A General Description of Cybeline
Cybeline is a music theater work about a cyborg trying to be a talk show host to prove she is human. It is about nature, virtual reality, biotechnology, and the mass media -- and about finding the heart and poetry in technology as it also contemplates its horrors.
Cybeline has two modes, on-line and off-line, abruptly separated by a loud buzzer. Her producers/programmers toggle her between these two modes. When on-line, the pace of her routines are relentless, emulating the frenetic character of video cuts used by commercial television. When off-line she enters a dream-like world where the music is partially determined by random operations that sound vaguely like “the music of nature.” The music is different for every performance.
During the off-air random music Cybeline hears almost imperceptible random whispers coming from all around her that become increasingly present as the work progresses. She doesn't know what they are, but chooses to perceives them as the many voices of the Goddess.
Cybeline As An Embodiment of the Goddess Cybele
Cybeline derives her name from the Goddess Cybele who was brought to Rome from Phrygia in 204 B.C. Her temple stood on the Vatican, where St. Peter’s Basilica stands today, up to the 4th century A.D. when Christians took it over. Roman emperors like Augustus, Claudius, and Antoninus Pius regarded her as the supreme deity of the empire. Augustus established his home facing her temple.
In the 4th century, Christians relentlessly destroyed the religious beliefs surrounding Cybele. St. Augustine called her a harlot mother, “the mother, not of the gods, but of the demons.” One of her names, Antaea, made her the mythical mother of the earth-giant Antaeus, who was invincible as long as his feet remained in contact with his Mother’s body, the earth. Hercules conquered him by holding him up in the air. Churchmen believed the powers of "witches" came from the same sort of contact with the Mother Earth. Arresting officers often carried them to prison in a large basket, so their feet would not touch the ground.
We are especially interested in Cybele’s embodiment as an Earth Goddess, and the dialectic this creates with our culture’s conceptions of technology. What is the voice of the Goddess in a cyborgian world, and especially a goddess associated with the power of nature?
The Cyborg As A Programmable Mind
In Cybeline, we explore our notion that the creation of a cyborg does not depend on the metalization of the body, but on the programmability of the mind. We live in a wired together, prosthetic world of global “cyberbia“ where our minds are programmed by the mass media. Since our minds are programmed we are all cyborgs.
Our culture’s concept that humans can be transformed to cyborgs is a manifestation of a 2000-year tradition of viewing the universe as mechanical. In the eyes of the Western mind, the Goddess Techne shapes the universe with her celestial mechanics. This deeply rooted mechanical orientation has profoundly influenced our understanding of what humans are and deeply informs our cultural expression, hence the understanding that society itself is a massive wired-together cyborg that is programmed by the media.
In a sense, humans have always been cyborgs because they have always programmed their minds, at least partially, through enculturation. Our reality is to a large degree a Gestalt of conscious and unconscious aesthetic decisions shaped by our personal cultivation and the culture we live in. Those who think of themselves as purely rational are deluded because they do not understand that whether they choose the light or the dark, the capitalist or the communist, the feminine or masculine, the literary or scientific, the reality they experience is not so much based on rational observation as it is a culturally determined aesthetic predilection.
When we become conscious of the relationship between aesthetics and the very nature of reality or Mind, we understand that we shape new worlds through the creation of art. It is alchemy, and in a sense, humans themselves are the ultimate artistic creation. There is little difference between what humans call themselves and the aesthetic framework in which they exist. We create our own human identity. Through these mechanisms the cyborg is born. It has nothing to do with the metalization or digitalization of the body, but with programming Mind.
Many composers, such as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann, Wagner and Mahler seem to have understood that Mind creates reality. One senses that at moments they knew they composed not merely music, but the web of existence itself. Works such as the Art of the Fugue, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and his late quartets, The Magic Flute, Mozart's Requiem, Parsifal or Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, all hint that Mind and Nature are not a duality, but a unity. These composers felt they composed their destiny. In some strange alchemy, they felt that Mind creates substance.
