The figure of the cyborg is perhaps the most famous and at the same time the most controversial example of Donna Haraway’s figural realism. As a material-semiotic figure, Haraway’s cyborg fuses feminist fiction and the Cold War military-industrial complex. For Haraway, the cyborg is a metaphor for both our fragmented identities and our technological, bodily, and social reality in the late twentieth century.
The cyborg emerges first as a powerful figure in Haraway’s Manifesto for Cyborgs (1985), an article published against the backdrop of the reelection of Ronald Reagan as the 40th president of the US. Neither the text’s title nor its manifesto form are a coincidence. The text can be regarded as an attempt at queering the deeply gendered and coded text genre of the manifesto. As Karin Harrasser (2006) emphasizes, women are absent as socio-political actors in almost every historically influential manifesto – be it Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, Grave and Kropotkin’s Manifesto of the Sixteen, Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, or Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism, in which women only appear as a projection screen for masculinist fears and misogynistic phantasies. By emphasizing the connectivity and even solidarity with animals and machines, Haraway not only queers a traditionally masculinist and anthropocentric textual form, but also shifts the focus toward existential struggles in a world that has been thoroughly transformed by new technologies and the technosciences.
The cyborg, as a coupling of the technological and the biological, not only marks an “illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism” (Haraway, 1991, p. 151), but is also rooted in the space-race against the Soviet Union (see, for example, Clynes and Kline, 1995). For Haraway however, the cyborg is much more than its militaristic origin stories imply. As a material-semiotic figure, Haraway’s cyborg illustrates the implosion of fundamental and often oppressive Western dichotomies, such as nature/culture, body/mind, female/male, and animal/human to name but a few. In light of this, Haraway’s cyborg figure is about nothing less than “transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work” (ibid, p. 154).
Often misunderstood, Haraway’s cyborg figure does not stand for an uncritical celebration of genetic engineering or technological and biomedical enhancement of the body. Instead, it aims at deconstructing the naturalized stories about origins, kinship, and purity that still haunt the bodies of everyone marked as the other, “whose task is to mirror the self” (1991, p. 178). In doing so, the cyborg represents a feminist tool for troubling historically recurring ideas about the naturalness of gendered and racialized bodies and identities.
Haraway’s figure of the cyborg has been immensely important for feminist and queer theory (see, for example, the work of Katherine Hayles, Jasbir Puar, Cecilia Åsberg, and Nina Lykke). Nevertheless, it has also been problematized in many ways. For example, Vicki Kirby emphasizes that Haraway’s cyborg figure is not fully able to break with Cartesian dualism. For Kirby (1997, p. 147), “Haraway’s insistence that ‘[t]he cyborg skips the step of original unity’ forgets that it is against the unity of ‘the before,’ the purity of identity prior its corruption, that the cyborg's unique and complex hybridity is defined.” Others, such as Judy Wajcman (2004, p. 100), have argued that the cyborg figure runs the risk of opening up a dualism between “an overdetermined view of patriarchal capitalist reproduction and a fantasist vanguardism based on a fixation with cutting-edge technology.”
Yet it is important to keep in mind that Haraway’s cyborg is the product of a specific political and technoscientific constellation that materialized at the height of the Cold War and from which it cannot be detached from. Cyborgs are thus neither everywhere, as, for example, Chris Hables Gray (1995, p. 2-3) suggests, nor mere couplings of technologies and bodies. Instead of working as an ahistorical phenomenon, Haraway’s cyborg, as an embodied figure, rather refers to particular “natural-technical evolutionary narratives” (Haraway, 1995, p. xvi).
It is for this reason that Haraway, in her later work, became more critical towards the figure of the cyborg, emphasizing that “as an oppositional figure the cyborg has a rather short half-life” (Haraway, 2003, p. 54). While the initial task of the cyborg figure was “to do feminist work in Reagan’s Star Wars times of the mid-1980s”, Haraway argues that “[b]y the end of the millennium, cyborgs could no longer do the work of a proper herding dog to gather up the threads needed for critical inquiry” (ibid., p. 60), which may explain her need to create new figures of promise such as the coyote, the trickster, companion species, or her recent turn to the chthonic forces of the Earth.
GENEALOGIES: Cold War; cybernetics; Katie King; Michel Foucault; military-industrial complex; Zoe Sofoulis
SYNONYMS: cybernetic organism; hybrid; ontology
ANTONYMS: original unity; purity; salvation
HYPERNYMS: informatics of domination; organism; technology
HYPONYMS: data; machine; identity politics
Clynes, Manfred E., and Kline Nathan S. 1995/1960. “Cyborgs and Space.” In The Cyborg Handbook, ed. Chris Hables Gray. New York and London: Routledge, pp. 29–34.
Gray, Chris Hables. 1995. “Introduction: Constructing the Knowledge of Cybernetic Organisms.” In The Cyborg Handbook, ed. Chris Hables Gray. New York and London: Routledge, pp. 1–14.
Kirby, Vicki. 1997. Telling Flesh. The Substance of the Corporeal, New York and London: Routledge.
Haraway, Donna. 1985. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980's.” Socialist Review 80: 65–108.
Haraway, Donna. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge.
Haraway, Donna. 1995. “Cyborgs and Symbionts: Living Together in the New World Order.” The Cyborg Handbook, ed. Chris Hables Gray. New York and London: Routledge, pp. xi–xx.
Haraway, Donna. 2003. “Interview with Donna Haraway.” In Chasing Technoscience. Matrix for Materiality, ed. Don Ihde and Evan Selinger. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, pp. 47–57.
Harrasser, Karin. 2006. “Donna Haraway: Natur-Kulturen und die Faktizität der Figuration.” In Kultur. Theorien der Gegenwart, ed. Stephan Moebius and Dirk Quadflieg. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag, pp. 580–594.
Wajcman, Judy. 2004. TechnoFeminism. Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity.
COST Action IS1307 New Materialism: Networking European Scholarship on 'How Matter Comes to Matter'.
Here you will find background material, current activities, calls for papers, working group information, and project outputs.
With the changing of societies on local, national and international scales owing to economic, ecological, political and technological developments and crises, a reorganized academic landscape can be observed to be emerging. Scholarship strives to become increasingly interdisciplinary in order to grasp and examine the unfolding complexity of ongoing ecological, socio-cultural and politico-economic changes. Additionally, academics forge... Read more or find out Who's Who
Information relating to activities undertaken, including conferences, training schools, short-term scientific missions, and annual meetings, are archived here.
Working Groups focus on four key areas of research
Working Group One
Genealogies of New Materialisms; examines and intervenes in canonization processes by compiling a web-based bibliography, coordinating the OST 068/13 8 EN... Read more
Working Group Two
New Materialisms on the Crossroads of the Natural and Human Sciences; seeks to develop new materialisms at the boundaries of the human and natural sciences. The group focuses on how European new materialisms can rework the ‘Two Cultures' gap... Read more
Working Group Three
New Materialisms Embracing the Creative Arts; brings together European researchers, artists, museum professionals, and other activists with a keen interest in the material... Read more
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New Materialisms Tackling Economical and Identity – Political Crises and Organizational Experiments... Read more
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New Materialism —
Networking European Scholarship on 'How matter comes to matter’
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