Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto”

“Blasphemy protects one from the moral majority within, while still insisting on the need for community” (291)


“An ironic dream of a common language for women in the integrated circuit”

First published in 1985, Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” represents a reaction against feminist attempts at establishing solidarity through essential criteria of the “female” or “feminine experience.” Rather than defending the female standpoint as epistemologically equal or even superior to the male—some feminists had tried to claim a privileged epistemic standpoint for “woman” as the more “natural” gender—Haraway advocates doing away with the roles altogether. The result, however, is not a post-gender world so much as a realm of transgressed boundaries. In what approaches a thesis statement, she writes, “This chapter is an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction” (292). The agent of this boundary confusion, in Haraway’s plan, is the cyborg: “… creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted.”


Some Key Definitions:

Cyborg: “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction”

Social Reality: “lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction”


Why the Cyborg?

In Haraway’s socialist-feminist vision, concepts of labor and of individuation and gender formation “depend on the plot of original unity out of which difference must be produced and enlisted in a drama of escalating domination of woman/nature” (292). In other words, capitalism and patriarchy are deeply symbiotic. The very concept of personal identity is dependent on vicious, dichotomous constructs that place man over woman and human over nature. Therefore, the oppression of women and nature are intimately connected. The strength of the cyborg lies in its ability to transgress the boundaries of both distinctions simultaneously.

In Haslanger’s terms, the category of “woman” is discursively constructed, meaning “it is the way it is, to some substantial extent, because of what is attributed (and/or self-attributed) to it” (Haslanger 88). Haslanger notes that this kind of construction involves a sort of “feedback loop” by which entities are assigned categories and then respond to them while simultaneously being formed by them. The Cyborg, in Haraway’s vision, would collapse the feedback loop by collapsing the distinction between what is natural and what is constructed. She writes, “Nature and culture are reworked; the one can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation by the other” (293).


Three Crucial Boundary Breakdowns

  • Human & Animal
  • Animal/Human (organism) & Machine
  • Physical & Non-Physical

As for the first boundary, that between human and animal, Haraway insists that it has been dissolved by advances in biological science and evolutionary theory. The political consequences, she notes, have been borne out by the animal rights movement.

The second “leaky distinction” is that between organism and machine—the no-man’s-land of the Cyborg. Early machines, Haraway notes, could only mimic the agency and liveliness of living, breathing organisms. They could mimic genuine authorship while remaining resolutely artifacts. She writes, “They were not man, an author himself, but only a caricature of that masculinist reproductive dream. To think they were otherwise was paranoid. Now we are not so sure” (293). Robots with personal agency remained, for many years, the province of science fiction (see Asimov’s I, Robot, Kubrick’s 2001, or the recent film Ex Machina). However, recent advances in medical technology and artificial intelligence have started to blur the lines between wo/man and machine. The relentless juggernaut of technological progress gives us reason to believe that such distinctions will soon be a thing of the past.

The third boundary is that between the physical and non-physical. Haraway’s point in this section is less clear to me, but it seems to have something to do with the invisibility of technology and its ubiquity in our everyday lives—e.g. microelectronic devices and electromagnetic waves. She writes, “Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves, a section of a spectrum, and these machines are eminently portable, mobile… People are nowhere near so fluid, being both material and opaque. Cyborgs are ether, quintessence” (294). It is the fluidity of the Cyborg as a social category that makes it so liberating. It is ethereal and ubiquitous and hard to pin down.


Where do we go from here?

