Feminist and Postmodernist Metamorphoses Reconsidered
The cyborg is a bad girl […] Maybe she is not so much bad as she is a shape-changer, whose dislocations are never free. She is a girl who’s trying not to become Woman, but remain responsible to women of many colors and positions.1
Some differences are playful; some are poles of world historical systems of dominations. “Epistemology” is about knowing the difference. 2
The relationship between postmodernism and feminism is one of debate. Often, postmodernism is taken as the “assumed reference point in a debate that has largely taken place within feminism and has authorized feminism’s reflection on itself through either disavowal or disapproval”.3 Against this background, Ahmed wonders how we, as feminists, might be able to read postmodernism differently — “as feminist and for feminism”.4 Put differently, can we reconsider the relationship between feminism and postmodernism — generating some sort of metamorphosis? Is it possible that this relationship is not marked by authority, hierarchy, and exclusion, but, instead, might be understood as being one of mutual and reciprocal productivity?
This essay departs from Sara Ahmed’s Differences that Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism (1998) in which she claims that neither feminism and postmodernism are the same nor is feminism a mere derivate of postmodernism. My reading aims at analyzing Ahmed’s claim through Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century (1991). According to Ahmed, the relationship between feminism and postmodernism is not one of analogy but one that allows for a feminist ‘speaking back’ to postmodernism.5 Against this background, I will suggest that Haraway offers a very specific reading of this relationship; that is, Haraway’s cyborg intervenes in both feminist and postmodernist theory, albeit in different ways. In particular: the cyborg constitutes/is constituted by a series of political and identarian metamorphoses, ultimately leading to the absolute demolishment of all hegemonic boundaries. Haraway’s cyborg allows for a coalition politics that work toward women’s collective and subjective liberation in the 20th century. She is ‘a bad girl’, ‘a shape-changer,’ one who moves beyond the hegemonic boundaries that the world has offered her; her illegitimate existence already categorized as an act of resistance.
The cyborg constitutes/is constituted by a series of political and identarian metamorphoses, ultimately leading to the absolute demolshment of all hegemonic boundaries.
This paper begins by considering Haraway’s critique of both feminist theory and the postmodernist tradition as put forward by her in A Cyborg Manifesto (1991).6 Having explored Haraway’s critique of feminism’s identity politics and the postmodernist ‘death of the subject’, section two examines how Haraway’s political myth of (the situatedness of) the cyborg transforms this critique, thus establishing a feminist, postmodernist intervention within these exact same traditions. In fact, I contend that Haraway transforms feminist and postmodernist thought from the inside-out: exactly because the cyborg is ironically produced by and inhibits both traditions, she enables a double optimization: a metamorphosis that is multiple.
I. Wanted Dead or Alive: Feminist and Postmodernist Subjects
Although Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto is critical of feminist and postmodernist tendencies to ‘universalize’ individual subjects (as either being dead or alive), it is nonetheless sympathetic to their projects insofar as they aim at critically rethinking existing power structures. As such, her cyborg manifesto takes on an ironic tone filled with blasphemy: Haraway aims to enhance the political strategies of feminist and postmodern theories from the inside out. According to Haraway, “the need for unity of people trying to resist worldwide intensification of domination has never been more acute” because “technologically mediating societies” are becoming the ‘new normal’.7 Against this background, she wonders, “what kind of political [myth] could embrace partial, contradictory, permanently enclosed construction of personal and collective selves and still be faithful, effective – and ironically, socialist-feminist?”.8 In what follows, I will explore Haraway’s criticism of feminist and postmodernist ideas on the subject, after which I will consider whether these ‘old’ subjectivities are incompatible with the concrete, lived realities of subjects in our new techno-socio era.
