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Nicholas Hirsch email@example.com December 15th, 2009
Cyborgs as Discourse: The Intersection of Feminism, Postmodernism and Science Fiction in the 1980s
Harrison Ford leans menacingly over a beautiful woman. Her back is to the wall, her hair loose and wild. She is visibly shaken, perhaps scared. Ford’s expression is ambiguous, somewhere between attraction and rage. “Say, ‘kiss me’,” he tells her. She tells him she can’t rely on her memories, and he demands again that she tell him to kiss her. Still hesitant, she nods; tears stand out in her eyes. He makes her tell him she wants him twice more before kissing her. In this moment, it is unclear whether he actually would have respected her wishes if she refused him, or if her reason for saying yes was his intimidating behavior. Their relationship is complex and indecipherable, an apt reflection of gender politics in the real world. Ford's “romantic” advances are disturbingly reminiscent of sexual assault. Further complicating the issue is the fact that Rachel, his love interest, is a replicant, a manufactured organism with memories which she has only recently discovered are not real.1 Rachel's tragedy is in the question of her agency, first as a programmed being, then as a woman; in either case, her consent is presented as incidental to his interests. This love scene from the 1982 blockbuster film Blade Runner raises a number of questions about gender and agency. Would Decker (Ford's character) have stopped, if Rachel said no? As a replicant, a programmed being, would she have been capable of saying no? If Decker didn't stop, would he be disregarding a woman's right to control her own body, or simply ignoring a programmed response, or both? If Rachel was never a
Ridley Scott, et al, Blade Runner (Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 1982 (2007)).
human being in the first place, would it be possible for her to give meaningful consent in the first place? More to the point, as a created being, does the combination of Rachel's gender and her status as a sexualized object reflect a broader conflation of these characteristics? In this film, which describes male cyborgs as worker drones, and females as “your basic pleasure model”, gender is literally a construct. Blade Runner thus uses gendered cyborgs to explore complex postmodern questions about gender dynamics, identity construction, and the relationship between technology and consciousness. This is the focus of cyborg feminism: how does the cyborg, as an imaginative construction, help us to analyze the role and nature of identity from a postmodern, feminist perspective? The period in which this film was released was one of intense philosophical, political and technological upheaval, illustrated by the rise of postmodernism, changes in feminist discourse, and the development of a growing body of cyborg iconography. I will argue that, from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s, feminism, postmodernism and the conception of the cyborg became inextricably entwined. This vital cross-section is illustrated in the work of Donna Haraway and Anne Balsamo, two feminist theorists of that decade who helped to create the framework for “cyborg feminism”, a unique style of feminist social and literary criticism which has become increasingly popular in the last decade. What follows will be a historical analysis of the context in which cyborgs entered feminist discourse by way of postmodernism and a splintering feminist identity. I will begin with an overview of what the term cyborg means, its changing relationship within science fiction and with feminist critique. Second, I will briefly examine the development of postmodern philosophy in the work of three important writers,
Baudrillard, Lyotard and Foucault, focusing primarily on the role of technology and gender in their work. Finally, I will relate the inception of cyborg feminism by Donna Haraway and Anne Balsamo in the context of postmodern philosophy and some of the developing schisms within feminism in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The simplest definition of the cyborg is a “hybrid of machine and organism”2, in which biological and technological components are fused within a single entity. The term is a portmanteau of cybernetic and organism, and was originally coined by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in a 1960 paper about the possibility of altering the bodies of astronauts to allow them to function in an extraterrestrial environment.3 This early usage introduced the use of cybernetics (a relatively new field at the time) for body augmentation, an idea which captured the popular imagination through the next several decades, leading to the creation in the 1970s of popular television shows like The Six Million Dollar Man (1973) and its spinoff series The Bionic Woman (1976) – a series which, according to feminist critic Sharon Sharp, had an ambiguous relationship with other feminist writers of the period.4 A somewhat more successful coupling between feminism and cyborgs is evident in The Stepford Wives; though, as A. K. Silver points out, feminist theorists at the time were not yet ready to accept a meaningful relationship between feminist politics and science fiction.5 Throughout the 1980s, cyborg fiction proliferated at an explosive rate, inspiring Anne Balsamo to describe it as “the decade of the cyborg.”6 In the first half of the