The ultimate goal of Haraway’s “ironic political myth” is to liberate individuals from the oppressive, dichotomous social identities that have been constructed for them. To use Haslanger’s terminology, the category of “woman” or “female” is strongly pragmatically constructed. Haraway writes:

There is nothing about being ‘female’ that naturally binds women. There is not even such a state as ‘being’ female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices. Gender, race, or class consciousness is an achievement forced on us by the terrible historical experience of the contradictory social realities of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism. And who counts as ‘us’ in my own rhetoric? Which identities are available to ground such a potent political myth called ‘us’, and what could motivate enlistment in this collectivity? (295)

The answer to the problem of solidarity in a post-identity politics is what Haraway calls affinity—an amorphous category without any essential criteria for membership, composed of individuals who choose to share an “oppositional consciousness” and speak from an ironic standpoint that is not embedded in social categories. The tendency toward affinity and oppositional consciousness, Haraway explains, was “born of the skills for reading webs of power by those refused stable membership in the social categories of race, sex, or class” (296). The archetypal case of an affinity group is, somewhat counter-intuitively, “women of color”. Haraway explains that there is no essential criterion for identifying as a woman of color. In fact, the group is defined by a “conscious appropriation of negation.” Chicana or black women, for example, are doubly disqualified from having any justifiable standpoint from which to make claims about the world. The category “woman,” Haraway argues, traditionally negated (or excluded) all non-white women, while the category of black/chicano negated all non-black/chicano people, as well as all black/chicano women. Thus, “women of color” stand “at the bottom of a cascade of negative identities” (296). They are defined by what they are not. Therefore, their only option is to use this negative identity to their advantage by refusing to be categorized or naturalized at all. This is the same ironic standpoint achieved by the cyborg.


The Politics of Negative Identity

Haraway notes, “Taxonomies of feminism produce epistemologies to police deviation from official women’s experience” (297). Inevitably, a politics of identity excludes those who do not fit the accepted criteria for knowers of that category (e.g. women of color). The solution, therefore, is to provide no taxonomy and abandon all claims to an organic or natural standpoint. Haraway asks, however, “What kind of politics could embrace partial, contradictory, permanently unclosed constructions of personal and collective selves and still be faithful, effective — and, ironically, socialist-feminist?” (297). The answer is Cyborg politics.

The power of the Cyborg myth lies in its status as a chimera of human and machine. Note, however, that the chimera is not simply the sum of its parts, but something more. A griffin is not afforded the same ontological status as a lion or an eagle; it is not part of the same conceptual scheme, but exists outside of nature. Likewise, the cyborg is a supernatural entity. It does not fit squarely into the conceptual scheme of male/white/hetero/etc dominance. It is a chimeric, non-reductive, liberating identity. This refusal to be naturalized or categorized is the source of its resilience: “These cyborgs are the people who refuse to disappear on cue, no matter how many times a ‘western’ commentator remarks on the sad passing of another primitive, another organic group done in by ‘Western’ technology, by writing” (313).

It is Haraway’s belief that socialist feminists have been guilty of “producing essentialist theory that suppressed women’s particularity and contradictory interests” through “unreflective participation in the logics, languages, and practices of white humanism and through searching for a single ground of domination to secure our revolutionary voice” (300). The only way forward for feminists in this post-modern age is to abandon the quixotic quest for solidarity through essentialized identities. The category of Man—and it’s complementary category Woman—are “the embodiment of Western logos” and the sooner we leave them behind the sooner we can build a truly inclusive epistemological and sociological system. As Haraway puts it, “Some differences are playful; some are poles of world historical systems of domination. ‘Epistemology’ is about knowing the difference” (300).



Is this a post-gender world?

Haraway’s Critique of MacKinnon

Where does this leave personal identity?
Haraway: “The cyborg is also the awful apocalyptic telos of the ‘West’s’ escalating dominations of abstract individuation, an ultimate self untied at last from all dependency, a man in space” (292).

For Haraway, are all social distinctions strongly pragmatically constructed?

Haraway seems primarily concerned with the political effectiveness of her cyborg strategy; however, it is difficult to tell how serious she is about some of her more fanciful epistemological and ontological points. To what extent do you find “A Cyborg Manifesto” to be a philosophically sound text, as opposed to simply a new political strategy?

