Cyborg vs palindrome: the identity in the liquid world

Introduction

In this text, I seek to interrogate how the sense of identity manifests itself in our contemporary techno-cultural world. The paper is based on speculative research on two theoretical entities: the cyborg and the palindrome. These two figures are the opposite ends of the same spectrum. The former is born as a construction; the latter is a figure that emerges from the context. To define the cyborg, I will review the paper Donna Haraway: Cyborgs for Earthly Survival? Written by Renè Munnik, while to define palindrome, I will use my reflection. The text is divided into four parts: the first part aims to frame the problem. I will introduce the difficulty of understanding the world related to the knot of subjective plurality and how the latter, combined with the context of techno-culture, affects our sense of identity. Parts two and three focus on the theorization of these two entities: the cyborg and the palindrome. The text concludes the necessity of a more in-depth study of the two figures in today’s world. 

Plurality in the liquid world 

In the age of liquid society (Bauman, 2019), surrounded by desiring machines (Deleuze and Guattari, 2014), immersed in techno-culture, and the background of the rise of artificial intelligence and transhumanism (Bostrom, 2005), our sense of identity is at the centre of transformation. According to Schopenhauer, reality is a product of our subjective interpretation of the outside world. Therefore, although the human species lives on a single planet, today, the worlds of reality that populate the planet are equal to the world’s population. Ricoeur introduced the concept of narrative identity, placing the problem of identity alongside that of plurality (Meijer, 1995). The question is to find meaning in this plurality. It is true that today’s society, thanks to technology and organizational models, has access as never before to an infinity of objective data: benchmarks, forecasts, statistical cases, metadata, models, to which it can refer to trace social trends, its evolution, trying to find meaning in it and determine the future. Nevertheless, in plurality, objective interpretation is lost in contrast to the manifest reality of the individual. Humankind has never achieved such technical and scientific progress in all human history as the reader is reading. The average person in the 21st century has more knowledge than a Newton, or an Aristotle could even remotely imagine. Life expectancy has increased, and many deadly diseases of yesterday have now been eradicated (Rosling, 2019). While these facts are undoubtedly positive in a general sense, the processes, events, and paradigm shifts from a social point of view that have led to the breakdown of narratives and values had significantly undermined the sense of identity by characterizing the future with uncertainty and liquidity that never before in history had occurred. This context has an active influence on our sense of identity. Technology has increased information and its speed by resetting geographical space to zero (Dickens, 2015). The development of the internet and social networks which was intended to bring people closer together, as Facebook’s slogan states: “Facebook helps you connect and stay in touch with the people in your life“, in truth only increases the sense of uncertainty and loneliness (Domenech-Abella J. Et al., 2017). 

The individual feels inadequate. One has the creation of individuals who seek the immediate and wait for the event. Here, a discrepancy arises between time perceived physically and online. In a world such as the one we live in today, made up of almost infinite pluralities, deterritorialized, emptied but globalized, unstable, with discrepancies of time, multidimensional, in which a technological aesthetic of seducing (or of desiring following Deleuze and Guattari) is applied, which is opening the doors to a post-consumerism, our sense of identity cannot but waver. In this great uncertainty about ourselves, two entities emerge from the scene of a global society: the first is the cyborg figure, which is an identity as a construction. The second is the palindrome, an anonymous entity that blends into the world. A static figure is emerging from the results of time. 

 Constructed identity: the cyborg 

 In a very general sense, a cyborg is a bionic being that is part human and robot. It is a character that populates science fiction and horror stories; as Munnik (2001) rightly points out, a cyborg is a term steeped in a negative sense. However, Haraway uses the cyborg figure in a much greater sense than its standard usage in the science-fiction context. For her, the cyborg image is a speculum: an instrument with which she can bring to light the hidden mechanisms and possibilities of our political and social reality dominated by techno-science (Munnik, 2001).  In this sense, it is essential to see how the identity of a cyborg is defined. Indeed, the identity of a cyborg is not the main essence but rather a temporary interruption in an ongoing series of constructions (Munnik, 2001). Moreover, the cyborg is a border-crossing figure standing in the middle of the boundary between man and technology (Munnik, 2001). These two characters provide him with a ‘broken identity’ that somehow has to be reconstructed related to the technologically charged outer world.

