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Virtual sexes and feminist futures

Virtual sexes and
feminist futures
The philosophy of ‘cyberfeminism’

Jill Marsden

It’s not just that ‘god’ is dead; so is the ‘goddess’.

Donna Haraway

Whilst the majority of her work has received little
critical attention, Donna Haraway’s 1985 essay ‘A
Cyborg Manifesto’l has rapidly attained cult status in
many branches of contemporary theory. With this
single text Haraway appears to have succeeded in both
capturing the imagination of a generation of technophiles eagerly probing the electronic frontier and
simultaneously exposing the raw nerve of cultural
alarm const?quent upon the re-engineering of the ‘social’. Perhaps the greatest enthusiasm for her notion
of the cyborg has come from those self-proclaimed
voyagers in virtual reality – the ‘cyberpunk cowboys’

– currently championing the ‘digital revolution’.2 By
contrast, the most obvious resistance to her work has
emerged from the political Left, a somewhat ironic
consequence given the clear feminist sympathies of
‘A Cyborg Manifesto’. Since such diversity of opinion
derives in part from the suggestiveness of the term
‘cyborg’, an understanding of its imbrication within a
particular philosophical framework is a prerequisite
for any assessment of its political implications.

In what follows I propose to offer some remarks
on this now infamous tract, seeking to respond to the
concerns of Haraway’s critics. The principal focus for
this discussion will be an exploration of her ideas
concerning the production of the ‘real’, which I shall
argue are pivotal for appreciating her unorthodox
brand of feminist philosophy. Taking the view that
‘cyberfeminism’ implies a general critique of transcendent systems – and as such that Haraway’s text is
immune from many of its standard criticisms – I shall
go on to ask whether it is possible nevertheless to take
issue with her project in its own terms.


Radical Philosophy




The advent of the cyborg
Whilst contemporary responses to the encroaching
technization of social life range from the euphoric to
the paranoiac, few commentators have attempted to
explore the ‘middle ground’. The information revolution has had a profoundly polarizing effect on the
cultural imagination despite its consensual hallucination that historical agency is obsolescing in inverse
ratio to the emergent intelligence of the machine. For
high-tech cybernauts cruising the datascape in an
odyssey of hedonistic consumerism, the seemipg
collapse of the old social and political institutions has
signalled a release from tradition in every sense.

Critics of ‘technoculture’, on the other hand, dispute
the loss of the vocabulary of the social and the
political implicit in the latter’s anarchistic rhetoric and
register their anxieties about the novel possibilities for
human domination engendered by advanced technology.3 From the increasingly sophisticated developments in entertainment and hypermedia to the horrors
of panoptical computerized surveillance tracking its
disenfranchised labour force, technoculture appears
both complacently ‘smart’ and dangerously dystopic
– a confused and distorting place to be.

Beyond the flickering screen of such contrary
visions, Donna Haraway’s unashamedly utopian ‘A
Cyborg Manifesto’ emerges as something of a curio.

As is indicated by its frequently omitted subtitle ‘Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the
Late Twentieth Century’ – the scientific and the technological are theorized in conjunction with a political
perspective that has hitherto seeemed antithetica1. 4
Indeed, this is a socialist feminism of a strictly unorthodox kind. As a primatologist and historian of
science, Haraway maintains a deviant relationship with

the dominant humanist concerns of mainstream politics
and philosophy, prioritizing the behavioural study of
chimps and microchips above the intentionalist
analysis of agency and affect. At the outset of ‘A
Cyborg Manifesto’ she describes her work as an
attempt to construct ‘an ironic political myth faithful
to feminism, socialism, and materialism’, but with the
qualification that the fidelity here inscribed is ‘perhaps
more faithful as blasphemy is faithful, than as reverent
worship and identification’. 5 She goes on to cite her
essay as a contribution ‘to socialist-feminist culture
and theory in a postmodernist, non-naturalist mode and
in the utopian tradition of imagining a world without
gender’;6 but, as her scattered and occasionally acerbic
references to semiotics and deconstruction reveal, her
postmodernism is only minimally inflected by the
hermeneutics of the signifier. 7 Rather than endlessly
tracking the trace of differance or the unfolding of the
concept, Haraway draws attention to notions of
hybridity, connection and emergent kinship, all
functioning at the level of material production. Her
sacrilegious incursion into contemporary socialistfeminism thus entails jettisoning core philosophical
and political concepts such as ‘sex’ and ‘class’ in
favour of a materialist analysis of the processes
involved in their emergence as fundamental theoretical
terms. At the heart of this project, she invokes the
hybrid of machine and organism – the notorious ‘cyborg’ – which has become the critical focus for much
of the controversy surrounding her work.

According to Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ was
written ‘to find political direction in the 1980′ s in the
face of the hybrids “we” seemed to have become
worldwide’.8 Essentially, the work is driven by the
desire to cultivate a notion of political ‘community’

and ‘affinity’ whilst acknowledging the demise of
vanguard politics – by now an almost stupefyingly
familiar preoccupation in postmodernist theory.

However, what rescues Haraway’s project from the
endemic tedium of the ’embracing heterogeneity’ /
‘openness to the other’ sloganizing is its negotiation
with a philosophical dynamic especially appropriate
to the post-industrial age of information technology namely, the immanent comprehension of the real.

