[Additional Articles] [Bookmark Page]

Cyborg Bodies Revisited

The Poststructuralist Remedy to Postmodernism

by David Mertz
Department of Philosophy
University of Massachusetts
Amherst, MA 01003






One history of the denaturing of subjectivity, and of subject(ivat)ed bodies, runs from Nietzsche to Bataille. With Bataille's bioenergetic retelling of Nietzsche's Heraclitean Will-to-Power, the principle of an expenditure acting toward the immanent disincorporation of every constituted body becomes a basic principle of the organization of life on the surface of the earth. That is, after Bataille's Accursed Share [Bataille, 1988], we can no longer rely on homeostasis as a property of biological bodies. But after the fixity of bodies is given up, the several systems of metaphors of constitutivity based upon the old model of bodies quickly unravel. If bodies are not stable, self-constituting systems, neither are the minds metaphorically (or metonymically, perhaps) cast in their image; and neither is the body politic. Or rather, to be more careful, the rethinking of the biological body which Bataille gives us allows a corollary rethinking of our images of body-like things. This rethinking, which is done throughout Bataille's works, in turn erases all of our organic models of stability.

Haraway's work presents an intricate series of parallels with the denaturing of bodies in Bataille [Haraway, 1991]. Her figure for the impossibility of constituted biological bodies, however, lies not in the biological functions of sexuality and death (or at least not firstly here), but rather in the image of the cyborg--a technologically coded and overcoded amalgam of machine and flesh. Bodies are not homeostatic systems of self-constitution because our postmodern bodies are always already the artificial constructions of technologies and technological discourses. Her touch-point is, of course, Foucault's bio-politics of power, but she goes beyond this as well.

Two inseparable naturalizations of the subject have occupied these last two hundred years of social and biological thought. The proper names for these two intertwined naturalizing schemata have been evolutionary biology and economics. Furthermore, this subject so naturalized is at once, and immanently, both the subject of an economic/political order and the subject of a rationalist philosophy of consciousness form Descartes, through Hegel, to psychoanalysis and existential phenomenology. The series of identities I mention here has, of course, also been identified by Foucault, in The Order of Things [Foucault, 1973], so I cannot claim to be original in such identification. The real concern of these naturalizations of subjectivity in biology, economics and philosophy has in every case been the provision of a stable boundary between organism and non-organism, actor and non-actor, self and non-self. All of this ends, however, with the end of modernism.

That the conditions of stable subjectivity have been lost or abandoned in the second half of this century is not really in question. Rather we might ask whether the very terms of the mainstream loss of subjective closure are nothing more than the new structures of dominance in post-industrial societies dominance no longer of bodies, but of networks; no longer of legitimation, but of information; no longer of constraints on rational choice, but of the preconditions of rationality but dominance nonetheless. The mainstream loss of any hermetic subjectivity occurs at the point where the self merges with the non-self at the external boundaries of constituted being; Haraway marks this loss in the right-hand column of her series oppositions appearing in her Cyborg Manifesto, and slightly reworked in her Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies. I will discuss some of Haraway's oppositional pairs below, but let us just inform the listener in advance that this right-hand column expresses, on each line, an already achieved change in the regulation of society. But perhaps all of these achieved changes act as mere smokescreens to a deeper challenge to subjectivity, and to the regulation of society, pointed to by Bataille.

In this paper I attempt to trace some parallels between the contributions of these two non-philosophers in the recent history of philosophy. Both serve to deconstruct the modernist narrative of subjectivity, not in terms of a critique of the phenomenological presuppositions of the Cartesian project (valuable though such is), but rather in terms of a denaturing of the very hidden biological and economic metaphors on which such a narrative is based. Both open views onto what a post-modern non-subjective politics might look like.

The Field.

Only the briefest review on the common conceptual terms of economics, evolutionary biology, and rationalist philosophy is here possible; but let me proceed with a few reminders. Each field is composed of an atomistic collection of individuals; each individual acts in relation to an external world through internal representation and rational choice. In the schemata of all these three disciplines, the basic function of every individual is the preservation and reproduction of itself as an entity over time; it is here that representation and rationality function, since the means for preservation/reproduction are presumed to be in scarce supply in the world, and hence to require active, purposeful appropriation by the individual in question. The agenda of the modernist/humanist paradigm in the three above areas amount to a support of three politically important terms of descriptions of human existence: purposiveness, identity, and scarcity. These concepts have fit together in an ideological support of the necessity of Capitalist society; and hence I will try to rehabilitate Bataille (and Haraway to an extent) as a radical critic of such a status quo.

