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The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture

by Bruce Grenville, ed.

The Uncanny is an ambitious compilation of essays relating to one of the past century’s most persistent images: the cyborg. Written by various cultural theorists, curators, and media critics, and complemented by neat images of intriguing art works, these thoughtful but turgid essays reflect on the man-machine beast, the cyborg, which is here presented as a protean symbol for our collective “anxiety and desire to give meaning to the technological ethos.”

Editor Bruce Grenville, a curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery, which co-published the book to coincide with its art exhibit on the subject, found inspiration in an essay by Freud on the meanings of “uncanny.” Grenville suggests the cyborg as a focal point for meditations on the ambiguities, paradoxes, and challenges in remaining “human” even as we become more dependent on, and integrated with, the technologies that surround us.

The argument that we are fast becoming a culture of cyborgs is intelligently rendered, though some contributors occasionally flutter into loopy agitprop. Some of the contributors view the cyborg as an ideal representation of an evolved human form through which the “arbitrary patriarchical notions of gender and sexuality” might be swept away – a key development, we are instructed, in mitigating the abuses of male-dominated capitalism. As one contributor exclaims, “We feminist-socialists need a myth to believe in.” It’s difficult to say how seriously they take themselves because the arguments are often dense with academic pretence and deeply coded in curator-speak.

As a survey of how the cyborg has influenced some of the great artists and thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries, Cyborg offers useful source material, referring to such a diverse range of important figures as Duchamp, Picasso, Takashi Murakami, and William Gibson, as well as the expected postmodern nods to such films as RoboCop, Terminator, Metropolis, and Modern Times. However, the jarring contrast between the brilliant voices of the heavyweight reference points – Freud, Gibson, Duchamp, etc. – and those of the contemporary essayists makes one wonder if Grenville succumbed too easily to the lure of credibility-by-association.