Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (Carolyn Keen)

Donna Haraway's cyborg manifesto is one of the most important text of cyber-cultural studies as well as feminist studies of the past twenty years. Her conclusion that she draws, “I d rather be a cyborg than a goddess” is grounded in the following analysis of the cyborg given here by Carolyn Keen (rc):

“A Cyborg Manifesto” is a socialist-feminist analysis of “women's situation in the advanced technological conditions of postmodern life in the First World” (Penley, interview cited below). The “elementary units of socialist-feminist analysis,” race, gender, and class (173) are in the process of transformation. The tools for analysis: Marxist, psychoanalytic, feminist, anthropological (173) are problematic as they are currently articulated (1985). Problems Haraway finds with each of these “tools” of analysis:

Marxism: 1. Marxist “humanism,” we can only come to know the subject through labor; relies upon a Western sense of self. 2. Erases “polyvocal, unassimilable, radical difference made visible in anti-colonial discourse and practice” (159).

Psychoanalysis: 1. Relies upon the family and birth of the self “drama,” which is about individuation, separation, the birth of the self, wholeness before language [Lacan's imaginary]. 2. Freudian and Lacanian (and theories based upon their work) rely upon the category of woman as other; “in this plot women are imagined either better or worse off [better off=eg. woman as goddess], but all agree they have less selfhood, weaker individuation, more fusion to the oral [instead of the written, which is the preferred "technology" of the cyborg], to Mother” (177). 3. Universalizes. In an interview with Haraway, she asks: “Can you come up with an unconscious [which she wants to "keep"] that escapes the familial narrative…or that poses the familial narratives as local stories?”

Feminism: 1. “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” (155). [However, though "female" is a construction, women are still historically real.] 2. Feminism in the US has been characterized by the “natural” unity of all women, not taking into account, nor allowing room for, categories of race and class. 3. The reaction [in progress?] to this imposed unity risks “lapsing into boundless difference and giving up on the confusing task of making partial, real connection” (161). Although a partial solution, why is this problematic?

“I do not know of any other time in history when there was greater need for political unity to confront effectively the dominations of 'race', 'gender', 'sexuality', and 'class'” (157). Goals of the “ironic political myth” of the “cyborg”–a utopian, “possible world.” (On utopias: “Most utopian schemes hover somewhere in between the present and the future, attempting to figure the future as the present, the present as the future” [Penley, interview cited below]). Why the cyborg as a metaphor for this text?

“Cyborg replication is uncoupled from organic reproduction” (150) “The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family” (151).

The cyborg does not aspire to “organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity” (150). The cyborg “is not afraid of joint kinship with animals and machines…of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (154). The cyborg is the “illegitimate child” of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism.

The cyborg thus evades traditional humanist concepts of women as childbearer and raiser, of individuality and individual wholeness, the heterosexual marriage-nuclear family, transcendentalism and Biblical narrative, the great chain of being (god/man/animal/etc.), fear of death, fear of automatism, insistence upon consistency and completeness. It evades the Freudian family drama, the Lacanian m/other, and “natural” affiliation and unity. It attempts to complicate binary oppositions, which have been “systemic to the logics and practices of domination of women, people of colour, nature, workers, animals” (177).

Haraway likens “cyborg” to the political identity of “women of color,” which “marks out a self-consciously constructed space that cannot affirm the capacity to act on the basis of natural identification, but only on the basis of conscious coalition, of affinity, of political kinship” (156). “Cyborg” though, is grounded in “political-scientific” analysis. This analysis takes up most of the “manifesto.”

Haraway's political-scientific analysis of where “we” are going: “We are living through a movement from an organic, industrial society to a polymorphous, information system” (161). Her “chart of transitions” on page 161-62 lists specifics. (This was later modified; in case you're interested in the changes, I've attached the 1989 chart below.) The movement she sees occurring is both “scary” and reason for coalition. Haraway, trained in biology, analyzes scientific discourse as both constructed and as “instruments for enforcing meanings” (164). “Scientific discourse,” she says in the interview cited below, “without ever ceasing to be radically and historically specific, does still make claims on you, ethically, physically.” Haraway argues that “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 imagination” (163). The relations between science and technology, largely ignored by feminists, is a material reality which women need to be aware of–not fear or disparage. These relations are “rearranging” categories of race, sex and class; feminism needs to take this into account. Haraway's analysis of “women in the integrated circuit” tries to suggest, without relying too much on the category of “woman” (as a natural category), to suggest that as technologies radically restructure “life” on earth, “women” do not, and are not, through education, training, etc., learning to control these technologies, to “read these webs of power” (170). A socialist-feminist politics must address these restructurings.

