Chapter 3: Introduction – I, Cyborg: Reinventing the Human

Proud to be Flesh Cover

Introduction to Chapter 3 of Proud to be Flesh - I, Cyborg: Reinventing the Human

Donna Haraway’s unforgettable ‘Cyborg Manifesto’, written in 1986, provides the catalyst for the ‘post-human’ politics discussed in this chapter. This might be where the resemblance ends, however, since you will soon notice that the politics of post-humanism turn out to be extremely varied. When Mute launched in 1994, the Manifesto had recently been published in Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1991). In the same way that digital networks were breathing new life into neoliberal economics at one pole, they were also reinvigorating a feminism mired in ‘identity politics’ at the other.

Inspired by French writers such as Luce Irigaray and Monique Wittig, Haraway was interested in building a politics based on the non-essence of identity, on affinities built between partial and contingent identities – ‘affinity politics’ rather than ‘identity politics’. Part of her challenge to the patriarchy which coded women as nature and men as culture was to create a feminist figure that lived in the breach between all categories of identity (nature/culture, machine/animal, animate/inanimate). But Haraway’s cyborg probably excited feminists as much for her embrace of information technology as for her love of the alien. As biotechnology, computing, life sciences and military hardware, transformed by IT, grew increasingly to resemble one another, code and networks were grasped by Haraway as primary agents of social transformation within late capitalism.

For Suhail Malik, in an article appearing on the front page of the pilot issue of Mute, Michael Jackson served as the mass-cultural embodiment of Haraway’s cyborg. Neither black nor white, adult nor child, fact nor fiction, human nor animal – this medially enhanced pop chimera was also a tragic victim. After his child abuse scandal, writes Malik, Jackson lost his already-fictional innocence. By wanting to live outside the law, ‘by becoming child (woman, animal, satellite, white, whatever)’, his very elusiveness precipitated his re-inscription in the law. If Michael Jackson serves as a failed image of identity mutation, one that was both propelled and ultimately destroyed by the delusional sovereignty of mega-stardom, what would be a positive one?

Caroline Bassett’s critique of the cyberfeminist politics popularised by Sadie Plant was Mute’s next serious attempt to deal with the question. In what, at the time, felt like a refreshingly sober assessment of cyberfeminism’s rabid computer love, Bassett argued that Plant effectively replaces one form of essence with another: woman-as-nature becomes new-technology-as-woman. Far from throwing off the constraints of identity à la Irigaray – for whom ‘any theory of the subject will always have been appropriated by the masculine’ – Plant places her hope for female emancipation in self-organising technologies and computer networks. Unlike Haraway, who is deliberately using ‘her master’s tools’ to revolutionary ends, Plant sees in computers and code the quintessence of the female condition (simulation, connectivity, patchworking). For Bassett, therefore, Plant’s is less a politics than an eschatology, the (mere) hope for future things.

When, in 2001, we returned to the question of the ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ and the politics it had spawned, ten years after its initial publication, it was in the form of a ‘head-to-head’ debate. María Fernández’s response echoes some of Bassett’s earlier criticisms – where Haraway pursues boundary transgression as a feminist, socialist and anti-racist strategy, cyberfeminists eschew all definitions, including political goals, and even fail to build alliances across identities. Suhail Malik’s return to the cyborg theory that had been his defining contribution as an early member of Mute’s editorial board, yielded surprising results. Arguing that the universal celebration of boundary transgression is simplistic and inattentive to the precise difficulties involved, he concludes that Haraway’s engagement with techno-rationality is undialectical and superficial since it leaves intact a left-liberal, ‘proto-hippy’ critique of technology.

The debate on post-humanism gains a profoundly materialist orientation in two of the closing articles of this chapter. Andrew Goffey and Luciana Parisi both highlight unorthodox biological research to critique the anthropocentric and (bio-)political orientation of the life sciences. Goffey is interested in how classical immunology has reinforced the metaphysical split between self and other by focusing on the ‘defensive’ activity of antibodies apparently able to differentiate between ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’. Instead, he draws attention to alternative theories of the immune system, which focus on its ‘non-negligible’ activity in the absence of germs, as well as its continuous attempt to assimilate, not reject, foreign bodies, attacking only what it can’t assimilate. Consequently, the self is understood as a constantly mutating historical construct, not a pre-existing one fighting to defend its boundaries.

A similarly non-anthropocentric view of evolution is taken by Parisi in her article, ‘Abstract Sex’. Rejecting the Darwinian paradigm of evolution – based on copulatory sex and nucleic DNA transmission – she uses the case of non-nucleic DNA transmission in mitochondrial (parasite) bacteria – which participate in the ‘host’ bacteria’s DNA transfer – to argue for a radically arbitrary account of nature’s organisation. With myriad channels existing for information transmission beyond copulation, she argues that transgenesis and, indeed, ‘biotech [were, in fact] invented 3,900 million years ago by bacteria’. Add digital technology into the mix and the opportunities for non-linear DNA transmission ramify. ‘Abstract Sex’, then, ‘opens up the bio-physical and bio-cultural organisation of sex to radical destratification’ and, with it, jettisons all human teleologies, whether Darwinian, neoliberal or, interestingly, post-autonomous.

Parisi’s argument for bio-cultural turbulence mounts a stinging attack on the pseudo-embrace of non-linearity, whether in the form of the market’s ‘invisible hand’ or the post-autonomous concept of the multitude’s innate creativity. For her, these models posit repetition without difference and fear mutations. But Parisi’s thinking also opens the door to the total indifference of life’s organisation. If this borderline nihilism represents one pole of post-humanist discourse, Haraway’s – with its overt politics and stowed-away humanism – represents the other. One thing is for certain, the post-human leviathan will not, in the words of cyberfeminist Sandy Stone, ‘stand up’, even if we say please.

Proud to be Flesh

The Immateriality of the Signifier - The Flesh and the Innocence Of Michael Jackson

(Preliminary note: the following piece was read on several occasions, perhaps most publicly at the 'Virtual Futures' Conference held at the University of Warwick in May 1994. It has not been modified here and it therefore still bears the marks imposed by that genre of presentation (in the use of the pronomial, for example).

This article abandons at least one of the questions that this issue of Mute tries to address, namely whether art can survive the Twentieth Century, in favour of another question which is perhaps less secure, perhaps not so quickly available to a polemic whose positions could be distributed according to what 'art', or the 'Twentieth Century', or even 'survival' are said to be and what sense any of these terms are said to have here, today; a question which perhaps attempts only to invoke whatever instability may be possible in just these terms (and some others, not least 'technique' and 'world' and 'today') thereby remaining useless to any position in the dispute over art's 'survival', a question, namely, as to whether the Twentieth Century - whatever that is -can survive (the) art(s)

Such survival - of (a) time - matters 'today', matters now, precisely because the notion of a continuation or a change or even an end to art 'today', indicating an art or arts or an anti-art out of or beyond the Twentieth Century, seems inextricably tied to a technology -of the image and of sound - that is itself 'new'. But this is Itself nothing new: in just this way it could be asked if the Nineteenth Century could survive the inventions of photography and sound recording on the one hand and Cezanne and jazz on the other (and is any one invention less a matter of 'technique' than an other?): and - to short-circuit an enormous argument - that the word that the Ancient Greeks had for art (where the 'West' is sometimes said to have been born) was only just techn. Which century, which time, then, is art, are the arts, and the anti-arts (there are no non-arts), in today? And where? Especially if 'today'. 'now', that where and when can not be removed from the time of technique, 'our' time, the end of the Twentieth Century (at least). Does that mean an exacerbating materialisation or immaterialistion of fabrication and of figure, of silences and of blanks? Which is why - )

I want to talk to you about Michael Jackson. Because Michael Jackson is innocent.

I'm not making any claims here about Michael Jackson's legal status (though, since the allegations you'll all be familiar with have yet - if ever - to be heard in court, he remains innocent as far as that's concerned). And I'm not making any claims about what Michael Jackson may or may not have done or continues to do, whether or not he caressed, fondled or 'orally copulated' and masturbated Jordan Chandler (Independent 15/09/94, 14), the 13-year old around whom the allegations centred. What I hope to talk about is what's up for grabs in all of these allegations, defences and anxieties around Michael Jackson: namely, innocence. Michael Jackson is innocent - because what Michael Jackson wants and wanted, and had, more than anything else, even, now, in the company of children (boys, but what does this matter?), is innocence itself. And, just that far, Michael Jackson is more innocent than ever before, more innocent than any child.

In her essay A Cyborg Manifesto [cited here from Body/Politics, ed. Mary Jacobus, Routledge, 1990], Donna Haraway introduces and lays out many of the themes that have come to dominate the central concerns of, and discussion around, what is now known as 'Cyberpunk'. I'm going to adopt Haraway's quasi- definition of what's at stake here: 'A cyborg', she says,

is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction.

(149, emph.add.)


I'll carry on with the rest of this paragraph, but with a greater hesitance: some of what Haraway goes on to say here I'll be taking issue with implicitly. She continues:

the international women's movements have constructed 'women's experience', as well as uncovered or discovered this crucial collective object.


- That is without doubt. -

This experience is a fiction and fact of the most crucial, political kind. Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness .... The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women's experience in the late twentiethcentury. This is a struggle over life and death, but the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.

(ibid., emph.add.)


I'll quickly outline Haraway's argument about the 'processes' of 'social reality' in the 'informatics of domination' that is the 'integrated circuit' of society today, 'coded', she says, 'by C31 command-control-communication-intelligence' - the planning strategy center of the US military. The model of domination and control Haraway is talking about above is one aspect of the 'technological apparatus'. Let's move on and pick out a second strand from Haraway's essay which will allow a return to this apparautus and its dispersion (if, that is, that apparatus isn't just that dispersion, and Michael Jackson, namely the 'three crucial boundary breakdowns' that are, for her, the logic of the cyborg. If it is a logic.

What are these three 'boundary breakdowns'? Firstly, 'the boundary between the human and the animal is thoroughly breached'; the second 'leaky distinction' is 'between animal-human (organism) and machine'; thirdly, the 'boundary between physical and non-physical is very imprecise for us' (150-153). Everything here is to do with borders, boundaries and their establishment. And this, as Donna Haraway recognises very well, is because the cyborg is just a border that is not yet properly in place and what happens there: you, me, politics.

Let me pass quickly over these border skirmishes.