This is why Haraway finds that a cyborg’s identity is an identity as a construction. Looking at the origin of this sense of identity, Minsky (1994) says that cyborgs are “mind-children”, creative products born of the “spirit” or “soul” of modern technology. Haraway (1991) clarifies, defining them as a being whose context, world, social relations, and self-interpretation are deeply imbued in modern technology. The cyborg is an outcome of postmodernity; the realization has already taken place but not in its cinematic form. In our plurality, the way we interface with the world is through our smartphones. We have multi-identities on all the various social networks we use, our production of content, and how we communicate ourselves to others through the virtual interface. Does not this multidimensionality, the oscillation of our lives between the two worlds, virtual and real, make us cyborgs? 

The loss of a sense of identity that characterizes our era needs to be filled, and this filling takes place through a form of digital construction amplified in social reality. Haraway (1991) says that the existence of cyborgs consists in the art of surviving a diaspora, a form of existence characterized by a radical and contingent finite. Cyborgs are radically factual, situated, and partial, without needing to have their own particular identity taken up into a “higher unity”. Cyborgs are averse to grand narratives (Munnik, 2001). The cyborg is a figure that emerges from the technologically moulded world, in which there is a dichotomous relationship with the world, but it is the technological factor that plays an active role. Haraway also attributes a political role to the cyborg, as it requires new conduct (Munnik, 2001), and I can only agree with this statement. The cyborg leads to a new political entity, which needs new conduct and reproducibility. Between political reality and identity, Haraway’s break with naturalism is important. She moves away from the classic image of the average white western man who resides in the historical narrative, moving towards the representation of the image regarding the “outsider”. Haraway realizes that identity is a kind of agglomeration resulting from identity fusion (Munnik, 2001). As we have seen, the cyborg is a constructed identity, an identity built from other identities. However, Haraway does not stop there; she goes a step further by reasoning about cyborgs’ characters, which leads to a new situation: that of the integrated circuit of high-technological culture (Munnik, 2001). This identity construct of the cyborg, a composition of other identities, has much greater practical implications than the cyborg figure we find in Hollywood fiction. The cyborg is no longer that half-machine, half-human entity but becomes something much more ambiguous and (perhaps) frightening. This ‘new’ cyborg of which Haraway speaks is any identity constructed in the context of high-tech culture. In this sense, the example of a cyborg that Haraway gives when referring to the ‘black woman’ is emblematic, referring to her as a cyborg identity, a powerful subjectivity composed of outsider identities (Haraway, 1991).

To conclude, the cyborg is an entity whose identity is constructed; it is a product of the plurality of the world that is created by techno-culture. Its composition is given by how the human part interfaces with the ‘machine’ (the driving force of social amplification), with the digital dimension that our world creates. The identity of the cyborg is characterized by a continuous becoming and construction whose completion is missing. This is why the identity of the cyborg is lost in the continuum of time, limited in two temporal dimensions: the physical and the virtual. The cyborg entity is unstable because of its non-fixed identity. It adapts and mutates without ever knowing who it is. It wanders in the uncertainty of the future, and this sense of dispersion, of drifting through time in search of meaning, is as frightening as ever. 

 Emerging identity: the palindrome

A palindrome is a term derived from linguistics, generally meaning a sequence of letters with complete meaning, which, even when read backwards, results in the original sequence. Examples of palindromes are: civic, refer, racecar. More generally, the term can also be extended to sequences of numbers or entire sentences. The principle is the same, but we will refer to palindromes’ words in this context for simplicity. In this part of the text, I try to offer speculative reasoning. I will try to use the palindrome as a metaphor, attempting to translate and abstract its properties onto an entity and how these properties may influence the concept of identity. As demonstrated by this sentence, the palindrome is an anonymous entity: “my mom would never refer to the incident of the other day“. In this sentence, we find two palindromic words: “mom” and “refer“. At first glance, they are confused with the semantic meaning of the sentence; they pass unnoticed as one focuses more on its overall meaning. Although, if one dwells on the individual words, one can see how they emerge from the plurality of the content. The concept of palindrome goes beyond the simple classification of a word. A palindrome is a concept that looks across an entity. A palindrome always remains the same, whatever angle it is viewed from. Nonetheless, how can the concept of palindrome help us to understand better identity in our postmodern world imbued with technological culture? 