Due to the nature of enculturation, the relationship between art and reality might thus be defined by the cyclical formula: art creates humanity creates art. These thoughts relate to our culture’s mythological concept that humans were made in the image of God. The universe and humankind are a reflection of each other. Mind and Nature are caught in a mutually self-regenerating cycle. This seems to lie behind the idea of mind and substance interacting in the self-creation of human identity as the cyborg. Humans create cyborgs in their own image, just as "God" created humans in “his.” In this sense, consciousness does not merely perceive substance but creates it. For the cyborg, Mind and Nature are one and the same, a mutually self-recreating unity. A simple illustration of this concept is the way we create media images that flow into our minds, which in turn create our minds. A cycle is set in motion that partially creates our reality.
Through the unity of Mind and Nature the human vanishes into the cyborg, and the cyborg vanishes into the human. Through art we weave not just perception, but the very substance of being. The wire was made flesh, and the flesh was made wire. The human and the cyborg meld in the sacred marriage of Mind and Nature. This is the religion of the cyborg.
Cyborgian Longings for Schubert
We quote Schubert's Lieder in "Cybeline" because they seem to symbolize a historic change in the understanding of Mind and Nature. An urban bourgeoisie had evolved that was no longer directly connected to nature as in previous generations. For centuries the ruling elite of Europe had revolved around an aristocracy that was essentially a landed gentry whose livelihood was often related to forestry and farming. In effect, nature was their livelihood.
With the rise of an industrialized, urban bourgeoisie, the relationship to nature was changed. The demise of Europe’s feudalistic social structures created an urban world in which nature became a weekend luxury, something artificial and removed, something viewed from the distance surrounded by a seemingly artificial rustic romanticism that one could only long for. Schubert’s Lieder are imbued with this urban, industrial ethos that romanticized nature.
Urban industrialization initiated a transformation in our view of human identity. With society increasingly mechanized, a tendency grew to view the human as also mechanical, a factory worker who was an extension and servant of a world mechanized both economically and socially. Scientific thought moved toward a corresponding view of the human as a sort of hardwired biological mechanism. It was probably at about this time that the soul of the cyborg was born, a hardwired mechanical laborer and consumer who freed himself from feudalism by constructing himself as a machine -- even if it meant being cast from nature's romantic garden of Eden.
did not foresee the horrific bestiality scientism and biological reductionism
would bring. The "total
wars" that arrived 90 years later and the Holocaust were still beyond
human imagination. When they
arrived, the Nazis literally saw war as a Nietzschian celebration of the
mechanized world. And ironically,
this was to be a form of social cleansing restoring the "natural,"
purified social order that Schubert's vision of nature was seen as portraying.
We now view the future human in a body that is largely prosthetic, living in one giant urbanized construction called cyberbia created by the prosthetic social relationships of the Internet, a borderless, libertarian world that will be the new Eden. Schubert's music comes to us with an almost sickening sweetness, something foreign to the new human: a machine with a Darwinist nature that runs on the acids of batteries, with steel limbs for bone and copper wire for nerves. Through the ironies of the Western traditions of highly measured, mechanically oriented music, which includes even Schubert's Lieder, we long for the rustic "natural" world of a bygone time.
Technology and the Nihilistic Surrender of the Self
Nihilism lies at the root of fascism, the surrender and abnegation of the self to idealized authority. The cyborg can be based on a similar nihilistic view of human life, one surrendered to be recreated according to the authority of an aestheticized and absolute ideal. The ethos of the cyborg and fascism can thus share a common ground: a nihilistic view of life that surrenders itself to aestheticized ideals of perfection.
This helps account for the character of Nazis as cyborgian martinets and automatons. It also explains their eugenics program to create a perfect race. Self is vanquished to authority, and human life becomes clay in the artist-prophet’s hands. Humanity becomes a work of art, one of the first manifestations of cyberbia. Ironically, this was done under Nazi ideologies that also espoused a Romantic and Rousseauean return to “natural,” non-urbanized forms of society. Nature is not merely natural; it is also a programmed social construct.