Of the border between the animal and the human she says:

Biology and evolutionary theory over the last two centuries have simultaneously produced modern organisms as objects of knowledge re-etched in ideological struggle or professional disputes between life and social

science.... Biological-determinist ideology is only one position opened up in the scientific culture for arguing the meanings of human animality. (152)


What does this mean? Simply that the person - man - is studied in the life sciences, at least, alongside every other animal and in much the same way. (This has usually meant the cutting to bits, incarceration or close-up study of both - either microscopically or environmentally - a recurrent theme in the work of Sterling and Gibson.) But the "much the same way" is important here. There are still marked and important distinctions between the study and use of animals and persons (not least when it comes to consumption, eating and what, on humans, would pass for torture).

But there's also another side of this argument which Haraway points to when she argues that

many people no longer feel the need for [the] separation[between human and animal]; indeed, many branches of feminist culture affirm the pleasure of connection of human and other living creatures. Movements for animal rights are not irrational denials of human uniqueness; they are a clear sighted recognition of connection across the discredited breach of nature and culture.... There is much room for radical political people to contest the meanings of the breached boundary. The cyborg appears in myth

precisely where the boundary between human and animal is transgressed. (152)


(Haraway goes on to comment that [b]lestiality has a new status in this cycle of marriage exchange'.)

Who, then, in our public culture, in our mediatised and cultural currency, who could or would be a more 'radical person' than Michael Jackson in his most intimate relation or connection with Bubbles, his chimp and good friend? And it is not just one animal that Michael Jackson spends his time with; the stories and reports of his menagerie - true or not - are well known enough to confirm the point. I'll cite a report from about ten days after the Michael Jackson child-molestation story first broke, when Jackson could no longer afford to be seen as he always had been with an accompanying child, just after he had been brain scanned following his cancelled concerts in Singapore:

Two adult and four young orang-utans were brought to Michael Jackson's Singapore hotel room yesterday where the singer entertained them at the poolside.


(Independent 03/09/93, 13 (let edn.) )


Who, then, in this new and breached relation between human and animal, could be more .transgress lively' cyborg in turning his back on the company and companionship of his fellow humans for the animals? Grizzly Adams, perhaps, and all the other 'Return to Nature' brigade (you'd want to include here the anti-culturist 'CrustT, together with the dominant primitivistic liberatory aspects of Rave -rather than clubbing -codes). But these are precisely the most naive and inept responses to the boundary as boundary (they simply confirm that boundary, simply or merely changing sides - and consequently always failing to work it at all). And these responses (or Donna Haraway) can not even begin to touch the actual transformation of Michael Jackson into animal form (panther) at the end of one of his videos. Things are more complicated with Michael Jackson.

Not least because he occupies and breaches the other two 'leaky boundaries' as well (and not only them), defying all stabilisation, defying, that is, all desire (for it). Recall that the second unstable and disordered boundary was that between organism and machine. Haraway states that

the certainty of what counts as nature - a source of insight and promise of innocence - is undermined, probably fatally.

(152-53, emph.add.)


Let's extend the boundary to that between the organic and the non-organic and intersect it with the border between the natural and the non-natural: as does, for example, Michael Jackson in the multiple transmorgifications during many of his videos; transmorgifications that are again the actualisation of the breaching of this border - but that this is possible and, in some sense at least, acceptable is what is of interest here (be it taken as deranged).

And even if Michael Jackson is the most public and contemporary manifestation of this troubled border, he is not alone. On the one hand, the entire Cyberpunk genre from Bladerunner on has written, filmed and discussed little else: from Gibson's fetishistic Mona Lisa to Arnie as half-humanoidhalf-machine (but which half?), the constant stress has been on the compatability and encroachment of the prosthetic device on the body, on the brain, on memory and so on.

They are the anxieties in the face of a cyborg future, Michael Jackson.

The massive transfiguring of Michael Jackson is not merely restricted to these two borders, it also steps around Haraway's third 'imprecision', that of the material and the immaterial. A leaching of visibility and tactility that is most explicitly shown in the video for Do You Remember from the Dangerous album where Michael Jackson constantly appears and disappears in several different guises, but also appears and disappears tout court.

Again, I want to suggest that there is also another level at which Michael Jackson's materiality/immateriality allows for the phenomenon that he has become and will continue to be. This level of immateriality is that which in fact allows Michael Jackson to be quite the star he is - because, as Haraway points out in effect, he is cyborg.

Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves, a section of spectrum, and these machines are eminently portable, mobile - a matter of immense human pain in Detroit and Singapore


- with Michael Jackson, no less a matter of some pleasure. -

People are nowhere so fluid, being both material and opaque.

Cyborgs are ether. quintessence.

It's this last point I want to stick with and which, I think, presents the greatest difficulty in talking about Michael Jackson, because it allows us to ask this question: what is the consistency of Michael Jackson? That is, if Michael Jackson is not simply a person because he is also the infraction of the border between the human and the animal, betwen the organic and the non-organic (which is also to say between the living and the dead - see the Thriller video) between the material and the purely communicative ethereal manifestation that takes place in no one place as such and, because of this, takes place everywhere; if, that is, Michael Jackson is neither merely animal nor human, merely living nor merely dead, merely material nor merely signal and both animal and human, living and dead, material and signal; if Michael Jackson is a configuration of a stew which is, or wanted so badly to be, also neither merely male nor female, man nor woman and both male and female, and similarly for the separations between black/white, child/adult, victim/ aggressor, innocent/ profane, public/private, real/fictional, human/nonhuman (whatever it may be to be human) and so on; what then does Michael Jackson consist of, what consistency and manifestation can he have (or not have, in so far as he makes sense)? It seems that it isn't a matter here of a clearly demarcated cyborg manifesto, but a much messier and depthless cyborg manifest-stew.

Michael Jackson's own articulation of this business (if it matters) is straightforward: he wants to be like a child. Which is why he resorts to the company of animals ('they're just like children' he says to Oprah), why his sexuality has yet to be, and it (still) has to be, fathomed out, his gender had to be determined (his speaking voice indeterminable), his race unimportant (and it's certain that he's the last person to whom it matters if you're black or white). He becomes the person that straddles all these divisions and categories that the world and its politics are made up of, that lead to wars and conflict, laws and legislation, violence and states, desire and disorder.

In short, Michael Jackson is the humanist end-point, the freeest of all restrictions specified by the markings of the political body (in both senses) and he achieves this by the most advanced technological apparatus available. And this basic human freedom is, for him and for what are called 'our times', supposed to be childhood, the dispersion of a body that, to be the body it tries to be, can not be held together as such, that takes place everywhere and nowhere. (Which is why there is not even one Michael Jackson). A humanist end-point, that is, that seems to be the complete evacuation of the human (into the machinic, the animalistic, the immaterial). This is why the police examination of Michael Jackson's genitals and lower body parts, a search made to confirm Jordan Chandler's description of Michael Jackson's penis (which could be taken, publically, as a police examination to see if Michael Jackson has a penis), why this examination - that he has a body to be examined - was said by Michael Jackson himself to be 'dehumanising' (Independent 23/12/93,1).

Nothing can touch Michael Jackson, it's certain. For he does not exist for real. If he exists (for himself, above all) and if his global, political and ideological success, the anxiety and fascination that surrounds him, can be indicated, it might be through what he offers (to us, for himself): an escape to an innocence in childhood that has been lost, a childhood that, as he tells Oprah,'he never had'.

And, now, has no more. For what was lost in the Michael Jackson 'affair' was Michael Jackson's already fictional innocence. The child he befriended, innocently, corrupted him bymistaking his affection sexually. The child, if a13 year is a child, corrupted Michael Jackson. The child was sexualised and sexualised Michael Jackson (he has a penis: the police have, the polis has, seen it, confirmed it for us). The child, in all innocence, in therapy, was more adult than Michael Jackson. The innocence Michael Jackson wanted (and not only in his bed, 'like a slumber party' (Independent 28/08/93. 1), kissing, the boys report (Independent 27/08/93, 1), "'like you kiss your mother"'), that innocence corrupted Michael Jackson, deprived Michael Jackson of his innocence. Innocence depriving itself of its fiction. And that is the law, its fiction. Michael Jackson, in short, was and remains guilty of his innocence, guilty - innocent - of his fiction (Independent 27/08/93, 27 (Leader)).

In other words, Michael Jackson's escape from the world, from the bind of the law and its poisoning corruption is always and only a fiction, an idea of a childhood and innocence that he wishes for and which has yet to come. And now more than ever. How will he ever 'Heal the World' now?

It looks, then, like Michael Jackson's cyborg manifest-stew wants to escape politics and violence, be outside of the law, by becoming child (woman, animal, satellite, white, whatever) a return to a childhood that has never happened (but, recreated, is now) and which will leave him inarticulate, apart from the shouts of sheer pleasure and delight of his music, the pleasure and satisfaction of desire that he gets and gives; in -fans. I'll finish then with two quotes: a long citation from the recent essay 'Prescriptions' by Lyotard (about Kafka's In the Penal Colony), drawing together the threads of materiality, infancy and why Michael Jackson in fact - as with every attempt to escape law, binding and politics - only ever rein-scribes that which it attempts to escape; in Michael Jackson's case, a total and totalitarian reinscription of the law as an aesthetics; his corruption (why his body had to fall apart once the allegations were made; his dehydration, his painkiller addiction confession, related to his hair catching fire, his corporeality catching up with him in his dehumanisation); and a second citation from the four minute confession (on 22/12/93, on global tv) in which Jackson admitted all of this. Lyotard:

to be aesthetically is to be-there, here and now, exposed in space-time and to the space-time of something that touches before any concept and even any representation. This before is not known, obviously, because it is there before we are. It is something like birth and infancy (Latin in-fans) -there before we are. The there in question is called the body.It is not I who am born,who is given birth to. I will be born afterwards, with language, preciselyin leaving infancy[,] ... this infancy, this body, this unconscious, remaining there my entire life.whenthe law comes, with my self and language, it is too late. Things will have already taken a turn, this first touch. Aesthetics has to do with this first touch, which touched me when I was not there .... This touch is necessarily a fault as concerns the law. [...] If the law must not only announce itself, but also make itself obeyed, it must vanquish the resistance of this fault or this offending potentiality constituted at birth - by which I mean: deriving from the fact that one is born before being born to the law. For the law, the body is in excess.... But the law must be concerned with this excess of the body. If the law is to execute (itself), it will have to inscribe itself on the body, also like a touch. Jackson proclaims, just as well, 'that if he was guilty of anything, it was of giving all he had to children' (Independent 23/12/93,1) and, quoting directly,


of believing what God said about children: 'Suffer little children to come unto me and forbid them not for such is the Kingdom of Heaven'. It is not

- Jackson continues, well aware of his media -

that I think I am God, but I try to be God-like in my heart.

