The Cyborg Solution

Judy Wajcman, ‘The Cyborg Solution’, pp.78-101, in:
Wajcman, J., 2004. TechnoFeminism. Polity, Cambridge ; Malden, MA.
Feminists were among the first to make the links between reproductive technologies, genetic engineering and eugenics.
[…] the focus of much of the early analysis by radical feminists was a determination to reclaim motherhood as the foundation of women’s identity. Implicit in this view is a concept of reproduction as a natural process, inherent in women alone, and a theory of technology as patriarchal, enabling the male exploitation of women and nature.
Like ecological feminists, radical feminists celebrated the identification of women with nature and saw women as having a special responsibility to ensure the integrity of human and natural life on earth.

[…] efforts to mobilize a feminist or environmental politics of technology often take the form of resistance to technological development.
The resurgence of scientific interest in genetic explanations for a variety of human behaviours and personality traits lends increased legitimacy to a new kind of genetic determinism. Social problems as diverse as school failure, alcoholism, delinquency and even homosexuality are increasingly attributed to our genetic make-up.
Where feminists have argued that gender roles are socially constructed and open to reconstruction, this new argument suggests that gender roles are hard-wired in the genes.
Leading the charge against those who reject technology in favour of a return to a mythical natural state and against the proponents of a genetic determinism, Donna Haraway has become the most influential feminist commentator on technoscience.
She embraces the positive potential of science and technology, to create new meanings and new entities, to make new worlds.
For Haraway, then, informatics, communications and biotechnologies provide fresh sources of power for women world-wide, which in turn require new ways of doing feminist politics.
Building on scholarly traditions in the history, philosophy and sociology of science, Haraway foregrounds the constitutive role of metaphor, analogy, classification, narrative and genealogy in the production of scientific or natural facts.
Science is not disembodied truth; it is social knowledge, a form of life and a material-semiotic practice utilizing narrative forms similar to those of other social knowledges.
[Haraway] argues that gender and race, by their very absence, are at the heart of how modern scientific knowledge was conceived. Mainstream science studies have been blind to the way science was materialized as a taken-for-granted male practice.
During the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries in Europe, both nature and scientific inquiry were conceptualized in ways modelled on men’s violent and misogynous relationships to women, and this modelling contributed to the distinctive gender symbolism of the subsequent scientific world-view.
Haraway’s proposition is the notion of ‘situated knowledges’, which avoids any essentialist idea of a universal women’s perspective. Instead, she calls for a feminist science that acknowledges its own contingent, located foundations just as it recognizes the contingent, located foundations of other claims for knowledge.
Haraway’s stress on femininity and masculinity, and nature and culture, as inherently relational, highly contextualized concepts is neither novel nor unique to post-structuralism. Rather, it echoes the way gender has come to be theorized over the past two decades within feminist theory.
More than any other thinker, she prompts us to consider the cultural implications of the destabilization of our entrenched Enlightenment distinctions between human, animal and machine.
One aspect of Haraway’s argument has much in common with radical science or neo-Marxist analyses of science, which see technoscience as increasingly subject to the processes of commodification and capital accumulation. The boundaries between independent university research and industry become blurred, and scientific knowledge becomes intellectual property, as multinational corporations invest unprecedented amounts in biotechnology in their insatiable drive for profit.
There is a tension between Haraway’s reading of the OncoMouse TM and her more generic use of the cyborg figure. Her cyborg refers to a real, existing compound of the biological and the artefactual, and to the mythic protagonist for a new, anti-essentialist feminist subjectivity. Her belief in, and enjoyment of, science and scientific endeavour are apparent in the discussion of these dilemmas; but when faced with a real cyborg, she is not as keen as when contemplating fictional representations or theoretical possibilities.
In a literal sense, human beings have been prosthetically enhanced in one way or another for centuries, from spectacles to artificial limbs.
I remain unconvinced that a combination of informatics and biogenetics has made the boundary between organisms and machines irrelevant, let alone generated a new ontological status for the species. Our anguished ethical debates over, for example, organ donations and transplants, reflect precisely the importance to people of their bodily integrity, rather than their cyborg-like quality.
