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[Cite as Williams, Damien P., Heavenly Bodies: Why It Matters That Cyborgs Have Always Been About Disability, Mental Health, and Marginalization (June 8, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3401342 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3401342]

 

INTRODUCTION

The history of biotechnological intervention on the human body has always been tied to conceptual frameworks of disability and mental health, but certain biases and assumptions have forcibly altered and erased the public awareness of that understanding. As humans move into a future of climate catastrophe, space travel, and constantly shifting understanding s of our place in the world, we will be increasingly confronted with concerns over who will be used as research subjects, concerns over whose stakeholder positions will be acknowledged and preferenced, and concerns over the kinds of changes that human bodies will necessarily undergo as they adapt to their changing environments, be they terrestrial or interstellar. Who will be tested, and how, so that we can better understand what kinds of bodyminds will be “suitable” for our future modes of existence?[1] How will we test the effects of conditions like pregnancy and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in space, and what will happen to our bodies and minds after extended exposure to low light, zero gravity, high-radiation environments, or the increasing warmth and wetness of our home planet?

During the June 2018 “Decolonizing Mars” event at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, several attendees discussed the fact that the bodyminds of disabled folx might be better suited to space life, already being oriented to pushing off of surfaces and orienting themselves to the world in different ways, and that the integration of body and technology wouldn’t be anything new for many people with disabilities. In that context, I submit that cyborgs and space travel are, always have been, and will continue to be about disability and marginalization, but that Western society’s relationship to disabled people has created a situation in which many people do everything they can to conceal that fact from the popular historical narratives about what it means for humans to live and explore. In order to survive and thrive, into the future, humanity will have to carefully and intentionally take this history up, again, and consider the present-day lived experience of those beings—human and otherwise—whose lives are and have been most impacted by the socioethical contexts in which we talk about technology and space.

[Image of Mars as seen from space, via JPL]

This paper explores some history and theories about cyborgs—humans with biotechnological interventions which allow them to regulate their own internal bodily process—and how those compare to the realities of how we treat and consider currently-living people who are physically enmeshed with technology. I’ll explore several ways in which the above-listed considerations have been alternately overlooked and taken up by various theorists, and some of the many different strategies and formulations for integrating these theories into what will likely become everyday concerns in the future. In fact, by exploring responses from disabilities studies scholars and artists who have interrogated and problematized the popular vision of cyborgs, the future, and life in space, I will demonstrate that our clearest path toward the future of living with biotechnologies is a reengagement with the everyday lives of disabled and other marginalized persons, today.

CYBORGS AND MENTAL HEALTH[2]

The idea of systematically using technological and biochemical interventions to help a human person regulate their bodily processes to adapt to life in space takes its start from the work of two men: Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline. Even at a young age, Clynes’ work always seemed to engage with feedback and modulation and the interplay of different systems, and a correspondence with physicist Albert Einstein encouraged him and gave him the social cache to build a music career.[3] But in 1956, Clynes by chance met Dr. Nathan S. Kline, who was then the Director of the Research Center of Rockland State Hospital, where they both worked.[4] It was through this meeting that the two would become longtime collaborators and would come to coin one of the most resonant technoscientific imaginaries and conceptual tools of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: The Cyborg.

Oddly, neither Kline’s New York Times (NYT) obituary, nor his biographies at The Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research and the International Network For The History Of Neuropsychopharmacology mention his role in coining the term “cyborg,” even though Clynes was drawn to Kline in large part due to the latter’s work on neurochemistry and the groundbreaking development of antidepressants.[5] Kline’s work on anti-depressants was specifically about the human use of exterior sources of neurochemicals to self-regulate their systems, and it was precisely this work which informed the later dream of unconscious chemical adaptation to any environment. Kline’s work on antidepressants stemmed from his recognition that certain neurotransmitters were not being produced by the brains of patients with certain types of depression. Kline sought a way to either induce the production of these chemicals, or to provide them from an outside source, in doses and at intervals which would allow them to more easily integrate into a human body.[6]  Kline envisioned this process as one of the intentional regulation of organic bodily systems, through specific chemical interventions.

Clynes and others saw much wider potential value in this work, especially as in the late 1950’s and early 1960, the United States of America (USA) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) were in the throes of both the Cold War at the Space Race. Each superpower sought to become the first to put a human being into space, to claim it for their nations and the people therein, and it was in this context that Clynes and Kline wrote the paper “Cyborgs and Space,” and coined the term “Cyborg.”[7] In this paper, Clynes and Kline described a cyborg (a portmanteau of “cybernetic organism”) as a being which would have the means to regulate and alter previously autonomic bodily processes, through the use of chemical alterations, in a cybernetic feedback loop. The paper was largely a theoretical exploration of how we might use chemical biotechnological interventions to regulate autonomic nervous and pulmonary function, and also to make unconscious certain intentional functions and processes.[8] A cyborg would be able to survive the rigors of space travel—such as increased gravitational forces and radiation, long lightless stretches, and bodily degradation—by regulating the chemical processes of their body to adapt to each new situation, as necessary.

But as the Space Race wore on, and more and more humans actually went into space, there was an increasingly smaller focus on the alterations and adaptations that would be necessary to survive in space, and greater public emphasis placed on a narrative of the triumphalism of the human will and ingenuity. The narrative regarding humans in space became primarily about those who had “the right stuff,” rather than a question of what we would have to do in order to adapt and thrive, and so the image of the cyborg fell away and was altered. And a whole suite of possibilities for how we might have understood—and treated—different kinds of embodiment altered, along with it.

As Alison Kafer discusses in her book Feminist, Queer, Crip, feminist and ecological discourses in the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s gave rise to widely-read theorists such as Donna Haraway who use the “cyborg” concept in a rhetorical mode that locks it to particular ideals about bodily integrity and outdated notions like “Severe Handicaps.”[9] (Below, we’ll discuss how, in her Robo Sapiens Japanicus, Jennifer Robertson relates this to the Japanese concept of Gotai, or “Five Body.”)  Kafer links this discussion to the history of how Kline and Clynes’ work on neurochemical antidepressants at the Rockland Institute was very likely predicated on testing and treating patients—both via drugs and instrumental interventions—against their will. Additionally, throughout the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, Rockland was subject to multiple accusations of patient mistreatment and mismanagement, including physical abuse, malnourishment, and even rape.[10] While it certainly might not have be the case that any of those more horrifying things happened under Kline and Clynes’ direction, they did happen on their watch, and the culture of testing institutionalized patients without their consent was widespread in the United States, well into the 1970’s.[11]

[Portrait Image of Nathan S Kline: A monochrome photograph of an older white man wearing glasses and dark suit, white shirt, and tie]

