The Created Co-Creator Meets Cyborg

The Created Co-Creator Meets Cyborg

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

From the Metanexus lecture series “By Nature Creators: Coming to Terms with Human Nature”

I. What’s at Issue?

The issues at the heart of this evening’s presentation are illustrated in a very ordinary experience I had last week.  For the past two or three months, I had noticed a red patch growing on my thumb.  For some reason, I gave it no thought until a week ago, when it suddenly occurred to me that it might be skin cancer-something to which, at my age and with my complexion, I am quite susceptible.  The spot on my thumb suddenly looked much redder and angry.  I made an appointment with my dermatologist, irritated with myself that I had not called much earlier.  In the few days before my appointment, I became increasingly anxious, since the spot had become as large as a quarter, and appeared more actively red and abnormal each time I looked at it.  A scrutiny of several photos of skin cancer in a medical dictionary only added to my fears.  I did not really expect it to be life-threatening, but I did imagine that surgery might be necessary, and in recuperation I would not be able to sit at the computer and finish the manuscript for this evening’s presentation.  When I walked into the doctor’s examining room, showed him the thumb, he immediately said, “eczema-I’ll give you something for it.”  I relaxed mightily.  The spot on my thumb had not changed its appearance; its discomfort was still there.  What made the difference?  A word, an idea, a diagnosis, an interpretation—not a squamous tumor, as I had expected, but eczema.

This personal story has three layers:  experience of nature, what I brought with me into the doctor’s office, with my own ideas laden with feeling; scientific thinking about nature—this is what the doctor contributed to my experience; and thinking about thinking about nature-which is philosophy of nature.  (See Whitehead 1957, chap. 1).

The doctor in my story did not intervene in my experience of nature, in this instance, the nature of my thumb; that remained and is still constant.  The difference the doctor made lies in the realm of scientific thinking and practice.  The doctor has thought about nature, and interprets it simply, “eczema.”  That did intervene in my personal ideas about nature.  My presentation this evening is thinking about that thinking about nature, the doctor’s and mine-the presentation is philosophy.

These issues are important for understanding the Created Co-Creator proposal. The idea of the Created Co-Creator corresponds to the doctor’s idea of eczema-it is a diagnostic idea, and it interprets ordinary experience that, in our society at least, has been characterized as the “ethos of creativity” (Florida 2002). In my first presentation, last October, I described that experience in these terms:  the “common experience that we are able to do things that are novel; that we are able to change the world around us and the world within us in ways that seem important and desirable.”

I look at our experience, and I say, “Created Co-Creators.”  In my first two lectures, I made the point that not everyone accepts that diagnosis, that in fact there are alternative ideas that give quite a different interpretation to the common experience I focus upon.  I called attention to the confusion that we live in, marked by a lack of both religious and other cultural traditions that acknowledge and interpret our basic experience that we are creators.  Our traditions depict us more often as those who are called to obey, rather than those who are called to create.  Those traditions are likely to interpret our creating as pride, hubris, disobedience, or the mad bargaining of a Faust.  We see this in the sentiment among religious leaders who are overwhelmingly against genetic advances, particularly in the domain of medicine.  We see it in our elite and popular cultures, whether in the attitudes that are expressed in stem cell policy and in the thinking of theorists like Francis Fukuyama and Leon Kass, or in such movies as “the Matrix” series, or “Gattaca,” or “Blade Runner.”

Our ambivalence toward our own creating, and to the image of the Created Co-Creator, cannot erase the common experience of our daily lives, but it does represent either a denial of that experience or a disagreement how to interpret it.  The artists that I presented in our last session, Bryan Crockett and Lynn Randolph, express the many layers of our struggle to understand and interpret our present creativity.

In one sense this ambivalence and conflict of interpretations is a healthy thing, since we know that diagnoses can be flawed, or even wrong.  After all, the ideas we propose as diagnoses or interpretations are themselves creations of the co-creator.  Some are more closely tied to scientific observation, whereas others, like the interpretation of history, for example, depend more on the constructive imaginations of the interpreters.  Experience seldom stands alone separate from our ideas.  To the contrary, our experience cries out for the interpretations that ideas offer (See R. G. Collingwood).

