Pauline van Mourik Broekman on 23 Aug 2001 16:17:21 -0000
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[oldboys] Re: maria fernandez/suhail malik on cyberfeminism
This re: yesterday's promise to send over a so-called 'head-to-head' we
published about the mysterious wane and wane of cyborg figures... as well
as the question mark hovering over their material impact. The very brief
history to this is that we asked both authors, whose opinions we
suspected would differ significantly, to crystallise their feelings into
a kind of top 5.
(Oddly enough, the pretty much simultaneous revisitation of the subject
by Mute and Adbusters - which admittedly were very different - kind of
disproved our own premise about the strange fading of the Manifesto's
influence. I've since heard from Debbie Shaw, who wrote a letter to Mute
in reply to Suhail Malik's statement, that Donna Haraway is very
mystified by this resurgence in interest ;) ).
Anyway, here it is.
In 1985, Donna Haraway unveiled "The Cyborg Manifesto",
thrilling cultural studies bods, new agers, feminists, and cyberpunks
alike with its mix of military, political, laboratory and hippy flavours.
Consigning the boundaries between the born and the built and the
subject's oedipal development to the rubbish dump of history, Haraway's
politics of the information age created waves. But ten years on, has the
radical promise of her manifesto been borne out by history? Maria
Fernandez and Suhail Malik both think it hasn't. But fear not,
their reasons for agreeing are completely opposed
The Cyborg (sweet sixteen and never been cloned)
In an era when nearly everything, from small seeds to large computer
networks, entails practical or metaphorical organic and machinic fusions,
the ‘cyborg’, that product of early Cold War cybernetic theory, and
detourned by Haraway a generation later, has lost its political
clout. Haraway’s cyborg, ‘not of woman born’, the illegitimate offspring
of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, was modeled upon the
meztisaje (racial mixing) of Mexican Americans. Acknowledging that
she wrote the piece at a particular historical moment and primarily
for women, Haraway's cyborg was an inconstant figure able to
incorporate spiral dancers, electronic factory workers, poets, and
engineers; a figure who allied diverse oppositional strategies, from
writing to biotechnology. Given this radical theoretical openness, what
did the Cyborg Manifesto (CM) really manage to achieve?
1. CM was an early recognition of the fundamental and irreversible
changes brought about by digital technologies. Pre-dating Dolly, the
Visible Man, the Visible Woman, and the (purported) completion of the
Genome Project, Haraway discerned society's transformation into a
"polymorphous information system" and "the translation of
the world into a problem of coding", both phenomena with specific
effects for women worldwide. In the 1980s, Haraway was one of a handful
of cultural critics to write about the double-edged possibilities of
biotechnology, a major focus of cultural work today. Her prediction that
control strategies applied to women to give birth to new human beings
would be developed using the language "of goal achievement for
individual decision-makers" had, by the 1990s, become painfully
2. CM urged feminists to embrace new technologies as tools for feminist
ends. This was a pressing antidote to the pernicious notion, popular at
the time, that women belonged exclusively to ‘nature’. The manifesto
proposed that feminists definitely could and should use the master’s
tools to destroy (or at least disrupt) the master’s house.
3. CM contributed to the growth of a pan-global labor consciousness,
acknowledging the key role of women as workers in the global economy. It
also inspired the development of cyberfeminism in various parts of the
world. But in contrast to Haraway's feminist, socialist and antiracist
politics, Cyberfeminism eschewed definitions, political affiliations
(including feminism) and even goals.* The political effectiveness of so
undirected a movement is still to be determined. Issues of race and
racism, primary in Haraway's formulation of the cyborg have been avoided
in cyberfeminism. This silence could prove as destructive here as it was
to Second Wave US feminism. One can only hope that cyberfeminism is still
open to transformations.
