Reading Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs and Women

19Dec14

A Review of the book “Simians, Cyborgs and Women”, (1991)

Donna Haraway’s claim to fame must be the essay “A Cyborg Manifesto (…)”. It isn’t an accident that this title brings about associations with Robocop and Bladerunner…; it was written in the same time frame. Nevertheless my guess is Haraway’s writing will prove to be more time-resistant than the movies that augment her imagery. The essay was published in the book “Simians, Cyborg and Women”, which deals, above else – and including A Cyborg Manifesto, with the art of scientific storytelling. Haraway’s writing isn’t easy. I found it hard to read the essay without the rest of a book as background and I am still not sure whether I believe the crises she identifies can be resolved with the cyborg as the alternative hero. Nevertheless I do believe it is an idea worth considering.

Most of Simians (…), deals, as the title suggests, with monkeys and apes, or rather what biologists see in the behavior of our ancestors. Monkey behavior serves as a model of human behavior, but Haraway shows how scientist, gather and interpret evidence about animal behavior in the light of certain, highly gendered, hypotheses about the origins of human behavior. She shows, for example, how much evidence about the productive role of dominance in monkey groups, was inspired by the -bluntly gendered- “man the hunter” hypothesis, which ruled thinking about human origins at the time. One does not even have to question the quality of the evidence to have doubts about the picture of monkey behavior that arises. In another chapter she attacks the quality of the evidence itself, in particular the way infanticide among languor monkeys was studied in a highly selective and biased manner. The more modern theories of sociobiologists – who try to explain animal behavior almost entirely as a byproduct of genetic selection processes) await a similar deconstruction by Haraway. She shows how this theory of behavior which is based on a decentral, scarcity driven system resembles characteristics with the (neo) capitalist worldview which was flourishing when the theory came about. Haraway does not claim biologists are bad scientist, in the contrary her point is that scientific studies are stories, with hidden assumptions and messages, just like other stories.

This early work of Haraway features a couple of key points about the history of primate biology. First, we study monkey behavior at least in part for humanistic motives: we want to get to know ourselves, through studying our ancestors. Second, the talk-back of this scientific work is disappointing: we turn out to reproduce how we see ourselves, through our stories about monkeys, rather than alter our self-images based on the behavior of the monkeys. This holds for early work, but it still holds as her analysis of sociobiology shows. Haraway: “.. the history of biology convinces me that basic knowledge would reflect and reproduce the new world”. Third, gender is an important concept in anthropological writings about primates and it has so far not been treated particularly neutral. Fourth, many of these theories follow a (hidden) biblical arc – or a ‘birth myth’. The apes represent paradise or the ‘natural order of things’ (paradise, the newborn) after which humanity may have gone astray (mankind fallen into sin, the lost innocence of the adult). Studying this natural order can help us return to nature (paradise, innocence). If this is the dramatic arc of our scientific stories of humanity, it is a somewhat ironic finding that we reproduce the new world in the old one.

“Cyborg writing must not be about the Fall, the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, before writing, before Man. Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other.”

Against this background, Harrayway positions the image of a cyborg as an alternative. From the start the Cyborg Manifesto comes across as a grotesque piece of writing. Haraway positions the essay as act of blasphemy, she tries to create a political myth, faithful to feminism, socialism and materialism; the intent is to be critical, serious and humoristic and playful at the same time. She introduces the cyborg as a powerful metaphor that can be used to combat much of what is wrong with traditional humanistic-scientific and feministic writings. Cyborgs – both man and machine – are hybrid, ambiguous, organisms. They have no birth myth, they have never been innocent. They bridge traditional boundaries: they are both fiction and lived experience, both man and machine, both natural and handmade, neither male or female, both real and virtual. If anyone can combat the traditional mistake of reproducing our cultural distinctions in search of our innocent selves it must be the Cyborg. Cyborg thinking allows us to see the world as a polymorphic information system. The ideas behind information technology have shaped our thinking. Hierarchies and dominance, once cornerstones of our thinking, make place for the idea of networks and interrelations. For long, the human body has been the model for the world, but now, it has become the subject of information technology. The immune system, for example is seen as an information system. Many sciences including biology and ecology have in fact become information sciences. This calls for a new form of scientific storytelling.  A theory of everything needs to be rejected because it misses out on most of reality but we should revert to an anti-scientific meta-physics instead. Rather we need to celebrate a science in which pluriformity and situated knowledges are chosen over grand unified theories to understand and reconstruct the borders of our daily lives, in connection with others.

“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”  

If like Lakoff and Johnson argue, metaphors shape our thinking, Haraway’s proposal for a cyborg epistemology is a bold effort to change the practices of humanistic and scientific storytelling by choosing a new metaphor for it. I doubt, though, if this will turn out to be fruitful. Haraway combats our needs for wholeness and natural order and replaces it with a proposal for celebrating shattered mosaics and the cognitive dissonance it brings. This is realistic, and truthful, but it runs against a deep felt human need. Besides her essay does not escape her criticism of theories about monkeys. Her thinking –too- is fed by the dominant ideas of her time frame: such as post-modern thinking and a celebration of information technology as a liberating force. Nowadays these views are in decline. Haraway’s cyborg theory, too, is a product the time it was written in and rather insensitive to the talkback of the facts she uses to support it. Nevertheless Haraways book provides an insightful analysis if how this process works and the Cyborg manifesto stands out as a tantalizing, thought provoking and emancipatory essay. In many ways it an essay of the late eighties, but it was ahead of its times too, foreshadowing, among others, the next nature movement. The manifesto will remain to provide food for thought for years to come, if only, to end with an ironic note, by future scholars on the evolution of humanistic thinking in the past.

Reading more.

My last post called Reasoning on Metaphorical Foundations, discussed Lakoff and Johnsons thesis that metaphors are central to our conceptual thinking as they have put forward in their book Metaphors We Live By.

Rather than focussing on the Cyborg manifesto I reccomend to read the full book: Simians, Cyborgs and Women

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