Proud to be Flesh

Whatever Happened to the Cyborg Manifesto?

In 1985, Donna Haraway unveiled ‘The Cyborg Manifesto’, thrilling cultural studies bods, new agers, feminists, and cyberpunks alike with its mix of military, political, laboratory and hippy flavours. Consigning the boundaries between the born and the built to the rubbish dump of history, Haraway’s politics of the information age made waves. But ten years on, has the radical promise of her manifesto been borne out by history? Maria Fernandez and Suhail Malik think not – for completely opposing reasons.


In an era when nearly everything, from small seeds to large computer networks, entails practical or metaphorical organic and machinic fusions, the ‘cyborg’, that product of early Cold War cybernetic theory, and detourned by Haraway a generation later, has lost its political clout. Haraway’s cyborg, “not of woman born”, the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, was modeled upon the ‘meztisaje’ (racial mixing) of Mexican Americans. Acknowledging that she wrote the piece at a particular historical moment and primarily for women, Haraway’s cyborg was an inconstant figure able to incorporate spiral dancers, electronic factory workers, poets, and engineers; a figure that allied diverse oppositional strategies, from writing to biotechnology. Given this radical theoretical openness, what did the Cyborg Manifesto (CM) really manage to achieve?

1> CM was an early recognition of the fundamental and irreversible changes brought about by digital technologies. Pre-dating Dolly, the Visible Man, the Visible Woman, and the (purported) completion of the Genome Project, Haraway discerned society’s transformation into a “polymorphous information system” and “the translation of the world into a problem of coding,” both phenomena with specific effects for women worldwide. In the 1980s, Haraway was one of a handful of cultural critics to write about the double-edged possibilities of biotechnology, a major focus of cultural work today. Her prediction that control strategies applied to women to give birth to new human beings would be developed using the language “of goal achievement for individual decision-makers” had, by the 1990s, has been all too fully borne out.

2> CM urged feminists to embrace new technologies as tools for feminist ends. This was a pressing antidote to the pernicious notion, popular at the time, that women belonged exclusively to ‘nature’. The manifesto proposed that feminists definitely could and should use the master’s tools to destroy (or at least disrupt) the master’s house.

3> CM contributed to the growth of a pan-global labour consciousness, acknowledging the key role of women as workers in the global economy. It also inspired the development of ‘cyberfeminism’ in various parts of the world. But in contrast to Haraway’s feminist, socialist and antiracist politics, cyberfeminism eschewed definitions, political affiliations (including feminism) and even goals.<*> The political effectiveness of so undirected a movement is still to be determined. Issues of race and racism, primary in Haraway’s formulation of the cyborg, have been avoided in cyberfeminism. This silence could prove as destructive here as it was to second wave US feminism. One can only hope that cyberfeminism is still open to transformations.

4> CM proposed feminist associations based on affinities, not identity. Haraway wrote the manifesto in response to endless fragmentation of the US Second Wave feminist movement along the lines of ethnic, racial and sexual identity. The manifesto called for the crossing of boundaries and for a re-organisation of women on the basis of affinities of political kinship. Cyberfeminists followed Haraway’s lead to associate on the basis of affinities, but at present, with some exceptions, these affinities tend to be career-oriented rather than political.

5> CM reinforced and popularised earlier Utopian feminist imaginings of a world rendered gender free by technology. Effectively, what this really meant was that those who could afford medical services and technology would be able to ‘re-generate’ themselves at will. For a small segment of the world’s population this has indeed been liberating and empowering. Previously ‘monstrous’ prostheses became beautiful.

If the original radicality of Haraway’s cyborg lay in its illegitimacy, the ubiquity of digital, ex-military, and genetic technologies suggest that the cyborg is now a recognised legal citizen, much more a creature of social reality than of fiction. The utilisation of the cyborg as an image of edgy radicalism was, and still is, the territory of electronics and the fashion industry. As cyberfeminism emphasises the cyber and backpedals the feminism, the most radical politics of the manifesto have been largely ignored.

Maria Fernandez


We know what a cyborg is: the hybrid transfiguration of the human and the machine into one continuous, prosthetically extended, techno-organically enhanced whole. The hope of this integration is for a transorganic or transhuman future, something like an entirely new evolutionary stage of life which will surpass the organic limitations of brain and body in favour of new, unlimited potentialities. A new sort of future that un dermines the divisions and boundaries between the human and its others; a cross-disciplinary movement that, as Donna Haraway asserts in her foundational text, ‘The Cyborg Manifesto’, has characterised liberal societies in postmodernity.

The cyborg is yet another manifestation of the collapse of the traditional bounded stability of the human and its anthropocentric beliefs. But this notion of the cyborg is a lazy reconfiguration of already well-established political and moral sensibilities – why?

1> It duplicitously welcomes the technoscientific hybridisation of the organic and the technical while maintaining and perpetuating the critique of technological rationality which has characterised left-liberal activism and humanities. Neither aspect is transformed by what is in fact a confrontation but comes to exist side-by-side in a typically vague optimism in which all transgressions of boundaries are welcomed, without adequate consideration of content or the difficulties involved. In this way, the theory of the cyborg perpetuates the standard assumptions of leftist (and proto-hippy) critique.

2> This hypocritical determination only serves to reinforce equally naive notions of an extended freedom and responsibility which, rather, the cyborg is in the service of. There is something disgustingly, liberally ‘communitarian’ about the cyborg in its current appreciation, which could be readily taken as a covert if naively assumed parochialism or, better, Americanism. No surprise that this should come from those on the nice left where ‘contestation’ always involves ‘respect’ and ‘creativity’ rather than war and destruction (see Hardt and Negri’s approbation of Haraway in Empire).

3> Cyborg theory is mostly a self-serving sexying-up of critical liberalism through great gadgetry and concept-busting movements in the technoscientific organisation of living material and extended systems. Tie-dye T-shirts are swapped for leather deathpants and ethnic beads for prosthetic hardware in a desperate bid for contemporaneity.

4> But the errors and dogmatism of the now common notion of the cyborg also extend to the understanding of what is actually happening in the technosciences. The cyborg is a theoretical fiction, since how the machinic and the organic in fact materially interact and combine is not and cannot be accounted for by a theory ultimately based on abstractions.

5> This tendentious, primarily phantasmatic appropriation of technoscientific development as ‘cyborgian’ precludes a technically precise and fully inventive understanding of organico-machinic integration in favour of asserting what has been going on in well-meaning left-liberal circles for some time anyway. It is a complacent reduction of the actuality of the organico-machinic nexus, dulling it into politically comprehensible and polite terms.

Suhail Malik

Maria Fernandez <xochipilli AT> is an art historian (Ph.D. Columbia University, 1993) whose interests centre on post-colonial studies, electronic media theory, Latin American art and the intersections of these fields.

Suhail Malik <s.malik AT>is a writer and course leader Post-graduate Critical Studies (Visual Arts) at Goldsmiths College, London. His ‘The Immateriality of the Signifier: The Flesh and the Innocence of Michael Jackson’ appeared in Mute’s pilot issue, 1994.

<*> See ‘100 anti-theses’ [] and Faith Wilding, ‘Where is the feminism in Cyberfeminism' [] originally published in nparadoxa 33, London, 1998.

Proud to be Flesh

CYBERFEMINISM SPCL - With a little help from our (new) friends?

Sadie Plant's writings have been instrumental in defining many of cyberfeminism's foundational concepts. Here, Caroline Bassett takes one of her recent essays, On the Matrix: Cyberfeminist Simulations, as the point of departure for a critical look at feminism's most recent progeny while Josephine Berry reports from the conference Wired Women where some of cyberfeminism's more popular figurations were placed under the microscope.

What is cyberfeminism? Sadie Plant claims it is an absolutely post-human insurrection - the revolt of an emergent system which includes women and computers, against the world view and material reality of a patriarchy which still seeks to subdue them. This is an alliance of 'the goods' against their masters, an alliance of woman and machines. It is a revolt of the chattels.

It also claims to be a revolt on a certain - rather grand - scale. At the opening to On the Matrix:Cyberfeminist Simulations, Plant says that cyberfeminism - and/or the complex systems and virtual worlds upon which it is based - have the capacity to undermine the "world view and material reality of two thousand years of patriarchal control." Later in the same article she suggests this is already happening. "Tomorrow came" - we are, she says, already downloaded.

Cutting across the absolute certainty of this rhetoric of transformation though, is a surprising admission of uncertainty. Plant freely admits that she is talking about an "irresponsible feminism", more than that, she wonders if what she is talking of "is a feminism at all."

This uncertainty opens up certain questions about cyberfeminism. Crucially this one; does it amount to a politics, or a technology? Is Plant talking about a possible feminist response to computerisation? Or is she rather documenting/predicting a technologically-determined alteration in the condition of woman. An alteration which woman should embrace because it is a change in their favour, but which they can do very little about.

Two themes in particular emerge as keys to unraveling the claims of cyberfeminism. First, it is useful to consider how Plant locates cyberfeminism within debates around the subject. And, second, the arguments Plant makes around the nature of self-organising machines.


Cyberfeminism is only a new twist in a long love/hate affair between modern feminisms and technologies. From Mary Shelley's Franken-stein onwards, feminism has found in technology an edge point. It is regarded as desirable, treacherous, despised, but always as revealing of the condition of women, and as implicated in it.

In this sense cyberfeminism is part of the feminist tradition. But it also repudiates it. Plant's cyberfeminism emerges, in fact, out of what she understands as the failures of earlier feminism - more broadly out of the failure of the Enlightenment. She doesn't want a re-enchantment of the world.

Cyberfeminism, then, begins at the point when humanism is abandoned. Plant's analysis focuses on the French philosopher Luce Irigaray's contention that for women a sense of identity is impossible to achieve since women cannot escape the 'specular economy' of the male. An economy in which, through the controlling phallus and eye (the member and the gaze) woman is always comprehended as 'deficient'. Woman is always "the sex which is not one", the sex which always lacks the equipment to have one.

Given this analysis, the goals of earlier feminisms, those which have demanded for woman her place as the also-subject of history, her share of human domination over nature, are the wrong goals. Pursuing the "masculine dream of self control, self-identification, self-knowledge, and self-determination" as Plant puts it, will always be futile, since "any theory of the subject will always have been appropriated by the masculine"(Irigaray).

