In her 1991 text, Philosopher Donna Haraway uses the concept of cyborg to demonstrate that human and technique cannot be easily be separated:
It is not clear who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machine. It is not clear what is mind and what body in machines that resolve into coding practices.
Haraway’s cyborg goes well beyond the humanoid, half-machine, science-fiction construction; rather, it serves as a starting point for an unsettling epistemology which shatters many concepts taken for granted in Western thinking. Haraway’s philosophy suggests understanding the world where human and nonhuman dynamics are hybridized—to the point where “the certainty of what counts as nature … is undermined, probably fatally.”
Except it is not only about questioning this sole human and nonhuman opposition.
The cyborgs populating feminist science fiction make very problematic the statuses of man or woman, human, artefact, member of a race, individual entity, or body.
Haraway’s philosophie problematizes a wide range of dualisms (self/other, mind/body, culture/nature, etc…) and puts aside anthropocentric assumptions (especially the accompanying patriarchal logics of domination) that human beings have a special status. The cyborg myth overturns established categories and sets the stage for Haraway’s political project.
What project is cyborg literature about?
What is the technology of cyborg literature? For Haraway, it is writing: writing is already a technological gesture, but it is above all the place where thoughts, values, intentions, and more generally possibilities of expression are inscribed. It is through the prism of “inscription” that she defends the cyborg as the standard-bearer of her philosophy:
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. That is why cyborg politics insist on noise and advocate pollution, rejoicing in the illegitimate fusions of animal and machine. These are the couplings which make Man and Woman so problematic, subverting the structure of desire, the force imagined to generate language and gender, and so subverting the structure and modes of reproduction of ‘Western’ identity, of nature and culture, of mirror and eye, slave and master, body and mind. ‘We’ did not originally choose to be cyborgs, but choice grounds a liberal politics and epistemology that imagines the reproduction of individuals before the wider replications of ‘texts’.
Between a perfectly clear communication and an imperfect language, cyborg politics privileges the one that would try to express something else; something ineffable perhaps, or that a given modality would not allow to express. It emphasizes the importance of immanent diversity, the fact that one manifests oneself no matter how one manifests oneself (and no matter if it is done in text form or not). In literary context, one could say that it is to refuse to give an exclusive primacy to the text (high place of (phal)logocentrism1). In a non-literary context, it means paying attention to the expressions which diverge from the dominating logics, aesthetics and practices.
And these plural manifestations found one of the posthumanist epistemologies according to which (posthumanisms cannot all be reduced to a single current) the human and nonhuman, organic and nonorganic, cross, mix, hybridize, and become inseparable and take part in dismantling the numerous dualisms which hinder liberal, minority, diverses thinkings, warranting plural forms of life (and non-life).
Against the reproduction of the dominating ideology
Hybridization implies reproduction; which could be related to the significant place occupied by sexuality throughout the text:
The new technologies affect the social relations of both sexuality and of reproduction, and not always in the same ways. The close ties of sexuality and instrumentality, of views of the body as a kind of private satisfaction- and utility-maximizing machine, are described nicely in sociobiological origin stories that stress a genetic calculus and explain the inevitable dialectic of domination of male and female gender roles. … Sex, sexuality, and reproduction are central actors in high-tech myth systems structuring our imaginations of personal and social possibility.
For Haraway, a militant feminist, the immanence of experiences is crucial because it structures ways of thinking. The paradigm of reproduction (biological, but also ideological) takes a different meaning for women, who are directly concerned by reproduction (because physically involved during pregnancy), and for men, who instead experience the question in conceptual fashion.
With no clear conclusion—this idea is merely a lead—I will bear in mind the paradigm of reproduction (within the framework of Haraway’s “cyberfeminism”) for studying values and ideas embedded in systems.2
Phallogocentrism: The term “phallogocentrism” was proposed by Jacques Derrida, referring to the specifically masculine privilege of occupying the discursive space (and in particular, to favour certain forms of discourse rather than others). This position assumes, as a counterpart, that a non-logocenteric expression carried by a woman or a person of colour, for example, will by default be received less favourably. ↩︎
“Systems”: whether systems are considered biotic or artificial, from software to people—they will almost certainly be both, that is, cyborg. ↩︎