31. Simians, Cyborgs and Women, by Donna Haraway

29 Jul

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This dense academic work, written in the 1980s by a Marxist-feminist History of Consciousness professor at U Berkeley, was lurking on my shelf at #4 in the #20BooksofSummer challenge. It will definitely be the most challenging book on the list.

I was interested because it contains Haraway’s most famous essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto.” And I’m interested in cyborgs because, well, dear reader, you try to count people walking down the street in New York City, and see how long it takes before you see one who doesn’t have a smartphone in their hand. The phone is the last thing we touch before sleeping, the first thing we touch upon waking. It contains our lovers, our social lives, the photos of our children. We turn to it for entertainment or consolation in an awkward hour. We live in there often better than we do out here. And if you count drugs as molecular prostheses, well, the ship has sailed: We’re cyborgs. Whatever our value-judgements on that, it’s a profound human transformation that seems worth trying to catch a glimpse of as we speed through it.

Haraway was writing in the ’80s, before the emergent technologies had really emerged, so her sense of the cyborg is coming less out of our daily digital reality and more out of the traditions of cultural theory she’s been educated in. Cyborgs, she writes, are “creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted.” Their value, to her Marxist-feminist project, is metaphorical. If I can break this down much more baldly than I think she would (and perhaps inaccurately; I am no expert here, reader beware!), the cyborg as a half-natural, half-created thing is a powerful tool because it helps us understand that seemingly naturalized social categories, like “women” and “race” as not-so-all-natural after all.

This is the old-fashioned stuff of my Brown University education. The first essays in Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs and Women, well before we get to the cyborgs, are about how the academic branch of “social biology”—in particular in the ape studies of the 1950s—has created a story about human beings influenced by narratives of patriarchy and domination, and thus has falsely “proved” a natural order of patriarchy and domination.

If the scientist are all men, for example, and they believe that human societies are run by dominant males, they’ll find that ape societies are run by dominant males. In one influential study (which I remember reading about in college) male-led science teams did a test that removed the dominant male from an ape group, and discovered that chaos and fighting ensued. They concluded that dominant men kept social order. Haraway draws on later woman-headed studies to point out alternative conclusions. Maybe if they’d removed the weakest male, the chaos and fighting would have been worse. We don’t know since they didn’t check, testing instead for what they expected to see. Or maybe with removal of the dominant male, cooperation and negotiation increased and the ape society got more equal and better for all its members. “Negotiation” may have looked like disorder to the patriarch.

Haraway also critiques the language of this old-fashioned science, which suggested that female apes engage in “prostitution” and allegedly trade sex for “status.”  Again, she suggests there may be behavior outside the frame. Could the female ape be seeking pleasure? How does the researcher know her motivations? Summaries of later women-led studies on apes provide plentiful alternative conclusions to the view of human “nature” as being led by dominant males, with whom females trade their sexuality for safety, protection and status.

Again to go broad-strokes, I think that Haraway’s larger point is that proving this ape-study idea of the female false undermines the whole category of female. A “woman” is a moving target, depending on who is seeking her.

“‘Woman’ only exists as this kind of imaginary being, while women are the product of a social relation of appropriation, naturalized as sex. A feminist is one who fights for women as a class and for the disappearance of that class.”

I’m not a Marxist-feminist, so I find that kind of thinking to be going too far. Can we correct our biases and look again at men and women in nature, more carefully? Can we focus less on traits of females and more on activities that are female? (Like, carrying children, giving birth, breastfeeding; I know! I know! Un-PC of me to mention it).

I was also not convinced by the Cyborg Manifesto. Haraway’s contention is that embracing our cyborg reality will be liberating. For the reasons above, and for others, such as that the multi-nature of the cyborg is a good model for political movements that have to simultaneously represent many groups—women of different class and race statuses, for example. It’s a truism of this kind of Marxist-feminist philosophy that people with different experiences can’t be unified. Each experience matters; any movement must honor the particular without trying to universalize.

“Cyborg feminists have to argue that ‘we’ do not want any more natural matrix of unity and that no construction is whole.”

I suppose the cyborg-as-metaphor could be useful in those ways, but in 2016 metaphor seems to be the least of our worries: Let’s talk about the cyborg-as-reality. Who is producing the machine parts? Who is profiting from them? How are they controlling those of us who are ever more dependent on them for our fertility, our sex lives, our social lives, our happiness, our work? If the Marxist-feminist project is to create a society in which no group dominates any other, the cyborg does not, to me, seem like an ally.

The Manifesto ends with a tribute to the futures imagined by some excellent science fiction writers—Samuel R. Delaney, Octavia Butler, James Tiptree Jr. and Vonda McIntyre, among others.





6 Responses to “31. Simians, Cyborgs and Women, by Donna Haraway”

  1. Grab the Lapels July 29, 2016 at 8:45 pm #

    My brain didn’t understand, like, any of that. Kudos to you for finishing! I always had a hard time with theory in grad school because it felt like theorists tell readers to accept things as true and then move forward, but if you’re stuck and NOT accepting X idea as true, the whole thing gets more and more ridiculous. Oh, how my brains has tossed the phrase “the medium is the message” around and around and around.

    • Ivalleria July 31, 2016 at 2:22 am #

      Thank you for reading, since I know theory is not your thing! That is a good point about being asked to accept things as true. I always feel like I’ve missed the part where they *proved* it was true, like I must have been napping that day and now am stuck waiting for the real science to begin. Back to fiction! Whew.

      • Grab the Lapels July 31, 2016 at 2:29 am #

        Exactly! Do you know how many article I’ve read in order to try and understand what “the medium is the message” means?? Gah! What’s next in the challenge?

        • Ivalleria July 31, 2016 at 12:10 pm #

          Ha ha. A book called “animal sanctuary” that’s done in a collection of documents about a film star. It’s fiction, but heavily theory influenced. Heave ho, cleaning out the shelves…..

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