The Cyborg Mother: A Breached Boundary

Why not tell a story in a new way? Why not think in unfinished ways? Without fixity? Without finality? Ask questions without answers. Without presuppositions and causes and effects and linear time. Why not. Why not "whisk yourself away from your comfortable position?"[1] When we live in a world of fractured identities and broken boundaries, why not rebel against yourself, or the technologies of "yourself" and discover new ways of being? Reconcile that everything is being shattered. Identity is being shattered and technology is picking up the pieces, and there stands before us an infinitude of recombinant possibility. Rewriting history becomes possible:

"The time of history passes through the stories of individuals: their birth, their experience..."[2]

The birth of my daughter:

Aleah Quinn Smith-Windsor
born: January 31st, 2003

A few days after Quinn was born, this quote appeared, written beside her incubator:

"Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers, grow, grow." Anon.

It was a near-fatal birth. Quinn was born at twenty-four and a half weeks gestation, three and a half months before her due date. Her birth weight was 700 grams, about one pound and a half.

February 1, 2003 -- It is difficult to imagine such a tiny, perfect human being. Her feet are no larger than two fingernails. Her legs are about the same size as adult fingers, femurs measuring 4.5 centimeters. Her eyebrows curve like fallen eyelashes above her eyes, waiting to be wished upon.

Morphology after the birth of my daughter:

Immediately after Quinn's lungs were cleared she was incubated, stabilized and flown, with the Neonate Team, by way of helicopter ambulance, to the Special Care Nursery at the British Columbia Children's Hospital in Vancouver. We got to see her for a minute, tangled beneath the cords of her life support machines.

February 2, 2003 -- A pump pushes breast milk down her throat, through a tube that goes into her belly. Sixty-five breaths per minute are administered by a Drager 2000 Ventilator. She receives extra nutrition through an artificial umbilical line, blood-products and medications through an Intra Venous. Electrodes cover her body, measure her breaths and heart beats, her temperature, oxygen saturation and blood pressure.

Motherhood -- a Breached Boundary:
A Critical Questioning of Who is Mother in Cyborg Culture?

My daughter's birth was a post-human, cyborg moment. She became cyborg, "the illegitimate child of the twentieth-century technological dynamo -- part human, part machine, never completely either."[3] Using this moment to grapple with the concept and implications of cyborg culture reveals some important questions about the amalgamation between the technological and the biological, and "not just in the banal meat-meets-metal sense."[4] Breaching the bio-techno boundary forces an engagement with "new and complex understandings of 'life', consciousness, and the distinction (or lack of distinction) between the biological and the technological."[5] Becoming cyborg is about the simultaneous externalization of the nervous system and internalization of the machine. Thus symbiosis of human and machine makes possible the genesis of the cyborg consciousness. Ultimately, the breached boundary of the human body is a diasporatic phenomenon: the dispersion of an originally homogeneous entity (the body), "the diasporas of the human condition into several mutually incomprehensible languages."[6]

Becoming cyborg is a consciousness that is embedded within the notion of diasporas. To confront the interface between human and machine is to confront cyborg consciousness. The interface is the matriarch of cyborg culture, assuming, "a unified role: a means of communication and reproduction; carrier and weaver; machine assemblage in the service of the species; a general purpose system of simulation."[7] Technology displaces motherhood, with "her inexhaustible aptitude for mimicry" which makes her "the living foundation for the whole staging of the world". Being cyborg means that infancy without motherhood is possible. Before the displacement of motherhood by technology can be imagined, however, it is first necessary to explore the relationship between mother and child. Within the dual relationship transference between mother and child, according to Julia Kristeva, it is possible "to posit as "object" of analysis, not "childhood language", but rather an infantile language."[8] Before literate language begins to encode the identity of the infant, and prior to the moment where the mirror introduces the paradoxical representation of reality, the infant and the mother exist within a symbiotic relationship defined by two basic principles: the need to nurture and the nurture of need. The mother-child symbiosis provides the necessary relationship for infantile language to be communicated. The infant is incapable of distinguishing between "sameness" and "otherness", between "subject" and "object", between itself and the mother.[9] The infantile language means that infants are not capable of imagining themselves autonomous of the Mother. But what if this symbiotic relationship between mother and child were interrupted? What happens when technology begins to work itself into the infantile discourse, severing the symbiosis between mother and child? What happens when the infant, instead becomes incapable of distinguishing between itself and the machine? These are the questions posed by the biological mother of a cyborg. This is the genesis of a cyborg. It begins in pre-literacy, when the child engages in an infantile language with the machine, and not, the mother.