First, Haraway takes issue with feminist theories of her time insofar as they adhere to identity politics. According to Haraway, (white) feminism tends to center gender as the primary form of oppression and therefore fails to include other, overlapping axes of oppression — such as race and class. Although feminist theory has been eager to destabilize the alleged ‘neutrality’ of the ‘Western’, (male) subject, it ended up creating another ‘neutral’ subject, namely the ‘innocent’ (white) Woman. Put differently, despite their aim to dismantle structures of domination and exclusion, feminists have, in their sole focus on gender, merely reinforced systems of binary totalities — totalities that have been responsible for these oppressive structures in the first place. Insofar as they focus on the characteristics or daily activities of specific groups of women, rather than women ‘in general’, contemporary feminism thus fails at being an emancipatory project for all of those oppressed by patriarchal, colonial structures. Instead, ‘Woman’ becomes another subject that excludes all those who do not meet the standards of her ‘feminine’ checklist. In her attack on contemporary feminism, Haraway is specifically critical of Marxist/socialist as well as radical feminists of her time. Although radical feminists such as Kathrine MacKinnon aim at denaturalizing the experiences of women, Haraway argues that in doing so, MacKinnon totalizes woman’s experience by talking for ‘all women’. On this account, for Haraway, ‘women in general’ would thus amount to yet another (impossible) attempt at universalization. Insofar as radical feminists such as MacKinnon impose the radical experience of non-being on all women, they completely neglect women’s differences.9 Moreover, Haraway is also critical of Marxist/socialist feminist theories of her time insofar as she accuses them as well of re-ontologizing the figure of Woman, however, this time through the perspective of labor. In other words, if one is not a laborer or a housewife, she is not included in the ‘we’ of Marxist and socialist feminists and, as such, falls outside of their category of the political subject.[Marxist and socialist feminist aimed at denaturalizing (and thus humanizing) women through the activity of labor. However, by turning labor into an ontological characteristic, they exclude all those (who identify as) women who did perform this ‘female’ activity of labor.]
Feminism’s inability to embrace its partiality is symtomatic of Western totality thinking.
Rather than securing liberation or inclusion for all, contemporary feminism thus reinforces the “appropriating, incorporating, totalizing tendencies of Western theories of identity grounding actions”.10 Identity politics, being feminist or not, are always marginalizing and excluding: the category ‘woman’ or ‘women’ is neither neutral nor innocent but is instead always already polluted. However, the problem is not this pollution, but rather the feminist tendency to insist on ‘woman’s’ innocence or neutrality.11 According to Haraway, feminism’s inability to embrace its partiality is symptomatic of Western totality thinking. In contrast – as she argues in Situated Knowledges (1988), “in many ways the sister paper to the “Cyborg Manifesto” – Haraway urges feminist theories toward “partial, locatable, critical knowledge” insofar as it sustains “the possibility of webs and connections called solidarity in politics”.12 How, in light of the contemporary techno-socio breakdowns of sharp divisions between humans and animals, organisms and machines, and the physical and the non-physical, can we build new possible relationships based on coalitions and affinity instead of identity — relationships are necessary rather than a choice?
While Haraway’s critique is indebted to postmodernist thought and its “insistence on irreducible difference and radical multiplicity” that allows women to both recognize and refigure contemporary “boundary breakdowns” or collapsed dualisms, she is nonetheless critical of the postmodernist ‘death of the subject’. 13 She comments: “‘Textualization’ of everything in poststructuralist, postmodernist theory has been damned by a Marxist and socialist feminist for its utopian disregard for the lived relations of domination that ground the ‘play’ of arbitrary reading”.14 Indeed, although postmodernist insights allow for the breakdown of binary thinking by foregrounding the situatedness of subjects and their produced knowledges, thereby promising marginalized and oppressed voices to finally be heard, the latter’s speaking time turned out to be of an extremely brief period.15 In fact, “postmodernist culture has compounded […] meanings of disembodiment” and the unmarked body through the body of the dead subject.16 Before even realizing that marginalized subjects were alive (or at least being recognized as such), their bodies had already been (re)buried and returned to the dust of the earth. Postmodernist ideas of collapsed dualisms and boundary breakdowns thus risk reducing human activity to mere plays of language. Yes, these boundaries may have been made, but their consequences “are not made up” (Haraway 2016, 206). By conceiving the subject solely in terms of linguistic events, postmodernism fails to recognize that “social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction” (Haraway, 1991, 149). According to Haraway, the boundary breakdowns of the 20th century are real conditions of people’s experiences: how can postmodernist theory aptly respond to these changing circumstances?
Simply “speaking as a woman” always entails “a generic strategy” that violates the women who are exluded from this ‘Woman’.