The only possible politics for the sex which is not one, and can never be one, is a politics which takes as its starting point the destruction of the subject.

The question then is how this work of destruction might be carried out. Irigaray's answers have always been tentative. Plant is not so diffident. She has an answer. And it is, of course, self-organising technology; the femaleness of the new species. Which is not a species but an emergence. And one dangerous to men.

Plant's contention is that self-organising technology; "a dispersed and distributed emergence composed of links between women, between women and computers, computers and communications links, connections and connectionist nets" can perform Irigaray's work of destruction (which is the grounds of possibility for new works of assembly), because it provides space for woman to assemble herself - with a little help from her (new) friends. Cut loose from patriarchy, woman is now "turned on with the machines".(Do we want this?)

Man meanwhile, despite his Cartesian disdain for being 'earthed' is also enmeshed in cybernetic space, becoming simply a 'cyborg component of a self organizing process beyond his perception or control'. From where Plant begins - with the necessity for destruction, infiltration, and corruption - there is some joy to be had in finding Man caught in the nets he spread precisely to consolidate his own position. (Perhaps we do want this.)


This turn of events depends, of course, not only on a particular analysis of the position of woman. It also requires a particular understanding of technology. And here, I think cyberfeminism falters.While Eco-feminism holds technology as hostile to woman precisely because it understands that technological 'advances' represent a further encroachment by 'man' upon 'nature' and 'woman', cyberfeminism, by contrast, asserts that complex systems and virtuality work the opposite way around.

How so? For cyberfeminism, the new nature of new machines might be encapsulated in the notion of self-organisation; As Plant puts it "tools mutate into complex machines which begin to think and act for themselves". These machines, being emergent, do not have origins to be faithful to. They twist beyond the specular economy. And the particular twist they take is towards the 'female'. Computers do not represent an encroachment of logic, but its confusion. Crucially then, the valence of technology has changed.


Three claims Plant makes for technology 'as female' are these:

One. Like woman, computers are simulators, having no fixed identity, but rather performing as. Both are therefore, using Irigaray's formulation, 'not one' but always multiple, being both nothing (zero) and everything/everywhere at once. The nature of the computer and the nature of women converge.

Two. A second way in which the female is invoked is via a return - to weaving, understood in On the Matrix, as an authentic 'feminine craft' (certified female by Freud). Weaving, undeniably processual, comes to symbolise elements of technology which cannot be explained in terms of domination and control (i.e. of man putting nature on the carpet). Plant suggests this technology, always technically demanding, has sewn its cross-stitches into the new:

"[f]emale programmers were to find connections between knitting, patchwork, and software engineering and find weaving secreted into the pixellated windows which open on to cyberspace."Weaving is invoked as a celebration of that which is/always has been female about a certain kind of technology. Plant's alliance between 'the goods' - females and female technologies, suddenly looks remarkably similar to the old 'cobwebs against bombs' tactics of the weaving women of Greenham Common.

Three. Finally, Plant claims that only those at 'odds' with the masculine can access the plane of the new machines. If new technology is not masculine, it is because some of its inventors were not either. She invokes Alan Turing, the inventor of the Turing machine, the forerunner to the modern computer, who was forced to take oestrogen as 'therapy' after being convicted of homosexuality by the British courts. Turing's brain she says, "newly engineered and feminised", produced the Turing machine.

As a matter of fact, it didn't. Turing invented his machine before he was prosecuted and certainly before his 'therapy' took hold (at least according to Alan Hodges' biography). But the factual error is less significant perhaps, than the rather brutal essentialism evident here (Is a hormone really all it takes to 'be' a woman?)

Cyberfeminism claims to ride the new edge of technology, but it also rides a very old edge of feminism. Plant is essentially essentialist; there is little in her account which suggests ways in which the category of the female might itself be subject to mutation.


In another way too, cyberfeminism's conception of emergent/self organising technology is to be questioned. Technology changed, says Plant, but can this be said to be equally true of computers, neural networks, telecoms networks, nano-technology (the latter of which could very easily read as an attempt at absolute, molecule by molecule control of nature), biotechnologies, AI?

On the Matrix glances across an array of technologies, each one produced as 'proof' of "the change", each one never precisely described. As a rhetorical strategy, blinding with science (or in this case technology) has surely been (over)done. In addition, there is always a tension between contention and tense; "tomorrow came", says Plant, but she admits that many of these technologies are still under development.

There is a problem then with cyberfeminism's understanding of technology. Plant's assertions about the long list of technologies she invokes are, often, simply assertions.

More than that, they might be understood to reduce technology in so far as they characterise it as 'female'. Surely it will never be enough to understand emergent technology 'as feminine', just as other technologies can never be understood purely and simply 'as masculine'? This, paradoxically, is to deny the complexity of technology.

This conflict, between gender essentialism and technological transformation, is a faultine that runs through cyberfeminism. It means that although cyberfeminism understands that everything has changed, in the end, it also suggests very little has changed. Despite the rhetoric, cyberfeminism is not ambitious enough.


To return, finally, to the question of a feminism. Following the threads of Plant's arguments through On the Matrix, it becomes clear, I think, that Plant never provides a definitive answer to the question: "technology or politics?" There is always, in her work, a slippage - from what might be effected through a politics practised by women, to what will be effected by virtue of virtual (and complex) systems.

This slippage is the point for Plant who courts and develops ambiguity in her writing, consistently con-fusing and re-fusing distinctions between woman - who is "turned on by the machines", and self-organising machines themselves.

Woman and machines, gathered under the same unvarying sign (the sign of the female - the always multiple zero set against the One - a non binary opposition) are, as Plant sees it, elements of the same networks. In this proliferating confusion, distinctions about who or what is doing what to whom - distinctions that is, about what might amount to 'doing politics' and what might amount to celebrating a technology, might seem difficult to draw. More than that; they might even seem irrelevant. "As technology changes, woman changes", says Plant. Shouldn't that be enough for us?

I don't think it is. Because it lets cyberfeminism off the hook. It makes certain claims to being an active, radical form of politics; one adapted to post-humanism. But it also comes close to suggesting that the position of woman is simply intrinsic to a certain form of technology.

In the moments, in which cyberfeminism relies not on humans (women) but on the emerging force of machines, which she presumes are 'female', Plant seems to me to deliver us less to a politics than an eschatology; a hope and desire for future things. In this way, despite the sound and fury, of cyberfeminism's (effective) rhetoric, and despite the power and precision of its destructive moment (the destruction of the desire for a re-tooled Enlightenment), it often comes close to a politics of quietism.

Sadie Plant, On the Matrix: Cyberfeminist Simulations In Cultures of Internet, (ed) Rob Shields (Sage, 1996)

Caroline Bassett <caroline AT> is a freelance technology journalist, columnist for MacUser, and a doctoral student researching hypermedia at Sussex University.

Proud to be Flesh

The Future is Female

Cyberfeminists tried to reinvent feminism for the information age. But, as fundamental issues of difference and exclusion come to the fore, the quest for a specific cyberfeminist theoretical identity seems to be moribund. A bit of self-doubt and a new constituency might be the answer, says Irina Aristarkhova

The ‘Very Cyberfeminist International’ conference in Hamburg was the culmination of several cybferminist events organised by the Old Boys Network (OBN) – a network of feminist artists, activists and theorists whose members include Verena Kuni, Helene von Oldenburg, Claudia Reiche, and Cornelia Sollfrank. Having previously organised two ‘Cyberfeminist International’ conferences – the ‘First Cyberfeminist International’ (Kassel, Documenta IX, 1996), and the ‘Next Cyberfeminist International’ (Rotterdam, 1999) – participants were eagerly anticipating what kind of cross-national and cross-cultural networks had been built over the past five years. And of course it was interesting to speculate over what the word ‘very’ implied – was the event planned to be ‘Very Cyberfeminist’, ‘Very International’, or ‘Very’ something else?

By the time the event finally came around, apparently due to disagreements and personal conflict within OBN, the conference deserved the title of ‘Very Emotional’. Instead of treating it simply as a symptom of OBN development (or the end / transformation of the group?) it might be more productive to review this emotional uproar in the light of the issues, listed in the programme, which were never adequately discussed at the conference: ‘Resumption of New Border Concepts’, ‘Media and War Techniques’, and especially the network and networking in general.

The conference started with a presentation of posters. The posters were big, bright and numerous, dealing, rather predictably, with themes such as: ‘network’, ‘machine’, ‘sexuality’, ‘cyborgs’ and ‘bio-technology’. The most exciting, in my opinion, was a presentation by SubRosa from the US who made a multi-functional poster that you can wear, recycle, use as a kitchen towel, curtains, etc. – a complete departure from the ordinary 2-D still images presented by others.

On several occasions I heard that this – the third – Cyberfeminist International conference, would distinguish itself from others by welcoming diversity among feminists engaging with new media. Sadly, even if some of the white women participants share the illusion of diversity, women of colour at the conference all expressed their dissatisfaction with the lack of discussion and concrete engagements with the topics of race, ethnicity and cultural difference in relation to new media. According to Maria Fernandez: ‘As with other OBN events, the Very Cyberfeminist International was successful in bringing white women together, especially those from Europe and the United States. As with previous OBN events, the Very Cyberfeminist ‘International’ did little to foster communication between white women and the rest of the world. Rather than helping to bridge differences, it exacerbated them. Racial difference seemed to be extremely divisive as points raised by women of colour were met with antagonism. When the same points were raised by white women, the speaker was invariably met with encouragement or at least respectfulness. Even superficial familiarity with post-colonial theory might have helped to prevent the common stereotypes into which the few women of color at the conference were pushed: oppressed, ignorant of technology, bound by the body, political, not intellectual etc.’

Apparently the issue of racial and ethnic difference remains the hardest to address at any new media event – whether academic or activist. Just like at last year’s Third International Cultural Studies conference in Birmingham (where I organised two sessions on ‘Cyberfeminist Strategies’), the majority of discussions on cyberfeminist theory, gender, new communication and bio-technologies were nearly all ‘totally white’. These discussions dealt with post-human and post-modern conditions, woman-machine hybrids, entailed a critical revaluation of disembodied cybertheory, and touched on differences among women whilst at the same time silencing and repressing many of them. It feels like we have to start all over again – first Western feminism was blind to difference, then we started paying more attention to differences among women. Now, after being swept by uncritical, universalising cybertheory and practice for the past decade, we have to learn again that race has not disappeared in the age of the Internet and human-machine interactions, never mind its potential for gender bending and ‘identity tourism’ (as Lisa Nakamura termed such ‘race swapping’). At the same time, I feel that a careful outline should be made of the earlier use of terms such as ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ in postcolonial and feminist theory, to stop us from bypassing the ethical and political complexities of such notions and their use altogether.