According to Julia Kristeva, "love replaces narcissism in a third person that is external to the act of discursive communication."[10] Love between humans, thus, becomes invested in a third party. What happens then, in cyborg culture, when that "third party" is not a person at all, but a machine -- a ventilator, an incubator, a monitor. Technology separates the dialectic relationship between mother and child, mediating the relations between them. In the production of artificial means to life, is the machine capable of simulating love? Is the cyborg capable of love? Or is it merely consuming?

March 30, 2003 -- Quinn has been fighting with her ventilator. She's tries to tug it out of her throat, but it's glued to her skin. To stop her from wrestling, the doctor drugged her with addictive sedatives and paralyzed her so she can't move, so the ventilator can fully take over her body. How can such violence give life? So, I read her a story by Dr. Seuss about really small people called Whos... At the sound of my voice, she opened her eyes for a minute. That's not supposed to happen. I was asked to leave. I was disrupting the machine.

Living within a mediated body means that rituals of being are also written by technology. Technology is mimesis, the capability of imitating the human condition with such exactitude that it has become synonymous with the skin, the flesh, the vital organs of human bodies. Artificial life becomes the performance of real life. Distinguishing between skin from machine, thus becomes difficult.

February 8, 2003 -- There is a scab on her chest where the nurse pulled the electrode off her skin, and with it, came most of the right nipple.

What are the implications of this violent symbiosis? Becoming cyborg implicates the human condition with the eternal mediation of the human experience, the eternal return of the machine. The human condition becomes the media itself. The cyborg consciousness becomes, like the clear glass of the incubator, an invisible interface through which everything is mediated -- the environment, the experience of living, the means to communicate, the way of "knowing." The relationship between mother and child itself is mediated by technology. Technology interrupts the relation, intercepts the exchange of nurturing and needing of the infantile language. The Mother becomes redundant: technology becomes the external womb.

Within the discourse of cyber-feminism, the externalized, technological womb begins to make sense: "in Latin, it is matrix, or matter, both the mother and the material."[11] Technology has become both the mother and the matter of the consciousness, the medium through which the need to nurture and the nurture of need are fulfilled. The cyborg is thus born through this virtual non-space, this womb of machinic consciousness. Within the technological womb, human bodies and human consciousness becomes "cy-dough-plasma" -- malleable matter, without fixed form.[12]

February 27, 2003 -- ...I'm a little confused about her ears. They're pliable. Lacking cartilage at this stage of development often finds them in crumples of folded-over flesh. They require frequent re-positioning and remolding so they don't get all folded up like fortune cookies. I try not to play with them too much...but, it's not like you can rationalize with her yet... "don't crumple up your ears dear...".

Externalizing the womb subjects the unformed body to manipulation. The consciousness, like the fetal body, becomes the art of the machine. Bodies and consciousness are remixed. What we perceive to be the body often becomes distorted in the engineering of cyborg.

February 3, 2003 -- It was as if her delicate features had been rearranged to make room for equipment. Somehow, her perfect nose was in the way of the Ventilator, so they moved it off to the side. The machines rearrange the perfection of her body.

Just as in Julia Kristeva's infantile language, there is no easy way to distinguish between the child and the simulated techno-Mother. The machine and the baby become symbiotic. "Sameness" governs the relationship between the baby and the machine. Their sameness means that they're mutually dependent on each other in order for life to continue.

