Book Notes: Manifestly Haraway

Manifestly Haraway by Donna Haraway
Read Jul 23, 2020 - Jul 28, 2020

This volume collects Haraway’s seminal “A Cyborg Manifesto”, her “Companion Species Manifesto”, and a lengthy interview between Haraway and Carly Wolfe (a colleague and friend of Haraway’s). These three sections of the book are in conversation with each other, but also have very different focal points and styles. Throughout, Haraway dazzles (and often confuses) with surprising connections, beautiful turns of phrase, intriguing insights, and a hard veneer of academic references.

The “Cyborg Manifesto”, first published in 1985, is the work that Haraway is most famous for, and it is easy to see why. The Manifesto is thought-provoking and provocative. She explicitly uses irony as a method of inquiry, and does not bother making the text clear or accessible. Ambiguity and contradiction are, in this manifesto, one of the main points that she is trying to make, again and again, both in content and style.

This first Manifesto is a difficult read, and one that feels somewhat performative. I found myself sometimes annoyed by what seems a needlessly complex style, full of references to other thinkers, and packed with terms that are used but not defined (she refuses to even pin down what is a “cyborg”). And yet, my curiosity was piqued, my imagination awakened.

There are many threads in this Manifesto that I want to explore further (gender, boundaries between nature and culture, demolition of false dualities, work becoming “feminized”). The main point I understand Haraway making is one about the impossibility of clean, “complete” theories to explain the world and ourselves, and the necessity of learning to hold simultaneously different “partialities”, as she calls them. The cyborg – both human and machine, but not really either – is her figure to embody this ambiguity. She writes:

Cyborg imagery can help express two crucial arguments in this essay: 1. the production of universal, totalizing theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality, probably always, but certainly now; 2. taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skillful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts.

The “Companion Species Manifesto”, published in 2003, is very different in style and tone, but touches on many of the same themes as the “Cyborg Manifesto” (“Parts don’t add up to wholes in this manifesto”, Haraway writes). But now the role of the cyborg as ambiguous figure is taken up by the “companion species”, represented by Haraway’s dogs. This was a much easier read than the earlier manifesto, but also a more boring one. Here Haraway weaves together the complex and thoroughly man-made evolution of dogs into an argument for why “history matters in naturecultures” (and no, she never defines what she means by “natureculture”).

The third and final part of the book, the lengthy conversation between Haraway and Wolfe, allows the book to tie the two manifestos more tightly together. Haraway talks more legibly about what some of her intentions were in writing the manifestos. There is also discussion of other Haraway work (Anthropocene / Chthulucene themes), and the way in which her thinking has changed (or not) since the manifestos were written.

Book highlights

I highlighted many things in this short book, so I’ve separated those highlights by section below.

A Cyborg Manifesto

Blasphemy protects one from the moral majority within, while still insisting on the need for community. Blasphemy is not apostasy.

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.

Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility.

The boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.

We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism—in short, cyborgs.

This essay is an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction.

utopian tradition of imagining a world without gender, which is perhaps a world without genesis, but maybe also a world without end.

The relationships for forming wholes from parts, including those of polarity and hierarchical domination, are at issue in the cyborg world.

By the late twentieth century in U.S. scientific culture, the boundary between human and animal is thoroughly breached.

Far from signaling a walling off of people from other living beings, cyborgs signal disturbingly and pleasurably tight coupling.

The second leaky distinction is between animal–human (organism) and machine.

The certainty of what counts as nature —- a source of insight and promise of innocence —- is undermined, probably fatally.

The third distinction is a subset of the second: the boundary between physical and nonphysical is very imprecise for us.

The ubiquity and invisibility of cyborgs are precisely why these Sunshine Belt machines are so deadly. They are as hard to see politically as materially.

From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.

The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point. Single vision produces worse illusions than double vision or many-headed monsters.

Identities seem contradictory, partial, and strategic.

There is nothing about being “female” that naturally binds women. There is not even such a state as “being” female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices.

Which identities are available to ground such a potent political myth called “us,” and what could motivate enlistment in this collectivity?

But there was also no “she,” no singularity, but a sea of differences among U.S. women who have affirmed their historical identity as U.S. women of color.

a self-consciously constructed space that cannot affirm the capacity to act on the basis of natural identification, but only on the basis of conscious coalition, of affinity, of political kinship.

[…] anticolonialist discourse; that is to say, discourse dissolving the “West” and its highest product—the one who is not animal, barbarian, or woman; man, that is, the author of a cosmos called history.

The theoretical and practical struggle against unity-through-domination or unity-through-incorporation ironically undermines not only the justifications for patriarchy, colonialism, humanism, positivism, essentialism, scientism, and other unlamentedisms, but all claims for an organic or natural standpoint.

