Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Reading:: Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse

Originally posted: Tue, 25 Nov 2003 22:55:24


by Donna J. Haraway, Lynn M. Randolph (Illustrator)

I detect an element of insecurity in this book, despite its daring and improbably long title and the risks it takes. Perhaps it's because Haraway repeatedly has to tell us that she is funny. "With a raging sense of humor," she insists. The insecure comedians are the ones who feel the need to tell people they're funny.

I didn't find Haraway to be funny. Her attempts at troping, her choice of figures such as FemaleMan and OncoMouse to represent key parts of her argument, and her breathless explications of lesbian-themed science fiction seemed forced to me. And don't get me started on the symbolically and technically clumsy art supplied by Lyn Randolph. These elements served to distract, or at least to distract me. And that's too bad, because -- once you get out of the first section -- she has some exceptionally interesting and insightful things to say.

Yes, interesting. Though for me she failed in her aim for readers to "have a good time" and to use comedy as method (p.15), she did provide some provocative thoughts and illustrations about the sorts of divides common in science and technology, their scholarly examinations, and their popular conceptions. Haraway is a materialist and she works hard to demonstrate how problematic these divisions are, particularly nature vs. culture and subject vs. object. "The relations of democracy and knowledge," she declares, "are up for materialized refiguring at every level" (p.68), and she describes ways to perform that configuring, such as valorizing the non-scientific ways of engaging with science that, though customarily devalued, are vital for understanding and protest and change (p.94).

You can see why Latour would like her, and she returns his admiration although she is suspicious of the war metaphors he tends to use. The Latourean language of actors, networks, and enrollment is here, along with close kin such as boundary objects, but Haraway explores these in rather different ways and introduces some of her own metaphors, mostly involving bodily fluids. "Sticky threads" is a favorite (of hers, not mine). She declares that objects are knots of knowledge-making practices, knots with sticky threads extended in all directions; the challenge is which sticky threads to follow. Another favorite is the transgenic, a trope which takes many forms -- cyborg, vampire, clone -- and which represents the collapsing of subject and object, the amendment of Marx to remember nonhumans, or in other terms, the principle of symmetry popular in actor-network theory.

One of her most used methods to get at these issues is that of overreading. In others' hands (such as John Law's -- see my review of Aircraft Stories), overreading is a deeply disrespectful activity that can too often be used to turn your opponents and bystanders into straw people. But Haraway brings an ethical principle to her overreading: "I will critically analyze, or 'deconstruct,' only that which I deeply love and in which I am deeply implicated" (p.151). And she freely acknowledges overreading (p.154), meaning that rather than throwing her voice, so to speak, she is using the text as a heuristic or a topos for generating and then illustrating her points. It sounds a little loopy, but it actually works, and it was when I realized this that I understood what so many people had seen in this book. Unconventional and smart.

The book is tough sledding at times, especially if you are put off by people who spend a lot of time telling you how funny they are. But push ahead, get into Part II, and see what you get out of it.

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