Technology is capable of simulating vital signs, of supporting life, of becoming Mother. The child of the techno-Mother is essentially, a virtual body. A simulation of vital signs that becomes internalized. The ventilator simulates Quinn's breathing, supporting her life through mimicry. Through the perfect simulation of breathing, the ritual of life goes forward. In cyborg culture, the lines between simulation and reality are blurred into irrelevancy. The cyborg is the interface between simulation and reality, where the simulacra becomes capable of living. Her body, "redesigned by means of life-support machines and prosthetic organs."[13]

Thus, infancy has become disembodied from the biological Mother and goes forward unmanned, like the Predator Drone ñ moving forward into a machinic realm of infinite possibility.[14] What happens when the conditions of infinite possibility are governed by an inherent nihilism? The externalization of the nervous system makes possible the continuation of life, yet it is a life that is fundamentally nihilistic, eternally bound to a mediated consciousness. The ventilator simulates Quinn's breathing, supporting her life through mimicry. Through the perfect simulation of breathing, the ritual of life goes forward. In cyborg culture, the lines between simulation and reality are blurred into irrelevancy. The cyborg becomes the interface between simulation and reality, where the simulacra becomes capable of living. The body is "redesigned by means of life-support machines and prosthetic organs."[15] The body is breached, becomes cyborg, a recombinant fusion of technological and biological traffic. What is internal and external to the virtually dead body becomes confused.

March 1, 2003 -- I want to love and hate the machine that breathes for her. Ventilation is a Catch-22. Ventilation turns the fragile tissues and muscles that are used for breathing and exchanging oxygen into scars. "As long as her lungs develop faster than the ventilator damages them, we win," says Dr. T. She is getting chest X-rays almost daily now. In her X-rays, her lungs are clouded-over with white. Her little lungs fill with fluid that has to be suctioned out almost every two hours in order for her to get the proper amount of oxygen into her blood. We've had a serious heart to heart, recently. I used the "stern mother voice" for the first time to tell her that she is not allowed to take her ventilator to kindergarten with her.

The relationship between machine and body cannot sustain life endlessly. One must eventually overtake the other in order for life to continue. Through the body, the machine performs the dichotomy of living and killing, life and death. It gives life only to overtake it. The technology that sustains life is ultimately nihilistic. What happens faster is vital -- the ability to outgrow the machine, or the damage inflicted by the machine itself. This is a profound statement about the morphology of humans and machines. To become cyborg is to commit a slow-suicide. Ultimately, it is the nihilation of the human body, of autonomous human consciousness. This is the paradox of modernity, manifest in rituals of living.

Just as technology is capable of simulating rituals of living, becoming cyborg affects the rituals of dying. Technology has intervened and institutionalized the right/rite of death. Even after the body expires, the machines keep going. It is not until they are turned off that the body is pronounced "dead." Being cyborg means that death is experienced in a new way. Is it possible to be absent in death ñ a redundant body in the machinic performance of consciousness?

February 14 -- I hold my child for the first time. She is naked, against my chest. Her ventilator curls around my neck, taped to my shoulder, disappears inside her. There are other tubes, too, taped to my other limbs by peach colored surgical tape. Beside me, another mother's baby dies. Another baby dies. The respiratory technician yells : "NO CPR" from across the nursery. He crosses the room, switches off the machines ñ ventilator, incubator, monitor, eight intravenous pumps of miscellaneous medical poisons. The life inside the machine, refuses to go on without them. And I am taped to a rubberized rocking chair, taped to my baby, taped to the machine. I cannot leave when another baby's mother comes in.

The nihilism of becoming cyborg is inescapable. We are taped down to our own inherent nihilism. In cyborg culture, nihilism becomes synonymous with death. When a cyborg dies, the announcement of death waits for the machine to be switched off. The simulation of life continues even in the absence of physical being. When a cyborg dies, it is only because the human body has failed the perfect simulation of life by the machine. Death is ambivalent to physical being, the body becomes almost irrelevant. The machinic simulation of "being human" can continue to exist in the absence of a body, but the body cannot continue in the absence of the machine. In death, the human body seemingly fails the machine. This is what Jacques Derrida calls, the logocentric moment where one technology of knowing is privileged over the other and infinite other historicities of being are forgotten. What happens if someone fails to turn off the machine? Is it possible that the cyborg can forget to die? Can machinic consciousness simply be switched off? It is the moment where we forget to be merely human, that the machine takes over the mother, the technology takes over the consciousness. Thus, becoming cyborg becomes a meta-narrative, totalizing and privileging only one point of view -- the technological gaze. The internalization of the technological gaze it the most important political moment in becoming cyborg.

