A Course in Cyborg Semiotics: Encoding and Decoding the Technorganism

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Howard II, Michael Ray
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Middle Tennessee State University
Cyborg theorists such as Donna Haraway often comment that cyborgs “signify”; however, the nature of cyborg signification is largely underexplored. This dissertation seeks to provide an explanation within a structuralist paradigm for the unique manner in which cyborgs signify. Positioning the cyborg as neither a futuristic posthuman fusion of bodies and radical technologies envisioned in science fiction, nor yet as the post-World War II unintegrated yet technologically qualitatively more sophisticated construct suggested by noted cyborg theorists such as Haraway and Chris Hables Gray, I argue with Andy Clark and Bruce Mazlish that the cyborg condition is inherent to being human. Clark contends that humans are hardwired to accept technology as a part of their identities, while Mazlish claims that the rejection of the integrated nature of technology with humanity creates a discontinuity that leads to a misunderstanding of the human condition. Cyborg semiotics, then, redresses this perceived discontinuity, revealing the intrinsic nature of technology to signifying as human.
Cyborg semiotics must follow the same rules as any other signifying system. To demonstrate the specific manner in which cyborgs signify, I return to Ferdinand de Saussure’s definitive work, A Course in General Linguistics, and apply the rules which he establishes for a linguistic system to those of a cybernetic system (or cy-syst). For example, I explore the arbitrary nature of the cybernetic sign (for which I have created the neologism cygn for the cybernetic equivalent of the linguistic sign). This exploration reveals the possibility of resistance to traditional culturally constructed interpretations of cygns. The unique combinations that form specific cygns are comprised of individual elements in the same manner that words are formed out of individual letters; however, instead of vowels and consonants, cygns are comprised of bodies and technologies. Just like the physical letters (either the written letters or sounds vibrating in the air) which form words have no bearing on the meaning of the word, the physical components of a cygn are also unrelated to the meaning associated with it. In each case, the associated meaning is culturally constructed; there is no intrinsic relationship between the parts and the whole.
Since cy-systs function as signifying systems, the ramifications of other theories regarding such systems may also be applied equitably to them. For instance, examining Derridian concepts such as sous rature and supplementation within the context of cyborg semiotics reveals the manner in which alternate technologies may be used to cygnify within a cy-syst or even displace functions previously identified as essential to the biological organism. Furthermore, exploring Foucault’s models in “The Discourse on Language” reveals the nuances of technologies of power as they apply within cybernetic systems. All of these applications are considered within the parameters of feminist inquiry, which is used as one possible (although by no means the only) extension of cyborg semiotics.
Cyborg, Cygn, Gender, Linguistics, Saussure, Semiotics