Alva Noë at NPR wrote an excellent opinion piece over the weekend on Lance Armstrong’s decision to stop fighting the United States Anti-Doping Agency—which accuses the seven-time Tour de France winner of ingesting performance enhancing drugs.
Noë argues not that Armstrong ‘didn’t do it’—on the contrary, most expert commentators agree that he probably did dope, along with all other high level cyclers—but that ‘doping’ is a logical component of competitive sports in a cyborg era. Noë concludes with a key point and a provocative question:
He didn’t win races on his own. No, Like each of us in our social embeddings, he created an organization, drawing on other people, and the creative and effective use of technology, the mastery of biochemistry, to go places and do things that most of us never will, that no one ever had, before him. That we now attack him, and tear him down, and try to minimize his achievements…what does this tell us about ourselves?
I want to take on this question, and in doing so, further flesh out the points that Noë brings to the fore.
I argue that our attack on Armstrong speaks to our collective discomfort with a cyborg nature, and that this discomfort is twofold. First, we are uncomfortable with categorical blurring, and second, cyborg bodies problematize deeply held myths and moral tenets of self-reliance.
Claude Lėvi-Strauss famously pointed to the categorical ways in which we order our social worlds, and the embedded nature of this categorical ordering through language. Indeed, social actors vehemently work to maintain these categorical structures, and staunchly resist their blurring both interpersonally and institutionally (despite the best efforts of queer theorists). The cyborg, as a construct, is inherently a-categorical. It blurs human, animal, and machine; it complicates gender, embodiment, and sexuality; it eschews separations of internal and external; and it applies to our own bodies, our own Selves. In short, the cyborg is a threat to categorical ordering, and this threat is amplified by its application to our very being. We are uncomfortable by our own blurriness, and we take it out on those who display the cyborgness of humanity in explicit ways. In this vein, we reject those who use steroids, ridicule those who use Viagra, and shame those who obtain cosmetic surgery at places like the local and pretty hidden vaginal tightening medical clinic around the corner.
But this explanation is insufficient. Indeed, there are cases in which we encourage technological embodiment. For example, I’ve written about/problematized elsewhere the way we celebrate technologies that allow people with paralyzed bodies to stand and walk upright. Similarly, we operate on Deaf children and babies, equipping them with cochlear implants. We spend billions of dollars (personally and institutionally) on pharmaceuticals that help normalize bodily processes. In short, we are okay with cyborgs, as long as the cyborg technology makes someone more human, not more than human. This brings me to the second-fold of our twofold discomfort with a cyborg nature—namely, that it implodes all notions of self-reliance to which we so desperately cling.
Lance Armstrong is the subject of the moment, but let us look also to Oscar Pistorius—the South African Olympic athlete with double below-the-knee amputation. This decorated paralympian had to overcome legal and social battles to fight his way into the 2012 able-bodied Olympic games, with detractors complaining about his ‘advantageous’ use of biomechanical shins and feet. Pistorius’ embodiment challenges us by throwing the technological bodily element in our collective face, and explicitly linking it to success among ‘Normals.’ This speaks to our narrow definition of humanity. Those who stand and walk are more human than those who sit and wheel; those who can communicate by voice and sound are more human than those who communicate by sight and sign; those who focus intently are more human than those who quickly and creatively flit from one social stimuli to the next. Cyborg technologies are fine for them, those less-than-human Others who need help achieving functionality, who need help achieving humanity. We are uncomfortable, however, when we must acknowledge the normalcy of an enmeshed relationship with technology, and even more so, when we must acknowledge our reliance on this enmeshment. As such, when technology enables or even suggests success at a level beyond the accomplishments of an organic body, our defenses go up and our discomfort shows through.
The Horatio Alger Myth, so often discussed in introductory level sociology courses, applies well to our relationship with technology. We want to believe we exist on a level playing field. We want to believe that the world is fair. We want to believe that those with talents and drive will rise to the top, and that those who lack these things will fall to their deserved social locations of mediocrity or utter failure. To maintain this myth is to ignore external factors associated with success and failure. Technology—and our enmeshed relationship with it—is an explicit artifact of externality. We can ignore this artifact, but only to a point. We can ignore it until it goes too far. We can ignore it until, at some point, our own cyborg nature intrudes our conscious space. We can ignore the aerodynamic clothes, the meticulously calculated bodily movements, the waxing technologies that free swimmers from body-hair drag. We cannot, however, ignore steel legs, just as we cannot ignore chemical changes to the physical body that make it stronger, faster, and longer enduring.
Our attack on Lance Armstrong is an attack on our own blurriness. It is a simultaneous defense of categorical boundaries, normative definitions of humanness, and individualist, internal, attributions of efficacy and personal outcomes.
Jenny Davis is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Sociology at Texas A&M University. She is a regularly contributing author on the Cyborgology blog. Follow Jenny on Twitter @Jup83