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A Cyborg Manifesto

Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century

by Donna Haraway

Last tended to November 18, 2020

Haraway's manifesto is fairly infamous in the social sciences.

Written in 1985, it uses the idea of the cyborg to explore a series of issues around the way gender, race, and class are framed in traditional "Western" science and politics.

Haraway suggests the idea of a cyborg is useful to think with "as a fiction mapping our social and bodily" - an imaginative resource to play with.

Haraway defines a cyborg as "a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction"

They are "creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted"

Suggests that in our current times "we are all chimeras; theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism"

Throughout the history of western science and politics, the division between organisms and machines has been a "border war"

This war emerges from the same traditions that brought us racism, sexism, capitalist gender divisions, the idea of "progress," the appropriation of nature as a resource for culture, and a tendency to reproduce the self from the reflections of The Other

She's arguing we should loosen up and do some serious play in these boundaries. To treat them with some much needed ironic humour. Take pleasure in their confusion, and responsibility for their reconstruction

The idea of the cyborg forces us to rethink our presumed categories of "nature" and "culture". It breaks our cultural assumption that nature exists as a raw material resource for us transform into culture.

In fact it breaks us out of a whole range of Cultural Dichotomies; it doesn't fit neatly into gender labour roles, it's not part of the nuclear family, it's not in the bible, it's not wholly from the earth, and not wholly created by humans, it doesn't have race or a history of colonialism. It's like an escape hatch from our problematic historical legacy.

For Haraway, the idea of the cyborg is useful for exploring a "post-gender world".

Haraway echoes thinkers like Judith Butler and Postmodernism Feminism in asserting that "being" female isn't some unified natural state for all women, but instead "a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices"

She points out that Cyborgs don't have much of an origin story in the West, which is ironic, given how obsessed we are with becoming floating minds freed from bodily inconveniences.

"The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust"

One of the issues with the idea of Cyborgs is so far they've been framed as militaristic macho males fighting for patriarchal capitalism or socialism. "But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins."

The only cultural images we can conjure up are the terminator, minority report, or the oversexualised women of Ex Machina. Where are the films about podgy middle-aged cyborg mothers?

Haraway points out the crucial boundary breakdowns that make Cyborgs possible:

  1. Humans and animals
    • "The cyborg appears in myth precisely where the boundary between human and animal is transgressed"
  2. Animal-humans (living organisms) and machines
    • "Late-twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert."
  3. Physical and non physical
    • "Modern machines are quintessentially microelectronic devices: they are everywhere and they are invisible."

As Haraway puts it, “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.”

This observation links to the larger pattern of ubiquitous invisibility that we recognise as a common aspect of modern technology, a lack of materiality that leads us to think of Cyborgs as “floating signifiers".

The Fetishisation of our technological devices is no small contributing aspect in the intimacy we experience with them. Sherry Turkle notes our tendency to draw parallels between cell phones names and candies or ice cream flavours: chocolate, strawberry, vanilla. “There is a sweetness to them” (Turkle 2011; 152)

Haraway presents what she calls The Informatics of Domination to explain the "rearrangements in worldwide social relations tied to science and technology" she sees happening.

This is an abbreviated list of Haraway's original

Comfortable Old HeirarchiesInformatics of Domination
Bourgeois novel, realismScience fiction, post-modernism
Organic division of labourCybernetics of labour
World War IIStar Wars
MindArtificial Intelligence
Private / PublicCyborg Citizenship
Organic sex role specializationOptimal genetic strategies
Scientific management in the home / factoryGlobal factories / Electronic cottages

Haraway makes the significant point that any historical system facing critique or perceived threats will focus it's control strategies on Boundaries, and making sure they are not crossed.

This is what we see with Transphobia, and policing definitions. Laws and scientific definitions about what counts as male or female, natural or organic, authentic or synthetic.

""Integrity" or "sincerity" of the Western self gives way to decision procedures and expert systems."

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Maggie Appleton © 2020