On Cyborgs, part 1

So, cyborgs. If you grew up in the 90s like me, you probably get an image of the Terminator, or the Teen Titans character, or Neo. That’s where I started, but not exactly where the theory of cyborgs started, and that’s the theory I wanna talk about in this post.

Warning: I’m pretty steeped in feminist writing praxis of framing arguments with personal experience so it may or may not get personal up in hurr.

First, though, go read the Wikipedia article on cyborgs. It’s okay, go do it! (there is a reading list attached at the bottom and I highly recommend picking up/borrowing from the library at least a few of the books from it)

So, in 1984, a feminist science and technology scholar named Donna Haraway published an essay called “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” – you can read all about its impact and reception over at the Wikipedia page. Haraway has her own Wiki page too; it’s pretty rad. She’s a Distinguished American Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness and Feminist departments at UC Santa Cruz. She basically wrote the ur-text for cyborg theory as it is taught and used in academia today.

Basically, cyborg theory means a hybrid theory (not Linkin Park stoppit) – the cybernetic organism standing in to represent both/and as well as neither/nor simultaneously. Cyborgs are both human and machine, but not quite a human and not quite a machine either. They escape categorization.

Haraway relates this to the way that female-presenting people exist in (western) culture; “women” as a category have traditionally been characterized as natural or connected to the earth in some way even though femininity as we know it today is a cultural construct (plz see Simone de Beauvoir) [Male-presenting folx get the other side of it, masculinity being socially constructed as technological and rational; the reason this is a problem is because people don’t just neatly fit into categories because society tells them to, and also technology tends historically to be valued more highly than nature].

Feminine-presenting personages thus tend to occupy a weird liminal zone that isn’t fully human at the same time as getting blessed with suck: stereotyped with empathy/healing superpowers (“women’s intuition!”) so that the burden of care of the sick, injured, elderly, mentally unstable etc etc tends to fall traditionally on the closest femme.

“A Manifesto for Cyborgs” (aka the cyborg manifesto) is a densely written text that you can get a lot out of, once you get over the sense of being hit over the head. I find it makes my brain work – I’ve studied it for about five different classes now and gotten five separate things out of it. Not that it’s contradictory; it just applies itself very well to a wide range of topics. If you pop it into your search engine, chances are that at least 3 uploaded .pdfs of the manifesto pop up on the first page of results, all three from different courses at different universities. It’s a favourite. Go have fun looking at all the different disciplines and courses it is used in.

Some salient points of the manifesto / characteristics of the theoretical cyborg that pave the way for posthuman thinking include:

  • its ability to exist with a foot in the technological world and one in the natural (bridging a binary that maps on to hierarchical splits like subject/object, male/female, active/passive, constructed/given, civilization/wilderness, human/animal, etc. ad nauseam)
  • an allegiance to neither of the above, meaning that it bypasses a lot of essentialist narratives of “well those kind of people just naturally act in X way” or “it is a machine and therefore completely predictable!”
  • an existence beyond these hierarchies and categorizations; a site of potential and unpredictability; some way of being in the world that our philosophy and the way we think about being human has not grappled with before

Okay, that’s all for now.

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