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THE CYBORG IN FEMINIST CRITICAL ANALYSIS

(Revised) A 2,000-word paper by DAVID AUSTIN

d.m.austin@eschaton.org.uk www.eschaton.org.uk David Austin 2003, 2008

THE CYBORG IN FEMINIST CRITICAL ANALYSIS

This paper concerns cyborgs and monsters in feminist thought. For the cyborg, I adopt a dualistic distinction between being and function knowing this to be a distinction of convenience rather than reality. Thus I address (a) the cyborg concept (being) before moving to (b) its application (function) in feminist critical analysis. I then turn to consider (c) the monster, having implied that the cyborg is a monster.

Haraways concept of the cyborg

The cyborg, arguably, is commonly seen as a fictional figure, similar to the typical dictionary description (e.g. Thompson, ed., 1996) of someone with physical ability exceeding normal human limits due to the application of (currently undeveloped) machine technology. Such definitions, however, neither recognise the terms origin with Manfred E. Clynes in 1960, nor its preceding cultural history, nor its application by feminists, especially Donna J. Haraway. Unlike the conventional cyborg concept, Haraways cyborg is a socio-politically significant metaphorical figure with a variety of distinguishing qualities. I isolate three of these qualities. Firstly, Haraways cyborg is the illegitimate child of capitalism and state socialism (Haraway, 1985: 51). Clynes original cyborg is essentially utilitarian. It concerns human adaptation for specific tasks. Clynes was interested in how humans might adapt for space flight (Snodgrass & Jay, 1998: 30). His cyborg, arguably, is about patriarchal, militaristic acquisition (e.g. of space capital), and so might serve corporation or state (Haraway, 1985: 51). Michio Kaku also has a utilitarian view of the cyborg; this view anticipates an interface between human brain and computer which enables the brain to undertake superhuman calculations (cited in Snodgrass & Jay, 1998: 32). Haraways cyborg acknowledges this history, while not honouring it hence her/his/its illegitimacy. Secondly, Haraways cyborg is ahistorical and anticipates a postgender world (Haraway, 1985: 51). This lack of origin fits with the cyborgs illegitimacy. Some challenge Haraway here Jennifer Gonzlez, in particular, sees visual representations 1

of cyborgs as derived from specific historical contexts (Gonzlez, 1995: 61). Haraway, however, refers to an historical human wholeness associated with a notional primordial state, as in the Yahwist biblical Eden myth (Gen. 2.4-25) and parallel humanist conceptions of original unity, completeness, etc. (Haraway, 1985: 51). Various models of Christian eschatology foresee a return to this ideal state.1 But Haraway insists there are existing contradictions that cannot be integrated into a greater whole (Haraway, 1985: 50). Her cyborg resists the ideal of higher unity and seeks a postgender world, not some harmonised incorporation of difference. The cyborgs telos is not predicated on returning to any ideal unified state. Rather she/he/it revolutionises social relations through her/his/its partiality, deconstructing and redefining the oppositions whose resolution some see in a return to the mythically primordial (Haraway, 1985: 51). A forerunner of Haraways cyborg is Shulamith Firestones coupling of cybernation (mechanised production) with population control; Firestone imagines a redefinition of the humanity/production/reproduction interrelationship (Firestone, 1970: 198-202). But Firestones conceptualisation, at least partially, shares more with Clynes cyborg than it does with Haraways, due to its view of technology as servant of rather than partner in human development. Thirdly, Haraways cyborg is both social reality and fiction, a concept acting upon real social relations (Haraway, 1985: 50). Clynes cyborg is also a social reality: it describes existing relationships involving human beings and technology. Clynes has suggested that someone wearing glasses or riding a bicycle can be regarded as an elementary form of cyborg (Clynes, in Snodgrass & Jay, 1998: 30) this demonstrates a basic synthesis between human organism and technology. Clynes cyborg concerns adaptation, and he notes adaptation occurring through pharmaceutical technology, in treatments used to enhance quality of life. What the cyborg is not, for Clynes, is a fictional figure. But Haraways cyborg is partly a fictional creature, but one that is world changing (Haraway, 1985: 50). Haraway argues that, while fictional, the cyborg is also a part of lived experience, and that, as such, it changes what can be regarded as womens lived experience. This argument is based on her assertion that liberation depends on the building of consciousness through the imaginative perception of current oppression and future possibility.
Many contemporary theologians, however, do not view unity, in the sense of homogeneity, as an ideal state, and so their anticipations of the eschaton incorporate an essential plurality (e.g. Boff, 1988; Gunton, 1993; and esp. Moltmann, 1981).
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Haraway shares with Michel Foucault a constructionist theory of meaning and representation i.e. real things exist, but we construct them as meaningful objects of knowledge through discourse (Hall, 2001: 73). Fictional cyborg discourse is therefore constructive of experienced social reality.

