CYBERFEMINISM SPECIAL - Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium (FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse - Feminism and Technoscience)

By Faith Wilding, 10 September 1997

Faith Wilding reviews Donna Haraway's latest book

"My purpose is to argue for a practice of situated knowledges in the worlds of technoscience, worlds whose fibres infiltrate deep and wide throughout the tissues of the planet, including the flesh of our personal bodies". (p.130)

In this brilliant, meaty, idiosyncratic, thick book, Donna Haraway has delivered herself of a passionate demonstration of the practice of "situated knowledges"; and given us a toolbox with which to approach and negotiate the complex domains of technoscience.

Haraway's toolbox consists of an immense array of semiotic objects, stories, figures, images, readings and analyses of cultural and scientific objects, with which she builds a "grammar of feminism and technoscience". She positions herself as a child of the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and Technoscience; a 'witness' who is both implicated and oppositional. Those who welcome the complexity of Haraway's dense, packed writing style will have plenty to chew on here, for this book is a tour de force of layered, parallel arguments, of wild imaginative leaps and bounds, of disciplinary fusions, fluid categories, and transgenic creations any bioengineer would be proud of. Read this book as a hypertext, following the threads of your particular interests.

While contemporary discussion is awash with the hype of technoscience - a cobbled word which already announces the fusion and mutations of disparate fields - we can't afford to ignore it as an object of intense scrutiny and critique since it is profoundly transforming daily life throughout the world.

The book's title - an email address also containing copyright and trademark signs - positions it as a node in the web of global communications. Haraway cautions that those [feminists] who would understand the developments of technoscience need to be spies and users of the net - that is, they must be implicated, non-innocent, activists in the networks of The New World Order.

What Haraway did for an oppositional, feminist reformulation of the cyborg (in The Cyborg Manifesto), she now attempts to do for technoscience. The body of the book is a detailed examination, deconstruction, and analysis of some of the (semiotic and material) figures through which technoscience is manifested. Gene, Foetus, FemaleMan, OncoMouse, Race: these are hot buttons anchored by dense webs of power, capital, and ideology. What is at stake here is to begin to understand how these entities and figurations are constructed, sustained, and mediated; and how they are deployed as actors in the global struggle for market domination. This is a profoundly political book, and Haraway seems to understand more clearly than most, that it is of vital importance for contesting voices to be heard in the hyperspace of the internet.

Haraway's project is to "undo the border between the technical and the political." Take for example (my favourite) the chapter on the Foetus. In the last few decades the triumphs of technoscience have transformed the foetus into an entity - the technofoetus, the foetal workspace. Figured as a free floating signifier of 'life itself', the foetus is seen to have rights and interests quite separate from the maternal body in which it is housed. This development came about through the new visualisation technologies, particularly sonography, which allows the foetus to be seen, to appear as a separate 'person' with which the parents can bond, and which can be operated on, manipulated, studied, and marketed. Under the sign of technoscience, babies come from the fusion of man and machine; scientists create life in the test tube and the Petri dish without the sticky complications of organic sex. The hype about the new reproductive technologies and the 'hope' they offer, obscures the feminist struggle for reproductive freedom, signified in the 70's by the figure of the speculum adopted by women's health networks. The elided Other of the technofoetus is the "missing" and unrepresented foetus - the dead babies and dehydrated infants of a Brazilian favela, for example, where marketeers have persuaded the mothers to substitute infant formula for breastmilk.

Haraway examines the uses of "the speculum of statistical analysis" as a feminist application of technoscience in implementing "freedom projects" which document how transnational market forces determine who lives, who dies, and who receives health care worldwide. She argues that marginalised populations in urban and non-urban areas everywhere are the direct result of modernisation policies over the past thirty years, and that access to food, clean water, health care, and jobs can be an object of feminist technoscientific interrogation.

The book is bristling with suggestions on areas of important research for those (feminists) who share Haraway's sense that "all is not well with women", (as well as billions of non-women) in the New World Order, Inc. When SimEve - a computer generated composite child of a man and a computer program - is offered to us as the mother of the new race which will transcend racism, we must be very sceptical, for this figure simply substitutes a false new universal human under the sign of the code of codes, the Human Genome Project. It is more instructive to look at the functions of boundary figures, such as the vampire, which is introduced in the chapter on race as a signifier of pollution, racial and sexual mixing, infection and transmission of category transformations. Haraway asks the question: Is the human a universal category? and goes on to argue for the inclusion of nonhuman organisms, machines, and other entities, as part of what we think of as our 'kin': "It is time to theorise an 'unfamiliar' unconscious, a different primal scene, where everything does not stem from the dramas of identity and reproduction." (p.265)

Hers are fighting words, a (data)glove thrown into the ring, a call to re-imagine and re-image a new space of justice and regenerative work and play outside of salvation history. Haraway is particularly interested in feminist interventions in the relatively new field of biology - which includes bioengineering and reproductive technologies - as a discourse of the body. She cites the critical work of feminist philosopher/scientists such as Evelyn Fox Keller, Sandra Harding, and Sarah Martin. This cyberfeminist refuses to seek salvation in the disembodied spaces of cyberspace; she insists on an incorporated politics grounded in every day bodily experience, and informed by our skilled interactions and graftings with human and nonhuman entities; all of us are the monstrous, nonnatural subjects of technoscience.

Cyberfeminists who are becoming netactive are urged to read and absorb the radical suggestions of this book as a basis for developing a netpractice which is consciously situated, critical, hybrid in method, playful, and grounded in the everyday experiences and histories of bodies.

Clone this book!

Faith Wilding <fwild AT> is a cyberfeminist hybrid artist, writer and activist. She currently is Visiting Professor of Art at Carnegie Mellon University.

The editors would like to thank Faith Wilding for writing this review at scarily short notice.

Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan_Meets_Oncomouse, Feminism and Technosciemce, Donna Haraway, Routledge, New York, London, 1997