Megamix: Sharalyn Orbaugh and Cyborgs

Orbaugh, Sharalyn. “Sex and the Single Cyborg: Japanese Popular Culture Experiments in Subjectivity.” In Bolton, Christopher, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, and Takayuki Tatsumi, eds. Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime.

Orbaugh, Sharalyn. “Emotional Infectivity: Cyborg Affect and the Limits of the Human.” Mechademia 3 (2008): 150–72.


I have a few write-ups in the backlog right now that I’m going to post over the next couple of days.  While normally I write my blog posts as “first drafts” of these reports (which I give to my advisor in advance of meetings we have to discuss them), this week I was on too much of a time crunch to do so.  As a result, you’ll be getting a couple posts that are slightly longer than usual since I’m dealing with two items in each.  For this first one, I have two different short pieces (a book chapter and a journal article) by Sharalyn Orbaugh, one of my favorite Japan studies scholars working on sci-fi and affect.  Next time, I’ll be revisiting Bukatman’s book (drawing a bit on this post) and connecting it with N. Katherine Hayles’s take on the same subject.  Look for that this weekend!  For now, though, let’s talk about cyborg feelings!

We might productively view Sharalyn Orbaugh’s chapter “Sex and the Single Cyborg: Japanese Popular Culture Experiments in Subjectivity” and her article “Cyborg Affect: Emotional Infectivity and the Limits of the Human” published a year later as a two-part argument regarding the posthuman concern with affect and subjectivity.  The first part serves as a critique of classical (modern) conceptions of subjectivity, following Luce Irigaray’s notion of “not-one” and connecting it with Haraway-style cyborg theory.  Orbaugh presents (in my opinion) a well-argued consideration of how contemporary subjectivity has been re-envisioned within Japanese society as it comes to grips with its increasingly cyborgian present, but leaves the question of a disembodied future hanging in the air.  This is where her subsequent article in Mechademia picks up, incorporating affect theory (notably that of Theresa Brennan) to ask where we might locate the “kernel” of selfhood even after the body and mind are both ruled out.  While the specific case of a cyborg’s disembodied consciousness circulating on the internet may yet be a long way off, Orbaugh’s attention to an ontological ground of selfhood that privileges neither body nor mind (at least as they are conceived in Cartesian terms) clearly holds contemporary relevance.

One part of Orbaugh’s argument in “Sex and the Single Cyborg” to which I want to draw attention comes toward the beginning and, in keeping with my tendency thus far in this reading list, has to do with race.  Orbaugh draws on Rey Chow’s “King Kong syndrome” – in which the West views the non-West as the site of monstrosity which can be consumed as a spectacle by the West – and expands it with the “Frankenstein syndrome,” saying that,

My inflection of the parallel notion, the Frankenstein syndrome – inspired by Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel rather than any of the films – refers to the tendency of developing countries, those defined as “monstrous” and “raw” by the already developed nations, to see themselves in those same terms.

In other words, Orbaugh begins her chapter by arguing that modern and contemporary Japanese cultural production has been created with a consciousness of inequality, one taken to the extent of internalization and acceptance.  She links this to contemporary Japanese popular cultural representations of cyborgs as lovable characters, in effect saying that, if cyborgs are defined as the hybrid co-existence of the “naturally” organic and the “abject” of machinic parts, Japanese culture since the Meiji period has identified with the abject half of the equation far more than their Western counterparts, and have thus taken up the figure of the cyborg with much more frequency, nuance, and hope.

However, after this initial exploration of a specifically cultural dimension to cyborg narratives, Orbaugh allows her “Frankenstein syndrome” to drop out of the remainder of the chapter.  Presumably, we are to infer that the “West/Japan” binary can be substituted with a number of others (namely “male/female” and “organic/artificial”), with “Japan” taking the place of whichever term is denigrated in modernist conceptualizations.  The racial, gendered, and historical stakes of such statements as, “the only hope for humankind is to move toward increased intimacy – permeability/penetrability – with the mechanical other” thus become clear: accepting cyborg theory’s deconstruction of singular (male) subjectivity and accepting the repressed feminine permeability to the outside simultaneously entails accepting the repressed non-West into a position that is equal without being commensurable (not-two).

