Dongshin Yi, A Genealogy of Cyborgothic: Aesthetics and Ethics in the Age of Posthumanism

Posted by Neal Kirk on January 10, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , , , ,

Dongshin Yi, A Genealogy of Cyborgothic: Aesthetics and Ethics in the Age of Posthumanism. Ashgate, 2010. ISBN 978-1409400394

Reviewed by Neal Kirk, University of Lancaster

Avid science fiction readers and/or gothic enthusiasts may have cause to pause at Dongshin Yi’s conjunction of the term ‘cyborg’ and ‘gothic’ in his title. Science fiction fans surely have a connotation of the cyborg but may be surprised to have that connotation attached to the gothic. Likewise, gothic enthusiasts might have a familiarity with science and science fiction investigated in a gothic context, but are perhaps more familiar with the term ‘cybergothic’ as opposed to a gothic that involves the cyborg more specifically.

For many, assigning the term ‘cognizant’ to a machine would be the work of science fiction, a genre that often capitalizes not only on the innovations of science but its equal potential to produce the terrible. Because cyborgs so often also come to represent human manifestations of worst-case scenario fears, Yi has cause to investigate these all too gothic themes. Thus, Yi arrives at the duel generic threads that run throughout his work: the cyborg, avatar of science (fiction), and the body of scholarship that investigates manifestations of the horrific: the gothic.

Yi’s genealogy aims to include cyborgs, human like robots, in an aesthetical and representational approach that extends to them a contemporary posthumanism, a ‘future oriented’ aesthetical mode that accommodates animals, the Other, the cyborg and the non-human alike. Such a posthumanism would call for the falling-away of the often-arbitrary barriers that the human being has contrived in order to be superior to animals and by extension, cyborgs. Yet, this type of posthumanism is not one that is currently possible. The reasons that stand in its way form the substance of Yi’s book and account for his construction of a cyborgothic, and the need to investigate it as a genealogy.

While Yi notes that the most common reaction to a machine is one of fear and or subordination, he suggests this need not be the only reaction, and certainly not the dominant paradigm.  What Yi proposes instead is a re-inclusion of the importance of the beautiful in the sublime-dominated gothic, the application of a reclaimed concept of the beautiful in the theory and practice of science, and the acceptance of a universal mothering instinct that will help usher in the new era of posthumanism (and make the classification of cyborgothic redundant).

A Genealogy of Cyborgothic has a place on every Gothic, Sci-Fi, or Cyborg literature course’s secondary reading list, and the early chapters could easily enrich a student’s understanding of early ethical and aesthetic theories. Yi’s genealogy studies many of the canonical gothic texts beginning with the significance of Edmund Burke’s “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” in the works of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis, moving into Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and finally constructing a cyborgothic interpretation of Marge Piercy’s He, She and It.

The early chapters investigate how the gothic genre originated as a dialog between the Burkian notions of the sublime and beautiful, but came to be predominantly associated with the sublime. Yi argues well for a return to the importance of the beautiful ‘which will help redefine gothic literature not as a fear-mongering and-spreading genre, but as a genre that can pacify fear and cultivate affection’ (Yi, 14).  As the first step in the genealogy of the cyborgothic, Yi turns his attention to the role of attendants, particularly Annette in The Mysteries Of Udolpho. Yi identifies Annette as a ‘beautiful’ character and ‘redefines her relation to Emily, a “sublime” character, not as subservient but as affectionate.’ He asserts, ‘It is this possibility of an affectionate relationship that the gothic aesthetics of the beautiful, and Burke’s aesthetics offer us in spite/because of gothic situations’ (p 21.).  Yi’s work to return the significance of the beautiful is a refreshing interpretation of Burkian aesthetics and challenges predominant Kantian models. Having reestablished the importance of the beautiful with the sublime, Yi turns his attention to the other predominant roadblock standing in the way of a posthumanist approach to the cyborg: scientific utilitarianism compared with a humanistic science in a pragmatic society.

Yi’s investigations into John Stuart Mill’s notions of Utilitarianism offer a unique approach to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He is able to call into question the very process of scientific reasoning, proof, and findings. His aim over chapters three and four is to establish an understanding within the field of science that is prepared to see the cyborg not as a subservient tool but as an equal. ‘I will investigate,’ Yi writes,

the formation and development of the ‘richly humanistic intent,’ which becomes manifest in this age of biotechnology, so as to lay the foundation of an alternative to the polarized view of posthuman society, to help envision a society where human dignity is used not as an excuse for exploiting non-humans but as a reason for embracing them (p. 94).

While Yi’s remarks on Dracula offer the most interesting insights for scholars of the gothic, his rereading of Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith in chapter four reads like a necessary diversion from the main source of interest.

In chapter four Yi attempts to drive home the importance of women in a scientific paradigm that would be necessary to bring about the sort of posthumanism acceptance the cyborg might require. This was the least compelling chapter, but a necessary one to bring the discussion full circle, and pave the way for Yi’s final chapter, ‘The Birth of the Cyborgothic: Mothering the Cyborg in Marge Piercy’s He, She and It‘. Yi’s most passionate chapter, ‘The Birth of Cyborgothic’ is the true heart of his work because it establishes a literary genre, the cyborgothic, in preparation for an aesthetic and ethical posthumanism able to accept the cyborg.

Some of Yi’s most interesting claims come when discussing the birth of the cyborg. ‘Hopes and fears’, he writes,

some real and some imaginary, seem to engulf those having their hands on a piece of the cyborg and claiming their right to use their piece to determine parameters—sexual, racial, physical, political, cultural, intellectual, philosophical, etc.—of the cyborg. Thus, the birth of the cyborg, if it ever comes, will be heralded by clamors and skirmishes from and between these concerned humans, who, having given birth to it, demand their parental rights without assuming their parental responsibilities (p. 122).

Yi convincingly utilizes Piercy’s He, She and It to solidify his efforts in creating the genre of cyborgothic. Expertly bringing his genealogy to a close, Yi ends his work seeing the cyborgothic as the beginning of a genre that will pave the way for a posthumanist future that will allow cyborgs the opportunity to define themselves. Yi argues that the only way this will be possible is by adopting the practice of universal mothering informed by an aesthetical recalibration toward the beautiful, and an ethical feminization of the scientific in society. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is, after constructing the cyborgothic as a current genre, Yi confesses his hope that such a classification will ultimately be a literary relic. In the posthuman future Yi argues for, humans would be the ‘rightful inhabitant of the impending posthuman age, where cyborgs grow up to be equal to humans and cyborgothic becomes yet another old story’  (142).

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