Marx and the Cyborg

written in September, 2010

"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."

Theses on Feuerbach, XI

* * * * *

A cyborg is haunting the torrent networks of Europe, queuing files and running checksums. The saved files are in ebook format, and she syncs them to her handheld screen device. Meanwhile, she finishes a phone call, stands up from her desk, unplugs her device and put it in her bag. She shoulders the load and leaves to catch the train home. There, after eating, she will open her device, and begin to read.

Over mornings of mundane meetings, afternoons of spreadsheets, and finally, these evenings of critique, a pattern is developing. This cyborg is beginning to re-evaluate things. There was always a pattern; but it is beginning to shift. On this particular evening as she is annotating Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology and Perception with flicks upon her multi-touch screen, she can't help but feel that pathways are slowly opening that had not been before. From the gestures at the tips of her fingers she summons these various networked texts of the flesh.

"...our body is comparable to a work of art. It is a nexus of living meanings, not the law for a certain number of covariant terms. A certain tactile experience felt in the upper arm signifies a certain tactile experience felt in the forearm and left shoulder, along with a certain visual aspect of the same arm, not because the various tactile perceptions among themselves, or the tactile and visual ones, are all involved in one intelligible arm, as the different facets of a cube are related to the idea of a cube, but because the arm seen and the arm touched, like the different segments of the arm, together perform one and the same action."
Phenomenology and Perception, 175

It was all the rage on the social networks, to read these 20th Century works of theory and to highlight and link, to be involved in the asynchronous, continuous conversation about the modern, electronically augmented body. The philosophy was simple enough, ideas that conformed to the thoughts she already had. It was nice to read something theoretical as a break from the fiction, the news, the gentle critique of various musical artists, and so forth. On the surface of the multi-touch screen, guided by the subtle vibes of haptic feedback emanating from the words, she responded to the text.

"To know how to type is not, then, to know the place of each letter among the keys, nor even to have acquired a conditioned reflex for each one, which is set in motion by the letter as it comes before our eye. If habit is neither a form of knowledge nor an involuntary action, what then is it? It is knowledge in the hands, which is forthcoming only when bodily effort is made, and cannot be formulated in detatchment from that effort."
Phenomenology and Perception, 166

This post is one of the 50 Posts About Cyborgs, curated by Tim Maly. The series commemorates the 50th anniversary of the coining of the term, "cyborg", with 50 unique instances of current thoughts and ideas about cyborgs, which are, it would seem to be proven, alive and well. I'm proud that POSZU could feature among them.

The cyborg had tried an obsolete "keyboard"; it wasn't much different than the adjustments made in one's typing habits when installing a new multi-touch predictive text algorithm. She tapped and quietly vibrated away, flicking and pecking at the screen. This part of the text was all about body image, or a certain lack of body image. This text, a guided reflection on the structure of consciousness and the perceptions, plugged several compatible ideas into this cyborg's thought processes.

"A woman may, without any calculation, keep a safe distance between the feather in her hat and things which might break it off. She feels where the feather is just as we feel where our hand is."
Phenomenology and Perception, 165

This particular cyborg had hefted more hammers in her hand than worn hats with feathers, but the idea was easy enough.

"We must therefore avoid saying that our body is in space, or in time. It inhabits space and time. If my hand traces a complicated path through the air, I do not need, in order to know its final position, to add together all movements made in the same direction and subtract those made in the opposite direction. ‘Every identifiable change reaches consciousness already loaded with its relations to what has preceded it, as on a taximeter the distance is given already converted into shillings and pence.'"
Phenomenology and Perception, 161

She stopped her typing, her synthesis of copy and paste, and lifted her fingers from the surface of the screen, and brushed the hair back from her eyes. Shillings and pence. Keyboards. Hats with feathers. It was cute, in a way. The nostalgia one could experience, through such old, written, static texts. Non-wiki philosophy. Like riding in a horse-drawn carriage—following wherever the horse decided to go, pretending you were driving, rather than being dragged by a roped and shackled live animal.

But this text was reminiscent of something, other than history lessons. The experience of the body, inhabiting space and time as a nexus of sensory relations. She was the good cyborg, conscious of her body and its feedback networks. She tracked her weight and blood sugar, her Circadian rhythms, her networked emotional and social capital. But this philosophy spoke to a lurking, intellectual category: some sort of logical thought feedback, perhaps. There was an idea here--an idea about ideas--something she had a memory of reading before.