Throughout the long history of eugenics in the United States, ideas about what constitutes the “right kind” of person—be that on the basis of ethnicity, gender, physical or mental ability, or all of the above—led to events in which people institutionalized against their will were forcibly sterilized due to claims of their reduced “fitness” and mental facilities. People with uteri were given forcible hysterectomies and people with testes were chemically or physically castrated, and certain people were simply put to death because they were seen as “unfit” to ever reintegrate with society. All of these things happened starting at very early ages and as one might guess, issues of race complicated every facet of them. As Harriet Washington notes in her book Medical Apartheid:

Unfortunately, a black child is more likely than a white one to have his parent completely removed from the informed-consent equation. Black children are far more likely than whites to be institutionalized, in which case the parents are often unable to consent freely or are not consulted at all.[12]

Often, and to this day, children judged as even possibly having a higher likelihood “mentally unfitness” are just aborted outright, as in the case of Iceland and the Netherlands’ use of in vitro imaging technologies to determine whether or not a child has Down Syndrome.[13]

Kafer’s discussion of the Rockland Institute’s depredations serves to illustrate that even some of the most foundational work and well-respected researchers have been party to monstrous practices in order to make their discoveries. Even as Clynes and Kline’s ideal of the cyborg developed out of a concern for mental health and recognition that the human body was not developed to fit the niche of outer space, they did their work in a context built upon the degradation and predation of disabled and forcibly institutionalized persons. This understanding of marginalized persons as resources to be used or situated embodiments to be emulated has been unfortunately persistent, and it has changed the way we think about what a cyborg ought to be. Rather than being about recognizing that, as researcher of the intersection of philosophy, technology, and disability Dr. Ashley Shew has put it, we would all be disabled in space, and so would all need some form of cybernetic system of interventions to survive, a myth of the elite, perfectible human took root.[14] There are number reasons why that is, and many implications for what it’s come to mean.

CYBORGS AND DISABILITY[15]

In the last three decades, as things like the internet captured the public imagination, more theorists explored the image of the human as increasingly entangled with technology. Theorists of biology, sociology, and scientific history, such as Donna Haraway, came to use the notion of the cyborg as a way to describe how human lives may become entangled with nonhuman entities and systems.[16] At the same time, the understanding of a cyborg as some superhuman fusion of human and machine was being taken up and reinforced by popular culture, creating a what Shew, above, calls “Technoableism” and what anthropologist of  robotics and  Japanese culture Jennifer Robertson calls “Cyborg-ableism.”[17] In Techno- or Cyborg-Ableism, technologized bodies are ostensibly lauded as “superior,” but only by still being marked out as other.

Shew’s paper “Up-Standing, Norms, Technology, and Disability” explores how ableism, expectations, and particularities of language serve to marginalize disabled bodies.[18] Shew takes her title from the fact that most technological “solutions” designed for people who don’t use their legs are intended to facilitate their engaging the world as if they did. Many if not most things in human societies are designed to be used within a certain range of height that assumes the user is standing; if your default mode is sitting, then your engagement with the vast majority of the world will be radically different. This is just one example of what is known as the social construction model of disability, which says that it’s not the physiological differences themselves which disable, but rather the ways that spaces, architectures, and simple basic societal assumptions limit how a person is expected to intersect with the world and what kind of bodymind they “should” have.[19] Shew notes that, while we tend to think of cyborgs as some seamless integration of technology and bodies, wheelchair and crutch users consider their chairs as fairly integral extensions and interventions, as a part of themselves. The problem is that the majority of societies assume different things about these different modes. Shew mentions a friend of hers:

She’s an amputee who no longer uses a prosthetic leg, but she uses forearm crutches and a wheelchair. (She has a hemipelvectomy, so prosthetics are a real pain for her to get a good fit and there aren’t a lot of options.) She talks about how people have these different perceptions of devices. When she uses her chair people treat her differently than when she uses her crutches, but the determination of which she uses has more to do with the activities she expects for the day, rather than her physical wellbeing.

But people tend to think she’s recovering from something when she moves from chair to sticks.

She has been an [amputee] for 18 years.

She has/is as recovered as she can get.[20]

Shew is one of many researchers who have discussed that a large number of paraplegics and other wheelchair users do not want exoskeletons, and that those fancy stair-climbing wheelchairs aren’t covered by health insurance, because they’re classed not as assistive devices, but as vehicles. Shew says what most people who don’t have use of their legs want is to have access to the same things that people who do have the use of their legs have. Because ultimately, in around the time it takes for Apple to come out with a new iPhone—around about eighteen months—a person who has developed a disability—lost the use of their legs, the use of their sight, the use of their hearing, the use of their arms, whatever—will come to engage and to adapt to that new lived physical reality as normal. Many societies think about disability as a life-altering, world-changing thing—something that lasts forever and nothing will ever be the same for you—but the fact the matter is that humans are plastic, adaptable, and malleable. We learn how to live around what we are, and we learn it very quickly.

All of this comes back down and around to the idea of biases ingrained into social institutions. Our expectations of what a “normal functioning body” is gets imposed from the collective society, as a whole, a placed as restrictions and demands on the bodies of those whom we deem to be “malfunctioning.” As Shew says, “There’s such a pressure to get the prosthesis as if that solves all the problems of maintenance and body and infrastructure. And the pressure is for very expensive tech at that.”

Humans became seen as those creatures which self-analyze and then alter and adapt themselves based upon said self-analysis. Many philosophers of technology have argued that we are always technologically mediated, and that that mediation shapes and is shaped by our physiological and sociocultural experiences, and elsewhere, I’ve explored the questions of identity that come along with Ship-of-Theseus-like questions of bodily integrity that do not quite fit into this work.[21] Suffice it to say that even as promises of becoming “more than” human have flooded the public imagination, they have been met with equally ardent cries of “but if you lose a part of your body, you’re not really you!” Either of these positions serves only to erase and marginalize the real lived experiences of disabled people, for the sake of some assumption about what the human bodymind “should” or even just might be. Even into the twenty-first century, cyborgologists such as Amber Case, a self-described “Cyborg Anthropologist,” have argued that, thanks to augmented reality, smart phone devices, and the generally ubiquitous integration of technology in to the daily life of the modern human being, “We Are All Cyborgs Now.”[22] But something crucial gets lost, here, when we obfuscate or elide the real experiences of people with disabilities from the conversation about cyborgs and cybernetics.

In her pieces “Dawn of the Tryborg” and “Common Cyborg,” Jillian Weise specifically hones in on a great deal of the  foundation for the modern mythology of cyborg experience, including that which comes out of perspectives like Haraway’s and Case’s.[23] The idea that anyone with a smartphone or with a particular conceptual relationship to the world is automatically a cyborg, Weise says, does violence to the very real lived experience of people with prosthetics or artificial organs or implants that keep them alive. Those latter interventions need maintenance to keep them functional in the face of damage, to prevent life-threatening infection, and to adjust them for day-to-day changes, and while they are not necessarily “sexy,” they are a truer example of what the term’s originators thought it would mean to be a cyborg. “Tryborgs,” on Weise’s view, are those people who want all the glitz and glory of being interconnected with technology, without any of the practical implications. They are the transhumanists who believe that we will all be able to upload our consciousnesses and change our shape, at will, with no muss and no fuss. They want to be the inspirational figures, without having to suffer any losses or do any of the messy upkeep and maintenance, to get there. And they exist in many cultures.

