Embodiment and the Everyday Cyborg: Philosophical and Sociological Approaches

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In this post we consider how to study the embodiment of everyday cyborgs using phenomenological and sociological methods

Although we often identify the locus of the self in the mind, what our body is like can have important effects on who we are. Our body is the means through which we perceive the world and the means through which we enact our will. As we are embodied beings, our bodies and minds are not completely distinct, instead they are deeply interconnected.

Of course, the body has never been entirely absent from philosophical thinking. Philosophers have always recognized that people have bodies. The problem is they have paid insufficient attention to the fundamental role the body plays in our lives. This ‘neglect of the body’ started to change in the mid-twentieth century with the work of phenomenologists like Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In their work they tried to understand both how we experience our bodies from the inside, and how this experience of our bodies affects our experience of the world.

Their work proceeded mostly through introspection, starting with their own experience. The problem with the method as it was practiced, however, is that the group of people introspecting was both uniform and unrepresentative of the wider population; consisting mostly of middle aged, white, male, university professors.

We know from experience that people’s bodies differ. Therefore, accurately and inclusively capturing the variety of ways of experiencing the world requires widening the pool of views that are represented. More recent work in phenomenology has gone some way towards remedying this gap. For instance, feminist phenomenologist Iris Marion Young has analysed female bodily norms and the experience of pregnancy, challenging the male-ness of previous analyses. Whilst theorists such as Havi Carel and S. Kay Toombs have focused on describing the experience of illness from the inside by drawing on their personal experiences of living with chronic illness, moving away from the previous focus on ‘healthy’ embodiment.

When it comes to documenting and analysing how people’s embodiment is affected by receiving an implanted medical device, however, we must look to work done by our sociology colleagues. Unlike philosophical accounts which draw heavily on a single first-hand perspective (i.e. that of the author), sociological treatments seek to explore people’s experience of their embodiment through interviews, focus groups, and observational study. In other words, whereas philosophical accounts tend to have a sample size of one, sociological approaches cast a wider net.

Cyborgs in Science-Fiction and Science Fact

Two recent monographs, Gill Haddow’s Embodiment and Everyday Cyborgs and Nelly Oudshoorn’s Resilient Cyborgs, illustrate the importance of this empirical approach. By ‘cyborgs’ Haddow and Oudshoorn mean individuals with implanted medical devices. These individuals are cyborgs in the sense that they are biotechnological hybrids, part human and part machine.

In popular culture, cyborgs are perceived as strong and invulnerable. Robocop has abilities that most humans do not and can survive things most others cannot. This is also true of the cyborgs envisaged by Clynes and Kline when coining the term. The focus of their original paper was the technological enhancements to our bodies that would be required to pursue deep space exploration. The cyborgs they envisaged were astronauts; boldly going where no one has gone before (as illustrated by the painting below, which accompanied a 1960 article in LIFE Magazine about Clynes and Kline’s paper).

Two Cyborgs exploring foreign planet in space
Painting by FRED FREEMAN, originally appearing in the July 11, 1960 issue of LIFE Magazine. http://cyberneticzoo.com/bionics/1960-cyborg-kline-and-clynes-american/

Both Oudshoorn’s and Haddow’s work with pacemaker and ICD recipients show that the futuristic visions of the past have not been born out. Everyday cyborgs are not like the cyborgs of science fiction. Unlike the cyborgs of science fiction, everyday cyborgs are not usually youthful people receiving implants to facilitate extraordinary achievements. They are more likely to be older individuals receiving implants to treat a medical condition. Whereas in science-fiction the merging of people and machines is portrayed as risk free and relatively unproblematic, ‘everyday cyborgs’ (i.e. individuals with attached and implanted medical devices) are vulnerable in a number of ways.

First, although pacemakers and Implantable Cardiac Defibrillators (ICDs) can be literally lifesaving, Haddow and Oudshoorn’s interviews with ICD recipients show that the electric shocks these implants deliver are experienced as painful, unexpected, and startling. As these shocks are perceived as being beyond the person’s control, experiencing them can make people feel vulnerable. Not knowing when (or if) the ICD will shock the person again can, in turn, lead to ICD recipients experiencing stress and anxiety.

Second, Haddow and Oudshoorn’s research shows that the fact the ICD is beyond the person’s control can lead to people experiencing their device as a foreign object within them, which can be an alienating experience. The ICD implant, sitting as it does just below the skin, is both in intimate contact with the person’s body yet inaccessible, exacerbating the feelings of vulnerability and lack of control. Although, in time, some individuals come to see the devices as a part of them, not everyone does. For some people it remains an alien presence, an ever-present reminder of their mortality.

Third, although ICDs can be lifesaving, the lives everyday cyborgs live after receiving an ICD are not necessarily the lives they lived before. Whereas the cyborgs of science-fiction explore new planets with the help of integrated devices, the ICD recipients interviewed by Haddow and Oudshoorn’s may have to give up work, surrender their driving licenses, and live more restricted lives post-implantation (including avoiding contact sports, magnets, airport security devices, and avoiding being alone). Unlike the cyborgs of science fiction, whose implants enable them to perform extraordinary feats, everyday cyborgs living with ICDs must adjust their activities to the demands of living with an implanted device.

Studying Cyborgs in Law

Empirical work such as that conducted by Gill Haddow and Nelly Oudshoorn reveals the complexity of living as an everyday cyborg, a complexity that could have been missed by phenomenological approaches with a sample size of one. Haddow’s and Oudshoorn’s work reveals that different individuals have different reactions to receiving an implant. Whereas some ICD recipients come to see their devices as part of them, others perceive them as alien presences within them.

Interviews, focus groups, and surveys of everyday cyborgs also reveal that the experience of becoming a cyborg is more ambiguous than popular representations of the cyborg suggest. Receiving an implanted medical device, while literally lifesaving in some cases, also creates new sources of vulnerability. In contrast to representations of the cyborg in science fiction, becoming an everyday cyborg is not easy. Reduced risk of death by cardiac arrest co-exists with anxiety and feelings of lack of control.

By drawing on important findings, such as those from Haddow and Oudshoorn, as well as conducting our own empirical research, our goal on the Everyday Cyborg 2.0 project is to construct an empirically informed account of the everyday cyborg in law. Crucial to this goal is understanding how medical devices affect the embodiment of those who use them. I have suggested one way in which this can be done is through phenomenological, first-hand, accounts of what it is like to have a particular body. However, whilst these can (and do) offer some rich insights, due to their limited sample size these analyses run the risk of not being representative of the complexity and the variations that exist between people. Phenomenological philosophical accounts, therefore, need to be complemented by detailed empirical studies with wider sample sizes to fully capture the complexities of how implanted medical devices affect our embodiment. In other words, research such as Haddow’s and Oudshoorn’s are invaluable tools in understanding the complexities of being an everyday cyborg and a necessary complement to normative philosophical and legal analyses.

Written by: Joseph Roberts

Funding: Work on this was generously supported by a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award in Humanities and Social Sciences 2019-2024 (Grant No: 212507/Z/18/Z)