CS410(B) - North American Cultural Studies - March 11, 2002

Week 9: Canadian Cultural Studies

(with emphasis on Hal Niedzviecki and "cyborg" case study)


. this Wednesday's class features our guest speaker, Hal Niedzviecki, the collaborator on the book Cyborg with Professor Steve Mann, and a major young cultural critic and novelist in his own right

. the class is held in the Paul Martin Centre at our usual time, and is then followed by a screening of the documentary about Steve Mann called "Cyberman" at the Princess that same Wednesday evening at 7 pm

. if you can't make the film, it is being premiered on the CBC the night before - Tues. March 12 at 8 pm on the CBC's "The Nature of Things"

. during office hours on Wednesday (10-11:30), I'll be handing out tickets to anyone who wishes to come to the film (we've bought 40 for the CS program, and 20 of these are reserved to students in CS410)

. I've marked roughly half the papers, and hope to have the remainder in my cardboard box outside my office Tuesday and into Wednesday morning; please look there for your paper


. medium theory and the Toronto School

. lifestyle culture

. cyborg

. poststructuralism

. Reflectionism

1. Canadian Cultural Studies: An Overview

. we can speak of three major phases in the history of Canadian cultural criticism

(i) nationalist criticism (late 19th century to 1970s)

. this begins in the late 19th century with nationalist movements like the "Canada First" movement, the attempts to establish a Canadian media system in the 1920s and 30s led by Graham and Irene Spry, John Grierson, and others, and concludes with the nationalist writings of such major authors as Margaret Atwood (Survival), Al Purdy, Mel Hurtig and others in the 1960s and 70s

(ii) the Toronto School (1950s-70s)

. this is the name given to the media and cultural criticism done collectively by Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, and George Grant in the 1950s-70s

. while it overlaps and in some ways supports the nationalist phase importantly (e.g., George Grant's famous Lament for a Nation), it also speaks to issues and events (e.g., Gutenberg's press and McLuhan) that transcend national considerations

. the Toronto School is organized especially around the precepts of what is now called "medium theory" (the recognition that the medium, not the message, is what shapes history, culture, identity, etc.)

. the Toronto School establishes a name for Canada as home to cultural criticism that is especially interested in the theme of technology and culture

(iii) the post-nationalist generation after the Toronto School (1970s-today)

. there have been a number of media and cultural critics of note that began publishing as the Toronto School ended, or that have emerged since

. there is no obvious coherence or sense of project among them yet, though they balance a passion for Canada with a political and theoretical sophistication that recognizes that the older forms of nationalism (i.e., an independent Canada) are less important than ensuring a just and better world

. their names are among the most important and recognizable in Canada media: Mark Kingwell, Naomi Klein, Hal Niedzviecki, Jim Munroe, Brian Fawcett, Bruce Power, Ishad Manji, Rick Salutin, Myrna Kostash, John Ralston Saul, and many more

2. Hal Niedzviecki: Key Theorist in Canadian Cultural Studies

Hal Niedzviecki

(a) introduction to Hal Niedzviecki

. Hal Niedzviecki is one of the youngest and best known of the recent generation of culture critics in Canada to emerge since the "Toronto" School of McLuhan, Innis, and Grant

. he was born in the early 1970s, and with the recent publication of a novel (Ditch) and a book of non-fiction cultural criticism about the human cyborg, Steve Mann, has come into his own as a major figure

. Hal Niedzviecki is co-editor and founder of Broken Pencil magazine, the guide to independent culture in Canada

. he is also co-organizer of Canzine, the annual festival of alternative publications in Canada

. he is editor of Concrete Forest, an anthology of urban Canadian fiction (McClelland & Stewart, Spring 1998)

. his stories have appeared in many periodicals in Canada, the US and the UK, including The Quarterly, The New Quarterly, Blood & Aphorisms, Black Cat 115, Uno Mas, Sub-terrain and Cimmaron Review

. he is a correspondent for Brave New Waves (CBC Radio 2) and a columnist for Exclaim!, Canada's monthly national indie music newspaper

(b) Hal Niedzviecki and his general philosophy with respect to popular culture

From "This Sucks! Change it!" Toward a Lifestyle Culture." We Want Some Too: Underground Desire and the Reinvention of Mass Culture. Toronto: Penguin, 2000.