“Cyborgs: A Myth of Political Identity” acknowledges Haraway's debt to writers of “science fiction,” and finds in these texts the sources of her cyborg myth. “Cyborg monsters in feminist science fiction define quite different political possibilities and limits from those proposed by the mundane fiction of Man and Woman” (180).

Since, as Haraway sees it, the world is changing rapidly–and this is due mainly to scientific/technological discourses and the claims they make physically upon “us”–the tools that Haraway (and ourselves) find available and in use are no longer viable. The world/culture/discourses upon which they are based are changing. And the premises upon which these tools rest are those which support capitalism, imperialism and patriarchy, which may be, according to her analysis, dwindling, but only to be replaced by something as bad, if not worse, (and possibly, she seems to suggest, better). She wants to keep some kind of agency (not based upon a whole and individual self), materialism, and a feminism not based upon natural unity between women (contradiction is allowed in the “ironic cyborg myth”). Haraway perhaps isnt doing a lot that is new in this piece. What is interesting is the rhetorical strategy, the suggestion that an anti-science stance is unrealistic and ignores potential pleasures, and the potential value of science-fiction. Haraways cyborg probably wont fare well with many readers, who arent wanting to give up much of what Haraway points to as humanistic.

Representation Simulation
Bourgeois novel
Science Fiction
Realism and modernism
Biotic component, code
Play of signifiers
Depth, integrity
Surface, boundary
Biology as clinical practice
Biology as inscription
Communications engineering
 Microbiology, tuberculosis
Small group
Genetic engineering
Stress Management
Organic division of labour
Ergonomics, cybernetics
Functional specialization
Modular construction
Biological determinism
System constraints
Community ecology
Racial chain of being
United Nations Humanism
Transnational capitalism
Fields of difference
Communications enhancement
Artificial intelligence
Second World War
Star Wars
White capitalist patriarchy
Informatics of domination

Here is the link to Harraway's manifesto itself.

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  1. Anonymous
    Posted April 25, 2008 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    When I read about Donna Haraway, I immediately saw the similarities to the Mother's statements about how women need to start growing out of their need for male protection and biological motherhood. However, I feel that the transhumanist feminists are really missing out by not bringing spirituality into the picture — as the Mother said, the spiritual solution is really the only solution to the problems of feminism.
    For me the “Cyborg” is just a technological metaphor for the Supramental Being, and totally inadequate compared to the latter, of course. The Cyborg is still going to be finite and is still going to have to deal with the disharmonies and divisions that are part and parcel of this manifest existence. Even a technologically enhanced body will be finite and subject to entropy. And for every problem the Cyborg solves it's possible that it will create a new one because we can't predict all the possibilities of our new technologies. So these are short-term solutions at best.

  2. Anonymous
    Posted April 25, 2008 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    “for every problem the Cyborg solves it's possible that it will create a new one because we can't predict all the possibilities of our new technologies”
    This is also true of things like eugenics. It's just another case of us trying to control everything and finding, sooner or later, that we can't.

  3. Anonymous
    Posted April 25, 2008 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    well I certainly agree with your statement here:
    “for every problem the Cyborg solves it's possible that it will create a new one because we can't predict all the possibilities of our new technologies”
    As I read it Haraway's main critique is of the strategies of domination by patriarchal, imperialist and economic regimes through the fixing of essentialist organic identities upon women. On the one hand she is arguing against universalist claims that assimilate all feminine experience to one particular category of female identity, which constrains the ability of women to form other coalitions through affinities (e.g. women of color). In doing this she rejects the claim of archetypal feminine identity which the goddess represents. (Aside from the foundationalist difficulties one would have negotiating perspectives of spirituality in academic discourse this is perhaps why she does not add a metaphysical dimension here)
    On the other hand the cyborg provides a certain liminal metaphor by which she can argue that even our most essentialist forms of identity, identity of the body with nature, are false and result in strategies of control, be it the mind over body, subject over object, male over female. Therefore, the cyborg is a rejection of these so called natural boundaries and a recognition that the human machine interface is not necessarily to be regarded as purely an artificial boundary. In a way she like McLuhan argues that technology is a natural extension of the human.
    While the transcendence of natural boundaries may in some instances prove liberating – and although Haraway certainly recognizes other problems of domination associated with technology – she does not address the danger inherent in the crossing of boundaries through technological intervention, which Vandana Shiva in her book Stolen Harvest picks up on here:
    “The mad cow as a product of boarder crossings is a cyborg in Donna Haraway's brand of cyborg feminism. According to Haraway I'd rather be a cyborg than a goddess. In India the cow is worshiped as Lakshmi because it is the source of renewal of the earth's fertility through organic manuring. The cow is sacred because it is at the heart of the sustainability of an agrarian civilization. The cow as goddess and cosmos symbolizes care, compassion, sustainability and equity.
    From the point of view of both cows and people, I would rather be a sacred cow than a mad one” (Shiva)

