Of Tools & Toys:
Donna Haraway's Cyborgs and the Power of Serious Play.

© 1993 Jenny Cool

What is now proved was once only imagin'd.
— William Blake
Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility.
— Donna Haraway


Since its first publication in 1985, Donna Haraway's "A Manifesto for Cyborgs" has become a "cult text" amongst readers of contemporary critical theory (Penley and Ross). Though explicitly addressed to envisioning a possible politics for socialist-feminism, Haraway's ironic dream captures the attention and imagination of people in disparate fields because, as with all dreams, the operation of signifying condensation is fundamental to it. Through condensation, dreams achieve a radical economy of signification, making them richly polysemic and overdetermined, without reduction (Freud, 1900).

This essay sets out to "unpack" some of the most potent elements of Haraway's cyborg dream and to show how they speak: (1) to some central tensions within feminism (among feminisms?); and (2) to deep anxieties within the broader field of contemporary criticism. I undertake this unpacking by way of accounting for the "Manifesto's" popularity, but wish, subsequently (and simultaneously) to present my own reading of Haraway's text as an invocation to reform our view of theory and take up, through model-making, the generative power of the "as if."

Haraway concludes her "Manifesto" by writing:

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 ... (1990:223)

Haraway's first argument addresses feminism's historical dependence on "woman" as a universal category and its continuing tendency to theorize encompassing unities. Her second argument is directed to those feminists who, in celebrating the identification of women with nature, cast science and technology purely as tools of (male/capitalist) domination.

Examining the first argument in the wider context of feminist and postmodern critical theory will reveal the profound distillation of Haraway's text and, thus, account for its broad reception. Further, such examination will ultimately return us to Haraway's second argument against anti-science bias.

In some sense the history of feminist theory can be seen as a search for a subject: a search for a unit of analysis and a grounding for the field. It is rare, indeed, to read current feminist writing without finding some discussion of the diversity of feminisms and the contested nature of the term itself (e.g. Abu-Lughod:9, Flax:1990a). As Jane Flax has said "feminist theory is not even a discipline" (1990b:20): The main obstacle to achieving discipline status has been a lack of consensus about how to define and construct the feminist object of investigation.

Though most theorists have long since recognized that the anatomical female can not be the subject of feminism (because, as de Beauvoir wrote, "women are made not born"), feminists of all types have continued to seek totalizing explanations for what they see as "the universal devaluation of women"(Ortner:69).

Socialist feminists, for example, privilege labor as the essence of history and being human"(Flax 1990a:46) and trace women's oppression to this root by assimilating reproduction to wage labor. Psychoanalytic feminists, like Nancy Chodorow, see mothering as the site for the reproduction of patriarchal oppression. Further, some radical feminists, who base their analyses on the idea that women's ability to give birth leads them to be universally identified with nature, view the subordination of women as the root of all human oppression (King:109-110).

Though Haraway's "Manifesto" explicitly critiques only socialist feminism and Catherine MacKinnon's version of radical feminism, it argues against all modes of grand theorizing which fail to embrace the status of partial explanation (Haraway 1990:202).

Haraway criticizes socialist feminists for their uncritical adoption of the Marxist belief that being itself (ontology) is predicated on labor, that by acting on the "sensuous external world" human beings construct themselves as beings (Marx:72-75). Asserting the analogy between production and reproduction, socialist feminists ground the unity of women on the concept of labor as constituent of humanness itself. Haraway sees this as an "essentializing move" because it extends concepts useful for the critique of capitalism to history and humanity as a whole (1990:200).

Haraway makes a similar criticism of Catherine MacKinnon's radical feminism which sees the sexual appropriation of women by men as the central unit of analysis and the basis of women's unity. As theorists Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson point out, MacKinnon claims to have identified a basic kind of human practice, found in all societies, that has cross-cultural explanatory power (1990:31).

Unlike Fraser and Nicholson, who object to the biological basis of MacKinnon's concept because it thwarts historical investigation, Haraway takes MacKinnon to task for her "root cause" manner of theorizing. Of MacKinnon's theoretical work Haraway writes:

"sexual appropriation in this feminism still has the epistemological status of labor, that is, the point from which analysis able to contribute to changing the world must flow." (1990: 201)
Haraway does not focus on the fact that such universalist theories provide inadequate models of experience by erasing cross-cultural and historical differences. Rather, she emphasizes the way "root cause" thinking shuts out alternative accounts which might well prove useful in realizing feminism's political goals. More pragmatic than epistemological, Haraway's objection is:
"MacKinnon's radical theory is totalizing in the extreme; it does not so much marginalize as obliterate the authority of any other women's political speech and action." (1990:201)

By critiquing these totalizing constructions of feminism's appropriate objects of analysis, Haraway enters in to the discourse surrounding postmodernism's deconstruction of the universal subject. A feature common to works identified as postmodern is a rejection (indeed, an excoriation) of grand, synthetic theories. Though this tendency has been lauded as rescuing difference from the homogenizing machine of modernism, it has also thwarted social criticism—since there is no privileged position from which to see and represent "truth" and "reality," from what ground could such criticism be advanced?

