Neil Badmington explains theory's role

January 30, 1998

All texts are our province;Theory 3 - English

Neil Badmington, a doctoral candidate working under Catherine Belsey, explains theory's role in his research into differences between humans and cyborgs.

My thesis deals with fictions (film and literature) that stage some form of opposition between humans and characters deemed to be inhuman. In each text, something appears to guarantee and naturalise the opposition, allowing humans to distinguish between themselves and others.

Using postmodern and poststructuralist theories, I argue that a close reading reveals this absolute difference, or binary opposition, to be untenable. However hard a text may try to maintain the opposition between human and inhuman, it will always fail: traces of each category forever haunt the other. Marge Piercy's novel Body of Glass, for instance, depicts a future society that vehemently polices the boundary between the human and inhuman. A theoretical approach derived from the work of Jacques Derrida, however, allows me to read the book in a different way; to suggest that by mapping the attempts to socialise an allegedly inhuman cyborg (cybernetic organism, a human-made fusion of the organic and inorganic), Body of Glass destabilises the opposition between the human and the inhuman. What the novel reveals is that human beings learn how to be human: there is nothing "natural" that can be invoked as a marker of ultimate difference between humans and cyborgs.

Postmodern and poststructuralist theories permit the interrogation of the "common-sense" understanding of what it means to be human, forcing us to recognise that our "natural" position at the centre of things (as formulated by the project of modernity) is no longer tenable.

While I would not necessarily advocate theory for theory's sake, I could not undertake this kind of research without a theoretical framework. In short, theory allows me to ask questions that have been unformulated (perhaps even unformulatable) for far too long.

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