Monday, 11 November 2013

Haraway's "A Manifesto for Cyborgs": A Facilitated Discussion Response

(Apologies to readers of this blog that aren't participants in my particular spacial grouping of Dialogues in Feminism and Technology, but I'll be talking pretty particularly about class this week, so while I think it should be somewhat comprehensible, I can't guarantee that  you'll be able to suss out all the context, particularly when I quote specific participants. Sorry!)

I found leading a discussion on Haraway's "Manifesto for Cyborgs" to be something of a daunting task, considering the sheer breadth of the text, its nigh omnipresence in feminist technology criticism, and the often somewhat complex and even confusing layers of meaning and irony that Haraway makes use of. It is, after all, a text particularly interested in a group of beings Haraway characterizes as "partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity."1 It is difficult to limit the reading to just the broad overview of the text, as so many interesting elements are contained within brief sentence-long digressions or metaphorical extrapolations.

In an effort to narrow the scope of the conversation, my summary largely focused upon the way Haraway positions herself in opposition to Feminist Socialism--a theoretical camp she belongs to but critiques quite forcefully over the course of her manifesto. I wanted to emphasize, in particular, how the deconstructive work she does over the course of her essay is not simply an academic exercise but a reflection of the way in which technological society is in the process of deconstructing itself. Feminists and socialists alike must adapt to these postmodern conditions in order to survive in a diaspora of identity.2

This context framed one of my two major questions: in this deconstructive theoretical background, is there room for real political action, or by critiquing Marxist Feminism is Haraway reducing the field to a kind of postmodern slurry?

This seems like an important question, as some academics have read Haraway that way in the past.3 This question elicited some interesting responses about the ethics of forming or disavowing particular alliances. In particular, Alex's mention of the Men's Rights movement (to audible sympathetic groans) made for an interesting, if unresolved, discussion of how much we should critique ourselves for shying away from alliances that we find particularly disquieting, and for failing to make room for alternate worldviews.

Of course, Haraway isn't interested in forming affinities between her outright opponents, necessarily. She does, after all, describe teaching Christian Creationism as "a form of child abuse," among other similarly strident declarations.4 Her manifesto seems to be interested primarily in forming affinities between oppressed groups, as well as between groups (like male silicone valley workers) teetering on the brink of being devalued and downgraded in the social hierarchy. Finding useful alliances, for Haraway, does not mean accepting the entirety of another's ideology or subsuming identities into a coherent whole.

The primary question I posed revolved around the last portion of Haraway's essay where she discusses cyborgs in fiction.5 I wanted to grapple with the notion of cyborgs as an artistic construct and potentially a form of art practice. Coming from a science fiction-influenced background, the question of how literally we/I should express this concept (or, as Professor Ordonez suggested, the concept of other monsters) is of major importance. This conversation was productive, I felt, in that we collectively generated some new ideas of what a cyborg art practice might look like (Shauna's suggestion of glitch art as a literal expression of transgressed boundaries was interesting, for example, as was Alex's suggestion of a fusion of the Cyborg and Goddess figures into some strange whole), but I wonder if the conversation might not have run more smoothly if we collectively had a stronger grounding in the fiction Haraway draws from. Were I facilitating a conversation like this again, I would want to spend more time discussing these stories and their major elements, and perhaps even have a fiction reading component to the dialogue. In particular, for the future I want to become better acquainted with these authors and what they have to offer.

On the whole, however, I think the conversation was productive in its irresolution. It seems like one of the characteristics of cyborg thought is a lack of a need to fully resolve these questions in a permanent way. This might make it a particularly valuable form of contemporary art practice, which elevates the ongoing process of production and increasingly questions the possibility of a completed and resolved work of art. The discussion was able to be vital precisely because it was, by necessity, ongoing.

1.  Haraway, Donna. 1990. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” In Feminism/Postmodernism, edited by Linda Nicholson, 192. New York: Routledge.
2.  Ibid. 212.
3.  Sandoval, C. 1999. “NEW SCIENCES Cyborg Feminism and the Methodology of The.” In Cybersexualities: a Reader on Feminist Theory, Cyborgs, and Cyberspace, edited by Jenny Wolmark, 247–263. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.  Sandoval provides a useful summary of these misreadings and effectively reclaims Haraway's position from this kind of postmodern confusion.
4.  Haraway, "A Manifesto," 193.
5.  Ibid. 215-223.

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