Donna Haraway: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women

[Readings] (08.29.08, 4:54 pm)

The Cyborg Manifesto

Haraway’s early work was on primatology and she studied how conventional western metaphors of gender, race, and class had informed primatology and science as a whole. Her goal is not to undermine science as a whole, but expose its concealed lack of objectivity.

Concerning the Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway is still looking at metaphorical terms. Haraway writes of a post-gender world, and of the cyborg as a tangible concept, imbued with many properties, each revolutionary. Our world, while suffused with technology and slowly attaining a networked character, is still heavily embodied and weighted by 19th century notions of race, gender, and class. It is hard to imagine her world as connected to ours, but using the tool of metaphor, we can make that connection.

Haraway’s work is intended to defamiliarize ourselves with naturalness, and shake us out of the conception that we are natural. Her world is still far from ours, but the loss of natural innocence is one trait that we do have in common with hers. Yes, our world is constructed, in terms of gender, class, etc, and in terms of every aspect of our lives: these are composed by the interconnection of many systems. We, however, are not post. The myth of naturalness is still stiffly ingrained in popular imagery, and is romanticized and idealized. Backwards thinking and idealism is heavily present. Is Haraway’s cyborg a utopian vision of the post-hoc?

Haraway’s cyborg is relentlessly self aware of its own construction. It may, at will, deconstruct or reconstruct itself in any manner. The subject of these constructions is the place of the cyborg individual within society, its role with others and as whatever identities are embedded within it. As a cyborg, an individual will recognize that it is part of a machine (can probably connect to Deleuze at this point), a node in a network of many. The cyborg thus is aware of itself and has meta-awareness of its own relationships with the other nodes in its network. The cyborg is thus a totally literate being, in the sense of understanding its relationship and structure with that to which it is connected.

Being a cyborg involves a sort of contact, and being influenced by technology? That sort of argument of is indebted to Foucault. In that sense, even the Amish are cyborg in the sense that they exist as a bubble within a heavily technological society. Everyone within a technological culture is exposed to technology from birth, in that we are affected and informed by technology whether we like it or not. We eat food that has been engineered for millenea, and have been influenced by technology for ages. Through this, we have been constructing ourselves and our relationship to technology, and this has paved the way for us to be cyborgs.

Still, I cannot vouch for language. I really cannot understand what possesses authors to write so incoherently. At least she’s not as bad as Deleuze.

Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies

Chapter is on the discourses and languages of science- specifically the way that they construct bodies and selves. Haraway describes scientific discourse as ‘lumpy’: they condense and are contested over meanings and practices. Specifically, Haraway is using the metaphor, or subject, of the immune system It is a metaphor in that it represents the idea of difference. This can be extended to self vs other, us vs them, etc. (p. 204)

Haraway first describes Richard K. Gershon (who discovered the T cell), and the 1987 book describing his discovery as an example of the classical western science narrative- of man’s mastery over nature.

From the 19th century to the 1980s, in biology, the concept of bodies (specifically female bodies) has changed from a naturalist idealization for the fulfillment of natural functions towards something different. Bodies changed to be thought of as a much more system-oriented network of conflicting strategies. With immunology, specifically, the model changes from one of a well defined inside and outside, to a much more chaotic interplay.

Haraway looks at Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores in “Understanding Computers and Cognition”, and how they critique rationalism in terms of model construction, in terms of how it applies “commonsense” and embedded ideology to problem solving. Winograd also encouraged a method of modeling, which examines the coupling of the inner and outer worlds of organisms and systems. This idea, which is further explained as depending on context, is deeply influential in modern software design. This places emphasis on structure as opposed to the question of internal/external or self/other.

Examining systems leads one to look at the units that comprise a system. Identifying those units, and finding the levels and strata at which they operate is fairly difficult. Haraway brings up Dawkins who theorizes that units are things which may be replicated (ie, genes, memes, etc). If we are to take this to heart, then, as individuals, we are not units, but rather vehicles for smaller, more atomic entities. This approach serves to denaturalize the concept of the organism.

The effect of expansion undermines the distinction between internal and external. The deeply internal microscopic may be analogized to the very external, the extraterrestrial, both frontiers of science. When these are convoluted to change our perception of ourselves and our own space: not only must we defend against that which is a non-self, but from our own parts. In Expansionist Western medical discourse, that which is colonized came to be seen as an invader in its own territory. Expansionism has come to see the invaded subject as part of the self, with the indigenous as an unforeseen and uncontrollable intrusion. (Can think of some contemporary political examples here.)

A key example for Haraway illustrating this change is the biology of the AIDS virus, which serves to turn a body’s own cells against it, performing a kind of microscopic star wars. These examples continue and persist through the writings of Octavia Butler, who addresses these ideas in science fiction.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorHaraway, Donna
TitleSimians, Cyborgs, and Women
Tagsdms, postmodernism, feminism, cyberculture
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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