[Port-A-Cath Chemo Port (Images from Cancer.gov {Left} and MySamanthaJane.com {Right})]

Jennifer Robertson’s Robo Sapiens Japanicus consists of a close investigation of Japan’s historical cultural engagement with robots, and her sixth chapter, “Cyborg-Ableism Beyond The Uncanny (Valley),” deals specifically with Japanese notions of disability, mental health, and cyborg-ableism.[24] Though she doesn’t directly consider of the roots of the cyborg concept, beyond Haraway and back to Kline and Clynes, Robertson delves into things like the removal of disabled veterans from streets for 1964 Olympics, the creation of the first Paralympics in 1948, the fact that one out of six people in Asia and the Pacific is born with some form of disability, and that Japan only ratified the UN’s and drafted its own disability protection legislation after many years and a great deal of foreign pressure.[25] And even with that pressure, Robertson says, it was only with the 2016 enforcement of these laws that all governmental institutions and private-sector businesses were required to remove the social barriers for people with disabilities.[26] Before then, many disabled athletes weren’t allowed to train with able-bodied teammates, and had to raise their own money to purchase prostheses, at which point many of them, if they were successful, got accused of exploiting their disability for monetary gain.[27] In this way, Robertson highlights a cultural indifference to or dismissal of disabled people, even as governments and businesses focused on and developed robotic prostheses.[28]

In a cultural sense, the desires to either fit in or to use technology to become “more” and “better than” are what tend to drive cyborg-ableist concerns. Robertson discusses Tobin Siebers and the concept of able-bodied passing, comparing it to queer folx and “straight passing;” in each case there are transitive and intransitive forms of passing, where one is either actively effacing their difference/otherness, or merely benefitting from outside observers simply not recognizing said.[29] To that end, many may choose to make their disability (or their queerness, or both) unignorable by way of stylized prostheses; in fact, much in line with Shew’s assertions above, while people who’ve recently lose a limb may start off wanting a lifelike replacement, they tend to shift to wanting something that works and feels better, rather than just looking a particular way. [30] So are stylized prostheses better understood as empowering or distracting? On the one hand, there is something empowering about the use of a prosthetic to reshape and change the way the outside world can understand you; on the other hand, “prosthetics can divert attention from the disabled limb to its replacement.”[31] But this replacement, in itself, can be a source of discomfort for able-bodied folx.

In the section “What is (and is not) the uncanny valley?” Robertson explores Masahiro Mori’s concept of Bunkimi no tani which Robertson translates as “the valley of eerie feeling,” rather than the more familiar “uncanny valley.”[32] Paired with shinwakan no tani or “familiar feeling valley,” Mori describes this as a kind of suddenly and shockingly frustrated expectation, when one is in the process of encountering and reinforcing increasingly familiar things. This concept depends heavily on Mori’s assumptions about what would constitute an “average, healthy, person” and what Robertson labels his “almost callous indifference toward disabled persons.”[33] In Mori’s graphs and descriptions of the Valley, he includes sick disabled people as on the upward curve of the “eerie,” moving away from  corpses, zombies, and prosthetic hands.[34]

While many people have taken the uncanny valley as some kind of gospel law, Robertson contends we should, rather, expect that the constituency or even presence of an uncanny valley would be a highly subjective thing, based on factors such as “physical and cognitive abilities, age, sex, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, education, religion, and cultural background;” and, indeed, Mori himself has said that it was meant only as an “impressionistic” guide.[35] Humans can adjust to and come to accept and embrace the unfamiliar and designers can avoid the uncanny valley, and many people on earth live in situations where injury illness and death are not “sudden and unfamiliar” or “eerie,” but rather are unfortunately everyday occurrences. But Mori’s response, and much of what is seen in the Japanese exoskeleton market, is just another example of Gotai, the traditional Japanese understanding that a “whole” or “normal” body is made of five constituent parts in combination: either the head, two arms, and two legs, or the head, neck, torso, arms, and legs.[36] This theory holds that anything that breaks this form breaks the person, a perspective which firmly binds these notions of “completeness” to notions of mental health.

Hirotada Ototake’s book Gotai Fumanzoku or “incomplete/unsatisfactory body” (English title: “No One’s Perfect”) is an autobiography about his tetra-amelia syndrome which prevented his arms and legs from developing during his gestation; stressing his “Normality” and his desire to be treated equally.[37] But, Robertson notes, the kind of whole-body championed by the Japanese culture exoskeletons are not ways for people like Ototake to regain Gotai, and that there’s a difference between prosthetics that replace a limb and those that “enhance” an existing but disabled one.[38] Robertson, here, in a move similar to but not directly referential of Kafer, touches on Haraway’s use of cyborg as a metaphor for relationality and reflexivity, and, offers a critique of Haraway’s seeming to conceive of “disability” as a singular category rather than the multiform variable conditions that can be linked under this label.[39] This, along with transhumanists like Max More and Natasha Vita-More’s ableist notions of what the “perfect” body should be, feeds into narratives that comprise this vision of cyborgs as a somehow “perfected” humanity.

But cyborgs were conceived as a means for humans to live in space, a situation which, again, would be a combination of constantly-dangerous processes of keeping close track of minute changes in the bodyminds of the astronauts and their relationship to their environment—processes that are already well-known to, e.g., diabetics or people with peripheral neuropathy. For a person within those lived experiences, always being aware of the state, position, and integrity of their body is always already a life-or-death scenario, in ways that have to be learned and mimicked by people who are otherwise able-bodied. Had we maintained disabled people’s stories as a part of the mythology of the cyborg, from the beginning, Western societies might now have a better relationship with concepts of disability and mental health. This relationship might have easily arisen from the recognition that most if not all disabled people are cyborgs, just as all spacefaring humans must become cyborgs, and that this, as Clynes and Kline understood, is precisely because all spacefaring humans will become disabled by the very act of existing in space. Which means that, in essence, spacefaring humans currently do and will continue to experience the social construction of disability.

[Members of the Gallaudet Eleven chat in the zero-g aircraft that flew out of Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla.; Credits: U.S. Navy/Gallaudet University collection]

But since we have not, in fact, reinforced that chain of understanding, contemporary theorist would be well served to presently explore the situated and lived experiences of people with different configurations of bodyminds, and to listen to what they know about themselves. As Shew has noted, those people who have experience with orienting themselves to the world via pushing off of surfaces or using their arms as primary means of propulsion would be better positioned move in weightless environments and to teach others new strategies to do the same. Because, ultimately, people with disabilities are often already interwoven with their technologies, in ways idealized by technologists, but their lived experience is not recognized and appreciated for what it is. If we take these lived experiences and incorporate the people who embody them, in conjunction with the original intent of the notion of the cyborg, we might have the beginning of a system by which we can rehabilitate the notion of the cyborg—but overcoming the historical trends that have led us here will take a great deal of work.