. a note on nomenclature: Hal uses the terms "mass culture," "popular culture," and "lifestyle culture" interchangeably

. "lifestyle culture" is his term to describe what he feels is an important transformation in the very nature of popular culture, i.e., popular culture's movement from the periphery to the centre of society, and its subsequent marginalization of those things that were formerly central - tradition, religion, family, etc.

. hence "lifestyle culture" is just popular culture in the form it's taken as it's moved from the margins to the centre of society in the late 20th century

i. the generation gap and cultural criticism

. Niedzviecki (hereafter N.) argues that there is a generation gap among cultural critics- a gap defined in terms of the opposition between critics who were born in the baby boom (1946-1966) and those born after (Generation Y, defined roughly as those born between 1966 and 1986)

. baby boom-era cultural critics tend to see popular culture (including media) as a negative phenomenon that addresses the lowest common denominator, "dumbs down the culture," is primarily concerned with profit, and reduces or eliminates political dissent

. this boomer view of culture derives ultimately from the Frankfurt School, a German tradition in media and cultural criticism that was born in the 1920s-30s, is associated with major figures such as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Walter Benjamin, and was significantly opposed to media and popular culture

. the Frankfurt School position also influenced key elements in American cultural criticism, especially that of the 1950s and the work of Dwight MacDonald (sometimes called "mass culture criticism")

. the Frankfurt School was correct in arguing that "aesthetic autonomy" (the freedom to create art and culture) is as important as economic or political autonomy (i.e., the freedom to control our work, to have influence over how we are governed, etc.), and it is this commitment of theirs to aesthetic freedom that provides an opening for cultural studies

. the new generation of cultural critics - among which Hal, born in the 1970s, would count himself - is more positive and accommodating as popular culture, arguing that (like it or not) we cannot reject popular culture because popular culture is what we are

. the new generation of cultural critics has embraced cultural studies, as has Hal

. indeed cultural studies's very existence is a recognition of the new centrality of popular culture, and of the need to take popular culture seriously (by giving it high-powered philosophical tools such as we learn about in CS410)

ii. lifestyle culture

. "lifestyle culture" is the term that Hal gives to popular culture in order to recognize its transformation from an insignificant source of entertainment and diversion to something that is now central to our lives, having displaced religion, tradition, high culture, family, and other historic sources of cultural meaning

definition of lifestyle culture (p. 22)

"Lifestyle culture isn't just watching a lot of TV; it's a new way of understanding TV, and all the other manifestations of an impersonal world. What we do in lifestyle culture is simple: we make the stuff that isn't supposed to matter... matter. We give that stuff prominence in our lives. We elevate the meaningless because we have grown up believing, being taught, that through mass culture we can find meaning."

. for the sake of consistency, we'll use the more familiar term "popular culture" in reference to what Hal is discussing here (instead of "lifestyle culture")

. popular culture is for Hal neither good nor bad - he doesn't attempt a moral analysis - but does have a number of features

features of contemporary popular culture

iii. the need for popular participation in popular culture

. a key component of this newly important popular culture is our creative participation in it

. that is, we need to take up the texts and products we are given in popular culture, and refashion them so as to make them reflect our own meanings

. this is done through many means: zines, independent film, theatre, etc., such as practised in Hal's own work with zines

. the culture industries act to establish standards by which we judge what is good popular culture, and this paralyzes many people who believe that their drawings can never be as good as Disney's, or their jokes as funny as Seinfeld's

. the usefulness of popular culture as something we can do "bricolage" on is due in part to the fact that popular culture is endlessly recyclable (e.g., old TV shows made into movies, cable channels endlessly replaying favourite old shows, trivia games, etc.)

. in a world with little of the cultural coherence that Arnold and the Leavises hoped for, all meanings are now in play and up for grabs, and this terrible freedom represents our greatest hope and despair all in one

3. Cyborgs: Case Study in American and Canadian Cultural Studies

From Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," from Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.

