Wednesday 17 November 2021

Revisiting the Cyborg Manifesto

Leafing through notes written 20 years ago about a key work in social theory is a strange experience. Only a few embers of recollection glow in the gloom of distant memory, and one's reading and appreciation of the heavy stuff has become discerning and (perhaps) more sophisticated with the passage of time. What was once difficult is now, comparatively speaking, a cinch. This was in mind when returning to the pages I'd scribbled on Donna Haraway's seminal A Cyborg Manifesto, which booted up for the first time in 1985. What attracted me to the manifesto was its locating itself in the socialist feminist tradition, and its grappling with the question of political subjectivity. I.e. What is/should be the vehicle for realising leftist politics if the old notions of class were obsolete and was joined in the scrapyard by essentialist notions of 'woman'? And the answer was something I didn't properly appreciate at the time.

I'm getting ahead of myself. Haraway's manifesto appeared at a moment of flux and defeat for progressive social movements in the United States. Old Ronnie had been re-elected by a landslide over the hapless Walter Mondale, and the power of Christian fundamentalism (styling itself as 'evangelism') exerted a huge conservatising cultural pull. If this wasn't bad enough, there was a renewed emphasis on the privatised (patriarchal) household just at the moment of its crisis, a roll back of social gains made since the late 1960s - particularly off the back of the AIDS crisis, and the new Cold War saw the US ramp up military spending and hype its so-called 'Star Wars' technology as a means of knocking Soviet missiles out of the sky. It was for many a grim and frightening time. Coincident with this moment was the retreat of feminism, or rather what has since become recognised as its "second wave", as women of colour, lesbians, and working class women came out forcefully (and relatively prominently) against the class and racial biases that often constituted "mainstream" feminist politics. Other bits of feminism were absorbed into the academy, and/or developed its own institutions that (usually) provided an alternative but limited social security net for women. Into this juncture, Haraway brought her own feminist critique of masculine rigidities in science and scientific culture. Her concern was to make sense of these events by thinking through the dissolution of the relatively firm and discrete categories that underpinned inequality and social inclusion/exclusion, what opportunities they open up for a feminist and socialist politics, and how we can overcome the thorny problem of subject/agency.

Social and technological developments had thrown into crisis three crucial cultural boundaries that foregrounded Western thought, and with it scientific practice. These were the distinction between human and animal, that is the recognition that the qualitative difference we presuppose between ourselves and the rest of the animal kingdom is itself a cultural distinction. It isn't something that can be asserted biologically. The second is between organisms and machines, a divide that had grown increasingly problematic with the rise of machines that have agency - such as automated and computerised systems, and latterly algorithms. And lastly the collapse of the physical/non-physical. Traditionally played out in mind-body dualisms, wearable machines, software, actual miniaturisation and the semiotic reduction of machines to floating signifiers ready to be invested with meanings in different combinations. These dissolutions work together to dissolve the knowledges previous structures capital and state power relied on.

Haraway expands on this point by introducing what she refers to as the 'informatics of domination'. Here, the Manifesto sets up a series of oppositions: examples and aspects of "old" forms of domination and their replacement by the brand spanking new. For example, riffing off Baudrillard, the logic of representation is replaced by simulation. Unpacking it a little more, one might contrast power politics in a liberal democracy by parties ostensibly competing by articulating different interests to today whereby parties create their own realities or simulacra of representation, and invite electorates to participate (right wing populism and technocratic centrism are examples of this species). Another is the shift from concerns with physical, embodied hygiene to "stress management". I.e. Anxieties (and instructions) aimed at the physical body moving to the soul itself, a preoccupation with mental health entirely consistent with neoliberal subjectivation and its attendant individuation of inequalities.