CYBORGS AND MARGINALIZATION

While it has long been assumed that the future of humanity would have to adapt both its forms and conceptual relations to multiform and multimodal embodiments, through our explorations we have come to understand how the category of the cyborg, which should have made fertile grounds for this expanded understanding, has instead become a site of disenfranchisement. As we’ve seen, Kafer’s project in Feminist, Queer, Crip aims to reframe disabled people as cyborgs because of their political practices rather than their bodies,  that enframing of politics, embodiment, and biotechnological intervention has roots and mirrors in other persistent forms of marginalization. Those other roots of racism and misogyny give rise to several questions such as, “Whose bodies will we make subject to or deign to include in tests for space exploration?” More to the point, if we are meant to the cyborg in terms of people whose embodiments are already technopolitically mediated, then who can and should we understand as cyborgs, now? Because there is a crucial difference between a group of people who have “disnormalized” themselves, and group which has been othered by people who don’t know or understand their lived experience.

Again, there are multiple sites of marginalization which can be demonstrated as having a force-multiplying effect on how people with implants, prostheses, or biochemical injection or ingestion regimens are either accepted or disenfranchised by the society in which they live. We can borrow, here, the framework of Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s Intersectionality theory, to help make sense of this:

…problems of exclusion cannot be solved simply by including Black women within an already established analytical structure. Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated. (Emphasis added.)[40]

Crenshaw centers Black women, here, but this isn’t to say that only Black women can be intersectional subjects. Rather, she uses Black women as an example of how groups of people that have been cast as only one kind of identity (Black, Woman) would be far better understood as the center of an intersectional process. Might we think of trans folx who sit at the center of their identities, biomedical technologies such as hormone replacement therapies (HRT) or binders or packers, of societies expectations about how their bodies ought to present and behave, and public technologies such as airport scanners of as cyborgs?[41] If so, they would have vastly different valences of legibility and operation than, say, a diabetic with an insulin pump—though similar ones to a person with an ostomy bag.[42] If we work to understand people in an intersectional way, we can recognize the many vectors for different kinds of oppression, in the world, and understand that even those intersectional subjects with shared component roots will have different particularities of expression and avenues by which we might redress their needs—a recognition that has been sorely and consistently lacking in much of our public discourse, to date.

When we again explore the histories of eugenics and medicalization, we find that even up to this point in the 21st century, there are well-regarded researchers and even textbooks on biomedical ethics which barely touch on these issues, let alone on understanding them through a lens of intersectionality of oppression. For instance, Francis L. Macrina’s Scientific Integrity is in its fourth edition, and yet still seems to lack any substantive contextual discussion of changes made in the history of research ethics standards and practices—such as what actually happened in the Tuskegee syphilis trials. Macrina mentions that the trials took place, and even the nature of the population on which they were conducted, but he does not at any point mention the fact that researchers targeted the study’s population because they were Black, and were therefore conceptualized as resources.[43] While it is, perhaps, unfair to expect Macrina to touch on every nuanced concerns of every human subject trial, the assumption that social features are not worthy of discussion serves to reinforce a whole host of other assumptions about things like the objectivity of testing criteria or the clarity of explanations in gaining informed consent. These assumptions, if ever scrutinized at all, would simply not hold up. At the very least it is clear that the Tuskegee patients, like Henrietta Lacks, were not seen or understood as being worthy of clear explanations of what was being done to them. After all, if they understood, they might have said “no.”

Focusing on the history of biomedical experimentation on populations of the forcibly institutionalized or systemically disenfranchised, and African American or female-presenting bodies, in particular, would do wonders to highlight the fact that the long-term effects of the trials were more than just some blanket distrust of medical experimentation, throughout American society. The trials in Tuskegee, Alabama fit into a longstanding pattern of treating Black bodies as resources to be used and as objects to be othered, dehumanized, and intervened upon in whatever ways the dominant society at the time has happened to see fit. And Black bodies are not the only ones.  Imagine if textbook writers such as Macrina more often took the time to discuss and contextualize events like how the government and medical providers tricked Black people in Mississippi into receiving vaccinations, or the forced sterilization of Black women, or how the intersection of mental health and institutionalization of women in general led to them being experimented on and sterilized at higher rates, or the long-term ethical and social implications of classifying certain people as “morons.”

More and more, the effects of these kinds of historical objectification are understood as linked to lowered health outcomes, higher rates of chronic illness, and greater morbidity for Black people and women in the United States, and a longstanding history of thinking of the neurodivergent and people with mental disabilities as “less than.” The omission of these discussions from textbooks and other broad public discourse exemplifies a persistent failure to fully contextualize the history and implications of these events. That this failure presents in so many ethical sub-disciplines might help to explain how people have so often managed to convince themselves that testing on marginalized populations without their informed consent can be said to serve the “greater good.” More often than not, “professional ethics training” or any other kind of take on the humanities within business or the so-called hard sciences becomes synonymous with a particular understanding of how not to get sued. The perspectives that get passed along are those of experts in the field in question, be it business, technology, medicine, or what-have-you. Leaving the social science and humanities training of students to people who were only ever trained in this narrow, subdisciplinary fashion is precisely what leads to the continual dismissal of ethical, moral, and sociopolitical considerations, and said dismissal then, in turn, gives rise to Technoableism.


[“Bladerunner” Created by Oliver Wetter / Ars Fantasio]

If various groups want to change bodily forms and embodiments, or even just change the way that we all interact with the planet on which we currently live so that we might survive the next 30 years, then they will have to radically reconsider how our sociopolitical forces and the elements of our lived experience impact the decisions we make about the science we do and tools we create. The historical positioning of the lived experiences of marginalized people in terms of race, gender, disability, and so on has meant that while we are more than happy to test and degrade certain people for their embodiments, we have been less than willing to allow those same to shape and direct the technoscientific discourse of which they have forcibly been made a part. This distinction, though unarticulated, matters a great deal, and its effects and implications run rampant throughout every facet of our society.

CONCLUSION

If humans do manage a future in which they travel into and live in space, they will need to change the kinds of embodiments and relations they have in order to survive; to do this, they will need to think in vastly different ways about the nature of technological and scientific projects they undertake. Our societal future imaginings are rife with assumptions about what kind of people are best suited to exist and these have been shaped by the historical positioning and treatment of many marginalized groups. Left unexamined, these assumptions and precedents will likely mutate and iterate into each new environment into which humans spread, and affect every engagement of human and nonhuman relationships. But, if we bring a careful, thorough, and intentional consideration to bear on the project of weaving together biomedical, interpersonal, sociopolitical, and technomoral concerns, then we might be better suited to both do right by those we’ve previously oppressed and agilely adapt to the kinds of concerns that will face us, in the future.

