In her seminal book, How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles discusses the connection of subjectivity and embodiment and warns her readers that “my nightmare is a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being” (5).

What propels this nightmare is a view of the posthuman privileging “informational pattern over material instantiation, so that embodiment in a biological substrate is seen as an accident of history rather than an inevitability of life” (Hayles 2). In some forms of posthuman thinking, the body thus becomes malleable, interchangeable, and ultimately superfluous to posthuman subjectivity—and by extension a possible site for commodification and the whims of fashion. But Hayles’ warning is clear: this form of the “cybernetic posthuman” (4) is deeply entrenched in conceptions of liberal humanism, of the universality of the human and the self-possession of the individual, “a claim that depends on erasing markers of bodily difference, including sex, race, and ethnicity” (4-5), and identifies the body not as (part of) the self, but as “an object for control and mastery” (5).

In opposition to the cybernetic posthuman, critics such as Hayles or Sherryl Vint posit a different view of the posthuman as embodied and relational. In her book Bodies of Tomorrow, Vint argues that subjectivity is constructed both from material embodiment and social community: “subjectivity is as much material as it is abstract, about the body as well as about the mind, and subjectivity is shaped by cultural forces that produce the sense of an interior“ (6). Technologies, especially those that define the posthuman in their intervention on the body, have influence on the way we culturally construct the human: “The human body, like the human subject, is a product of both culture and nature” (17). Vint argues that body and subjectivity are intertwined through material and cultural construction: “The material and the discursive body are mutually productive: the material body is read by discourses, and the conclusions produced by these readings structure practices which influence the ways bodies come into being” (18). How we represent bodies and subjectivity in our discourses, be they political, economical, or cultural, is thus ideologically loaded and reveals the positions available in dealing with the posthuman.

The TV series Altered Carbon (2018-), based on the novel of the same name by Richard Morgan (2002), is a valuable case study to explore the representation of posthuman subjectivity, as it propagates exactly the kind of commodification nightmare that Hayles warns against, while at the same time complicating this concept through representations of embodiment and material entanglement. While the premise of the show—that human consciousness can be transferred via cortical stacks and either “spun up” in virtual worlds or “sleeved” in a variety of biological and synthetic bodies—fully adheres to conceptions of the cybernetic posthuman, the representation of posthuman bodies in the series nevertheless reveals a complex material and communal grounding for subjectivity.

Commodification of Bodies

In its depiction of downloading the human mind/consciousness into a “stack”, Altered Carbon represents the specific form of the cybernetic posthuman that is embraced by classic cyberpunk and transhumanist thought alike—the idea, as Hans Moravec puts it that “a human mind might be freed from its brain” (4). According to transhumanism, the physical body is flawed and humans should be transcending its limitations into a “postbiological” (Moravec 1) age through the use of technology. Moravec sees the best option to become posthuman in the “idea that a human mind can be transferred to a new body” (110), at best a machinic body to circumvent biological limitations. In terms of subjectivity, he argues for “pattern-identity,” assuming the “essence of a person” is not defined by “the stuff of which a body is made” but rather “the pattern and the process going on in my head” (177, emphasis in original). 

A similar fixation on the ‘pattern’ rather than the bodily ‘stuff’ is at the heart of cyberpunk, which as a genre propagates the idea of the body as meat and the mind as data that can escape bodily limitations. As Vint has pointed out, in its depictions of posthuman existence, cyberpunk is “best known for its rejection of embodiment and embrace of an existence in cyberspace“ (102). Analyzing William Gibson’s emblematic novel Neuromancer (1984), Vint makes the point that cyberpunk “appeals to the (impossible) desire to escape the vicissitudes of the body and occupy the place of selfmastery” (104), while in its representation of embodiment it simultaneously reveals a strong critique of an “extremely commodified world” in which the material body is at risk (to be controlled, harmed, sold), thus justifying the desire “to escape the consequences of having a body” (108).

