Reading Cyborgs
: Interface Technologies and the Limits of Subjectivity in the Twenty First Century Novel

  • Sam Cutting

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    This thesis examines how the novel form relates to ways of understanding technology in social life. What my readings aim to show is how different attitudes to the possibility of reading interfaces condition the kinds of subjectivity possible in the textual worlds of contemporary novels. It is comprised of close readings of works of fiction, using Donna Haraway’s conception of the cyborg from ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ as a guide. It argues that contemporary realist novels can be read as technological interfaces in a media ecology, to reveal how they contest the value of human-machine interactions. This contestation reaches political and ethical limits in the representation of interfaces. Politics and ethics are understood in this thesis as interconnected nodes for thinking about the reproduction of human subjectivity in relation to interface interactions. Ethics describes the grounds from which subjects attempt to act. Politics refers to the way such acts figure in the wider organization of power relations in society.

    Chapter one presents a discussion of the concept of reading in a media ecology and the novel as an interface, which is then followed by a chapter of historical contextualising. Four chapters then each address texts published between 2012 and 2014: Ali Smith’s How to be Both (2014), Zadie Smith’s NW (2012), Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (2014) and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being (2013). The close readings analyse the characters, position of the reader and overall textual structure via the critical frame of the cyborg. The cyborg is a feminist figuration, which helps to articulate women’s experiences at the interface by addressing the material-semiotic power of fictions. The body of the thesis thus examines how subjectivity is performed, expressed and obstructed in relation to interface technologies, focusing on representations of voice and agency both within the world of the text and at the formal surface of the novel interfaces themselves.

    This thesis contributes to extending the cyborg as a critical thinking tool through original readings of contemporary texts. Furthermore, theoretical and philosophical concepts from Bernard Stiegler, Judith Butler and Denise Ferreira da Silva help to augment and resituate the critical position of the cyborg, and emphasize the interdisciplinary focus, crossing between literary studies, philosophy of technology and quantum physics. The thesis thus locates the twenty-first century novel as an interface process, once which contributes to the reproduction of human-machine relations.
    Date of AwardJul 2019
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Brighton
    SupervisorJohn Wrighton (Supervisor) & Liam Connell (Supervisor)


    • interfaces
    • cyborg
    • fiction
    • subjectivity
    • novel
    • Haraway
    • technology

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