Donna Haraway’s Question: Would I Rather Be A Goddess Or 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). It drew the attention of feminist intellectuals and initiated what would become known as cyberfeminism (theorizing feminism via technoscience). 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 movement, 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.

Having established the hybrid nature of the cyborg, Haraway takes aim at aspirations to holism and the organic (as promoted by ecofeminists, Freudian psychoanalysts, and Hegelian Marxists):

The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world; it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-Oedipal symbiosis, unalienated labor, or other seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity.

And holism, argues Haraway, is not just a dated way of thinking for cyborgs, it’s also bad for woman qua woman, quieting her self-assertion and promoting a psychology of victimization:

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. These plots are fueled 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 selfhood, 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 imaginary. 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 are the women who refuse to disappear on cue, […]

The earth, in other words, 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. . . . The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust. . . . [Cyborgs] are wary of holism, but needy for connection—they seem to have a natural feel for united front politics, but without the vanguard party. 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. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.

What, then, in the myth of the cyborg, substitutes for God (or, rather, the all pervasive power)? Haraway theorizes that it’s dispersed miniaturization and liquidity:

Modern machines are quintessentially microelectronic devices: they are everywhere and they are invisible. Modern machinery is an irreverant upstart god, mocking the Father’s ubiquity and spirituality. 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. Andthese 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.

And what about affinities? With what, if not God the Father, Mother Nature, or an organic and centralized Utopia, do cyborgs see themselves as intimately linked to in their dreams? For this, Haraway offers an interesting answer, embracing 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.

And from whence do cyborgs derive their liberation and empowerment? Pointing to women of color, Haraway tags writing:

Contrary to orientalist stereotypes of the “oral primitive,” literacy is a special mark of women of color, acquired by U.S. black women as well as men through a history of risking death to learn and to teach reading and writing. Writing has a special significance for all colonized groups. . . .

It is not clear what is mind and what body in machines that resolve into coding practices.

But how important is writing, really? For Haraway, it’s a matter of survival:

Contests for the meanings of writing are a major form of contemporary political struggle. Releasing the play of writing is deadly serious. The poetry and stories of U.S. women of color are repeatedly about writing, about access to the power to signify; but this time that power must be neither phallic nor innocent. Cyborg writing must not be about the Fall, the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, before writing, before Man. 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. . . .

Writing is pre-eminently the technology of cyborgs, etched surfaces of the late twentieth century. 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].

As model, Haraway points to Chicanas who retell—and, therefore, reframe—the story of Malinche, indigenous lover and interpreter to the Spanish conquistador, Hernando Cortes, turning her into a heroine:

[R]etellings of the story of the indigenous woman Malinche, mother of the mestizo “bastard” race of the new world, master of languages, and mistress of Cortes carry special meaning for Chicana constructions of identity. . . .

Stripped of identity, the bastard race teaches about the power of the margins and the importance of a mother like Malincha. Women of color have transformed her from the evil mother of masculinist fear into the originally literate mother who teaches survival.

Haraway also points to the writing of Cherre Moraga:

Moraga’s language is not “whole”; it is self-consciously spliced, a chimera of English and Spanish, both conqueror’s languages. But it is this chimeric monster, without claim to an original language before violation, that crafts the erotic, competent, potent identities of women of color.

And Haraway concludes her essay with a rousing flourish:

Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia. It is an imagination of a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the circuits of the super-savers of the new right. It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, spaces, stories. Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.

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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