This is best described in terms of key transformations
in life sciences in the late twentieth century, in
particular the shift from ‘a science centred on the
organism, understood in functionalist terms, to a
science studying automated technological devices,
understood in terms of cybernetic systems’. 9
In marked contrast to the classical paradigm of the
closed, ‘conservative’ system premissed upon equi-

librium thermodynamics, cybernetic systems are
complex, feedback-controlled systems, responsive to
the flows of matter and energy that pass or ‘dissipate’

through them. Considered ergonomically as labouring,
desiring and reproducing systems, organic creatures
are integrated within information circuits as populational biocapital. As Manuel de Landa has shown,
within dissipative systems a popUlation (of atoms,
molecules, cells, animals, humans) may exhibit ’emergent’ or ‘synergistic’ properties not displayed by its
individual members in isolation. lo Since hybridity
emerges within the processes of material production
as an immanent modification of the system, hybrid
‘identity’ is entirely coextensive with its functioning.

Translating these ideas into a political idiom,
Haraway’s hybrid or ‘cyborg’ community may be
regarded as an ’emergent’ localized configuration
operating without reference to any pre-established
structure and identifiable solely in terms of its participation (e.g. the political campaign without the political
party). Tempting as it is to invest the formal conditions
for synthetic connection with substantive content,
Haraway makes it clear that for her the cyborg is not
an empirical ‘subject’, but rather its vanishing point:

By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic
time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated
hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are
cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our
politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both
imagination and material reality, the two joined
centres structuring any possibility of historical
transformation. II
In simultaneously aligning the cyborg with reality
and fantasy, Haraway frustrates attempts to import
qualitative distinctions between the literal and the
figurative, a gesture which also constitutes a refusal
of hierarchical codings between mind and body,
organic and inorganic, human and animal, and human
and machine. Rejection of these traditional dual isms
renders Haraway’s notion of the cyborg particularly
attractive to feminists seeking to articulate the contradictions of ‘woman’s identity’ as both non-human
(i.e. not-male) and non-animal. Indeed, her concern is
less with ‘essences’ (robust systems with limited
complexity) than with their social production as
thresholds of coherence (‘truths’ resilient to ‘reinvention’). Above all, the cyborg ‘is’ a boundary
engineer, the emergent product of inventive coupling:

Like any important technology, a cyborg is simultaneously a myth and a tool, a representation and
an instrument, a frozen moment and a motor of


social and imaginative reality. A cyborg exists
when two kinds of boundaries are simultaneously
problematic: (1) that between animals (or other
organisms) and humans, and (2) that between selfcontrolled, self-governing machines (automatons)
and organisms, especially humans (models of
autonomy). The cyborg is the figure born of the
interface of automaton and autonomy.12

Another patriarchal stereotype?

With considerable justification the notion of the ‘cyborg’ has been described as the ‘most sweeping expression’ of technoculture. 13 Whilst commentators such
as Margaret Morse note that ‘the actual status of the
cyborg is murky as to whether it is metaphor, a dreamlike fantasy, and/or a literal being,’ 14 the celluloid iconography of the robotic sci-fi mutant continues to feed
most critical discussions. Hence, it is typically argued
that ‘willing the cyborg into being appears equivalent
to wishing the problems of organic life away’, 15 or
that the cyborg promises ‘an idealized state of computer existence that rectifies the inadequacies and injustices of contemporary human life’ .16 Despite conceding
that ‘ideally, Haraway’s cyborg would liberate us from
social hierachies that perpetuate sexism and racism’,
critics such as Claudia Springer suspect that cyborg
fusion is basically escapist, appealing to those ‘unable
to cope with the complexity of human emotions’:

Vulnerable late-twentieth-century bodies and minds
turn to electronic technology to protect themselves
from confusion and pain. Fusion with computers
can provide an illusory sense of personal wholeness
reminiscent of the Lacanian Imaginary; the fused
cyborg condition erases the difference between self
and other. 17
Such interpretations are in part premissed on an
identification between Haraway’s cyborg and the
technology associated with ‘virtual reality’, which has
been said to reify a ‘mind/body split that is essentially
patriarchal and a paradigm of viewing that is phallic,
colonizing, and panoptic’ .18 The infamous cyberpunk
fantasy of leaving the ‘meat’ behind in favour of the
‘bodiless exultation of cyberspace’ (Gibson) has
further reinforced the view that the ‘interface’ of
human and machine is less symbiotic than monopolistic – a clear continuation of the rationalist dream of
transcending the body.

From a feminist perspective it has further been
claimed that the ‘cyborg has been constructed by
patriarchal discourse;’ 19 that the predominant ideology
connected to the blurring of machines and humans is
a militarist one ‘of masculinist force and domi-


nation’ ;20 and that ‘the interface with the cyberspatial
realities takes a toll on the female subject rarely
acknowledged by the cowboy heroes of cyberpunk’ .21
Anne Balsamo speaks for many when she argues that
cyborgs ‘reproduce limiting, not liberating, gender
stereotypes’, and hence that ‘focusing on the cyborg
image in hopes of unearthing an icon of utopian
thought does a great disservice to feminism. ’22 The
dominant representations of cyborgs in popular culture seem to sustain a patriarchal ideology that
renders Haraway’s invocation of the cyborg as an
‘ironic political myth’ an ultimately fruitless
enterprise. Thus, Mark Dery writes:

One thing that bothers me about the notion of the
cyborg as a useful myth is the fact that the flesh
cedes territory to invasive technologies – myoelectric
armatures, cyberoptic implants, brain sockets. If
machines continue to signify an impregnable
masculinity, and if the flesh continues to be coded
as feminine – as is so often the case in Hollywood
SF – then the myth of the cyborg is one more story
told about the feminine subjugated. 23
Arguing in a similar vein, Tricia Rose suggests that
‘the cyborg is a masculine construct in which the technology houses all of the hard, strong, Terminator
capacity, and the softer stuff is understood as the weak
portion, the part that bleeds, menstruates. ’24 In
summary, for many commentators the cyborg is the
apotheosis of phallocentrism, commodification and
technological domination, a phantasmic identification
of the most traditional kind.

