If we are to speak of distributed agency, there are two seemingly disparate figures that are worth considering together as extremes of the same spectrum.[1] One is the epic hero equipped with special armaments and the other is the brain-dead patient on life-support machines. In between such extremes we could also perhaps, for the sake of argument, place another unseemly example of distributed agency: the Chan master who performs an ascending the hall (shangtang 上堂) ceremony with the help of a fly whisk. All three figures, I would argue, serve as good case studies for exploring the distributed agency of what Donna Haraway calls a cyborg. How so?

Rodger Wilkie makes the thought-provoking observation that Cethern Mac Fintain, a relatively minor figure from the medieval Irish epic Táin Bó Cuailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley), is a human/non-human hybrid (i.e., cyborg) hero that occupies a special liminal space between two incommensurate worlds, namely the world of adventure and violence, on the one hand, and the world of cultural stability and political order, on the other. Cethern, as Wilkie points out, is a hero insofar as he demonstrates his capacity to distinguish himself from other humans. And Cethern is a cyborg inasmuch as he could not have done so without the assistance of artificial ribs made of chariot parts. But taking note of the fact that Cethern’s ribs are in fact a kind of armament, Wilkie rightly extends the cyborg idea to explain all epic heroes whose capacity for heroic action (i.e., their agency) is constituted in part by their use of weapons and armor.

But what about the brain-dead patient on life support? We should note that there is also distributed agency at work here. With the assistance of life-support technology the brain-dead patient is set apart from other humans and turned into the living dead, or what Willard Gaylin calls a neomort.[2] To be sure, the brain-dead patient—a liminal agent par excellence—is no hero. Certainly, such a patient did not intend to be set apart from other humans or to become something other than what she was. Even so, it should be borne in mind that the part-organic and part-technological body of the patient bears testimony to the capacity of human beings to be transformed into the living dead. Like the epic hero, the brain-dead patient, I would therefore argue, is also a kind of cyborg.

There is, however, an obvious difference between the epic hero and the brain-dead patient. Although they are both organic/technological hybrids that have entered exceptional liminal states, the intention to stand apart from the rest of humanity can be readily inferred from the actions of the epic hero but not from the immobile body of the brain-dead patient. As Wilkie points out, for instance, Cethern had made the explicit choice to become a cyborg and fight for three days rather than be sick for a year and then survive. The brain-dead patient is obviously different, for seldom, if ever, do we hear of someone choosing or willing herself to become brain dead.

There is, indeed, no doubt that the two figures are different in this regard, but this difference, I submit, is one of degree rather than kind. This is because intention is not natural or given but rather, as the anthropologist Alfred Gell contends, inferred or abducted.[3] If so, then intention (or the lack thereof) cannot be a necessary condition for including either the epic hero or the brain-dead patient in the category of the liminal. If anything, as Wilkie contends, liminality is defined by the connection of the organic part of someone’s body and the hardware that constitutes an integral part of their altered bodily frames. Needless to say, that is precisely what makes them Harawayan cyborgs.

If it is true that the organic/technological interface is what makes the epic hero a hero and the brain-dead patient a brain-dead patient (as opposed to, say, just dead), then it follows that the ability to stand apart from other human beings and to affect others in extraordinary ways cannot be reduced to just one side of the organic/technological interface. In point of fact, what is arguably most remarkable about these two figures is this reality that their agency is comprised of two disparate and perhaps contradictory parts of their being. It is critical, however, that we not see the technological part of their being as simply a “tool” and the organic part as the “user.” Speaking of the agency of a soldier and his weapons, Gell makes the following observation, which seems worth considering here: “If we think of an anti-personnel mine, not as a ‘tool’ made use of by a (conceptually independent) ‘user,’ but, more realistically, as a component of a particular type of social identity and agency, then we can more readily see why a mine can be seen as an ‘agent’—that is, but for this artefact, this agent (the soldier + mine) could not exit.”[4] Why not? As Gell points out, “Their kind of agency would be unthinkable except in conjunction with the spatio-temporally expanded capacity for violence which the possession of mines makes possible.”[5]

As abstract as Gell’s observations may seem, they are linked directly to a grave political issue whose relevance extends well beyond the walls of the ivory tower. A good example is the question whether we should attribute the capacity for violence to the person or to the machine, a question that frequently appears in the debates about the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. But cyborg politics, if you will, is not limited to the issue of violence. The capacity to classify someone as brain dead is also similarly enmeshed in the politics of life and death.[6] As Giorgio Agamben claims, since the grounds for classifying someone as “brain dead” are still a matter of legal, cultural, and scientific debate, the borders between life and death, which today are precariously guarded by a sophisticated life-support system, are in fact “biopolitical borders.”[7] In this high stakes game of defining the borders of life and death broader social concerns about the value of human life, the transformation of bodily organs into commodities, and uneven power relations are the most critical pieces. And that is what makes this game a biopolitical one.

