Nora N. Khan

Chimeras

Playing a symphony on board the station above the new world, the man leans hard towards the old sounds, places his cheek against the cold speaker. Even as the vessel flings forward through a stream of detritus – bows of dead satellites, many-ton compacted cubes of trash – and the view out is brilliant, his mind stays on the Rachmaninoff, on Van Cliburn.

Number Two, as far back as he can remember, has been punctuated by the soft tick of the breathing machines, the chirp of the signal from the base. Backed by thick static. He can’t remember the last time he heard the whole symphony without the sounds of the machines; the static is part of the symphony and it is its own music.

Technoromanticism: the notion that technology can expand our imagination, deepen our capacity to feel, sharpen our individual genius, offer us a billion more ways to be, towards the general end of Good, or ____.

Our cognitive capacities evolve alongside technology such that the human is what seems most new. Instance: in the course of 48 hours, I will hear the voices of dozens of people scattered throughout the world, in the Netherlands, in Australia, in the cold world and equatorial world. Their conversations cross-pollinate. I accumulate too much knowledge about disparate events and countries and their histories. I read too much, way too quickly. But in incremental steps, I can feel my perception changing. My conversation skills double over; I develop odd tics in speech. These patterns compound and turn in on themselves.

In A Cyborg Manifesto, still one of my favorite essays, Donna Haraway wrote:

“We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transformation.”

Though she was discussing the cyborg as protest conceit, and as a lens through which to discuss issues in feminism (“I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess”), her suggestion of the cyborg as a provocation, as the face of the surreal, is still potent.

We move back and forth nonchalantly between the strange and inhuman and uncanny (the virtual, the digital, the electronic futures), all products of human ingenuity, to the quotidian, banal, ho-hum needy flesh.

What exactly happens in this fluid movement between the inhuman and the human, between technology and tactile, lived reality? It would seem the digital’s promise is pretty singular: to illuminate us to ourselves, to hold a mirror up to us, like the best art.

I’d also want to suggest that the movement brings hope. When I am confronted by the uncanny, I feel renewed and joyful; I can see our potential more clearly. I’m forced to articulate what I’m confronting and how I define myself against it.

Anecdote: If a machine that looked, spoke and processed like me sat down across my desk from me, I would immediately be overcome by a sense of my Self-ness. I’d remember all the people who have made my life, how their words shaped me. I’d remember the hundred thousand struggles and phases I slogged through to get to where I am.

Two: the movement back and forth between the strange and the familiar makes me more appreciative of human warmth. Put in anecdote: I don’t (can’t) see too many people when consumed by research and writing. When I emerge, and they arrive in my field of view, they strike me as magical. The face of an old friend is shocking after I’ve been in tunnel vision for weeks. When I read too many social media updates, even, hearing someone tell a simple story to my face feels nothing short of miraculous.

There are poetic reservoirs in this: the voice of someone you love will always be the subject of poetry. When I hear your voice for the first time, I feel I almost know you. I feel the thrill of a recognizable voice, a loved voice, as visceral, in my spine and gut. (This isn’t to say we can’t write compelling fiction about the melody of voices filtered through phones, speakers and computers…)

The movement between the digital uncanny and the familiar also makes us more aware of time. As we become more integrated with our gadgets and networks, time can feel like it is accelerating, hurtling us along. People go to sleep with their phones, and all time is work. Work begins the moment you get up. Talking to a friend, I feel time passing in the “right” way. I am more appreciative of taking time with others. Lingering, puzzling, dawdling.

Body collapses against the screen, falls asleep in its glow and warm hum. It is not a far leap to the dream of total omniscience and power offered by Lain, by Shodan, by network hive intelligences working in union. To the fusion of flesh and wire. When our power is bankrupted in the physical, it is not a leap at all to see why people seek power where they can.

The collapse of the boat doesn’t mean our bodies won’t be saved. Even when there is nothing left, nothing to share, no cities, no infrastructure — we’ll still be compelled by the same aesthetic, emotional and immaterial needs, the old pull to express, the need to share some part of oneself. So many films about the end of civilization are just about love. Watch people fall in love against the backdrop of world wars, undead risings, supreme alien races taking back their homes. Yes, then, if you were the last person on earth.

Your thoughts on the space between cyborg and goddess?