From transgender operations literally turning women into men, or vice versa, to cosmetic surgery, surgical procedures are used precisely to reinforce gender stereotypes rather than subvert them.
The cyborg has fired the feminist imagination. It crystallizes our pleasure in, desire for, and anxiety about technological transcendence.
[…] while Haraway’s cyborg symbolizes a non-holistic, non-universalizing vision for feminist strategies, it has been taken up within cyberfeminism as the symbol of an essential female being.
The lived technoscientific reality of cyborgs has taken second place to their treatment as fictional discourse.
Haraway herself is ever sensitive to the cyborg’s ambiguous nature, its dark side as well as its emancipatory potential, reminding us that cyborgs are ‘the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism’. She is perhaps less attuned to the tainted history of the concept of hybridity, implicated as it is with colonial science projects of the nineteenth century.
The bionic being defies conventional notions of the body as the site of essential, unified, natural identity. It allows women’s bodies to carry a multiplicity of meanings and shifting identities.
For many feminists, cyborg images are invigorating and open up productive ways of thinking about subjectivity, gender and the materiality of the physical body.
Cyborg images can easily be reinscribed in traditional dualisms as part of a romantic narrative about salvation from technology.
There is nothing inherently progressive about a cyborgian identification with machines. Indeed, one of the longstanding themes of feminist writing on warfare has been the identification of men and masculinity with the technology of destruction.
It is worth recalling that a major part of Haraway’s earlier ‘A manifesto for cyborgs’ addressed the nature of work in global capitalism. There, she argued that ‘hybrid’ identities were being generalized in the new industrial revolution characterized by the feminization and deskilling of traditional work. The main deployment of cyborgs around the world today is, indeed, the million or so robots used in the production of cars. Here robots displace human labour.
Much recent feminist writing has emphasized the making of the body through biotechnology and genetic engineering, neglecting other crucial spheres in which the body and gender identity are formed and performed. The workplace is one such site, but its importance is attenuated in Haraway’s later work, and absent in that of her followers.
The honed, machine-like cyborg body evokes the hypermasculine worker of manufacturing capitalism, but the collapse of physically demanding work is associated with a new obese body, in stark contrast to the kind of body imagined in the figure of the cyborg.
Similarly, the feminization of work is not so much about a new cyborg identity, but rather reflects burgeoning demand for service workers with conventional feminine qualities.
Throughout her work there is a tension between Haraway the modernist and Haraway the postmodernist. She urges us to celebrate contradiction, inconsistency and fragmentation, and the openness of her writing to a variety of readings is intentional.
Previous technological innovations like the telephone and electricity were also seen at the time, with some justification, as harbingers of a new social order. One is reluctant to suggest that such an astute science studies critic has fallen prey to technological determinism, but the cyborg prescription for progressive politics does place enormous weight on technoscience as the motor of women’s liberation.
Like many feminist postmodernists, she at one moment destabilizes the categories of woman and gender, and at the next moment appeals to meta-narratives of justice. She is keenly aware that she needs the category of woman, as well as the tool of statistics, to do politics: ‘demanding the competent staffing and funding of the bureaus that produce reliable statistics … is indispensable to feminist technoscientific politics’ .
Yet such statements sit rather uneasily with her emphasis on the impossibility of distinguishing between the material and the metaphorical, between fact and fiction.
Paradoxically, Haraway presents a rather totalizing view of the combination of biotechnology and communication 100 The Cyborg Solution technology as all-powerful in defining who and what we are and as our salvation.
Haraway’s emphasis on the empowering effects of playful deconstruction, providing us with a sense of agency and hope, has such appeal because for many women the everyday experience of technological change tends to be one of constraint, surveillance, confusion and lack of control. But opening up spaces or playing is a limited form of politics.
Certainly, Haraway is much stronger at providing evocative figurations of a new feminist subjectivity than she is at providing guidelines for a practical emancipatory politics.