As Haraway discusses in her (flawed but possibly still salvageable) “Cyborg Manifesto,” the language of the cybernetic feedback loop does not belong only to humanity as a way to describe its own processes—cybernetic theory and the myth of the cyborg are also frameworks which can be used to describe the cycles and processes of nature, as a whole.[44] Through this understanding, Haraway and others have argued that all of nature is involved in an integrated process of adaptation, augmentation, and implementation which, far from being a simple division between the biological and technological is, instead, a reflexive, co-productive process. Using the theorists and examples above, I’ve argued for an understanding of biotechnological intervention and integration as the truth of our existence with and within technology. Our bodies and minds are shaped by each other and exist as bodyminds, and those bodyminds dictate and are shaped by the technologies with which they interact.

In order to carefully construct and live within vastly complex systems, it will be crucial to understanding the lived experiences of those whose embodiments and bodyminds have placed them at a higher likelihood of being marginalized by those who demand a “right kind” of lived experience. Only by allowing them to create a world out of the lessons of their lived experience will we be better able to intentionally craft what this system and its components will learn and how they will develop. What should characterize our understanding of the cyborg, then, is the reflexive, adaptive relationship between the sociotechnical, sociopolitical, ethical, individual, symbolic, and philosophical valences of our various lived experiences.

The point in saying that “Cyborgs Have Always Been About Disability, Mental Health, and Marginalization” is not to say that the category of the cyborg should be Disclosed to cyborg anthropologists and philosophers who say “we have always been cyborgs.” Rather, it’s about highlighting the fact that a category which was invented specifically to address the lived experiences of marginalized and oppressed people has been co-opted and transformed into a tool by which to erase the experiences of those very same people. We can, and indeed should, still make use of the Harawayan cyborg, the metaphor for entanglement and enmeshment, both as individuals and communities, but we must do so in a way that honours both the original meaning and the evolution of the concept. We must recognize that disabled people, the neurodivergent, trans folx, Black lives, women, queer individuals, and those who sit at the intersection of any number of those components comprise individual lives and communities of experience which are already attuned to changing and adapting to suddenly hostile environments, and it is these kinds of lives which should stand at the vanguard of how we understand what it means to be a cyborg, moving forward. Because the concept of the cyborg was never about a perfectible ideal, it was always about survivability, about coming into a new relational mode with ourselves, our society, and our world.

[1] “Bodyminds” comes from Margaret Price’s “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain.” in Hypatia 30, 2015.

[2] Parts adapted from Williams, Damien Patrick, “A Brief Historical Overview of Cybernetics and Cyborgs,” written for History of STS, Spring 2018

[3] Clynes, Manfred. (1955-10-02). “Simple analytic method for linear feedback system dynamics”. Transactions of the American Institute for Electrical Engineers

[4] Madrigal, Alexis C.. “The Man Who First Said ‘Cyborg,’ 50 Years Later.”

[5] Gruson, Lindsey. “Nathan Kline, Developer of Antidepressants, Dies.” The New York Times. February 14, 1983. https://www.nytimes.com/1983/02/14/obituaries/nathan-kline-developer-of-antidepressants-dies.html; Blackwell, Barry. “Nathan S. Kline.” International Network For The History Of Neuropsychopharmacology, June 13, 2013. http://inhn.org/profiles/nathan-s-kline.html.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Clynes, Manfred E. and Kline, Nathan S. “Cyborgs and Space.” Astronautics (September 1960), 26-27, 74-76. http://web.mit.edu/digitalapollo/Documents/Chapter1/cyborgs.pdf

[8] Clynes and Kline “Cyborgs and Space.”

[9] Kafer, Allison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013. pg. 105, 111—115; Haraway, Donna. “The Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, And Socialist-feminism In The Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs And Women: The Reinvention Of Nature New York; Routledge. 1991.

[10] Kafer, Allison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. pg. 126—128

[11] Cf, Washington, Harriet. Medical Apartheid; Tuskegee University, “About the USPHS Syphilis Study.” https://www.tuskegee.edu/about-us/centers-of-excellence/bioethics-center/about-the-usphs-syphilis-study; Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; New York: Crown Publishers, 2010

[12] Washington, Harriet. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Doubleday, 2006. pg. 293

[13] Verbeek, Peter-Paul. “Obstetric Ultrasound and the Technological Mediation of Morality: A Postphenomenological Analysis.” Human Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1, Postphenomenology Research (Mar., 2008), pp. 11-26; Springer. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40270638

[14] Shew, Ashley. “Technoableism, Cyborg Bodies, and Mars.” Technology and Disability. November 11, 2017. https://techanddisability.com/2017/11/11/technoableism-cyborg-bodies-and-mars/.

[15] Parts adapted from Williams, Damien Patrick, “Technology, Disability, & Human Augmentation,” http://www.afutureworththinkingabout.com/?p=5162; “On the Ins and Outs of Human Augmentation,” http://www.afutureworththinkingabout.com/?p=5087.

[16] Haraway, Donna. “The Cyborg Manifesto”

[17] Shew, Ashley. “Technoableism, Cyborg Bodies, and Mars”; Robertson, Jennifer. Robo Sapiens Japanicus; Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018.

[18] Shew, Ashley. “Up-Standing Norms.” IEEE Conference on Ethics and Technology, 2016.

[19] See Rosenberger, Robert. “The Philosophy of Hostile Architecture: Spiked Ledges, Bench Armrests, Hydrant Locks, Restroom Stall Design, Etc.” 2018.

[20] Shew, Ashley, in correspondence, 2016.

[21] Cf. Don Ihde, Albert Borgmann, Peter-Paul Verbeek, Evan Selinger, and other post-phenomenologists; Williams, Damien Patrick “Technology, Disability, & Human Augmentation,” “On the Ins and Outs of Human Augmentation,” “Go Upgrade Yourself,” appearing in Futurama and Philosophy, Courtland D. Lewis ed.

[22] Case, Amber. “We are all cyborgs now.” TED Talks. December 2010. http://www.ted.com/talks/amber_case_we_are_all_cyborgs_now.html

[23] Weise, Jillian “The Dawn of the ‘Tryborg.’” November 30, 2016. NEW YORK TIMES. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/30/opinion/the-dawn-of-the-tryborg.html?_r=1#story-continues-1; “Common Cyborg.” Sep 24, 2018. GRANTA. https://granta.com/common-cyborg/; Also Cf. Joshua Earle’s “Cyborg Maintenance: A Phenomenology of Upkeep” presented at the 21st Conference of the Society for Philosophy and Technology.

[24] Robertson, Jennifer. Robo Sapiens Japanicus; Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation. pg. 146—174

[25] Robertson. pg. 146

[26] Ibid. pg. 148

[27] Robertson. pg. 149

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid. pg. 150

[30] Ibid. pg. 152

[31] Robertson. pg. 150

[32] Ibid. pg. 153—154

[33] Ibid. pg. 155—156

[34] Ibid. pg. 157

[35] Ibid.

