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)

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