The main achievement of both Marxist feminists and socialist feminists was to expand the category of labor to accommodate what (some) women did, even when the wage relation was subordinated to a more comprehensive view of labor under capitalist patriarchy.

But in the consciousness of our failures, we risk lapsing into boundless difference and giving up on the confusing task of making partial, real connection.

One should expect control strategies to concentrate on boundary conditions and interfaces, on rates of flow across boundaries—and not on the integrity of natural objects.

The dichotomies between mind and body, animal and human, organism and machine, public and private, nature and culture, men and women, primitive and civilized are all in question ideologically.

The home, workplace, market, public arena, the body itself—all can be dispersed and interfaced in nearly infinite, polymorphous ways, with large consequences for women and others—consequences that themselves are very different for different people and that make potent oppositional international movements difficult to imagine and essential for survival.

One important route for reconstructing socialist-feminist politics is through theory and practice addressed to the social relations of science and technology, including crucially the systems of myth and meanings structuring our imaginations.

The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self.

Technologies and scientific discourses […] as instruments for enforcing meanings.

Information is just that kind of quantifiable element (unit, basis of unity) that allows universal translation, and so unhindered instrumental power (called effective communication).

The biggest threat to such power is interruption of communication.

In a sense, organisms have ceased to exist as objects of knowledge, giving way to biotic components, i.e., special kinds of information-processing devices.

The success of the attack on relatively privileged, mostly white, men’s unionized jobs is tied to the power of the new communications technologies to integrate and control labor despite extensive dispersion and decentralization.

An adequate socialist-feminist politics should address women in the privileged occupational categories, and particularly in the production of science and technology that constructs scientific-technical discourses, processes, and objects.

I prefer a network ideological image, suggesting the profusion of spaces and identities and the permeability of boundaries in the personal body and in the body politic.

The only way to characterize the informatics of domination is as a massive intensification of insecurity and cultural impoverishment, with common failure of subsistence networks for the most vulnerable.

The feminist dream of a common language, like all dreams for a perfectly true language, of perfectly faithful naming of experience, is a totalizing and imperialist one.

Writing has a special significance for all colonized groups. Writing has been crucial to the Western myth of the distinction between oral and written cultures, primitive and civilized mentalities, […]

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.

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

These cyborgs are the people who refuse to disappear on cue, no matter how many times a “Western” commentator remarks on the sad passing of another primitive, another organic group done in by “Western” technology, by writing.

It is not clear who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machine.

A cyborg body is not innocent; it was not born in a garden; it does not seek unitary identity and so generate antagonistic dualisms without end (or until the world ends); it takes irony for granted.

There is no drive in cyborgs to produce total theory, but there is an intimate experience of boundaries, their construction and deconstruction.

We require regeneration, not rebirth, and the possibilities for our reconstitution include the utopian dream of the hope for a monstrous world without gender.

Cyborg imagery can help express two crucial arguments in this essay: first, the production of universal, totalizing theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality, probably always, but certainly now; and second, taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skillful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts.

Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves.

The Companion Species Manifesto

Significantly other to each other, in specific difference, we signify in the flesh a nasty developmental infection called love. This love is a historical aberration and a naturalcultural legacy. This manifesto explores two questions flowing from this aberration and legacy: (1) how might an ethics and politics committed to the flourishing of significant otherness be learned from taking dog–human relationships seriously; (2) how might stories about dog–human worlds finally convince brain-damaged U.S. Americans, and maybe other less historically challenged people, that history matters in naturecultures?

I tried to inhabit cyborgs critically, i.e., neither in celebration nor condemnation, but in a spirit of ironic appropriation for ends never envisioned by the space warriors.

[..] the present manifesto asks hich of two cobbled-together figures—cyborgs and companion species—might more fruitfully inform livable politics and ontologies in current life worlds.

Dogs are not an alibi for other themes; dogs are fleshly material-semiotic presences in the body of technoscience. Dogs are not surrogates for theory; they are not here just to think with. They are here to live with.

Through their reaching into each other, through their “prehensions” or graspings, beings constitute each other and themselves. Beings do not preexist their relatings.

In Judith Butler’s terms, there are only “contingent foundations”; bodies that matter are the result.

Rather, feminist inquiry is about understanding how things work, who is in the action, what might be possible, and how worldly actors might somehow be accountable to and love each other less violently.

How can general knowledge be nurtured in postcolonial worlds committed to taking difference seriously? Answers to these questions can only be put together in emergent practices; i.e., in vulnerable, on-the-ground work that cobbles together nonharmonious agencies and ways of living that are accountable both to their disparate inherited histories and to their barely possible but absolutely necessary joint futures. For me, that is what significant otherness signifies.