[36] Robertson. pg. 168—169

[37] Ototake, Hirotada. Gotai Fumanzoku (“Incomplete Body”). Tokyo: Kodansha. 1998; No One’s Perfect. Tokyo: Kodansha. 2003.

[38] Robertson. pg. 170—171

[39] Ibid.

[40] Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” https://philpapers.org/rec/CREDTI

[41] Hoffman, Anna Lauren. “Data, Technology, and Gender: Thinking About (and From) Trans Lives”

[42] Dowd, Maureen. “Stripped of Dignity.” New York Times. April 19, 2011. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/20/opinion/20dowd.html; Crawford, Alison. “Disabled passengers complain of treatment by airport security staff.” CBC News. Sept. 27, 2016.  https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/catsa-airport-travellers-complaints-security-1.3779312.

[43] Macrina, Francis L. Scientific Integrity: Text and Cases in Responsible Conduct of Research. (Third Edition). Washington, D.C.: ASM Press, 2005. pg. 92.

[44] Haraway, Donna. “The Cyborg Manifesto.” Simians, Cyborgs And Women: The Reinvention Of Nature.

 

So The U.S. Transhumanist Party recently released some demographic info on their first 1,000 members, and while they seem to be missing some some rather crucial demographic markers, here, such as age and ethnicity, the gender breakdown is about what you’d expect.

I mention this because back at the end of June I attended the Decolonizing Mars Unconference, at the Library of Congress in D.C. It was the first time I had been in those buildings since I was a small child, and it was for such an amazing reason.

We discussed many topics, all in the interest of considering what it would really mean to travel through space to another planet, and to put humans and human interests there, longterm. Fundamentally, our concern was, is it even possible to do all of this without reproducing the worst elements of the colonialist projects we’ve seen on Earth, thus far, and if so, how do we do that?

[Image of Mars as seen from space, via JPL]

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Previously, I told you about The Human Futures and Intelligent Machines Summit at Virginia Tech, and now that it’s over, I wanted to go ahead and put the full rundown of the events all in one place.

The goals for this summit were to start looking at the ways in which issues of algorithms, intelligent machine systems, human biotech, religion, surveillance, and more will intersect and affect us in the social, academic, political spheres. The big challenge in all of this was seen as getting better at dealing with this in the university and public policy sectors, in America, rather than the seeming worse we’ve gotten, so far.

Here’s the schedule. Full notes, below the cut.

Friday, June 8, 2018

  • Josh Brown on “the distinction between passive and active AI.”
  • Daylan Dufelmeier on “the potential ramifications of using advanced computing in the criminal justice arena…”
  • Mario Khreiche on the effects of automation, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and the Microlabor market.
  • Aaron Nicholson on how technological systems are used to support human social outcomes, specifically through the lens of policing  in the city of Atlanta
  • Ralph Hall on “the challenges society will face if current employment and income trends persist into the future.”
  • Jacob Thebault-Spieker on “how pro-urban and pro-wealth biases manifest in online systems, and  how this likely influences the ‘education’ of AI systems.”
  • Hani Awni on the sociopolitical of excluding ‘relational’ knowledge from AI systems.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

  • Chelsea Frazier on rethinking our understandings of race, biocentrism, and intelligence in relation to planetary sustainability and in the face of increasingly rapid technological advancement.
  • Ras Michael Brown on using the religions technologies of West Africa and the West African Diaspora to reframe how we think about “hybrid humanity.”
  • Damien Williams on how best to use interdisciplinary frameworks in the creation of machine intelligence and human biotechnological interventions.
  • Sara Mattingly-Jordan on the implications of the current global landscape in AI ethics regulation.
  • Kent Myers on several ways in which the intelligence community is engaging with human aspects of AI, from surveillance to sentiment analysis.
  • Emma Stamm on the idea that datafication of the self and what about us might be uncomputable.
  • Joshua Earle on “Morphological Freedom.”

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Earlier this month I was honoured to have the opportunity to sit and talk to Douglas Rushkoff on his TEAM HUMAN podcast. If you know me at all, you know this isn’t by any means the only team for which I play, or even the only way I think about the construction of our “teams,” and that comes up in our conversation. We talk a great deal about algorithms, bias, machine consciousness, culture, values, language, and magick, and the ways in which the nature of our categories deeply affect how we treat each other, human and nonhuman alike. It was an absolutely fantastic time.

From the page:

In this episode, Williams and Rushkoff look at the embedded biases of technology and the values programed into our mediated lives. How has a conception of technology as “objective” blurred our vision to the biases normalized within these systems? What ethical interrogation might we apply to such technology? And finally, how might alternative modes of thinking, such as magick, the occult, and the spiritual help us to bracket off these systems for pause and critical reflection? This conversation serves as a call to vigilance against runaway systems and the prejudices they amplify.

As I put it in the conversation: “Our best interests are at best incidental to [capitalist systems] because they will keep us alive long enough to for us to buy more things from them.” Following from that is the fact that we build algorithmic systems out of those capitalistic principles, and when you iterate out from there—considering all attendant inequalities of these systems on the merely human scale—we’re in deep trouble, fast.

Check out the rest of this conversation to get a fuller understanding of how it all ties in with language and the occult. It’s a pretty great ride, and I hope you enjoy it.

Until Next Time.

So, many of you may remember that back in June of 2016, I was invited to the Brocher Institute in Hermance, Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva, to take part in the Frankenstein’s Shadow Symposium sponsored by Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination as part of their Frankenstein Bicentennial project.

While there, I and a great many other thinkers in art, literature, history, biomedical ethics, philosophy, and STS got together to discuss the history and impact of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Since that experience, the ASU team compiled and released a book project: A version of Mary Shelley’s seminal work that is filled with annotations and essays, and billed as being “For Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds.”

[Image of the cover of the 2017 edited, annotated edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, “Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds.”]

Well, a few months ago, I was approached by the organizers and asked to contribute to a larger online interactive version of the book—to provide an annotation on some aspect of the book I deemed crucial and important to understand. As of now, there is a full functional live beta version of the website, and you can see my contribution and the contributions of many others, there.

From the About Page:

Frankenbook is a collective reading and collaborative annotation experience of the original 1818 text of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The project launched in January 2018, as part of Arizona State University’s celebration of the novel’s 200th anniversary. Even two centuries later, Shelley’s modern myth continues to shape the way people imagine science, technology, and their moral consequences. Frankenbook gives readers the opportunity to trace the scientific, technological, political, and ethical dimensions of the novel, and to learn more about its historical context and enduring legacy.

To learn more about Arizona State University’s celebration of Frankenstein’s bicentennial, visit frankenstein.asu.edu.