. we can best appreciate the work of Hal Niedzviecki (in his collaboration with Steve Mann)in the context of the work of American cultural studies that has most famously dealt with the problem of the cyborg, Donna Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto"

. Donna Haraway is a feminist historian of science at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and her essay "A Cyborg Manifesto" may be the single most famous article on information technology in media and cultural studies

cover of Haraway's book, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature

a. poststructuralism and Haraway's cultural criticism

. Haraway is associated with a body of theory called "poststructuralism", which is concerned to criticize the ways in which we have historically organized our culture into systems of classification and meaning

. poststructuralism can be best described as a body of theory developed to help us make sense of the postmodern culture many believe we live in today

. major scholars associated with poststructuralism include Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Jean Baudrillard, Judith Butler, and Donna Haraway

. their basic working premise is that reality is in fact a form of language, an extension of the words, pictures and other forms of language that we use every day

. that is, the world we live in, and the way we generate that world through language, can be understood according to the rules and premises are linguistic in nature

. at bottom, then, we are arguing that the world is "socially constructed" through use of language

. we do not merely receive the world and its meanings from God or elsewhere, but that it is made up by human beings as they impose meaning on the world

. this view of reality as language comes from a theoretical tradition in communication studies called structuralism, or as you may know it better in its applied form, semiotics

. poststructuralism is a tradition that comes after (hence "post") structuralism, and is uncomfortable with the tidy way in which semiotics organizes the world into orderly, binary categories

. poststructuralism also believes that the world as we experience it is fundamentally linguistic in nature, but that the categories which semiotics has described are oppressive to us, and by no means as orderly or as binary as we have been led to believe

. that is, reality as we experience it is much messier than semiotics allows, and any number of the associations or relationships between categories are real problem areas in the culture

. one such major problem area in Western society historically has been the association of women with nature, and men with culture (and therein, technology, politics, economics, etc.)

. the identification of women with nature goes back for centuries, but we can hear it when we make reference to "mother nature", or consider women as natural child care givers, or more emotional than men, or as "leaky bodies" (through menstruation, childbirth, etc.) exposed to natural forces

. poststructuralism argues that the woman as nature/men as culture association is one of many binary oppositions on which society has historically been built

. Haraway's concern is to examine how technology - notably cybernetic or information technologies like computers - tear down categories on which our culture has historically been constructed, notably the identification of women with nature, and men with culture/technology

b. "A Cyborg Manifesto"

Haraway's thesis:

In a cybernetic world where we can no longer distinguish between ourselves and our information technologies, we are all half-human, half-machine cyborgs. The cybernetic world breaks down and dissolves many of the fundamental "categories" (semiotic paradigms) upon which Western society has been constructed, and in so doing makes possible a dramatically new form of politics and economy. Though this has potentially negative consequences for ourselves, our politics and economies, the cyborg is also a metaphor for our creative and politically empowered survival into the future.

(i) what is the cyborg?

. in the modern world, the normal conception of the human individual is defined in terms of our separation from animal and machine; we are integrated, whole, and essentially human "liberal modern subjects"

. Haraway argues that postmodern world of today is no longer so neat or orderly, nor does it support such a clean, wholesome and integrated model of the self

. we are deeply interpenetrated by technologies - just think of everyone you see now walking down the street with a cellular telephone to their ear - and this means that the modern liberal separated subject is no longer feasible

. cyborgs in our midst; think about the abundance of cyborgs in mass culture today: e.g. of Star Trek's The Next Generation Borgs, Robocop, the Terminator, the replicants from the movie Bladerunner, characters in much science fiction, including William Gibson's cyberpunk novels; note that "cyborgs" are not merely robots (i.e., mere machines) but are hybrid composites of human and machine components

. apart from their entertainment value, why are cyborgs so popular as characters in mass culture?

. because they are metaphors for ourselves as we survive in an increasingly technological world; in short, then, we are all cyborgs

. Haraway (hereafter H.) first defines her terms: what she means by "cyborgs":

. cyborgs are "a cybernetic mechanism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality, as well as a creature of fiction" (p. 149)

(ii) cyborgs and cybernetics

. the origins of the word "cyborg" (its "etymology" or word-history, as we'd say) is in Greek kubernetes (meaning steersman)

. computers (particularly as we connect them to telephone lines and satellites, creating computer-mediated communications) are different from any other previous technology in that they are not merely neutral extensions of our limbs or senses (e.g., like a shovel is an extension of our hand or a camera our eye), but that because they learn and interact with the user in a "feedback" relationship, they become a part of our bodies and our minds

. given the impact of computers and computer-mediated communications, the world we thought we lived in--static, passive, radically removed from us in rigid subject/object distinction--is in some ways active and literally a part of us, and the subject/object relationship is broken down in computer interaction even as Einstein's physics (arguing that time and space were relative) proved the universe's changeability at the cosmological level

. Haraway is interested in the nature of the "cybernetic" and conducting a poststructuralist analysis of the world, arguing that computer-mediated communications mean that the traditional categories Western culture has been made out of are challenged by the "feedback" mechanism

. in this light, Haraway writes:

"Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines."