Whatever merit these disparate criticisms might
have, they share one common tendency, namely that
of locating the notion of the cyborg within a precritical understanding of the machinic. Unambiguously
dualistic, commentaries of this type imply a specific
separation or distinction between technological
‘agency’ and the ‘matter’ of its operations, such that
it is possible to speak of an organic reality, either
irresponsibly wished away (in VR ‘travel’) or ideologically determined (as resource for exploitation). In
each case, the implication is that a natural human
integrity is grievously compromised by its contact with
silicon intelligence or robotic might – a process to
which the ‘feminine’ is deemed especially vulnerable.

However, as even the most glancing analysis of her
essay reveals, Haraway defines the cyborg as ‘a
creature of social reality as well as a creature of
fiction’; an imaginary and real resource in a ‘border
war’ against ‘polarity and hierarchical domination’ .25
Viewed in this way one has to question the ease with
which commentators equate the abstract cyborg con-

dition with its cinematic incarnations and the facility
with which they equate technology with domination.

Not only is this a failure to engage with Haraway’s
deliberately formal use of the term ‘cyborg’; to ask
whether it should be regarded literally or metaphorically is to persist with a specific distinction between
the real and the imaginary which her argument resists.

It would seem that most critical assessments of her
work remain organized by a fundamentally hylomorphic conception of activity as deliberative
(intention, design, labour, origin), within which matter

is presumed to be the passive, lifeless and inert pole
of a classical dualism. For such readings, the key issue
is one of locating and interrogating the organizing
agency, determining subject positions, and deciding
once and for all the ‘actual status’ of the cyborg.

It is scarcely fortuitous that criticisms of this type
should also reinforce a feminist agenda. The modernist
belief that culture attains itself through its transcendence of nature has differentially informed a range of
feminist theories which have sought to mark the
commonality of exploitation suffered by women,
animals and the earth.26 This shared frame of reference
is not without its own ironies given that most feminist
criticisms of Haraway’s cyborg focus on the blurring
of the boundary between the human and the machine,
with far less attention being given to the other major
boundary transgression which she cites – that between
the human and the animal (the separation of which
‘nothing really convincingly settles’). Indeed, Haraway
notes that ‘many branches of feminist culture affirm
the pleasure of connection of human and other
creatures’, where animal rights are not irrational
demands of human uniqueness, but rather attest to ‘a
clear-sighted recognition of connection across the discredited breach of nature and culture’. 27
If Haraway’s readers perceive the cyborg fusion
between humans and animals as less culturally threatening, this may owe as much to a suspect species
prejudice (the uncontested superiority of the rational
animal) as it does to a shared sense of kinship with
other organisms across the spectrum of natural life.

However, by implication the automaton is still positioned as qualitatively distinct from (and potentially
superior to) carbon-based life forms constituting the
rich panoply of the ‘natural’ world. A nature/culture
divide is thereby redetermined to the second power.

Sustaining this rigid differentiation is the view that
the boundary between the organic and non-organic is
constitutive – an evaluation which in itself arguably
represents a metaphysical commitment to the concepts
of essential identity and qualitative purity. But for
Haraway, in the default of absolute limits, there can
be no extrinsic categorial determinations differentiating the production of the ‘natural’ from the
‘cultural’, nor any control mechanisms independent of
the processes through which cyborg connections
emerge. As we shall now see, this means that the
cyborg is badly misconceived as the triumph of
instrumental technology over the natural realm, but
equally that feminism is badly misconceived as the
liberation of oppressed nature from the dominance of
patriarchal power.


In ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ Haraway describes the cyborg as a ‘matter of fiction and lived experience that
changes what counts as women’s experience in the late
twentieth century’ .28 Lest this be taken as an attempt
to reify experience or to abstract general principles
from empirical data, this assertion should be read in
conjunction with two other significant claims: namely,
that ‘there is nothing about being “female” that
naturally binds women’ ,29 and that ‘the cyborg is a
creature in a post-gender world’ .30 Haraway’s ‘cyberfeminism’ thus has no recourse to any biological
‘reality’, nor to any theory of gender. Moreover, she
maintains that ‘there is not even such a state as “being”
female, itself a highly complex category constructed
in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices’ .31 With bold, reckless strokes fundamental concepts are struck from the feminist lexicon,
leaving one to wonder how Haraway could purport to
be contributing to feminist practice at all. Yet the
impetus for her project lies not in the identification of
sexed identities or social roles but in the exploration
of the material processes of gendering which operate
beneath the symbolic codes of
identitarian thinking. This constitutes a
retreat from more familiar ‘subject/
other’ -guided feminist endeavours – already predicated upon an imaginary dialectic of presence and absence or
constitutive bifurcation – and devolves
upon understanding ‘gender’, ‘class’ and
‘race’ systemically rather than structurally in terms of immanent strata of intensity and their thresholds of coherence.