The internalization of the machine is the moment when the human condition becomes invisibly mediated by technology. It is the moment where technology and knowing become bound within perception. Thus, becoming cyborg is not merely a physical condition. It is a condition of being mediated by technology.

February 26, 2003 -- ... I look to the machines and they tell me how my daughter is doing today. How easy it is to look at the monitor that tells me, "she has the hiccups, she's sleeping, she's not breathing- not yet". The machines talk to me and I understand what Quinn cannot yet tell me. The machines tell me what she cannot communicate. Quinn is having a "terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day"... [16]

The incorporation of the machinic interface into the language of perception witnesses the internalization of what Michel Foucault calls, panopticism.[17] Panopticism goes beyond physical architecture. Being cyborg reifies the repressive technologies of the panoptical illusion. To reify the panopticon, thus, inherently denies the possibility that there are ways of being, beyond the cyborg experience. I saw the displacement of my own motherhood by the machine. I could understand my daughter in and through the machinic interface. In this moment, I too, was written into the meta-narrative of the cyborg consciousness, my perception of the human condition filtered through the technological gaze.

Exposing the womb, digesting machinic consciousness, monitoring the human body, locating motherhood outside of the mother/child symbiosis. These are technologies of becoming cyborg that go beyond the physical imagery. These are technologies of surveillance that are internalized, that operate in and through the cyborg. Ultimately means that when the machine is shut off, cyborg life continues to occupy the human condition through consciousness, subconsciousness, perception.

April 10 -- After 69 days on a ventilator, the tube was finally pulled. My little Quinnapottamus now breathes her own breaths. I guess our little talk about "no ventilators in kindergarten" made sense to her and she has decided to hold her own. It was amazing to watch her take her first breaths after they pulled the tube, to hear the resigned sigh of the ventilator when it was shut off. The lines on the monitor, flat-lining. The sound of her crying, her voice rising through bruised vocal chords for the first time, met my ears and was strangely comforting.

The cyborg does not die because it is unplugged. The cyborg continues to exist beyond all locations of space and time, the consciousness irreversibly fused with technology. Becoming cyborg necessitates the sublimation of the mind. Becoming cyborg, internalizing the panopticon allows for cultivation of human life in and for state sovereignty. To become cyborg is to be harvested by the state and for the state. Like my daughter, paralyzed for wrestling with her machines, internalizing the panopticon is paralyzing. Internalizing the panopticon makes it impossible for the body to perform outside of technology. Ultimately, cyborg culture is written within the context of state sovereignty. The body performs sovereignty. The making of cyborg bodies is simply that ñ the epistemic branding of the state on the bodies and the minds of the subordinate citizenry. The making of cyborg bodies is simply panopticism, the ingestion of the statist technology. It is about exposure, about making visible each privacy of the human body for the purposes of controlling individual life. It is about technology becoming invisible, "seeing-without-being-seen."[18] The architecture of Foucault's panopticon, like the genesis of one cyborg, is both a physical and an epistemic incorporation of a centralizing, homogenizing structure of being that becomes the subject of scrutiny, both collectively and individually, by an observer in the "tower" who remains unseen. The panoptical cyborg is both the subject and object of scrutiny, both the "tower" of observation and the observed subject. The internalization of the panopticon is self-scrutiny. Ultimately, the cyborg becomes the technological furniture upon which state sovereignty lounges.

