By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we're all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs," observed Donna Haraway, the eminent cultural theorist and feminist author of Simians, Cyborgs & Women, the collection of essays, first published between 1978 and 1989. Decades later, Haraway's words hold true; technological advances continue to blur the boundary between organism and machine, threatening to obscure that which makes us human.
And just what is that? Some say "language." Descartes called it "the immaterial soul." But the question remains for students of Cultural Anthropology and Anatomy 143/ Women's Studies 115: Cyborgs, a fittingly cross-listed, hybrid of a course, with the aim of revealing, through the often unsettling manifestations of machinery in our lives--indeed in our bodies--its relevance to almost any current dialogue.
From pop culture to religion to mass media, medicine, and the military, the course covers more than any single human really can--which is why, beginning last year, three professors decided to share the teaching load.
The class, open to sixty students this fall, is divided into equal thirds: Kathy Rudy, professor of women's studies, explores the ethical and policy implications of genetic technologies--what it means, for instance, that we could manipulate the genes of our offspring; Anne Allison, professor of cultural anthropology, examines the representation of cyborgs in pop culture, drawing on her research in Japanese anime; and G¸ven G¸zeldere, professor of philosophy, who also directs the freshman FOCUS program called "Exploring the Mind," looks at the boundaries between humans, animals, and machines, evaluating historical claims for human uniqueness through studies of animal cognition and artificial intelligence.
"We wanted to teach it together because we all wanted to learn from each other," says G¸zeldere, who, like Rudy and Allison, sits in on lectures when he isn't giving them. "This is a lot of material. Enough for five classes, I'd say. I took a lot of notes and asked a lot of questions last semester, because what Kathy and Anne reinforce is that these boundaries aren't so well defined. And I don't think there's anything bad in that. But how is it that a physical being like myself has come to be a being that can think, feel emotion, be introspective, and have spiritual experiences? That's an interesting question to me."
Anne Allison is chair of the cultural anthropology department. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on socio-economic relations in postwar Japan, and she has written two books on the topic.
With a broad range of scholarly interests, Kathy Rudy, who earned both her M.Div. and Ph.D. at Duke, has long explored the relationship between medicine and the body and society's role in that. In addition to her appointment in Women's Studies, she sits on the steering committee for the Kenan Ethics Institute and participates in the Duke-UNC Bioethics Research Group.