As mentioned, the palindrome can emerge from plurality while remaining anonymous. The palindrome is a self-conscious entity; it always remains itself by adapting to the different contexts of which it is part. The palindrome is that entity that is part of the pluriculturalism of which Ihde (1993) spoke. We have to be able to “see” in several ways at the same time; we have to have a “compound eye” (Verbek, 2001). This is only possible if we know how to distinguish if we know who we are. To do this, to emerge and see, one must, first of all, have one’s own identity amid multiplicity, always be oneself, recognize oneself from every perspective, like the palindromic words within sentences. The palindrome concept presented here can be traced back to a postmodern nihilism, but unlike the Nietzschean concept of an active role, the palindrome concept is more akin to a passive role. A passive role towards the outside world, insofar as it perceives the techno-culture in its nullity (unlike the cyborg, the composition is as active as ever), but active towards itself, insofar as it is aware of its own identity and impotence towards time. The palindrome always remains him, emerging and asserting itself beyond the context. An anonymous affirmation, in that it neither constructs nor destroys, is affirmed through self-awareness. The anonymous quality of the palindrome is due to its interpretation of time. Timeless in its immutability. The cyborg experiences time as an identifiable becoming, whereas the palindrome does not seek its relationship with time; indeed, it abstains from it. The palindrome entity is aware of the ephemeral nature of time, of its transience. If Haraway defines the cyborg as a new political behaviour, the palindrome is alien to it. It is a disillusioned politician; it knows that technology, the reigning binary reality, has taken over, and no human being can keep up with it. Technology in the relative world is too fast. The palindrome is an anti-political entity, an extremely biographical identity looking back on its time. If Zarathustra sees a gateway, the circularity of time reflected in the eternal return (the Augenblick) (Shapiro, 2001), the palindrome sees the end of time, or rather the end of history. This is why the palindrome lives by political abstinence because it is aware of the drift of all action in this sense. It is the drift of the human condition concerning techno-culture, quantum computers, and mass conditioning. The palindrome knows who it is and knows how much it does not matter, and for this very reason, it knows its identity. 

Conclusion 

 In this text, in the form of speculative thought, I have tried to analyze two different types of entities in our postmodern world: the former is the cyborg, the latter is the palindrome. I have tried to relate both of these figures to the concept of identity, which is linked to existential awareness, that in the age of techno-culture has become weaker than ever. In this sense, the two concepts are antipodes: the cyborg as a constructed identity whereas the palindrome as an emerging identity. In the first paragraph, the difficulty of determining the world lies in its plurality, which has increased exponentially thanks to digital technologies and society. The cyborg and the palindrome adapt differently to the context: the former changes with each context, breaking down and reassembling itself in each situation, the latter remains aware of itself and its role. In practical terms, the outcome can be different. However, in an abstract and speculative sense, the cyborg and palindrome figure lead to reflect about the direction the individual’s sense of identity is taking into the techno-scientific world. Following the work of Haraway and other post-humanists, I think that the figure of the cyborg should be revived and reworked, no longer in dystopian terms of construction but more as a shared entity. Which influences the representation of our identity by the constant sharing on social media. An example could be to juxtapose the cyborg with the figure of the cloud. 

On the other hand, the palindrome is more reminiscent of nostalgic identity, part of the past. A self-conscious but anonymous entity, in which it always remains beyond the context. A less intriguing figure, leaving less room for the imagination, but perhaps for this very reason as ‘real’ as ever. Whether one is more ‘cyborg’ or ‘palindrome’, I leave it to the reader to decide.

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