“Tell me Michigan isn’t crooked . . .”

Image credit:  Pixabay under Creative Commons CC0

. . . said one resident.

The Cyborg metaphor offers an alternative, if partial, explanation for reprehensible conduct by public officials.

Socioecological issues at the intersection of environmental justice concerns and tensions over racism, sexism, classism, ableism (among others) are emerging in public and academic discourse.  The collision of interests along hierarchies of power plays out vividly in Flint, Michigan, where conflicting dialogues about safety of the public water supply pits public officials with authority and responsibility for promoting and protecting safety and sustainability against ordinary citizens. Controversies surrounding land use and gentrification further muddy the water.

Enter the Cyborg.

Sara Louise Muhr (2011) used the classic “cybernetic organism” metaphor to unpack the challenges and consequences of rising above the limits of gendered leadership stereotypes (Clynes and Kline 1960). In Haraways’s Cyborg Manifesto, the Cyborg is presented as an agent for change and liberation from oppression (Haraway 1991).   Muhr explores the dark side of the Cyborg myth. To achieve liberation, Muhr claims, the Cyborg must absorb, adopt and exude an abundance of masculine, feminine, and machine-like attributes. For example, a woman rises to the upper ranks of management through a quest for (machine-like) perfection, acquiring a reputation as a strong, tough (masculinized) leader, coexisting with (feminized) charisma and physical beauty.  To achieve and sustain a liberation from gendered stereotypes, the Cyborg must invest in those stereotypes in excess.

The paradox of the Cyborg is that it may inspire others to follow, but its mechanical perfection is impossible to replicate, so it does not move others closer to liberation.  In fact, by demonstrating that it is superhuman or inhuman, the Cyborg reinforces the boundaries that it attempts to breach in the act of liberation.  Then the Cyborg becomes the oppressor, in symbiosis with the system of oppression and the fellow victims it would ostensibly liberate.

I argue that the Cyborg is present in Flint, manifest in the mechanical denial of citizen experience through a scripted official narrative.  Through this denial, the Cyborg reinforces experiences of oppression; what was once the liberator becomes the oppressor.  For example, city officials of Flint, once citizens sharing the common experience of a public outraged that the city’s water has been poisoned, are elevated to trusted leadership status by citizens through the electoral process.  To achieve elevation, a candidate must present as tough and strong, attractive and personable, trustworthy and hard-working.

Once in office, the Cyborg must maintain.  Muhr likens the Cyborg’s metamorphosis from commanding through respect and adoration to repressing through fear and intimidation to traversing “the uncanny valley” (Muhr, p. 350).  The Cyborg crosses a boundary from humanity to an unnatural state of being frighteningly mechanistic and intimidating.  In Flint, the Cyborg is augmented by militaristic trappings to exaggerate the overwhelming imbalance of power between itself and its constituency.

To see the conduct of oppression through intimidation playing out in Flint, one need only look at patterns of discourse between city officials and the public in town hall meetings.  City officials, buffered by heavy police presence, hold court in a community setting–a church–where citizens are invited to the microphones in two-minute allotments so that every person gets a chance to be heard.  Emotions run high as people share their frustration, their disillusionment, their despair.  Certain participants–the vocal, the dissident, and also the innocuous, the passive–are roughly removed in a bizarre selection lottery and symbolically de-voiced through deprivation of liberty and seizure of their phones, in a display of  heavy-handed policing which shocks and stuns the public, as if it were collectively a prey.   Thus the corpus of the Cyborg is extended to the body of government and all its militaristic accouterment.

Video Credit: Terrence Daniels, Flint arrests at Town Hall 2 4/20/2017

Bullard, R. D. (1990). Dumping in Dixie: Race, class, and environmental quality. Boulder, CO: Westview.
Clynes, M.E. and Kline, N.S. (1960). Cyborgs and space.  Astronautics, September, 29-33, 74-5.
Gustafson, S. (2014). Megapolitan Political Ecology and Urban Metabolism in Southern Appalachia. The Professional Geographer, 66(4), 664-675.
Haraway, D. (1991). A cyborg manifesto: science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century. In Haraway, D. (ed.) Simians, Cyborgs, and Woman, pp. 149-181. New York: Routledge.
Muhr, S. L. (2011). Caught in the gendered machine: On the masculine and feminine in cyborg leadership. Gender, Work & Organization18(3), 337-357.

3 Replies to ““Tell me Michigan isn’t crooked . . .””

  1. Interesting argument… Do you think that a resident’s “ascendance” from “impacted individual” to, for example, “city leader” necessitates the resident’s transformation into a Cyborg? If so, do you think that one’s transformation into a Cyborg inevitably turns one from victim/liberator to oppressor? I see that several Flint residents are running now for Mayor (http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2017/08/kincaid_makes_it_official_coun.html). I suspect that some of these residents never imagined doing such a thing prior to the water crisis. I wonder if they feel that they crisis has transformed them, or that the resolution of the crisis calls on them to transform. Either way, in your view, are there ways for them to avoid becoming blind and deaf to the people’s voices and experiences, if they are elected?

    1. The temptation to turn Cyborg (or rogue hero) may be insidious. Perhaps the power is addictive or the person is driven and crosses “the uncanny valley” without realizing it. After the Town Hall arrests, one City Council member was pictured in a news report shouting. I thought, “Good. Someone needs to get mad.” No, he was shouting at the citizens, the ones who put their liberty at risk for the greater good.

      I once met a co-worker with a business degree who worked at our corporate headquarters. She confessed that she had worked for the company for some time before she knew that our company manufactured chemicals. She thought the company was just spreadsheets and numbers at a corporate headquarters.

      When public servants succumb to thinking that governance is all about them, as if those who govern are an exclusive club, and the town hall is obligatory–just a check box–they may have lost sight of what or who they are serving, like my co-worker with the spreadsheets and the numbers.

      For me, some simple rules would help me stay grounded: Remember who I serve, be humble, and don’t rob people of their agency. The stainless steel engineer’s ring serves as a constant reminder. The Order of the Engineer is really very clever because the ring is always there and one is conscious of it. It makes me wonder, if other professionals with responsible charge wore rings and took vows, would they faithfully serve?

  2. “When public servants succumb to thinking that governance is all about them, as if those who govern are an exclusive club, and the town hall is obligatory–just a check box–they may have lost sight of what or who they are serving…” Beautifully said. Consider publicizing your posts, perhaps through social media? I saw the video of the City Council member you mention and had the exact same reaction as you.

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