She checked her ebook ratio credits, and made a quick download. There was something she wanted to check. With a quick swipe-and-search, she found what she was looking for.

"A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties."
Capital, 76

She hadn't read anything by this author since early high school, when one kept such things in their Favorites queue to impress the social networks. Even so, it was hard to completely forget the Commodity. It was the star of this massive tome—the total annotated file surpassing most books by several megabytes. Nothing compared to a video file, but still relatively monstrous. And yet despite this verbosity, the Fetish of Commodities was ever so quotable, succinct to 140 characters. Even if the ebook itself was a status matrix inflater, there was something else in the Commodity that she could feel, a response within her to something she couldn't quite identify.

A Commodity was, too, a nexus of living meanings. They were utilized as symbols of value, "human labor in the abstract," she saw on page 51. They were in this way two-fold, "both objects of utility, and depositories of value," page 54. Through the action of labor, meaning was tied to the object, so that it might be traded for other meaningful objects. And so, the object had meaning within society. If she remembered correctly, the bearded fellow whose picture was visible in the metadata window strongly Disliked.

"The product of labor is labor which has been congealed in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. In the conditions dealt with by political economy this realization of labor appears as loss of reality for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and object-bondage; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation."
Manuscripts of 1844, 71-2

That was from another work, same author, annotated via hyperlink. A good edition, this—plenty of links to the body of work by the author, or at least those pieces for which the e-publisher had co-attribution rights. The major keyword in the word cloud for this text, hovering over it as she held a finger close to the screen, was "objectification", nearly as large in size as "alienation," and "estrangement." Via the objectified nexus of values—the Commodity—the worker was as divided from her product as the product was separated from the world. A broken body, perhaps—or an amputated limb. Merleau-Ponty had plenty in his text about "alien limb syndrome". She made herself a Task to remind herself to Wikipedia the current psychological research on the phenomenon later.

What did that really mean, "objectification of labor"? It sounded nasty, exploitative and industrial. A term suited to the economy and philosophy of 1844. But today? She flicked the screen-view a bit further down the page.

"The worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world. It is the material on which his labor is manifested, in which it is active, from which and by means of which it produces."
Manuscripts of 1844, 72

Was that a bad thing? To make anything, one had to cleave off a little bit of nature, to pull off a hunk of clay, and mash it into something recognizable. She tried to think of the daily spreadsheets for which she toiled in this perspective; but that was depressing, so she stuck to the clay. Sure, life was no picnic. It was a constant struggle to survive, to do enough to be happy, to earn enough to rent an apartment, to afford a transportation pass to get to work. It was hard to say that this struggle was fulfilling, but that was the fact of life.

"In estranging from man, nature, and himself, his own active functions, his life-activity—estranged labor estranges the species from man. It turns for him the life of the species into a means of individual life. First it estranges the life of the species and individual life, and secondly it makes individual life in its abstract form the purpose of the life of the species, likewise in its abstract and estranged form."
Manuscripts of 1844, 75

She thought about editing a text-mask to substitute "she" and "human" over this 1844 prose of "man", but left it alone, lost in thought. Alienation in objectification might be depressing, or even exploitative, she figured (as she resisted the sudden compulsion to check her work email). But it was also a metaphysical necessity. Without objectification, things would remain part of the undifferentiated expanse of the sensuous external world. Without the objectification and attachment of meaning, how would anyone relate to things? This was the meaning of life as an individual. Even on Twitter, each person was identified by a unique user name, isolated by his or her own thoughts, own posts, own location, own follower count. Following was asynchronous. Even as everyone was together and social, everyone was alone. That was the fundamental principle of human consciousness, wasn't it? Not bees, not a wolf pack, not a bacteria colony. Everyone united in space and time, everyone connected to the network, and yet everyone an individual, by the basis of each being its own node. The work that each did in forming meaning and value, whether in pottery or in the most mundane of status updates, both uniting and dividing the entire species. Each alone, and also part of the network of meaning.

She selected the link that highlighted the phrase "life of the species", and a new tab opened. A new text.

"The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. [...] Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life."
The German Ideology, 149-50

Marginal text notes identified this as "the first fundamental condition of history". These fundamental conditions paved the way for the objectification of the nexus of meaning in commodities—in other words, a history of humans and their objects. Summarized in the notes: "Materialism: an individual naming specific needs is a material, linguistic act, separating the individual from the ecosystem in descriptive history". This was the first historic material act: to call a piece of food a "fulfillment of a need", and to seek means to acquire it. The beginning of the "I" statement, the ego's historical self-description, is "I need..." The beginning of material identity.