The idea of the Created Co-Creator depends on a great deal of creative imagining; that is why I call it an idea, a metaphor, a symbol.  This evening, I intend to probe more deeply into the idea of the Created Co-Creator by placing it in dialogue with another proposal for interpreting our experience:  Cyborg.

II. Enter, Donna Haraway and Cyborg

Donna Haraway is Professor in the History of Consciousness Department-formerly the department of religious studies-at University of California, Santa Cruz. She has established herself as a leading cultural critic.  Although her doctorate (from Yale University) is in cellular, developmental and molecular biology, she has also worked in feminist, Marxist, and other philosophical modes of thought.  Raised as a Roman Catholic, her earliest studies were in Thomist philosophy.  She wrote a celebrated essay, “The Cyborg Manifesto,” and her book Modest Witness@Second Millennium. FemaleMan Meets Oncomouse, (1997) carries on a dialogue with the paintings of artist Lynn Randolph, as we observed three weeks ago. (see Haraway 2000, 119-22).

Haraway defines Cyborgs as “creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted” (Haraway 1991, 149).  For her, Cyborg is an image that displaces accepted meanings by forcibly dragging meanings from disparate and incommensurate fields into a union with each other.   She and science fiction writer Octavia Butler speak of narratives of “fusion”“ “and of language that enacts xenogenesis, the emergence of the “foreign,” the “other” (Haraway 2000, 120).  Mary Gerhart and Allan Russell call this “dragging” the “metaphoric process.”  “Dragging,” of course, is one way of translating the Greek word for “metaphor.”   Metaphores is painted on the side of moving vans in Athens, and it is also on signs marking the baggage transfer area at the Athens airport.  Both Cyborg and Created Co-Creator engage in this moving, dragging, and fusing meanings from disparate fields.  They are, for this reason, ideas that trouble the waters of our accepted understandings. Gerhart and Russell provide a salient scientific example of this dragging operation (Gerhart and Russell 2001, chap. 1).  Johannes Kepler developed the mechanics of the heavens, that is, the laws of planetary motion, which expressed “in quantitative terms the relations between the planets and the sun.”  Galileo developed the mechanics of this earthly world, falling objects, for example.  It was Isaac Newton who dragged from these two domains of knowledge and fused them in his insight (recall the famous falling apple) that “the laws of Heaven are the same as the laws earth,” thereby creating “a new world of meanings” (Gerhart and Russell 2004, 21).

My effort here is to set up a dialogue between Cyborg and Created Co-Creator, and in the process I want to discern how the two are sibling images.   I will deal with four themes that emerge from Haraway’s analysis of Cyborg and are also applicable to the Created Co-Creator: crossing boundaries/obsolete dualistic thinking; the dialectic of possibility and danger; resisting creation stories; autopoiesis, constituting the human.

III. Crossing Boundaries

No single meaning is more central to the ideas of Cyborg and Created Co-Creator than that of crossing, even breaking down, boundaries, figuratively and literally.  This is what moving vans do-they transgress boundaries.  The origin of the idea of Cyborg is a crossing of boundaries.  In their 1960 article in the journal, Aeronautics, Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline coined the term “Cyborg.”  Clynes was a designer of physiological instrumentation and electronic data-processing systems, while Kline was a clinical psychiatrist-both at Rockland State Hospital in New York.  They applied their term to “the enhanced man who could survive in extraterrestrial environments… . They imagined the Cyborgian man-machine hybrid would be needed in the next great technohuman challenge-space flight” (Haraway1997b, 211).  Cyborg, in other words, was born in the dreams of scientists of a man-machine that could function in the transboundary situation of extraterrestrial space.  Their idea is the basis of the 1982 movie, “Blade Runner,” in which the enhanced humans, the Cyborgs, are engaged in mining operations in the farther reaches of space.