In this regard there is a potential alliance between Haraway’s cyborg and
certain branches of contemporary
ecofeminism, which, in their analysis of
flows of energy through the ecosystem,
displace the rigid architectonics of transcendent control structures, tracking
creative couplings beyond the purview
of the regulatory ego. As Stacy Alaimo
has commented: ‘Since cyborgs complicate male/female designations, the animal/human blurring doesn’t play into
misogynist discourse the way the blurring between women and nature does’ .32
Indeed, Haraway fundamentally opposes
the move to align woman with nature as
oppressed materiality, a narrative that
has proved less liberating than self-


reinforcing. As she argues vociferously in Primate
Visions, monkeys and apes have a privileged relation
to nature and culture because they occupy the ‘border
zones between those potent mythic poles’ and as such
provide an oblique perspective upon the bio-politics
of constructing scientific ‘truth’ .33 Claiming that
primatology is ‘simian orientalism’ which displays the
Western imagination of the origin of sociality itself,
she suggests that what might count as ‘female’ and as
‘nature’ in this context belongs to the logic of capitalist colonialism, for which ‘nature is only the raw
material of culture, appropriated, preserved, enslaved,
exalted, or otherwise made flexible for disposal by
culture’ .34 Just like cybernetic creatures, apes and
monkeys can also call into question the realm of the
‘born’ and the ‘made’, problematizing the very notion
of the ‘organic’ as such.

This is clearly not without consequence for the
sex/gender distinction which has been so integral to
feminism. In Haraway’s view, ‘Gender cannot mean
simply the cultural appropriation of biological sexual
difference; indeed, sexual difference is itself the more
fundamental cultural construction.’ 35 She notes how

Western feminist theory can be said to begin at the
same historical moment – in the late eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries – as the discourses of biology
and anthropology. In this period the ‘organism’ was
regarded as the pre-eminent ‘natural-technical object
of knowledge’, with functionalism as its ruling logic.

Far from being ignored, ‘the female animal emerged
as a condensed focus of medical and other practices
… as woman emerged at the nub of social theory.’36
Haraway suggests that in the age of bio-politics the
female body is produced as the site of normalizing
discourses of power which help to position woman
within a heterosexist, racist and productionist paradigm: ‘female embodiment seemed to be given,
organic, necessary; and female embodiment seemed
to mean skill in mothering and its metaphorical
extensions’ Y Whilst the cultivation of the concept of
gender has proved useful in the feminist struggle to
contest the naturalization of social inequities, it has
simultaneously served to validate a notion of the
grounding truth of female ‘nature’, legitimating the
political construction of ‘sex’ as ‘fact’.

To assert that there is no given reality beneath social inscriptions perhaps comes less readily to a scientist than to a philosopher, and Haraway is careful
to avoid the pitfalls of a merely linguistic idealism.

To claim that there is no world of which people
struggle to give an account ‘would be to reduce a
complex field to one pole of precisely the dualisms
under analysis’ .38 For similar reasons she is equally
eager to mark her distance from any epistemological
realism that purports to occupy a disinterested vantage
point outside the cultural field that renders its account
possible in the first place. Such caveats are set against
‘an inherited analytical tradition, deeply indebted to
Aristotle … that turns everything into a resource for
appropriation.’ 39
Nature/culture and sex/gender are not loosely
related pairs of terms; their specific form of relation
is hierarchical appropriation, connected as Aristotle
taught by the logic of active/passive, form/matter,
achieved form/resource, man/animal, final/material
cause. Symbolically, nature and culture, as well as
sex and gender, mutually (but not equally) construct
each other; one pole of a dualism cannot exist
without the other. 40
The thought of production implicated in the classical
hylomorphic model deprives matter of any status as
agent in the production of knowledge. As such, the
appropriationist logic of domination built into the
nature/culture binarism is replayed in the sex/gender

distinction, but this time with the female body as the
impassive, malleable clay.

In the context of this intellectual heritage, Haraway
views the fundamental feminist project as commensurate with the ‘reinvention of nature’. Consequently,
in her work the physicalistic postulation that matter
receives its achieved form ‘from without’ is liquidated
in a nexus of cybernetics and chaos theory, and
Aristotelianism is re-routed within an immanent system of intensive differentiation or tendential energy
flux (nature as ‘active’). No longer thought hierarchically or dialectically, the ‘distinction’ between
nature and culture which continues to structure
critiques of the cyborg is registered gradationally in
terms of open-ended scales of complexity:

Difference is theorized biologically as situational,
not intrinsic, at every level from gene to foraging
pattern, thereby fundamentally changing the
biological politics of the body.41
Inasmuch as any ‘creature’ is both constituted and
transected by flows of matter and energy, it is made
up of differential rhythms which ‘situate’ and define
the various strata, simultaneously ‘expressing’ immanent connectivity and difference: cyborg ‘identity’ .42
This generates a new, ‘non-organic’ thinking about the
nature of embodiment and ‘real’ limitation. In ‘A
Cyborg Manifesto’ the vocabulary of consti!utive limitation (conceptual opposition, hierarchical dualism,
structural bipolarity) is superseded by a terminology
of non-linear dynamics appropriate to communication
technologies. As Haraway notes, cybernetic control
systems ‘concentrate on boundary conditions and interfaces, on rates of flows across boundaries – and not
on the integrity of natural objects’ .43
From a high-tech perspective the body is a biotic
component or cybernetic communications system, in
relation to which ‘one must think not in terms of
essential properties, but in terms of design, boundary
constraints, rates of flows, systems logics, costs of
lowering constraints’ .44 Limitation is accordingly
formulated in terms of ‘virtual boundaries’ or
immanent thresholds which are ‘actualized’ in the
flows that cross them but which do not ‘set’ the landscape of possibilities in advance. That aspects of
embodiment appear robust and ‘lawlike’ is a function
of their attained coherence at a certain threshold of
intensity but does not preclude further ‘evolution’. This
is not to invoke any theatrical or inherently symbolic
notion such as gender ‘masquerade’ or free play of
the signifier, but rather to understand the ‘real’ in terms
of the way in which it is built. As a phenomenon such