We may reasonably worry, though, that substituting “non-West” for “feminine” obscures the operations of sexual difference within the non-West, and Orbaugh’s optimistic look forward to a post-gendered, post-human future at the end of this chapter therefore rings somewhat ominous.  It may simply be the case that the salient binary terms change depending on the level of analysis (geopolitical vs. intra-cultural, for example), but the slippage is something worth bearing in mind as Orbaugh moves to a more fully disembodied engagement with affect in her later article.

In “Cyborg Affect,” Orbaugh focuses on a close reading of the Japanese animated film Ghost in the Shell: Innocence after explicating the central paradox left to the viewer at the end of that film’s prequel, Ghost in the Shell:

[Protagonist Kusanagi Motoko’s] current body—despite being entirely artificial— contributes in fundamental ways to [her] sense of self; her organic brain is not the sole source of her selfhood. But, by the end of the film, after merging with a cybernetic (and thus completely bodiless) life form called the Puppet Master, Kusanagi prepares to abandon both her artificial body and her organic brain, to take up life as both herself and her offspring, capable of traveling the Net freely as a disembodied data stream.

The question is thus, if one’s physical body provides a crucial part of one’s subjectivity (echoing Grosz’s argument), how is it Kusanagi is able to maintain a continuous identity after leaving that body behind?

Orbaugh uses Brennan’s theory of the transmission of affect – which draws upon neurophysiological evidence that visual stimuli and pheromones “entrain” neural and emotional responses – to argue that there is an interactive element to embodiment that goes beyond even Elizabeth Grosz’s model of the body image in its divergence from the everyday understanding of the body’s boundaries.  In this move, Orbaugh demonstrates her commitment to the idea of permeability introduced above, and also provides a useful means of connecting affect theory with the heady information theory of the cyberneticists anxiously explored by N. Katherine Hayles.  She understands the physiological signals sent by bodies as information, but says:

Information here is figured as material and physical, effecting material, physical changes as it moves between one system (such as a body) and another. This contrasts with the more commonly held notion … that the information about a person’s internal affect that may show on the body’s surface—a smile, a blush of shame—is nonmaterial, simply communication.

In keeping information bound to a material substrate, as Hayles seeks to do, Orbaugh nevertheless allows it to have effects (and affects) such that she can deal with networked consciousness in less reactionary terms than Hayles.

Still, in keeping with the inquiry above, one is forced to ask what happens to race, gender, and the like under this model.  Orbaugh does not provide an answer, but it seems to me that the only way to approach the question is to ask whether the physiological signals she describes are sexually, racially, or otherwise differentiated and trained.  Keeping in mind Grosz’s reading of Foucault, we must ask whether operations of power work so thoroughly on the subject as to elicit different biological responses in similar circumstances from (say) Americans and Japanese.  If we take Grosz at her word, sexual difference is the pre-ontological basis for existence, so any model of subjectivity – including the “infectious” one Orbaugh presents – must account for difference; no claims of universality will suffice.  Indeed, Orbaugh herself claims in her earlier chapter that men and women are “differently permeable” to communication (that is, the exchange of information) with their environments, so at least in our contemporary context of embodiment, in which our consciousnesses are still tethered to a physical instantiation, the physical basis for affective subjectivity includes internal variation.  Nevertheless, the specific contours of that difference as they are sculpted by different cultures remains unexplored here, and short of neurophysiological studies, I’m not entirely sure how to pursue them.  When our affective communication remains pre-conscious or altogether unconscious, how can we begin to account for the operations of culture?  This is a theoretical impasse in Orbaugh’s work that I’m still struggling to overcome.


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