Monday, March 01, 2004

Reading:: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women

Originally posted: Mon, 01 Mar 2004 22:31:34

Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature

by Donna J. Haraway

In a previous review, I suggested that Haraway's Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse had an undercurrent of hesitancy or insecurity. No such undercurrent is to be found here, in her earlier book, and I think perhaps that's because the later book was stylistically more unconventional. Haraway was trying something new, perhaps trying too hard. But in this, perhaps her best known and most widely read book, Haraway is at the top of her form. In this collection of essays from 1978 to 1989, Haraway explores a variety of topics that center around questions regarding biology and genetics. How are these constructed, how do they represent us, how do they interact politically, socially, and culturally?

Such questions lead to investigations of sex and gender, and have particular currency as the United States debates how to handle taboo subjects such as homosexual unions. In one chapter, for instance, Haraway examines research accounts on simians from the early 1900s to the 1980s. She points out that over and over again, researchers would attribute heterosexual relations to the natural state of the animal, and homosexual relations to the effects of captivity. According to her, there's no strong rationale for this separation; it's essentially a circular argument. Other types of gender and sex relations are similarly rationalized, such as "prostitution" (simians performing sexual favors in exchange for items), aggressiveness, and infanticide. She concludes that for many of these studies, and certainly the most influential ones, simians are being read through the template of the nuclear family -- that is, when apes behave like us, they are seen as behaving "naturally," and that "natural" behavior boomerangs to support arguments that the nuclear family is itself "natural."

This suspicion leads her to other studies and other arguments. Perhaps her best known work is "A Cyborg Manifesto," in which she lays out a post-Marxist vision for socialist-feminism. Here, the controlling mode is irony, which she says is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically. We should embrace this ironic mode, she says, taking both pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and responsibility for their construction. That is, we should become cyborgs: decentralized, interconnected, having given up on organic unity. The premier cyborg technology is writing; the politics of cyborgs is a struggle against the one perfect code, the "god trick."

This god trick is taken up in Chapter 9. Science, she says, lays claim to a God's-eye view of the world, the view from nowhere. But, she says, "the form in science is the artefactual-social rhetoric of crafting the world into effective objects" (p.185). (Notice the strong affinity to Latour's work.) In opposition, she argues for a feminist account in which "situated knowledges require that the object of knowledge be pictured as an actor and agent, not a screen or a ground or a resource, never finally as slave to the master that closes off the dialectic in his unique agency and authorship of 'objective' knowledge" (p.198). Again, sounds a lot like Latour here, though Latour wouldn't use the term "dialectic."

This book is important, as so many people have discovered. As I've mentioned, it has many connections with Latour and similar work. But it also gives a window into the shortcomings of Marxism and a template for dealing with those shortcomings. And it provides important theoretical work to ground methodologies for investigating within the feminist/situated account.

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