Book Review: Donna Haraway “Simians, Cyborgs, And Women. The Reinvention Of Nature” (1991)

Haraway’s collection of essays is almost twenty years old, but her views on science and technology and the role of gender within these categories are still valuable and fascinating. The most famous essay, A Cyborg Manifesto, has become a seminal work in postfeminist theory and studies on cyberculture.

Most of her work deals with the critique of nature as a universal category and the totalizing power of natural science. As a biologist and historian of science, Haraway is aware of the importance and significance of scientific research, but also of its shortcomings and abuse. She claims that science cannot be assumed as separate from ideology by default. Research and studies are almost always based on presuppositions which often reflect the dominant ideology, for example:

Theories of animal and human society based on sex and reproduction have been powerful in legitimating beliefs in the natural necessity of aggression, competition, and hierarchy. (p. 21)

Important tools such as renaming and reinterpretation can lead to entirely different results. Everyone can tell the difference between the connotation of “female receptivity” vs. “female choice” (p. 41), a simple change of words which may have a huge impact of how we explain human behavior biologically. Haraway’s example of the reinterpretation of the tool-using adaptation in chimpanzees questions the evolutionary legitimization of (alpha-)male aggressivity and domination while at the same time allowing for more options for development:

[…] evolutionary reconstructions condition understanding of contemporary events and future possibilities. […] The open future rests on a new past. (p.41)

Haraway warns us “to pretend that science is either only discovery, which erects a fetish of objectivity, or only invention, which rests on crass idealism” (p. 42), and urges feminists to resist expecting final theories for complex and ambiguous issues, such as reproduction and production, which are always affected by the current dominant ideology, politically as well as scientifically.

However, according to Haraway it is not only science that needs to be reviewed, but our general concept of nature as well. That the universality and holism of nature is also a construction, has been largely ignored by feminists (of the second wave) and the mainstream alike. Consequently, Haraway praises Judith Butler’s move to “‘disqualify’ the  analytic categories, like sex or nature, that lead to univocity” and to “expose the illusion of an interior organizing gender core and produce a field of race and gender difference open to resignification” (p. 135). Like many postmodern feminists, Haraway and Butler have been accused of splitting the feminist movement by doing away with its basis for women’s agency. Haraway answered to this criticism with her vision of  cyberfeminism.

In A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century Haraway presents her version of a Marxist feminism in our late capitalist society, which argues for “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction” (p. 150). To illustrate this vision, she uses the image of the cyborg, “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (p. 149). According to Haraway, we are all cyborgs in today’s society, with all the advantages and disadvantages that entails.

The cyborg transcends the boundaries of biology, thereby rejecting universalism and totalizing theory, the foundations of patriarchy. As an animal-human-machine hybrid the cyborg negates organic holism and the Western myth of an origin story. Its most subversive quality is its ambiguity:

Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism.

Furthermore, Haraway’s cyborg fits in the anti-essentialist tradition in postmodern feminism. As a post-gender creature it cannot be said to have any specific universal qualities, be they male or female. Escaping these universal categories, of women or other, the cyborg manages to escape patriarchal oppression and creates its own identity. Because the cyborg is as much machine as it is human, technology becomes the determining factor which makes this kind of feminism possible. As the dualisms disappear, they leave room for multiplicity, contradiction and self-development.

As I have mentioned before, Haraway had to face some criticism from certain feminist movements, for aligning women with technology, the tool of patriarchal capitalism, and for eliminating women’s common identity and experience. Haraway challenges those allegations by claiming that feminists should create solidarity and find common ground not based on their mutual identity (as women) but rather on their mutual affinity, affinity being a relation not by blood (race, gender etc.) but by choice. Bearing in my mind how much the internet already influences our everyday lives (not just in the Western world but also progressively in developing nations), I believe this claim to be very much based in our lived reality, the internet being a fantastic source to create and find groups based on affinity.

Finally, as a feminist who has been confronted too often with the allegation that all feminists believe in the superiority of women, I cannot help but close with Haraway’s most famous line:

I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess. (p. 181)

[Donna J. Haraway: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature, New York 1991.]

Cyborg love for the 21st century:


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