"The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production. This production only makes its appearance with the increase of population. In its turn this presupposes the intercourse of individuals with one another. The form of this intercourse is again determined by production."
The German Ideology, 150

This was the second fundamental condition. A human could not be an individual in a vacuum. There were other individuals about, and as they each described their labor as the satisfaction of need, their needs would split and divide them, or coalesce and unite them. What else do people talk about really, other than what they need, and what they want?

"The relations of different nations among themselves depend upon the extent to which each has developed its productive forces, the division of labor and internal intercourse. This statement is generally recognized. But not only the relation of one nation to others, but also the whole internal structure of the nation itself depends on the stage of development reached by its production and its internal and external intercourse. [...] Each new productive force, insofar as it is not merely a quantitative extension of productive forces already known (for instance the bringing into cultivation of fresh land), causes a further development of the division of labor."
The German Ideology, 150

Third: as they talk, they begin to organize. They create divisions and unions. They work together, or against each other. The intercourse begins with conversation, but finds its true expression in society. Between nations, and inside nations. They might call this a post-national world, thought the cyborg. But nations are only a sense of belonging acted out in real life. Individuality as part of the group. Selecting a need, and calling it your own. Voting with javascript. Political opinion as a Retweet. Facebook had only been able to declare sovereignty from international law, years ago, because people kept using it. You couldn't argue with a sheer mass unique users. Individuals organized into groups was politics.

"The various stages of development in the division of labor are just so many different forms of ownership, i.e., the existing stage in the division of labor determines also the relations of individuals to one another with reference to the material, instrument, and product of labor."
The German Ideology, 150

The fourth fundamental condition of history was ownership. Being able to say that within the rules of the discourse of society, certain needs and responsibilities belong to certain individuals or groups of individuals: the ultimate self-expression of a group of individuals and their needs.

It was a bit disparate, perhaps. Reading the summary of the text, it felt like these four bullet points might be a bit of a jump. But as she stretched out her feet on the couch, she reflected on her body, her nexus of meaning. As she made herself, she was commodity, making other commodities. A body pulling of chunks of nature, and defining them according to the work she did, to the needs she wanted satisfied, to the societal meaning for which these commodities could be exchanged for others' satisfaction. Her needs, and others' needs—both defined through the discourse of society. The discourse of history. It wasn't a primal scene, these four fundamental conditions. They were a matrix of facts, each a facet of the crystallization of history. If the human species was going to describe its relations with nature, and if the human species was going to describe itself, she supposed it would have to start here. The relationship with nature was built on this discourse of needs. And the discourse was constantly re-interpreted via this material relationship. The relationship became Society.

Now she felt she was getting somewhere, though she wasn't sure where it was. Bodies and needs. Nature and society. All tied up with a network of meaning: objectified and cut off, organized and extended to solidify social bonds and identity. But networked nonetheless. She felt more comfortable with the metaphor of the network, for some reason. It seemed familiar, and accessible. It was something she could see, stretched out to the horizon in front of her, an image of silver threads crossing and knotting, circulating in nodes of objectification and individuality, and shooting back from where they came. Pulling things together and pushing them apart. Just a metaphor, perhaps, but she felt she was beginning to understand.

But something left her a bit unsettled. The last fundamental condition: ownership. The jewel in the crown of objectification, and the main character of the discourse. The text said that division of labor was a form of ownership? Today, her society didn't seem to find its self-expression in ownership. At least not most people. She owned things, everyone did. But it didn't seem as vital as the old man implied. Maybe in the 19th century or the 20th century ownership always led to material inequality and objectification. But now? She didn't seem to really own any of the things that were important to her. Technically, if anyone ever asked, she owned her clothing, her electronics, and her bike. But what did that mean? It seemed like she only owned them out of convenience. Because everyone else had them, and so she had her own. Ownership just meant she didn't have to share.

Of course, if she left her touch device on a subway bench, someone would scoop it up. It wasn't that there were enough of these things for everyone to have one. And, come to think of it, she wouldn't even like to share her device. It was customized to her preferences, it had learned her typing style and the weight of her touch, the speed of her double-click. If someone else used it, it would screw it up. Right now, it satisfied her need, but if she had to share, she supposed it wouldn't. Or at least, not as well.

She realized she had been scrolling idly, and stopped, suddenly focusing on a paragraph in the text.

