Revisiting the Cyborg Manifesto

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Donna HarawayOn Donna Haraway’s A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s

Donna Haraway’s journey to cultural and feminist studies is a circuitous one – having earned a degree in Zoology and Philosophy and later a PhD from Yale in Biology. Along the way Haraway has always pushed for critical interrogations of the relationship that humans have with our surrounding environment, other animals, and each other. Her 1972 doctoral thesis examined the role of metaphor and masculine bias in developmental biology, and her work has continuously applied the lenses of gender, race and class to complicate literature from disciplines as disparate as primatology and sociology. Along the way she has challenged dominant narratives in the natural and social sciences. A Manifesto for Cyborgs is no exception, and remains her most infamous work – one that has spurred controversy and conversation in feminist and sci-fi/tech-geek circles for two decades.

Donna Haraway is a cyborg. She is also a scientist, a feminist and a socialist. In her 1985 manifesto she combines the tissue layers of machine, animal, social construct, and philosopher into one multi-dimensional (then) futuristic metaphor: the cyborg. A cybernetic organism is a Chimera: a post-modern monster made up of the feed lines and inputs most personal (such as ancestry) as well as the ones distilled from the dust of patriarchy and technology (such as laws and clothing). The hybridized self is a new subjective truth/fiction that Haraway uses as a rhetorical device to go smashing into the then-sacred space of Mother Earth feminism.

In the beginning of The Manifesto she positions herself as a like-minded traveller with both feminists and socialists, but wants to challenge theoreticians and citizens to be more imaginative, more ironic, less pure and essentialist, and more inclined to situate the imagined, constructed and lived body in the real, modern world of machines and animals.

Haraway employs the cyborg – a metaphorical device that dangles in the fiction realm (or discursive if you prefer) as much as it is alive and kicking in what she calls “social reality” – as a tool to pry up the stuck boards of feminism and socialism and shake loose some of the narrow towers of especially white, privileged and Western traditional thinking. In her words:

In the tradition of ‘Western’ science and politics – the tradition of racist, male-dominant capitalism; the tradition of progress; the tradition of appropriation of nature as resource for the productions of culture; the tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other – the relation between organism and machine has been a border war. The stakes in the border war have been the territories of production, reproduction, and imagination. This essay is an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction.

Haraway’s Cyborg project is about messing up borders: entangling previously conceived clean breaks between human and machine, animal and human, society and self, technology and culture, us and them, man and woman. She wants to move these “border wars” into more complex discursive spaces, contact zones where “the other” is embedded into the flesh of the self – where the body is embroidered into the body politic, and where the circuitry of electronic and bio-networks connect humanity together as it constructs us from the blueprints we continue to build. But it is not a melting pot, the parts remain distinct, but closely and even ridiculously connected. The cyborg is, in Haraway’s own words, “resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity.”

While bringing the concept to the foreground, Haraway acknowledges the ontology of the cyborg as having (illegitimately) sprung from the birth-wells of “militarism and patriarchal capitalism,” as well as “state-socialism.” The analogy to Frankenstein is obvious enough, but Haraway’s monster is not to be feared, but understood, theorized, and even embraced. The essay remains an intervention on several fronts:

• By demanding the arbitrary demarcations between technology and culture be folded into one body of knowledge (or research, or work, or just body) Haraway dispossesses capitalism of one if its fundamental tenets: individualization and compartmentalism, and offers a path toward theories and practices of socialism;

• By transgressing some of the more rigid boundaries outlining feminism at the time, Haraway challenges essentialist, “goddess” feminism, moves it away from isolated subjectivity and privilege and introduces opportunities to shape a polymorphous feminism so that race, class, and social reality are intrinsic;

• By (metaphorically) collapsing technology and human, Haraway allows for a prescient critique of the globalized economy that includes “women making chips in Asia” as part of a social reality of the modern world, so that each person is connected through global technology and communication and so that each person realizes their responsible for injustices and inequities that emerge.

Haraway connects often segregated topics of technology, feminism and socialism in an effort to move the discussion forward, to messy borders that are acknowledged so that they are better understood and so the project of progressive politics may continue with not only force but self-reflexivity. In a 1997 Wired interview Haraway described the importance of connectivity: “Technology is not neutral. We’re inside of what we make, and it’s inside of us. We’re living in a world of connections – and it matters which ones get made and unmade.”

And while it is easy to get swept away with the science and technology aspect of The Cyborg Manifesto, the staying power of this piece is its ability to address the need to connect not only the extracted resources in the sneakers that share toxins absorbed in human flesh, but also the woman or girl making the engineered footwear who is South East Asian, who is barely surviving on the wages calculated from an office in London, and who is eating rice genetically engineered by a biotech lab in Southern California where the technician (maybe a feminist, maybe not) keeps their feet comfortable in the same pair of sneakers. Haraway sees pleasure in realizing we are all part of these messy borders, but only if we keep our sense of humour, and most importantly, realize our responsibilities. Once we realize that social reality is not as rigid as we had thought, we have the chance to transgress, transform, and change.

As Hari Kunzru, the interviewer for Wired, sums up: “if women (and men) aren’t natural but are constructed, like a cyborg, then, given the right tools, we can all be reconstructed.”