Boundaries, binaries, and posthumanism

In The Manifesto for Cyborgs, Haraway (2007) argues that “we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machines and organisms” (p. 35). Haraway uses the cyborg as the metaphor for the post-war blurring of boundaries, for the disruption of the categories by which we organise: human and machine, physical and non-physical, etc.

In the excerpt in our reading by Hayles (1999), she takes on some of these ideas, encapsulating them in how she defines the ‘posthuman’. It “privileges informational pattern over material instantiation” (p. 2); it treats consciousness as “an evolutionary upstart” (p. 3), and it considers the body “the original prosthesis”. It’s an even more radical blurring of boundaries, a fracturing of identities and categories we use. The subject is now inescapably hybrid, embodied virtuality:

there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals (p. 3)

So far, so good. Boundaries blurred, binaries overcome. We are all hybrids. With the philosophy in mind, I tried (and struggled) to connect this to education and pedagogy, and I found a really useful article by Gourlay (2012). Drawing on the work of Haraway and particularly of Hayles, she points to the relationship between the lecture and the VLE as an example of the blurring of virtual and embodied boundaries in education:

the binary is blurred in the context between face-to-face and online engagement, as the context increasingly allows simultaneous engagement with networks of communities and sources of information beyond the physical walls of the university (p. 208)

Gourlay argues that the VLE displaces the lecturer’s biological body, shifting it to the side, while the lecturer’s voice is relativised by the effects of the displacement. The voice becomes one among many as the new setting of the lecture destabilises authority and singularity. What the lecturer says may be questioned, instantly, by the information to which the student has access (although this didn’t feel particularly ‘new’ to me). For the student, the relationship between the lecture and the VLE allows for greater hybridity, which Gourlay describes as “cyborg ontologies” (p. 208).

Gourlay’s focus on voice provides a way to explore sound and the extent to which sound(s) are embodied or not; this reframes, to an extent, Sterne’s chapter in Critical Cyberculture Studies where he bemoans the sidelining of sound studies in cybercultures research.

Yet Sterne’s main point is that we can use sound as a way to trouble any certainty we may have developed in our understanding of what cyberculture ‘is’. One of the ways in which he uses sound is as a way to upset the status quo, to keep us from complacency, and as a barrier to essentialism. He uses it in a way which is relative to the ‘dominant’ approach as it attempts to disrupt it. And that got me thinking about the way we conceive of, and write about, posthumanism. We’re still speaking of posthumanism in relation to humanism; we’re still referring to the boundaries and the binaries even as we theorise overcoming them. We’re still thinking in terms of human and machine, face-to-face or online, virtual and embodied, lecture and VLE. To an extent, this is inescapable: hybridity is relative and subjective. But are there ways in which we can account for this in our educational practice?



Gourlay, L. (2012). Cyborg ontologies and the lecturer’s voice: a posthuman reading of the ‘face-to-face’. Learning, Media and Technology, 37(2), 198–211.
Haraway, D. (2007). A cyborg manifesto. In D. Bell & B. M. Kennedy (Eds.), The cybercultures reader (2nd ed, pp. 34–65). London ; New York: Routledge.
Hayles, K. (1999). How we became posthuman: virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from
Silver, D., Massanari, A., & Sterne, J. (Eds.). (2006). The Historiography of Cyberculture. In Critical cyberculture studies (pp. 17–28). New York: New York University Press.

More human than human

Image of Blade Runner DVD
The book and the film

Last night I watched Blade Runner for the first time in about 15 years, and I’ve recently read the book it’s based on – Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). There has been a lot of research into the posthuman, postmodern side of of Blade Runner and into the epistemological questions that emerge as a result of it. But, informed by informed by the first of our core readings – Miller’s ‘The Body and Information Technology’, but I wanted to focus on what Blade Runner tells us (or doesn’t tell us) about what it means to be human.this contains spoilers

Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott, is set in a post-war, post-industrial city, decaying and toxic, inhabited by humans and replicants (bio-robotic androids). The replicants are incredibly sophisticated; it’s impossible to tell them apart on sight. And so we have this question of what makes humans human? What is it to be human? Rachel, the replicant with whom Deckard, the eponymous blade runner, falls in love, can’t tell herself whether she is human or android: this is seen as the victory of the project.

The Nexus-6 android types, Rick reflected, surpassed several classes of human specials in terms of intelligence.

The way that the hunters tell humans and androids apart is using the Voight-Kampff test, which assesses empathy:

Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found throughout every phylum and order including the arachnida.

But within Blade Runner there’s even a question mark over whether this works. The test looks for physical signs of empathy – pupil dilation, etc., rather than feelings. It’s just performance, ultimately, one which technology is perfectly capable of recreating. It’s not necessarily anything to do with feeling. And replicants are seen to show emotion truer – on sight – than the alleged human Deckard: he is conspicuously emotionally distant while some of the replicants show emotion – Roy and Pris particularly.

Bertek links this ultimately inability to tell humans and replicants apart to Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. There’s been a reversal, Haraway says, and the technology is lively while the humans are inert (p. 194). This appears to be the case in Blade Runner – Kellner et al. provide several examples: Roy, the replicant, longs to be human, while Deckard increasingly sympathises with replicants; the replicant revolt is identified positively as a slave revolt.

So is Blade Runner posthumanist? Humans and machines are intricately connected in this post-industrial city, and there are few essential differences between them. For Lacey, it can’t ever be posthumanist because it’s mainstream cinema, and too connected to the bourgeoisie and consumerism and capitalism:

Science fiction remains the genre most able to deal with the posthuman, but whether it does so depends upon the institutional context in which films are produced (p. 198).

But it’s empathy which is foregrounded as the thing that make us human, solidarity with others to be at the core of humanity. After a day of marching in London with the Women’s March, this is ringing so true with me right now. I would be so interested to hear what the rest of you think.

Women's March, London
20th January 2017


Bertek, T. (2014). The Authenticity of the Replica: A Post-Human Reading of Blade Runner. [Sic] – a Journal of Literature, Culture and Literary Translation, (1.5).
Brooker, W. (2012). The Blade runner experience: the legacy of a science fiction classic. New York: Columbia University Press.
Bruno, G. (1987). Ramble City: Postmodernism and ‘Blade Runner’. October, 41, 61.
Dick, Philip K. (1999). Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? London: Millennium.
Haraway, D. (1991). Simians, cyborgs, and women : the reinvention of nature. New York: Routledge.
Kellner, D., Leibowitz, F., & Ryan, M. (1984). Blade Runner: A Diagnostic Critique. Jump Cut, 29, 6–8.
Kuhn, A. (Ed.). (1999). Alien zone II: the spaces of science-fiction cinema. London ; New York: Verso.
Lacey, N. (2012). ‘Postmodern Romance: the impossibility of decentring the self’, in The Blade Runner Experience, ed. by Miller, pp. 190-200. New York: Columbia University Press.
Miller, V. (Vincent A. (2011). Understanding digital culture. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications.
Scott, R. (2007). Blade runner : the final cut. Warner Home Video.
Telotte, J. P. (2001). Science fiction film. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.