Thus we see that the basic idea of Cyborg was xenogenesis, to fuse the human and that which is not human, the machine, so as to enable the human to work in an environment that required such a fusion.  The boundary between human and technology is transgressed in the very idea.  Just so, the Created Co-Creator joins two ideas that are regularly thought to be incomparable-that which is created with that which itself is creator.  Such ideas initially cause static in our minds; they are troublesome, not restful. Paul Tillich was the great theologian of the boundary (Tillich 1966).  He saw himself as a “boundary”“ “person, by which he meant that his life and thought were shaped by crossing boundaries and fusing identities that did not ordinarily belong together.  For example, whereas  in conventional theology, God’s creation and technology were considered to be antithetical domains, Tillich spoke of the technological city as God’s creation (Tillich [1928] 1988, chapter 16).  To be on the boundary, he said, is to stand with a foot in each domain..

Haraway insists that crossing boundaries is not in itself the most exciting thing; the really important thing is what happens after we have crossed the boundary.  In my last presentation, on Onco Mouse, we observed what two artists proposed after crossing the Cyborgian boundary that is exemplified in Onco Mouse.  They proposed that Cyborg carries our hopes and dreams of salvation. I have come to understand the considerable passion with which the Created Co-Creator has been received as an indicator that the image has indeed crossed boundaries; it inhabits more than one world.  Critics have considered it to be unfaithful to Scripture, blasphemous toward God, and treacherous when applied to environmental concerns.  Supporters have identified with it as an affirmation of human possibility, eliminating original sin, and empowering for persons who want to take their destiny into their own hands; it has been taken as authorization for technology, including genetic engineering and cloning.  The passion of these two positions is a clue to the depth of its boundary crossing.

A third group of critics has recently emerged, which tells me that there are still more boundaries that the Created Co-Creator must cross.  This group represents the “two-thirds world.”  It subjects the idea to both a negative and a constructive critique.  Negatively, the charge is made that only men and women who live in highly technological societies can be called co-creators today. Large numbers of those who live in Africa, India, and parts of South America experience such poverty, hunger, and lack of education that they can hardly be considered within the rubric of Created Co-Creators.  Created Co-Creator is an elitist “first world” phenomenon that actually adds its weight to the oppression of the two-thirds world.  This critique becomes a constructive one when it is suggested that the Creator Co-Creator should go still further into new territory, so that it can describe a basic human right, and thereby function as a concept of emancipation for those who are deprived of their co-creatorhood.

I have been ambivalent toward both of the first two groups, because I think they express a denial of the reality of boundary-crossing.  The critics struggle to preserve the domain of basic human nature that changes very little over time, and which is imprisoned by inexorable laws of nature.  Indeed, in his book, Our Posthuman Future, Fukuyama argues that if this essential human nature is changed, our entire social fabric will collapse.  This group argues that humans are and can be no more than gardener-stewards of nature, not co-creators, and thereby it falsifies the real world of our experience.  The created-co-creator figure is abhorrent to these thinkers, not because it urges them to cross over the boundary from steward to co-creator, but rather because it depicts them as having already crossed that boundary, with little prospect of crossing back.

The other group, the admirers, stands in a position that is the converse of the other.  They often deny the boundary situation in that they inhabit only one world, the world of their creating freedom.  The worlds of createdness and accountability to environment and society often appear to be unknown to them.

Neither of these groups can be our best guide for understanding the human situation of boundary-crossing, because in denying the reality of the worlds on the other side of the boundary, it is impossible to make the things happen that should happen as a result of crossing boundaries.

The third group of critics and commentators, which I call the “liberationists,” are also concerned about crossing boundaries, but they want to make something new out of that crossing.  This group demands the breakdown of boundaries between wealthy and poor, privileged and abject, north-of-the-equator dominant societies and south-of-the-equator subordinated societies.  The vistas opened up by this third group certainly make up a major agenda for elaborating the idea of the Created Co-Creator.