The cyborg and feminist critical analysis

Many feminist thinkers see social reality as experienced in terms of inequitable dualisms. Dualisms and not only gender dualisms therefore especially exercise feminist critical analysts, from philosophers of science (e.g. Fox Keller, 1992: 18) to theologians (e.g. McFague, 1987: 51). For Haraway, the cyborg is a figure who/which disrupts dualisms. The cyborg blurs the boundary between human self-determination and mechanised automation, these being among the cyborg-disassembled categories which have helped determine selfhood. This blurring of boundaries is key to the function of Haraways cyborg. In particular, Haraway sees potential in the cyborg for breaking down three specific barriers (Haraway, 1985: 52-53): between human and animal between organism and machine between physical and non-physical

For Haraway, then, the cyborg is effectively illegitimate in a sense additional to the one described above: it is a monster born of the interface between one category and another, a figure who/which inhabits the boundaries (cf. Haraway, 1989: 139). Anne Balsamo picks up the theme of disrupted dualisms when she writes of the hybridisation that occurs where the boundary between organic and inorganic is transgressed, revealing the capricious nature of human identity (Balsamo, 1996: 32). A supposed solid core to human identity may be inferred through determining what is other than that identity, such as the animal, the inorganic or the non-physical. The cyborg reveals use of the other to resolve a human identity, but human and other unite in the cyborg, indicating the arbitrariness of ascribing discrete identity to any entity. Thus Haraways cyborg is not dependent on individual, separate, boundaried being for its identity. If anything, the cyborg deconstructs identity; it is a consciousness politically and contextually active (Haraway, 1985: 59) in redefining category confines 3

separating human beings from other phenomena and from one another. In this sense it is a liberatory figure, as the answer to gender inequality lies precisely in redrawing the boundaries (Kirkup, 2000: 5). Haraway (1985: 57) sees the cyborg as indicating a way out of the labyrinthine network of dualisms within which human beings have explained their bodies and tools to themselves. This is not, however, a purely linguistic matter Haraway does not anticipate a new common language, but rather an energetic heretical heteroglossia. So it is that Haraway sees in the cyborg the possibility for a dissenting establishment of a new equitable, multivoiced plurality of being. Kirkup observes that Haraways cyborg has indeed been useful in feminist critical analysis in the realm of cultural deconstruction; however, she sees as yet unproven her/his/its role as a world changing fiction (Haraway, 1985: 50) affecting material change (Kirkup, 2000: 5). Gonzlez is even cautious regarding the cyborgs potential for cultural deconstruction. She observes that typical representations of the cyborg tend to embody the politics of their originating context. As such, visual representations of the cyborg very rarely challenge the conventional, gendered roles of Western culture. Moreover, the cyborg her/him/itself actually emerges from the technologically advantaged Western perspective (Gonzlez, 1995: 61). This demonstrates Gonzlezs rejection of Haraways ahistorical cyborg concept; the cyborg has a most definite origin from which the possibility of escape is questionable. Given this awareness of origin, Gonzlez is able to identify particular female cyborg images as actually oppressive, lacking in liberatory potential (Gonzlez, 1995: 65). As Kirkup suggests, responding to Gonzlez, at best the cyborg is only a means of reflecting the incongruity of experiencing technology in a given historical moment (Kirkup, 2000: 9). Feminist critical analysis, therefore, can make use of the cyborg, but it may well do so with ambivalence. There is, in any case, a feminist ambivalence concerning technoscience, but more pertinently, there is ambivalence concerning the cyborg and, therefore, the monster

What is a monster?

Dictionary definitions (e.g. Thompson, ed., 1996) tend to see monsters as imagined creatures, typically large and frightening, consisting of divergent, out of place elements.