Basically, all three of these intertwined conceptual systems biology, philosophy and economics exclude mimetic-representation of individuals' exteriors, and demand what Harry Redner calls true representation. In the simplest terms, what gets represented in the exterior is unlike the thing which plays the representational role on the interior and hence representation is a pure formal relation, rather than mere mimetic duplication. The death of mimesis is generally diagnosed as occurring at precisely the historical point at which these conceptual systems arise, so a certain consistency is thereby loaned to our analysis. Let us quickly step through this conceptual system as it is three times choreographed by our three fields.

In the non-Marxist economics (and in much of the Marxist ) economics since Adam Smith, the central trope has been that of the individual who attempts to preserve/reproduce her existence as owner of commodities through rational choice and internal representation of economic relations between commodities. Individual existence as consciousness of subjective position is here identical with stable identity-over-time of commodity ownership. It is less than half in jest that I tell my students that Rationalist philospohy of mind has been a series of efforts to make contracts binding.

Of course, commodities are always understood as alienable by subjects, but this is always only the contingent alienability of a particular commodity, not universal alienability of commodity relations themselves. Just as the Kantian necessary unity of aperception answers the Humean skepticism about the contingency of particular impressions, the Smithian necessary unity of commodity ownership answers some nameless skeptic of private property. Continuing concretely the sketch given abstractly above, interior represents exterior in the relation between use-value and value. Value is the external, intersubjective existence of every scarce commodity; while use-value is the interior representation of commodities for subjectivity. The particular distinction of use-value and value is from Marx, but all economists repeat it in some language or another. Regarding much of this, read Alfred Sohn-Rethel's Intellectual and Manual Labour [Sohn-Rethel, 1978], a much under-appreciated book.

An almost identical trope is repeated in the coeval history of evolutionary biology. A biological organism is presumed to organize itself around the dictates of preservation of its unity through the utilization of a various scarce particulars: food supply and optimal sexually-reproductive opportunities. The fundamental opposition is between self and non-self, and stable, identifiable boundaries are demanded. The same representational schema is played through here in evolutionary biology as in economics: this time the individual is called the phenotype; the representable exterior is called the environment; the interior representation is called the genotype. As in the economic schema, continued identity depends upon continually re-entering into relation with separate particular exterior objects, but it must be a self-identical individual which enters into universal relation to an external environment.

Our trope is repeated once more in Rationalist phenomenological philosophy. The stable subjective consciousness aware of itself constitutes its universal unity in the perceptability of particular phenomena. Contra any Humean skepticism, the Cartesian/Kantian subject is stable across the accidents of particular impressions of which consciousness is necessarily composed. The representational nature of the modernist image of consciousness has been widely discussed in recent philosophy; however, what may be less obvious is the principle of scarcity entailed by this image. Inasfar as the modernist subject percieves the world as objective, it always posits an inadequacy to the actual phenomenal experiences. In Nietzsche's phrase, the modernist consciousness posits lightning behind the flash. The scarcity of the phenomena make it necessary to husband the actual phenomena to reproduce further phenomena behind the phenomena. The objectivity of the physical world, for the modernist subject, I maintain, answers the inadequacy of the phenomenal one.


Everything just described ended at least thirty years ago. Haraway diagnoses this change, and the associate loss of unity of subjectivity under the newer informatics of domination as she calls it. The change diagnosed, and to a great extent embraced, by Haraway concerns the point at which the self in the discussed conceptual system merges into non-self at the external boundaries of the previously stable self. The move away from our conceptual system of unitary identity occupies a myriad of different particular disciplines or fields. Those, at least, of evolution, economics and phenomenology are included, but the transition is still broader than this. Several names for two contrastive historical periods the more recent starting near the middle of the twentieth century have been proposed. Sometimes the distinction between modernism and postmodernism is utilized; others times, that between monopoly capitalism and multinational capitalism, or between society of the commodity and society of the spectacle, are preferred. Other names are sometimes used as well.

Without putting to fine a point on the particular terminology used for these contrastive periods, let us take a look at some particular conceptual/historical items juxtoposed by Haraway. All of them tend to have the same moral. The transition which has occurred has occurred at many levels at once: it has been a change in the product of industrial production; a change in the process of industry; and a change in the conceptualization of humans and the world. This conceptualization itself will be treated in its aspects as economics, evolution, and phenomenology. Close homologies exist between each type of change. Let us examine the these changes in the order listed: product, process, conception.