Panoticism becomes manifest in the minds of the everyday cyborg-citizen. Suddenly, a story about a neonate baby is less about medicine and miracles and more about what remains hidden and unarticulated ñ the repressive technology of being bound to cyborg consciousness. Discovering the panopticon within exposes a thinly disguised operation of sovereigntist power. Cyborgs do not write themselves, technology does. The fusion of machine and body is the manifestation of the panopticon, the eternal reification of a bounded human identity.[19] The hospital serves as an architecture for enacting these power relations, creating enormous houses of confinement. This same technology operates in and through institutions of education, religion, politics. The ultimate confinement of the human condition is simply this: the internalization of the panoptical technology means that humanity can never imagine being autonomous. The cyborg becomes a venue for confinement. Thus, the panopticon of cyborg culture confines the human condition within a symbiosis of machine and body. Symbiosis with machine (whether machinic consciousness or machinic matter) becomes the precondition to living itself. To locate "being" outside of technology becomes an impossibility. Ultimately, it reduces the human body to a specific mechanics, a site of micro-physics, a docile and useful being. Becoming cyborg is ultimately about the sublimation of the human identity and the political imaginary.

This critical examination of cyborg culture is by no means aimed to discredit the technologies that taught my daughter the art of living. It does, however, highlight the implications of becoming cyborg. In a sense, all of humanity has become disembodied from the womb. The genesis of a cyborg goes well beyond the physical union of machine with body. The day I gave birth to a cyborg, I began to understand how every human has become a collaboration of machinic and biological matter. The human condition is mediated by technology. The meta-narrative of being cyborg ignores ethical questions. The machine can't ask: What would the world look like without mothers? Or, for that matter, fathers? Technology is, quire literally, beginning to rewire the way we do family, the way we know humanity. The ultimate violence of technology is its ability to generate its own invisibility, to circulate undetected in and through the physical body, to become manifest in the human consciousness as epistemic reality. Conditions of possibility other than becoming cyborg are thus, hidden from the human condition. Once technology has been internalized and operates upon us through invisible epistemes, it becomes the only way of being human. Engaging in a binary relationship with technology is merely one means of engaging with new conditions of possibility for the human condition. However, human/machine symbiosis simultaneously negates the possibility for narrative of "being in the world" and simultaneously forgets all of the moments of differentiation and deferral that work to inform the human essence.[20] Ways of being "other" than an agent of sovereignty become impossible when identity is bound to logocentric privileging of dominant discourse.[21]


[1] Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language. Columbia University Press: New York: 1980.

[2] Kristeva: 160.

[3] Kennedy, Barbara. "The 'Virtual Machine' and New Becomings in the Pre-Millenial Culture" in Bell, D. and Kennedy, B., eds. The Cybercultures Reader. Routledge: London and New York, 2000.

[4] Bell, David. "Cybercultures Reader: A User's Guide" in Bell, D. and Kennedy, B., eds. The Cybercultures Reader. Routledge: London and New York, 2000.

[5] Bell 7.

[6] Anon.

[7] Plant, Sadie. "On the Matrix: Cyberfeminist Simulations" in Bell, D. and Kennedy, B., eds. The Cybercultures Reader. Routledge: London and New York, 2000.

[8] Kristeva 278.

[9] Kristeva 284.

[10] Kristeva 279.

[11] Plant 333.

[12] Bell 8.

[13] Bell 11.

[14] Crandall, J. "Unmanned: Embedded Reporters, Predator Drones and Armed Perception":

[15] Bell 11.

[16] Viorst, Judith. "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day". Aladdin Paperbacks, New York: 1972.

[17] Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1977.

[18] Foucault 24.

[19] Magnusson, W., "The Reification of Political Community" in Walker R.B.J. and Mendlovitz. S.H., Contending Sovereignties. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder: 1990.

[20] Ashley, Richard K., "Living on Border Lines: Man, Poststructuralism, and War". Nichols Pub. Co., London and New York: 1980.

[21] Ashley 261.

Jaimie Smith-Windsor studies political science at the University of Victoria in Canada. Her academic studies are moderated by a passion for sailing, and an appreciation for the visual and written arts. Becoming a first-time mother to a special needs child provides her with a unique perspective on the relationship between contemporary technology and the maternal instinct that comes with motherhood.