11 thoughts on “Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto”

  1. Jeremy Read

    Donna Haraway fully embraces a common feminist norm of theoretical virtue: that theory of (ontology, epistemology, morality, etc.) which is most emancipatory, is that which is best. To truly understand Haraway’s arguments on her own terms, one must consider them with this in mind. It seems to me, that for Haraway, politics and epistemology and ontology are necessarily co-constructed and informed. Her philosophical argument is quite simple, a social ontology which embraces a radical ambiguation of identity (one which contains only cyborgs whose characteristics are only to be understood individually and partially) is the social ontology we should commit belief to.
    Perhaps I’ve been overwhelmed by radical feminist sensitivities, but this honest conflation of politics and ontology strikes me as the only genuine option for philosophy. How can we posit an unpolitical ontology?
    Alternatively, if political positionality and philosophical soundness are necessarily opposed, then who can possibly do sound philosophy?
    In other thoughts, if all “essentialized” identity is dissolved, such that I share no “identity features” with you, then it seems Haraway would argue that we are only left with “affinity” to ground our solidarity. I wonder if her conception of affinity, which seems to amount to sharing mental states and intentionalities (and politics), can’t be cashed out as a relationship of shared identity. What is so wrong with using the concept of identity, so long as we hold that identities are not natural, permanent, nor essential?
    Finally, her use of the terms “oppositional” and “negative” identities was a bit confusing. I am not quite sure whether she is deriving her idea of an essentially unessential identity from the concept of overlapping negative identities, or if she wants that image (used in discussion of women of color) to be equated with the cyborg. Can a Cyborg have an oppositional identity? (I think not, but am curious).

  2. Jingyi Wu

    Hi All,
    I have a similar interest in her use of the word “irony” and in what an explicitly stated work of irony would entail. French Theorist Julia Kristeva writes on irony :
    “We do not laugh because of what makes sense or what does not. We laugh because of possible meaning, because of the attitude that causes us to enunciate signification as it brings us jouissance. ”
    “Since the Renaissance, the West has laughed only with the Enlightenment (with Voltaire and Diderot, laughter dethrones)) or perhaps in the recesses of psychosis, where power and logic are experienced as ambivalent at first, and broken down in the end”
    Haraway’s work is by Kristeva’s definition deeply ironic, because of it blurs all the lines that the Western tradition once deems quintessential. However, another level of Haraway’s irony is that she states her irony EXPLICITLY throughout this work. By doing so, her work, a firmly stated manifesto, demands a more symbolic and ironic treatment. Thus, my question is, how shall we take her irony? What would be the possible interpretations of her work?

    Secondly, I’m really interested in her mention of writing. She states that writing is modern cyborg, or affinity’s way to gain possibilities. However, the history and use language itself is deeply rooted to the dualistic traction that she criticizes. What about writing does she find its transcendental power? Well, her mention of writing is in itself, ironic.

  3. Timothy Patricia

    Although I found Haraway’s manifesto to be an interesting read, I’m not inclined to buy into her radical politics. She takes issue with just about everything, and I think I feel myself intuitively wanting to rebuff her claims because she is such a contrarian.

    For example, jumping off of Jack’s point above, I don’t understand Haraway’s contention with humanism. Put simply, her beef with humanism feels very misguided to me. Haraway writes, “What kind of politics could embrace partial, contradictory, permanently unclosed constructions of personal and collective selves and still be faithful, effective…” (297). With this in mind, consider that humanism definitively “stress[es] the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems” (Google). Given these goals of humanism, it seems that humanism would actually be exactly the kind of political outlook to “embrace” all “constructions of personal and collective selves.” After all, we are all human.

    What is it about humanism that Haraway so dislikes? In general, humanism is a very benign, inclusive, and positive worldview — one that I find easy to support and difficult to take issue with. I think, potentially, that Haraway has wrongly lumped humanism in with the throng of other political mindsets she argues against.