Altered Carbon is ripe for a similar analysis, depicting a world in which bodies have become exchangeable commodities and the stack (i.e. the mind) of a person can be transferred into many different forms of embodiment: naturally born, resleeved in a different natural body, vat grown in a cloning facility, illegally bio-printed from sampled DNA, synthetically created, or spun up in any kind of virtual environment. The choice of body/bodies is only limited by one’s economic means, as each option comes with a price tag—in the show, “flesh is just another kind of economy,” as Julie Muncy has succinctly put it. Bodies, then, are the ultimate commodities through which power differentials are expressed. As Mark Bould has pointed out, cyberpunk „inaugurated the SF of multinational capital and corporate globalization, its depiction of information circulating in cyberspace a potent metaphor for the global circulation of capital“ (220). In cyberpunk everything is subsumed by capitalist power, and in Altered Carbon even human bodies become the object of biopolitical control through the abilities granted by the stack-technology. Karen Cadora has argued that technology itself is the divisive instrument to uphold such hierarchies of control: “cyberpunk imagines a world where technology is a tool of both oppression and liberation. Poverty is pervasive in cyberpunk, and technological resources are expensive luxuries. Those without access to […them] are effectively kept in the underclass” (p. 359).

Altered Carbon drives this inequality to the extreme, sending “socioeconomic stratification into overdrive, creating dire new realities for the poor […] while simultaneously producing an elite upper-class,” as Devon Maloney has argued. The upper-class, simply called Meths (in reference to the biblical Methuselah, hinting at their unnaturally long life-span) in the show, treat bodies as a resource to be used for their personal entertainment and gain. Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) and his wife Miriam (Kristin Lehman) keep a number of grown clone bodies at hand, should their current body fail and need to be replaced. Bancroft regularly visits a camp of survivors of a “contagion bomb” attack, touching and hugging them, thus contaminating his own body and dying a slow death. In a religiously connoted scene, surrounded by the plagued carriers reveling in his touch, presenting himself in a messianic fashion, he argues that the visits and his ‘deaths’ are “my sacrifice to help them feel noticed” (“The Wrong Man”, S01E05). But Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), the protagonist of the show, is not fooled by the theatrics, calling out the Meth’s (and, one could argue, the Christian churches’) bigotry: “If you care so much, why don’t you buy them new sleeves?” As one of the richest people alive, Laurens would have enough money to provide the camp with synthetic sleeves, but his own egomania of being revered and symbolically dying for (one of) humanity’s sins is more valuable to him. His body becomes a commodity to be handed out for the return of a unique experience and the power it grants him.

Miriam Bancroft has also commodified her body for unique experiences. She wants to feel ‘irresistible’: “Have you heard of Empathin? Merge9 […] It’s a biochemical pheromone. Puts bodies in touch with one other. This sleeve is state-of-the-art biochemtech from Nakamura Labs. I secrete Merge9 when I’m aroused. It’s in my saliva, in my sweat, in my cunt.” (“Fallen Angel”, S01E02). She uses made-to-order sleeves to play the role of irresistible witch, a bioengineered Circe, complete with her own pleasure island full of her own clones able to engage in sexual play at the same time. Her clones are so well made and tempting that her own daughter uses one to seduce men and experience the sensation—borrowing the sleeve as if it were a car: “Why wouldn’t I want to take ‘em for a spin? I have fun, okay?” (“In a Lonely Place”, S01E03).

But sleeves are not just used for pleasure; they also facilitate business interests, and can be operated for special tasks. Kovacs himself has been given the sleeve of ex-cop Elias Ryker, because it “came equipped with military-grade neurachem and combat muscle memory“ (“Out of the Past”, S01E01), making it perfect for soldiers and law-enforcement. When the fight club proprietor Carnage (Matt Frewer) discusses his next fight for which he “stocked up on inventory,” he shows Kovacs and Ortega Kovacs’s old sleeve (Will Yun Lee), praising it for its “hot rod envoy flesh, with all the modern accouterments” (“The Wrong Man”, S01E05). Kovacs’s sister, Reileen Kawahara (Dichen Lachman), similarly uses genetically modified sleeves for her fights, as well as a variety of different bodies for her covert-actions, among them a young child so as to better manipulate those around her (S01E09).

