Metal and Flesh: The Evolution of Man: Technology Takes Over

Olivier Dyens

Metal and Flesh is a short but engaging meditation on "cultural biology," on the impact of technology upon our view of the world, and on the blurring of the meanings of "life" and "aliveness" in a cybercultural age. Dyens displays a light touch and a promiscuous attitude to theory, which he brings together in an analysis of scientific ideas and pop-cultural products. While at times it borders on the aphoristic, and certainly lacks any explicit rigorous underpinning, it nevertheless produces a compelling mapping of life today. The book's discussion of "cultural biology" - the author's preferred term for post-biology or post-evolution - treads fairly familiar ground, in terms of calling for an expanded definition of "life" beyond the conventionally organic. Dyens draws on work on computer viruses, artificial life (A-Life), and artificial intelligence (AI) to show that what we mean by "life" has to include non-organic systems and post-bodies. In addition, he wants us to also reconsider the definition of A-Life in a recognition that much human life today is artificial - sustained by technology, from drugs to transplants.

To guide us through these arguments, Dyens draws on Dawkins' (1976) work on selfish genes and memes and Kelly's (1994) discussion of vivisystems particularly heavily, though he is equally at ease with other branches of post-biological science - Levy's (1992) cognitive ecology and Stock's (1993) Metaman are also incorporated into the discussion. He works through the implications of this science for our understanding of the body, as well as pondering the common question: is cyberspace alive? Chasing this question further, he ends the first chapter of Metal and Flesh with a discussion of prosthetic memory - of the role of machines as memory devices, a theme familiar from movies such as Blade Runner or The Net, both of which also ponder Dyens' question: what does it mean to be human when even our memories are externalized by technology?

Chapter 3, "The Rise of Cultural Bodies," takes a different tack. Its focus is more centrally on literary representation, and it takes as its ideal types H.G. Wells' Island of Doctor Moreau, Franz Kafka's (1942) Metamorphosis and The Penal Colony, and George Orwell's (1949) Nineteen Eighty-four. The justification for this selection is that Wells and Kafka straddle the birth of modern science fiction and the birth of modern technoculture (which Dyens, concurring with Postman (1993), cites as the publication of Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management in 1911). The rationale for including Nineteen Eighty-four seems less convincing, and in fact the choice of this text seems more influenced by Dyens' enthusiasm for the book: his discussion of Nineteen Eighty-four is shaded by an autobiographical/confessional tone, and it is clearly a book he holds close to his heart.

The readings of Wells, Kafka, and Orwell are useful in that they provide a different take on the reshaping of the body by technoculture, but Dyens himself admits they are no more than sketches. In fact, this chapter is overall rather too sketchy. It latterly moves on to consider the body in cyberpunk and cybertheory, including a brief discussion of the figure of the monster in the collective imagination. In order to think through the monster's body, Dyens turns to overfamiliar celluloid representations: Alien, The Thing, Robocop, Terminator 2. These discussions add some flesh to the argument, but a more sustained (and more original) analysis might have been more productive here.

Suddenly, the book is over, its countless rhetorical questions largely unanswered. At the outset, Dyens writes that Metal and Flesh represents a series of more-or-less connected thoughts, yet lacks a conventional linear narrative. To some extent this is true, and at times the book itself seems almost viral, or memetic. It is itself a monstrous body. However, perhaps it is more of a ghost than a monster: elusive, wispy. I read it in an hour, only rarely pausing for thought. Although much of it was convincing, indeed familiar, I closed the book without having changed my worldview. There are some interesting ideas here, and the lightness of touch makes the book a pleasing read. But many of the issues it raises have been dealt with more excitingly, by authors such as Haraway (1991), Hayles (1999), or Turkle (1996). The agenda it sets, for an expanded definition of life, is one widely acknowledged (if not universally accepted) within the new sciences of cyberculture. So, while I enjoyed Metal and Flesh and was at times impressed by the author's writing, I'm not sure that the book represents much more than a compilation of ideas and images. However, given that this approximates Dyens' redefinition of the body, maybe that's the idea.

References

Dawkins, Richard. (1976). The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haraway, Donna J. (1991). Simians, cyborgs, and women: The reinvention of nature. London: Free Association Books.

Hayles, N. Katherine. (1999). How we became posthuman: Virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kafka, Franz. (1942). Metamorphosis. Stanley Corngold (Tr. Ed.). New York: Bantam Books.

Kafka, Franz. (1948). The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces. Willa and Edwin Muir (Tr. Eds.). New York: Schocken Books.

Kelly, Kevin. (1994). Out of control: The rise of neo-biological civilization. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Levy, Steven. (1992). Artificial life: A report from the frontier where computers meet biology. New York: Vintage.

Orwell, George. (1949). Nineteen eighty-four: A novel. London: Secker & Warburg.

Postman, Neil. (1993). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage.

Stock, Gregory. (1993). Metaman. Toronto: Doubleday.

Taylor, Frederick Winslow. (1911). The principles of scientific management. New York: Harper.

Turkle, Sherry. (1996). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Wells, H.G. (1993). The Island of Doctor Moreau: A variorum text. Robert M. Philmus (Ed.). Athens: University of Georgia Press.



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