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Gender, Technology, and Boundaries

2009 February 1
by Problem Sleuth

Things said by my dear friend Rebecca in her post about cyborgs made me think a bit about boundaries. What I was reminded of was some of the things I learned in a Medieval Lit class last semester about monsters. Specifically, I’m reminded of Jeffery Jerome Cohen’s work Monster Theory (University of MInnesota Press, Minneapolis), which we read a chapter from. The chapter, entitled “Monster Culture,” discussed the way in which monsters are potrayed, and said that the thing that usually makes a monster monstrous is that it blurs boundaries that we normally consider solid.

Several times, he references the monster in the Alien movies (yes yes I know I discussed it already hush), which is to me the most interesting monster and the best example of Cohen’s “category crisis.” Cohen says: “This refusal to participate in the classificatory ‘order of things’ is true of monsters generally: they are disturbing hybrids whose externally incoherent bodies resist attempts to include them in any systematic structuration. And so the monster is dangerous, a form suspended between forms that threatens to smash distinctions.” (Cohen 6)

Does this sound at all familiar? To me, this is exactly what the concept of “cyborg” in our readings has sounded like: an unfamiliar hybrid that exists between forms and threatens to destroy those forms. They are unfamiliar, but more importantly they threaten to destroy our familiar worldview. They are therefore frightening.

The meshing of the technological and the organic brings with it many ethical concerns also, as we saw in this week’s article. People often choose to alter their bodies not by choice, but for social or economic concerns. The context of such decisions are very tricky also; certainly, we don’t condone a system that encourages women to undergo surgery to appeal to Western, white ideas of beauty, but do we frown upon a woman who gets such surgery so that she can be employable? She is reinforcing the system, but can we blame her when her job and the security of her family may be at stake?

Not only does technology push boundaries of what we’re used to in a way reminiscent of monstrosity, but it also raises severe ethical concerns. Let me be clear, however, in stating that I think the march forward of technology regardless is not only inevitable but desirable. Technology WILL move forward, and if we are ready to meet it then we will benefit from it.

To argue that the ethical concerns I mentioned, at least regarding gender or race (women changing their appearance surgically for socioeconomic status, etc.) are a result of technology is not getting at the heart of the matter. Technology in these cases is a vessel, a method, rather than a cause. The prejudices that cause women to undergo these surgeries are embedded in the culture; the technology itself is not a pressure to get such an operation. If anything, the technology is exposing these cruelties in a very obvious, and frankly quite disturbing, way that will hopefully draw attention to the prejudices that cause them.

That technology threatens our current notions of humanity and gender is something that is trickier to reconcile because, frankly, it does. With technology comes new bodies, obviously, and who is to say wehre that will end? That someday bodies may be entirely artificial is not wholly out of the question. And then what of gender? It may be rendered vestigial and cumbersome, and even if it is not wholly done away with it will assuredly be changed. The line between the sexes (one another), between the sexes and technology, and between humanity as a whole and technology is rapidly vanishing. No doubt, some of what is being produced in the process is at first quite frightening. I myself was treated to a dream last night night probably inspired by this very topic; the subject of said dream was the most horrifying thing I’ve seen in a dream in years, and I’m certain that technological progress will produce creatures not wholly dissimilar. (don’t ask me to describe it. I don’t want to think about it, and I swear you don’t want to know about it.) But I feel that these concerns and fears areĀ  just a sign of progress, of change. Change is uncomfortable, and living creatures naturally fear it, but overcoming that fear will, I believe, open up many more possibilities for humanity and expand our thinking radically.

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