Donna Haraway: The Cyborg, Writing

Who is Donna Haraway and what is a cyborg? Donna Haraway (b. 1944) teaches feminist and science studies in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California at Santa Cruz. In addition to taking a degree in English, she also studied biology at Yale. In 1985 she wrote for a socialist publication, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” an early volley in contemporary academic debates in the humanities over the nature of hybridity (mixing of species, cultures, ideas, etc.). It drew the attention of feminist intellectuals and initiated what would become known as cyberfeminism (theorizing feminism via technoscience, an act of hybrid theorizing). At the time, ecofeminism (theorizing feminism via environmentalism) was just coming into its own. Haraway, by embracing emerging technologies and declaring herself a cyborg, seemed to be “blaspheming” against the anti-science and anti-technology opinions prominent within her own left-feminist movement, writing provocatively against the Mother Nature (goddess) worship in some feminist circles, “Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.” And so she began her manifesto with a defense of the necessity to speak one’s mind with irony and irreverence:

This essay is an effort to build an ironic political myth faithful to feminism, socialism, and materialism. Perhaps more faithful as blasphemy is faithful, than as reverent worship and identification. Blasphemy has always seemed to require taking things very seriously. […] Blasphemy protects one from the moral majority within, while still insisting on the need for community. Blasphemy is not apostasy. Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, […] At the center of my ironic faith, my blasphemy, is the image of the cyborg.

She defines “cyborg” in the following manner, and insists that contemporary humans are already cyborgs, whether they realize it or not:

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. […] By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras [hybrid monsters patched together of diverse parts, as a sphinx—the head of a woman, the body of a lion—is a chimera], theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology [Greek ontos, the nature of being, and therefore a source for study, -ology], […] This essay is an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction.

Haraway embraces the Darwinian insight that our evolutionary history is animal even as we also recognize that the future is machine: “[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.”

Against holism. Having defined the hybrid nature of the cyborg, Haraway takes aim at aspirations to holism and the organic (as promoted by ecofeminists, Freudian psychoanalysts, Hegelian Marxists, and monotheists seeking union with God). There is no higher unity that we need to long for or return to, whether of unalienated nature (ecofeminism), the womb of the mother (Freudianism), unalienated labor (Marxism), or the Garden of Eden (the monotheistic religions). These are “seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity. […] 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; i.e., war, tempered by imaginary respite in the bosom of the Other.”

On Haraway’s account, Earth is not a mother, we don’t need to return to the womb, and we don’t need to chase after a state free of alienation. The very cosmos, the nature of being—ontology itself—does not really hold together, but is something dicing time cobbles together, a cyborg, and so the old organic myths are ripe for replacement: “Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein’s monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden; i.e., through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate, through its completion in a finished whole, a city and cosmos.”

Writing is power. What, then, in the myth of the cyborg, is the all-pervasive power? For Haraway, it’s writing; writing of all sorts, from etchings on microchips to ink on paper:

Modern machines are quintessentially microelectronic devices: they are everywhere and they are invisible. […] The silicon chip is a surface for writing; it is etched in molecular scales disturbed only by atmoic noise, the ultimate interference for nuclear scores. Writing, power, and technology are old partners in Western stories of the origin of civilization, but miniaturization has changed our experience of mechanism. Miniaturization has turned out to be about power; small is not so much beautiful as pre-eminently dangerous, as in cruise missiles. […] Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves, a section of the spectrum. And these machines are eminently portable, mobile—a matter of immense human pain in Detroit and Singapore. People are nowhere near so fluid, being both material and opaque. Cyborgs are ether, quintessence.

For Haraway, then, to be excluded from writing is to be excluded from power, and to learn a language and write in it are two keys to liberation and empowerment: “Writing has a special significance for all colonized groups. […] Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other.” This translates into politics in the following manner: “Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism [a term coined by the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, for phallic reasoning—the male voice or pen of authority treated as centric and supreme; as court of last appeal].”

The future belongs to the writing cyborg.

Resources:

  • Haraway, Donna. The Haraway Reader (Routledge 2003).
  • Gray, Chris Hables. Cyborg Citizen (Routledge 2001).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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