2 3 Donna Jeanne Haraway, The Haraway Reader (New York: Routledge, 2003), 7. Manfred E. Clynes, and Nathan S. Kline, “Cyborgs and Space”, Astronautics (September, 1960). 4 Sharon Sharp, "Fembot Feminism: The Cyborg Body and Feminist Discourse in The Bionic Woman", Women's Studies. 36, no. 7 (2007), 507-523. 5 A. K. Silver, "The Cyborg Mystique: The Stepford Wives and Second Wave Feminism", The Arizona Quarterly. 58 (2001), 109-126. 6 Anne Marie Balsamo, Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women (Durham:
decade, science fiction author William Gibson spearheaded the cyberpunk literary movement, centered around an aesthetic of gritty realism and dystopian, noir-inspired stories featuring cyborg assassins and hacker cowboys7. These aesthetic qualities were popularized by the movie Blade Runner, as well as other films like The Terminator, RoboCop and Weird Science. By the end of the decade, the assimilationist Borg were terrorizing the crew of the Enterprise in Star Trek: the Next Generation, and Voltron and Inspector Gadget were popular children's cartoons. A complete list of pop-culture references to cyborgs in the 80s alone would be beyond the scope of this paper. What is relevant is that, during this period, the definition of the cyborg broadened within science fiction to encompass a number of variations on the theme. In Blade Runner and The Terminator, for example, cyborgs are artificial intelligences which imitate human beings with biological skin and eyes. According to Despina Kakoudaki (writing a feminist critique of cyborg imagery within the last decade), skin was the defining characteristic of the cyborg, as it indicated the cyborg's unique quest to “pass” for human, or even to become human8, reflecting a growing paranoia (still present, arguably) that humanity's “illegitimate” technological children will inevitably rise up against their creators. Kakoudaki argues that this is parallel to what she perceives as a growing fear of women’s sexuality in the period, so that gender in cyborgs became a “site for projecting fears about technology, change, and the future.”9
Duke University Press, 1996), 17. George Slusser and Tom Shippey, eds. Introduction to Fiction 2000; Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1992), includes a brief history of cyberpunk. 8 Despina Kakoudaki, “Pinup and Cyborg: Exaggerated Gender and Artificial Intelligence” in Future Females, The Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism Marleen Barr, ed (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2000), 166. 9 Kakoudaki, “Pinup and Cyborg”, 171.
In cyberpunk fiction, the cyborg was as often as not defined in terms of the interface between a human mind and a vast communications network. This interface was often represented in the form of virtual reality, or “cyberspace” - a term coined by William Gibson in his seminal novel Neuromancer. Gibson described cyberspace as “A consensual hallucination … in the nonspace of the mind”10. In “Pleasures of the Interface”, feminist writer Claudia Springer examines the sensualist aspects of this arrangement, and the implications of specifically gendered projections into a space theoretical unbound by physical reality. Springer points out that “collapsing the boundary between what is human and what is technological is often represented as a sexual act in popular culture”.11 Not was technology feared, it was also fetishized, perhaps for its transgressive potential – a theme discussed by Donna Haraway at length, as we shall see. The projection of the cyborg/hacker's human mind into a digital environment also shows striking parallels to Baudrillard's simulacra, which will be explained shortly. What is important to note is the existing connection between Gibson's fictional cyborgs and Baudrillard's postmodern philosophy – a connection made directly in the 1999 movie The Matrix, in which the character Morpheus describes the “mental projection of your digital self”, and the stark contrast between the Matrix and the “desert of the real” (a direct quote from Baudrillard)12. In each of these examples, postmodernism was a backdrop against which the cyborg became a tool for social and critical analysis. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online, postmodernism
10 William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York: Ace Books, 1984), 69. 11 Springer, Claudia. “Pleasures of the Interface” in Cybersexualities: A Reader on Feminist Theory, Cyborgs, and Cyberspace, Jenny Wolmark, ed (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 37. 12 Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations, trans. Sheila Glaser (Anne Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1981), 5.
