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A ‘cyborg’ future?

When Donna Haraway published her famous (or notorious, some would say) “Cyborg Manifesto” in 1985, later included her book Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (1991), not to mention its many inclusions in various anthologies, she probably could not foresee its incredible history of influence. (For a condensed version of this, see David Bell’s Cyberculture Theorists: Manuel Castells and Donna Haraway; Routledge 2007, p. 91-96.) Among many reasons for this — too many to explore here — one is certainly its timely questioning, through the metaphor of the “cyborg” (cybernetic organism), of binary oppositions such as public/private, nature/culture, human/animal and human/machine, which she has in common with several other thinkers (such as Jacques Derrida, for one).

Another reason is its uncanny (although not always explicit) homing in on what was then only dimly perceptible, although by now as clear as daylight — that the human world was on the threshold of an epochal transition to a new world, and “new world order”, which has been variously linked to the information revolution, for instance in Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1979) and Castells’ The Rise of the Network Society of the late 90s. Haraway’s (often misunderstood) ironic and difficult style — but to anyone receptive to her ideas, also exciting text — uncompromisingly challenged people to abandon the cleavages that would, as it has turned out, persist in the world beginning to take shape then, albeit in a novel guise. Self-consciously presenting her imagined cyborg as a “myth”, she says (1991, p. 154):

“So my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work. One of my premises is that most American socialists and feminists see deepened dualisms of mind and body, animal and machine, idealism and materialism in the social practices, symbolic formulations, and physical artefacts associated with ‘high technology’ and scientific culture.”

A perceptive reader would no doubt notice that Haraway is here turning against the long tradition of techno-pessimism that was characteristic of 20th century thought on the matter. In the face of indications of all these “deepened dualisms”, Haraway sets out to provide the conceptual means to overcome them (in the process persuading techno-pessimists that there is another side to the potential of technology for domination), chiefly by elaborating on what the image of the cyborg entails (p. 151):

“The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence. No longer structured by the polarity of public and private, the cyborg defines a technological polis based partly on a revolution of social relations in the oikos, the household. Nature and culture are reworked; the one can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation by the other. The relationships for forming wholes from parts, including those of polarity and hierarchical domination, are at issue in the cyborg world.”

What appeals to me about Haraway’s cyborg is that it beckons us to a future where everything that militates against meaningful social and economic change has been “overcome” — not through epic battles, figuratively or realistically conceived, but through a novel way of thinking and interacting with one another, as well as with nature (which would then be conceived as part of us, anyway, and would therefore in principle preclude the problem of ecological degradation). For one thing, while technology is at present (as at the time of her cyborg manifesto’s first appearance), either seen in technophilic or technophobic terms, the notion of the cyborg, which applies to human beings above all, implies that one should conceive of technology as something intimately familiar to us instead.

She stresses, however, that this could lead to divergent futures: First, to a world where the industrial civilisation (“white capitalist patriarchy”) of the past is superseded by an “informatics of domination” which, in retrospect, seems to be the scenario that is unfolding, if one takes Castells’ research on the “network society” seriously. Or, secondly, to one where divisions of the past, as expressions of an invidious “identity politics” which ultimately amounts to a form of racism and xenophobia, have been overcome, and people embrace their “kinship” with animals and machines (for which Haraway provides plenty of experimental evidence in her essay, by the way). Haraway puts it this way (p. 154):

“From one perspective, 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 defence, about the final appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war … from another perspective, a cyborg world might be about 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. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point.”

Needless to point out to those familiar with the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Haraway’s “cyborg” is reminiscent of the French duo’s thinking in terms of “desiring machines” as the ontological building blocks of nature and society, although their emphasis is on process and endless production, through which the desiring machines are constituted. Where they seem compatible with Haraway, is in their shared opposition to the notion of an incarcerating “identity”.

If Haraway’s vision is an achievable state of affairs regarding what some would see as the “extreme otherness” of animals and machines, it would presuppose the ostensibly more attainable condition where different races, genders and cultures would finally accept that their differences notwithstanding, they are all “cyborgs”, in the sense of being intimately related. We are both self and other at the same time, despite our differences, and the occurrence of internecine battles between and among different human beings is groundless and redundant.

What Haraway’s vision suggests is nothing less than a challenge to the people of this world — who have never, despite their self-conception as “rational” creatures, managed to live peacefully together with a sensitivity for, and tolerance of their mutual differences — to abandon their ideologically ingrained clinging to exclusive “identities”, and embrace the inescapable fact that our “identities” are always, at most, partial, and forever subject to different modulations. If this condition could be approximated, xenophobia would disappear.

More importantly, given the looming global ecological crisis, in this piece dating from the 1980s, Haraway is adumbrating the possibility of a “cyborg” future that would, in an important sense, be a “post-human” future, if by “human” we understand that being who, in the course of its history, has established itself as the “master and possessor of nature”, as 17th century philosopher René Descartes hoped it would. In fact, what Descartes looked forward to then, on the basis of what he saw as the “miraculous new science” (that became modern physics), has been actualised with a vengeance: human mastery of nature has left it in ruins, to the extent that even the greatest defenders of the prevailing economic system admit that this is the case, and that urgent steps have to be taken to curb anthropogenic climate change.

A post-human, “cyborg” future would be a future where the rifts between human and nature, as well as human and machine are healed, and where the (more likely) possibility of “the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet”, alluded to by Haraway, is avoided. Which will it be?


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.