It can be said that the cyborg consists of divergent, out of place elements: organism and technology synthesised in one body. Specially relevant to the monster is the notion of teratology, alternatively defined as mythology associated with bizarre creatures and monsters, etc., or as the study of innate defects and defective development (Thompson, ed., 1996). These definitions reveal an historical monster, moving from mythological to scientific construction. I identify five noteworthy historical moments (Kirkup, Woodward & Bennett, 1999: 43-44): Pliny the Elders categorisation of Graeco-Roman portrayals of monstrosity (first-century CE) medieval Christian positioning of monstrous races at the worlds edge Renaissance curiosity concerning wondrous deviations from normal Carl Linnaeus biological taxonomy (eighteenth-century) the Darwinian move from taxonomy to morphology (nineteenth-century) Pliny catalogues numerous races perceived to exist far from the GraecoRoman world. These are mythological, fantastic monsters characterised by peculiar attributes, such as faces on their chests or eight fingers per hand. Some combine human characteristics with those of other creatures e.g. owls eyes, dogs heads and horses hooves. Some are female but with inconsistent characteristics e.g. beards or extensive body hair (Friedman, 1981: 11-16). In the christocentric geography of the thirteenth-century, Europe is shown within the scope of Christs salvation emanating from Jerusalem while further reaches are less blessed. According to such maps, the Plinian monsters, along with unclean peoples, are confined to the edges, often characterised along biblical lines of misbegotten descent (Friedman, 1981: 45). Thus the monsters are now remote from the European world. The Renaissance (fifteenth- to seventeenth-centuries) saw a European fascination for natural/human deviations (often from remote territories). Rather than despising them, deviations were celebrated as signs of the profound and abundant variety in Gods creation (Kirkup, Woodward & Bennett, 1999: 43). Thus the monster became characterised as an object of attraction as well as repulsion. In apprehending the monster as consisting of divergent, out of place elements, one properly begins with Linnaeus. Linnaeus originated the biological and zoological

classification system, establishing the categories of animal, vegetable and mineral. Within these categories he established further categories, and so on. This coincided with an eighteenth-century belief in a great chain of being, in unchanging species in a fixed hierarchy God at the top; the lowliest creature at the bottom. Meanwhile, men and women were seen as opposites, mirroring understandings of God and nature as opposites. Humans were close to God by virtue of the (supposedly) male attribute of reason and close to nature, partly reflecting their Linnaean classification as mammals (a term associated with the female mammary gland). Categorisation furnished a resource of different components for the monsters construction. It became that which deviated from natural categories (Kirkup, Woodward & Bennett, 1999: 41), consisting of divergent, out of place elements. An illustration from nineteenth-century fiction is Frankensteins monster (Shelley, 1994), an especially explicit amalgam of out of place elements. By the late nineteenth-century, Linnaeus unchanging species were yielding to Darwins evolutionary species. Natures categories became understood according to relationships between locations in an evolutionary sequence. Despite this shift from taxonomy to morphology, species remained categorised but now according to their evolutionary advancement. A shift in perception of the monster coincides with Darwin. Plinys mythological creatures now virtually capitulate to incidents of congenital malformation mutation. Charles Birch and John B. Cobb (1981: 45) describe mutation as the essential component of evolution; if it were not for mutation, life could know no diversity. The divergent, out of place elements in such manifestations are therefore those of the present-day creature and the evolutionary attempt at a future creature. The genetic mutation illustrates both contemporary fears and hopes regarding the monster. The cyborg, too, is an out of place combination of the present-day human with elements constructive of the future human. As a creature who/which crosses boundaries, the cyborg is a particularly vivid illustration of the monster. For some feminists, like Haraway, she/he/it is a promissory monster (Haraway, in Lykke, 1996: 77) offering the possibility of acceptance for hybrid, ambiguous human identity.

In conclusion

In considering the being of Haraways cyborg I have contemplated three particular features: the cyborg as illegitimate child of capitalism and socialism the cyborg as ahistorical and anticipatory of a postgender world the cyborg as social reality and fiction, acting upon real social relations Turning to the cyborgs function in feminist critical analysis, I identified the modest claim that the cyborg reflects the discord in experiencing technology at a given moment (Kirkup), and the more ambitious claim that she/he/it disrupts oppressive dualisms (Haraway). As a creature consisting of divergent, out of place elements a notion made possible by Linnaeus, et al the monster is similar to the cyborg indeed, the cyborg is a monster. I therefore conclude by emphasising Haraways monster/cyborg as promissory, offering the possibility of dualism deconstruction enabling acceptance of the hybridism and ambiguity of human being.

DAVID AUSTIN 12 December 2003 Revised: 7 May 2008 David Austin 2002, 2008

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