When you have the money, biomedicine is able to provide any kind of specialized body you wish for or require. In a hypercapitalist society, though, technology and resources also produce a divide and entrench systems of inequality. As James Caccamo has argued, “the digital divide will no longer be a social reality but will be written into our bodies and minds“ (209). Caccamo points out that “radical inequality results from the posthuman development process” and that it will entrench or even accelerate “the injustices that characterize our contemporary society” (209). For the poor and disenfranchised, the body they are born with becomes one of the few, if not the only commodity to trade with. Within the subject matter of Altered Carbon this is most poignantly demonstrated by the penal system. In reality already a form of biopower that is used to generate revenue for private owners, the TV series makes literal what is currently only figurative: Convicted criminals become the property of the penal system, their stacks are stripped from their bodies and “put on ice,” while their sleeves are reused and available for sale: “Now that you have paid your debt to society, you have been resleeved from our available inventory of prisoners” (“Out of the Past”, S01E01). When prisoners are released, or when victims of crime get a free sleeve as “restitution”, the state pays for the body, providing “what they have on hand. Broken down crap […] Prisons lease out the good sleeves for profit” (“Out of the Past”, S01E01). 

In the first episode, when Kovacs is picked-up by Lt. Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) at one of the resleeving facilities, we see a middle-aged woman looking around the room, frightened, then moving over to a couple in their thirties: it is their daughter. The father confronts the guard: “What have you done to our daughter? Cindy’s seven years old […] She was murdered in a hit-and-run. The law says she gets a free sleeve” (“Out of the Past”, S01E01). But the guards (and the law) are blind to the needs of the child or the parents, arguing that a free sleeve is any that is available in the inventory of the prison, “if you don’t like it, pay for an upgrade or put her back in storage“ (“Out of the Past”, S01E01). What is meant as “victim restitution” is thus cruelly adding insult to injury of those that cannot afford the upgrade; the family is left with the traumatic experience of a child in an older woman’s body.

Another group that is presented as disenfranchised in the sleeve-economy are sex workers, who provide their bodies to the wants and needs of their clientele. Whereas virtual reality could provide an outlet for sexual fantasies, in the world of Altered Carbon, physical sex is seen as more desirable and is thus a better-paid service. Here again, the desires of the Meths are the most extreme. At ‘Jack It Off,’ the low-end club that Bancroft regularly frequents, he is known to be violent and sometimes kill the (biological) sleeves of the girls he stays with. But, as one sex worker argues: „He’s one of the good ones. If he breaks it, he buys it. […] You know, if he accidentally kills a girl he buys her an upgraded sleeve” (“Fallen Angel”, S01E02). The sex workers see their bodies as commodities to trade with, most of the time the only commodity they have to offer. Lizzie Elliot (Hayley Law), Lauren’s favorite at ‘Jack It Off,’ for example, is selling her body in order to pay for her mother’s sleeve, to get her back once she is released from prison. She is even willing to sacrifice her own bodily integrity (on Bancroft’s violent tendencies), in order to restore the unity of her family.

Even more extreme are the actions at high-end bordello ‘Head in the Clouds,’ which makes use of synthetic as well as biological sleeves. The TV show never really discusses the synthetic sleeves and, except for Carnage and Lizzie in the final episode, no one uses them. This is noteworthy, especially since synths feature the ability to restructure the outer shell of the sleeve to any wishes (within seconds), making them ideal for sex work. An explanation as to why they feature so little in the show might be found in the original novel, where Morgan discusses a sort of ‘uncanny valley’ feeling of being inside a synthetic sleeve: “Cheap, but it’s too much like living alone in a draughty house, they never seem to get the flavor circuits right. Everything you eat ends up tasting like curried sawdust” (13). That the show fails to discuss the more practical option of synthetic bodies hints at an ideological point about the primacy of the biological. One could argue that the show, by omission, promotes a similar ‘uncanny valley’ feeling for those dealing with synths. Carnage, for example, looks grotesquely unreal in his sleeve, ‘human, but not quite,’ and Ortega makes a quip about the sleeve’s ability to alter its face to what is desired.[1] As Shahizah Ismail Hamdan has pointed out (for the novel, but relevant here, too): “Re-sleeving in a non-organic body fails to capture the finer details of an organic body” (128). Lizzie, echoes this, arguing that she is keeping the synth, because “it’s not real. And she doesn’t know if she is either” (“The Killers”, S01E10). Dealing with and being in a synth might thus not be seen as authentic or natural human experience, embodiment in a biological sleeve is proposed as central to feeling human.