Instead of opposites, we get the whole sketchpad of the modern geometrician’s fevered brain with which to draw relationality.

And like the productions of a decadent gardener who can’t keep good distinctions between natures and cultures straight, the shape of my kin networks looks more like a trellis or an esplanade than a tree. You can’t tell up from down, and everything seems to go sidewise.

I have come to see cyborgs as junior siblings in the much bigger, queer family of companion species […]

Species is about biological kind, and scientific expertise is necessary to that kind of reality. Post-cyborg, what counts as biological kind troubles previous categories of organism. The machinic and the textual are internal to the organic and vice versa in irreversible ways.

We also live with each other in the flesh in ways not exhausted by our ideologies. Stories are much bigger than ideologies. In that is our hope.

The accounts I offer are idiosyncratic and indicative rather than systematic, tendentious more than judicious, and rooted in contingent foundations rather than clear and distinct premises.

Parts don’t add up to wholes in this manifesto—or in life in naturecultures.

Humanist technophiliacs depict domestication as the paradigmatic act of masculine, single-parent self-birthing, whereby man makes himself repetitively as he invents (creates) his tools.

There is no time or place at which genetics ends and environment begins, and genetic determinism is at best a local word for narrow ecological developmental plasticities.

Earth’s beings are prehensile, opportunistic, ready to yoke unlikely partners into something new, something symbiogenetic.

Co-constitutive companion species and coevolution are the rule, not the exception.

The saga that followed was not about unconditional love, but about seeking to inhabit an intersubjective world that is about meeting the other in all the fleshly detail of a mortal relationship.

The permanent search for knowledge of the intimate other, and the inevitable comic and tragic mistakes in that quest, commands my respect, whether the other is animal or human, or indeed, inanimate.

The recognition that one cannot know the other or the self, but must ask in respect for all of time who and what are emerging in relationship is the key.

I believe that all ethical relating, within or between species, is knit from the silk-strong thread of ongoing alertness to otherness-in-relation.

A dog and handler discover happiness together in the labor of training. That is an example of emergent naturecultures.

My point is simple: knowing and living with these dogs means inheriting all of the conditions of their possibility, all of what makes relating with these beings actual, all of the prehensions that constitute companion species.

Companion species cannot afford evolutionary, personal, or historical amnesia. Amnesia will corrupt sign and flesh and make love petty.

Smallish dogs, like girls in the human scene, are the gold standard in the dog adoption market. U.S. fear of aggression from the Other knows few bounds, and certainly not those of species or sex.

We need other nouns and pronouns for the kin genres of companion species, just as we did (and still do) for the spectrum of genders.

Companions in conversation

[…] the way we know the world, including ourselves, is situated historically in particular apparatuses for knowing, so that we know ourselves as a system—an information system, as a system divided by the division of labor.

You can’t simply say what you mean—that’s not how language works.

But it remains disturbing, and it remains disturbing to me.

It is part of a reworlding—that science fiction term has been very important to me.

We are companions, cum panis, at table together.

So, species is way more than my dog and me playing, and, simultaneously, it is me playing with my dog and being undone and redone by that.

There’s a sense in which the “Companion Species Manifesto” grows more out of an act of love, and the “Cyborg Manifesto” grows more out of an act of rage.

We are sympoietic systems; we become-with, relentlessly. There is no becoming, there is only becoming-with.

For many reasons, some of them in the “Companion Species Manifesto,” my slogan these days is “Make Kin Not Babies!”

People had gotten used to, way too easily, concepts like aggression and competition being used with other critters, as if they were technical terms, just as if they weren’t extraordinary anthropomorphisms, but would react very badly if questions of desire or labor or friendship were raised.

But I think an affirmative biopolitics is about finitude, and about living and dying better, living and dying well, and nurturing and killing best we can, in a kind of openness to relentless failing.

It’s not a “species act”; we’re not doing this as a “species.” What is happening that gets called the Anthropocene is a situated complex historical web of actions—and it could be, could have been, otherwise. But people forget that, partly because of the power of the word. People really believe that the human species is doing this thing, as an act of human nature. And it’s simply empirically not true.

So “muddling along” is taken as the definition of not thinking, when it’s quite other than that.

The pluralist imagination has always imagined that if you could just get people to sit down at the same table together and they could just talk to each other for long enough, they would somehow come to understand each other well enough that they could make decisions in the common good. That’s the fundamental democratic liberal pluralist model, which is clearly broken, and, you know, who could not have a soft spot in their heart for that model?

So why raise all the questions at once? Why not be willing to disaggregate what you’re so sure of?

[…] he was seriously upset with me for what he called (or Jim Clifford actually called) the “kitchen-sink syndrome.” Because I want everything, I end up putting it all in!

Tags: books, feminism

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