The Cyborg Figuration: Posthuman Organization & Queer Utopia

by Kristina Stallvik

art by Lea Huang-Yanez
Throughout history, lesbian texts have repeatedly conjured the image of the insect. Whether it be Virginia Woolf’s moth or the criss-crossing summer flies of Michael Field, bugs seem to play a central role in recalling and solidifying queer affects on the page. For lesbians, subjects who have struggled to claim “humanity” themselves, turning to modes of being found in the nonhuman world (the animal, cyborg, inorganic) offers up concrete evidence of the possibilities for alternative, queer embodiment. How might the cyborg-esque collectivity of the insect swarm mirror the web of connection ubiquitous to lesbian organization? What does collective organization infer about the relationship between longevity and community? And how might the bad affects associated with “becoming-nonhuman” prove themselves fruitful in understanding the demands of a queer utopia? 

In the incessant weaving of an ethereal web, bugs seem to touch upon a nomadic subjectivity specifically conducive to representing and reifying a lesbian sensibility.  As theorist Rosi Braidotti describes it, “Nomadic thought rests on estrangement as a method to free subject formation from the normative vision of the self. The frame of reference becomes open-ended, interrelational, multisexed, and trans species flows of becoming” (Braidotti, 124). Their method of creation mirrors the interwoven nature of creativity and production that emerged from the lesbian salons of Europe—which themselves were of course subject to internal power imbalance, control, and contestation. Descending from renaissance tradition in France and Italy, the European salon tradition of the time was a beacon for queer community (Rodriguez, 174). For example, notable Parisian salon hostess Madeleine de Scudéry held a weekly meeting titled “Saturdays for Sappho.” Figures such as American lesbian Natalie Barney, even migrated to Paris in order to immerse themselves in the rich interweavings of intellectual and literary pursuits by the likes of Gertrude Stein, Alice B Toklas, Colette, Vernon Lee, Mary Robinson, Charlotte Mew, and actress Greta Garbo (Rodriguez, 129). Not only did the content of their writing challenge a species divide, their epistemological methods began to dissolve the boundary between self and other—with an insistence on love as negating individual personhood.

A concrete desire for these writers was to carve literary careers free of paternalism. Similarly, theorist Lauren Wilcox understands insect life to represent matriarchal utopia through “hives, anthills or colonies unconcerned with filiation and patrilineal descent” (Wilcox, 26). This renders “becoming-insect” a site of existential threat to hegemonic societal order. A simultaneous sense of multiplicity and oneness—the politics of the swarm—is dangerous to the body politic at large. To the normative subject who has always retained a firm grip on the title “human,” the organization of insects is terrifying. Hence, lesbian subjectivity as “becoming-insect” represents the potential for non-heteronormative configurations by embracing radical difference though multiplicity and indeterminacy. However, what unfolds when we extend becoming-insect to becoming inorganic, cyborg, or non-human? Since the late 20th century, both the expanding human psyche and modern medicine practices have rendered us, essentially, cyborgs. Braidotti states that “the human organism is neither wholly human, as a person, nor just an organism. It is an abstract machine, radically immanent, which captures, transforms, and produces interconnection” (Braidotti, 151). Similarly, theorist Donna Harraway understands the cyborg to be a “condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transformation” (7). It is therefore imperative that we attend to the specific implications of becoming-cyborg for marginalized subjects. In this essay, I will explore the logic of “swarming” and its enmeshment with drone warfare to understand the ways in which queer organization intersects with an incorporation of digital/cyborg others in the evolving repertoire of opposing human referents. 
From Animal to Inorganic OtherIn order to understand the queer utopia of “becoming-nonhuman” we must first contextualize the historical relationship between human and animal, a predecessor to our current human/machine episteme. According to Braidotti, before the bio-egalitarian turn marking our current paradigm, animals could only be conceived as indexing the European subject’s relationship to the “other” (nonwhite, nonmasculine, nonnormal, nonhuman, unhealthy, disabled, etc..) (Braidotti, 526). In order to uphold the fragile definition of human as in opposition to all other life, animals were pathologized and firmly placed in the realm of “deviance and monstrosity.” This begs the question, what does it look like to relate to animals in a manner which negates their historical “otherness?” Braidotti suggests that we must begin by relating to animals as animals ourselves. Our imperative should be to “deterritorialize the human/animal interaction, so as to bypass ... the dialectics of otherness, secularizing accordingly the concept of human nature and the life that animates it” (Braidotti, 527). Deterritorialization—or the reconfiguration of an existing system of interlocking relationships—commands a turn away from metaphor. Rather than considering non-humans to perform the ontological function of referent for human values and norms (for example, the eagle as noble or the lamb as shy) we must move “beyond the empire of the sign, toward a neoliteral relation to animals, anomalies, and inorganic others” (Braidotti, 528). Non-humans can no longer be considered a signifying system for our own self-project, a mirror to hold up against human aspiration and fear. Animals and inorganic others exist within their own code systems; in order to understand our interconnection with animals and the potential they hold for alternative modes of trans species relationality, this must be taken seriously. Rather than metaphor, we can think of figuration: “performative images that can be inhabited ... semiotic tropes combining knowledge, practice, and power that shape the maps of our world” (Wilcox, 28).