In fact, a biological body of the sex worker is a prerequisite for the most exclusive service at ‘Head in the Clouds’, as it deals with hurting, torturing, and killing human beings for sexual, sadistic pleasure. Clients can pay for any sort of mistreatment of bodies and the sex workers[2] believe to be repaid by new sleeves: “I am all yours […] You could cut holes in me anywhere. Fuck me in them. Tear me apart, General. Rip me open with that big dick” (“Rage in Heaven”, S01E09). The thrill of killing is an experience so unique that wealthy Meth clients pay extraordinary sums for it. The so-called “Iridium Experience,” though, does not provide a resleeving, as the girl hopes in her naiveté:

Vernon:   How many times have you done this?

Girl: It’s my first.

Vernon:   Do you know of any other girls that come back?

Girl: Well, turnover’s pretty high and we don’t, you know, socialize. But you have to kill me. If you don’t, they’re gonna fire me.

(“Rage in Heaven”, S01E09)

Unbeknownst to the sex workers, Reileen has found a way to manipulate “religious coding” and mark them as Neo-Catholic believers in one-body-incarnations, thus denying them resleeving or any form of after-death testimony in virtual reality. This life is the only one they will ever have ; their death will be permanent. The show never makes explicit whether Reileen does this due to some social taboos around killing a sleeve or some sexual practices, strict regulations on and supervision of permission by law to damage sleeves (see below), or because she can market the service to the Meths as even more exclusive. Either way, the practice of providing the experience of torture and killing is what Anya Heise-von der Lippe describes as the worst form of “technologically enhanced, neoliberal late capitalism and its necropolitical exploitation of human bodies” (6). Meths see bodies as mere objects to be used and discarded in any way they see fit, no matter the actual cost to the person inhabiting it.

This view of bodies as mere objects has even found its way into law practice and policy, where Meths can apply for a permit of “Extreme Organic Damage,” which basically equates killing a human to property damage—as long as it is monitored by police, you simply sign a waiver of permission and the damaged party will get reimbursed. Bancroft uses this practice to stage a fight to the sleeve death between a married couple: “The winner gets an upgraded combat sleeve. The loser gets a downgraded one” (“In a Lonely Place”, S01E03). Interestingly, the show implies the communal consequences of this practice, as Kovacs highlights the emotional distress that the couple’s children will be subject to, their parents continuously appearing in different bodies. Heise-von der Lippe argues that the show propagates a “negligent position towards death: the prospect of resleeving undermines death as a meaningful category for humanity” (7). But as we have seen, this is not equally true for everyone—death does have meaning to those that cannot afford this hypercapitalist fantasy of the cybernetic posthuman and it has communal consequences for loved ones that have to deal with new forms of embodiment and identity.

The Corporeality of Existence

Meths value unique experiences, especially if these are connected to bodily sensations—which the show foregrounds by its emphasis on sex, drugs, and violence. Obviously, there is a dissonance here with the concept of disembodied “pattern-identity,” which rejects the importance of that “stuff of which a body is made” (Moravec 177). In this, Altered Carbon, makes explicit what Allison Muri has pointed out—that the “rhetoric of disembodied cyborgs” (74) is flawed, as the body cannot simply be made to vanish into non-corporeality, but demands attention regardless of our technological level:

If we are going to be talking about the living human body […], we need also to emphasize that human consciousness is inalienably enmeshed with its corporeality, with the everyday actualities of its flesh, its giving-birth, its growths and excrescences, the regularities or indignities of its secretions; our consciousness is mediated by hunger pangs roiling beneath the rib cage, by dripping and oozing mucal secretions, by the insistence of that imperative erectile tissue in our genitalia, by the sometimes pleasurable and urgent necessity to shit. These undignified aspects of human life sharply contrast the supposed dematerialization of flesh into data that have continued to be a powerful metaphor in literary and cultural studies for decades. (Muri 77)