as the ‘phantom limb’ indicates, lived bodily boundaries form part of an intensive corporeal schema and
need not coincide with the borders of the body as
empirically observed. 45 Haraway dubs bodies
‘material-semiotic generative nodes’ because ‘their
boundaries materialize in social interaction’ and as
objects ‘do not pre-exist as such’ .46
For this reason, cyberfeminism resists appealing to
the organic body by opposing it to the technological
body as some feminists have done. 47 Understanding
embodiment in terms of processes of immanent selforganization enables one to engage effectively with
the ‘partial, fluid, sometimes aspect of sex and sexual
embodiment’ ,48 which is to acknowledge that a woman
does not persistently experience her corporeality as
maternal or heterosexual. As contemporary feminists
such as Judith Butler and Luce Irigaray have shown,
‘sex’ functions as a regulatory ‘norm’ which instantiates or ‘materializes’ a culturally specific (i.e. phallic)
notion of sexual difference through its repeated
‘citation’ in discursive practices – one example being
the (legal/medical/religious) recourse to reproductive
capacity in the sexing of bodies as ‘female’ .49 For
cyberfeminism sexuality is ‘virtual’ – a voyage through
a rich spectrum of corporeal possibilities and one
scarcely touched by the much hyped gender-switching
on the Internet. 50 Indeed, those critics who argue that
‘virtual reality’ reinforces Cartesian duality by replacing the body with a body image are right so long as
cybersexuality remains organized by a binary gender
system and mediated by the cyberpunk fantasy of
leaving the ‘meat’ behind.

Haraway’s notion of cyborg-embodiment, on the
other hand, contests the premiss that ‘the subject’ is
the tenant of its own private data net: ‘Why should
our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other
beings encapsulated by skin?,51 Implicitly conceiving
the interface as the becoming-flesh of the machine,
she reintegrates the technological within the natural.

This is not a flight from ‘the problems of organic
life’, nor the elaboration of ‘an idealized state of
computer existence’, but an experiment in new ways
of becoming embodied. Contrary to the critics who
locate the cyborg within a masculinist paradigm of
viewing, Haraway’s reinvention of nature plunges
philosophy into a tactile environment of communication beyond that which can be seen. In the eclipse
of the Oedipal sun there is no castration myth to be
rehearsed – or rather, there is only castration: the
impotence consequent upon an enucleated speculative
philosophy which apportions sexed positions in terms
of the neon phallic sign. In the darkness of cybernetic


circuitries bodies are constituted as fluid, open
systems – myriad random programmes which simply
‘find their way’ Y
Haraway’s rejection of the organic body as locus
for body politics is clearly problematic for feminists
wishing to root their activism in a more stable sense
of corporeal subjectivity, but she insists that there are
‘great riches for feminists in explicitly embracing the
possibilities inherent in the breakdown of clean distinctions between organism and machine and similar
distinctions structuring the Western self.’ 53 Arguing
that it is the ‘simultaneity of breakdowns that cracks
the matrices of domination and opens geometric
possibilities’ , she cautions against the feminist
attempt to construct a revolutionary subject from the
‘perspective of a hierarchy of oppressions and/or a
latent position of moral superiority, innocence, and
greater closeness to nature’. 54 These agendas almost
inevitably repeat the structures of domination that
they diagnose by seeking to rewrite the feminine back
into a history of phallocentrism:

These plots are ruled by a reproductive politics rebirth without flaw, perfection, abstraction. In this
plot women are imagined either better or worse off,
but all agree that they have less selfuood, weaker
individuation, more fusion to the oral, to Mother,
less at stake in masculine autonomy. But there is
another route to having less at stake in masculine
autonomy, a route that does not pass through .

Woman, Primitive, Zero, the Mirror Stage and its
imaginary. It passes through women and other
present-tense, illegitimate cyborgs, not of Woman
born, who refuse the ideological resources of
victimization so as to have a real life. 55
For Haraway, having less at stake in masculine
autonomy means to escape the transcendent structures
of a subject-centred feminism. She thereby refuses to
become stranded in the saltflats of a slavish politics of
ressentiment which positions woman as either victim
of an oppressive masculinity or guardian of moral
virtue. Cyborg politics is freed from the need to root
politics in obdurate insistence on bodily integrity,
organic purity and the primacy of the maternal. What
this facilitates is a politics of ‘affinity’ – the
construction of a ‘kind of postmodernist identity out
of otherness, difference, and specificity’ .56 Haraway
suggests that the label ‘women of colour’ may function
as a non-natural, inclusive disjunction for all those
non-white women negated by the category ‘woman’

and all the non-black women whose specific ethnic
identity is negated by the category ‘black’. This is a
hybrid, cyborg identity that ‘cannot affirm the capacity

to act on the basis of natural identification, but only
on the basis of conscious coalition, of affinity, of
political kinship’ .57 Freed from the guilt of excluding
and silencing women in the attempt to speak for
Everywoman, cyborg politics furnishes political
unities ‘without relying on a logic of appropriation,
incorporation, and taxonomic identification’ .58 According to Haraway, ‘cyborg feminists have to argue that
“we” do not want any more natural matrix of unity
and that no construction is whole’ .59 Positively
‘denatured’ and machinically integrated with other
flows which bypass the discursive control of transcendent terms, the cyborg names the formal possibility
of a plenitude of interconnections in the integrated

that domains such as the ‘home’ and the ‘workplace’

are immanently redesigning themselves:

The actual situation of women is their integration/
exploitation into a world system of production/
reproduction and communication called the
informatics of domination. The home, workplace,
market, public arena, the body itself – all can be
dispersed and interfaced in nearly infinite, polymorphous ways, with large consequences for
women and others … 61

female), she suggests that socialist-feminism should

Because these consequences are very different for
different people, oppositional movements are difficult
to imagine but nevertheless ‘essential for survival’.