This question is a source of great anxiety in contemporary theory, much of which focusses on the paradoxes and problems of social criticism in a postmodern climate (note 1). While Haraway shares postmodernism's rejection of totalizing theory, her use of the cyborg image to "stand for" an alternate construction of subjectivity saves her from the paralysis and nihilism of many postmodernisms. Haraway's cyborg offers a model of a subject consistent with the postmodern and feminist recognition/construction of difference (note 2), but a subject quite capable of forging affinities and engaging in social critique.

Haraway does not offer a new definition of what constitutes a subject (e.g., labor power, rather than transcendental reason, etc.), but rather a new way of thinking about how subjectivity is constituted. Her cyborg is a creature born of differences, conflicting multiplicity, and blurred boundaries. It is both real and imagined:

"The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience…a fiction mapping of our social and bodily reality" (1990: 191).
This organism-machine is above all a horizon of possibility and though Haraway suggests some of these possibilities, she also asserts:
"Who cyborgs might be is a radical question" (1990:194).
To offer the cyborg, even ironically, as an image of subjectivity is a profoundly anti-humanist move. Thus, early in her "Manifesto", Haraway takes it upon herself to show how compromised and protean the category "human" has already become:
Late twentieth century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. (Haraway 1990:194)
If we can no longer draw and keep boundaries between human and animal, between organism and machine, Haraway's text whispers, does it make and sense to cling to the notion that subjectivity is something to be found, rather than something constructed?

Found subjectivities include all conceptions in which the basis of ontology is something already there to be "discovered" by theorists, reified by philosophers. The Kantian notion of innate human dignity reflects a naturalistic found subjectivity; the Marxist conception of labor a non-naturalistic one. The work of Heidegger, Derrida, and Foucault has served to show the fabricated and artificial quality of the subject in Western History: Haraway reads this, not as the dissolution of all possible subjects, but as the necessity of constructing subjectivity consciously.

Haraway's political message to feminism is quite clear: instead of seeking to "find" identities, we must forge affinities with other agents, with whom we share common goals. To convince us that such constructed subjectivities might have pragmatic power, she cites Chela Sandoval's oppositional consciousness as a model of a "postmodernist identity [that] is fully political" (1990:197).

According to Sandoval, oppositional consciousness gave rise to the "new political voice called women of color," a category constructed "by the conscious appropriation of negation" which could include all those who felt left out of such "privileged" identities of oppression as "women" and "blacks":

This identity marks out 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, affinity, of political kinship…Sandoval argues that "women of color" have a chance to build an effective unity that does not replicate the imperializing, totalizing revolutionary subjects of previous Marxisms and feminisms which had not faced the consequences of the disorderly polyphony emerging from decolonialization. (1990:198)
Like women of color, Haraway's cyborgs "are about consciousness—or its simulation" (1990:195). They invite all those who have become conscious of multiplicity and the super-permeability of Classical boundaries—feminists, postmodernists, and the high-tech travelers of cyberspace—to take on "the confusing task of making partial, real connection" (1990: 202). The time to search for an abstract basis for unity has passed, says Haraway: the only real unities are consciously constructed, the only useful truths partial.

Reading Haraway's dream "Manifesto," I form an image of her as a Utopian pragmatist and see in her offer of the cyborg subject an invocation to reform our view of theory from that which is hoped to be true to that which explains and is fruitful. (note 3).

Haraway begins her text by signaling "three crucial boundaries breakdowns," but underlying each of these and embedded in her argument is the most significant boundary breakdown of all—between fact and fiction. "Manifesto" teems with references to the dissolution of this distinction:

"[T]he boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion"
(1990: 191);

"The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality"
(1990: 191);

"The boundary is permeable between myth and tool, instrument and concept. . ."
(1990: 206).
In her litany of traditional Western dualisms that have been challenged by high-tech culture, Haraway includes: "reality/appearance;" "right/wrong;" and "truth/illusion"(1990: 219). Haraway casts theorizing as the practice of fashioning conceptual tools whose truth status is not internal, but contingent and contextual. She argues that social theorists must no longer set out to "trap hidden realities," but turn, instead, to the vital political task of constructing instrumental concepts which will better enable those seeking social change "to contest for meanings, as well as for other forms of power and pleasure in technologically mediated society"(1990: 196).

Other scholars have remarked on the fictive nature of theory and the "toyish" nature of tools: Clifford Geertz, for example, drew our attention to the fact that since fiction stems from the Latin fictio, meaning to fashion, all representations are fictions, and not necessarily less true for being constructed (thus "artificial"). Yet, Haraway's argument may be more persuasive due to her high-tech perspective.

What emerges from her discussion of the three crucial boundary breakdowns (animal/human, organism/machine, physical/nonphysical) is that the "high-tech boys" owe much of their power to transgressing the boundaries between the real and the imagined. By "translating the world into a problem in coding" computer scientists and geneticists have built imagined models with real world utility—and have re-made the world in which we live (1990: 206).

Though Haraway is not blind to the militarist fiber of that world, her argument against a "demonology of technology " instructs those who would oppose domination (in its myriad forms) to take up the coding game. Here I'm referring to Haraway's quip that the move from the industrial to the information age is a move "from all work to all play, a deadly game" (1990: 203). Like games and toys, all models—computer simulations and hexadecimal coding, simulations and codings of all kinds—take up the generative power of the "as if"—they play on it and such play is very serious indeed, for it decides the future.


Jenny Cool jenny@cool.org
Feel free to mail me, I'm always interested in hearing feedback.
Copyright © 1993 Jenny Cool