The history of 20th century Germany revealed with special clarity that under the social engineering of the military, the human becomes a consciously programmed construct, or cyborg. As such, humans are not served by the media but are a part of its apparatus, “cyberbia.” A form of cultural isomorphism is created and society itself becomes a programmable cyborg. This is the fascistic reduction of human society, the mass programming of a culture, its reduction to simplistic ideals generally formulating social identity based on slogans and the unifying forces of hatred. Strength through joy, Blut und Boden, and Lebensraum were common slogans during the Third Reich, but ultimately, media sound bites such as Weapons of Mass Destruction, Liberation, Support Our Troops, and War On Terrorism could have a similarly reductive and imperialistic effect.
America’s all-volunteer military had to embrace advertising since it needed to compete for human resources in a free market. It also has to manipulate the media to win propaganda wars. The military has thus entered the cultural wars of society. Since the military's resources are unparalleled, its ability to conduct a cultural war on its own people is without comparison. Be all that you can be. An Army of One. A few good men. Join the navy and see the world. Under the military-industrial complex’s massive social engineering, war has become the unifying force of American society.
The Cyborg and Chaos
Penelope, Pan, and Pandora are coded as chaos and our enemies. They are symbols of nature and the feminine, or chaos to be conquered and tamed. By contrast, Asian cultures often see chaos as the essential aspect of nature and the source of its beauty and profundity. In the West, we code ephemerality as feminine, which is negative, and thus blind ourselves to many elements of the profound beauty of existence. Or at best we acknowledge ephemerality and chaos as a seductive temptresses, sirens of the night calling us to the waters and the wild. If the essence of existence is indeed nothingness, chaos, and ephemerality, how does this relate to the nihilistic surrender of the self to a cyborgian identity presumably created in the image of a finite and absolute ideal?
Where is the beauty of chaos in the idealized and absolutely defined image of the cyborg? What is left of the ephemeral beauty of nature if we reproduce ourselves in the controlled aesthetic of the cyborg? What is life imprisoned in a perfect ideal?
In this sense, our musical culture, which is more metric and strict than any others, might limit our understanding of existence. We can't understand the ultimate meanings of life by attempting to quantify it. We can only understand life by accepting that it is an unfathomable mystery with which we are one. This should not only influence our philosophy, but also our science and art. If we are to create ourselves in the image of the cyborg in any meaningful way, we must find out how to lend our prosthetic form of existence the chaos and ephemerality of being.
When Cybeline goes off-air and is no longer programmed by enculturating media, her being and the music that surrounds her becomes shaped by random operations, the chaotic panolog of being, the magic chimes of nature. Or as she puts it, “Crystals and clouds at the bottom of the Alchemist’s cup, the dregs of a half-evaporated dream.”
To create the cyborg in the image of our own infinite potential, we must understand the meaning of the darkness and chaos that surrounds us, that is to be cultivated as our best friend, as the mother of our existence, as something to be treated with reverence, as something that we will never conquer, as something that is the source of beauty, knowledge and growth. Nothingness, chaos and ephemerality shape the clouds and the light upon the mountains, they shape the forms of the galaxies and created the mutations that brought human life to existence, they shape the events of our days and call forth the moment of our death. Both Mind and Nature are the wellspring of these forms. We are inseparably bound with them like a child in the womb. The nothingness, chaos and ephemerality of life define the nature of our being, the unity of mind and nature. They are the wellspring of love that unites us with the universe. To fully exist, the cyborg must be invested with the chaos and ephemerality of being.
The Self-Enculturation of the Cyborg
Due to our enmity toward chaos, nothingness and ephemerality, our understanding of both nature and the cyborg is based on the false premise that life is quantifiable. If we are to create a cyborg, we must create a being that embraces and reflects the unfathomability of the universe and emanates from its chaos and ephemerality just as we do.
