Cesarean = Cyborg = Whoa.

February 23, 2008 § Leave a comment

Once I realized that contemporary obstetrics is a system that is co-created by obstetricians and women, each of whom have much to gain from deconstructing organic childbirth and reconstructing it as technological production, I was forced to look again at the human-machine interaction that characterizes this reconstructed technobirth — at the strong symbiosis between the woman and the technology; at the way in which it removes the chaos and fear from women’s perceptions of birth and at its perfect expression of certain fundamentals of technocratic life. … I began to see the mutilation and prosthesis of technobirth as the fullest metaphoric expression of life in the technocracy, which I define as a society whose central organizing mythology constellates around a technological progress that will culminate in transcendence of all natural bounds, including both biological and planetary limitations.

Robbie Davis-Floyd, “From Technobirth to Cyborg Babies: Reflections on the Emergent Discourse of a Holistic Anthropologist.” Paper presented to the annual meeting, American Anthropological Association, Washington, D.C., 1995.

I read this passage as it was quoted in the fourth chapter of my professor David Hakken‘s book, Cyborgs@Cyberspace?: An Ethnographer Looks to the Future, and was totally creeped out. A week later, I’m still thinking about it and how it relates to other texts I’ve been reading lately about childbirth, particularly in the United States.

David Hakken uses the above passage to introduce a section of his book that argues, if I understand it correctly, that unlike Davis-Floyd’s account — in which she seems to become a cyborg on the operating table — we have always been cyborgs, from the time that human beings began to use tools. From page 72:

Even if the justice of such a boundary were demonstrated, the contrast would be between one form of technologically mediated humanity/cyborg and another, not, as Davis-Floyd presents it, a contrast between a purely biological human and a highly technologically mediated cyborg. … In sum, my Cyborg Anthropology stresses how humans have been quite “cyborgic” from early in the emergence of the species. Technology is so deeply implicated in human existence that it is a core aspect of our being.

The idea that we have always been cyborgs, regardless of whether the technology we incorporated was external or internal to what we think of as our individual bodies, makes sense to me, but it doesn’t make Davis-Floyd’s description any less eerie. And although she suggests in the passage that both doctors and mothers may be comforting themselves with the vision of cyborgian birth as a way to remove danger from the process, it is clear from her other writings that she, like me, sees flaws in this way of thinking:

The metaphor of the body-as-machine and the related image of the female body as a defective machine eventually formed the philosophical foundations of modern obstetrics. Wide cultural acceptance of these metaphors accompanied the demise of the midwife and the rise of the male-attended, mechanically manipulated birth. Obstetrics was thus enjoined by its own conceptual origins to develop tools and technologies for the manipulation and improvement of the inherently defective, and therefore anomalous and dangerous, process of birth.

Robbie E. Davis-Floyd. “The Rituals of American Hospital Birth.” Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology, 8th ed., David McCurdy, ed., HarperCollins, New York, 1994, pp. 323-340.

This is not to suggest that obstetrics isn’t an important safeguard in high-risk birth situations, but several researchers make a powerful argument that the culturally accepted technological interventionist approach to low-risk childbirth in the U.S. is more dangerous for mothers and children than natural childbirth. For this reason, and despite my agreement with David Hakken’s assertion that our “cyborgization” (is that a word?) began long, long ago, reading Davis-Floyd’s description of the cyborgian birth experience gave me Mary Shelly-style heebie-jeebies.


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