Cyborg theory, in its ability to work across oppositional binaries like technology/human, culture/nature, constructed/given, helps philosophers (and thinkers in general) in forging a way forward beyond what Donna Haraway called the “informatics of domination” back in 1985: self/other, masculine/feminine, white/black, subject/object, real/virtual, heterosexual/homosexual, etc and the implicit hierarchy of the first term over the second.* Going beyond binaries, refusing to devalue integral aspects of our being, realizing that parts of our selves that we thought were inherent are actually constructs / the result of cultural forces, and then working to move forward with that knowledge. Pretty nifty, right?**
There are a couple drawbacks to cyborg theory, however – the main one being that it often doesn’t allow for subjectivity (the sovereign identity of a person) to exceed its parts. In fact, often these different identities are interpreted by outsiders as conflicting and assumed to be in a hierarchy, minimizing or even outright erasing one at the expense of the other.
Feminist theorist Jasbir Puar points out how this is at work in intersectionality theory, for which the cyborg became something of a poster child in the 90s. Intersectionality, as it was first put forward by Kimberlé Crenshaw, takes a person – say, a black femme – and locates the basis of this person’s identity at the crossing, or intersection, of these two different “roads” – one of blackness and one of femininity. However, as Puar notes, often feminism treats the femaleness of the person without regard to her race; at the same time, black social activists may treat the blackness of the person without regard to her femaleness. She puts on the “woman” cap on in one situation, and trades it for the “black person” cap in the other.
“Even though Haraway’s cyborgs are meant to undermine binaries—of humans and animals, of humans and machines, and of the organic and inorganic—a cyborg actually inhabits the intersection of body and technology.” – Puar, 56
Puar argues that in order to get out of this conundrum, thinking subjectivity along the lines of a moving assemblage (or agencement, as Deleuze & Guattari write) is more apt: an assemblage is always moving, always changing, as opposed to being limited to self-expression only along the narrow roads of the intersection. So a person who is black and a ciswoman and lesbian and Canadian doesn’t need to wear only her race hat to Black Lives Matter, then have to swap for her ciswoman hat when attending the women’s march, then put that away and don her lesbian hat to go to the Dyke March, and then discard all those others in favour of wearing her Canadian hat to the Canada Day fireworks. She can wear all the hats – her identity draws on multiple moving parts and her self is constructed of all those aspects at any given moment, though some are given more attention than others depending on the situation.
Well, that metaphor got away from me. Sorry.
*Think about how in slashfic story tags, the name of the character who is dominant in the relationship is written first, and then second is the character who is more passive: the Draco/Harry tag thus signifies a very different story indeed than Harry/Draco.
**”A Manifesto for Cyborgs” includes a lot more than just this concept of cyborg theory, but for the purposes of this post I’m focusing just on this.
***I’m quoting Jasbir Puar’s “I Would Rather Be a Cyborg Than A Goddess: Becoming-intersectional in Assemblage Theory” – an incredibly thought-provoking essay in philoSOPHIA: A Journal of Continental Feminism