The discomfort shared by most over the concept of ‘post-humanity’ also met with an inadequate response from those who cautioned that, once again, we are being lured by the illusion of oneness – which sounded like old wine in new cyber-tech bottles. Such tensions were accompanied by a constant chorus of questions raised by OBN members : ‘How do YOU do this or that?’; ‘What can we do?’; ‘How can we welcome other women?’; ‘We had very good intentions and an open-door policy – why does it seem to have failed?’ Of course, nothing has failed – I think that this crisis within OBN represents the impossibility of ‘discussing difference’, but the strong desire and will to actually start practicing it.

Apparently, it seems, the main European players of cyberfeminism are still struggling to find ways to create more heterogeneous communities, especially with the ‘other’ women in their own countries, who are conspicuously absent from conferences like this (which was especially apparent during the poster session). Let us not naively fool ourselves that ‘there have been no great black women cyberfeminists’, or that ‘the door is open, but they are not coming to our meetings’.

The question remains: what, if not feminism, could survive its own deconstruction and flourish? Feminism has always been hyper-critical and attentive to every gesture it makes, every action it takes, every statement it formulates on difference among women – why should cyberfeminism, which claims to be so sophisticated and complex, be running scared? Many of the presentations gave us hope. They pointed to a different kind of work going on in the critical and political circles of Europe and the US: in France (Isabelle Massu, Nathalie Magnan); in Belgium (Laurence Rassel); and the US (SubRosa). That was the strength of this conference and of OBN too – despite the internal disagreements between the organisers, they managed to bring a group of interesting and diverse women together.

We did witness a RAWA (Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan) presentation at the end of the conference that seemed like it had practically nothing to do with the ‘cyberfeminist agenda’ as such, but was an informative fund raising event (I was told that this presentation had traveled through the US and Europe in almost identical form). Of course, it leads us to the question of ‘framing’ such presentations, as if an organisation like RAWA should be included like a trophy (and token) for any and every feminist event wishing to claim diversity and ‘cutting-edge political credentials’. Apparently a great deal of effort and resources were spent on bringing them to the conference. Their presentation was an important event in itself, but one was left wondering how the RAWA presentation, a one-off show, could save us from the necessity of engaging in day-to-day interactions with racial / ethnic others, on-line and off-line (‘corps-a-corps avec l’Autre’, to paraphrase Irigaray).

So what about cyberfeminism: its network, tactics, theory, art, and politics? All of that was part of conference life too, though these subjects might not have been discussed by the conference speakers during the main sessions. What seems to have changed in cyberfeminism is the fact that it is no longer desperately seeking to distinguish or distance itself from feminism or anything else (‘What is it? Where is it? Are you a Cyberfeminist or a Feminist? Please identify yourself…’). This points to its maturity and proliferation, to its increasing depth. When a movement evolves without guarding its borders and membership too closely, as was the case in Hamburg, we might start to anticipate a future ‘Any Cyberfeminist International’, that would focus on the issues of everyday Cyberfeminist theory and practice. That is what I consider the main success of the conference, and of course, of its organisers. Old Girls Network?

Irina Aristarkhova <uspia AT> writes and teaches in art & technology, cyberculture, feminist theory and ethics. She lives in Singapore and Moscow

Proud to be Flesh

Mens sana in corpore sano (or keep taking the tablets)

The West’s war on fat, free radicals, toxins and bacteria knows no such thing as a bridge too far: health and the perfect body enjoy absolute loyalty from their human footsoldiers. In the fight to keep our biological enemies at bay, the immune system is represented as the ultimate back-up system. But what is it really? And what are the politics of immunology, its parent science? Andrew Goffey makes a visit to the clinic

A recent report in a broadsheet newspaper that a favourite holiday destination in Thailand promises eager tourists a week of colonic irrigation offers a potent image for the fate of the ethics of self-governance under global multinational capitalism. The caput mortuum of decades spent as an avid consumer in the West is sluiced into a South-East Asian bucket, leaving you and your intestines free to jet back West to accumulate another year of crap. Beneficiaries of this process report – after a feeling of faintness – a sense of enormous well being. Which is hardly surprising, given that the fat which can clog the intestine from decades of consumption sometimes gets so thick that the weight of one’s bowels has been known to shoot up to around 40lbs.

I mention this vignette not to shock or to condemn – although there is something a little perverse about the geopolitics of it all – but to make a point about the almost neurotic medicalisation current techniques for the care of the self testify to. It is not so much the curiously solid links between the anally retentive dynamics of capital accumulation and the bourgeois concern with the clean and proper which needs emphasis. A technique of the self which involves washing out your insides the way that you might wash a car on a Sunday morning (if you had one) or unblock a sink, although not an entirely surprising development, shows us a strangely empty concept of the body. Other examples suggest that this is not an isolated phenomenon: the pill popping antics of vitamin munchers anxious to boost ‘their’ immune system; Michael Jackson, or Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons, both of them with Howard Hughes-type phobias about germs; the National Socialist regime in 1930s - ‘40s Germany and their obsession with the health of its people…All point towards the pervasive medicalisation of identity. The British media and political elite’s recent willingness to focus public energies onto the state of the National Health Service only confirms the issue. In fact, technologies of government here might suggest that being ascribed a medically informed identity (being ‘normal’ is a reputedly positive clinical condition), and being constantly enjoined to manage your own health, are functional weapons in capitalist crisis management.

I would not of course claim to be the first to have noticed this phenomenon, or wish to be interpreted as saying that the odd bit of internal hygiene or reform of the NHS is necessarily a bad thing. For starters, Michel Foucault’s identification of bio-power as the primary form in which power exercises itself in contemporary society has already led a generation of researchers in the human sciences down the path which I have been trying here to signpost. And that certain social actions can have unintended consequences or occur within a framework unknown to the actors themselves will surprise few social scientists – this is the main lesson of Max Weber’s work on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. More pointedly, the spread of AIDS and the consequent highlighting of a supposed norm of health of which it would be an apparently monstrous contravention shows quite clearly what an ‘epidemic of signification’ we have been subjected to, and has itself almost certainly had some role to play in the current intensification of medical policing. Not so much has been said, though, about the sciences that play such a key role in defining the substrate of the clean and healthy body, and determine the operations that can be performed on it. Foucault himself – his early work The Birth of The Clinic, The Order of Things and his identification of bios as a focal point for the exercise of power notwithstanding – had little to say about the life sciences, and preferred to confine his attention to the human sciences.

However, in an exemplary work, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has explored some of the ramifications of the development of modern biopower, and given us food for thought when it comes to assessing the state of play in the life sciences. Agamben’s argument is that ‘We are not only animals in whose politics our life as living beings is at stake, according to Foucault’s expression, but also, inversely, citizens in whose natural body our very political being is at stake.’ It is, he further contends impossible to undo the strict interlacing of the naked biological life (or zoe) and the cultural form of life (or bios), for once and for all times. Instead, he says, we would do better to ‘make of the biopolitical body, bare life itself, the place where a form of life which is entirely transposed into bare life, is constituted, where a bios which is nothing but its zoe is instituted’ (Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life). Agamben believes that in so doing, a new field of research will open up, one beyond the limitations to be found at work in the disciplines which have hitherto attempted to think something like a bare life. It is an open question as to how this new field of research will eventually look. However, the convergence of the biological and the political in modern immunology might give us some suggestions about an answer.

The links between the self and the political is not an affair of simple ‘discursive articulation’, as some people would profess to believe, any more than it is a particularly new one. Whilst the self is certainly something defined in language, it is also something produced physiologically. In the 19th century, Nietzsche, for one, was not only disinclined to think of the self as peaceful coexistence – witness the prevalence of the themes of war and combat in his writings. He was also very much inclined to emphasise the physiological dimensions of European culture’s morbid disorders. Freud, as is well known, took a keen interest in the defensive approach of the ego to forces beyond its control. In his 1895 Project for a Scientific Psychology, Freud’s approach is based on the quantification of energy flows, and not the interminable hermeneutic question of ‘what it all means’. Immunology has a background curiously congruous to Nietzsche’s physiological accounts of strength and weakness. Although the discovery by Edward Jennings in 1798 of the smallpox vaccine had been suggestive of the mechanics of the immune system, it was not until the 19th century, with the growth of public health reforms, that modern immunology really came into being. The astonishing efficacy of the practice of vaccination was strong evidence for the existence of a remarkable ‘system’ for protecting organisms from infection. The immune system seemed somehow to ‘know’ what was not good for the organism and thence to destroy it. Quickly, a paradigm for research developed, around the work of Paul Ehrlich, which adopted a ‘humoral’ (read: chemical) explanation for how the system functioned. Later, in the 20th century, research drawing on the findings of biologists into genetics, conferred on immunology the privilege of being the ‘science of self-nonself distinction.’

The remarkable successes of immunology should not obscure what is effectively its less palatable inscription within the modern apparatus of biopower. This makes it a prima facie candidate for critical analysis. It is not simply because of its background in the very public health reforms of the late 19th century which Foucault has flagged as evidence of the paradigmatic shift in the exercise of power. Nor is it the fact that its innocently scientific status – bolstered by its phenomenal success in treating the most publicly worrying of illnesses – has contributed to a sense of its benevolent neutrality as science (and hence also, in the Foucauldian optic, to its efficacity for power). We cannot ignore the fact that, like many other subfields of the life sciences, immunology benefited enormously from advances in genetics in the late 1950s (although it wasn’t until the 1980s that some of the fundamental genetic mechanisms of immunological functioning were experimentally confirmed). An innocent enough fact perhaps, but of great importance for the economy of the science’s explanations, explanations which demonstrate a remarkable congruence with ‘scientific’ developments elsewhere.

According to Giorgio Agamben, one of the noteworthy facts about National Socialism is that its politics developed through a decisive mobilisation of science in a synthesis of biology and economy. One Otto von Verschuer, Professor of Genetics and Anthropology at Frankfurt University, argued, in a semi-official publication called State and Health, that doctors should see ‘in the state of health of the population, the condition for economic profit’ and that the ‘oscillations of biological substance and those of material equilibrium generally go hand in hand.’ Arguing against the view that the biopolitics of the Third Reich should be seen uniquely under the epithet of ‘racism’, Agamben suggests that the extermination of the Jews must be seen in a perspective whereby the ‘protection of health and [the] struggle against the enemy have become absolutely indiscernible.’

