22. Cyborg Exploitations

Today’s post is nothing if not a battle with writer’s block (and my scanner–and a newfound lack of respect from former colleagues).  I thought I would even make it easy on myself by using material I had previously submitted for publication, but even that didn’t help.  As it turns out, I have an unconscious resistance to talking about the subject of cyborgs, machine bodies, and so forth, even though it has been all the rage in speculative literary/cultural theory for quite some time now.  The apotheosis of this speculative trend was, arguably, Donna Haraway’s 1991 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” worth a read if only for how it represents the best (i.e. breaking down categorical assumptions) and worst (i.e. jargon-laden navel gazing) of postmodern critique.  At the risk of, for once, not saying anything too profound, I’d like to point out an interesting parallel between the “Hot Dog Corps” story in Tezuka’s Astro Boy and “Fight With My Heart” in Ōtsuka Eiji’s and Yamazaki Hōsui’s Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service that you, dear reader, should you suddenly become possessed with the ghost of wild speculative reason, might make of what you will.

“…Because You’re Really a Dog, #44!”

When the various Astro Boy stories were collected in paperback volumes in 1975, Tezuka appended a new introduction to each, starring himself, in the manner of Walt Disney’s introducing his animated work on a television series originally titled Disneyland in 1954, but I remember from my own childhood as The Wonderful World of Disney.  We tend to take for granted the humanoid physical shape of cyborgs, conditioned as we have been by the ready images of science fiction pulps, comics, films, TV, games, etc.  Tezuka, however, imagines something rather different.  [N.B. – The Astro Boy images are flipped]

Astro Boy vol. 1 p. 36 trans. Frederik Schodt

Astro Boy vol. 1 p. 36 trans. Frederik Schodt

He continues with a statement that likely would make Haraway’s head spin, invested as she is in breaking down the arbitrary divides between human and animal or animal and machine: “if you turned a dog into a cyborg, as long as it had a dog’s brain it would still have the mind of dog.”  Given what we now know about human neuro-physiology, you might have to add the peripheral nervous system to the brain, but Tezuka’s statement has some merit.  For instance, much research has been done on amputees and the phenomenon of phantom limbs, which not only can the nervous system impose on one’s consciousness as “there” but in and from which amputees can have novel sensations.  The mind, then, whatever that is, has a tendency to reinforce a stable sense of self, even when the physical form and components upon which that sense is based have been radically transformed.  Similarly, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud speculates that the reason why people re-experience traumatic events (what he refers to as the repetition compulsion) has to do with a need to gain mastery over life events that otherwise shake our sense of self to its core.  Repeating the trauma over and over again is a means to trivialize it, to render it inert, to deprive it of its power to undermine our sense of self.

The re-emergence of an arbitrary, stable core, even after extreme transformation, lies at the heart of the cyborgs in “Hot Dog Corps.”  The story as a whole is, well, classic Astro: band of goons attack the earth, baroness wants to be queen of the moon, explosions, friends who are enemies–all your classic shōnen trappings.  What makes this story peculiar and worth more than a passing interest is the army of cyborgs Dr. Junkovitch makes for the Baroness.  In the world of Astro you can’t just make an army of robots, because all robots are prevented from harming humans by their basic programming.  Then just change the programming, right?  Well, this is where the cyborgs come in.  Dogs can attack humans, ergo make cyborgs out of dogs.  You might be wondering why not just make cyborgs out of human beings?  Well, um, that question never gets answered.

ibid. p. 96

ibid. p. 96

The cyborgs, humanoid in appearance, have begun to demonstrate rather peculiar behavior, such as, in the above, chewing on shoes, rolling over, scratching behind the ears, burying bones, and sniffing posts (?).  Despite the transformation, their doggy nature has re-emerged in unexpected ways.  One might assume this makes the Hot Dog Corps cyborgs particularly loyal, but this theme is never pursued in the story.  Instead, it becomes an underpinning for their primary weakness, when Astro tells #44, the leader of the Corps, to STAY, and he immediately goes stiff.  This alone is enough to allow Astro to escape and warn everyone of the threat the Baroness and her dog cyborgs present to the entire Earth.  These aren’t just any dogs, though.  The “Hot Dog Corps” story opens with the kidnapping of Mr. Mustachio’s dog, Pero.  The reader later learns that #44 is, in fact, Pero, and the story becomes as much about stopping the Baroness’s nefarious scheme as it is about #44’s trying to be “just a dog” again.

ibid. p. 204

ibid. p. 204

The irony is, of course, that even after the operation, Pero is still not truly a dog, at least not in the organic sense.  In transforming from #44 to Pero, he goes from being a humanoid cyborg (with a dog brain) to being a canine cyborg, i.e. a cybernetic creature whose appearance matches his “nature.”  Oddly, Tezuka presents this fact as completely unproblematic, even though it introduces a whole host of questions.  The one I want to pursue in detail has the greatest relevance not only for Haraway’s essay, but for the many ways in which “becoming animal” has been used as a philosophical trope, a way of rethinking human subjectivity.  As Deleuze and Guattari would have it, “becoming animal” is a move toward indeterminacy and away from stability.  “Becoming is never imitating” (Thousand Plateaus p. 305), as they say.  There is a flip side to this, which gets lost in Haraway’s hyperbolic manifesto, namely the “becoming human” of the animal: what of domesticated animals, who share our homes, eat something like our food, and are as dependent upon us for emotional validation as any small child?  What #44/Pero reminds us is that this becoming can easily be experienced as a tension, a return of the subconscious lingering in that messy organic matter that serves as the cyborg’s kybernetes or “pilot,” a reminder that hybrid identities always run the risk of reinforcing the unitary identities they blend, in ways you cannot anticipate.

