Whatever Happened to the Cyborg Manifesto?

By Maria Fernandez and Suhail Malik, 10 July 2001
Image: Merlin Carpenter, A Colloquium of Traktors, 2000, ink on paper, 35x50cm, []

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