  4. Anonymous
    Posted February 24, 2009 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    I think the mad cow analogy goes beyond what Haraway speaks of here… once again, as she states, the mad cow represents the way in which human beings try to assert themselves and control over nature through labour practices and commodification. The mad cow can be seen as a kind of 'botched' cyborg, because it did not come about with the intent to improve or augment… it came about with the intent to be mass-produced and killed for sale and consumption.

  5. Anonymous
    Posted February 25, 2009 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Haraway writes:
    “From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defence, about the final appropriation of women's bodies in a masculinist orgy of war (Sofia, 1984). From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.
    “The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. “
    So the idea of the “botched cyborg” actually constitutes Haraway's cyborgic origins although it is the unintended destiny of the illegitimate child that she finds liberatory.
    And while she contests the biological-determinist ideology that constructs the femine/unity/nature theme that leads to patriarchal (techno-scientific) domination:
    “Every, story that begins with original innocence and privileges the return to wholeness imagines the drama of life to be individuation, separation, the birth of the self, the tragedy of autonomy, the fall into writing, alienation; that is, war, tempered by imaginary respite in the bosom of the Other. These plots are ruled by a reproductive politics — rebirth without flaw, perfection, abstraction. In this plot women are imagined either better or worse off, but all agree they have less selflhood, weaker individuation, more fusion to the oral, to Mother, less at stake in masculine autonomy. But there is another route to having less at stake in masculine autonomy, a route that does not pass through Woman, Primitive, Zero, the Mirror Stage and its imaginaw. It passes through women and other present-tense, illegitimate cyborgs, not of Woman born, who refuse the ideological resources of victimization so as to have a real life. These cyborgs are the people who refuse to disappear on cue, no matter how many dmes a 'western' commentator remarks on the sad passing of another primitive, another organic group done in by 'Western' technology” by writing.28 These real-life cyborgs (for example, the Southeast Asian village women workers inJapanese and US electronics firms described by Aihwa Ong) are actively rewriting the texts of their bodies and sociedes. Sumival is the stakes in this play of readings.”
    and she views unity themes (such as the goddess) and other wholisms as the source of dualisms that often destructively divide the world into categories of self and other:
    “certain dualisms have been persistent in Western traditions; they have all been systemic to the logics and practices of domination of women, people of colour, nature, workers, animals — in short, domination of all constituted as others, whose task is to mirror the self. Chief among these troubling dualisms are self/other, mind/body, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive, reality/appearance, whole/part, agent/resource, maker/ made, active/passive, right/wrong, truth/illusion, totaVpartial, God/man.”
    and thus she celebrates the cyborgs ability to liminal transform such dualism by virtue of its:
    “commitment to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity.”
    and because:
    “It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence. No longer structured by the polarity of public and private, the cyborg defines a technological polls based partly on a revolution of social relations in the oikos, the household. Nature and culture are reworked; the one can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation by the other. The rela-tionships for forming wholes from parts, including those of polarity and hierarchical domination, are at issue in the cyborg world. Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein's monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden; that is, through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate, through its completion in a finished whole, a city and cosmos. The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project. The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.”
    what Shiva is getting at in her critique of the cyborg when she states:
    The cow is sacred because it is at the heart of the sustainability of an agrarian civilization. The cow as goddess and cosmos symbolizes care, compassion, sustainability and equity.
    is the irony that the mad cow the “botched cyborg” results from the breech of the very type of essentialist identity (the goddess) that Haraway deconstructs in her essay.
    Although I think in general Shiva would agree with Haraway's critique of the “informatics of domination” what I think she demonstrates in this instance is that “sacred identities” rather than simply being the repressive narratives of unity themes also can represent fragile ecological systems whose boundaries when cyborgically breeched by techno-scientific intervention can shatter the complex dynamics that sustain traditional productive relationships between nature and culture, and ultimately result in perils to public health

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