Sunday, 20 September 2009

Cyborgs'r'us - Haraway's Manifesto: Transgender Studies Reader, #3

This is one good bit of work: Haraway's concept of cyborg is very apt, and fitting of the trans condition in many ways, and it's hardly limited to that (I think it can be applied to cis womanhood easily, too), but as I'm not cis, I'll limit my comments to the bits that interest, fascinate and engage me, 'cos I'm so me me me, me.

Anyway: what I really liked about her piece, and what really spoke to me was her central concept of cyborg. That none of us cultural creatures are "natural" or can be clearly and cleanly differentiated from machines, or animals. That we don't exist as natural bodies, 'cos "natural" (as in opposition to unnatural, bit like "unfallen" vs. "fallen") does not exist for us, anyway. However we view it, the world is not separable from the concepts we use to map it, communicate it, think about it.

The other thing that I find real useful is the notion that there are no overarching systems of thought - no system can explain everything, and indeed, should not even attempt to do so - and that every system will distort whatever it views in some way. That systems of thought should be developed with this in mind, that there is no privileged narrative, no (absolute) ground on which to stand on, is so bang on in my mind I'm tempted to join some Haraway fan club and send her cookies.

This is the text that shows more than a modicum of understanding how science (as in physics, computer science, biology) works: that's excellent in my opinion, too - this text also isn't frightened of technology and the possibilities it offers, but seeks to subvert the aims for its own use, and embraces technology as a useful extension of our embodiments: this was written in 1984, and here we go, extending our embodiments in the cyberspace like this blog post, for example. If you think this text you're reading does not embody me, think again - who has written this? Who controls what happens with this text, here? Whose thoughts, whose formulation of them are you reading? How is this not embodiment? Where do I stop and you begin?

Then there's the "sod organic families" -bit that makes me cheer: "The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project." (105) The organic communities some of us are trying to find are simply stated completely unrealisable - give up: they're not to be found on some organic ground of being: we have to make them ourselves if we are to have them at all. There's no "natural" womanhood - there's only the womanhood we make, ourselves, and we should build it knowingly, accepting our real differences, building an alliance of women instead of an total, organic community, which would be an extension of the patriarchal origin anyway, a return to the primordial paradise which never existed.

I found some spiritual Christian value in Haraway's manifesto, too (113): I realised that in my theology, God/man binary does not exist - I don't do that dualism. For me, God is about incarnated God, God made flesh, God becoming human - there's no clearly defined limit, or a border, between God and human, which, incidentally, is reflected in the 5th century CE Chalcedonian Christological formula: "We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation. The distinction between natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person and one hypostasis." It's a contradictory formula, and precisely that is why it's so perfect: there can be no clear border, nor no no-border between God, and human, the tension remains. A rather cyborgian view of God and human, I'd say.

I can only agree with Haraway's call for "pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction": precisely that. Confused boundaries, esp. with regards to binaries, and responsibility in their construction are exactly what I'd prescribe to this society, and they're what I'm working towards, too: for my own small part I'm re-educating the doctors I meet on the need to draw the border between "men" and "women", between "female" and "male" in a responsible way that does not erase people and their experiences, nor endangers their access to health care. That such borders will inevitably be confusing and confused is, I think, a cause for celebration - a binary system can never hold the riot that is human sex and gender, nor should it try to: such subsuming would (and is), in my opinion, be of an extremely totalising and patriarchal in nature.

I wonder if there'll be anything better in the book? If there is, it has to be something totally gobsmacking.

with a h/t to Paula Sankelo.


  1. Oh yeah, and I totally forgot Haraway's read the books I found totally engrossing as a teen, too: Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ and what-have-you.

  2. Hear hear! And thanks for reminding me of Haraway, hadn't thought of her for a long time. She really was (and kind of sad, still is) ahead of her time.

  3. Thanks for this summary / review! Now I feel embarrassed for never finishing the book myself. I think I was a bit too young for it when I first tried, and I didn't even get past the very beginning. I will certainly look into Donna Haraway again! If my understanding of her text turns out to be similar to yours, it seems I too can subscribe to her views, cheering and whooping with joy.

  4. I expect I'll read the whole of Haraway's book (Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature) one of these days: she really sounds like she's been way ahead of her time, and, like Tiia said, she probably still is. Her manifesto reminds me of queenemily's post in QT, Five Axioms about Gender and Bodies, esp. axiom #3: "The meanings of “female” “male” and “genderqueer” are not reducible to bodies, but are not un-related, and we cannot know in advance how they intersect." Quite.