Since for Haraway ‘the only way to characterize the
informatics of domination is as a massive intensification of insecurity and cultural impoverishment,
with common failure of subsistence networks for the
most vulnerable’ ,62 the forging of new relations of
affinity and cyborg ‘identities’ has never been more

Haraway’s call for the rethinking of community in
the age of technoculture is optimistic, upbeat and
invigorating in its refusal to demonize technology, but
some might argue that in spite of its good intentions
it fails to follow through the implications of its philosophical stance. The issue here is not that Haraway
avoids offering concrete solutions to the social
problems she identifies, because, as we have noted,
the conditions for cyborg politics are merely ‘formal’

and in no sense prescriptive. Indeed, the evolution of
alliances unthinkable according to previous historical,
cultural and sexual divisions may serve a wide range
of political objectives when invested with substantive
content. However, in a way this is precisely the
problem. Relations of affinity can be constructed in
all kinds of contexts, as the alliance of feminism and
censorship in New Right politics is currently demonstrating. If it is the inherent rhetoric of domination
and oppression (of ‘natural human integrity’) that
disqualifies this and other such couplings from the
politic~ of the cyborg, the problem of articulating
‘progressive’ and ‘oppositional’ political movements
(Haraway’s terms) still remains. 63 To ask what makes
a cyborg alliance liberating rather than oppressive or
parasitic may be to reinscribe an extrinsic moral
vantage point, thereby misunderstanding Haraway’s
philosophy of immanence. But, arguably, this is
precisely the move which she makes in the very act
of contesting the structural dynamics of domination
and oppression:

rethink boundaries systemically in order to appreciate

The machine is not an it to be animated, worshipped,

Cyborg responsibility?

As we have seen, the attempt to reinsert Haraway’s
cyborg within a phallocentric politics of domination
is impeded by her critique of the hylomorphic and
dualistic axiomatics integral to the logics and
practices of domination in the Western tradition. To
counterpose technology to ‘the complexity of human
emotions’ or to view the cyborg as fatally compromised by its inherence in the military-industrial
complex is to demonstrate a humanist prejudice
against the idea of machinic nature. Just as organic
life expresses a capacity for self-organization and
immanent redesign, technology too organizes itself
under market capital using humanity as a necessary
machine part. This is the full sense of matter as active
or nature as ‘agent’. As Haraway comments:

High tech culture challenges … dualisms in
intriguing ways. It is not clear who makes and
who is made in the relation between human and
machine. It is not clear what is mind and what body
in machines that resolve into coding practices. 60
If, in spite of it all, the cyborg remains too over-

determined as phallic icon to impact upon the
dominant ideology, it is worth acknowledging that
Haraway’s rethinking of analytical boundaries simultaneously feeds into her socialist-feminist analysis of
the new world order contoured by the social relations
of science and technology. Pointing to the extreme
mobility of capital, the emerging international
division of labour, and the weakening of family
groupings that are rendering traditional dichotomies
ideologically questionable (e.g. public/private, male/


and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an
aspect of our embodiment. We can be responsible
for machines; they do not dominate or threaten us.

We are responsible for boundaries; we are they.64
With this plea for ‘responsibility’, one of the
central tensions of Haraway’s work comes into focus.

From the beginning of ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ she is
explicit in her argument for ‘pleasure in the confusion
of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction’ ,65 but simultaneously denies the appeal to transcendent agency that would render such responsibility
possible. As she remarks, “‘we” did not originally
choose to be cyborgs but choice grounds a liberal
politics and epistemology that imagines the reproduction of individuals before the wider replications of
“texts'” .66 If we do not choose to be cyborgs, can we
choose our responsibilities for machines? Are ‘we’

still in control? This is a variant of the problem that
hampers Haraway’s endeavour to inject ‘progressive’

politics into a systemic conception of power. To label
the network of relations the ‘informatics of domination’ only obfuscates the issue further, for what can
the concept of ‘domination’ actually mean if it is not
clear who makes and who is made in the relation
between human and machine? Similarly, responsibility
for constructing boundaries can only have any validity
if one continues to operate with a decisionist vocabulary. Haraway claims that ‘feminist cyborg stories
have the task of recoding communication and intelligence to subvert command and control’ ,67 yet, despite
her extremely incisive elaboration of the nature of
cybernetic control systems, she seems to have an allergic reaction to thinking control immanently when
she works through the political implications of unhooking production from both intention and teleology.

In fear of losing the possibility of acting politically at
all, she re-anthropomorphizes control – a fundamentally defensive gesture in the face of the threat of
the uninhibited explosion of control implied by

In insisting on ‘political accountability’68 and
ethical obligation, Haraway struggles to rescue ‘A
Cyborg Manifesto’ from the charge of technological
determinism, but in so doing weakens the case for
understanding technological revolution and biological
evolution as symbiotic. Indeed, her uncritical appeal
to responsibility smacks of the slave morality that
cyberfeminism otherwise so refreshingly ignores.