“It’s a Body! A Corpse! A Client!”

Ōtsuka and Hōsui’s Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service follows a group of prospect-less college students making whatever money they can off delivering dead bodies to their desired end.  It’s very funny and very morbid.

Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service vol. 1 p. 79 trans. Yoshida Toshifumi

Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service vol. 1 p. 79 trans. Yoshida Toshifumi

Because Ōtsuka is a well known media critic, many of the stories allude to anime and manga or to practices within the fan cultures that surround them.  The first story in volume 7, “Fight with my Heart” (Hāto de shōbu), is rife with allusions to famous anime and manga creators; in particular the creators of Mazinger Z (Nagai Gō), Astro Boy (Tezuka), and Gundam (Tomnio Yoshiyuki); and to the consumptive practices that are the lifeblood of the fans who idolize them.  The story begins harmlessly enough, with the Kurosagi team trying to make ends meet however they can, this time by hauling gravestones to a new Buddhist cemetery.  To aid them in this task, they enlist the services of a team from the University of Tsukuba, who have been working on a kind of lift assist suit, in other words a mobile suit, called Mr. Helper.  You can never underestimate the Japanese capacity to give an incredibly dumb name to a piece of high technology.

ibid. vol. 7 p. 14 trans. Taylor Engel and Yoshida Toshifumi

ibid. vol. 7 p. 14 trans. Taylor Engel and Yoshida Toshifumi

The test does not go so well; after some initial success, the suit malfunctions, injuring Numata, the pilot, in the process.  The team runs into the robotics researchers again while on another mundane delivery trip, this time to bring 200 boxes of manga to a store in Akihabara.

ibid. p. 24

ibid. p. 24

The fact that the researchers have rigged their new “robot” with an old Famicom (what was rebranded outside Japan as the Nintendo Entertainment System or NES) is more than a simple gag.  For the fact that it and the old game cartridge act as its primary programming awakens something in the robot they never expected.  For the robot is not a robot at all but a cyborg, and a most peculiar one at that.  Shortly after their initial tests failed at the cemetery, one of them discovered an alternative “component” to better suit their needs: a fresh corpse.  This corpse serves as the basic underlying structure for their creation, meaning the human body is being used more as a mechanical component, which is to say the human being is more amenable to adaptation to a machine when it is more akin to a thing, like wires and actuators and so forth, than to a living subject.  Consider, for instance, how much better Mr. Helper works with a corpse inside than with Numata trying to control it in the manner of a classic mobile suit.

All of this meshes quite well with Haraway’s argument for non-distinction or transgression between the seemingly rigid boundaries between man and machine or man and animal (or man and woman).  However, as with the dog cyborgs above, there is an unconscious lingering in the corpse that death has not completely erased.  As we later discover, the body is that of a hardcore gamer/otaku, and the Famicom as control interface as well as the close proximity of the objects of his desire in life (i.e. rare, old school video games) awaken in the seemingly inert body a consciousness that quickly gets out of control.

ibid. p. 34

ibid. p. 34

By inserting the game Die Die Zombie-kun into the slot on its head, the corpse cyborg begins to act out a fantasy closely tailored to the storyline, such as it is, of the game.  It chases people around with a giant sword (a realistic prop from another fan-oriented shop), and the several floors of the shopping mall become like the levels of a game wherein the “hero” must defeat (read: kill) all the bad guys (read: patrons) before moving on to the next level.

ibid. p. 42

ibid. p. 42

Karatsu finally manages to subdue the creature by exorcising its soul, or what remains of its soul, and the corpse cyborg returns to its inert state.  The incompatibility of the “materials” or material states that make up any given (as opposed to hypothetical) cyborg is one way to examine the holes in Haraway’s rather overwrought argument, for what the corpse cyborg demonstrates is that her notions of blending and of opposition by assuming a negative status (i.e. excluded from the solidarity categories of race, class, or gender, while still being identified with them) depends upon an erasure that can never quite be completed.  For the matters blended together carry with them an unconscious or subjectivity that might come roaring back at any time, like the repetition compulsion Freud associates with trauma, and often in spite of conscious whims.  For just like the D-pad attached to the back of the corpse cyborg, control is a pathetic illusion.

More than that, though, the corpse cyborg fits into a recurring tension in Kurosagi between the ways in which human beings, and thus human bodies, are treated by the society at large and how they are treated by those who handle the bodies after the “person” has passed.  For Buddhism, like many religions/philosophies of the soul, understands the body to be a mere shell to be cast off like the husks of cicadas now littering the ground outside my house.  I’d like you to consider another cyborg in Kurosagi, one that demonstrates the risk of taking cyborg-as-metaphor too far.

ibid. vol. 1 p. 126

ibid. vol. 1 p. 126

The body in question has been assembled by a serial killer who, trained as an embalmer in the US (USA! USA! #1!), is now working as a salon stylist and, in an effort to create a “work of art” out of the human body (!), has been kidnapping clients, dismembering them, and re-arranging their body parts to make his creations.  If Haraway’s argument holds, that there is a useful non-distinction between animate and inanimate, human and thing, then this assemblage of human parts is also a cyborg, and the kind of cyborg by which we might take to task Haraway’s somewhat facile dichotomy between cyborg as valorized metaphor for a feminist politics and as subject of exploitation by the capitalist machine.  For our sympathy with the plight of the stylist’s victims is predicated upon our making a meaningful, even if only provisional, distinction between human as thing (i.e. assemblage of parts) and human as living subject.  Our revulsion is justified by the belief that those seven young women are something apart from, say, an injection molded model car kit.

Perhaps Haraway would have us understand them as the same, but that’s a different argument.

Next week: the first in a series of translation of Tsurumi Shunsuke’s essays on manga

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi

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