We can make similar claims about the epic hero. As Wilkie points out, the epic hero is linked to the people that granted him special armaments. More specifically, since the hero’s capacity for violence is made possible by the weapons he wields, “his violence is,” as Wilkie claims, “their violence.” This, of course, does not imply that the people who grant a hero his armaments are heroes themselves. To use Wilkie’s own words, heroes “preserve the integrity of their societies by sacrificing themselves to the shifting needs of violent confrontation, and in so doing become other.” What we, therefore, have here in the epic hero is another connection that is based on uneven power relations. If I may also borrow the words of the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern, we can perhaps say that the hero and the society that turns him into a cyborg are compatible but not comparable. As Strathern explains, “Comparability without compatibility: each extends the other, but only from the other’s position. What the extensions yield are different capacities. In this view, there is no subject-object relation between a person and a tool, only an expanded or realized capability.”[8] The tool and its user are, in other words, not immutable positions, roles, or identities. Rather, they are connections that remain partial and perspectival but connections that are effective nonetheless.

Wilkie’s effective application of cyborg theory to the epic hero enables us to see the utility of bringing the insights of disciplines as seemingly unrelated as medieval literature and feminist anthropology to bear on each other. How, then, might cyborg theory and the Chan Buddhist ritual of ascending the hall benefit each other?

Despite the frequent references to fly whisks in records of formal sermons delivered by Chan masters, few scholars have given these objects much attention.[9] Chan masters frequently used fly whisks during a formal sermon to punctuate and thus highlight particular remarks. They would, for instance, ask a question such as “What is the true eye of the Dharma?,” strike the platform or dais on which they were seated with their fly whisks, and then answer their own question. Conversely, Chan masters would make a remark, raise the fly whisk, and ask a question about the remark that they just made. Also common is the use of the fly whisk—picking it up and putting it back down—to signal the beginning and end of a sermon. These stylized gestures, while maintaining their original function, were sometimes used in more creative ways as well. Consider the following story:

Baizhang revisited Mazu for a consultation. Mazu raised his fly whisk. The master [i.e., Baizhang] asked, “Is this its function or beyond its function?” Mazu hung his whisk back in its old spot. The master [remained speechless] for a while. Mazu said, “Later when you open your lips how will you instruct others?” The master thereupon snatched the whisk and raised it. Mazu said, “Is this its function or beyond its function?” The master also hung the whisk back up. Mazu immediately gave out a shout. The master thus became deaf for three days and he thereupon had a great awakening.[10]

The context of this apocryphal story is a private consultation and not a formal sermon, but the fly whisk is still being used to mark the beginning and end of a “sermon” or, more precisely speaking, an instruction. The irony of this instruction (i.e., “Is this its function or beyond its function?”) is that the student, Baizhang, is beguiled into performing the instruction in the teacher’s place. When the same gestures are made by the student, however, the fly whisk fails to work as usual. This, of course, has less to do with Baizhang than with the story’s attempt to underscore the dangers of empty imitation, but what is assumed in both the teacher and the student’s actions in the story is the function of the fly whisk.

What we need to bear in mind here is that the sermon or instruction that Chan masters delivered with the help of their fly whisks is no ordinary sermon. When they ascended the platform or dais to deliver a sermon the masters are magically transformed into living buddhas who could preach the Dharma. And this transformation was possible, as Robert Sharf argues, because of the ritual frame of the meticulously choreographed sermon.[11] As an important part of this ritual frame, the fly whisk, I would contend, marks the Chan master’s crossing of a “liminal” boundary into and out of a special state that sets himself apart from other human beings. Like the epic hero, the Chan master, it seems, is thus also cyborg.[12]

The two figures, however, are different in terms of the degree to which the choice or intention to become separated from other human beings is emphasized. In contrast to the case of Cethern, this is not a point of emphasis in the stories about Chan masters performing the ascending the hall ritual. There is another important difference between these two kinds of figures worth noting here. Whereas the chariot frame augments the power of the hero in the case of Cethern, the fly whisk imbues the Chan master with qualities befitting a buddha. It is for these reasons that I would place the Chan master between the epic hero and the brain-dead patient on the cyborg spectrum. But a more important point needs to be made: By looking at distributed agency in a comparative and cross-disciplinary manner, I was able to imagine the possibility of placing different examples of distributed agency on a broad spectrum, one that can open new avenues of research. Ultimately, this is what Wilkie’s essay challenges us to do.


    1. In this review essay I shall rely primarily on the notion of “distributed agency” found in Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), esp. 20–21.return to text

    2. Willard Gaylin, “Harvesting the Dead.” Harper’s 249 (1974): 23–30.return to text

    3. For the word “abduction,” see Gell, Art and Agency, 14–16.return to text

    4. Ibid., 21.return to text

    5. Ibid.return to text

    6. See Margaret Lock, Twice Dead: Organ Transplants and the Reinvention of Death (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); and also Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998).return to text

    7. Agamben, Homo Sacer, 94.return to text

    8. Marilyn Strathern, Partial Connections, updated edition (Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 2004), 38.return to text

    9. The one exception is John Kieschnick; see his book, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003).return to text

    10. Tiansheng guangdeng lu 天聖廣燈錄 (XZJ135.655b7–11).return to text

    11. See Robert H. Sharf, “Ritual,” in Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism, ed. Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 245–70, 259–67.return to text

    12. It seems worth noting here that the lecturer and the fly whisk, which was used by intellectuals during the Six Dynasties period in China as part of their “pure conversation” (qingtan 清談) performance, was once likened to a soldier and his sword; see Kieschnick, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture, 145.return to text