A design for life in the borderlands

Martin Wood
Warwick University, ENG


Traditional managers have insisted on a highly structured way of institutionalizing the mechanistic, functionalized, physical management of people and artifacts. This focus on structure creates a tension between the need for rigid command on the one hand and that for flexible response to threats on the other. The modern worker is thereby confronted with a bewildering multiplicity of partial identities, contradictory viewpoints and corporate strategies that pull in different directions. Wood suggests a contrasting approach, the cyborg self, a hybrid composition of organism and machine that celebrates the very tension that the structural approach abhors. The cyborg gives primacy to relationships as things in their own right ahead of individual terms and expressions. Thus, the cyborg stands in opposition to a focus on structure and is perhaps an introduction to the organization's postmodern focus on interactions and processes.


Belgium, with its cosmopolitan capital and safe, supranational appearance, must have seemed an attractive choice for politicians busy building a post-Maastricht Europe. Ironically, however, the foundations for the new “borderless” continent are being laid on the site of an old frontier. Belgium has been divided by the Romance and Germanic languages since the third century, a fracture that the formation of an independent Belgium in 1830—in the wake of Napoleon's defeat—did little to heal. Even today, the front line between Flemish-speaking Flanders to the north and the old Francophone enemy the Wallonians to the south remains little changed. In the middle is bilingual Brussels, which, although formally part of Flanders, is separately administered as the third federated assembly. Today it is in Brussels—the space in between, the intersection where the two traditions collide—that much of the linguistic tension is generated.

Borders and boundaries—linguistic, geographical, social, ethnic, personal—are a central theme in Belgium's internal strife. But Belgium is not unique. The driving imperative of many border struggles (for example in Bosnia, Kosovo or Northern Ireland) is the maintenance of wholeness and coherence, the search for a purified identity and clarity of purpose. The aim is to secure a Cartesian distinction between, and exclusivity over, an externalized other (Robins, 1991). Borders therefore allow a hierarchy between territories to be established. They make possible the identification of a territory, the fixing of what it is and is not, the distinguishing of its inside from its outside.

But this distinction is more implied than real. No matter how stable or certain its boundaries, however pure and coherent its appearance, a territory is never totally discrete but can be connected to any other—anything other. A territory cannot be understood independently of other territories that it adjoins, only in connection with them. However, connection is not the simple interlocutor between separate territories, rather they are the “outline” of a third position, a position in and between; never fixed, always moving, always in the middle, always becoming one territory or another without ever achieving totality (Deleuze and Parnet, 1987). Distinctions are immanent dimensions of this “becoming-being” (Hardt, 1993), which can have neither beginning nor end but is always a metamorphosis, a middle—between things (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988).

What do we find when we pay attention to this middle, this border, this in between? Do we recognize unitary structures or do we encounter multiplicity? I want to suggest that if we attend to their boundaries, life in modern organizations more often resembles high-tensive “borderlands.” In Anzaldúa's (1987) experience, borderlands oppose the western predication for purity and coherence. They are about multivocal inclusivity and continual crossing over. Instead of a policy of purity there is concern for cross-pollination, a tolerance for syntagm and an acceptance of uncertainty.

This is a article about such “high tension zones” (Star, 1991) and those who live/work in them. But it will not be a story about the heroic struggle against dissolution or debasement, nor will I focus on reductive acts of purification and individuation. I will try not to speak in either/or binaries, nor always attempt to draw things together as if assimilation were always necessary or desirable. Instead, I want to tell of cross-colonization and hybridization, of interbeing and heterogeneity, of the possibility of being one thing and another. Of a tolerance also for the unassimilable; of a reciprocal connectivity that breaks down the dialectic of original unity—of the cyborg.

Organizations as world structuring

Modern organizations since F.W. Taylor have characteristically striven towards a fixedness of being. They increasingly utilize a logic of predictability and total control, through self-disciplinary technologies of the self, in ways that have come to be seen as normal, rational and reasonable. Taylor was the first of many in the development of a “behavioral science” of work in scientific management that became the classic industrial model of Weber's ideal type of bureacracy (Reed, 1992). Weber understood the bureaucratic form of organization as the inescapable telos of modern western society (Noria and Berkley, 1994). Weber and Taylor therefore shared a concern for a system of general rules with centralized control and coordination, discrete specialization and regulation of labor, separation of planning and execution, and a close supervision of individual work performance. The Weber/Taylor bureaucracy is thus a highly structured way of instantiating or institutionalizing the mechanistic, highly functionalized, physical management of people and artifacts (Noria and Berkley, 1994). In the continued search for order and stability, these administrative-technical imperatives have been handed down and imposed profound structures on subsequent social regulation, organizational rationalization and human identity.

Cybernetics, similarly, is the science of automatic self-regulated control. First coined by Norbert Wiener from the Greek term for “pilot” or “governor” in 1948, the term was neither biological nor mechanical. Whereas Weber and Taylor emphasized coordination, specialization and separation, Weiner's schema allowed a space for ambiguity between nature and artifice, without trying to reduce one to the other (Levidow and Robbins, 1989). Cyberneticians did exactly that, however, reducing the human mind or social organization to mechanical models. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the post-Second World War period, organizations were quick to appropriate cybernetic control models of robotic, vigilant operators that treated the body like a machine. This fitted well with Taylor's original goal of isolating the brain from the body. The result was an alienating condition that became “Taylorist man” (Doray, 1988), characterized by a “divorce between that part of the body which has been instrumentalised and calibrated and the remainder of his living personality”—a mind/body split that Fordism further structured by introducing the dedicated, continuous flow assembly line.

Vigilant automotons have not proven sufficient, however, and from the 1970s and into the 1980s deskilling, reskilling, flexible specialization and efficient teamworking all became at least transient emblems of an alternative “systems model.” Organizational structures were adapted to changing patterns of environmental pressures, whereupon the touchstone was maintaining internal flexibility in the face of external instability and uncertainty, through the integration of an organization's subsystems (Reed, 1992). This alternative strategy of responsible autonomy has led to a reskilling of the operator such that their inventiveness and creative force could be integrated with the system in the new “post-Fordist” era (see, for example, Holloway's (1987) study of the “Japanese model” at Nissan UK, or the increase in IT firms no longer simply offering “hardware” but “integrated system solutions” such as management information systems, just-in-time methods and process management). Levidow and Robbins (1989: 168) express this restructuring as “human and machine components operating in programmed interaction ... as interfacing parts of an encompassing psycho-technical network.”

It is easy to reach a conclusion that the idea of organization structure and control is a legacy of the bureaucratic era. But, as several commentators have pointed out, it hasn't disapeared per se, only at the level of conscious experience. From the mid-1980s interest has focused on techniques that might help managers handle stress, learn skills faster, and so work cohesively and more effectively (Levidow and Robins, 1989). Although there has been a retreat from models of instrumental rationality and the flexible specialization of post-Fordism, these techniques and their supporting structures remain as instruments of power and (increasingly remote) control (Gergen, 1995). Specific rule systems that were once policed in the bureaucratic context have been replaced by disciplinary power. The essentially feudal power of bureaucratic organizations has been largely replaced by the panoptical construction of legitimate meanings. The incorporation and manipulation of organization culture, organized bodies of discourse and value systems that lie behind the profiling of individuals' personal characteristics, emphasis on self-disciplined work habits, hierarchies of responsibility, and the corporate vision and mission thus all serve to engender specific beliefs and to rationalize their existence such that organization members become complicit in their own subjugation (Gergen, 1995).

So the will to structure remains very much the central feature, not only of modern organizations as they struggle to work through the tension between the need for rigid command and flexible responses to unpredictable threats, but also within their broader, physical, social and technological context. In the next section I will use the tensions between the physical, social and technological worlds to explore a quite different approach to organizational analysis.


“Putting brain, body and world together again” is the subtitle to a recent book on cognitive science in artificial intelligence by Clark (1997). In it he reviews the perception of a disembodied mind, independent of its physical world, that sets itself up as the central planner of an information system. Such images, he tells us, are dominated by the methodological vision of development as a linear, stage-like progression through a sequence driven by a grand plan. Here we find echoes of Nietzsche's (Deleuze, 1983) reproach of the Socratic operation by which knowledge makes itself judge of life: knowledge gives life laws that separate it from what it can do, that keep it from acting, that forbid it to act, maintaining it in a narrow framework of scientifically observable reaction ... that measures, limits and molds life. (ibid.: 100) According to Clark (1997), however, information processing accounts that identify inner states or processes as having legislative roles may be illusory. Such systems, he argues, concentrate on the search for features whose inner representational states reflect deeper, more agent-independent properties that oppose thought and action. He contends that this is an inappropriate model of the knowledge that we actually use, online, in real time. In its place he proposes a componential model of embodied cognition, in which complex phenomena only make sense in an assembly of brain, body and world, wherein the brain is as much in the world as it is in the head. His point, like Nietzsche, is that life is subject to knowledge at the same time as thought is subject to life (Deleuze, 1983).

According to Deleuze and Guattari (1988), everything contains lines of articulation, segmentation or strata that mark its territory and give it a kind of disconnected objectivity. At the same time there are also counter lines of flight that set up movements of deterritorialization and destratification. These lines produce phenomena of relative slowness (fixedness) or acceleration and rupture (movement) respectively. Hence, no once and for all determination can ever be made about a thing's interior strata, only what it functions with, that with which it connects.

An encounter in this situation ceases to be a connection between things—there are no things to become—but is instead the “vacillating interaction” (Cooper, 1987: 401) between fixedness and movement within an originary milieu. Deleuze (in Hardt, 1993) insists that we shift our focus away from the affirmation of an already given, universal dialectic (territories, distinctions, stratifications) and begin to recognize how an individuated being is formed and reformed in the encounters in a beingwith-the-world assemblage. In this sense, a materialist ontology argues that within us there are contradictory identities, pulling in different directions, so that our identifications as “self” or “other” gather together in the elaboration of a third position, an immanent dimension “in” and “between” both: never complete, always confronted by “a bewildering, fleeting multiplicity of possible identities, any one of which we could identify with—at least temporarily” (Hall, 1992: 277).

Levidow and Robbins (1989) ask how the contradictory feelings of omnipotence and powerlessness, mastery and dependence of this self in between can ever be effectively reconciled. Following their lead, I suggest a kind of regressive solution, the cyborg self, through which these conflictual elements are held in tension, before going on to demonstrate its importance for organization studies.


To Donna Haraway (1991: 149) “a cyborg is a hybrid creature, composed of organism and machine.” The cyborg (or cybernetic organism) image is one of a lived high-tension zone between inside/outside and human/non-human dichotomies. It represents multivocal inclusivity and constant cross-referral between (our)self and (an)other; a simultaneous concern with edges or frontiers, the continual flux of bodies, which when they meet produce an encounter between two “dynamic relationships” (Hardt, 1993). Such encounters can either be compatible—and together produce a new relationship, a new body—or else incompatible—in which case the body of one or both is “decomposed” (Hardt). This dynamic uncertainty produces mixed-up, multiple or assembled selves, who come to assimilate the situated knowledges and perpetual ambiguities of at least two constituent fields: A body is not a fixed unit with stable or static internal structures. On the contrary, a body is a dynamic relationship whose internal structure and external limits are subject to change. What we identify as a body is merely a temporarily stable relationship. (Hardt, 1993: 92) The cyborg image is probably most familiar as a genre in science-fiction film. Movies such as Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982, 1991), Cyborg (1989), Metropolis (1926), Predator (1987), Robocop (1987), Terminator/Terminator II (1984/1991)—the filmography is too extensive to be listed here—are populated with synthetics, androids, simulants, replicants, living machines: “techno-golems manufactured through the grafting of metal and flesh” (Parker, 1997: 8). The human/machine combination/mutation plot in these exemplars is easy enough to follow, yet offers only a relatively simplistic, rather moralizing, over-determination of the cyborg metaphor: as programmed and obedient subhuman worker; alternatively, as often violent superhuman rebel, fighting society/evil. While this might enable new mileage to be contrived out of the patriarchal “what it takes to be human in an increasingly technologically mediated—that is to say virtual (Brigham and Corbett, 1997)—world” theme, it is this very search for and preservation of an essential human spirit, come what may, that ultimately renders the majority of celluloid, cyborg images unsatisfactory for exploring the tensions and possibilities of the self in between.

While the cyborg undermines the Weberian/Taylorian predication of centralized control and discrete specialization, it offers no simple or comfortable alternative, only the realization of living day to day with composition and decomposition. Weber and Taylor privileged fixed and static taxonomies, hierarchies, systems and structures. They presupposed an inside/outside introspection that gave the liberal illusion of capitalist, patriachical control over wage laborers. The cyborg, however, sweeps away notions of fixed identities, categories, distinctions, and purity. It recognizes the impossibility of holding habitual concepts, dominant points of view or oppressive value systems in rigid boundaries. Its image represents the rupture of unitary paradigms. Instead, the cyborg engages with connections, assemblages, circuits and conjunctions. It has a plural personality; it operates in a pluralistic mode, as a zero point between dichotomies (Star, 1991). The cyborg is representative of an age-old border situation between a self and its others: the social and the technical or machinic. It involves the technologization of the self and a reciprocal humanization of technology.

This symbiosis both extends the capabilities of the self, as an industrial glove or a chair extends the fragile capabilities of the body (Cooper, 1992), as well as incorporating and merging with the technological other. The cyborg is at once an adulterated and yet creative emblem of being-withthe-world—destroying the possibility of experiencing it as a series of discrete parts or an integral whole.

Cyborganization as assemblage

The task of conceptualizing partial identities and contradictory standpoints in the material, historically constituted and subjectively selected context of modern organizations is a difficult one. Yet it is a practical as well as an intellectual problem. I want to suggest that while modern organizations traditionally favor fixed and static taxonomies, hierarchies, systems and structures, they may be more productively recognized as interactive and unstable cyborg assemblages: as borderlands or meeting places where fiction and fact no longer enjoy any a priori distinction. As Haraway (1991) points out, “a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.”

So does cyborganization extol a new kind of collectivism, a utopian ideal of movement and total connectivity? Perhaps, but it is a paradoxical utopia in which greater emphasis is placed on the individual while at the same time the nature of individuation becomes blurred and abstract. For example, on the one hand managers are increasingly required to exercise discretion, take initiatives and assume responsibility. The postulate of individuation lying behind this view assumes the existence of some “principle” that would explain the individual and account for their individuality (Simonden, 1992). Traditionally managers have immersed themselves in the logicodeductive certainty of Anglo-American individualism. They have done this by ascribing themselves (or having ascribed on their behalf) certain ascendant characteristics: I am a visionary, I communicate well, I encourage participation, I build teams, I am clear what needs to be achieved, etc., etc. It is the dominance of the prefix “I” in these statements that epitomizes the view of the individual and the organization as substantial and discrete, with an essence of being and self-centered monism.

New technologies are increasingly restructuring organizational rationalization and social regulation, in the battle to reconcile the tension between the need for predictability and a flexible response to unpredictable threats. Individual roles, practices and knowledge are increasingly being constructed, coordinated and contested in “without walls” organizing. The impact of these new and “virtual” modes of organizing is to suppress mind/body, individual/community, social/technical dichotomies. These emerging networks simultaneously “automate and informate” (Zuboff, 1988) between dispersed satellite offices and are administered through increasingly decentralized or “loosely coupled” (Weick, 1979) structures. They have become integral parts of selfmanaging teams and groups, whose organizational working practices are increasingly constituted, renegotiated and extended by advanced information and communication technologies such as e-mail (Brigham and Corbett, 1997). Thus managers' decision making is at the interface of previous experiences, information systems and real-time contexts. Their individual cognitive abilities to think, to write, to calculate, to communicate, are bound up with information systems that are simultaneously individual and collective, inside and outside, decentralized and centralized, social and technical. The individuated manager becomes a cyborg, born at the interface of automation and autonomy.

However, cyborganization is not likely to be understood until a less individuated view of cognitive processes and the inequitable balance of power is recognized. This is the task of cyborganization, to recognize the figuration of interdependent boundary relationships that continually involve and enter into one another, instead of an egocentric structure of detached individuals, groups and organizations occupying discrete places in space and time (Elias, 1987). In other words, cyborganization has to become open to the variety and possibility of decentered identities and open valencies, to focus on the transformation, deformation and reformation of informational connections that are sometimes complementary but equally likely to be partial or contradictory. As Hall (1992) points out, identities emerge not as fixed entities but are poised in transition between positions, drawing on different traditions at the same time. Managers need to renounce what he calls the ambition of definitive purity and instead reconceive of themselves as the relative products of high-tension zones (Star, 1991); as cyborg selves, simultaneously situated in and between dynamic relationships.

This will be the method of cyborganization: (a) a refusal to construct the essence of a given reality by means of a conceptual relation between two terms, and (b) the consideration of any relationship as a thing in its own right (Simonden, 1992). This allows the conception that cyborganization possesses no unity in its identity, no stable state within which transformation is impossible. Rather, cyborganization has a “transductive unity” (Simonden, 1992) that works as a rhizomic process in which an activity sets itself in motion, propagating by migration in a given area over which it operates. It occurs when activity begins from a center and extends itself in various directions from this center, like a crystal or a hologram forming. Its dimensions, axes and gradients appear in “preindividual tension” (ibid.), a tension derived from the heterogeneity of the machines, texts, tools, people and powers it comprises. Thus in cyborganization form must be replaced by information—not that of signals or supports or vehicles of information constructed by the communication sciences, but a rhizomic movement of engagement, intervention and intersection, in which the boundaries of individuals, artefacts and machines are constructed.

Cyborganization is therefore the practice of disassembling and reassembling the body and in which “the body is now nothing more than a set of valves, locks, floodgates, bowls, or communicating vessels” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988: 153). It is the displacement and transformation of the bureaucratic division of labor into ergonomics and cybernetics, functional specialization into modular construction, individuals into replicants, labor into robotics, and mind into artificial intelligence (selected from Haraway, 1991: 209-10). Cyborganization is an affective machine ready to be plugged into other collective machines (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988).


To modern organizations, the cyborg is in opposition. It disarticulates, experiments, it is nomadic, always moving. The pretence of modern organizations is that order and stability are primordial. But order must be composed and positioned, it is a coded effect or product of organization (Cooper and Law, 1995). There is, therefore, nothing natural about order. It is simply the transformation of ambiguity into definition, alterity into identity, fuzziness into clarity. Yet these orderings are fragile. As Bauman (1991) points out, the sovereignty of modernity lies in its power to define; the definitions can only stick for so long as a certain “volume of coercion” remains adequate at controlling, mastering or subordinating unrest and disobedience. But—and this is the important point—things don't always occupy the compartments allocated. The threshold of order is continually being crossed.

It is this approach that enables us to see that the more modern organizations create fixed and static taxonomies, hierarchies, systems and structures, the more cyborganization engages with the connections, assemblages, circuits and conjunctions that span them. The second has made the first possible. The more cyborganization attempts to rupture and escape across the boundaries and thesholds, the more modern organizations seek to police them by redoubling their efforts to taxonomize and structure. However, the more taxonomization, the more thresholds are crossed and the greater the proliferation of cyborgs—managers who are designed for life in the borderlands.


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