Lecturer, School of Social and Cultural Studies, Victoria University of Wellington
Cyborg is a term that originated with the development of the field of cybernetics and, beginning in the mid-twentieth century, with studies in physiology and engineering performed on the transformation of living organisms through their enhancement with technology. It is also a staple of contemporary science fiction in characters like the Terminator, who are monstrous fusions of biological and technological components. Finally, it is a conceptual tool in studies of science, technology, and culture for tracing the complex connections among living organisms and machines, humans, and animals and scientific fact and fiction that underlie life in the information age.
The original cyborg was an idea first proposed by the cyberneticists Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline in 1960 (see Kline 2009). What they called a cyborg—a combination of “cybernetic” and “organism”—was a being that “deliberately incorporates exogeneous components extending the self-regulatory control functions of the organism in order to adapt to new environments” (Clynes and Kline 1960, 27). Their prototype cyborg was a mouse implanted with an osmotic pump that could be used to inject a drug into the mouse’s body. Clynes and Kline called the mouse-pump system “cybernetic” because it revealed the possibility that technological augmentations could be used to modify an organism’s ordinary regulatory feedback functions. That is, an organism augmented by technology might be able to adapt to environments that would otherwise be hostile. Extrapolating from their mouse to human beings, Clynes and Kline imagined cyborg astronauts who might be able to survive in outer space without cumbersome life support systems.
What was radical about the cyborg was not just that it joined biology and technology in one body. The cyborg introduced a “twist” into the feedback loop that joins them. Imagine a Möbius strip, such as a loop of paper with a half-twist; a path along the outer surface of the paper will eventually end up on the inner surface (Grosz 1994). Therefore, rather than thinking of biology and technology as distinct kinds of things, cyborgs make it necessary to see how even something that is technological can, through its connections, twist into the biological. In Clynes and Kline’s mouse cyborg, the circuit that connects pump and mouse is both inside and outside of the organism and the machine at the same time, undercutting the idea that a clean distinction can be made between the two (Hayles 1999).
Donna Haraway, the theorist most associated with the cyborg in cultural studies of science and technology, appropriated the cyborg as a figure with which to think about the interconnections that make up the contemporary world. In her famous “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1991), Haraway declares that, in our time, “we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs” (1991, 150). In other words, our time is one in which three previously stable boundaries have broken down.
The first is the boundary between humans and animals. In the past, humans were unquestionably different from animals by virtue of their rationality, ability to use tools or language, or status in the eyes of a god. Haraway points out that today, neither science nor culture seem to be able to make or require a sharp distinction between humans and animals (ibid., 152); humans are not the only ones with rights, and animals are close relatives of and models for humans. This is why Clynes and Kline can so easily imagine their mouse cyborg as a prototype for a human astronaut.
The second is the boundary between organisms and machines (ibid.). The mouse cyborg is one example of a being that crosses the organism-machine boundary. Similarly, some people suffering from diabetes today have pumps injecting insulin directly into their bodies to continuously regulate their blood sugar. But even those who do not have such direct connections between machine and body are constantly using digital devices, information networks, or medicines to regulate their lives and interact with their surroundings. The boundary is also broken by machines that fly in complex formations, drive through a city autonomously, or play Jeopardy! and Go at the highest levels. Technologies have become lively in ways that only biological organisms used to be.
The third is the physical-nonphysical boundary (ibid., 153). The proliferation of electronic information systems throughout all areas of our lives make computer code and digital information as solid and life altering as soil and steel. Cities and societies are built of databases as much as they are of concrete. What is “real” to people living in information societies does not directly correspond to what is “physical.”
Haraway’s cyborg is a provocation to reconsider what it is that makes us human when these three boundaries have been breached. She recognizes that in the contemporary world, humans are not human because of how different they are from the rest of the things in the world but by how they are connected with other things through many twisted loops. Humans do not create technology as something separate from themselves, but technologies make humans through the ways they connect with them. One of Haraway’s major contributions was to argue for how important these connections are for making people who and what they are.
Haraway’s further contribution was to work out the political implications of cyborgs. Her contemporaries in critical feminism had sought political emancipation for women through the rejection of “dehumanizing” science and technology and a return to “nature” (cf. Merchant  1990). Haraway argued that these critiques were based on the myth that humans are authentically and originally beings without culture or technology. With the cyborg, Haraway argues that our shared humanity is not based in a “natural” and “original” form of humanness that technology has polluted. Cyborgs “have no origin story, in the Western sense” (Haraway 1991, 150). Because they are constantly made and remade alongside the forging and breaking of connections with other things in the world, cyborgs cannot be said to have “begun” at a single point in time or space. Thus, in her “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1991), Haraway argued that new possibilities for human liberation should be based not on the assumption that humans are only “truly” human without technology. Politics must therefore stop focusing only on how human individuals or groups can become free or self-determining and instead focus on how to build alliances through the connections people may have with each other, with nature, and with technology.