resists simple definition. Rather than any single cohesive idea, postmodernism is a “set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as … the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, [and] historical progress ...”13 In this sense, postmodernism is the process of challenging that which is known or knowable in a fundamental way, and is best understood in the arguments of postmodernists themselves. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, postmodern philosophers J F Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard and Michel Foucault questioned, in vastly different ways, the construction of knowledge and innateness. As a close look reveals, the writings of all three had some bearing on the parallel developments of feminism and cyborgs at the time. In Simulacra and Simulation (1981), Baudrillard argued that, with the advent of advanced communications technology and the computer, simulacra (representations) had become so advanced and so prescient that they began to replace the reality they were representing: “The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it.”14 Reality ceased to exist in a state of causality, instead rendered into a map, so detailed that it not only could, but inevitably would, become confused with reality. In fact, Baudrillard argued, reality was already a simulation, in the sense that human experience already consisted entirely of symbolic representations, interpretations of reality provided by our minds and constructed from language. Vitally, Baudrillard claimed that identity itself was subject to this process of simulation, touching on the fading role of gender as cloning became possible through
13 Gary Aylesworth, “Postmodernism”, The Stanford Enclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), forthcoming URL – http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2009/entries/postmodernism/ (accessed 12.01.09). 14 Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations, trans. Sheila Glaser (Anne Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1981), 1.
“the genetic matrix of identity”15. Given the obsolescence of gender as a defining characteristic, what then would become of identity and sexuality? The cyborg created the potential for a “post-gender” world. This argument followed the lead of Lyotard, who argued in The Postmodern Condition (1979) that human knowledge, in the context of modern communications technology, was re-constructed from symbol manipulation in the form of language. Lyotard's arguments followed the formal logic of Wittgenstein and used computer languages as an example: a command in a computer language only makes sense in the context of that language, but the language itself must follow a set of internal rules which are not innate to the computer16. It is interesting to note that both Baudrillard and Lyotard made their arguments specifically in the context of modern communications technology and cultural suppositions: the same sort of technology that their contemporary, William Gibson used to depict his characters' projected, virtual reality. Taking a different route, and attacking a different problem, Foucault argued in The History of Sexuality that, over the last several centuries, human sexuality had been relegated to public discourse as a tool of power and control. He wrote about a “great series of binary oppositions (body/soul, flesh/spirit, instinct/reason, drives/consciousness)” which had “refer[ed] sex to a pure mechanics devoid of reason”.17 Foucault wrote that this process occurred first under the guise of religious propriety, then nationalism, then scientific inquiry. Foucault argued that this rendering of sex into discourse made it into a hierarchical tool by allowing those in power to define, isolate and maintain acceptable, normative behavior.
15 Ibid, 101. 16 Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: ̧ University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 10-12. 17 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 76.
