Donna Haraway’s seminal piece “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” (1985) smartly utilizes the word “manifesto,” declaring the idea of traditional feminism to be dead. Modern feminism or second wave feminism focused on identity, where women fit into society, and in a sense, living in reaction to a male dominated world. Haraway, rather, is not only suggesting a post-modern feminist construct but a posthuman construct. She uses the metaphor of a cyborg to move beyond the binary and past the standard limitations of traditional notions of gender, feminism and politics.
Let’s take a look at a visual representation of Haraway’s cyborg construct. We have an animal totem, a rejection of the Garden of Eden and the religious dogma of man’s separation from nature. According to Haraway, there are no rigid boundaries between human and animal. Nor is there a separation from human to machine. Note how there is a biological component to this connection in addition to the hands on the keyboard. Thus animal, human, and machine are all interconnected. As for the machines, Haraway notes the line is blurring. “But basically machines were not self-moving, self-designing, autonomous. They could not achieve man’s dream, only mock it. They were not man, an author to himself, but only a caricature of that masculinist reproductive dream.” Notice the symbolism in the phallic. She writes that the boundary between the physical and non-physical is very imprecise for us. It’s all just sort of out there. The machines make it understandable. See, we’ve become cyborgs without even realizing it. “Modern machines are quintessentially microelectronic devices: they are everywhere and they are invisible.” Because of this omniscience, technology has become the new deity, and the technological determinists are her priests.
What is most fascinating for my scholarly interests is that not proposing this connection to communication systems is a positive or negative construct. She instead suggests that as women and femininity are being redefined by technology, that the postfeminist should be conscious of this technological system, which seeks to recraft the female body. Women should see the machines everywhere as empowerment and internalize those constructs by presenting and embracing themselves as cyborgs. Where once, machines framed women in a particular way, cyborgs can change the definition. Because we’re all connected, nature, human, and machine, and the boundaries are thus invisible, that women have the ability to define themselves outside of the context of a biological or culturally determined femininity. The cyborg is liberation.
Popular media, rather, often shows cyborgism assomething sinister and wholly inhuman, an important distinction from Haraway’s notions of posthumanism. The term posthuman provides a neutrality to the addition of the technological to the biological. But cybernetics on celluloid often accompany disfigurement and villainy.
One of the first cyborgs on the silver screen may be one of the best examples of this ontological shift, Dr. No of the eponymous James Bond film from 1962. A brilliant scientist and former treasurer of the Chinese mafia, Dr. No falls victim to his experiments which cost him both of his hands, replaced with rather crude “bionic” ones, capable of great strength, crushing a metal statue as an example of their power. No exhibits characteristics of the classic mad scientist trope, popular in pulp, comics, and B-movies previously, and his grotesque metal hands (from his playing God with the evils of science, no doubt!) playing their part in his further isolation from normalcy and humanity. Ultimately, the hands prove his undoing; though imbued with crushing strength, their lack of manual dexterity cannot effectively help hime climb a ladder and he is boiled to death in the coolant of an overheating nuclear reactor. Bond in his hegemonic masculinity and heroic “humanity” escapes, saves the girl, and wins the day.
Cybernetic enhancement has so often equated with a loss of humanity (and ultimately an embrace of villainy) it has become a common trope in Hollywood. While brave Luke Skywalker of Star Wars has a cybernetic arm to replace that biological one his father has cut off, he never gives in to the same dark technological forces Darth Vader does. Vader forsook his humanity in embracing not only the dark side, but the cybernetic implants that transform him into something less than human. It’s an odd parallel, the Hollywood cyborg has augmented strength, superior intellect, and numerous advantages over his unspoiled human brethren, yet it is viewed as weak for “giving in to the technology.” Heroes such as Skywalker or Del Spooner of I, Robot can subject themselves to integration of the technology, but must reject becoming beholden to that technology. Posthumans are never seen as masters of their technology, only as slaves to it.
Being a cyborg isn’t about how many bits of silicon you have under your skin or how many prosthetics your body contains. It’s about Donna Haraway going to the gym, looking at a shelf of carbo-loaded bodybuilding foods, checking out the Nautilus machines, and realizing that she’s in a place that wouldn’t exist without the idea of the body as high-performance machine. It’s about athletic shoes. “On the other hand, if women (and men) aren’t natural but are constructed, like a cyborg, then, given the right tools, we can all be reconstructed.” I argue this is the crux of Haraway’s argument. If a posthuman can be made, designed like any common machine, than we can ultimately reject gender essentialism.