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

By Josephine Berry Slater, 22 August 2012

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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