If Agamben is correct, it is somewhat disquieting to find a parallel convergence between immunology, politics, and metaphysics. In its routine arguments about the fundamental function of the immune system, immunology uses a language which is loaded with political and metaphysical connotations. The immune system is primarily a system of defence against attack, immunology seeks to explain how it is that the self can differentiate between friend and enemy, or between molecular compounds which are non-lethal and those foreign pathogens which are lethal. Of course, no one is saying that this isn’t what the immune system does. But it is curious to see how the immune system is immediately inscribed within the political and the metaphysical. Since there is no intrinsic property to mark out biochemical elements as belonging to this organism rather than another, to talk of a self at a chemical level is clearly a wishful metaphysical fiction. And to make sense of what is going on at the molecular level, by using the language of the political – friend and enemy, the foreign body – raises questions about what it is, exactly, that immunology is doing.

Pointing out these parallels is not to claim that immunology is a racist discourse. But we shouldn’t see in its language the innocent play of metaphor. The political aspects of a science are to be sought in terms of its dominant structures of explanation. In combination with the excess of meaning supplied by the language of defence and attack, foreign bodies and so on, these structures produce a set of resonances between immunology and explicitly political discourses which makes their affinity more than a matter of mere chance – to think otherwise is to ignore the disturbing evidence Agamben has collated about National Socialism.

The dominant modality of immunological discourse was effectively fixed by the Nobel prize winning research of the British immunologist Sir Macfarlane Burnet. Whilst antibodies were discovered in Germany in the 1890s, it was Burnet who came up with the idea that the immune system ‘discriminates’ between self and nonself, and in so doing, he perpetuated the already well-established notion that the immune system defended the pre-existing identity of an organism. Immunology was, in his view, founded on an ‘intolerance of living matter for foreign matter,’ and ‘clonal selection theory’ was his solution to the problem of explaining how it is that lymphocytes and the antibodies they produce, being capable of recognising and destroying any molecular compound, don’t routinely destroy the elements which compose the organism in which they reside. In its typical reactive operation, when the immune system detects a pathogen, it responds by the mass production of clones of an antibody which can bind with and hence neutralise the invader. The efficiency of this process is improved firstly by an extensive process of the somatic mutation of the DNA which codes for antibody production. Rearrangements of the inherited (germ-line) genes which account for the production of antibodies enables an organism to generate an enormous variety of different antibodies (a sort of selection mechanism within the organism itself). It is also improved ‘second time around’, i.e. if the system has been exposed to a pathogen once previously it effectively maintains a memory trace of that pathogen and so can respond more quickly. This was a fact understood from the inception of immunology, and it contributes to the popularity of those strands of research which consist in isolating the response of the system to specific, precisely defined pathogens.

Burnet’s clonal selection theory argued that clones produced by the immune system which would recognise, and so attack the self were simply eliminated during the organism’s development by a learning process. Subsequent to his claim, all sorts of peculiar experiments were devised as a way of confirming this theory – because the system learned to discriminate between self and nonself, you could, in theory, fool it. More importantly, the theory seemed to drive a wedge between a self, understood as pre-existing the immune system and defined on a presumably genetic basis, and the nonself. Because the role of the immune system was that of defending a pre-given identity, through a process of learning, the identity of the self somehow fell outside of history and became a tabula rasa, an immunological bare life protected by a set of unconnected ‘individual’ defence responses.

Burnet’s theory in effect prescribed, or rather sanctioned the dominant trend in immunological research, which is that of the investigation of an unconnected set of discretely causal mechanisms. Just as some take metaphysical comfort in locating the gene for genius, or for aging, or for schizophrenia, or for homosexuality (the implication – oh praise eugenics – being that you might then simply turn it on or off), so too research which promises to locate the cell or cells responsible for combating a particular illness imparts ontological security. Your identity is safe with us, say the pharmaceutical companies, thoroughly caught up in this process of reification.

It is not difficult to see why this conception of the immune system has been so successful. Recall that immunology really took off as a result of public health reforms, and that it was bolstered by the practice of vaccination. Vaccination exemplifies the ‘discrete’ logic of explanation, and provides a miraculously dramatic confirmation of the powers of the system. Some historians have suggested, though, that prior to vaccination programmes, the immune system showed itself to be far less effective a defence mechanism – without the artificial stimulation of antibody production by vaccines, the immune system was relatively powerless against the kinds of epidemics which have ravaged the world throughout the centuries. In the late twentieth century, the example of AIDS has shown that it is infections with a low degree of ‘pathogenicity’ which can be most lethal. In any case, it is difficult to maintain an unequivocal role for the immune system – it has been known since the early 1970s, for example, that whilst the immune system can destroy tumours, it can also, under certain circumstances, promote their growth.

Perhaps immunology has been asking the wrong kinds of questions – the absence of any cure for AIDS, for example, suggests that the dominant framework is ill-adapted to the kinds of immune problems accompanying HIV. Over recent decades, there has been a growing realisation amongst a minority of immunologists that the inconsistencies of clonal selection theory vis-a-vis the available evidence, coupled with a tendency to do the wrong kind of research, might indeed be leading immunology in the wrong direction.

In the first instance, there is evidence to suggest that the existence of autoantibodies (ones which will react to self) are not quite as exceptional as had been thought previously. Such autoantibodies can be found in both the maternal immune repertoire, which is inherited from the child organism’s mother, and in its ‘induced’ repertoire, which develops in ontogeny. The existence of these autoantibodies has often been downplayed – we can now see why: they are inconsistent with the predominant explanation of how the immune system works and what it is for.

Secondly, if the immune self is a uniquely genetic inheritance, how is one to explain that a neonatal immune system can recognise as ‘foreign’ antigens derived from its parents? And how is one to explain the existence of non-negligible levels of immune activity in organisms isolated in a germ-free environment?

Since approximately the middle of the 1970s, there has been an alternative view of the immune system, one which explores its role in a very different way. In 1974, Niels Jerne published a paper which proposed a theory of ‘idiotypic networks’ as a way of explaining the anomalies. Idiotypic network theory suggested, in direct opposition to clonal selection theory, that not only does the immune system interact with itself, but that this is its primary activity. Whilst the defensive struggle against the enemy displays the remarkable power of the immune system (presumably delegated by the sovereign self) it misunderstands the peculiar organisation of the immune system’s capacities.

Idiotypic network theory can be glossed as follows: some cell type is recognised by a specific variety of lymphocyte, or clone-producing antibody (a B-cell, in the jargon. Call it A). This stimulates the production of more clones to attack the initial cell type. These clones themselves are then recognised by another B-cell (call it B), which produces its own clones. The clones of B down-regulate the activity of the clones of A, but themselves stimulate the production of C clones by yet another B-cell. This chain, or ‘cascade’ of events eventually closes on itself (when the clones of A recognise and down-regulate clones produced by lymphocyte Z, say). In this scenario, the immune system does not primarily defend a pre-existing self, but actually constitutes that self as the ongoing product of a series of interactions in a complex molecular environment, an idiotypic network, in other words. Further, the defensive efficacy of the system becomes easier to explain: the system doesn’t need to be able to specifically recognise nonself in order to launch an attack. Because the network primarily recognises itself it only attacks what it cannot assimilate. To put it another way, the defensive function is a consequence of the system’s weakness, and not its strength.

The differences between these two positions may seem slight, but Jerne’s theory forces us to acknowledge the processes by which the immune self is constituted. Available evidence suggests that the gap between the genetically hardwired and the learned is not as clear or as large as clonal selection theory had suggested, and that autoantibodies can function both as part of an idiotypic network as well as against non-network elements. The ‘self’ is, in this view, an historical product, and not some essence which might delegate its powers to the immune system. More interestingly, the immune system is no longer seen as being essentially bound up with the ‘fight against the enemy’. Whilst it still, clearly, has a role to play combating infection and so on, this is not its primary role, and we should understand it on the basis of a different logic. But then what is the immune system for? If it didn’t arise in evolution to fight bacteria and to protect the preconstituted individual, what did it evolve for?

Controversial research based on a speculative reconstruction of the evolutionary steps leading from organisms without an immune system (invertebrates) to those with, has suggested that the immune system might have had a role in actually constituting the individual as a unit of biological selection. In this respect, it served to unify a set of different cell types into a coherent unit. This theory is controversial, and it is true to say has not gained the assent of the immunological community at large, and yet it does provide an interesting explanation for a fundamental problem in evolutionary theory – that of explaining how the individual organism actually came to be. And, if the individual vertebrate organism came to be, it can of course come not to be.

Contemporary language of the care of the self undoubtedly has many sources, and the self as such has components from all over. But it is difficult not to notice how often the language of private property appears. Your sexuality, your politics, your immune system (which of course you regulate by regular boosting, don’t you ?). Poor proles that we all are nowadays, poor subjects of a biopolitical constitution, being commanded to exercise proprietorial control over an immune system (or a sexuality, set of political options and so on) which in fact defines us is not just a grammatical error. If the parallels I have suggested between the dominant understanding of the immune system and Agamben’s theorisation of bare life are accurate, there is much more than a linguistic sop to a lack of power at stake. To forget that ‘you’ are a complex chemical ecology in which what can’t kill you can only make you stronger, might give you a limited stake in a restricted biological-economic exchange, but it won’t make you immune from the fascist life. Think about that the next time you are in the chemists.