Underneath the shiny possibilities of the transfer of human consciousness and endlessly perfected clone bodies, Altered Carbon nonetheless presents a future very much grounded in the carnality of the body. And in fact, mixed in with its glossy visual, the show does not hide the biological workings of the body. After seeing the murdered family of Ortega, hardened cop Tanaka (Hiro Kanagawa) breaks down and vomits, while a funny scene with Ortega’s grandmother cross-sleeved in a big, male gang member’s body has her peeing standing-up and joking about the biological difference. The “actualities of the flesh” cannot be erased in the show.

But more than just bodily functions, the show highlights the threat that every body is under from the techno-capitalist system it is living in. As Vint has argued for Case in Neuromancer, the same is true for Kovacs: “In a world where everything has become a commodity, even body parts risk being harvested by the more powerful. The cyberspace elite stance begins to look more like a defence mechanism to prevent the subject from realizing how little control it has“ (108). Indeed, after having been resleeved by Bancroft, thus literally having been bought and discovering his servitude to the Meth, Kovacs escapes into bodily cravings, first getting high on a variety of drugs (“some brain grease”, “some epic shit”) and then soliciting prostitutes (“Well, I got money and he’s got girls, so I think we will be good”), but essentially denying any responsibility for the world around him (“I’ll take eternity on ice”, “This isn’t my world”—“Out of the Past”, S01E01).

In fact, Kovacs’s reaction to being controlled in the first episode is exemplary of how the show itself revels in corporeality and bodily dysfunction—highlighting embodiment in its visual focus on the breaking-down of the human. As seen above, the show presents the moral break-down of the elite, underscoring this with vivid imagery of their depravity and opulence. Miriam Bancroft collects “Elder civilization artifacts,” among them “the only Songspire tree on Earth” (“Out of the Past”, S01E01), which, as Kovacs remarks, should be in a museum (accessible to the community) and not a private home. Later, Miriam even manages to secure “the fossil of an actual Elder,” the bones of a creature with angelic wings, displayed in her home to her friends as her latest prize (“The Killers”, S01E10)—monopolizing the access to such cultural artifacts gives her social capital and power. The show pushes this need for a display of power further: One scene depicts the elite gathering for a theme party under the motto “unique,” one person bringing a human being illegally sleeved into a snake (“Turns out you go quite mad”), the ‘rare dish’ of the evening consists of tiger meat, and Bancroft displays Kovacs as his unique item: “Something no one owns in the entire Protectorate but me. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the last Envoy” (“In a Lonely Place”, S01E03). Meths, the show makes clear, know no ethics in how they interact with their surroundings; pleasure and power drive their self-interests.

Even more expressive than the moral decay, is the shows visual repertoire of breaking bodies, as Heise-von der Lippe points out, “a number of scenes highlighting fights, injuries, and torture in a manner verging on body horror” (7). Bancroft’s body decays with blisters and peeling skin during the camp scene (S01E05); the married-couple-fight is presented in vivid detail in a low-gravity environment, so as to highlight the dark red blood spatter as the bodies are slashed open (S01E03); when Kovacs is ambushed by armed mercenaries in The Raven, the automated guns of the hotel rip through their bodies in slow-motion, the chaos tracked by CGI displays of blood spattering and bodies torn (S01E01); when Kovacs and Ortega are forced to fight genetically enhanced warriors at Fightdrome, Reileen shows up wielding a Katana, slaughtering an army of fighters, while the camera tracks a circling motion, recording the falling bodies, pierced and sliced, around her (S01E06); and as Ortega takes out a dozen or more versions of Reileen in the clone facility, the camera lingers on the repetition of naked bodies (slashed, shot, broken) that accrue in the chamber (S01E08). In all of these scenes (and many others), the visual focuses on the broken bodies, showing slashed and battered skin, broken bones and projectiles piercing flesh, blood, guts and brain spattering the scene.