These couplets, of which there are a few dozen, mark two important developments for Haraway. Firstly, they're overly artificial. The power enjoyed by social media platforms derived from their control of digital infrastructure is a transparent accomplishment. They outcompeted and, in some cases, out-intimidated their opposition to establish themselves. Their power is visible even if the forms of exploitation on which they thrive are not, and it's highlighted not least by the animosities stirred up by previous, declining powers. This is important for Haraway because if new patterns of domination and power are perceived as synthetic, it allows us to start asking questions about new ways of thinking through and organising the social world. This comes with a bonus too: it shows up past (and persisting) "traditional" power structures that rest on naturalisms, essentialisms, and conventions as equally arbitrary. New forms of domination don't just threaten to crowd out "old" powers, their very existence calls into question the illusios they depend upon. The second is the target of these new powers. The 'informatics of domination' aren't particularly concerned with the whole subject identified with certain whole bodies, but bits of the subject. Power patterns and arranges us according to abstract criteria. There are standard benchmarks and our bits and pieces generate metrics that measures and effectively judges us. In other words, a pre-emption of Deleuze's discussion of dividuals.

Enabling this is a new wave of the industrial revolution. So-called post-industrialism and deindustrialisation has been written about enough on here, but for Haraway this has three important consequences: the deepening of the global division of labour, a reconfiguration of lifestyles around jobs (i.e. jobs/careers do not determine nor generate identities, but conditions them around axes of consumption, identity, and childcare. She also notes, along with other feminists and mainstream economists, a certain feminisation of work. This is in the sense the competencies new forms of work mobilise - affective labour - have traditionally been coded as feminine, and the fact work and jobs are becoming precarious and vulnerable, as per the historic lot of women. Labour therefore passes into what she refers to as 'homeworking', the catch-all term for this phase of proletarianisation in which the stable gives way to the temporary. But a further consequence is how the changing political economy corrodes traditional family structures. Poverty might be increasingly feminised too, but more women have economic independence and more are the head of their households. Haraway is also at pains to stress the feminisation of labour is experienced by men as well who were disproportionately losing their jobs in the old industries and finding job markets growing tighter, the range of occupations conforming to these gendered (feminised) characteristics. Another important feature of homeworking is the embedding of these labour processes into an 'integrated circuit', which works in a double sense: the social relations that ties together the new division of labour, and their subsumption by an expanding sphere of politics. Because the feminisation of labour is, as per the informatics of domination, a synthetic and deliberate effort the existing axes of inequality accompanying its devaluation by and through gendering are newly politicised. Therefore another category passes into obsolescence: the distinction between the public and the private. This leads to an uneven political geography. The individuation of class that accompanies its feminisation finds workers variously atomised and relatively advantaged and disadvantaged.

Synthetic problems require synthetic solutions, and this is where Haraway's notion of the cyborg comes to the fore. It's worth noting that she employs an expanded notion of a cyborg:
From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defence and about the final appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war. From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point. (Simians, Cyborgs, and Women 1991, p.154)
A cyborg feminist politics draws deeply on the advances made by black feminism and what later became known as intersectionality. Additionally, the new informatics of domination with its will to dissolution (of the old, at least) creates conditions that invites a cyborgic response. Black feminism's critique, particularly in the work of bell hooks and Angela Davis, argues the essentialisms and focus of prior theorists didn't just downgrade or ignore the experience of black and working class women but were significant barriers to apprehending the reality of oppression and power, and therefore how to go about tackling them. Using this as the jumping off point, Haraway draws on Chela Sandoval's ideas around oppositional consciousness. Simply put, organising doesn't begin with presupposing an identity but looks at the structures that position and hold women in certain locations. A feminist politics then proceeds not from identity but affinity.

This, however, cannot happen spontaneously. Resistance is as much an accomplishment as domination. Its synthetic character grants it the designation of cyborg. For example, Haraway discusses the importance of writing, which is simultaneously the process of finding and articulating voice and signifying the emergent locus of resistance and counter-power. It also means resistance is a creative act too. To be cyborgic it to reject ‘innocence’ (i.e. ignorance of the social) and ‘monotheism’ (i.e. monocausal and totalising explanations), and as it weaves its own meanings and proffers its own analysis of apprehending the world it disrupts and rewrites the categories of received modes of domination while resisting the blandishments and efforts at incorporation by the new.