The major analytical implication of this insight is that if we want to understand the meaning and existence of a person, practice, or thing, we should not try to uncover its authentic or original form. Cyborg analysis recognizes that there is no solid reference point to be found, only myriad connections. Following Haraway, cultural theorists appropriated the cyborg as a prism through which to view a world in which new sciences and technology, from communication science to molecular biology and beyond, seemed to be twisting organic bodies and the technological environment together in new and unfamiliar ways. This makes the cyborg a powerful tool that cultural analysts can use to bring important connections into view, which may have been ignored or dismissed in prior forms of analysis. If something, like a piece of writing or a film, is to be analyzed, then it is not enough to look for what the writer intended or how the audience received it. What matters are the relationships that converge in that thing, from the fictional and factual ideas and images that it cites and remixes to the social and material relationships it makes between creator and audience and to the others that it relies on to exist, including editors, printers, delivery workers, computers, paper manufacturers, software coders, and so on. All of these relations are “imploded” in the thing (Dumit 2014), and the analytical task is to make some of them visible.
Like the rest of us, the Japanese pop trio Perfume is a cyborg; it is a focal point of many connections: an implosion. But Perfume is particularly useful for learning about cyborgs, because they are aware of their own cyborg-ness. Their performances mix the virtual and the actual, the local and the global, and the human and the technological, twisting into forms that both reveal the connections they need and the new ones they hope to create.
Since their major label debut in 2007, the pop trio Perfume has become one of the most successful and enduring idol groups of the past decade in Japan. They are a constant presence on television, magazines, and the web. They reach out to their millions of fans through albums, DVDs, and a wide array of products, from logo-adorned apparel to candy and alcoholic drinks. Perfume’s activities are the early-twenty-first century pinnacle of a cultural phenomenon that the anthropologist and “idologist” Hiroshi Aoyagi (2005) argues has become a central ritual in modern capitalist Japan.
The three women that stand as the human center of Perfume—Ayaka Nishiwaki, Yuka Kashino, and Ayano Omoto—are expert performers who, on and off stage, can embody ideals of femininity and youth and the challenges of assuming one’s place in the adult world (Aoyagi 2005), as so many other idols have since the 1980s. And as idols, Perfume is at the center of a vast commercial and cultural enterprise that converts charisma into a commodity and fan communities into devoted consumers (see Yano 1997). In this respect, they serve as anchors of authentic Japanese femininity and humanism within changing personal and social worlds, which are simultaneously anchors for a profit-making enterprise.
But they are not just the human center of a cultural industry. As much as they are known for their commercial success, Perfume is also known for the use of new media technologies that connect them to their audiences in new ways. For instance, in an award-winning display at the Cannes Lions Festival in 2013, Perfume used real-time projection mapping technologies that melded the three members’ dances and costumes with computer graphics contributed by visitors to a special website, turning their bodies into amalgams of flesh, fabric, and pixels. More than being solely eye-catching ways of attracting media attention and fan dollars, these human-technology performances transform fans’ devotion, the performers’ kinetic energies, and the producers’ creativity into new cultural effects. Perfume are not just important symbols in the contemporary Japanese media landscape. They are cyborg experiments in connecting commerce with fans and digital information with their bodies. To be able to make sense of Perfume, we must look at them as mixtures of the human and machine, of mediatized myth and material interfaces, and of commercial investments and personal affects.
Cyborgs do not exist in the abstract; they only exist in concrete and situated connections. A good place to begin tracing Perfume’s cyborg connections is 1 a.m. on March 17, 2015 in Austin, Texas’s Highland Lounge. This was when Perfume’s first performance at the famous SXSW festival began. Perfume was about to debut a new song called “Story.” Over the deep thrum of a synth bass and under the twitter of a signal generator, white blurry bands cast by digital projectors scanned over mesh screens arranged on the stage. Points of light washed over wireframe landscapes in sinusoidal waves as the music built to a crescendo. In front of the stage there were more than 600 people packed into Austin’s “premier gay lounge and nightclub.”
Beyond those in the Highland Lounge, thousands more were watching the live stream of the performance on the internet. Many hundreds of thousands of others would watch the performance later on YouTube. The stream they saw cut among views from cameras positioned around the hall, along with a few handheld cameras in the audience. At first, these video transmissions seemed to be a poor substitute for the experience of being in the audience. A few viewers later complained on Reddit about the stuttering stream, no doubt a result of the worldwide audience that was converging on Perfume at that moment.
Cyborg analysis suggests that there is no single origin point where all of the audience was converging. One possible approach would be to look for the source on the stage in Austin that the sounds, visual projections, and the three performers’ bodies all shared. From this source, the performance diffused out over the audience and to the internet in choppy and pixelated form. Therefore, it would be the people in the audience, who were physically closest to the performers, who experienced the music and the stage as the artist intended it. Those who might see the recording or a web simulcast were seeing a shadow of the original, no matter how high the definition of the video and sound.