(iii) cyborgs and structuralism

. her use of semiotic vocabulary is readily apparent from her reference to the different categories of reality (e.g., nature/culture, human/machine, physical/non-physical) and her concern to bring to the cybernetic future a new cyborg mythology

. the "cyborg" represents to Haraway a way to act in a world in which many of the historical categories by which we defined human understanding of the world (i.e., epistemology) are breaking down

. these systems of reality construction and classification - this language by which we speak the world into existence - are breaking down because of the way information technologies we use to understand the world change us and the way we interact with the world

. the cyborg, then, offers a new political mythology--a new way of talking about being political in a world constituted by communication technologies

. the cyborg also rejects the different myths of human origin that Marxism, Christianity and psychoanalysis among others offer us; the cyborg rejects that primitive communism, the Garden of Eden, or perfect psychic connection with mother, mythologically speaking, was ever possible

(iv) cyborgs and the cultural or "semiotic" categories they challenge

. her essay is peppered with reference to categories, but three (organized as they typically are in binary oppositions) are crucial:

a. nature and culture

b. humans and machines

c. physical and non-physical (i.e., between material world and energy, consciousness, culture)

. the cyborg, by definition, represents the breakdown of these three fundamental organizing principles in human history by crossing or transgressing all three

. these organizing principles, in Haraway's 's view, have been the foundation for ideologies and structures in human history that have often been oppressive, particularly to the most vulnerable members of Western society, i.e., women and people of colour; on these terms, then, H. bills her essay a "socialist-feminist" one

. to flesh out (pun intended) our understanding of the cyborg, we'll take each of these cultural organizing principles, and some of the implications for both human oppression and liberation in turn:

(one) nature/culture (phrased in H. also as animal/human)

. in a society where you go to Disney to be photographed standing beside anthropomorphic animals (Mickey, Daffy, Daisy), or in which transplant patients are fitted with baboon hearts, the historical distinction between nature and culture, animal/vegetable/mineral and human begins to dissolve

. information technologies increase greatly our ability to control nature; e.g., bioengineering, creation of artificial environments like Biosphere project in U.S., new reproductive technologies (e.g., in vitro fertilization); but this has some scary, Frankenstein features to it

. however, the nature/culture paradigms have been important at a deeper level culturally

. that is, our radical separation from nature made reckless pollution and destruction of the environment intellectually possible

. also, according to Haraway, women have typically been associated with "nature", and suffered from male power defined in terms of keeping women's nature in check; e.g., historically arguments that women are emotionally unfit for world of rational public discourse and work; that women are appropriately defined in terms of their natural roles and their reproductive systems as "mother" and "wife"

. as new information technologies break down the nature/culture paradigms, women and men can challenge the age-old identification of women with nature and men with culture

(two) human/machine

. historically, we recognized a more or less absolute distinction between ourselves and the machines we created, be it a stone tool or a Mercedes Benz

. even robots and automata, being purely mechanical objects that mimic human action (e.g. screw bolts into a car's frame, or make toy watches in the Toffler video example), are still separate

. however, as noted above and elsewhere, cybernetic technologies--of which the computer is the principal example, particularly as it's connected to communication networks--make that absolute distinction no longer viable

. information technologies represent a real threat, in terms of how they in Orwellian terms enhance potential for political control; e.g. government and big business computers that collect information about us, electronic eavesdropping, office and shop floor technologies that regulate our labour

. we are repulsed by the image of the cyborg (think of the Borgs in Star Trek: The Next Generation, as the Federation's enemy)

. yet in order to take advantage of the fact of our dependence on information technologies, we must leave behind our anti-technological prejudices, and make use of these technologies for their potential to also liberate us politically, e.g. cyberpunk, hackers, democratic possibility in anarchic character of Internet

(three) physical/non-physical

. the physical universe becomes much more fluid and flexible as our computer-assisted interaction--our wired-in experience--develops

. consciousness, culture and energy sources get mingled in the material world much more readily, and conventional binary distinction between subject (you) and object (the world) breaks down; e.g. your mind and computer working together

. your ability to communicate with people on the other side of the world in real time; your mingling your identity with others in cyberspace of a MUD

. Haraway writes of this two-sided character of cybernetic technology, i.e., its negative and positive potential for political change (p. 154):

"The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point. Single vision produces worse illusions than double vision or many-headed monsters. Cyborg unities are monstrous and illegitimate; in our present political circumstances, we could hardly hope for more potent myths for resistance and recoupling."

