The Cyborg Moment
Over the past week I have been listening to a 1989 series of the Canadian radio show Ideas on the work of Ivan Illich in anticipation of an interview for the Regeneration Podcast with David Cayley, writer and host of the series. I highly recommend this series as well as the entire collection of Cayley’s interviews—always insightful, always impressive.
I was struck, in particular, with the discussion Cayley held with Illich (who died in 2002) on his book Gender (1982), a book which raised the ire of a good number of feminists of the time, but which has proved a disturbingly prescient meditation on the subject. Illich sees the rupture between sex and gender, just cutting its teeth in the 1970s and 80s, not as some form of liberation but as a triumph of the joint forces of technocracy and the corporatocracy—the perfect marriage of socialism and capitalism that neuters the human (and especially women) in favor of efficiency and “fairness”—which turns out to be neither efficient nor fair. Illich, one of the clearest thinkers I have encountered, makes a cogent observation in 1989 that, I think, still applies:
“I am angry, I was then, at least [when he wrote Gender] deeply angered, furious at seeing the position of modern women as worse, as far as I could understand, than the position of women any time before. And I was equally angered, though much less, by the belief of a little bunch of women who believed that by improving their own personal status by outlawing discrimination, women would be helped.” 
In the aftermath of Lia Thomas’s spectacular (in every sense of the word) rise to domination (note the metaphor) in women’s sports, I’d say Illich’s insight was right on the money.
Dave Chappelle weighs in on the issue.
Illich, an astute historian of culture, knows that what we have before us in discussions of gender is not easily reduced to a narrative of exploitation. “Vernacular culture,” he writes,
“is a truce between genders, and sometimes a cruel one. Where men mutilate women’s bodies, the gynaeceum often knows excruciating ways to get back at men’s feelings. In contrast to this truce, the regime of scarcity imposes continued war and ever new kinds of defeat on each woman. While under the reign of gender women might be subordinate, under any economic regime they are only second sex. They are forever handicapped in games where you play for genderless stakes and either win or lose. Here, both genders are stripped and, neutered, the man ends up on top.” 
The result of this cultural development has been what can rightfully be called the cyborgification of humanity. This, too, Illich saw as early as 1989: “I am not one to dream about a fully sexed, totally degendered population of cyborgs, cybernetic organisms.”  In this, Illich draws on the work of feminist materialist philosopher Donna Haraway’s notion of the future female as cyborg as articulated in her oft-cited “Cyborg Manifesto,” first published in 1985. Though its influence is legendary, it is not really a serious philosophical work so much as it is a great example of feminist performance art. Which see:
“The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence. No longer structured by the polarity of public and private, the cyborg defines a technological polls based partly on a revolution of social relations in the oikos, the household. Nature and culture are reworked; the one can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation by the other. The relationships for forming wholes from parts, including those of polarity and hierarchical domination, are at issue in the cyborg world. Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein’s monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden; that is, through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate, through its completion in a finished whole, a city and cosmos. The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project. The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust. Perhaps that is why I want to see if cyborgs can subvert the apocalypse of returning to nuclear dust in the manic compulsion to name the Enemy. Cyborgs are not reverent; they do not re-member the cosmos. They are wary of holism, but needy for connection—they seem to have a natural feel for united front politics, but without the vanguard party. The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.” 
An apt description of this, our cyborg moment, don’t you think?
I first read Haraway about twenty years ago, when I started working on my essay “Meditations on Blade Runner” (you can find it on the “Articles” tab above). Haraway points to the classic sci-fi film noir Blade Runner’s replicant femme fatale Rachael as “the image of a cyborg culture’s fear, love, and confusion.” Furthermore, Haraway holds that the cyborg illustrates how “Biological organisms have become biotic systems, communications devices like others. There is no fundamental, ontological separation in our formal knowledge of machine and organism, of technical and organic.” This is certainly a reality we more and more inhabit, but, as Haraway conveniently ignores, the replicant Rachael is an image of (a certain type) of actual woman. Her “gender” is in no way erased in the film. In fact, it is even exaggerated.
What is erased in Blade Runner—also from 1982—is the distinction between human and machine (the slogan of the Tyrell Corporation, maker of the replicants, is, indeed, “More Human Than Human.”) But what appears as an intriguing (if manipulative) piece of cinematic-philosophical stagecraft in Blade Runner completely disappears in Denis Villeneuve’s sequel, 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, which reads as an ironic pro-life (though replicant version) meditation on and valorization of cyborg rights. But, still, very gendered.
Nevertheless, what we see here is not only the erasure of gender, but the erasure of humanity: the two are inextricable from one another. When gender goes, so does humanity. Literally, end of story.
Judith Butler, another hack performance artist masquerading as a philosopher (which is what happens in academia), laid the egg that became the cyborg moment we now inhabit as a culture, where gender is “fluid” or “on a spectrum.” As a result we can now look forward to the liberating promise of “artificial wombs,” a birthing modality free of either sex or gender. And if that doesn’t inspire, there is also the coming salvation of the “uterus transplant,” by which biological males can carry a baby to term. The take home: the endgame of the feminist project, as we have already seen in sports, is the complete erasure of women. O brave new world, that has such people in it.
What we have here, then, is the Luciferic promise of freedom delivering men and women (as confused or selfish as they might be) into the waiting arms of Ahriman and the Technological Appropriation of All Things, which is a kind of medical and technological slavery. This is what Illich called, “tools subduing nature,” but human nature, in this case. Don’t believe me? Then explain why a lifetime of servitude to a suite of treatments, hormone injections, and surgeries isn’t a lifetime of slavery to the technocratic-pharmaceutical establishment. You can’t. There’s only one winner here.
As you may have anticipated by now (if you’re even an occasional reader of this blog) is that the only antidote to such a perverse epistemology can be found in Sophiology. As the great 17th century sophiologist John Pordage writes in his seminal text, Sophia:
“While my intellect impelled me to be careful and make good provision, Wisdom revealed to the inner eye of my intellect that she had come to make me a philosopher, according to her earlier prophecy. She had now appeared to reveal me to myself within myself. To be a philosopher was to know myself and my own nature. It was to know God and Wisdom within me. It was to recognize her Depth and the key which would open that Depth of hers which was moving in my depths.” 
A philosopher, of course, is a lover of Wisdom.
Nothing else will work.
Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at email@example.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.
1. David Cayley, “Part Moon, Part Traveling Salesman: Conversations with Ivan Illich,” Ideas, CBC, 12 December 1989.
2. Ivan Illich, Gender (London, 1982), 178.
3. “Part Moon, Part Traveling Salesman.”
5. John Pordage, Sophia, reverse trans. Alan G. Paddle (Grail Books, 2018), 73.