Short-circuiting her own ambitious reinvention of
nature, she refuses to face the full trauma of dismantling the biological order, and, unable to tolerate
the full cyborg coupling of science and politics,


appeals to a security system of humanist values to
protect her cyborg from illicit, anarchic and random
liaisons. Perhaps in the desire to hold sway over a
future that is potentially ‘monstrous’ for the economically vulnerable, she rein scribes the dialectical
illusion of transcendent control in the guise of an
ethical sensibility. In this gesture production is once
again theorized in terms of transcendence; matter is
separated from what it can do; and there is a paralogistic inference from control to an agent giving the
orders. Having challenged the values implicit in the
logics of the natural sciences, Haraway fails to carry
through the critical project with respect to her own
work, skirting close to mouthing the dutiful platitudes
of many other postmodernist incursions into the
political. By the same token, the danger of lapsing
back into a classical philosophy of transcendence
need not be overemphasized; for, after all, it is
Haraway who has already presented this case so

One may be left with the impression that politics
is bankrupt in the anarchic self-designing landscapes
of technoculture, and that cyborg politics is not only
a hybrid term but a thoroughly otiose one. As long as
one labours to graft a speculative model of revolution
onto immanent communication systems this will probably remain a judicious appraisal. Perhaps we are left
with the choice between either returning once again
to notions of praxis and ideology and reconstructing
a political space which enables one to mobilize an
ethical vocabulary of rights and responsibility or
junking morality, annihilating the super-ego, exacerbating the fantasies of the ‘console cowboys’ and
jacking into cyberspace. Or perhaps it is illusory even
to assume there is any ‘choice’? In any case,
Haraway’s attempt to synthesize the two perspectives
comes to grief, if only because it is assumed that in
the absence of transcendent agency, political activism
of any kind is idle. However, perhaps it is the assumption that such control ever existed which should
be challenged. Understanding nature cybernetically
suggests that ‘individual’ actions are always bound
within larger material processes that both traverse and
exceed them. Perhaps a more appropriate political
vocabulary would be one in which situations are
interpreted in terms of degrees of control, resistance,
rates of stability and changes in flow – with all that
this implies for diagnosing relations of power. In this
regard it may be added that biochemists and computer
programmers are now exploring the generation of systems which they do not ‘control’ – systems which
have ‘choices’ among ‘local destinies’ .69 One partici-

pates but interactively, not as a self-enclosed unit. At
its most suggestive this describes the functioning of
cyborg-embodiment as relational, adaptive and
synergistic – a creative voyage into the unknown.

1. Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science,
Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late
Twentieth Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women:

The Reinvention of Nature, Free Association Books,
London, 1991, pp. 149-81.

2. See Vivian Sobchack’s ‘New Age Mutant Ninja
Hackers: Reading “Mondo 2000″‘, in Mark Dery, ed.,
‘Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture’, special
issue of The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 92, no. 4,
Fall 1993, pp. 569-84; and Scott Bukatman’s ‘Terminal
Resistance: Cyborg Acceptance’, in his Terminal
Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science
Fiction, Duke University Press, Durham NC and
London, 1993, pp. 299-329.

3. The Frankfurt School is the obvious locus for
discussions of this kind. For a recent example of this
kind of critique, see Simon Penny’s ‘Virtual Reality as
the Completion of the Enlightenment Project’, in
Gretchen Bender and Timothy Druckrey, eds, Culture
on the Brink: Ideologies of Technology, Bay Press,
Seattle, 1994, pp. 231-48.

4. In articulating inequities in the sexual division of
labour, socialist feminists have argued that technology
is mediated by the economic environment of patriarchal
capitalism. See luliet Mitchell, Women: The Longest
Revolution, Virago, London, 1984.

5. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women, p. 149.

6. Ibid., p. 150.

7. In her essay ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science
Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial
Perspective’ (Simians, Cyborgs and Women, pp. 183201), Haraway reflects on her intellectual development,
including an early ‘modernist poetic moment when cells
seemed to be cells and organisms, organisms’, wryly
adding: ‘but then came the law of the father and its
resolution of the problem of objectivity, solved by
always already absent referents, deferred signifieds,
split subjects, and the endless play of signifiers. Who
wouldn’t grow up warped?’ (p. 184).

8. Simians, Cyborgs and Women, p. 3.

9. Ibid., p. 45.

10. See Manuel de Landa, ‘Virtual Environments and the
Emergence of Synthetic Reason’, in Dery, ed., ‘Flame
Wars’, pp. 793-815. See also Ilya Prigogine and
Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos, Flamingo,
London, 1984, for a discussion of attractors and
bifurcations in dissipative systems. Whilst Haraway
does not directly engage with these theories in ‘A
Cyborg Manifesto’, they complement her technobiopolitics in clearly discernible ways. Seejn particular
‘The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies: Constitution of
Self in Immune System Discourse’, in Simians, Cyborgs
and Women, pp. 203-230.

11. Simians, Cyborgs and Women, p. 150.

12. Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and
Nature in the World of Modern Science, Verso, London,
1992, p. 139.

13. See Stanley Aronowitz, ‘Technology and the Future of
Work’, in Bender and Druckrey, eds, Culture on the
Brink, p. 19.

14. See Margaret Morse, ‘What do Cyborgs Eat? Oral Logic
in an Information Society’, in Bender and Druckrey,
eds, Culture on the Brink, p. 158.