Changes in technology necessarily entail changes in the economy, work, and everyday life. These changes and their (material) consequences are not imaginary but include real (inter)subjective experiences: these changes affect the lives of all women, all human beings. That is, oppression does not care about linguistic or binary boundaries. One way in which Haraway illustrates this is through her description of the “feminization of labor”. [Citing Haraway, “to be feminized means to be made extremely vulnerable”. However, in the informatics of domination processes of feminization become symptomatic for all workers. The “feminization of labor” is post-gender and post-race insofar as its concrete manifestation does not longer take into account the boundaries of gender and race. See: Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 166.] In this new technological age, “femininization of labor”, e.g. underemployment or disenfranchisement, will become symptomatic for all workers, including those who were formerly privileged. Technological changes, for example in the field of information, communication and intelligence technology as well as the mechanization of industry, thus disrupt ‘old identities’. According to Haraway, feminists need a political strategy that is able to tie women together while taking into account their differential inequalities springing forth from the intersecting axes of oppression. Simply “speaking as a woman” always entails “a generic strategy” that violates the women who are excluded from this ‘Woman’.17 Thus, according to Haraway, the rapidly changing techno-scientific circumstances– e.g., information and communication technologies and arms manufacture of contemporary US – call for timely reconfigurations within feminist and postmodernist theories because their conceptual frameworks are built around or against “old hierarchal dominations” instead of the postmodern epoch humanity currently finds herself in.18 Ultimately, both feminist and postmodernist theories must develop a political strategy that ties into the information revolution because “nature [is] not immune to the contagions of technology, […] technology is part of nature conceived as everyday social relations […] Women, especially, better start using technology before technology starts using them”.19
II. Subjectivities from Elsewhere: Cyborg Writing, Feminist Coding
In A Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway develops a new political subject that is able to move within the ever-growing intimate relationships between animals, humans and technology. According to Haraway, the 20th century is “a mythic time” full of new forms of oppression but also new radical possibilities to fight old as well as new forms of inequality. Against this background, Haraway claims that we must develop a new political subject that, while recognizing its implication within these systems of domination, is nonetheless able to challenge these conditions from inside “the belly of the monster”.20 In an attempt to develop a more integrated feminist and postmodernist approach to women’s place in the informatics of domination, Haraway proposes the “ironic, political myth of the cyborg”.21
Unlike feminist and/or postmodernist subjectivities, the cyborg is partial, multiple and contradictory (i.e., ironic). It is so on at least two levels. First, being both the “illegitimate offspring” and “the awful apocalyptic telos of the ‘West’s’ escalating of dominations”, the cyborg is neither straightforwardly oppressive nor liberating: “from one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet […] From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily relationships in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints”.22 Secondly, the cyborg herself – born out of collapsed dualisms – is a fragmented, split subject. She is neither human nor animal, neither organism nor mere technology, but instead all “about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions and dangerous possibilities”. As such, the fragmented figure of the cyborg embodies a double, contradictory future, a rearrangement of forces that offer new forms of domination as well as the possibilities to dismantle them. After all, “illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origin”.23 The cyborg is a hybrid subject, open to infinite possibilities for “networking”.24 And insofar as she is a girl, the cyborg figure is already “an act of taking over territory”.25
If anything, Haraway here aims to emphasize the importance of (the two-sidedness of) vision. On the one hand, the cyborg is born out of specific historical events — she is a daughter of her time. Her body is already marked in (historically) specific ways. Moreover, insofar as she is a highly fragmented subject, her vision – which is split and partial – is able to challenge the ‘Western’ “gaze from nowhere”.26 Rather than only seeing the dystopian perspective of technological domination, the cyborg can offer us a different narrative, one without a particular end or beginning. But does Haraway’s cyborg have what it takes to build a political subject based on coalition rather than identity? Is her mechanically driven heart powerful enough to reverse the postmodernist ‘death of the subject’?
The cyborg is exclusively bound to neither gender nor race, neither nature nor technology, but instead finds herself at the center of their overlapping, differential axes.