  4. Gioia Pappalardo

    First, I’m not sure how much of this article I really understood, so I’m still working through most of my thoughts about it. However, one thing that caught my attention was Haraway’s criticism of MacKinnon. She writes, “it is a totalization producing what Western patriarchy itself never succeeded in doing – feminists’ consciousness of the non-existence of women, except as products of men’s desire” (299). She criticizes MacKinnon for erasing the diversity of possible experiences that can count as “woman.” However, given that a substantial part of Haraway’s goal is (maybe) to create a politically effective theory, is she criticizing MacKinnon on the right grounds? I personally do agree with a lot of her criticism, and while reading about MacKinnon previously, I sometimes felt like her stance didn’t allow for an empowered woman/individual without getting rid of man/woman altogether. However, MacKinnon’s position seemed, at least to me, to carry a lot of power to force people to reexamine the power/objectification relationships that they may play a part in. Certainly MacKinnon oversimplifies in many areas, but in doing so she highlights how deeply objectification and power dynamics have become a part of our social constructs. Its focus on that single issue could potentially be more effective, because it gets its point across clearly. On the other hand, Haraway’s position is somewhat unclear, and it may not do a better job of revealing the types of oppression that we want to get rid of. I guess, I’m wondering might it be helpful (at least politically?) to have a position like MacKinnon’s, at least at first? Would Haraway’s be more effective in a society that already has some basic understanding of power imbalances and oppression to begin with?

    Also, I’ve been thinking a lot about the list she gives in “the informatics of domination” and I’m still trying to make sense of it. She writes that “the objects on the rigt-hand side cannot be coded as ‘natural’, a realization that subverts naturalistic coding for the left-hand side” (301). Is this related to her connection between the oppression of women with that of nature? Some of the things she lists doesn’t seem to carry the same division as the others.

  5. Robert LaCroix

    I am having a fair amount of trouble with Haraway’s use of the word “ironic.” Specifically, what does it mean that her account is an “ironic political myth?” (291) Further, what does it mean that a cyborg is a “fiction?” (292)

    It sort of feels like she is telling the reader not to take her seriously, but surely that can’t be the case. She doesn’t make it easy, though, what with all of the talk of nuclear disarmament affinity groups that “in [an act of] solidarity with the creatures forced to tunnel in the same ground with the bomb, … enacted a cyborgian emergence from the constructed body of a large, non-heterosexual desert worm” (317).

    All levity aside, does Haraway mean that women should literally become part machine? Or merely that they shouldn’t accept barriers imposed on them by patriarchal capitalism? She would seem like an odd ideological bedfellow for Ray Kurzweil.

  6. Mohamed Houtti

    On page 295, Haraway says that “There is not even such a state as ‘being’ female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices.” I am a bit confused here. Does Haraway make the same distinction between “female” and “woman” that Haslanger does? If so, isn’t “’being’ female” just a straightforward biological characteristic? What are the complexities that Haraway is referring to?

  7. Leo DesBois

    In response to Kyle’s final question, I found “A Cyborg Manifesto” to be a purely political essay that does not strive for or achieve philosophical soundness. In the opening sentence, Haraway states her intentions clearly: “to build an ironic political myth faithful to feminism, socialism, and materialism.” Her goal is not to achieve philosophical truth, but to develop a new political attitude which will inform more effective social activism. She does not spend any time defending feminism, socialism, or materialism, but rather assumes that these doctrines provide a useful starting point for further inquiry. Therefore, her essay is only useful to those who already share her radical left-wing ideology. Why should an individual with moderate political views, be they liberal or conservative, take Haraway’s extremist manifesto seriously?

    Haraway’s characterization of the role of epistemology reveals the inherently political nature of her inquiry. On page 300 she writes (as referenced by Kyle): “Some differences are playful; some are poles of world historical systems of domination. ‘Epistemology’ is about knowing the difference.” For Haraway, epistemology is not a theoretical inquiry into the nature of knowledge, but rather a practical tool for understanding the world according to particular political worldview. If epistemology is inextricably linked to one’s political position, can it be called ‘epistemology’ at all?

