manifestos 3: a cyborg manifesto

In the final paragraph of her “Cyborg Manifesto” (1985/1991). Donna Haraway recapitulates two crucial arguments:

1. “The production of universal, totalizing theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality, probably always, but certainly now.”

2. “…taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skillful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts.”

And, echoing a theme introduced near the beginning, she maintains that “cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves.” More than a theme, this is the heart of the matter as surely as “spirit” is for Kandinsky – “an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction,” an interplay of pleasure and responsibility that dances around cyborg imagery in a maze of dualisms long deployed to keep selves, tools, and bodies straight. The dance, which Haraway calls a “political-fictional (political-scientific) analysis” (connecting science with fiction) is made possible by three crucial boundary breakdowns:

human/animal
animal-human/machine
physical/nonphysical

Because there is no “natural” matrix of unity (and because such unity is nothing to be desired), no construction is whole, meaning that the play of difference, the play of possibility, is endless. And that leads to a critical insight into both science and fiction, both forms of possibility thinking: “Some differences are playful; some are poles of world-historical systems of domination. ‘Epistemology’ is about knowing the difference.” With Marxist analysis in mind, Haraway follows this knowing, this science/fiction from all work to all play, from organic/industrial society to “polymorphous information system.” And that in turn leads to a critical insight into control strategies: “One should expect control strategies to concentrate on boundary conditions and interfaces, on rates of flow across boundaries – and not on the integrity of natural objects.” This is a revolutionary reconfiguration of Marxist analyses of objectification and alienation. Every construction of an object is a construction of self, and neither is fixed (no matter how hard deployers of the aforementioned dualisms try to fix them).

Like Marx, Haraway recognizes the critical role of tools, of technologies, in this construction of self in construction of object in construction of self. And, recalling that it is not a cyborg (leading like a messiah) but cyborg imagery (pointing like a finger) that makes this political-fictional-political-scientific analysis not only possible but also promising, she recognizes that “myth and tool mutually constitute each other.” Technologies (which are discourses) and discourses (which are technologies) can be partially understood as formalizations (fetishes?) or frozen moments (objects?) of fluid social interactions. But, formalized and frozen, they are also instruments for enforcing meanings. She speaks of “the translation of the world into a problem of coding.” And, as has been noted more than once in the years since Haraway wrote the first version of this manifesto (by, among others, the creators of the content management system that supports this post by “using a simple interface to abstract away low-level details”), code is poetry.

“The issue,” she writes, “is dispersion. The task is to survive in the diaspora.” And that is a matter of myth: “Releasing the play of writing is deadly serious,” a matter of life and death. Bringing Luddites and other revolutionary workers to mind, she calls upon workers and worked upon to seize the tools we need to work (and, by implication, to smash the tools that keep us from working). And that means seizing not only myth but also myth-making: “Writing is pre-eminently the technology of cyborgs.” We are makers of myth made of myth, and here as elsewhere, the boundaries we draw between ourselves and our tools are subject to revision.

Haraway describes what she was doing in the 1980s when she wrote the first version of this manifesto as a contribution to the reinvention of nature (and that is the subtitle of Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, a collection of essays that includes the 1991 revision). In a “Western” context, any reinvention of nature is at the same time a reinvention of culture – and that blurs boundaries traditionally fixed between the two. One of the most important contributions Haraway makes lies in the way she connects science with fiction (and in her recognition of science fiction as fertile ground in which to use cyborg imagery as a tool in the constructive process of reinvention) – and in the way she connects both with politics. Politics is, first and foremost, the shape and shaping of the city, the body politic. Fiction is concerned with shaping bodies of knowledge (sciences and discourses). Bodies politic, like other bodies, are transformed in potentially liberating ways (ways out of the maze of dualisms Haraway cites) by cyborg imagery, which delights in the confusion of boundaries – and, in doing so, refigures (rigid) boundaries as (fluid) interfaces. These are problems of coding, no doubt, but they are also external surfaces that simultaneously obscure and provide access to collections of code (which are bodies of text). Interfaces make it possible to use code without reading it, but Haraway uses cyborg imagery to see through this. If city is the interface of human activity with (the rest of) the world (with human activity as code and city as the surface that results when its lower levels are abstracted away), blurring the interface and reconstructing it is a political intervention that remakes the city. Haraway points to science fiction as an art (τέχνη) particularly well suited to that task.

If, as Haraway says, “the issue is dispersion” and “the task is to survive in the diaspora,” and if the “diaspora” is the “polymorphous information system” that has displaced “organic/industrial society,” survival does not consist in preserving the integrity of natural objects by attending to “essential properties” but in the play of subjects, themselves polymorphous systems within polymorphous systems. Dispersion is an “issue,” but the issue is an opportunity, a matrix in which to play rather than an obstacle to be overcome. And that makes for systems that call attention to their own form in ways that open every form to transformation – cities that are complex interfaces supporting the creation and modification of what cannot be contained by abstracting away details, multiple users working in collaborative environments marked by collisions, every one of which is a crossroad.

The devil, they say, is in the details, where the crossroads are.

And crossroads, they say, are where deals are made.

That, as they say, is the deal.

Play on.

©Steven Schroeder

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