In contrast to the (white) feminist Woman, Haraway’s cyborg subject is a multitude, fragmented, and inherently polluted rather than innocent yet exclusionary. Unlike Woman, the cyborg girl realizes that she is fully contaminated by the world. In fact, her situatedness and partiality are her biggest assets. Her worldliness allows her to carefully forge all kinds of connections necessary for successful coalition politics: “to recognize ‘oneself’ as fully implicated in the world, frees us of the need to root politics”.27 This multiple yet partial vision allows her to see “from heterogeneous multiplicities”.28 The cyborg is exclusively bound to neither gender nor race, neither nature nor technology, but instead finds herself at the center of their overlapping, differential axes. Her connections are not based on ‘sameness’ or the origin of the ‘One’, but rather on the integration of unforeseen multiplicities: “one is too few, and two is only one possibility”.29
Unlike the postmodernist ‘dead subject’, the cyborg is very much alive. In fact, “we are cyborgs”.30 For Haraway, the collapsed dualisms between humans and machines are not imaginary but real. In the twenty-first century, “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion”.31 I contend that this is also the reason why the 1991 version of the manifesto, unlike its original publication of 1985, includes a list that illustrates that “there is no ‘place’ for women in these [new technology] networks, only geometrics of difference and contradictions crucial to women’s cyborg identities”.32 If anything, Haraway tries to show us that these ‘invisible’ techno-socio webs of the informatics of dominations are not made up but instead have consequences for the reality of women’s lives and their “relation to all aspects of work, culture, production of knowledge, sexuality, and reproduction”.33 As Zoë Sofoulis puts it: a “cyborg politics disrupts and goes beyond textualism because of its insistence on a real and material dimension of the world that evades and often tricks language”.34 Even more so than in the 80s, the beginning of the twenty-first century foregrounds a radical techno-scientific society in which women can either learn how to fight or decide to stick to their old (identity) strategies and just give up now.
Because of her blasphemous strategy, Haraway is able to build a feminist, postmodernist myth from within these same traditions. If anything, the cyborg girl is born out of postmodernist “acid tools” of differences that were able to dissolve the ‘Western’ unitary ‘Self’ in the first place.35 Moreover, the linguistic body of the postmodern subject is “more radically open to reinterpretation”.36 Furthermore, Haraway puts to work postmodernist questions of difference and specificity in order to focus on women of color’s and (white) feminist’s “access to the power to signify”, while simultaneously turning towards post-colonial perspectives in feminism to build her case against (white) feminist identity politics.37 For instance, according to Haraway, women of color are a cyborg identity, “a potent subjectivity from fusions of outsider identities” resulting in an “oppositional consciousness” rather than a unifying, collective one.38 Like the cyborg’s couplings, Sandoval’s politics of women of color is built on coalition and affinity rather than identity. It is in their negation of any stable connection that women of color and cyborgs build subjectivity based on kinship; it is in their lack of a ‘Western’ origin story or fixated (feminine) identity that they can build political formations. In short, despite its liveliness, the cyborg is a very postmodernist subject who grows out of otherness into multiplicity; by virtue of her partiality, the cyborg becomes a genuine feminist subject.
Despite its liveliness, the cyborg is a very postmodernist subject who grows out of otherness into multiplicity; by virtue of her partiality, the cyborg becomes a genuine feminist subject.
One way in which the current domination of informatics allows for subversive action by feminist politics is through cyborg writing, or a feminist coding, namely “by coding the cyborg self according to their [feminists’] ends”.39 Haraway writes: “if we are imprisoned by language, then escape from that prison house requires language poets, a kind of cultural restriction enzyme to cut the code; cyborg heteroglossia is one form of radical culture politics”.40 Indeed, the informatics of domination revolves around developing one code, one common language — a language that Haraway tries to destabilize by emphasizing the need for a “powerful, infidel heteroglossia” as put forward in the stories of female authors like Cherríe Moraga(idem, 181).41 Cyborg writing has the potential to disrupt the communication system, thereby turning it into “a violation, an illegitimate production that allows survival” (idem, 175).42 Why writing? one might wonder. According to Haraway, the 20th century’s “new pathology is stress” manifesting itself in “communication breakdowns” (idem, 164).43 Moreover, like the cyborg itself, its writing is not one-sided, but instead a “deadly serious” game that previously allowed ‘Western’ history to privilege certain groups of people over others (idem, 175).44 As such, “writing is a skill acquired through great struggle by marginalized groups”.45
According to Ahmed, ‘we’ must “unlearn the violence of ‘universalism’”.46 On the one hand, “woman as a generic term is predicated on violent exclusions”, and, on the other, within postmodernist narratives of the subject, different bodies are valued only for the subject to be announced dead.47 Likewise, Haraway argues that contemporary feminist identity politics turn out to be oppressive rather than liberating and that the postmodernist focus on linguistic forces leaves no room for understanding real, lived physical and material (inter)subjective experiences of oppression. However, Haraway argues that in order to survive the rapid developments of contemporary technologies, feminist politics must include a political subject that acknowledges the multiple axes of oppression as well as the lived realities within the informatics of domination. The cyborg offers such a metamorphosed subject: her split, multiple selves can unite political agents in spite of or through their differences. Inspired by Ahmed’s notion of the author, I suggest that the cyborg girl is “in-between life and death … made alive through a kind of death which is itself a gift to the living”.48
