Downey, Gary Lee, Joseph Dumit, and Sarah Williams.  “Cyborg Anthropology.” Cultural Anthropology 10 (2): 264-269.

Abstract : The following is the text of a paper we presented at the 1992 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco. It represents a first attempt at positioning cyborg anthropology in a late capitalist world that situates academic theorizing alongside popular theorizing. We view cyborg anthropology as a descriptive label that marks a cultural project rather than an elite academic practice. In other words, cyborg anthropology is not just for anthropologists or other professional intellectuals. Although we cite broad social and intellectual movements, we do not detail specific relations of affinity through references. We are publishing this statement because we think it provokes important discussions.

  • The authors note that cyborg anthropology is a mishmash that brings together “the cultural anthropology of science and technology into conversation with established activities in science and technology studies (STS) and feminist studies of science, technology, and medicine” (264).
  • Theory making in cyborg anthropology research traces the relations among knowledge production, technological production, and subject production (ibid.).  It manages this by conducting ethnographic analyses on the boundaries between humans and machines and how humans perceive, articulate, and understand the differences that putatively create those boundaries.
  • The connections to the Humanities for cyborg anthropology are through, according to these authors writing in the early 90s, the work of British cultural studies – specifically the work of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and Stuart Hall.
  • Nice quote on the political consequences of cyborg anthropology: “Cyborg anthropology takes up this challenge [academic theorizing has political dimensions] by exploring the production of humanness through machines.  It looks for ways to critique, resist, and participate within structures of knowledge and power” (265).
  • The authors note that cyborg anthropology is well-equipped to study three areas:
    • The study of contemporary science and technology as cultural activities – This rejects the notion that science and technology somehow develop according to their own internal logics and instead argues that science and technology are cultural phenomena.  It conducts this work by exploring how people construct discourse about science and technology to make such discourse meaningful.  The authors claim that by doing this sort of tracing, or reconstructing of scientific knowledge in new contexts, “studying science becomes both more amenable to ethnographic investigation and more important as a topic of research” (266).
    • The second area of cyborg anthropology is the critique of anthropos as the sole subject of anthropological inquiry.  This is reflected in the sub-disciplines ironic, oxymoronic name — a designation that critiques the human-centeredness of anthropological research.  Crucial to this area is the notion that “human subjects and subjectivity are crucially as much a function of machines, machine relations, and information transfers as they are machine producers and operators” (266).  This means recognizing that human agents “produce themselves and their machines as part human and part machine” (267).  When doing this work it is clear that you must account for the human in culture . . . otherwise you’re simply reproducing a commodity fetishism.
    • The third area of cyborg anthropology “is a recognition of new areas or field sites in which to examine ethnographically how technologies get to participate as agents in producing and reproducing the diverse features of social life, including modalities of subjectivity” (267).  KEY QUOTE: “Cyborg anthropology holds that machines and other technologies are attributed agency in the construction of subjectivities and bounded realms of knowledge” (267).

    The authors note that cyborg anthropology is dangerous because in blurring the boundaries between humans and machines and between society and science, it recognizes no refuge for academic scholarship, the practice of science, or the development of technology.  These are all activities constructed and dominated by particular cultural forces (268-9).

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