The product of industry used to be things; now it's information. This change is a matter of degrees, not absolutes, of course but the change is pretty overwhelming when in the 1990's well over half the national product of industrial countries measured simply in monetary terms is information. Clearly, such a share was a mere few percent at the beginning of this century. The change here mentioned was mostly clearly diagnosed by the Situationists, whom I find very interesting, although I can only speculate about Haraway's debt to themy. A few of the pairs in Haraway's repeated chart of oppositions point to this change. The pairs representation/simulation and heat/noise make this fairly explicit. Where industrial production of things could be carried on wholly with a representation of the combinative process of inputs (a diagram for assembling an object, for example), production of information always involves a second order simulation of the consumer of the information; information's production can be neither conceptualized nor carried out without having already achieved its consumption. In a way, we could say paradoxically that information has no inputs, but only outputs. The heat/noise pair refers to the inefficiencies within any productive process. But where the wasted inputs of a mechanical industrial process are dissipated as heat, the waste in an informational productive process is dissipated as noise ('noise' has the sense of the word given in computer and communications technologies: noise is whatever isn't signal).

The process of production used to be concerned with the expression of human abilities by the utilization of mechanical assistance. Now just the reverse is dominant: it is human-beings themselves who are mere biological prosthetics to productive machines whether robotic or informational machines, though the former will be those addressed herein directly. A pair such as Labor/Robotics makes this clear; as does that between Organic division of labor and Ergonomics/cybernetics of labor. The transition from a Taylorist micro-engineering of human motion to a cybernetic planning of a total productive process completely decenters any human subject in the process. Once upon a time it made sense to speak of the extension of human-beings' powers through machinery, but no longer is the human body a stable center and locale of productive processes. The distinction between the biotic and mechanical portions of productive machines has become entirely artificial.

The conceptual parallel to the change in productive product and process is at least threefold. In economics, with Fordism and Keynesianism (to say nothing of Baudrillard) the questions of rational commodity choice is subsumed to the centrally-managed continuation of the generalized system of exchange. Both producer and consumer have fallen out as anything other than statistically amalgamated tendencies: there is no subject doing any of this.

In biology, the paradigm changes from a focus on organisms to a focus on biotic components and populations. The boundaries of a biological organism become merged with the breeding community in which it is embedded. Another of Haraway's pairs, Reproduction/Replication indicates the loss of the representational paradigm as well. Genotype no longer represents environment, since no stable organismic interior and exterior exist to define such representation. Rather, genes individually simply replicate in identical form. This brings us back to something akin to mimesis, but it's not quite identical to the earlier mimetic schema.

In phenomenological philosophy, much the same loss of the boundaries of subjective identity occurs, for example with Foucault. The subject becomes wholly subject of various systems of societal power, and the locus of identity is no longer coherently that of a Cartesian/Kantian subjectivity. Interestingly, Slavoj Zizek [Zizek, 1992] identifies something like the contrast I am about to draw between Haraway and Bataille, between that parallel ratio Foucault/Lacan. That is where the first in each pair identifies a loss of subjectivity where subjectivity is pushed outward past the exterior bounds of its intelligibility, the latter identifies the loss of subjectivity at the very most interior point of subjectivity, and hence makes a much more radical gesture. It can be no accident in this regard that Bataille and Lacan were each, at different times, married to the same woman.


In his works, Bataille, as we have said, recognizes a loss of subjectivity at the very core of subjectivity. Further, he identifies this loss simultaneously in the three fields we have been discussing: evolutionary biology, economics, and phenomenological philosophy. He also finds these three fields to suffer inseperably from a common misunderstanding in their common effort to uphold the modernist conceptual scheme we have discussed.

Let us examine two remarks from The Accursed Share [Bataille, 1988],

The living organism, in a situation determined by the play of energy of the surface of the globe, ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life; the excess energy can be used for the growth of a system (e.g., an organism); if the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically.

As a rule the surface of the globe is invested by life to the extent possible. By and large the myriad forms of life adapt it to the available resources, so that space is its basic limit.

Bataille at various places writes about his biological understanding in a Nietzschean way (my own Nietzsche is colored by Deleuze): A reactive force is, firstly, a force which is dominated. An active force is a force which dominates. One may not exist without the other. Consciousness, for example, which is always a product of resentment, is a reactive force. We could explain this, as a first attempt, in a Freudian way: consciousness (ego and superego) is a mental force created to by dominated by the id, in order that the id does not directly exercise its dominating potential. Historically, consciousness must be developed by those unable or unwilling to dominate. Will-to-power is the principle of the synthesis of forces; or, perhaps, the principle which allows for a difference/antagonism of forces.

To place this in Bataille's picture we should consider will-to-power the general bio-energetic principle of life; the generalized completeness of the extension of the biosphere in every possible direction, and the consequent necessity of an overall non-productive expenditure of energy. In this picture, no use of solar energy is possible in a generalized way; and insofar as such a use is possible in a particular instance it is only by displacement of necessary expenditure to a different place within the biosphere. The displacer, that individual, species or other unit, which succeeds in temporarily displacing the necessity of expenditure elsewhere constitutes an active force. The location of displacement, which must increase-perhaps to the point of its complete extermination-its non-productive expenditure, becomes a reactive force. An active force must, however, become a reactive force when it is no longer able to maintain its new degree of accumulated energy.