15. Ibid., p. 159.

16. See Claudia Springer, ‘Sex, Memories, and Angry
Women’, in Dery, ed., ‘Flame Wars’, p. 719.

17. Ibid., p. 718.

18. See Simon Penny, in Bender and Druckrey, eds, Culture
on the Brink, p. 238.

19. See Tricia Rose in Mark Dery’s ‘Black to the Future:

Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and
Tricia Rose’, in Dery, ed., ‘Flame Wars’, p. 773.

20. See Stacy Alaimo, ‘Cyborg and Ecofeminist
Interventions: Challenges for an Environmental
Feminism’, Feminist Studies, vol. 20, no. 1, Spring
1994, p. 148. Despite her reservations concerning the
‘phallotechnology’ of the cyborg, Alaimo remains confident that Haraway’s work is of value for ecofeminist
ends. See discussion below.

21. See Bukatman, ‘Terminal Resistance: Cyborg Acceptance’, p. 316. Bukatman adds: ‘In cyberpunk the desire
to merge with the machine is romanticized as a
necessary but voluntary action, the next evolutionary
step. In feminist science fiction, this desire to merge
with the machine is viewed as aberrant, and is often
presented as an act of surrender rather than empowerment.’

22. See Anne Balsamo, ‘Reading Cyborgs Writing
Feminism’, Communication, vol. 10, 1988, p. 341.

23. See interview in Dery, ed., ‘Flame Wars’, pp. 772-3.

24. Ibid., p. 773.

25. Simians, Cyborgs and Women, p. 151.

26. See in particular Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature: The
Roaring Inside Her, Harper & Row, New York 1978;
and Mary Daly, GynlEcology: The Metaethics of
Radical Feminism, Beacon Press, Boston MA, 1978.

27. Simians, Cyborgs and Women, p. 152.

28. Ibid., p. 149.

29. Ibid., p. 155.

30. Ibid., p. 150.

31. Ibid., p. 155.

32. See Alaimo, ‘Cyborg and Ecofeminist Interventions’,

33. Primate Visions, p. 1.

34. Ibid., p. 13.

35. Ibid., p. 350.

36. Ibid., p. 289.

37. Simians, Cyborgs and Women, p. 180.

38. Primate Visions, p. 12.

39. Ibid., p. 13.

40. Ibid., p. 12.

41. Simians, Cyborgs and Women, p. 200.

42. This is not a line of thought that Haraway explicitly
develops. For further discussion of these ideas, see
Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of ‘the machinic phylum’

in A Thousand Plateaux: Capitalism and Schizophrenia,
Vol. 2 (1980), translated by Brian Massumi, The
Athlone Press, London, 1988: ‘the machinic phylum is
materiality, natural or artificial, and both simultaneously; it is matter in movement, in flux, in variation,
matter as a conveyor of singularities and traits of
expression’ (p. 409). See also Manuel de Landa,
‘Nonorganic Life’, in lonathan Crary and Sandford










Kwinter, eds, Incorporations, Zone Books, New York,

Simians, Cyborgs and Women, p. 163.

Ibid., p. 162.

See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of
Perception (1945), translated by Colin Smith, Routledge
& Kegan Paul, London, 1962. On the ‘imaginary limb’ ,
see Chapter 1. See also Chapter 3, in which MerleauPonty speaks of the superimposition of ‘virtual’ space
onto physical space. (p. 111).

Simians, Cyborgs and Women, pp. 200-201.

Haraway cites Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich and Susan
Griffin in this context (ibid., p. 174).

Ibid., p. 180.

See Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, Routledge, New York and
London, 1993, for a diagnosis of the cultural production
of gender norms. See Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is
Not One (1977), translated by Catherine Porter, Cornell
University Press, New York, 1985, for experiments in
their rewriting.

It would go beyond the parameters of this discussion to
address these issues here, but I refer the interested
reader to Juniper Wiley’s ‘No BODY is ‘Doing It’:

Cybersexuality as a Postmodern Narrative’, in Body &
Society, vol. 1, no. 1, March 1995, pp. 145-62. For a
radical feminist critique of ‘virtual women’, see Dianne
Butterworth’s ‘Wanking in Cyberspace’, Trouble &

Strife, no. 27, Winter 1993, pp. 33-7.

51. Simians, Cyborgs and Women, p. 178.

52. See Sadie Plant’s fascinating ‘The Future Looms:

Weaving Women and Cybernetics’, in Body & Society,
vol. 1, no. 3-4, November 1995, pp. 45-64.

53. Simians, Cyborgs and Women, p. 174.

54. Ibid., pp. 174 and 176.

55. Ibid., p. 177.

56. Ibid., p. 155.

57. Ibid., p. 156.

58. Ibid., p. 157.

59. Ibid., p. 157.

60. Ibid., p. 177.

61. Ibid., p. 163.

62. Ibid., p. 172.

63. Whilst presenting the cyborg as that which will subvert
‘the tradition of progress, the tradition of the appropriation of nature as a resource for the productions
of culture’ (Simians, Cyborgs and Women, p. 150),
Haraway continues to advocate – seemingly without
irony – ‘effective progressive politics’ (ibid., p. 165).

64. Simians, Cyborgs and Women, p. 180.

65. Ibid., p. 150.

66. Ibid., p. 176.

67. Ibid., p. 175.

68. Ibid., p. 169.

69. See Manuel de Landa, ‘Virtual Environments and the
Emergence of Synthetic Reason’, p. 812.

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