4. Steve Mann and Hal Niedzviecki, "Reinventing the Cyborg"

From Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer

cover of Cyborg (book written by Steve Mann, with Hal Niedzviecki's assistance)

a. who is Steve Mann?

. Steve Mann is a University of Toronto electrical and computer engineering professor who has been experimenting with computing technologies he has invented and worn on his body since the late 1970s

. Steve Mann is perhaps the most advanced example of a real "cyborg" alive today, and his book combines autobiography and cultural criticism with respect to technology, culture, and identity

. he situates his experiments in the context of a culture (since the 1970s) that has increasingly become interested in and comfortable with the idea of identities being malleable, fluid, and hybrid in nature, such as the cyborg is

b. confronting the corporate technological environment

. Mann establishes two poles in the context of which we engage the relationship of human identity to technology

. these two poles are cyborg envy (where we feel imperfect and with to have the perfection of the machine, e.g., our dream of having our consciousness uploaded to a cyborg body so that we might leave forever) and cyborg fear (where we have a visceral fear and loathing of technology as it is married to flesh, e.g., our reaction to the Star Trek villain "Borg")

. both cyborg envy and cyborg fear arise from a failure to establish an appropriate relationship with technology in our culture

. this wrong relationship with technology is the product of how technology and its representation in culture has been monopolized by state and corporate power

. the result of technology and its cultural meaning being controlled by state and corporate definitions of technology is that we respond to technology in irrational and extreme ways - by envying and idealizing it or by fearing it

. Mann is concerned through his experiments, his performance art, and his political challenges in malls, department stores, casinos, etc. to oppose what he believes to be the corporate appropriation of technology in the form of surveillance, and the mystification of technology as something that supposedly can only be controlled by experts

. he models in his work with wearable computers of his own design a more humane and creative response to technology - while acknowledging how bizarre his own experiments may seem

c. cyborgs and popular culture

. the cyborg is a much older identity than the current fascination with it in popular culture suggests

. at the point where the first person put on eyeglasses, a wooden leg, a wrist watch, or clothing, we began to take on a cyborg identity that has only recently become apparent to us in the culture

. the fascination with cyborgs in popular culture, the fashion world, cyberpunk fiction, etc. is a problem insofar as it consigns the cyborg to the realm of exotic, otherworldly characters like the Borg, Robocop, or the Terminator, rather than acknowledging that cyborgs are alive and present among us today

. that is, we are all cyborgs - and Mann is simply a more self-conscious and advanced form of what we are, with our cyborg technologies like cell phones, Walkmen, personal digital assistants like Palm Pilots, etc.

. the popular cultural representation of cyborgs tends to represent them as tormented beings caught between humanity and technology (e.g., Robocop), and emphasizes their strangeness (at the expense thereby of addressing their normality, since they are in fact metaphors for our own ordinary cyborg lives in a high tech world)

. Mann is trying to reclaim the cyborg as something that is not a creature of science fiction, but something that we are all in some sense a part

d. Reflectionism

Steve Mann's "Please Wait" reflectionist costume

. Reflectionism is the name Mann gives to his theoretical perspective with respect to confronting the techno-corporate order with his cyborg self

. by Reflectionism Mann means his practice of holding himself up as a mirror - metaphorically speaking - to society, and reflecting back to itself the norms and values of the state and corporate monopoly on technology and its meaning in our lives

. here he is employing the power of irony and parody to reflect back the dehumanizing absurdity of the "normal" deployment of technology in surveillance cameras in department stores, airports, etc.

. example of his "Please Wait" and "My Manager" routines in department stores

"In Reflectionism I rely on parody to hold a mirror up to technological society by creating a ludicrously nonsensical, yet very nearly symmetrical, construct of the current way we understand the relationship between technology and the body." (p. 104)

. Reflectionism borrows from early 20th century radical art movements like Dada and surrealism, and is also indebted to the 1950s and 60s cultural movement, Situationism (which we discuss in CS410 later in term)

. the cyborg is also a way to reveal the possibility of beauty in a highly artificial world, and Mann discusses later in this chapter his experiments with photography and the highlighting of the artificial in his photographic work