"Division of labor and private property are, moreover, identical expressions: in the one the same thing is affirmed with reference to activity as is affirmed in the other with reference to the product of the activity.
Further, the division of labor implies the contradiction between the interest of the separate individual or the individual family and the communal interest of all individuals who have intercourse with one another. And indeed, this communal interest does not exist merely in the imagination, as the "general interest", but first of all in reality, as the mutual interdependence of the individuals among whom the labor is divided.
And finally, the division of labor offers us the first example of how, as long as man remains in natural society, that is, as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily, but naturally, divided, man's own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him."
The German Ideology, 160

She had to read it twice, but she finally began to get it. The family was, the old man accused, naturally selfish. It was natural, of course, for members of a family to seek to protect each other and their collective needs, as opposed to all the other families out there doing the same thing. Genetics, natural selection, altruism as evolutionary fitness, etc. But as society developed, eventually the family would become obsolete. The needs of certain individuals would be better served by not relying on the old institution of family, and they would break away. New institutions, like the city, would rise. The country. Class. These patterns of social intercourse would network the division of labor and division of need according to what would best serve them, and what would best perpetuate them. Sometimes it would work in the general interest, sometimes not. But this division of labor was a system of ownership, not just the ownership of particular objects. Whether the pathways of social meaning and the material fulfillment of needs were sculpted by a class or by a family or by an individual to protect themselves, it was a social network, meant to perpetuate itself in a historical feedback loop. "Ownership" of a commodity was a node of social intercourse that sought to solidify itself within the object and its meaning. She identified her touch device as her own, to help her remember not to leave it on the subway. In a way, that someone might take the device if she left it somewhere also served to reinforce the link between the device and herself. It it was not socially desired, she would probably lose it all the time, just like one of those old paper magazines. The magazine didn't lose its value—it just became more valuable as recycled paper pulp than as reading material as societal need shifted.

Times changed. It seemed in the old days the need for ownership was a much stronger drive. This text predicted a state of world-wide destitution, which just didn't seem possible today. Scarcity was less common, even though it still existed. People were still starving, and it seemed that only the rich were getting richer. But the idea of most people not being able to fulfill their basic needs seemed like an ancient problem. Was it because she had enough that she didn't care about ownership?

The family was archaic. She loved her parents, and video chatted with them all the time. But now all education was available free on the network. All living quarters were, at least for the vast majority of the population, about the same cramped size. So leaving home hadn't been a right of passage, like her parents always referred to it. "Teenage", they used to call it, the time when you were an adult but still needed to be part of a family. The time when your needs were best fulfilled by including your ownership with a family's division of labor. But those times were gone.

The social pattern and system of ownership about which people felt emotion these days was "the commons". People were always defending the right of the commons, defending people's access to the commons, complaining about the erosion of the commons, or attacking someone else's idea of what the commons was supposed to be. Common or not, it was still a form of ownership according to this text. By enforcing the idea that certain media, resources, and pathways of access were universally accessible, their value was artificially held at zero, a level at which it was supposedly "owned in common". People used to pay money to exchange books, music, education, and network access. Now cultural objects only had social value--commodities stripped of all but a universalized, general value. The pieces of the commons had no exchange value, and so all value was subordinated to the value of society's system of ownership, as a whole. The whole--the commons. It was a feedback loop that reinforced its own meaning, just like the family, or any other social division of labor defined by the fundamental conditions of history.

The cyborg was hardpressed to think of exactly what matrix of human needs this networked organization of value protected—but it was a division of labor, nonetheless. It divided everyone from themselves by pushing them together into a mass. Everyone was a mass-contributor/mass-consumer. If you were against the commonality, and tried to retain any individuality over media ownership, you were boycotted. If you were not part of the commons, then you might as well not exist. The commons was the only form of ownership for cultural commodities, and the only form of meaning to the network.

It wasn't too different from what the Singularists had preached, though they had pretty much abandoned their religion when it became apparent that not only was connecting human minds much more complicated a task than they expected, but that most humans didn't want to be linked together, at least not with most of the rest of humanity. And yet, that idealist attempt at unification of the spirit, the humanist urge to push the species into an undifferentiated mass, had lived on in the commons.

The cyborg had never really thought about it much before. She didn't consider herself a creative, and just downloaded music and books as she liked, and as her ratio credits allowed. But now, thinking about it in these terms, she began to feel a bit of what she guessed was... anger. They talked about the triumph of human consciousness in the commons—the sum and maximalized synthesis of all human creativity. Humanity as humanity, they said. The ultimate self-consciousness in the freely available sum of all production.