Like Baudrillard and Lyotard, Foucault argued that language and communication had been superimposed over reality, but unlike them he did not place it strictly in the context of current technology. Instead, this control of language was a long-term (though possibly subconscious18) process which helped to perpetuate the standing power structures. In Feminism after Postmodernism, feminist historian Marysia Zalewski explains, “for Foucault, those who define truth possess power.”19 For feminists, those in power were men, and for postmodern feminists, gender was another truth which had been defined by those in power. The complex relationship between postmodernism and feminism which, as will be shown, became vital from the late 1970s on, was exemplified in the emergence of cyborg feminism. Cyborgs were introduced into feminist discourse in Donna Haraway's “Manifesto for Cyborgs”, published in the Socialist Review 1985. In this “Manifesto”, Haraway brought together the contextual arguments of the postmodern philosophers with a widespread, deepening disillusionment with the mainstream political feminism of the 1960s and 70s. Haraway argued for the cyborg's usefulness as “a fiction mapping our social and bodily reality and as an imaginative resource suggesting some very fruitful couplings.”20 The social reality to which Haraway was referring was the one in which gender politics were tied into the divided into an array of dualisms of “mind and body, animal and machine, idealism and materialism in the social practices”21, a feminist reflection of the power dynamic described by Foucault. Haraway was asserting the transgressive
18 Ibid, 20. 19 Marysia Zalewski, Feminism After Postmodernism: Theorising Through Practice (New York: Routledge, 2000), 26. 20 Haraway, The Haraway Reader, 8. 21 Ibid, 13.
potential of the cyborg both in and out of fictional narratives, in its capacity for challenging clear delineations between traditional polarities like male/female, mind/body, and science/nature. Ironically mimicking Baudrillard's sentiment, Haraway saw cyborgs as “a creature in a post-gender world … oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence.”22 Because the cyborg was a composite being without strictly defined, internalized boundaries, it served as a model for a “posthuman” existence, one which Haraway believed had already come to pass. The defining characteristic of the Haraway cyborg was its potential for ambiguation and the blurring of boundaries which she identified as a tool of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, of which the cyborg was the “illegitimate offspring”23. It
lacked history, culture, even definition, and could therefore serve as a blank slate for cultural critique and a perfect expression of the desire to escape Lyotard's postmodern condition. According to Judith Halberstam, a feminist historian and theorist, Haraway’s cyborg was "a condensed image of both imaginative and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transformation."24 This image was particularly useful for feminists who sought to avoid the ideological dangers of recourse to an “authentic” female identity, which is one of the main postmodern feminist criticisms of second-wave feminism25, which will be discussed shortly. If this vision of a genderless, utopian cyborg seems unfamiliar, that's because it rarely, if ever, has lived up to this idealized conception even in fiction. Haraway, however, would later claim in a 1997 interview with Hari Kunzru that the cyborg was
22 Ibid, 9. 23 Haraway, The Haraway Reader, 11. 24 Judith Halberstam, "Automating Gender: Postmodern Feminism in the Age of the Intelligent Machine", Feminist Studies 17, no. 3 (October 1, 1991): 439. 25 Marysia Zalewski, Feminism After Postmodernism: Theorising Through Practice (New York: Routledge, 2000).
neither theoretical nor imaginary; by the late 1990s, Haraway was convinced that everyone was already living a cyborg lifestyle in a postmodern reality26. Thus, Haraway was not engaging in textual analysis of any particular fictional work; rather, the cyborg in the “Manifesto” was a conceptual metaphor rooted in a postmodern reality, an “ironic myth” of a post-gender future in which cyborgs transcend patriarchal dualisms, resist paradigm and lack identity. Haraway later explained that the paper was intended at the time to be a “nearly sober socialist-feminist statement written for the Socialist Review to try to think through how to do critique, remember war and its offspring, keep ecofeminism and technoscience joined in the flesh, and generally honor possibilities that escape unkind origins.”27 To understand these intentions, it is now necessary to explore the state of feminism in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Socialist feminism, of which Haraway was an adherent, was one of several strains of feminist theory that developed out of growing discontent with the perceived class and race disparity in feminist politics at the time. Ecofeminism, which Haraway described in terms of its worrying technophobia, emerged during the same period as a reaction against a perceived conflation of patriarchal militarism and the oppression of women and “developing” nations.28 The parallel between these feminist theories highlights a general shift in the perception of gender at the end of what is generally referred to as “secondwave feminism”. Imelda Whelahan, another feminist historian, pinpoints the origins of second26 Hari Kunzru, “You Are Cyborg,” Wired Magazine 5.02 (February 1997) http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/5.02/ffharaway.html (accessed December 2, 2009) 27 Haraway, The Haraway Reader, 3 28 Colleen Mack-Canty, "Third-Wave Feminism and the Need to Reweave the Nature/Culture Duality," NWSA Journal 16, no. 3 (October 1, 2004).