Andrew Goffey <a.goffey AT> is a lecturer in Media, Culture and Communications at Middlesex University. He writes about philosophy, science, and culture, and is currently researching for a book on Gilles Deleuze

Proud to be Flesh

Abstract Sex

Luciana Parisi shows how a parallel process of DNA transmission confounds Darwinian and neo-Darwinian conceptions of development. Can a new politics emerge from bacterial sex? Illustrations by Richard Starzecki


[...] we have seen [...] that it is most closely-allied forms, – varieties of the same species, and species of the same genus or of related genera, – which, from having nearly the same structure, constitution, and habits, generally come into the severest competition with each other; consequently each new variety or species, during the progress of its formation, will generally press hardest on its nearest kindred, and tend to exterminate them. We see the same process of extermination amongst our domesticated productions, through the selection of improved forms by man. Many curious instances could be given showing how quickly new breeds of cattle, sheep, and other animals, and varieties of flowers, take the place of older and inferior kinds. Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species


Whether it be in the development of the Earth, in the development of Life, upon its surface, the development of Society, of Government, of Manufactures, of Commerce, of Language, Literature, Science, Art, this same evolution of the simple into the complex, through a process of continuous differentiation, holds throughout. From the earliest traceable cosmical changes down to the latest results of civilisation, we shall find that the transformation of the homogeneous into the heterogeneous, is that in which Progress essentially consists...Herbert Spencer, ‘Progress: Its Law and Cause’





In 1981, Lynn Margulis’ research into bacterial mitochondrial transmission called into question the foundations of Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism. Margulis argued that mitochondria, organelles residing in the body of nucleated animal and plant cells, are in fact descendents of free-living bacteria. Enclosed in their mitochondrial membranes, these ancient bacteria have an independent genetic apparatus of their own, but were at some stage – possibly the moment in which oxygen entered the atmosphere 200 million years ago – captured within the cell body, though outside the nucleus.


Like all bacteria, these mitochondria reproduce, but their genetic transfer is non-linear and takes place only by way of the mother. However it got into the cell body originally, the presence of mitochondrial messenger material outside the nucleus constitutes a parallel process of transmission long unknown to science and unaccounted for within the Darwinian paradigm. It would seem that nucleic transmission is not the exclusive determinate of the evolution of the organism after all; indeed nucleic DNA itself is altered by the mitochondrial material that surrounds it. In other words, there are not one but two parallel and mutually infecting channels of genetic communication that determine the organism’s development. Indeed, within the same species, the nucleic germline and the bacterial somaline exhibit differential rates of mutation.


From these findings, Margulis has revolutionised the classical evolutionary understanding of the development of life, drawing on the work of Russian scholar-biologist Konstantin S. Mereschovsky who, in the first quarter of the 20th century, had already rejected the Darwinian theory of natural selection and invented the term ‘symbiogenesis’ to describe the prolonged symbiotic, parasitic associations that precede the appearance of a new organism. (Sapp, 1994; Sagan 1992, pp.362-85; Margulis, 1981, pp.1-14) A ‘guest’ bacteria, entering the cell, takes part in a transfer of DNA information with those ‘host’ bacteria already present. Bacteria move across phylums without regard, altering the genetic material of each lineage as they go.


Dismissed for a long time, symbiogenesis is acquiring a constitutive scientific importance, supported by molecular biology and biochemistry’s questioning of the classical division between plant and animal kingdom and the classifications based on this division. Symbiotic processes now in fact seem to explain the emergence of the cellular and genetic modifications of sex and reproduction, disrupting the the ‘zoocentrism’ of the theory of evolution (the priority of Homo Sapiens) in demonstrating that ‘each animal cell is, in fact, an uncanny assembly, the evolutionary merger of distinct bacterial metabolisms.’ (Sagan, 1992, p.363)




In this sense, genetic engineering and cloning are not only not new, but not even particularly innovative complexifications of life. They strongly resemble the trading of genes invented by bacteria 3,900 million years ago: non-nucleated cells transmitting information without copulation. Perhaps all that is marked by ‘biotech’, the human recombination of genetic material between independent cellular bodies, is the re-emergence of the most ancient sex: bacterial sex.


But biotechnologies such as transgenics and cloning, insofar as they entail the horizontal transfer of genetic material, the re-engineering of cells across species barriers, do expose new levels of symbiotic mixture. For bacteria and endosymbiotic parasitism, they mark a new threshold, a new channel for a bacterial trading that will not constrict itself within the intentions of the scientists who opened it. Transgenesis accelerates differential mutations in patterns of evolution so that biotechnologies used, for example, to improve organs and cell transplants, make insulin, or produce new cells and tissues for ‘cell therapies’, are in fact promoting parallel, unknowable, non-filial recombinations of genetic sequences and cellular compounds that favour the emergence and re-emergence of new viruses – alongside new generations of mutant vegetables, insects, fishes, reptiles, sheep and humans. No longer species or individuals, forms or functions, transgenesis highlights evolution’s underlying pattern: packs of relations between bodies that engineer new bodies. It is simply not accurate to say that genetic engineering is technology’s colonisation of the biological: at the same time, the biological is abducting the transmission layer that biotech produces.


What is produced in this cross-colonisation of the biological and the technological layers of organisation, is a bio-digital assemblage, a symbiotic modification of matter that is not part of any natural ‘design’. The bio-digital assemblage of bodies – mouse and a micro-chip, a virus and a human organism – propagate the tendencies of symbiotic matter and accelerate the turbulent and unexpected swerves of non-linear DNA transmission. Micro-mutations within and across species are enabled and accelerated. The tendencies of the bio-digital assemblage of matter are non-linear; and the transactions between various chronological moments – the biological, the technological, the biotechnological – take place via the nexus of symbiotic contagion. At this nexus, bio-digital sex catalyses the emergence and re-emergence of unprecedented life forms.




According to the central belief of evolutionary dynamics and embryology, nucleic DNA – the germline – is the true organiser of life, that which decides the destiny of parts. Cloning, on the contrary, suggests that somatic substances themselves have specific abilities and potentials of individuation unknown to nucleic DNA and that it is not nucleic DNA that determines variation. Via the movement of bacterial DNA in and through physical space, through the membranes of phylum and species, through time, folded into layers of sedimentation, or re-emerging into the atmosphere in one of earth’s eruptions, DNA’s linear transmission, and progressive evolution, are in fact thoroughly and constantly disrupted through intensive bacterial trades.


For neo-Darwinism, sexual reproduction has been directly selected to accelerate the evolution of the most varied traits across generations by driving sexed organisms to adapt faster to changing conditions. But the parallel transmissions of endosymbiosis, bacterial sex, and parthenogenesis (the reproduction of an unfertilised egg into offspring), present as many genetic variations as two-parent sex. The assumed function of sexual reproduction in increasing complexity is, then, undermined. Indeed, sexual reproduction itself can be expected to have arisen from previous symbiotic associations, of parasitisms and transgenic trades between distinct bacteria under certain pressures. Bacterial symbiosis is thoroughly folded in to the process of nucleic transmission.


This leads to a conception of life as a ‘dissipative dynamics’, a non-teleological account of nature’s organisation. Margulis’ work on microbial sex suggests that unprecedented reorganisations of life occur through symbiotic trade, a non-cumulative mixing giving rise to new compositions that do not resemble the parts from which they were generated. In endosymbiosis, novelty does not imply the enrichment of matter. The rule of symbiotic life is chance encounter, unforeseeable responses to unknowable conditions.





Your people will change. Your young will be more like us and ours more like you. Your hierarchical tendencies will be modified and if we learn to regenerate limbs and reshape our bodies, we’ll share that ability with you. That’s part of the trade. We’re overdue for it. Octavia E. Butler, 1987, p.40


The distance between the macro and the micro no longer applies to this world of bacterial trade, proliferating through symbiotic contagion rather than nucleic filiation. There are as many sexes as there are terms in symbiosis, generating an ecosystem of micro-mutations which intersect at different speeds. This symbiosis, catalysed by chance encounters between molecular bodies, maps a dynamics of evolution that resonates with the metaphysics of Deleuze and Guattari and Spinoza.


For them, nature is machinic, an engineering process of paths never becoming a whole. Life forms do not result from a forced or spontaneous cooperation between individuated bodies struggling to reach a shared goal or to survive in a hostile environment. They are defined neither by a harmonious nor a conflictual state of nature driven by group collaboration or by individual competition. Altruism and egoism are both rooted in a humanisation of evolution that is undermined by symbiotic trade.


Instead, symbiotic assemblages make use of chance encounters that include reverse abductions, viral transmission, nuclearisation and multiparasitism. These processes of becoming are machinic involutions on a nature-culture continuum. Unknowable mutations are entailed in all of the parts caught up in their composition. I call these mutations abstract sex.


Abstract sex designates the potentials of intensive mutant matter: potentials that require no teleological aim towards novelty. Abstract sex names neither a progressive nor a regressive state of materiality. Rather, it is a conception of nature defined by continuous mutations across all layers and stratifications. It is a non-deterministic process, a phylum of immanent relations traversing traditional strata in a parallel, anti-genealogical dynamic. Abstract sex opens up bio-physical and bio-cultural organisation of nucleic sex to radical destratification.




It is the singular moment of Darwinism and Social Darwinism, initially triggered by the combination of social urbanisation and technological industrialisation, that must today give way to abstract sex. Together with this pairing goes the entire theory of evolution that has become central at the biological, social and economic layers— dominating, for example psychology, sociology, anthropology and political theory. The function of adaptation, the ‘survival of the fittest’, can finally be disentangled from the social field, and the conspiracy of culture to ‘make’ nature is ended.


In the Darwinian logic the blind force of natural selection regulates variations by ensuring common descent. This explains the driving force of capitalist development: capitalism is the invisible hand of order that selects the most successful mode of reproduction originating from the individual struggle for survival. In neo-Darwinist Kevin Kelly’s famous analogy, the self-organisation of natural systems mirrors the increasing development of the free market: self-organisation takes the place of natural selection, regulating and channelling the world’s randomness into a working whole. This is ‘control without control’ – and operation of selection that, for Kelly, does not involve a hierarchical chain of command. Rather, the ‘invisible hand of selection’ controls without authority the networked architecture of natural and economic systems. Biological networks match a democratic model of the market, defying the transcendence of centralised control.


The determinism of evolutionary complexity, in which self-organising networks add simple units to constitute complex systems, maintains a finality for nature. Capitalism as Darwinian evolution requires repetition without mutation, the passage from actuals to actuals, the preservation of the same variation, the selection of an always-already individuated difference. This logic of ‘control without control’ only recentralises humanism in nature, a dynamic process of teleological evolution that dismisses the vaster, aimless processes that in fact constitute them.


Of course, the continuous folding-in of indeterminate populations and mutant bodies must ultimately confound the supposed primacy of ‘self-organisation.’ Not only does abstract sex call radically into question the biological determinism that takes determinate forms and functions as examples for all organisations, but the fact of continuous symbiotic trade destroys Kelly’s naturalist logic of economic systems and the unitary logic it imposes on the population of genetic material. In abstract sex, potential mutations accompany the most diverse stages of organisations on a nature-culture continuum, refuting the use of biology as a model for laissez-faire liberal economics.