You’ll need to have JavaScript enabled and ad-blocks disabled to see the annotations, but it works quite well. Moving forward, there will be even more features added, including a series of videos. Frankenbook.org will be the place to watch for all updates and changes.

I am deeply honoured to have been asked to be a part of this amazing project, over the past two years, and I am so very happy that I get to share it with all of you, now. I really hope you enjoy it.

Until Next Time.

[Direct link to Mp3]

My second talk for the SRI International Technology and Consciousness Workshop Series was about how nonwestern philosophies like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Daoism can help mitigate various kinds of bias in machine minds and increase compassion by allowing programmers and designers to think from within a non-zero-sum matrix of win conditions for all living beings, meaning engaging multiple tokens and types of minds, outside of the assumed human “default” of straight, white, cis, ablebodied, neurotypical male. I don’t have a transcript, yet, and I’ll update it when I make one. But for now, here are my slides and some thoughts.

A Discussion on Daoism and Machine Consciousness (Slides as PDF)

(The translations of the Daoist texts referenced in the presentation are available online: The Burton Watson translation of the Chuang Tzu and the Robert G. Hendricks translation of the Tao Te Ching.)

A zero-sum system is one in which there are finite resources, but more than that, it is one in which what one side gains, another loses. So by “A non-zero-sum matrix of win conditions” I mean a combination of all of our needs and wants and resources in such a way that everyone wins. Basically, we’re talking here about trying to figure out how to program a machine consciousness that’s a master of wu-wei and limitless compassion, or metta.

The whole week was about phenomenology and religion and magic and AI and it helped me think through some problems, like how even the framing of exercises like asking Buddhist monks to talk about the Trolley Problem will miss so much that the results are meaningless. That is, the trolley problem cases tend to assume from the outset that someone on the tracks has to die, and so they don’t take into account that an entire other mode of reasoning about sacrifice and death and “acceptable losses” would have someone throw themselves under the wheels or jam their body into the gears to try to stop it before it got that far. Again: There are entire categories of nonwestern reasoning that don’t accept zero-sum thought as anything but lazy, and which search for ways by which everyone can win, so we’ll need to learn to program for contradiction not just as a tolerated state but as an underlying component. These systems assume infinitude and non-zero-sum matrices where every being involved can win.

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-Human Dignity-

The other day I got a CFP for “the future of human dignity,” and it set me down a path thinking.

We’re worried about shit like mythical robots that can somehow simultaneously enslave us and steal the shitty low paying jobs we none of us want to but all of us have to have so we can pay off the debt we accrued to get the education we were told would be necessary to get those jobs, while other folks starve and die of exposure in a world that is just chock full of food and houses…

About shit like how we can better regulate the conflated monster of human trafficking and every kind of sex work, when human beings are doing the best they can to direct their own lives—to live and feed themselves and their kids on their own terms—without being enslaved and exploited…

About, fundamentally, how to make reactionary laws to “protect” the dignity of those of us whose situations the vast majority of us have not worked to fully appreciate or understand, while we all just struggle to not get: shot by those who claim to protect us, willfully misdiagnosed by those who claim to heal us, or generally oppressed by the system that’s supposed to enrich and uplift us…

…but no, we want to talk about the future of human dignity?

Louisiana’s drowning, Missouri’s on literal fire, Baltimore is almost certainly under some ancient mummy-based curse placed upon it by the angry ghost of Edgar Allan Poe, and that’s just in the One Country.

Motherfucker, human dignity ain’t got a Past or a Present, so how about let’s reckon with that before we wax poetically philosophical about its Future.

I mean, it’s great that folks at Google are finally starting to realise that making sure the composition of their teams represents a variety of lived experiences is a good thing. But now the questions are, 1) do they understand that it’s not about tokenism, but about being sure that we are truly incorporating those who were previously least likely to be incorporated, and 2) what are we going to do to not only specifically and actively work to change that, but also PUBLICIZE THAT WE NEED TO?

These are the kinds of things I mean when I say, “I’m not so much scared of/worried about AI as I am about the humans who create and teach them.”

There’s a recent opinion piece at the Washington Post, titled “Why perceived inequality leads people to resist innovation,”. I read something like that and I think… Right, but… that perception is a shared one based on real impacts of tech in the lives of many people; impacts which are (get this) drastically unequal. We’re talking about implications across communities, nations, and the world, at an intersection with a tech industry that has a really quite disgusting history of “disruptively innovating” people right out of their homes and lives without having ever asked the affected parties about what they, y’know, NEED.

So yeah. There’s a fear of inequality in the application of technological innovation… Because there’s a history of inequality in the application of technological innovation!

This isn’t some “well aren’t all the disciplines equally at fault here,” pseudo-Kumbaya false equivalence bullshit. There are neoliberal underpinnings in the tech industry that are basically there to fuck people over. “What the market will bear” is code for, “How much can we screw people before there’s backlash? Okay so screw them exactly that much.” This model has no regard for the preexisting systemic inequalities between our communities, and even less for the idea that it (the model) will both replicate and iterate upon those inequalities. That’s what needs to be addressed, here.

Check out this piece over at Killscreen. We’ve talked about this before—about how we’re constantly being sold that we’re aiming for a post-work economy, where the internet of things and self-driving cars and the sharing economy will free us all from the mundaneness of “jobs,” all while we’re simultaneously being asked to ignore that our trajectory is gonna take us straight through and possibly land us square in a post-Worker economy, first.

Never mind that we’re still gonna expect those ex-workers to (somehow) continue to pay into capitalism, all the while.

If, for instance, either Uber’s plan for a driverless fleet or the subsequent backlash from their stable—i mean “drivers” are shocking to you, then you have managed to successfully ignore this trajectory.

Completely.

Disciplines like psychology and sociology and history and philosophy? They’re already grappling with the fears of the ones most likely to suffer said inequality, and they’re quite clear on the fact that, the ones who have so often been fucked over?

Yeah, their fears are valid.

You want to use technology to disrupt the status quo in a way that actually helps people? Here’s one example of how you do it: “Creator of chatbot that beat 160,000 parking fines now tackling homelessness.”

Until then, let’s talk about constructing a world in which we address the needs of those marginalised. Let’s talk about magick and safe spaces.

 

-Squaring the Circle-

Speaking of CFPs, several weeks back, I got one for a special issue of Philosophy and Technology on “Logic As Technology,” and it made me realise that Analytic Philosophy somehow hasn’t yet understood and internalised that its wholly invented language is a technology

…and then that realisation made me realise that Analytic Philosophy hasn’t understood that language as a whole is a Technology.

And this is something we’ve talked about before, right? Language as a technology, but not just any technology. It’s the foundational technology. It’s the technology on which all others are based. It’s the most efficient way we have to cram thoughts into the minds of others, share concept structures, and make the world appear and behave the way we want it to. The more languages we know, right?