Living as boundary-crossers is a way of saying that we cannot live in only one world at a time.  Our experience tells us this, that we do in fact live in many worlds at once, as do Cyborg and the Cyborgian Onco Mouse.  Cyborg tells us that boundary-crossing changes human identity; it changes what counts as experience for both men and women (Haraway 1991, 149).

 IV. Obsolete Dualistic Thinking

The most powerful thing that happens in the Cyborg boundary-crossing is that the dualisms we often use to distinguish human being, nature, culture, and technology are rendered obsolete.  In the final analysis, there are no lasting ontological distinctions between them.  Nature has produced humans, and since it has decreed that they are cultural creatures, their nature is culture-nature. Technology, the product of culture, comes to be natural to humans.  For culture, technology is nature.  The dualisms are in our ideas, not in our experience.

Boundary breakdown is signaled in Cyborg’s opposition to these commonly held dualisms: nature vs. humans; human vs. animal; nature vs. technology; the organic vs. the machine; the physical vs. the non-physical

This is becoming so clear to us that we do not need to elaborate. When we consider these collapsed boundary realities, we understand what Haraway means when she writes: “My Cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions” Haraway (1996, 154).

When s/he meets Cyborg, Created Co-Creator recognizes a kinship in that both are images of boundary-transgression.  However, the encounter with Cyborg reveals most vividly to Created Co-Creator how fully it embodies the fundamental identity of human/nature/culture/technology.  This identity pertains to the very terms, “created” and “co-creator.”  Our createdness, in theological view, is at the hand of God, but at the same time through the emerging processes of nature’s and culture’s evolution.  Createdness stands for kinship with the processes that have constituted us. To be human is to be this nature.  “Co-creator” points to who we are and what we do.  We are as much creatures of culture as of nature; culture is begotten of nature, in that culture emerges from genetic processes. The medical practice that enables us to live is culture and technology in the act of co-creating our bodies and our minds and spirits.  The electronic technology of computers, the internet, and communications is an expression of our co-creating mind and spirit that is in turn directed toward ourselves, as surely as genetic engineering.

Created Co-Creator and Cyborg are sibling images of transgressed boundaries and potent fusions.  They are images of xenogenesis.

V. The Dialectic of Possibility and Danger

I left Donna Haraway’s sentence incomplete.  She adds that Cyborg is not only about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, but also about “dangerous possibilities.”  For example, precisely in its fracturing of boundaries and the identities that accompany them, Cyborg may be an image of totalitarian domination.  It can portray all of natural reality dominated by science and technology, all persons and cultures reduced to their opportunity for technical manipulation.  From another perspective, “a Cyborg world might be one in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (Haraway 1991, 154).

In this way, Cyborg and Created Co-Creator are about more than oppressive manipulation, they are also about possibilities of freedom.  We must adopt both perspectives at once.  Single vision produces worse illusions than double vision or many-headed monsters.  We are challenged to recognize the profound possibilities that are opened up by the ambivalent double vision that sees both danger and possibility.  This is the challenge that faces us today.  We are becoming well aware of the dangers of our co-creatorhood, but our creating will not go away.  We must give much more attention to how this dangerous element of human nature can be the source of possibilities and hope.

Each of the two passionate groups I described earlier grasps one aspect of this.   The Created Co-Creator myth is blasphemous, it does indeed bear the seeds of ecological treachery.  That particle, “co,” in the term “co-creator” does indeed border on the obscene-that is why it must be retained.  It also borders on the proclamation of grace, and that is also why it must be retained.  The image speaks just as surely of God’s creating the new creation, as well.  Each of the first two groups I have referred to deludes itself in the conviction that there is a single vision that can guide us in these matters.

The third group, the “liberationists,” recognizes double vision.  After all, these are the “other,” their home is on the margin, the periphery, which means that they live on the boundary and cannot for a moment be oblivious to pluriform vision.  The Created Co-Creator is also conceived and born on the margin and therefore knows double vision as a natural condition.