For online viewers, however, it quickly became apparent that there were other connections at work. The first hints of this were when a few pixels seemed to bleed off the projection screens and scatter over impossibly straight wires of light crisscrossing the space over the audience. Then, in time with a ratcheting, mechanical beat, the view on screen seemed to melt between different camera angles, revealing a cloud of lines and polygons orbiting the stage. For online viewers, it became clear that the people in the audience could not be seeing what they were seeing. This suspicion was dramatically confirmed when the view of the camera suddenly pulled back and pivoted around the stage as the live view seamlessly transformed into a computer-generated, motion-captured performance of Perfume. The graphics placed Perfume and their stage in the middle of a massive computer-generated machine floating in cyberspace, which would morph into the live performance with each camera transition.
Perfume’s “Story” made it impossible to definitively locate the source of the performance in one place. Its online viewers were seeing something that was connected with the events that were immediately experienced by the people at the Highland Lounge. But what they saw also drew upon connections that were not part of the live experience. Because of the mediation of computers and the internet, which processed and augmented the performance with computer graphics and transmitted it online, another “Story” could emerge. As Haraway wrote, cyborgs testify to no “myth of original unity” (1991, 151). “Story” was a performance that did not originate with Perfume on stage; it took shape as it was mediated through computers and networks that linked remote audiences with the stage.
As the performance progressed, more of these cyborg connections were activated. The bridge of “Story” was a moment when Perfume posed against three mesh projection screens as they sang the only lyrics in the song. As they sang, a shower of projected lyrics representing thirty languages washed over their bodies. These lyrics came from user-contributed translations collected on Perfume’s website, similar to their earlier foray into user-generated content for their Cannes performance. In the months leading up to the SXSW performance, the Japanese lyrics were posted on a special section of Perfume’s website, which invited visitors to translate the lyrics from Japanese into other languages. These words, lit in white, were cast against the background of Perfume, making it appear as though their bodies had disintegrated into a cloud of words. In a later interview, their producer MIKIKO explained that the participatory dimension of the performance was a way to “write a story about how the world is connected with Perfume” (Ishihara 2015). The translations were her way to involve Perfume’s worldwide fans in creating links between the idols and the non-Japanese-speaking world. This project located the agency for connecting Perfume with the world not just with the performers and producers but also with the fans who could help Perfume make their links outside of Japan longer and stronger.
Our initial vantage point in the crowd at the Highland Lounge led to a connection between the audience and the performers, but this path immediately twisted out to the internet, a point from which Perfume’s performance transformed from three women on stage into a human and computer choreography that emerged in the electronic distance between Texas and the online viewers’ screens. Similarly, the sense of space and time stretched from the moment Perfume’s bodies passed through the cloud of computer-projected lyrics on stage into a distributed online project of international translation that stretched into the past for weeks before SXSW and then out into a future where Perfume might become an international media phenomenon. Each thread that seems to lead to Perfume twists together with others that capture the analysis and send it off in new directions. The resulting image of Perfume is like a bundle of entangled Möbius loops, a path along any one of which can lead to a maze through the performers’ bodies, the producers’ creative visions, image processing hardware and software, and fans distributed throughout the Highland Lounge and across the internet, among many other things.
Perfume’s innovative use of these connections further shows how they—the performers and producers in particular, but also their fans—are aware of the possibilities of being a cyborg. They are not simply beholden to the connections that they are part of, but they are able to braid them together in new combinations. Their experiments with user-generated content, for instance, push through the confines of the traditional one-way relationship of the performer to the audience by taking advantage of online and open source technologies to create a new kind of user community around Perfume. The projection-mapped interface between computer graphics and the idols’ bodies is also where the idols link with a broad, international online community. Donna Haraway ended her “A Cyborg Manifesto” with the declaration that “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess” (1991, 181). In the same way, Perfume revel in the possibilities of the cyborg—rather than just idols, they want to be cyborgs.
This last point opens up questions about what it means to be a cyborg within the broader cultural landscape of contemporary Japan. Perfume’s popularity may be a sign of the allure that novel connections may have in a society where human relationships have become “more punctuated and unhinged” as the hegemonic form of work in Japan has shifted from lifetime employment to temporary and precarious jobs (Allison 2013, 9). It also speaks to a certain tendency in Japanese culture to make technology, particularly robots and cyborgs, bear the symbolic burden of shoring up the “nation”—relationships upon which the country’s self-image has been built (Robertson 2001, 2007). These do not explain Perfume’s “Story” on their own but are part of the network which made it possible.
Thus, by approaching Perfume as a cyborg, it is possible to read important features of Japanese society and the dynamic connections among media, technology, and the body and among fans and performers. Cyborg analysis can trace these lines, locate where they cross and reinforce each other, and bring us to an account of the media phenomenon of Perfume, which twists together user-generated content with hopes for international commercial expansion, idol bodies with virtual worlds, and new media technologies with anxieties about the fragility of social relations in Japan.