Moreover, a whole episode is devoted to vivid expressions of torture in virtual reality, visually foregrounding this as bodily harm is done to Kovacs (though simulated), including severe burns, amputation, scarring, body intrusions (S01E04). In this episode, Kovacs is brought into a clinic that specializes in torture and information extraction. Intercut with the torture scenes, the clinic technicians are shown. In the background, presented only in snippets, the camera keeps glossing over the dissection of the sex worker that Kovacs dealt with at ‘Jack It Off’—her body is splayed open and her organs are harvested, she is being systematically emptied of any ‘reusable’ material. The shots are gruesome and qualify as some of the most disgusting displays of violence against female bodies in the show, though they are by far not the only ones. In fact, as Heise-von der Lippe points out, the show “reiterates gendered differences to the point of presenting stereotypical heteronormative patriarchal violence as the norm” (8) and in its visuality foregrounds female bodies as abused and mistreated through sexual and non-sexual violence. Furthermore, the show goes out of its way to sexualize female bodies, showing nudity of almost all female characters and using sexual desire as a means of manipulation. The female body, in Altered Carbon, is an object to be desired, viewed, manipulated, and discarded by the powerful.[3]

Resistance in Community and Materiality

In its depiction of Meths and their hypercapitalist commodification of bodies, the show firmly positions itself in the cybernetic posthuman that Hayles warns about. Nonetheless, there is a form of resistance to this concept in the visual representation of bodily harm and the focus on bodily abuse that allows for a different stance on the posthuman. Heise-von der Lippe notes, that while Meths advocate a “cavalier stance towards damaging” bodies, other characters, including Kovacs and Ortega, are “repeatedly presented as adverse to gratuitous violence and prone to preserve a person’s sleeve” (6-7). While I do not see a stance against gratuitous violence, both Kovacs and Ortega argue for keeping intact a sleeve that holds an emotional connection for them. The previous relationship between Ortega and Ryker emotionally ties her to his sleeve­—now inhabited by Kovacs—and informs her interactions with Kovacs. When Kovacs threatens damage to his sleeve, Ortega gives in and declares her feelings for Ryker and her motives for caring for the sleeve (“The Wrong Man”, S01E05). Later in the episode, Ortega and Kovacs get close to each other, tellingly by her tending to his wounds and discussing the old scars that literally mark history on his/Ryker’s body. At one point Kovacs asks about a scar and Ortega begins to mix the two persons present (body/mind) together:

Kovacs:        When you look in my eyes what do you see?

Ortega:         They’re not your eyes.

Kovacs:        What about this?

Ortega:         That one’s from me. I forget why, but you deserved it. This is a mistake. [SIGHS] When I look into his eyes, I see you looking back at me, and it’s been a long time since someone looked at me like that.

Kovacs:        I’m sorry I’m not Elias.

Ortega:         Just shut the fuck up.                           

(“The Wrong Man”, S01E05)

The combination of Ryker’s sleeve (which echoes the physical relationship they had) and Kovacs’s feelings for Ortega (reflected in his look, reminding her that Ryker no longer feels this way) conflates Ryker and Kovacs in her view, making it impossible to ignore the embodied reality of her relationship with Kovacs. Meaningful human connection is only possible in its embodied form.

Kovacs reacts similarly when the Ryker sleeve is damaged in a fight and Reileen wants to let it die, “You’re gonna wake up in a new body, something more durable and a little less gaijin and with better hair.” Kovacs is adamant, though, fighting hard against Reileen’s casual dismissal of the body: “You have to save this sleeve” (“Nora Inu”, S01E07). Knowing of his complex and embodied relationship to Ortega and not wanting to loose it, Kovacs insists on being sleeved in Ryker. He also holds on to Ortega after Leung (Trieu Tran) attacks her and she almost dies. Kovacs does everything to save her, rushes her to the hospital, pays for “specialized treatment,” and when her arm needs amputation and replacement, chooses a “seamless interface” design so that it blends in with Ortega’s body. He is aggravated by the casualness of the doctor’s capitalist interest in the body as a product: “Offer me one more thing and I’ll put your head through the wall. […] Just fix her” (“Man with my Face”, S01E06). For both Ortega and Kovacs, their bodies are connected and essential to their emotional involvement; they cannot see their relationship without this specific embodiment.