4. CM proposed feminist associations based on affinities, not identity.
Haraway wrote the manifesto in response to endless fragmentation of the
US Second Wave feminist movement along the lines of ethnic, racial and
sexual identity. The manifesto called for the crossing of boundaries and
for a re-organisation of women on the basis of affinities of political
kinship. Cyberfeminists followed Haraway’s lead to associate on the basis
of affinities but at present, with some exceptions, these affinities tend
to be career-oriented rather than political.
5. CM reinforced and popularised earlier utopian feminist imaginings
of a world rendered gender free by technology. Effectively, what this
really meant was that those who could afford medical services and
technology would be able to 're-generate' themselves at will. For a small
segment of the world’s population this has indeed been liberating and
empowering. Previously ‘monstrous’ prosthesis became beautiful.
If the original radicality of Haraway’s cyborg lay in its illegitimacy,
the ubiquity of digital, ex-military, and genetic technologies suggest
that the cyborg is now a recognised legal citizen, much more a creature
of social reality than of fiction. The utilisation of the cyborg as an
image of edgy radicalism was, and still is, the territory of electronics
and the fashion industry. As cyberfeminism emphasises the cyber and
backpedals the feminism, the most radical politics of the manifesto have
been largely ignored.
*See '100 anti-theses'
and Faith Wilding, "Where is the feminism in Cyberfeminism"
originally published in nparadoxa 33, London, 1998.
The Cyborg Fifteen Years On, Five Complaints
We know what a cyborg is: the hybrid transfiguration of the human and the
machinic into one continuous, prosthetically extended, technically or
organically enhanced and integrated body, mind and generalised culture.
The hope of this integration is for a transorganic or transhuman future,
something like an entirely new evolutionary stage of life which will
surpass the organic limitations of brain and body in favour of new,
unlimited potentialities. A new sort of future that undermines the
divisions and boundaries between the human and its others; a
cross-disciplinary movement that, as Donna Haraway asserts in her
foundational text, "The Cyborg Manifesto", has characterised
liberal societies in (post)modernity.
The cyborg is yet another manifestation of the collapse of the
traditional bounded stability of the human and its anthropocentric
beliefs. But this notion of the cyborg is a lazy reconfiguration of
already well-established political and moral sensibilities
duplicitously welcomes the technoscientific hybridisation of the organic
and the technical while maintaining and perpetuating the critique of
technological rationality which has characterised left-liberal activism
and humanities. Neither aspect is transformed by what is in fact a
confrontation but comes to exist side-by-side in a typically vague
optimism in which all transgressions of boundaries are welcomed, without
adequate consideration of content or the difficulties involved. In this
way, the theory of the cyborg perpetuates the standard assumptions of
leftist (and proto-hippie) critique.
2. This hypocritical determination only serves to reinforce equally naive
notions of an extended freedom and responsibility which, rather, the
cyborg is in the service of. There is something disgustingly, liberally
'communitarian' about the cyborg in its current appreciation, which could
be readily taken as a covert if naively assumed parochialism or, better,
Americanism. No surprise that this should come from those on the nice
left where 'contestation' always involves 'respect' and 'creativity'
rather than war and destruction (see Hardt & Negri's approbation of
Haraway in Empire).
3. Cyborg theory is mostly a self-serving sexying-up of critical
liberalism through great gadgetry and concept-busting movements in the
technoscientific organisation of living material and extended systems.
Tie-dye T-shirts are swapped for leather deathpants and ethnic beads for
prosthetic hardware in a desperate bid for contemporaneity.
4. But the errors and dogmatism of the now common notion of the cyborg
also extend to the understanding of what is actually happening in the
technosciences. The cyborg is a theoretical fiction since how the
machinic and the organic in fact materially interact and combine is not
and cannot be accounted for by a theory ultimately based on
5. This tendentious, primarily phantasmatic appropriation of
technoscientific development as 'cyborgian' precludes a technically
precise and fully inventive understanding of organico-machinic
integration in favour of asserting what has been going on in well-meaning
left-liberal circles for some time anyway. It is a complacent reduction
of the actuality of the organico-machinic nexus, dulling it into
politically comprehensible and polite terms.
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