Archiv für den Monat: Juli 2016

The cyborg as imaginative resource

I have to admit, Donna Haraway‘s “Cyborg Manifesto” – despite its shortcomings – wows me every time I read it. I am not sure if it is the fact that this text – so eloquently describing changes that seem so very real today – was actually written in the 1980ies, when none of the things that seem to make us cyborgs today were part of everyone’s everyday life. Or it might be the sheer amount of different ideas brought together and interwoven, from science fiction to Marxism to feminist theory. Could be this text wows me because its style is so radically different from the usual academic writing, because it dares to speculate, antagonize and call for action. Or maybe, because it does all of those things at the same time. If I look closely, I find that the argument is not all that clear and some twists seem out of place to me. I am not always sure, there is even such a strong conclusion in there. However, this texts achieves what good political theory – in my humble opinion – is supposed to do: it provokes thought and triggers the imagination. In fact, it sends me down a spiral of exciting new thoughts whenever I return to it.

Haraway and companion, By Rusten Hogness, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Haraway and companion, By Rusten Hogness, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Haraway introduces the cyborg as what she calls “an imaginative resource” (292). The cyborg is an image that stands for embracing what Haraway identifies as three “crucial boundary breakdowns” of the contemporary world — between human and animal, between animal-human (organism) and machine, and between the physical and the non-physical (293/4). She suggests this image in order to launch a criticism of feminist discourse that questions its very basis – the idea that there is something about being a woman that naturally binds women. according to her there “is not even such a state as ‘being’ female” (295). The contemporary self, she argues, is fundamentally fractured. She asks then, “what kind of politics could embrace partial, contradictory, permanently unclosed constructions of personal and collective selves and still be faithful, effective – and, ironically, socialist-feminist?” (297).  This is usually where I associate the Zapatistas and the peculiar way the Zapatista discourse manages to connect different struggles without levelling out the differences. Of course, their inspiring example also teaches us about the possible limitations.

Having tackled the concept of identity, Haraway goes on to question the postmodern conception of “biopolitics” and argues instead to think of the contemporary self as being constructed within the “informatics of domination”. This kind of domination works not through division and the imposition of categories but through permanently dissolving them, by blurring all distinctions and thereby disabling the crude (post-)modern tool of resistance – identification. Coding and information processing (rather than categorizing and subjectivation) are the ways in which this domination manifests itself. In its most advanced form it can eliminate the natural unity altogether – when in microlectronics there is copies without originals (303) or, as we would say, the digital copy is indistinguishable from the original. This is evident not just in purely digital environments but also, for example, in genetically ‘identical’ beings such as clons or identical twins where there is indeed differences inscribed in the genes themselves (Casselmann 2008). Even the genetic code of a living breathing person may change over the course of their life. In other words, coding always means recoding and there is never a wholly identical copy. The process of communication transforms all information and negates the possibility of complete identity.

Seven of Nine, a borg made from a human currently recoding as a human

Seven of Nine, a borg made from a human currently recoding as a human

The cyborg as a resource for political imagination – how does that work in the informatics of domination? Haraway draws on literature in order to give her answer. I have a “literary” cyborg of my own in mind. In the Start Trek universe there is a race called the Borg (clearly, not the most original of names). These Borg procreate by “assimilating” other species, making their “technological and biological distinctiveness” part of their collective consciousness. The Borg absorb difference and create a unified whole in which individual distinctions are denied in favour of a collective unity. They are awfully efficient and – needless to say – the ultimate villains of the liberal consciousness. In one installation of the franchise, a young female, designated Seven of Nine, (incidentally dressed in a very revealing costume for the rest of the series…) is “freed” from the collective. It turns out, however, that she cannot be fully re-transformed into a human – some cybernetic implants remain as well as – more importantly – many character traits. Throughout the series the character remains trapped between being Borg and being human, never fully emerging as one or the other. She struggles with defining and re-defing herself and there is no choice for her than to remain in between. Interestingly, the franchise offers many more of these characters – the robot “Data“, who looks so much like a human and interacts with humans like a human but lacks emotion like a radicalized version of a vulcan. The half-klingon B’Elanna. The holographic doctor with the complex personality subroutines. Outside the Startrek Universe we could consider the Terminator or Marvin, the paranoid android. If we think of their struggles not as ones that seek to cross the border between human and machine but rather as continuous struggles for acceptance of the lack of any clear boundary, we may find the inspiration Haraway sees in the image of the cyborg. Just like Seven of Nine can never be fully human nor return to be Borg, we may never be woman or man, German or European, white or black but only ever the something that struggles to cope with lack of clear distinction between these categories.

