes the relations among knowledge production, technological production, and subject production to be a crucial area of anthropological research. Although the cyborg image originated in space research and science fiction to refer to forms of life that are part human and part machine, it is by no means confined to the world of high technology. Rather, cyborg anthropology calls attention more generally to the cultural production of human distinctiveness by examining ethnographically the boundaries between humans and machines and our visions of the differences that constitute these boundaries. As a participatory activity, it empowers anthropology to be culturally reflective regarding its presence in the practices of science and technology and to imagine how these practices might be otherwise.

Cyborg anthropology articulates in productive and insightful ways with cultural studies. British cultural studies, as it evolved within and emerged from the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, sometimes moved beyond a humanist centrism in critiquing how institutional forms produce subject forms, assessing the political implications of biological notions of race, and linking analyses of domination by race, class, and gender. Also, by importing and expanding dramatically an activity of academic theorizing that linked accounts of knowledge and power, American cultural studies provided the non-activist humanities and social sciences with intellectual resources to resist the New Right as it rose rapidly to power during the 1980s. Demonstrating that academic theorizing always has political dimensions, cultural studies has provided both conceptual and political practices for legitimizing those academic activities that seek to articulate more explicitly their knowledge and political contents. Cyborg anthropology takes up this challenge by exploring the production of humanness through machines. It looks for ways to critique, resist, and participate within structures of knowledge and power.

Cyborg anthropology invests in alternative world-making by critically examining the powers of the imagination invested in the sciences and technologies of contemporary societies. In the past, anthropology became a source of insight for popular theorizing precisely because it described alternative worlds and informed the imagination of radical difference. Cyborg anthropology offers new metaphors to both academic and popular theorizing for comprehending the different ways that sciences and technologies work in our lives-metaphors that start with our complicity in many of the processes we wish were otherwise. (264-265)

Downey, Gary L., Dumit, Joseph, Williams, Sarah. "Cyborg Anthropology." Cultural Anthropology 10, no. 2 (2004): 264-269