- Donna Haraway, Constance Penley, and Andrew Ross, “Cyborgs at Large: Interview with Donna Haraway,” in: Social Text, No. 25/26 (1990): 23. ↵
- Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” in The Haraway Reader (New York and London: Routledge, 1985/2004), 20. ↵
- Sara Ahmed, Differences that Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 3. ↵
- Ahmed, Differences that Matter, 2. ↵
- In an attempt to challenge the idea that the relationship between feminist and postmodernist theory can only be one in which feminist theory is ‘speaking on’ postmodern terms, Ahmed argues that feminist thought can and must intervene in postmodernist theory by way of a feminist ‘speaking back’, that is, feminist thought holds the possibility to be transformative within postmodernist thinking (thus not only the other way around). ↵
- A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century (1991) is a slightly altered version of the original text, A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s, first published in The Socialist Review in 1985. Throughout this essay, I will refer the 1991 version. However, the differences between the two versions will be mentioned when relevant for the argument. ↵
- Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborg, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature, (New York: Routledge, 1991), 154. ↵
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 157 ↵
- According to MacKinnon, the structure of contemporary society revolves are one experience, namely male experience. Put differently, Haraway argues, Mackinnon erases women’s experiences from culture: there is no place for it in this patriarchal world. However, in doing so, MacKinnon enforces on singular experience on all women, namely the experience of non-existence or non-being. ↵
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 158. ↵
These identities are always already polluted because everyone is always already (situated) in and of the world, therefore it is morally impossible to act as if you are placed outside or above of it — also known as “the God trick”. Every categorization is necessarily exclusionary and therefore partial. However, as long as you take responsibility to recognize and be accountable for this partiality, it does not have to be a bad thing. Ultimately, acting as if a category or identity is universal is moral and epistemology a no-go according to Haraway. See: Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 581. ↵
- Donna Haraway, “Companions in Conversation (with Cary Wolf),” in Manifestly Haraway (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 207; Haraway, “Situated Knowledges,” 584. ↵
- Haraway, “Situated Knowledges,” 579 – 80; Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 151. ↵
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 152. ↵
- Donna Haraway and Gary Olson, “Writing, Literacy and Technology: Towards a Cyborg Writing,” JAC 16, no. 1 (1996): 11. ↵
- Haraway, “Situated Knowledges,” 581. ↵
- Haraway and Olson, “Writing, Literacy and Technology,” 11. ↵
- For examples of these “old hierarchal dominations” see the left side of Haraway’s chart. See: Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 161. ↵
- Donna Haraway, Constance Penley, and Andrew Ross, “Cyborgs at Large: Interview with Donna Haraway,” Social Text, no. 25/26 (1990): 12. ↵
- Haraway, “Cyborgs at Large,” 12. ↵
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 149. ↵
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 151, 150, 154. ↵
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 151. ↵
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 170. ↵
- Donna Haraway, “Cyborgs, Coyotes, and Dogs: A Kinship of Feminist Figurations and There Are Always More Things Going on Than you Thought! Methodologies as Thinking Technologies,” in The Haraway Reader (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), 322. ↵
- Haraway, “Situated Knowledges,” 581. ↵
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 176. ↵
- Margret Grebowicz and Helen Merrick, “Knowledges,” in Beyond the Cyborg. Adventures with Donna Haraway (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 65. ↵
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 180. ↵
- Emphasis mine. Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 150. ↵
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 149. ↵
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 170. ↵
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 172. ↵
- Zoë Sofoulis, “Cyberquake: Haraway’s Manifesto,” in Cyberfeminismus: feministische Visionen mit Netz und ohne Boden, ed. G. Jähnert, K. Aleksander, and K. Rosenbusch (Berlin: Humboldt University, 2002), 59. ↵
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 157. ↵
- Alison Caddick, “ Feminist and Postmodern: Donna Haraway’s Cyborg,” in: Arena, Vol. 99/100 (1990): 118. ↵
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 175. ↵
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 155, 174. ↵
- Caddick, “ Feminist and Postmodern,” 117. ↵
- See footnote 4. Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 245. ↵
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 181. ↵
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 175. ↵
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 164. ↵
- Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 175. ↵
- Rebecca Pohl, An Analysis of Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ (New York: Routledge, 2018), 41. ↵
- Ahmed, Differences that Matter, 57. ↵
- Ahmed, Differences that Matter, 89. ↵
- Ahmed, Differences that Matter, 134. ↵