What sounds like a grim outlook may be the one strategies that alleviates the effects of the informatics of domination. As nothing is fixed, the domination is constantly challenged by the very mechanisms that maintain it. Resistance is not about overthrowing domination but about continuing to struggles along the lack of clear boundaries. It is about turning the struggle into the purpose. Maybe that is why Haraway ends on the optimistic note:

I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess. (316)

“We have to try and construct a better world…”

The movement called Zapatismo has a loaded symbolic significance in the context of global social movements. Somehow, this (largely unsuccessful) movement of indigenous people and failed Marxist revolutionaries in Mexico has inspired many an activist around the world (Khasnabish 2010). This is not, because the movement was so awfully effective or because their goals were so absolutely universal. I believe the reason is, that they captured what many felt needed to be done – to fight inequality and injustice through collective practices of the self.  Some argue, that in their approach new political spaces emerge and a new political culture is practiced (Dellacioppa 2009).

By Orianomada - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By Orianomada – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The example is worth considering because it gives some indication of the complexities that lie in resisting. In way, the Zapatista movement playfully enacts, what postmodern theory so elegantly disguises in bloomy language. In the Zapatista movement we see what it means to use techniques of the body in order to induce change. We learn how appropriation is at once a struggle and transformative for both sides. And we may learn about the limits of the strategies.

Let’s consider techniques of the body. The Zapatistas have been called a leaderless movement – but nor for lack of leadership. In fact, a person called “Subcommandante Marcos”, is widely considered to be a significant face of the movement. But it is a face behind a mask and his (her?) real identity was long unknown. Subcommandante Marcos is the symbolic representation of leadership, of the voice of the Zaptistas and it has long since become irrelevant to find out more about the person. Marcos is a constructed person with features – such as the mask – that make sure he (she?) could be anyone. Indeed, this is a reflection of a central idea of the movement – that all struggles for justice are related and that the individuals behind them are merely the diverse representations of these struggles. In hiding the face and creating anonymity, the road to identification for many different actors is opened.

Let’s consider appropriation. The Zaptista movement of the 199oies emerged out of an encounter between indigenous people and (failed) Marxist revolutionaries. Two worlds of ideas came together and merged in an unexpected way to form not so much an ideology as more an ongoing process of re-appropriation. Furthermore, new issues were taken up and appropriated in the process, which were dominant in neither indigenous societies nor capitalism and its Marxist critique. Khasnabish shows this in relation to the participation of women (Khasnabish 2010: 74 ff.). The process of reappropriation did not just allow dominant ideas to mingle, it made room for new ideas.

Most striking to me is the how this came about. It begins with a simple (?) redefinition of the self:

“It fell to the lowest citizens of this country to raise their heads, with dignity. [...] We cannot let ourselves be treated that way, and we have to try and construct a better world [...] This is what we want. [...] We have dignity, patriotism and we are demonstrating it.” (Subcommandante Marcos 2002 “Testimonies of the First Day”)

The Zapatistas decided to have dignity at the beginning of the struggle, they redefined themselves as acting subjects. They gained dignity by claiming it. It reminds me of a discussion on the 1989 revolution in East Germany a couple of years ago.

Plauen Oct. 30th, 1989

Plauen Oct. 30th, 1989

A participant asked one of the then-activists why they had suddenly begun to demonstrate, what had changed? And the activist said, that nothing had really changed, they had simply not been afraid anymore. She didn’t really know why the fear was gone, but it was and that changed everything. Should it be that easy? Maybe not. But it is worth debating, in how far the understanding of the self impacts the ability to act and if we cannot find ways in which this has had real life consequences.

In “Power and Imagination” I have argued that this, in fact is a very good appropriation of what (intransitive) power looks like in reality. But not calling it power, we are obscuring the importance. And, I believe, we are understating the limits of power. because this example also shows us clearly what these are. Clearly, the Zapatistas have not destroyed global capitalism nor has the East German revolution quite lead to the world people imagined. By any such measure these movements – just like Occupy, Podemos and so many others – remain unsuccessful. But should movements (and reconstructed selfs) be judged by how far they got? Maybe, power of this kind not ‘succeed’ in reaching ends (Arendt would certainly say so). Maybe the true “success” of these movements is not in the goals but in the change it enables within people. The sense of belonging and self-efficacy it creates. Maybe we should be looking for the places where these experiences resurface – as urban gardening initiatives, girls in schools in the Mexican jungle, new businesses, migration and the political imagination of new movements – which is where Khasnabish finds it.

This is the slightly revised version of a post prepared for the seminar blog “From subjects to cyborgs”.