For example, such a subversion is carried by Haraway's notion of the cyborg. Cultural tropes of 'the cyborg' as a fusion of flesh and machine, exemplified in 70s television by the The Bionic Woman and the Six Million Dollar Man, 80s cinema with The Terminator and Robocop, and into the 1990s with Star Trek antagonists The Borg remains the most popular notion of what a cyborg actually is. But their subversive potential for boundary blurring are immediately shut down in as they are deployed as super heroes upholding (white, imperialist, anti-communist) American values, as robot soldiers, as literal law enforcement, and as mindless automatons. Each case represents a shutting down and a narrow channelling of potentialities. Haraway's cyborg offers a possibility that is altogether more subversive: a living construct allying different social locations, histories, dividuals. The Harawayan cyborg is collective, not singular, networked and networking, a recombinant force appropriate to the challenges of the cybernetic capitalism of the 1980s - and its reboots and updates since. Because cyborg politics are a form of writing that is, in a sense, never written, it's appropriate Haraway's intervention is A and opposed to The Cyborg Manifesto.

Coming back to it again, it did surprise me how much Haraway thought in parallel to contemporaneous poststructuralists. For example, it's my understanding she didn't encounter our friends Deleuze and Guattari until much later, and probably helps explain why her friend and Deleuze (and posthumanist) scholar Rosi Braidotti was drawn initially to her work. The parallels and anticipations are uncanny. Likewise Hardt and Negri, whose application of Deleuzian Marxism to politics, thinking through of the multitude, and the flexible but reactive power of Empire and apparatuses of capture is anticipated by the cyborg and informatics of domination respectively.

A Cyborg Manifesto has inspired its own pulse of writing, not least from Haraway itself. Her latest major work from 2016, the interesting-sounding Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin with the Chthulucene is a meditation on the first distinction made in her manifesto and the need to adopt an interdependent and continuous approach to life on this planet, how our species' actions have affected it, and that only a multi-species perspective can see off the threats pregnant in the 'Chthulucene'. Which include climate change and mass extinctions. The same themes are there, as is the same playful, provocative polemic.

Advances in the social sciences and philosophy are haphazard and non-linear, and abiding by this truism A Cyborg Manifesto remains some of the most advanced - and readable - social theory there is, despite being almost 40 years old. Especially set against a recrudescence of reactive and anti-productive "theory" that seeks to close down possibility, stymie potential, and force human beings back into naturalistic and identarian moulds.

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Blissex said...

«the feminisation of labour is experienced by men as well who were disproportionately losing their jobs in the old industries and finding job markets growing tighter»

Being going on for literally centuries:

A quote given by Davis Landes, "The Wealth and poverty of nation", 1999, I think taken from Milton Meltzer "Bread-And Roses: The Struggle of American Labor 1865-1915" 1967:
«"The mule spinners", said one mill superintendent to me, "are a tough crowd to deal with. A few years ago they were giving trouble at this mill, so one Saturday afternoon, after they had gone home, we started right in and smashed up a room-full of mules with sledge hammers. When the men came back on Monday morning, they were astonished to find that there was no work for them. That room is now full of ring frames run by girls."»

GavinB said...

By coincidence, I was thinking about Haraway last week with regards to what 'being female' means, and the cyborg nature of a) our permanent engagement with technology, and b) body modification in general.
It was also because I was listening to some 21stC acid from Posthuman.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't as impressed with Haraway's original work as you are, since it seemed to be standard boilerplate postmodern elite feminism, taking advantage of cyberpunk jargon because that was trendy at the time (they managed to fill an entire fat volume of worthless bullshit called Storming the Reality Studio). It also seems to me that Haraway's work is extremely convenient, like most of Baudrillard's work, for disarming all effectual resistance projects and encouraging intellectual subordination to cybernetic plutocrats of the kind that Gibson was warning us against at the time that Haraway was writing her verbose banalities.

Perhaps I'm too harsh, but a bit more criticism is probably deserved.

BCFG said...

Thanks for reminding us again how utterly idiotic and fantastical feminist narratives generally are.

The Cyborg is the perfect controlling entity for any ruling class. It is programmed to behave in a certain way, its language is formal. The formalisation of language is a big and primary goal of woke hystericals, by literally driving people to suicide for use of improper (in their eyes) language they turn civil society into a very formal place, with very formal language. The sort of language a cyborg would speak.

This is great for those in power because everyday language and talk in civil society becomes very much formalised like in businesses, with the same controlling implications. So business language rules everywhere. This is the corporatist dream writ large, and is one reason, among many, why to my mind woke, feminism are fascistic ideologies, all wrapped up in liberation verbiage of course.