Artists become “immortal” when their work aligns with the larger forces of history. If our culture (or collective Mind) had taken a radical turn away from the technological definition of the human and universe, the music of Bach would have remained forgotten. Instead, Techne's rule became even stronger, much to the benefit of Bach's mechanistic understanding of the world. Since Bach was aligned with Techne’s overwhelming force of cultural isomorphism, he became destined for greatness, a part of a much larger force of cultural history that created a mechanistic understanding of human identity and nature.
It is through culture that we attempt to understand ourselves and the chaos and ephemerality of being. We wear culture like a mask that is also a magic mirror we look into to define ourselves. This mask we call culture is the persona of individuals and societies, a definition of themselves and the world around them. We are beings that create endless masks of enculturation through which we look at the universe and ourselves. These masks created by enculturation reflect the profundity of the universe and are the wellspring of our growth and creativity.
also shatter the masks of culture in order to present new forms of
consciousness. They continually
attempt to reprogram our cultural persona.
How will a cyborg embrace the chaos, nothingness and ephemerality of the universe? How will it create its own mask through which it can contemplate the universe's profundity? How will this mask lend the cyborg culture: a magic mirror in which it can look at both itself and the world?
The cyborg will eventually create itself by creating culture. Only when it can continually recreate its own cultural identity will the cyborg grow and evolve. The cyborg will become autonomous the moment it creates culture, a mask-like construct of its own being, a magic mirror of the universe through which it contemplates its self. This is Cybeline's quest as a talk show host.
Technology and Gender
Mechanization, regimentation, and militarism are cultural expressions that are often programmed into the cyborg’s mind, along with a generalized contempt for the coded feminine attributes of chaos, nothingness, and ephemerality.
Due to feminism's experience in developing strategies against patriarchal objectification, its modes of thought provide hints for opposing the nihilistic and fascist objectification of the self as cyborg. These thoughts also relate to women's bodies and their music-making. Due to the characteristics of our gender culture, women are more likely to use or even celebrate their bodies on stage. This aspect of our gender culture stands in opposition to the cyborg as a disembodied artifice of masculinist technology.
Cybeline thus touches on how technology shapes or programs our concepts of gender. Since technology has a male orientation, conflicts evolve as we redefine the body with technology. How does a masculinist technology relate to traditional patriarchal views of women? What is a woman cyborg in this masculinist view?
Ars Electronica’s recent “Next Sex” festival, devoted to bio-technology, seemed to confirm traditional patriarchal views of technology: being a woman is a biological curse; the womb represents a chaotic force of nature which must be tamed; woman is a receptacle for the “natural” desire of rape; she is a half-living doll to be played with; she carries a burden of womanhood that can only be lifted by dismembering and re-engineering her body to effect a leap to men’s self-appointed status of creative autonomy.
One of our goals is to explore the culture of technology with the hope of creating more balanced and complete views, and show that the relationships between humans and technology are indefinably complex. What does a fifty-year-old structure of silicon have to teach a five billion year old structure of carbon?
Maybe one goal for art in science is not integration, but subversion. Maybe art needs to create a science that is less dualistic and bi-polar, less reductive, less certain about "natural law," a science that doesn't live in the vectoral, phallic world of plus and minus, a science that embraces and protects the endless, incomprehensible complexities of the universe as if they were our best friend, the mother of life.
Women will gain equality with men only when we have created aesthetic frameworks that allow for their equality. At this point, we can hardly imagine a world in which the feminine aspects of the universe are given respect equal to the masculine. When we do it will change our science, our governments, our religions, our philosophies, our established art forms, and every other aspect of reality. Obviously, artists play a central role in transforming the aesthetic foundations of cultures. Through art we create new consciousness, and this allows for the creation of a more just and truthful world. Humanity creates art and art creates humanity. Humans create themselves. We are all cyborgs.