This does not only hold true for lovers, but also for family relationships, though it is more complicated. As we have seen before, resleeving a loved one in a body perceived to be ‘wrong’ can cause harm to the social and communal bonds—parents now physically younger then their seven-year old daughter will have to face social dissonance. The same is true for resleeving those that died, as the already mentioned scene with Ortega’s family on Dia de los Muertos (“Force of Evil”, S01E04) shows. When Abuela returns to the family dinner in the body of a tattooed, male gang member, everyone reacts in shock (“that sleeve you gave her, my god!”) and has trouble accepting the loving grandmother. Her physical presence as a large man is not to be ignored, especially since she pushes the issue in conversation (“Maybe we should only get one body. But then you have to enjoy it, huh? Not feel trapped every minute of your life”; “This is a miracle, right here”) and through action (“I’m peeing standing up!”). Recognition of the loved one in a different sleeve, especially if they present as a totally opposite body image, takes working against an innate sense of an embodied human existence. A communal and social dissonance has to be actively overcome.

In the show, this idea is transported in many instances: Kovacs being mistaken for Ryker by criminals bent on revenge, the Bancroft children sleeving their parent’s clones and assuming their roles, Kovacs not recognizing Reileen in Ortega’s body. When Kovacs needs a hacker and gets Ava Elliot out of prison, she is cross-sleeved into a man (Cliff Chamberlain) and her husband Vernon (Ato Essandhoh) at first reacts with irritation and disgust: “Whoa, whoa! Back off, buddy! What are you, drunk?” (“Clash by Night”, S01E08). It takes a while for them to adjust and in the end, Ava resleeves in her original body for the family to be reunited. The only one not needing adjustment is their daughter Lizzie, who (in virtual) recognizes her mother immediately: “Sometimes, belief isn’t about what we can see. It’s about what we can’t.” For the already strained cognitive ability of Lizzie’s broken psyche, stuck in virtual and rescued from the brink of insanity, there is no guarantee that any data received by the senses is real anyway. Seeing her parent is a matter of belief, relation is confirmed by communal consensus.

In fact, the show points out the unreliability of physical recognition when Kovacs and Ortega discover an illegally cloned Bancroft at his son’s house: “How do I know you are who you are? Before stacks, yeah. A face is a face. But now, could be anyone in there” (“The Wrong Man”, S01E05). That community and social consensus determine identity when physical recognition is impossible is even more present in the novel, where the ritual of “Ascertainment” takes the place of recognizing your loved ones: it is described as “a deeply respected underlying aspect of social relations. Outside of expensive hi-tech psychographic procedures, it’s the only way we have to prove to our friends and family that, regardless of what flesh we may be wearing, we are who we say we are. Ascertainment is the core social function that defines ongoing identity in the modern age” (Morgan 335-36). The TV show only hints at these social/communal functions of identity construction, but overtly reveals the consequences of dissolving the connection of subjectivity and embodiment.

Conclusion: The Politics of the Posthuman

In its depiction of posthumanity, Altered Carbon can be understood as “an attempt to intervene in and diversify what posthumanism can mean” (xiii) or as an intervention into posthuman discourse, as Thomas Foster has posited for cyberpunk as a cultural formation. The show’s premise of stack-technology promises the transhumanist fantasy of the cybernetic posthuman that Hayles has warned against and which sees the complete embrace of capitalist, neoliberal notions of human ownership and mastery of the body, as much as humanist notions of essential human nature based in the primacy of the mind over the body: “Liberal humanism severs the subject from his or her embeddedness in material circumstances, just as mind/body dualism severs the mind from its relation to the body. The politics of each suggest that the individual has a constant essence or identity regardless of circumstances, and that there is something universal about this essence of being human” (Vint 90). This view on the posthuman brings with it a culture that “advocates both individual freedom and individual responsibility, and the absence of government constraints and controls” (90).

