In supermodernity, is the subaltern a cyborg?

First published in The State on 20th January 2014.

When I lived in South Jakarta, my initial access to the internet was in the nearby warnet, a portmanteau word composed of ‘warung’ (cafe or stall) and internet. The warnet was tiny and had no chairs. Planks of wood were used as benches for a dozen or so computer monitors and their respective processing units. In my daily visits, the warnet would be at its busiest before dusk, when all of its users were working-class boys playing online video games like self-entertaining monads. The oldest of the boys, no older than 18, runs the warnet by collecting hourly fees and stops customers from wearing their shoes inside the establishment.

I often wonder about the lifeworlds of those at the margins of society who are hyperconnected, plugged into Warcraft, Facebook, Twitter, and a seemingly limitless plethora of information online. They, like us who pontificate about the effects of ‘always-on’ culture and the merits of tech detoxing, are similarly bombarded by a world of media excess. We live in an era fast advancing beyond symbolic excess, which was the postmodern. This era, according to Marc Augé, is the supermodern.

In the supermodern, non-places trespass urban spaces with alarming rapidity. Non-places are spaces that have no history, a transitional geographical medium. They are the motorways, the concrete arteries through which swaths of urban humanity spend an inordinate amount of time. Supermarkets and airports are also non-places that house “realities of transit,” where people move in and out at interchanges (where nobody crosses each other’s path) rather than crossroads (where people meet). In non-places, people are passengers rather than travellers, customers rather than consumers.

Augé also recognises that spaces which subalterns occupy—refugee camps and urban slum dwellings—are also non-places. Refugee camps and urban slums are spaces that are denied the markings of history, and belonging to traditional notions of place. Individuals who occupy refugee camps are in transit; they want to be elsewhere. Some slum dwellers choose to stay, but they are forced into transit by developers and the city council. They are often subject to perpetual threats of evictions, condemned to be on the move.

In the current geoeconomic logic of supermodernity, a section of the subalterns—the urban poor and migrant workers eking out a living on a transitional basis—are cyborgs too. The cyborg is a product of the current era: hybrids, a cybernetic organism, a relationship between human and machine. Cyborgs are not a Robocop-like amalgam of human and machine, but rather the lived expression of how machines have become indispensable to the way many humans now live. Humans rely on technology to do things that were once humanly impossible; to move faster, to communicate at lightning speed at greater distances and to more people than ever before.

Media communication technologies have become the protheses that humans both need and want. Such a reliance on media technologies has huge implications on the way media users perceive reality; an example of the imbrication of the ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ is found in the constructed perception of time. In a media-saturated society, individuals get bored more quickly. With more things to consume in so little time, our attention span is shortened and we become more impatient. Our sense of time and history appear to be sped up. Time itself appears to be constructed by our relation to the acceleration of consumption and excess of media stimulation.

Donna Haraway’s cyborg theory suggests that Foucault’s biopolitics are no longer extant. Power is no longer only exercised directly on bodies, on ‘naked’ life. In lieu of biopolitics, power in the present age is techno-scientific and exercised via technology, making bodies the subject of technopolitics. For Haraway, the cyborg has the potentiality to be an emancipatory subject. But the avenues for the cyborg’s emancipation lie in the subversive manipulation of technology’s original function and the breathing of new political meaning into it.

With or without emancipation, subaltern cyborgs benefit from the fast turnover of media technology. This means cheaper phones, second-hand and brand new older models. But few choose to be cyborg, emancipated or not. The development and manufacturing of everyday technology is linked with weapons and exploitative labour practices respectively. Media communication technologies do not develop out of a vacuum free from the macro structures of global commerce. Often, power relations of fleshspace creep into the online ether, replicating there.

With access to possible emancipatory channels of social media, can the very poor still be subaltern? There have been speculations about whether or not the subaltern can tweet, raising questions about “online self-determination” whereby technical and financial ability can be harnessed to “represent and edit oneself and one’s culture(s) online, and to decide how they will achieve online relevance/visibility/ranking without being overshadowed by more dominant national languages and/or economies.”

In the supermodern city of Jakarta, self-entertaining monads are plugged into videogames that mimic military strategies and fighting. As posthumans, they rely on media technology to fill an attenuated sense of time. Indonesians make up a significant number of the world’s Twitter users. But they are more than just consumer cyborgs. Many Indonesians are also workers in electronic manufacturing factories where they produce protheses central to cyborg subjectivity.

What is the fate of the consuming-manufacturing subaltern cyborg in the supermodern? Will post-human narratives forget her? The case of the warnet boys offers a glimpse of posthumanism in the developing world where technology surpasses the material conditions of the present.

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