Sexy Cyborgs

This week’s topic is the biopolitics of science fiction.

The two poles of Foucault’s biopolitics are summarized below.

Both are described as existing now, although the species body is still emergent

Body as machine – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Species body

Anatomic                                                                    Biological

Optimizing performance                                            Process of life

Systems of efficient control                                       Intervention and regulation of life

US Supreme Court decisions

Diamond  V. Chakrabarty (1980) and Moore V. Regents of the University of California (1990) commodified life, that is, these decisions determined that life can be property. The former established the patenting of genetically modified organisms. The second: a person loses commercial rights to their cells when someone else commercializes their cell line.

Blood donations in the US are unpaid. However, other waste tissues such as infant foreskins and aborted embryo stem cells are sold to companies which make products such as artificial skin and cell lines for research, these are part of what constitutes a tissue economy (Vint, 2011). The unemployed and underpaid are also lured into clinical trials by compensation (Vint, 2011).

Given that parts of humans can now live apart from their donors, how do we ethically separate things from human subjects?

How long do we ethically keep someone alive in a coma to harvest their organs?

If someone had a twin, and that twin were in a coma, what are the ethics of that person paying to keep their twin “alive” as long as possible for the purpose harvesting the organs?

What are the ethics of harvesting parts of the brain?

If we can someday grow human brains outside of bodies, what are the ethics of clinical research?

In The Ship Who Sang, Ann McAffrey wrote of a future where the brains of infants with severe birth defects are transplanted into a succession of robot bodies. The parents consent to the process, believing that a robot life is better than no life at all. The cyborgs develop similar to children, but are always/already the property of the sponsoring company. The cyborgs “grow up” to be the brains of various facilities, the smartest become space ships. This is a case of literal “body as machine”. Let us assume that this may one day be possible, what are the ethics of preserving the life of children, when the consequence is that they become things?

Spider-goats are goats with spider genes which produce spider silk in their milk.

Spider-goats exemplify biopolitical governance of capital (Vint, 2011), they are financial speculation by the University of Utah, for being able to synthesize large quantities of spider silk, a super-strong material, has the potential of being hugely profitable (Vint, 2011). The next step, according to scientists, is to mix alfalfa and spider genes.

If we accept this, then…

…animals that can produce human milk with all the immune-buffering advantages

…plants (or chicken eggs) that contain contraceptives (or sexual inhibitor)

…animals that produce less waste (poop and farts)

…eggs that contain medicine

…plants that contain vaccines

…a virus that makes people happy (or enhances memory)

Which of these would be beneficial overall to society? What do we mean by “overall”?

Yes, some of these things already exist, along with glow-in-the-dark cats.


Radical feminist Shulamith Firestone (1970) proposes a number of ways to ultimately sever women’s biopolitics, and perhaps human biopolitics, from nature. It is important to note that Foucault did not have a theory of nature. Some of her proposals are prescient and some are still pure speculation. Firestone:

The freeing of women from the tyranny of their reproductive biology by every means available, and the diffusion of the childbearing and childrearing role to the society as a whole, men as well as women. There are many degrees of this. Already we have a (hard-won) acceptance of “family planning,” if not contraception for its own sake. Proposals are imminent for day-care centers, perhaps even twenty-four-hour child-care centers staffed by men as well as women. But this, in my opinion, is timid if not entirely worthless as a transition. We’re talking about radical change. And though indeed it cannot come all at once, radical goals must be kept in sight at all times. Day-care centers buy women off. They ease the immediate pressure without asking why that pressure is one women. (p. 233)

In addition to 24-hour child-care centers, Firestone argues that the logical way to “free women from their biology” is to develop artificial wombs and to have a universal basic income for all people, including children. What makes the later more radical than welfare is that it would allow us to live independent of the adult/child cultural family unit. This would mean that mothers and fathers would not be subject to governmentality of responsibility for raising their children, and that many children more children, perhaps most, would grow up in child-care centers and adolescent dorms.

1) children raised in 24-hour child-care centers and adolescent dorms available every day until the child reaches an age considered mature, say 16.

2) artificial wombs

3) it is the responsibility of the state or some group contractual unit to raise children, parents have no responsibility to biology

4) children are able to live independent of their parents if they choose

Which of these would be beneficial to society? If any?

In Kirinyaga, Mike Resnick writes of a future where an African scholar, concerned that  neoliberal hegemony has nearly destroyed the cultural integrity of his race/nation, builds a mini-African savannah inside an orbiting asteroid and then “colonizes” that space with a group of black African volunteers who have only known the lifeworld of urban poverty. The protagonist takes on the role of the wise witch-doctor/mentor and, over two generations, teaches the colony a traditional way of living, a strategy which proves sustainable and nearly self-sufficient. However, the program is not without problems. First, he runs into conflict with the white technicians visiting the colony when he kills an infant who is born feet first. He explains that, according to tradition, a child born feet first is a demon and therefore must be destroyed. He argues that this is the authentic and irreducible way of his people and their culture is an intricate web of customs and values which tie them to each other and to the delicate balance of the landscape (which is also a space station). In another incident, a girl comes to him and asks that she be allowed to learn to read. He tells her that girls do not receive an education by custom because if they did, they might want to leave and that would threaten the delicate balance of tribal life. Reading is not important to her role and responsibilities in the community, and if she does feel discontented she has no where to go, there is no escape from village life and no room or resources for an alternative community.

In Resnick’s book, the patriarch of the village, who has both knowledgeable of his people’s traditions and several degrees from western universities, practices biopolitics at both ends of the spectrum.

How does precariousness of the colony’s situation, both their existence in Africa and their existence on the space station, impact the ethics of his bioethics? If at all.

Foucault did not know about global climate change and saw only the beginnings of neoliberalism. Therefore, we do not know the extent of his loyalty to anarchism. Still, I will assume this is a non-Foucauldian questions: What are we willing to accept/give up in order to stop, or at least survive, the slow motion train wreck of capitalist development and global climate crisis?

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