Haraway – Simians, Cyborgs, and Women


Haraway, Donna J.  Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.  New York: Routledge.  1991.
Amazon page

You ever feel like you’ve just dived into an ocean and tried to find the bottom of it?  That’s sort of what it feels like to enter the gravitational field of this book, and specifically of its most-remarked essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”.  It’s one of those essays that seems to get name-dropped all the time by people doing anything at all related to cyborgs, such that when I started reading it, I realized I actually didn’t know anything about what it actually says.  When the author is even making cameos in Ghost in the Shell you know this text has been influential on not just an academic level, but at the level of the zeitgeist surrounding sci-fi and cyborg embodiment.  The thing about pop culture appropriation, though, is that it rarely pays too much heed to fidelity to source materials if they don’t suit its needs.  So, again: what does this book actually say?

In a word, we could say the answer is: intersectionality.  Haraway, a scientist turned historian of science, undertakes the task of deconstructing the truth claims and epistemes of Western-Enlightenment scientific practice itself and searching for a less oppressive model.  Her search, in other words, is for a feminist science, a realm of knowledge production often derided but rarely rethought by the feminist movement up to the late ’80s, according to Haraway.  Rather than a quest for ultimate “objective” knowledge of everything — which equates to a mastery over everything based on a transcendental conception of vision — Haraway looks to find a way that we can live with “partial knowledges” that make no claim to totality and do not try to arrest their objects of knowledge as inert and passive.

The Cyborg Manifesto is one polemical version of this general project, in which Haraway lays out the kind of subject position possible (or privileged?) under this new approach to knowledge-making.  It is a paean to “cyborg subjects,” defined by their state of non-innocence.  What does that mean?  From what I can tell, only that cyborgs are premised on permanently blurred (though not effaced or elided) boundaries: between organism and machine, man and woman, subject and nature.  They do not seek to restore those boundaries, to return to a prelapsarian subjecthood in the Garden of Eden before it was polluted by boundary transgression.  Nor do they seek a state of perfect translatability of all information, to return to the era before Babel.  Like the trickster figure of the coyote in the American southwest (or a kitsune, to bring it closer to my stomping grounds), cyborgs constantly and ironically hold out the possibility of two separated entities (nature and self, organic and artificial), but recognize that such a separation is impossible.  Instead, they revel in difference and in polymorphous being, which creates the conditions of possibility for a politics of affinity (as opposed to a politics of identity).  Rather than identity politics’s emphasis on sameness (“the experience of women” or “the experience of blackness”), affinity politics is based on temporary alliances predicated on a shared partial identity that grounds a similar experience of oppression.  With her emphasis on partial knowledges, these politics apparently never arrive at a total resolution, but instead emphasize compromise and partial solutions.

I should note, by the way, that Haraway isn’t advocating for radical relativism (cultural or otherwise).  She sees that as every bit as dangerous as transcendental objectivism: it’s premised on a similar notion of a vision which is nowhere/everywhere.  Moreover, she suggests, making a move like saying, “Identity is completely constructed and everything is relative” positions bodies as blank slates on which we can freely inscribe whatever we like, which ignores the real-world conditions in which actual bodies live, suffer, and die.  Haraway is just as strict with uncritical liberal thought as uncritical conservative thought. So this isn’t just a platitude of, “Let’s celebrate difference!” but a serious consideration of what that would mean, how we could do it, and what the potential dangers are of doing so.  It’s a confusingly written text, and one that I think I only partially understood, but perhaps that’s the point.  Her rhetorical flourishes are profuse and obfuscating, so this is really more a text one reads as an aesthetic experience, in some ways.  Actually, I thought the next essay in the book, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” was a more easily digestible version of many of the ideas present in the manifesto.  And I especially liked her discussion of vision, in which she asserts that feminism needs to re-examine vision as a situated sense, not just one that imposes objective separation.  She succinctly explains that vision is a sense with interpretation built in: we only see one slice of the spectrum of wavelengths, after all, and the apparatus by which we view the world necessarily colors our interpretation of it.  (I may also be biased because she begins this discussion with an aside about her dogs.)

I had put this book on my Posthuman Affect list because I assumed the cyborg manifesto would have a lot to say about the kinds of subjectivities we inhabit in postmodernity.  Instead, I wonder if it isn’t actually better suited to thinking about the production and methodology of science-fiction itself.  The genre is often described as “fiction that follows the scientific method” by setting up initial conditions and then playing out their effects through the text.  But if the scientific method itself needs to be examined as a technology of domination, how can we re-evaluate science-fiction?  Is it significant, for example, that the scientific method was being brought to fiction just after the end of the Occupation in Japan?  We could make the argument, of course, that that’s what Naturalism had set out to do at the turn of the 20th century, and maybe the historical implications there are more tantalizing to scholars that like to shout, “Fascism!”  But with sci-fi, the genre is also bound up in a lot of oppositional politics; might we think of a character like the AI Wintermute as precisely the kind of “multiply marked” body that Haraway celebrates?  Would cyberpunk therefore work with more traditionally feminist SF, despite Haraway’s dismissal of it as a simplistic postmodernist cynicism-fest by “the boys”?  Maybe I should assign this to my students next quarter and think it through with them…


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