Concretely, take as an example two chlorophyllic species of single celled organisms completely covering the surface of a pond. One species (or call it an individual if you like since every unit is genetically identical) can expand only at the expense of the territory covered by the other. Each species continues to absorb radiation from the sun, which brings it chemically to a state where some of its cells must either reproduce or die. If the latter, they dissipate the energy which they have absorbed in their mitochondria in a manner useless to the organism/species; if the former then they must cause just such a dissipation in cells of the other species. Most likely, each species becomes at the same time reactive and active--some cells die at the same time as other cells succeed in displacing those of the other species to reproduce though, of course, there may well be a preponderance of domination in one direction. Even if the entire pond becomes monogenetic in the struggle for dominance, will-to-power does not thereby disappear. It merely operates instead exclusively at the level of individual cells.

What Bataille's picture has done is to reverse the Darwinian conceptual schema of evolutionary pressure in two ways. In the first place, there is no longer any principle of scarcity in an organisms relation to environment just the opposite, there is always an overabundance of resources, more than can ever be utilized. In the second place, there is no longer even really a bounded organism. Inside and outside no longer make sense not because of a kind of interactionist merging of an organism with symbiots and environment as with those changes Haraway analyzes but because the very active force which defines an organisms boundaries has as its immanent tendency the disincorporation of those same limits. The accumulation of energy defining each organism is internally the accumulation of the conditions of the destruction of that organism.

Bataille makes precisely this same move with his analyses of economics and of subjectivity. With economics, first, Bataille identifies the central principle of his general economy opposed to the restricted economy of neo-classical economics as expenditure, or as the accursed share. That is, every society produce in excess of the minimal requirements of its own reproduction (including the physical reproduction of its human beings); and hence the excess of its product must be somehow expended in strictly non-productive activity. Various societies manage this excess in a variety of manners whether in Potlatch, religious sacrifice, luxury consumption, war, or in other ways but every society, by necessity, manages this excess somehow. From the perspective of general economy, all these forms mentioned are generically forms of waste; and waste is dominant in all societies to such an extent as to make scarcity meaningless, or even paradoxical. The problem solved by every economic system is not one of managing scarse resources, but rather one of getting rid of all the stuff it produces which is not utilizable in the reproduction of the same economy. This is true just as much in subsistence and hunter-gatherer societies as it is in consumer capitalism; just the particular excesses and strategies for squandering them differ.

The second modernist conceptual paradigm that of boundary is similarly abandoned in Bataille's general economy. There is no longer any closed circuit of production, because every object in a rational economy of production functions simultaneously in a fundamentally irrational circuit of expenditure/consumption. There is no longer any Smithean transcendental unity of alienability, because that accursed share which is alienated as pure sacrifice undermines the whole basis of the commodities-system in the exchange of equivalents.

Finally, subjectivity suffers the very same immanent disappearance with Bataille as have economy and evolutionary biology. If the conceptual field which had created the Rationalist notion of a stable philosophical subject had depended on the theoretical and practical naturalizations of economics and biology, then the reversal of these naturalizations leads automatically to a reversal of the form of subjectivity. Such, anyway, is the argument made by Bataille. Even if a subjective disincorporation does not necessarily follow the disincorporation of its economic and biological metaphors, such a disincorporation is independently argued for by Bataille.

Bataille's analysis centers around desire and sexuality at the core of subjectivity. Desire is always implicit in every rational conception of the world, and of self and yet it is the one aspect of world and self which is never fully conceptualizable by self. Desire is the very ground of self in what is fundamentally non-self: the organic basis of consciousness. This non-self at the basis of self lies in the primary drive to sacrifice, which is always at its basest core a sacrifice of self itself, before it is a sacrifice of anything else. The sacrifice of self at the core of human existence, however, is nothing more than the general form of all biological existence. It is the active-force in Will-to-Power which is always immanently the becoming of a reactive-force; it is the accumulation of biotic energy whose accumulation only leaves more to be expended in death; it is the acquisition of commodities whose abundance demands their sacrifice in non-productive utilization.


Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, Translated by Robert Hurley. Zone Books: New York, 1988.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, Vintage Books: New York, 1973.

Haraway, Donna J. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Routledge: New York, 1991.

Sohn-Rethel, Alfred. Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology, Translated by Martin Sohn-Rethel. MacMillan Press Ltd: London, 1978.

Zizek, Slavoj. Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and out, Routledge: New York, 1992.