“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?