    1. Daniel Ramirez

      “One important route for reconstructing socialist-feminist politics is through theory and practice addressed to the social relations of science and technology, including crucially the systems of myth and meanings structuring our imaginations”
      “Indeed myth and tool mutually constitute each other”
      “Technologies and scientific discourses can be partially understood as formalizations, i. e. as frozen moments, of the fluid social interactions constituting them, but they should also be viewed as instruments for enforcing meanings.”

      According to Donna Haraway, technology and science affect the way myth functions in our social relations. It’s easy to concede that the character of our day to day interactions and preoccupations are products of some kind of mythology. Haraway believes that capitalism and certain distinctions we are accustomed to are a product of our culture’s ultimately destructive mythology.
      Science and technology determine our ontology in the sense that they determine what there is to consider. Before super-massive nuclear warheads were invented, immediate global destruction was not a direction humans could consider. Certain discoveries unearth previously unimagined perspectives; unexplored philosophical terrain opens up as certain possibilities present themselves.
      Given the way myth functions in our society and the way science and technology affect our “practical ontology” (if that’s allowed), I believe that Haraway’s inclination to harness the myth altering power of science and technology is philosophically sound. The fact that it would be easy to put Haraway’s opinions into a specific political category doesn’t take away from the gravity and coherence of her argument.

  8. Max Riddle

    My question/ objection deals with two of the boundary breakdowns that motivate and make possible Haraway’s cyborg. The question is— Can Haraway really claim that the boundaries between (human and animal) and (organism and machine) are so “leaky?”

    I don’t believe she is justified in making this claim in regard to the first two boundary sets mentioned above. While there are trivial commonalities between humans and “animals,” there is a clear disjunction between the capacity for genuine thought and consciousness in humans and animals. As Daniel Dennett argues, without complex, syntactically structured language non-human animals are not capable of “genuine thought.” In another sense, even if we place both humans and non-human animals on a continuum of thought capability, some non-human animals still register but there is a tremendous jump (disjunction) in capability between the two groups. Therefore, in a very significant sense, a clear distinction or boundary can be drawn between humans and non-human animals.

    Additionally, while I disagree less strongly with Haraway’s second leaky boundary (organism and machine) I still believe that now and certainly at the time Haraway wrote “A Cyborg Manifesto” the boundary between organism and machine is far more developed than Haraway admits. The reason I disagree less strongly is because there may be future potential for such a boundary collapse with the advancement of AI. Even this day, however, seems far off enough that it is hardly an imminent or present problem.

  9. Jack George

    Several things and yes I’m posting this at 3AM, but I saw Kyle at a party and it made me think I should do this now instead of sleep and forget about it.

    FIrst, in Haraway’s post-gender steampunk Utopia, the human-machine is presented as the ultimate rebellion, a way of transcending binaries. But surely the machine is the most socially constructed of all physical things. It exists only thanks to human society and is only functional within its constrains. Surely becoming part machine absolves nothing of the social fabric but rather embeds one deeper and inextricably within its oppressive web? In other words. if the intelligent machine would be the height of human social construction then how could becoming it be a radical rebellion?

    Second, on p. 297, Haraway lists a few of the theories of domination she strives to struggle against, including patriarch & colonialism. Humanism is also contained within the list… why? Is this just to defend her as of yet uncreated robot friends? (google deifnes humanism “as an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters”)

    Thirdly, also on p. 297, she disavows of the ‘natural matrix of unity’ whereby by belonging to certain social categories you incarnate certain things (victimhood/domination). She seeks to find identity beyond binaries of suffering. This is a profoundly pessimistic outlook. It implies that by being defined a woman someone will always find themselves conceptually in the position of inferiority. Is there really no room for empowerment beyond the (I think) defeatist sinking into cyrborg-ness?

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