Of such figurations, “cyborg” furthers the boundary contesting work incited by an embrace of “becoming-insect.” According to Harraway, there is both immense pleasure to be found in this confusion of boundary, and a great responsibility to understand the hegemonic forces which forge them: “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” (Haraway, 7). This conceptual border war is mirrored by a physical anxiety over protecting the nation state and its rigid borders. At the intersection of both “becoming-insect” and “becoming-cyborg,” an exploration of swarm logic—and a subsequent effacement of self—is pertinent to understanding prevailing efforts at preserving both material and imaginary boundaries. 
The SwarmWithin our cultural subconscious swarm logic and organization is a prime carrier of highly ambivalent, self-reflective metaphor. Beginning in the nineteenth century, social evolution theory used studies of insect ‘societies’ to naturalize colonial logic and systems of slavery (Wilcox, 34). By classifying insect species as “more or less like humans” based on their evidenced social organizations, the work of social evolution theory performed the dual role of humanizing exploitation by articulating it in the “natural world” and devaluing insects who defied anthropomorphism (Wilcox, 34). Today the swarm still figures largely in racialized discourses. In 2015, former UK Prime Minister David Cameron referred to migrant populations as swarms: “refugees threaten to overwhelm like a plague of locusts” (Wilcox, 35). This figuration commonly extends to protestors, rioters, the masses that threaten to “overwhelm, disturb order, and defy boundaries ... which falls back onto the monstrous as threatening other.” (Wilcox, 35).

As Braidotti understands them, “insects are only the most evident metaphorical process conflating a number of irreconcilable terms such as life/nonlife, biology/technology, human/machine” (Wilcox, 30). Existing at these nexuses of once ideologically stable delineations, insects are “horrifying” because they present a way of being which seems to belong to an entirely different planet—one that references an almost mechanical lifeforce. Their radical difference points to a biological reality which is more “dynamic, more insensate, more atrocious, more infernal than ours” (Wilcox, 29). In this sense, insects inspire the age-old fear harbored by humankind regarding our truly limited control over our environments. In evading the categorization of “the one” or “the many,” deriving strength from a common impulse, and solving problems through non-central organization, the insect swarm represents an image of the world misaligned with human behaviors and understanding. Hence, “bugs are the stumbling block that reveal the fatal flaws of our fantasies of seamlessness and conformity” (Wilcox, 29). At the intersection of life/nonlife, the insect swarm also takes on the association of “zombie”—endlessly droning on at the intersection of alive and dead, subject and object (Wilcox, 33). Not only do insects appeal to our fears of animality, they simultaneously represent the mechanical and the supernatural.

A sense of horror—or threat to the status quo—is exactly what imbues the swarm with queer potential. Central queer theorists such as Susan Stryker, Jack Halberstam, and Mel Chen have consistantly looked towards the abjected non-human as “sites of appropriation.” To this end, Wilcox argues that Eve Sedgwick’s conception of queer as “failure to signify gender monolithically” applies to the ambigious relationship of the insect swarm to signifiers of masculinity and femininity (Wilcox, 27). Moreover, the agency of the swarm is located in interactions rather than individual subjects, a threat to the normative assumptions of heterosexual subjectivity (Wilcox, 32). In Braidotti’s conception of “becoming-insect,” existence outside of the confines of the human displaces sexual difference rather than erasing it (Braidotti, 152).

