(University of Minnesota Press, 2016)
In 1983, the Socialist Review asked Donna Haraway to write a few pages about the tentative future of socialist feminism during the Reagan era. Two years later, she published “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980’s,” a difficult, rococo text that not only announced but luxuriated in the enmeshing between human and machine, the leakages between organic matter and artificial intelligence, the prosthetic extension of the subject and its diffusion into fractal assemblages. “By the late 20th century,” Haraway argued, “we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.”
A creature of fact and fiction, Haraway’s cyborg describes the reality of accelerating technological mediation while also offering a political metaphor for social construction.“From one perspective,” writes Haraway, “a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defense, about the final appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war.” Dialectically, however, the cyborg could also prefigure “lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.” From this position, the cyborg offered a postmodernist, non-naturalist, and anti-essentialist politics to socialist feminism—a politics disinterested in reproduction, organicism, or myths of origin, and at home with irony, creolization, and, as Haraway would likely put it today, queerness. “A cyborg body,” Haraway writes, “is not innocent; it was not born in a garden; it does not seek unitary identity and so generate antagonistic dualisms without end.” The bastard child of weaponized capitalism, the cyborg is also the potential agent of its collapse. “Illegitimate offspring,” Haraway reminds us, “are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.”
Widely known and published as the “Cyborg Manifesto,” the essay, which opens Manifestly Haraway, is regarded as a theoretical cult classic and a lodestar of posthumanism (though Haraway has distanced herself from that term). Its prose is opaque and heteroglossic, thick with conceptual agglutinations and perverse couplings. One could fault Haraway’s text for being a bit too infatuated with its own excesses, over-invested in “taboo fusions,” breached binaries, and other then-trendy pomo tropes. In 2001, the critic Suhail Malik said as much and more, dismissing Haraway’s cyborg theory as a “self-serving sexying-up of critical liberalism” via a “vague optimism in which all transgressions of boundaries are welcomed.” But this casual trivialization ignores the political crisis in which the “Cyborg Manifesto” was forged, one which is reverberating today.
In 1981, Ronald Reagan, a B-list entertainer dismissed by Republican élites as a lightweight, and ridiculed by liberals as “the Candidate from Disneyland,” won the presidency with an eerily familiar campaign slogan: “Let’s Make America Great Again.” Buoyed by nostalgic appeals to white populism and the racialized scapegoat of the Welfare Queen, Reagan set into motion the aggressive entrenchment of free-market absolutism, a project that political economist William Davies has termed “combative neoliberalism.” The immediate political context of the “Cyborg Manifesto” was one of rising unemployment, cuts to social services, a war on labor, the redistribution of wealth from the working and middle classes to the rich, and a bellicose missile defense system nicknamed Star Wars.
Facing an onslaught of reactionary forces, the U.S. left was also buckling from internal fractures, crumbling consensuses, and foreshortened horizons. Haraway recalls this sense of closure in a conversation with Cary Wolfe in Manifestly Haraway: “You could no longer not know that the ’60s were well and truly over, and the great hopefulness of our politics and our imaginations needed to come to terms with the serious troubles within our own movements, within our larger historical moment.” While socialist, anti-imperialist, environmental, black, women’s, and LGBT liberation movements struggled to find common ground, discourses of personal empowerment began to eclipse solidarity, and a generation of radicals was absorbed into an academy in which postmodernism became the de rigueur philosophy of an increasingly abstract, centerless, financialized world. “The title of Andre Gorz’s 1982 book, Farewell to the Working Class, fitted the mood,” Sharon Smith, author of Women and Socialism, wrote in the Spring 1994 issue of International Socialism. “Having divorced the source of oppression from class society, and raised the notion of autonomy to a principle, it was only a short step from the politics of movementism to the politics of identity.”
Semantic confusion and ideological splinting was felt not only between movements but also within them. “It has become difficult to name one’s feminism by a single adjective—or even to insist in every circumstance upon the noun,” Haraway observes in the “Cyborg Manifesto.”
Consciousness of exclusion through naming is acute. Identities seem contradictory, partial, and strategic. With the hard-won recognition of their social and historical constitution, gender, race and class cannot provide the basis for belief in “essential” unity. There is nothing about being “female” that naturally binds women. […] Painful fragmentation among feminists (not to mention among women) along every possible fault line has made the concept of woman elusive, an excuse for the matrix of women’s dominations of each other.
In particular, Haraway’s cyborg feminism was motivated by the imperative—still pressing today—to address the “[e]mbarrassed silence about race among white radical and socialist-feminists” through universalizing myths of sororal unity. In demolishing the idea of “woman” as an undifferentiated block, the cyborg allowed for a pluralized concept of women with elastic and variable identities beyond being a source of alienated domestic labor or an object of sexual objectification. Rather than rooting politics in “a hierarchy of oppressions,” it articulated difference within solidarity. Instead of “identification, vanguard parties, purity and mothering,” it proposed synthetic, big-tent coalitions like Chela Sandoval’s notion of “women of color,” inhabited not by birthright but by elective affinity.
“Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess,” Haraway famously finished the manifesto, announcing a steely futurist alternative to the atavistic earth mother rhetoric of certain tendencies within ’60s and ’70s feminism. The cyborg was and remains a potent aesthetic and erotic cipher, conjuring horrors and fantasies of mechanic integration from carapaced Übermenschen—Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill, Darth Vader—to the “replicants” of Blade Runner and the bionic concubines of Westworld. (It’s hard to not see shades of Haraway’s “cyborg Alice” in Westworld’s Dolores, herself modeled on Lewis Carroll’s heroine.)
But the glamour of the cyborg as an image has somewhat overdetermined the manifesto’s reception, eclipsing its historical context, political stakes, and the larger scope of Haraway’s intellectual project that emerges through the other texts collected in Manifestly Haraway. For instance, those who know Haraway only through “A Cyborg Manifesto” and its memorable finale would be surprised to know that she has recently taken up a more-than-casual interest in primeval goddesses. In her published conversation with Wolfe, Haraway embraces Terra and Gaia as ecological metaphors (goddesses, she explains, are O.K. so long as they’re pre-Olympiad and non-matriarchal); and the book ends with “The Chthulucene From Santa Cruz,” a beautiful, apocalyptic text invoking “snakey Gorgons” called “the chthonic ones.”
In 2003’s Companion Species Manifesto, Haraway transitioned from cyborgs to the more cuddly topic of canine companionship as a site of human–nonhuman entanglement and relationality. “I have come to see cyborgs as junior siblings in the much bigger, queer family of companion species,” she wrote, abandoning the postmodern irony and cybernetic edge of “A Cyborg Manifesto” for a deeply earnest, affect-oriented discourse on the love and “reciprocal possession” between the author and her Australian shepherd. (Dog-impervious readers like myself might feel somewhat alienated by the purple language about pooper-scoopers and deep tongue doggy-kisses.) Persistent throughout Haraway’s writing, however, is an emphasis on the co-constitutive interpenetration of humans and their others (machines, animals, and the environment), an insistence that “there is no becoming, there is only becoming-with.” In her interview with Wolfe, Haraway corrects those who read this latter manifesto as something of a rebuke to her earlier, more famous one: “There are folks who asked, ‘Why did you drop your feminist, antiracist, and socialist critique in the “Companion Species Manifesto”?’ Well, it’s not dropped. It’s at least as acute, but it’s produced very differently.” She says, “There’s a sense in which the ‘Companion Species Manifesto’ grows more out of an act of love, and the ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ grows more out of an act of rage.”
Perhaps it’s this sense of anger that makes “A Cyborg Manifesto” the more urgent text, despite its vintage. It isn’t difficult to read hieroglyphs of the present in Haraway’s panoramic description of the miniaturization of technology, the end of the white family wage, the assault on labor, the precarity and feminization of work, the increasingly fuzzy boundaries between work and play, the technological surrogacy and dispersion of the self (“Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert”). In the months since the election of Donald Trump, who amplified Reagan’s folky appeal to white America with a more resentful and ferocious rhetoric of cultural revenge against “political correctness,” arguments about identity politics, a contentious and somewhat obfuscatory term, have become plethoric. The best of such arguments, such as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s “No Time For Despair,” have called for a heterogeneous and inclusive resistance movement without apologizing for the compromised political agenda of the neoliberal Democratic establishment. The worst—see Mark Lilla’s notorious New York Times op-ed, “The End of Identity Liberalism”—have insinuated that liberals should stop making such a big fuss over “diversity” issues like racism and transphobia in order to romance white working-class voters. As Naomi Klein has pointed out, “nothing has done more to liberate our élites to build their corporate dystopia than the persistent and systemic pitting of working-class whites against blacks and immigrants, men against women. White supremacy and misogyny are and always have been our elite’s most potent defenses against a genuine left populist agenda and meaningful democracy.” In the fight ahead, it’s ethically and politically imperative to resist playing a crude, zero-sum game between identity politics and economic populism—as if social and economic oppressions weren’t, as Haraway might put it, “deeply braided” or, as we might say now following the mainstreaming of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s insights, intersectional. “From the perspective of cyborgs,” Haraway writes, “freed of the need to ground politics in ‘our’ privileged position of the oppression that incorporates all other dominations, the innocence of the merely violated, the ground of those closer to nature, we can see powerful possibilities.” Underneath the cyborg’s armor, there’s a radical, situated, socialist feminism for these reactionary times.
CHLOE WYMA is a writer and associate art editor at the Brooklyn Rail. A Ph.D. student in art history at the CUNY Graduate Center, her recent essays appeared in the Rail, Dissent, and the New Inquiry.