Cyborg Fantasy?*

Interpretations of hybrid female beauty have been vastly explored in the realms of the virtual. Between an object, mother and goddess, there are many interpretations in arts, entertainment and popular culture. In the following text there will be given some speculative remarks on some ideas from Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. For that purpose, introduction to one interactive artwork, among the many examples that could fit to this topic, is the starting point for further analysis.

German artist Kirsten Geisler’s Dream of Beauty (1997-2000) is an interactive, voice-activated installation with a digitally generated female persona. This is one among the many projects within her body of work dedicated to the development of the virtual creature based on an image of an ‘ideal’ female appearance. The 3D model of a head with female facial features is presented on a screen, and the spectator/participant is invited to interact with the work via telephone receiver, to activate the work with voice input.

The virtual face generates affection within us for one reason - it is relatable because of its simulated human appearance. However, the character is not seamlessly responsive to the people who are trying to communicate. The virtual persona is barely responsive, seeming indifferent, and even mocking when having a laugh or sending a kiss. Those small changes are drawing the spectator to continue the interrogation, hoping that the communication exchange would progress, or would become more rewarding. The truth is, nothing more happens.

This obscure object of desire has its limits of interaction as its strongest trait. You may feel rejected, irrelevant, disappointed in your efforts. Your affection projected on this digital face is hitting you back with its ignorance hidden below appealing artificial facial features and overly mannered gestures. What can such a simulation teach us about us, about the psychological and social structures of our everyday life on the screen? What are the possible ways to articulate the position of women in the global society created on the web? What are our limits that we want to expand in the realm of the virtual word, and what are the structures that are constructed within that world that are important to question from the female perspective?

Under the idea of a cyborg as a creature that we have all become to some extent, hybrids of machines and organisms, prosthetically attached to the new media and digital interfaces, we can understand our own problems, shadows and become that Other. “The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation. In the traditions of “Western” science and politics—the tradition of racist, male-dominant capitalism; the tradition of progress; the tradition of the appropriation of nature as resource for the productions of culture; the tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other—the relation between organism and machine has been a border war. The stakes in the border war have been the territories of production, reproduction, and imagination.”[1] Donna Haraway states in A Manifesto for Cyborgs.

Travelling through the eighties all the way to present times the structure of the society developed on (predominantly) new technologies and science, social feminism and its ideas have had different aspects of change. Also, the radical change in our lives along with the technology did not bring a radical change to any of the serious issues that we face in our communities. The use of technologies nowadays is more of a mythological character than of concrete, reliable reality-check tool. Transition to the virtual world and autonomisation of labor opens a utopian feeling of imaginative possibilities that could be created in a world that does not belong to us. The world that we are creating is for our extended, cyborg personas, the Other that is part of ourselves. What may be important is to identify our real limitations and issues without being distracted or charmed by the possibilities for distraction. “The issue is dispersion. The task is to survive in the diaspora.”[2]

What we can learn from the Cyborg Fantasy? Are we submitting to the sense of our own irrelevance, and what would be the possibilities to take over the control of our own virtual gardens, and through them to understand and address the social issues that are haunting us, lying under the glamour and the discourse of the techno-menagerie propaganda structure that seems to dominate our desires and needs? In the world that we projected on this virtual plane/space, we have to learn how to orientate ourselves within those continuously expanding borders of data that is beyond our reach, and therefore, to re-examine existing structures that are trying to be invisible, hidden under layers of the glamorous market, and information that is losing its essence-sense. “Technological possibilities can seduce us to such an extent that we imagine the constraints of the real being eliminated. Problems arise when we imagine we can use technology to fulfill the promises that belong to existence itself…In general, when the materialized screen for perceiving the real closes off an awareness of ourselves as vulnerable, limited beings, we fall into the trap of thinking about technologies in terms of hyper realization: the virtual that fully supplements the deficiencies of the real. ”[3]

The idea of creation of a human-like being in a virtual sphere has had a rollercoaster journey through the Uncanny Valley in the past few decades. The given example of the Dream of Beauty is one among the many examples, some of which are critical, but some only being criticised. The eerie character of the presented work lies in the passive, but ignorant role that is given to the simulation. That approach has a gesture of honesty, opening a possibility to understand our own position of power/weakness when encountered with the Artificial. Nowadays, there are many examples of humanoid robots that are successors of the 3D renders, ‘affective avatars’ smiling from the other side of the screen, but technically developed using AI, with hyper realistic and enhanced features. Most of them are made for the purpose of a sex toy (RealDoll, Robotix[4]), but with the advanced simulation of an intimate relationship. As André Nusselder states in Interface Fantasy: A Lacanian Cyborg Ontology: “People attribute personalities and gender stereotypes to computers, respond to automated flattery as if it came from humans, and so on. Since emotions are a matter of expression and not of a ‘real affectivity,’ computers do not ‘possess’ emotions, but they can evoke emotions in us and thereby make us believe that there are emotions involved in technological interfaces: we imagine them.”[5]

Understanding the post-gender world[6] through a hyper-sexualised market, beauty standards and humanoid sex robots may be possible. The truth about women’s position and role of a passive object of desire emerges from these examples. This position may be taken over by the cyborgs.[7] (Still, that is a very different position from the idea of real-life Teknolust.[8]) That may allow us to regain control over those expectations, there is a possibility of liberation, some sort of catharsis. When the desire focuses on for example, cyborgs as sex robots, that could finally give the chance for women (and men) to choose between the roles, forgetting about the ideals, standards and expectations. Also, if the myth becomes too real, it might show the message clearly, helping to understand issues underlying the Fantasy.

Only then, we could open the possibility of rejecting the duality between real and the virtual, accepting it as part of our real life, as a new way of representation that is not meant to exceed us but it is meant for us to understand ourselves in a more profound and expanded way, and therefore to open the possibility to overcome the structures and taxonomies that come as part of global society. The Fantasy should not be an illusionary utopia, escapist game in between our mandatory functions of production/reproduction, but a call to address the real issues that us as individuals are craving for. That might also reveal some new sense of unity in all its diversities.

*updated essay written for research purposes at Kunstuniversität Linz
December 3, 2020

Kristina Tica

[1] D. Haraway, Manifestly Haraway,“A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Social Feminism in the in the Late Twentieth Century”, University of Minnesota Press, 2016, 7

[2] ibid., 46

[3] André Nusselder, Interface Fantasy: A Lacanian Cyborg Ontology, The MIT Press, 2009, 96

[4] Official webpage of the product (Accessed 01.11. 2020)

[5] ibid., 94

[6] “The cyborg is a creature in a postgender world; it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-oedipal symbiosis, unalienated labor, or other seductions to organic wholeness through a fnal appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity. In a sense, the cyborg has no origin story in the Western sense—a “final” irony since the cyborg is also the awful apocalyptic telos of the “West’s” escalating dominations of abstract individuation, an ultimate self untied at last from all dependency, a man in space. An origin story in the “Western,” humanist sense depends on the myth of original unity, fullness, bliss and terror, represented by the phallic mother from whom all humans must separate, the task of individual development and of history, the twin potent myths inscribed most powerfully for us in psychoanalysis and Marxism.”, D. Haraway, Manifestly Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Social Feminism in the in the Late Twentieth Century”, 6

[7] “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 defnes a technological polis 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.”, ibid., 9

[8] Teknolust, 2003, film by Lynn Hershman-Lisson