wave feminism in the late 60s, when many feminists became disenchanted with existing leftist political factions, which still tended to reinforce gender-typing despite nominal progressivism.29 The focus of the second-wave (as opposed to the “first” wave) moved the feminist bar forward from political inclusion (via voting) to social equality: equal pay in the workplace, eradicating the illusion of the woman as an inferior domestic creature, etc. By the late 70s, feminism began to lose cohesion as a singular political movement, due in part to dissatisfaction with what came to be thought of as a monolithic construction of what it meant to be a woman, who counted and who did not. As mentioned above, socialist feminism came to conflate gender with class construction, and challenged “mainstream” feminists for playing at politics within a political system which was already rigged in favor of patriarchal power and dominance. Feminists looking to Marxist theory saw in class conflict a reflection of the struggle to power of women in the domestic sphere and otherwise.30 Marxism also served as a stepping stone toward postmodernism, in that Marxists “ostensibly repudiated purely essentialist notions of human nature”31. It is from this socialist/anti-essentialist point of view that Donna Haraway wrote the Manifesto; the cyborg represented a step toward postmodernist feminism from the springboard of socialist feminism. Whelahan points to the “tendency to attempt ‘ownership’ of feminism by the hostile discrediting of another’s perspective, particularly through invidious hierarchies of identity politics”32 as one of the primary challenges to second-wave feminism throughout
29 Imelda Whelehan, Modern Feminist Thought: From the Second Wave to ‘Post-Feminism’ (New York: NY University Press, 1995), 1-5 30 Whelahan, Modern Feminist Thought, 47. 31 Ibid, 47. 32 Ibid, 127.
the late 70s and early 80s. Marysia Zalewski argues that, from the postmodern perspective, the problem with second-wave feminism derived from the assumption that there was an underlying, unified cultural identity around which a marginalized minority could gather to support a political agenda; race and economic status were contending with the notional identity of “woman”, fracturing the political power of each while creating tension between an individual's identities. Postmodern feminists argued that these constructs may have an adverse effect, in that the “identity” in question simply caused smaller sub-groups to be excluded in turn.33 In effect, modernist feminists and postmodernist feminists each blamed the other for the splintering of feminism. Since then, Zalewski argues that postmodernism is one of the characteristics which has differentiated the “third-wave” feminism of the late 80s and early 90s from the modernist, “second-wave” feminist movements of the 70s34 just as second-wave feminists differentiated themselves from the “first wave” of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries by shifting their focus from political inclusion to social equality, particularly in the workplace. In the 1980s, the move toward postmodernism also signaled a visible breach between theoretical and political feminism35. This breach was addressed by the next cyborg feminist writer, Anne Balsamo. In Technologies of the Gendered Cyborg, Anne Balsamo, a contemporary of Haraway, addressed the fact that Foucault, in reading sexuality as a construct, failed to follow through on his own ideas when he stopped short of reading the body itself as a discursive space. In contrast to Haraway's “post-gender” cyborgs, Balsamo explored the