The aimlessness of abstract sex also calls into question the ‘creative power of the multitude’, theorised by Negri and Hardt in the book Empire (2000). For Negri and Hardt, the multitude constitutes ‘the networked real productive force of our social world, whereas Empire is a mere apparatus of capture that lives off the vitality of the multitude.’ (p.62) The multitude is defined by creative, communicative, networked relations of virtualised production (i.e. immaterial labour), based on decentralised, innovative and ‘abstract cooperation’ of bodies that constitutes global capitalism. By considering Empire a parasitical web of bodies living off the creative vitality of a multitude characterised by the networked intelligence of humans and machines, Negri and Hardt still presume a formal distinction between the self-enclosing or self-organising structure of capitalism on the one hand, and the cooperative, creative forces of the multitude on the other. And although they argue for the primary potentials of the multitude over apparatuses of capture – state capitalism – their model recentralises human agency in the material dynamics of evolution, with creativity as the organic force that will always resist parasitic capture.


Rather than engaging with molecular mutations, Negri and Hardt characterise capitalism through the negative qualities of parasitism as opposed to the striving, living qualities of the multitude. This reinstates vitalist creativity and re-installs the human at the centre of matter’s dynamics. Empire misses the dynamics of transmission visible in the endosymbiotic coexistence of bacterial and nucleic, informational trading through markets and antimarkets. Abstract sex demands a radically ambivalent picture of the relation between the host and the guest, the abductor and the abductee, the parasite and that which it is parasitic upon. If each symbiotic assemblage involves the modification of all parts participating in its composition, unleashing the emergence of unpredictable mutations, then apparatuses of capture can never be external to the multitude. On the contrary: there is a constant, interdependent relationship between these distinct modes of organisation. Hence not only can the most rigid monopoly feed on the sparsest grass-roots, but counter-power can also hijack and grow through power’s channels.


This open-ended trading entails no aim, interest or finality. It is a non-given micropolitics of destratification and mutation, a pragmatics under construction on the nature-culture plane. It concerns bodies defined by relations and potentials rather than the macropolitical determination of differences in position by kind and degree. This micropolitics of bodies resonates with the ethics (or ethology) of Spinoza, subtracting the body’s field of action from the humanist logic of self-interest, whereby political activity requires the identification of groups occupying visible social categories (e.g. class, race and gender).


Abstract sex instead offers a pragmatics of encounters, abductions and contagions between bodies, laying out a dynamics of sociability that emerges in situ rather then being determined by social positions. It entails a bodily participation in pulling out potential threads of mutation from actual conditions and distributing turbulent variations. Sex becomes an indeterminate quantum of thought and extension, proliferating through the contagious trading of matter; affecting – acting upon – the socio-cultural determination of identity positions.


This practice of intensifying bodily potentials to act and become is an affirmation of desire without lack which signals the nonclimactic, aimless circulation of bodies in a symbiotic assemblage. This desire is not to be equated with something natural or given, spontaneous or induced. It is not primarily intentional. It has no final peak. It exists in symbiotic compositions giving rise to novel mutations. As a micropolitics, this continuous construction of nonclimactic assemblages entails indeterminate fields of action in which each local activity modulates a global state. Very small interventions resonate unknowably across the plane. These assemblages of bodies are as biological and cultural as they are collective and political. It is the body that bears the potentials of action and mutation, and abstract sex mobilises them, spinning off new symbionts across the evolutionary logic of nature, economics, and desire.


Luciana Parisi teaches Cybernetic Culture at the University of East London. Her book Abstract Sex: Philosophy, Bio-technology and the Mutations of Desire is forthcoming with Continuum Press (Dec 2004)




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`In The Companion Species Manifesto, Donna Haraway has substituted dogs for cyborgs, but who or what is wagging the tail of the new post-humanism? Review by Tim Savage

Donna Haraway’s 100-page pamphlet: The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness deserves a central place at the table of a newly emerging conversation exploring ‘the question of the animal’. Yet since what we know as ‘the human’ has always been defined against a seemingly endless taxonomy of putative others – be they ‘dehumanised peoples’, ‘plants’, inanimate ‘objects’, or ‘animals’ – what 'humanity' is conceptualised as finds itself fundamentally at stake with this question too. Recent contributions to this topic include Giorgio Agamben’s new book The Open: Man and Animal (2004), two recent anthologies entitled Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal and Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Post-humanist Theory, as well as a number of Jacques Derrida’s recent musings. Deleuze and Guattari’s earlier work about ‘becoming-animal’ also finds pride of place at this human/animal/table interface too.

Haraway opens the first pages of this new manifesto in characteristic fashion by immediately historicising her earlier work:

I appropriated cyborgs to do feminist work in Reagan’s Star War Times of the mid-1980s. By 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. So I go happily to the dogs to explore the birth of the kennel to help craft tools for science studies and feminist inquiry in the present time, when secondary Bushes threaten to replace the old growth of more liveable naturecultures in the carbon budget policies of all water-based life on earth.

She then proffers the ‘Companion Species’ as a heuristic figure to replace her earlier 'cyborg' and for the political tasks which lie so urgently at hand. 'Companion Species' are the hybrid beings co-constituted by humans and any other species that have symbiogenetically given birth to and co-evolved each other. Symbiogenesis, albeit reductively, refers to how various beings (i.e.: bacteria, genes, larger organisms, etc.) can in fact only come into living existence through utter co-dependence on other quite different beings. Haraway asserts that particular populations of humans and dogs have in fact co-evolved each other throughout most of humanity’s history and that there can be no way in which humans can accurately understand not only what 'canines' are, but what 'humans' are, without accounting historiographically for this complex mongrel fact.

Thus 'human' and 'canine' species are not ontologically distinct identities and any narration of history that pretends that humans are the central historiographical agents is not only historically incorrect but also politically reactionary. In line with Theodor Adorno’s proviso against all identity thinking after Auschwitz, Haraway asserts that ‘relation’ is the minimal unit of analysis and being. Here then the bourgeois borders of all 'individual identities' are smashed open and even biology’s conventional species taxonomies are no longer held to be sacrosanct.

This 'question of the animal' then also poses a huge problem for conventional humanist forms of historiography – or, how we tell historical stories. For Haraway both the historical content and historical form known as 'Modernity' can be mockingly characterised as 'The Greatest Story Ever Told'. Nietzsche long ago observed that with 'Modernity' God is declared dead and humans jettison themselves into his mythic historiographical position – that of magically possessing almost exclusive world-making powers and historiographical agency. Here humans become ‘subjects’ and pretty much everything else is relegated to the role of ‘objects’ for instrumentalisation. Haraway's work is certainly far from unique in revealing the violent power relationships inherent to this humanist historiographical picture and yet she is peculiar in the way in which she attempts to engender, decolonialise, queer, and animalise it. This, she believes will result in a telling of historical tales that are not only more historically accurate, but that will also constitute a better resource for our collective future.

The Companion Species explores the human-canine hybrid and symbiogenetic being in a non-systematic variety of different ways. Rigorously materialistic, Haraway opens the manifesto with a queasy admission that her dog's tongue has upon occasion caressed the back of her own throat. She speculates that viral vectors and non-filial genetic exchanges have actually made the two species up, in the flesh. The manifesto concludes with a scene of sexual voyeurism, which due to the anticipated sensitivities of Mute readers, I will not attempt to describe here.

In between, Haraway explores dog-human relationships. She critiques the dangerous fiction of unconditionally loving dogs and relationships whereby humans treat dogs as furry surrogates for children. Haraway would prefer to have dogs to children, and if she did ever give birth she would prefer it most of all to be to an alien. The human-pet relationship too is challenged as too difficult a feat for most animals to perform. Occasionally, a working relationship may grant specific canines a greater chance of surviving in this far from perfect world. Haraway also narrates her own dog-training experiences and glosses some of the theories surrounding appropriate human-canine relationships.

What the reader will not find in these pages however is any celebration of animal rights or any abstracted notion of equality alleged to exist between dogs and people. And lest the reader expect a love story with soppy romantic undertones; Haraway reminds us of dogs' historical role in the genocide of Native Americans, in the maintenance of African-American slavery, and in assisting US soldiers in carrying out war crimes in Vietnam. Companion Species was written sometime before Abu-Ghraib.

The manifesto also rewrites the history of two registered breeds of dogs – the Great Pyrenees and the Australian Shepherd. Yet Haraway knows the importance of the undocumented be they human or canine and so she also turns to the Satos (Puerto Rican Street Dogs whose presence in cyberspace facilitates their adoption into Northern US homes with all the attendant colonialist baggage such adoption practices customarily portend). Haraway's historicising resolutely shows that biological notions of 'pure breeds' are as fictitious as their racist counterparts in the human world. Everywhere though the question of who these various and quite different populations of non-human others are, what they might need, and how we can enter into a more mutually beneficial relationship with them is foregrounded.

A few comments remain. I wonder what this new attempt at historiography would have turned into if the symbiogenetic figures chosen had been other than humans and dogs. A wide universe of complex relationship is figured but the story is partially skewed towards these two initial, however complexly constituted non-identitarian historiographical agents. Yet in fairness, no one can escape partial, selective, and biased accounts of history. Haraway always admits this, which is what her earlier essay Situated Knowledges is all about. However, perhaps with the inappropriate quibbling of the vegetarian, after reading her declare that she fed her dog liver biscuits and that she ate hamburgers at Burger King, I found myself asking what this story would have looked like if it had been written from the vantage points of those deadened meaty beings? Is there not a truly subaltern form of historiography potentially creatable here? Specific dogs are creatures Haraway loves. I'm not sure that this in itself is a sufficient recipe for constructing the type of historiography that we so desperately need.

It may also be that conflictual relationships are overly sidelined, although being far from absent here. Haraway is rightly loathe to provide grist for the mill of the neoliberal social Darwinists who overpopulate this planet, but real history consists of huge amounts of conflict that are absolutely central to what we have all become. Telling new (her)stories wields the potential power to produce better worlds but I am unconvinced that her text inhabits the historical violence that generates it well enough.

What if the existence of something akin to class difference not just between humans, but between humans and dogs and between different animals themselves were figured into the story? Absurd to some perhaps, but as I write this review in a Manhattan where there are restaurants for pampered dogs, maybe they are not. It is not only to issues of co-constitutive loving but to these issues of complex insurgency that I hope this emergent conversation about the ‘question of the animal’ will begin to consider in the times ahead.

The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, And Significant Otherness, Donna Haraway, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003, £7.00

Tim Savage <adorno666 AT> is an ex-Montrealer who abandoned academia and now works teaching refugees English in London


Proud to be Flesh