Technically then, as with any form of the disembodied posthuman, markers of “embodied difference” (Vint 88), such as race, gender, or disability, should be eliminated and discrimination ended. But, as Vint remarks for a similar scenario in Ian M. Banks Culture-novels, “the concrete specificity of living in differently raced or gendered or sexed bodies is effectively erased” (88) from the experiences portrayed in this kind of fiction. The “Mind/body dualism has historically allowed some subjects—male, white, heterosexual—to construct themselves as unmarked by the body” (89), thus foregrounding the mind as essential to their subjectivity. In terms of those subjects that do not have efficient means of moving between bodies, they are thus anchored in their limited embodied existence, meaning they will “not [be] able to attain true subject status, since subjectivity has been equated with the mind alone” (Vint 89). Altered Carbon propagates a view of Meth subjectivity as the ‘natural’ state of human existence, and confirms this by portraying foremost Laurens Bancroft (white, male, able-bodied, wealthy) as the ideal of the stack-technology influenced world. Embodied human existence to the Meths are “fireflies, each a tiny spark whose beauty lies in how quickly it’s extinguished” (“Clash by Night”, S01E08).

This view, though, to adapt Vint’s argument, detaches the Meths from those fireflies, “those body-subjects who do not matter in the current ideological configuration […] This type of posthumanism so distances the subject from his embodied life that he feels that the ‘long run’ perspective of millions of years of evolution is the appropriate model upon which to base his relationship to other subjects in the contemporary world” (180). It ignores the social constructions and institutions that ground the human in embodied and material existence.

In the end, the Meths’ actions catch up to them and the show sides with Kovacs and Ortega, who foreground a specific embodied existence and realize “that [they] must continue to live in a material world of other subjects and ethical responsibilities” (Vint 183). The show concludes with a policy passing that allows victims of murder to be spun up and provide a testimony on their own murder—giving voice and subjectivity to those unheard. Lastly, Kovacs returns Ryker’s sleeve: “He deserves his life back. Everything he lost” (“The Killers”, S01E10). In restoring Ryker to his community, his relationship with Ortega, as much as his position as a cop, Kovacs acknowledges the subjectivity of the other, and his own fluid posthuman existence. In this, the show gestures towards the potential of the posthuman technology, to right the wrongs of systemic discrimination and restore a view of the human as part of a network of social relations; a view of an embodied, material, and connected subjectivity.  


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[1]   It is no coincidence that Carnage looks synthetic. He is portrayed by Matt Frewer, the original actor to star in the cyberpunk TV show Max Headroom (1987-88). In Max Headroom, Frewer plays a double role, that of Edison Carter, a journalist, and of that Max Headroom, a virtual being created by scanning Carter’s mind. Digital imaging in the 1980s was not very sophisticated and Max’s appearance in the TV show is rather synthetic—similar to that of Carnage in Altered Carbon. What is ironic, though, is that within the diegesis of Max Headroom, Max and Carter are supposed to look ‘the same’ (see Rogers for more on the show), whereas in Altered Carbon, Carnage’s ‘uncanny valley’ appearance is commented upon and joked about.   

[2]   Technically sex workers can be of any gender and sexual orientation, though the show almost exclusively focuses on females with a heterosexual orientation. As Julie Muncy has pointed out in her review for, the show pushes aside any “provocative questions” of the stack-technology, including those regarding homosexual, non-binary, or transgender issues.

[3]     Unfortunately, the gender politics of the show are questionable at best and would need further extensive commentary, which this chapter cannot provide. Suffice it to point out that the show “falls victim to the same critiques about conservatism and masculinist heteronormative tendencies” (Heise-von der Lippe 8) that plagued original cyberpunk fiction (for more on gender in cyberpunk see the articles/chapters by Cadora, Nixon, Gillis and Melzer).  

Ursprünglich erschienen als:

Schmeink, Lars. „Embodiment in Altered Carbon.“ Sex, Death, and Resurrection in Altered Carbon: Essays on the Netflix Series. Hg. Aldona Kobus und Lukasz Muniowski. McFarland, 2020. 67–80.