But that's not what it was at all. It was just another way of organizing society. Just another means of ownership, controlling the way things were produced at the expense of those who produced them. No one was an individual in the commons. They acted as if it was democratic, but it was no more representative than an ocean was to a drop of water. This was just a singular, chaotic class, into which everyone was poured, and out of which they would never be distilled.

"The relation of the productive forces to the form of intercourse is the relation of the form of intercourse to the occupation or activity of the individuals. [...] The conditions under which individuals have intercourse with each other, [...] are conditions appertaining to their individuality, in no way external to them; conditions under which these definite individuals, living under definite relations, can alone produce their material life and what is connected with it, are thus the conditions of their self-activity and are produced by this self-activity. [...]
These various conditions, which appear first as conditions of self-activity, later as fetters upon it, form in the whole evolution of history a coherent series of forms of intercourse, the coherence of which consists in this: in the place of an earlier form of intercourse, which has become a fetter, a new one is put, corresponding to the more developed productive forces and, hence, to the advanced mode of the self-activity of individuals—a form which in its turn becomes a fetter and is then replaced by another. Since these conditions correspond at every stage to the simultaneous development of the productive forces, their history is at the same time the history of the evolving productive forces taken over by each new generation, and is, therefore, the history of the development of the forces of the individuals themselves."
The German Ideology, 195

Works Cited:

Phemenology of Perception, by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Routledge, London and New York: 2004.
Capital, Volume One, by Karl Marx. International Publishers, New York: 2003.
"Theses on Feuerbach", by Karl Marx. In The Marx-Engels Reader, Robert C. Tucker ed. W.W. Norton & Company, London & New York: 1978.
"Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844", by Karl Marx. In The Marx-Engels Reader, Robert C. Tucker ed. W.W. Norton & Company, London & New York: 1978.
"The German Ideology", by Karl Marx. In The Marx-Engels Reader, Robert C. Tucker ed. W.W. Norton & Company, London & New York: 1978.

She read that, and then put down her device. She felt, suddenly, very empty. She thought about work, about the commute there and back every day. About the endless cycle of meals she ate, about the endless chain of downloads she consumed. About the endless calendar of days, one just like the next, as she slowly grew older. As history unfolded itself—and looked more and more the same as before.

Where was the art? That artful, next of meaning that was supposed to be her body, and her network of valuable experiences? In the commons, she was bankrupt. Not so much empty, as rendered valueless. She wanted to feel something mutually-interdependent, to feel transactions of value. She wanted to experience meaning, passing through her network, and into others'. She wanted to make something. She needed to really consume something, to use it until it was gone. She wanted to feel the reality of need, to experience it with other producers, and to share the mechanism of that need's satisfaction between them.

She put down her reading device, and after finally searching through drawers and across tables, found the means of production she was looking for. She sat down, seized the pencil into her fingers, and began to draw.

"...it is clear that the real intellectual wealth of the individual depends entirely on the wealth of his real connections. Only then will the separate individuals be liberated from the various national and local barriers, be brought into practical connection with the material and intellectual production of the whole world and be put in a position to acquire the capacity to enjoy this all-sided production of the whole earth (the creation of man).[...]

This conception of history depends on our ability to expound the real process of production, starting out from the material production of life itself, and to comprehend the form of intercourse connected with this and created by this mode of production [...]

...It shows that history does not end by being resolved into "self-consciousness" as "spirit of the spirit", but that in it at each stage there is found a material result: a sum of productive forces, a historically created relation of individuals to nature and to one another, which is handed down to each generation from its predecessor; a mass of productive forces, capital funds and conditions, which, on the one hand, is indeed modified by the new generation, but also on the other prescribes for it its conditions of life and gives it a definite development, a special character. It shows that circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances. This sum of productive forces, capital funds and social forms of intercourse, which every individual and generation finds in existence as something given, is the real basis of what the philosophers have conceived as "substance" and "essence of man"..."
The German Ideology, 165

The device auto-scrolled without any touch from the cyborg, down past the quote even as she ignored the words rolling past, focusing on her piece of paper and the spreading gray lines that emanated from the tip of her pencil, from the ends of her fingers, from the turns of her wrist, and from the syntheses of her mind. Without input from her, the screen quietly faded to battery-saving mode, its soft light less and less of a presence in the room, before finally going completely black. Just another object now, faded from the cyborg's area of perception. Old-fashioned typewriter keys pounding into the air, imprinting on nothing.

site design by Adam Rothstein - CC license NC-BY-SA