In Sianne Ngai’s book Ugly Feelings, she delves into the “bad” feelings of such psychic realities: envy, irritation, anxiety, paranoia, and disgust. In her chapter on disgust, Ngai proclaims, “desire and disgust are dialectically conjoined” (Ngai, 333). According to Wilcox, the insect body itself proves such a conjoinment: “Insect life is abject: ‘it is primordially ambivalent: it arouses both disgust and desire, at once demanding and repelling our intimate contact” (Wilcox, 29). Ngai explains that the loathing of a “disgusting” thing eventually morphs into allure so intense that the disgusting is reconceptualized as “the true Kantian sublime” (Ngai, 332). It stands in opposition to all acceptable systems of taste. Philosopher Julia Kristeva goes so far as to argue that the feeling of disgust is as close to “self-shattering” jouissance as we can get, such that the feeling of delight or ecstasy actually causes the abject to exist in the first place (Ngai 332). Just as insects’ existence contests boundaries (human/cyborg/animal/nonliving), “disgusting” gets its power from testing the sanctioned limits of acceptability and enmeshment. Hence, its allure is generally derived from social taboo or prohibition. Even as we turn away from disgusting things, we are made painfully aware of our fascination with them: “What makes the object abhorrent is precisely its outrageous claim for desirability. The disgusting seems to say, ‘You want me,’ imposing itself on the subject as something to be mingled with and perhaps even enjoyed” (Ngai, 335).

Furthermore, while “desire seems capable of being vague, amorphous, and even idiosyncratic,” disgust is never ambivalent. It must be “urgent and specific” (Ngai, 337). Hence, equating lesbian sensibility with the swarm seems to play off of the disgust embedded in both, such that lesbian desire itself is understood as urgent and specific. As Ngai understands the intrinsic connections between desire and disgust, the use of insect organization and behaviour to represent lesbian collectivity is an extremely powerful tactic; just as the insect is considered digusting, the lesbian is too. However, analyzing this “ugly” feeling unveils the potential omnipotence and bold nature of the disgusting, which commands us to pay attention. At the same time, in the darkness fireflies carry an air of grace and beauty, something playful and whimsical. Although alien, they are looked upon with awe. Hence, in this motif Robinson seems to characterize queerness as sure of itself, yet withholding room for the “amorphous” qualities of desire.
Queer Warfare In giving attention to “ugly feelings,” we cannot turn away from the relationship between collectivity and the oppressive nation state. While Braidotti and Wilcox both agree that “becoming-insect” holds potential for possible queer utopia, Wilcox brings our attention to an insidious underbelly of such formation. While the swarm may produce different understandings of life and death, this queering of necropolitics is being co-opted by military regimes. The alternative offerings of the insectoid organization are still contributing to “racialised productions of space” which decide the subjects who prosper and those who must be eliminated through insect-like drone warfare (Wilcox, 31). Multiplicity proves ambivalent as it is utilized by sovereign power to enact control: “The militarized techno-swarms created on behalf of a project of biopolitical warfare with the ability to fight war without risk of death to human subjects on one side, also create entire populations who ‘live under drones’, in which the ‘buzzing’ sound of drone is a source of anxiety and fear” (Wilcox, 34). While it may be revolutionary for the swarm to operate via modes outside of heteronormative reproduction and socialization, this creates a type of “murderous inclusion” of queer subjectivity towards the ends of dystopian combat (Wilcox, 28). Tightly woven collectivity is neither inherently democratic nor innocent. However, representing a multiplicity of interweaving forces, an embrace of the disgusting, the inability to remain spatially bound, and an obliteration of the self, the human/cyborg/animal nexus presents possibilities for understanding and critiquing the demands of a queer utopia within a cisheteropatriarchy. Understanding what it means to “become-cyborg” is “an effort to contribute to socialist-feminist culture and theory in a postmodernist, non-naturalist mode and in the utopian tradition of imagining a world without gender, which is perhaps a world without genesis, but maybe also a world without end” (Haraway, 7).