VI. Resisting Creation Stories

One of Haraway’s most challenging assertions is that Cyborg is not to be contextualized in any story of origin.  In religious circles, we might say that Cyborg resists creation stories.  Creation stories may be inherently prejudicial, in that they express preferences for certain groups, species, or “essential natures.”  Every creation story I know establishes the primacy of the group who is telling the story.  They also assign primacy to whatever essential nature is portrayed as the original nature.  So, in Genesis 1 and 2, the male has primacy, and the human species has primacy.  Scientific evolutionary stories do not favor particular groups.  They have been called “Everybody’s Story,” but they often portray the human species at the top of the pyramid.  There is no scientific or medical research I know of that studies humans in order to discover how Homo sapiens might benefit other species.  However, we study other species in order to understand ourselves better, and we perform experiments on other species in order to find cures for human diseases.  Feminists have been particularly alert to the discrimination fostered by creation stories, since women have so frequently been on the short end of those stories.  In our context, both white skin and heterosexuality have been considered the “essential” human nature.  Sin is also often defined in terms of a “Fall” from an original or essential nature, as in the Christian teachings about Adam and Eve and the apple and the Fall.  Creation stories are also frequently correlated to stories of the millennial judgment and redemption, in which the preferred groups and the essential natures are ushered into eternal bliss.  In other words, creation stories can become taxonomies that assign placement to persons, groups and essential natures.  They can practice “exclusion through naming” (Haraway 1991, 155).  Both Cyborg and Created Co-Creator and the works of the co-creator may be excluded on the grounds that they do not represent “essential” human nature.  Look at these images-do you see essential human nature there?

VI. Autopoiesis: the Historical Constituting of the Human

Cyborgs do not act on the basis of essential natural identities, but rather construct their own space, their own bodies and their own minds-cf. “Blade Runner”.  Genetic engineering of humans, animals, and plants, for example, gives enormous attention to the created nature that the biosphere brings from its evolutionary past, but it also gives even more attention to what novel nature can be constructed from this evolutionary past.  There is a tension between the power of the past identities and the power of the new, constructed identities. Cultural engineering has operated for millennia within this same tension.

There are three points to consider here.  First, we are given a body by the processes of nature, prior to our being aware of ourselves; we do not decide on our own to be born as we are.  This first, given, body is constituted over evolutionary time.  We bring awareness and our decision to bear on this first body that evolution bequeaths us, and in human historical time we construct a body on top of it, so to speak.  Second, we not only struggle to understand how to constitute our new bodies, we struggle even more to cope with the consequences of our work.  All of this is what it means that we constitute ourselves as Cyborg/Created Co-Creator.  Finally, we struggle to work out the criteria that can govern such self-constituting.

This struggle-constituting ourselves, dealing with its consequences, as well as shaping criteria for the entire process-this struggle is itself a religious struggle.  In this process of self-constituting, we may be shaken to the core-and our cultural heritage with us—and in that shaking, that tremendum, we engage the holy, that which threatens to tear us apart and yet also holds us so much in its alluring grasp that we cannot let it go.  This is Rudolph Otto’s famous description of the Holy—mysterium tremendum et fascinosum.  Both Cyborg and Created Co-Creator place us in this situation of facing the tremendum, they are not benign images that provide comfort.  This situation reminds us of Martin Heidegger’s image of our waking up on a beach as amnesiacs, unaware of how we got there or what we are supposed to do or where we are supposed to go.  We must proceed to constitute our lives.  We are at this point in history.  Even those of us who believe that God has created us and given us our bodies, we, too, live in a time that goes further toward self-constitution, and in doing so re-enacts the amnesiac-on-the-beach scenario.

