Greasing the Rails to a Cyborg Future
By John Zerzan
From Adbusters #35
When I sat down with the Adbusters Cyborg Manifesto at home in Eugene, Oregon, I read it as intended: as a hoax. Not a cruel prank on the unsuspecting reader, but a tool for drawing out our varying faiths in and sympathies for the ideological project of shifting human culture, with finality, from the real and concrete to the virtual and technological.
If many failed to see through the hoax or, more frighteningly, recognized it but still gave it conditional support, then the reason lies in the reigning cultural ethos of our times: postmodernism.
With its sharply narrowed ambitions concerning thought, its tendency to shade into the cynical, postmodernism has become a term both pervasive and faceless. But it does have a face. The theory of postmodernism began in large part as French reaction against the grand and total claims of Marxism. Emerging and spreading about 20 years ago, in a period of reaction with almost no social movements, postmodernism bears the imprint of conservatism and lowered expectations. It has also risen in lockstep with the unfolding logic of an increasingly technological "cyborg" society.
Postmodernism tells us that we can’t grasp the whole, indeed that the desire for an overview of what’s going on out there is unhealthy and suspect, even totalitarian. We have seen, after all, how grand systems – "metanarratives," as they are fashionably referred to – have proven oppressive. Having hit on this epiphany, the pomo troops were quick to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Skeptical about the claims and results of previous systems of thought, postmodernism has in fact jettisoned nearly all desire or hope of making sense of what we experience. It abandons the "arrogance" of trying to figure out the origins, logic, causality, or structure of the world we live in.
Instead, postmodernists focus on surfaces, fragments, margins. Reality is too shifting, complex, and indeterminate to decipher or judge. Too "messy," too "interesting" to allow for fixed conclusions, as Donna Haraway puts it in her own well-known "Cyborg Manifesto."
The postmodern style is notorious for its dense language and games of contradiction. In Haraway’s manifesto, for example, she concedes that "the main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism" – but that in no way dims her enthusiasm for a part human, part machine, high-tech future!
In a technified society, we are increasingly "connected" from isolation, our experiences filtered through the Internet, television, and the spectacles of consumer culture. Shared and direct experience, which once helped us understand the meaning and texture of life, are two major casualties of this cyborg imperative. Things grow stark and menacing in every sphere, and still Haraway and the postmodern crowd insist that conclusions be avoided. Of course, once one renounces any attempt to comprehend the overall situation, it’s easy to embrace the endless complex of piecemeal "solutions" offered by technology and capital.
Postmodernism celebrates evanescent flows, a state of no boundaries, the transgressive. If this sounds familiar, it's because these values are shared by the most ardent architects of both consumerism and capitalist globalization. As the dimensions of personal sovereignty and community steadily erode, along with meaning and value, a consumer society in cyberspace becomes the uncontested next stage of human existence.
Division of labor, structures of control, the nature of technology – not to mention less abstract factors like drudgery, toxicity, the steady destruction of nature – are integral to the high-tech trajectory. They are also of no concern, evidently, to postmodernists, who continue to cling to the subtle, the tentative, the narrowly focused. Virtual reality mirrors the postmodern fascination with surfaces, explicitly rejoicing in its own depthlessness – one obvious way in which the postmodernists are the accomplices of the Brave New World. As we reject any possibility of understanding shared or even personal experience, no challenge to that experience seems plausible. The political counterpart of postmodernism is pragmatism; we find ways of accommodating ourselves to the debased norm.
The decay of meaning, passion, and inner vibrancy has been going on for a while. Today it is a juggernaut, in the face of which postmodernism is the culture of no resistance. The good news is that there are signs of life, signs that folks in various places are beginning to suspect our culture’s greatest hoax.