33 Zalewski, Feminism After Postmodernism, 67-68. 34 Ibid, 13-15. 35 Whelehan, Modern Feminist Thought, 127.
cyborg as a social metaphor for of the female body in the context of Foucault's discursive space, “the site at which we can witness the struggle between systems of social order”36; her argument was that the cyborg, like the female body, stood at an intersection between theoretical and social constructs and physical reality. Balsamo challenged Haraway's cyborg as an unrealistic representation of postgender idealism. However, she did agree with the basic idea that “cyborgs offer a particularly appropriate emblem of postmodern identity, since cyborg identity is predicated on transgressed boundaries”37. It is illustrative of the postmodern influence on feminist discourse that, by 1987, Balsamo was wary that “the material body [had] all but disappeared from postmodern theory”38. In “Reading Cyborgs Writing Feminism” Thus, Foucault's postmodern interpretation of the construct of sexuality could be worked into Haraway's cyborg metaphor to explore the way gender is constructed and deployed in a technological society. The cyborg stood in a position at the cross section of feminist theory, postmodern philosophy and a technological reality which included real-life cyborgs in the form of female body builders, public pregnancy, and genetically engineered mice39. Cyborg feminism itself is, admittedly, still fairly obscure, and feminist writers who have addressed the cyborg since Haraway and Balsamo (like Kakoudaki and Silver, mentioned above) have largely focused on its literary implications. In 1994, Jenny Wolmark incorporated the work of both Donna Haraway and Anne Balsamo in her study of feminist science fiction within the context of “the intersections between feminism,
36 37 38 39 Ibid, 39. Balsamo, Technologies of the Gendered Body, 32. Ibid, 12. Balsamo, Technologies of the Gendered Body; Balsamo devoted an entire chapter to each of these concepts.
postmodernism and science fiction”40. Aliens and Others approached the cyborg from the perspective of critical literary analysis, taking cyborg feminism in a different direction than seems to have been intended by either Haraway or Balsamo. From that point, cyborgs in feminist writings took two directions – as a literal vehicle for social critique (including in Haraway's own work throughout the 1990s and 2000s), or as a metaphor for gender construction in science fiction. Though the cyborg is not central to the development of feminism as a whole, it serves readily as a figurative, analytical tool with which the relationship between postmodernism and feminism can be examined. The cyborg is the product of an age, a period of drastic transformation in how we look at gender, at identity, at what it means to be human; it is eradicates definition, and represents the bringing together of seemingly disparate elements. In a postmodern era, the cyborg is a reflection of how culture is constructed, a raw depiction of the underlying assumptions of its creators. This is the argument of postmodern philosophers and feminists alike, a coupling readily embodied by this creature of the 80s.
40 Jenny Wolmark, Aliens and Others (University of Iowa Press: Iowa City, 1994), 2.
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O'Brien, Jodi. Encyclopedia of Gender and Society. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2009. “cyborg” Sharp, Sharon. 2007. "Fembot Feminism: The Cyborg Body and Feminist Discourse in The Bionic Woman". Women's Studies. 36, no. 7: 507-523. Silver, A. K. 2002. "The Cyborg Mystique: The Stepford Wives and Second Wave Feminism". The Arizona Quarterly. 58: 109-126. Slusser, George and Tom Shippey, eds. Fiction 2000; Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1992. Springer, Claudia. “Pleasures of the Interface” in Wolmark, Jenny. Cybersexualities: A Reader on Feminist Theory, Cyborgs, and Cyberspace. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999: 34-54. Whelehan, Imelda. Modern Feminist Thought: From the Second Wave to ‘PostFeminism’. New York: NY University Press, 1995. Wolmark, Jenny. Aliens and Others: Science Fiction, Feminism, and Postmodernism. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994. Zalewski, Marysia. Feminism After Postmodernism: Theorising Through Practice. New York: Routledge, 2000. Additional Reading:
Kirkup, Gill. The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. London: Routledge (Open University), 2000. Scott, Anne. 2001. "Trafficking in Monstrosity: Conceptualizations of 'nature' Within Feminist Cyborg Discourses". Feminist Theory. 2, no. 3: 367-379. Wajcman, Judy. Technofeminism. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004. Walton, H. 2004. "The Gender of the Cyborg". Theology and Sexuality 10, no. 2: 33-44. Wolmark, Jenny. Cybersexualities: A Reader on Feminist Theory, Cyborgs, and Cyberspace. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
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