I bring “autopoiesis” and “self-generation” into this discussion intentionally, of course, to call up associations with the sciences of complexity, the sciences of self-generation.  I described these sciences in some detail in my second presentation, to make the point that it is the nature of nature to put itself together.  Cyborg and Created Co-Creator convey this.  Recognizing, of course, the irony and even contradiction to say that it is our constituted nature to constitute ourselves.  This irony is in fact at the heart of the challenge of being human today.  This irony moves into the realm of theology, since the question of how we ground such self-constituting nature turns out to be the question of God, in whatever the form or language in which the question is put, whether explicit or not.  Has this creating species appeared only as an outcome of evolution’s whimsy, which means that the teleology inherent in creating is of no significance?  Or is the creating accountable to some larger purpose?  If the Creator God created us with this creating nature, how can we exercise it in a God-pleasing way?  These are such heavy questions that we attempt to evade them at every turn.

We cannot avoid the question of God, because we create as if it matters, we encourage creativity as if it were basic to human nature and a good thing; we consider it a bad thing to discourage creativity.  We are restless if we cannot change the world around us and within us in ways that we think are better.  We are ill at ease if we cannot constitute ourselves and our world.  Why is this? Why is it important to us?  As long as our creating lives are so value-laden and marked by intentionality, we recognize that we are in fact living on the basis of explicit or implicit operational absolutes.  This is what creation stories and ideas of an “essential human nature” are about-to hold us accountable to our own values and intentions.

If Cyborg/Created Co-Creator does in fact possess a “nature”—to co-create itself historically—then it possesses also, for all practical purposes, an “essential nature.”  Furthermore, if its co-creating is value-laden, then it includes for all practical purposes a sense of the absolute.  We are deeply into theology when we say this, because we are trying to establish a foundation for the co-creating that is our basic human nature  This may not sound like God-talk, but it is.  Perhaps the closest thing we have now to a creation story that would be fit for Cyborg/Created Co-Creator is that of Teilhard de Chardin’s story about the emergence of complexity and the vision of the human as the process of evolution become aware of itself, moving toward wholeness and love.

Cyborg and Created Co-Creator raise issues and call for resolutions that have been the perennial focus of classical thinking in Christianity and in other religions.  Cyborg does not fall outside theology so much as s/he requires a re-thinking of theology.  Created Co-Creator may convey this inescapable theological dimension more forthrightly than Cyborg.  In their meeting, Cyborg has revealed much to Created Co-Creator, and at this last point, Created Co-Creator returns the favor.  Created Co-Creator understands that the greatest irony of all would be to cling to the innocence that does not acknowledge that we are all “created” in some sense and that whatever the sense, to be “created” leads us down a path that must consider ultimacy, even the ultimacy of our origins at the hands of a Creator God.


Clynes, Manfred E., and Kline, Nathan S.  1960. “Cyborgs and Space”, Aeronautics 26-7 (September): 75-76.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV.  1994.  American Psychiatric Association

Florida, Richard.  2002.  The Rise of the Creative Class:  And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life.  New York:  Basic Books.

Gerhart and Russell.  1984.  Metaphoric Process:  The Creation of Scientific and Religious Understanding.  Fort Worth:  Texas Christian University Press.

________________.  2001.  New maps for Old: Explorations in Science and Religion. New York:  Continuum.

Haraway, Donna.  1991.  Simians, Cyborgs, and Women.  New York:  Routledge

______________.  1997a. Modest Witness@Second Millennium.  New York: Routledge.

______________.  1997b. “Mice into Wormholes,” in Downey, Gary Lee, and Joseph Dumit. eds., Cyborgs and Citadels:  Anthropological Interventions in Emerging Sciences and Technologies.  Santa Fe, N. Mex.:  School of American Research Press.

______________.  2000.  How Like a Leaf:  An Interview with Thyrza Nichols Goodeve.  New York:  Routledge.

Piercy, Marge.  1991.  He, She, and It.  New York:  Fawcett Columbine.

Tillich, Paul.  1966.  On the Boundary.  New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

_________.  [1928] 1988.  “The Technical City as Symbol,” in Tillich, The Spiritual Situation in Our Technical Society, ed. J. Mark Thomas, pp. 179-84. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press.

Whitehead, Alfred North.  1957.  The Concept of Nature (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan)