literacy narratives

cyborg eliza



critical remediation: cyborg eliza

"Oh, it's a fine life, the life of the gutter. It's real: it's warm: it's violent:
you can feel it through the thickest skin: you can taste it and smell it without
any training or any work. Not like Science and Literature and Classical Music and Art."
—Higgins to Eliza, Pygmalion, pp. 278-79

When the time comes for Eliza’s performance at the ambassador’s garden party, she is a success in the sense that she has impersonated a duchess. Caught in limbo between two worlds, she asks Higgins: “What’s to become of me?” (p. 256). This scene—and in particular Eliza's question—has led some critics to feel that her literacy is limiting, not part of her “real” self. According to those who would posit a primordial subject position, it is a literacy and identity that is artificial. Using the Eliza narratives, this section explores the relationship between humans and their tools.

Consider how Eliza's story is retold in the realm of “computer literacy.” In 1966, Joseph Weizenbaum, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, created his own ELIZA, an artificial intelligence system. In his work, Computer Power and Human Reason, Weizenbaum (1976) writes,

I chose the name "Eliza" because, like G.B. Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle of Pygmalion fame, the program could be taught to "speak" increasingly well, although, also like Miss Doolittle, it was never quite clear whether or not it became a sense ELIZA was an actress who commanded a set of techniques but had nothing of her own to say. The script in turn, was a set of rules which permitted an actor to improvise on whatever resources it provided. (p. 188)
Weizenbaum's program mimicked the style of a Rogerian psychotherapist; and while people knew it was not real, they were nonetheless fascinated by it (see Turkle, p.105). For a simulation of ELIZA, see the video link below entitled "How do you do?"

This raises the question of how we define real in relation to mediation. While I am not arguing for the authenticity of Weizenbaum’s program, I want to suggest that embedded in this rhetoric is the faulty notion of the authentic human—unmediated by technology. Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour have rightly called for a broader conception of activity that acknowledges the work of nonhuman actors in mediating our lives both rhetorically and materially. In “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” Haraway argues that we need to break down the sharp distinctions we have drawn between human and machine and abandon romantic notions of an imaginary period when women (and perhaps men) were whole, before technology and tools. Deploying the image of the cyborg, she writes, "Cyborg writing must not be about the Fall, the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, before writing, before Man” (p. 33).

Instead of seeing meaning as residing solely in thoughts or mental activity, or in language with or without digital technologies, our approach to the canons locates meaning in action and
focuses on the work of mediational means. As James Wertsch explains, “...looking at action in isolation, without concern for the mediational means employed, loses sight of one of my most fundamental points and what is perhaps the most central contribution Vygotsky, Bakhtin, and many of their colleagues made to the study of mind: mediated action is an irreducible unit of analysis, and the person(s)-acting-with-mediational-means is the irreducible agent involved" (p.120). Examining mediated action is essential to our reformulation of the canon of delivery, and this is true whether we’re talking about notes passed in class or posted online.

Remediations (counterclockwise): 1. Continuously playing footage: Eliza after her remediation, 1938 film. 2. Advertisement for 1938 film; "Eliza in the computer classroom?" 3) "Artificial Elizas"; 4) "Eliza the computer." 5) Kim Parker, doctoral student in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, discusses the idea of "talking like."


patrick berry
center for writing studies
department of english
university of illinois
at urbana-champaign