We can string two or more knowns together in just the right way, and create a third, fourth, fifth known. We can create new things in the world, wholecloth, as a result of new words we make up or old words we deploy in new ways. We can make each other think and feel and believe and do things, with words, tone, stance, knowing looks. And this is because Language is, at a fundamental level, the oldest magic we have.

1528_injection_splash

Scene from the INJECTION issue #3, by Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire. ©Warren Ellis & Declan Shalvey.

Lewis Carroll tells us that whatever we tell each other three times is true, and many have noted that lies travel far faster than the truth, and at the crux of these truisms—the pivot point, where the power and leverage are—is Politics.

This week, much hay is being made is being made about the University of Chicago’s letter decrying Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings. Ignoring for the moment that every definition of “safe space” and “trigger warning” put forward by their opponents tends to be a straw man of those terms, let’s just make an attempt to understand where they come from, and how we can situate them.

Trauma counseling and trauma studies are the epitome of where safe space and trigger warnings come from, and for the latter, that definition is damn near axiomatic. Triggers are about trauma. But safe space language has far more granularity than that. Microggressions are certainly damaging, but they aren’t on the same level as acute traumas. Where acute traumas are like gun shots or bomb blasts (and may indeed be those actual things), societal micragressions are more like a slow constant siege. But we still need the language of a safe spaces to discuss them—said space is something like a bunker in which to regroup, reassess, and plan for what comes next.

Now it is important to remember that there is a very big difference between “safe” and “comfortable,” and when laying out the idea of safe spaces, every social scientist I know takes great care to outline that difference.

Education is about stretching ourselves, growing and changing, and that is discomfort almost by definition. I let my students know that they will be uncomfortable in my class, because I will be challenging every assumption they have. But discomfort does not mean I’m going to countenance racism or transphobia or any other kind of bigotry.

Because the world is not a safe space, but WE CAN MAKE IT SAFER for people who are microagressed against, marginalised, assaulted, and killed for their lived identities, by letting them know not only how to work to change it, but SHOWING them through our example.

Like we’ve said, before: No, the world’s not safe, kind, or fair, and with that attitude it never will be.

So here’s the thing, and we’ll lay it out point-by-point:

A Safe Space is any realm that is marked out for the nonjudgmental expression of thoughts and feelings, in the interest of honestly assessing and working through them.

Safe Space” can mean many things, from “Safe FROM Racist/Sexist/Homophobic/Transphobic/Fatphobic/Ableist Microagressions” to “safe FOR the thorough exploration of our biases and preconceptions.” The terms of the safe space are negotiated at the marking out of them.

The terms are mutually agreed-upon by all parties. The only imposition would be, to be open to the process of expressing and thinking through oppressive conceptual structures.

Everything else—such as whether to address those structures as they exist in ourselves (internalised oppressions), in others (aggressions, micro- or regular sized), or both and their intersection—is negotiable.

The marking out of a Safe Space performs the necessary function, at the necessary time, defined via the particular arrangement of stakeholders, mindset, and need.

And, as researcher John Flowers notes, anyone who’s ever been in a Dojo has been in a Safe Space.

From a Religious Studies perspective, defining a safe space is essentially the same process as that of marking out a RITUAL space. For students or practitioners of any form of Magic[k], think Drawing a Circle, or Calling the Corners.

Some may balk at the analogy to the occult, thinking that it cheapens something important about our discourse, but look: Here’s another way we know that magick is alive and well in our everyday lives:

If they could, a not-insignificant number of US Republicans would overturn the Affordable Care Act and rally behind a Republican-crafted replacement (RCR). However, because the ACA has done so very much good for so many, it’s likely that the only RCR that would have enough support to pass would be one that looked almost identical to the ACA. The only material difference would be that it didn’t have President Obama’s name on it—which is to say, it wouldn’t be associated with him, anymore, since his name isn’t actually on the ACA.

The only reason people think of the ACA as “Obamacare” is because US Republicans worked so hard to make that name stick, and now that it has been widely considered a triumph, they’ve been working just as hard to get his name away from it. And if they did mange to achieve that, it would only be true due to some arcane ritual bullshit. And yet…

If they managed it, it would be touted as a “Crushing defeat for President Obama’s signature legislation.” It would have lasting impacts on the world. People would be emboldened, others defeated, and new laws, social rules, and behaviours would be undertaken, all because someone’s name got removed from a thing in just the right way.

And that’s Magick.

The work we do in thinking about the future sometimes requires us to think about things from what stuffy assholes in the 19th century liked to call a “primitive” perspective. They believed in a kind of evolutionary anthropological categorization of human belief, one in which all societies move from “primitive” beliefs like magic through moderate belief in religion, all the way to sainted perfect rational science. In the contemporary Religious Studies, this evolutionary model is widely understood to be bullshit.

We still believe in magic, we just call it different things. The concept structures of sympathy and contagion are still at play, here, the ritual formulae of word and tone and emotion and gesture all still work when you call them political strategy and marketing and branding. They’re all still ritual constructions designed to make you think and behave differently. They’re all still causing spooky action at a distance. They’re still magic.

The world still moves on communicated concept structure. It still turns on the dissemination of the will. If I can make you perceive what I want you to perceive, believe what I want you to believe, move how I want you to move, then you’ll remake the world, for me, if I get it right. And I know that you want to get it right. So you have to be willing to understand that this is magic.

It’s not rationalism.

It’s not scientism.

It’s not as simple as psychology or poll numbers or fear or hatred or aspirational belief causing people to vote against their interests. It’s not that simple at all. It’s as complicated as all of them, together, each part resonating with the others to create a vastly complex whole. It’s a living, breathing thing that makes us think not just “this is a thing we think” but “this is what we are.” And if you can do that—if you can accept the tools and the principles of magic, deploy the symbolic resonance of dreamlogic and ritual—then you might be able to pull this off.

But, in the West, part of us will always balk at the idea that the Rational won’t win out. That the clearer, more logical thought doesn’t always save us. But you have to remember: Logic is a technology. Logic is a tool. Logic is the application of one specific kind of thinking, over and over again, showing a kind of result that we convinced one another we preferred to other processes. It’s not inscribed on the atoms of the universe. It is one kind of language. And it may not be the one most appropriate for the task at hand.

Put it this way: When you’re in Zimbabwe, will you default to speaking Chinese? Of course not. So why would we default to mere Rationalism, when we’re clearly in a land that speaks a different dialect?

We need spells and amulets, charms and warded spaces; we need sorcerers of the people to heal and undo the hexes being woven around us all.

 

-Curious Alchemy-

Ultimately, the rigidity of our thinking, and our inability to adapt has lead us to be surprised by too much that we wanted to believe could never have come to pass. We want to call all of this “unprecedented,” when the truth of the matter is, we carved this precedent out every day for hundreds of years, and the ability to think in weird paths is what will define those who thrive.

If we are going to do the work of creating a world in which we understand what’s going on, and can do the work to attend to it, then we need to think about magic.

 


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