Roses Are Red, Cyborgs Are Dead: Analyzing the Relevance of Haraway’s “Cyborg” in 2017

Ida Mahmoudi
JD Candidate, 2019

I said it – it might be time to carefully store Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” in our grandmothers’ treasure chests and keep it there. The piece is peppered with generalized notions of identity performance and a hint of techno-solutionism. In an effort to stray away from a homogenous sense of “womanhood,” Haraway’s analysis of disabled women is incomplete, if not entirely absent. In this piece, I analyze the ways in which Haraway’s metaphor of cyborgism is obsolete given the literal social realities and interactions between disabled persons and their prosthetics.

What is ironic about Haraway’s own affinity with biotechnology and biopolitics is that she omitted the lived reality of disabled persons. We currently live in a world where the term “cyborg” has separated into two subjects – a human and her prosthetic. Sobchack warns that when we use metaphors, we displace the realities of those people the message affects most.[1] What results is the erasure of the experiences of those who do not feel “posthuman,” “postgender,” and “postsex,” for example. In the context of prosthetic technology, using the term “cyborg” in 2017 has a different meaning than its fetishized meaning in Haraway’s piece. In her Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway abstracts the cyborg as “freed of the need to ground politics in ‘our’ privileged position of the oppression that incorporates all other dominations.”[2]

Not all women want to use or exercise what Haraway might call their “cyborgism.” In “Breast Cancer: Power vs. Prosthesis,” Audrey Lorde shares a concerning exchange between herself – a black, female, cancer survivor – and her nurse. She walks into her doctor’s office to be greeted by the nurse who anxiously remarks, “[y]ou’re not wearing a prosthesis.” Lorde responds that “it just didn’t feel right” to which the nurse responds disapprovingly, “it was better than nothing … you will feel so much better with it on.”[3] If some women reject their potential interactions with technology, other women should not condemn them.

Also interesting is Haraway’s paradoxical view of the cyborg. On the one hand, the cyborg is “our” ontology and that it determines “our” politics. On the other hand, the cyborg is a consequential means to an equitable world where no identity politics of gender, sexuality, unalienated labour, and pre-oedipal symbiosis are grounded. In other words, the cyborg is both the means and the end to her preferred world. In the context of disability, the “cyborg” does not provide the same liberating message and politics. The fact that a human requires, for example, a prosthetic to “live at the same level” as another able-bodied human does not seem to have the same endearing and optimistic message.

What immediately comes to mind is the identity of the “shut-in” and how able-bodied policymakers used techno-solutionist rhetoric to enact policies that spoke for disabled persons instead of allowing them to speak. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, U.S. policymakers fought for the “shut-in” when they decided to favour fewer high-powered national radio stations while cutting lower-powered stations.[4] They argued that high-powered national radio stations would shift the country’s culture to include disabled persons who would otherwise suffer from exclusion. This example illustrates how the “blessed boon” of technology was centred around disability discourse in order to achieve an outcome not associated with disabled persons’ rights. Instead, disability was instrumental to profitable media policy.

This is not to say that Haraway intentionally omitted disability discourse in order to facilitate her argument. Instead, if read while considering disabled persons’ performance in her utopia, Haraway might have resonated more strongly with an important group of actors in civil society.

In 2004, the United States National Council of Disability issued a report canvassing the ways in which research and innovation could lead to the creation of inclusive and universal technology design. Design for Inclusion analyzed the roles that industry players, the federal government, and consumers assumed in relation to automated teller machines (ATMs), cellphones, distance learning software, personal digital assistants, televisions, and voice recognition technologies.[5] The study found that in most cases, accessibility was a driving force in creating inclusive products. However, these same products that were designed to be accessible did not actually meet the needs of disabled users.[6]

These examples indicate that disability discourse shapes approaches toward innovative and accessible technological design. Yet, these designs are implemented at the cost of inadequacy for the people they purport to reflect, limiting capacity to engage in meaningful civic participation. Haraway’s work was revolutionary; she disrupted conventional ways of feminist mobilization, but times have changed. The mythical creation of the cyborg is no longer useful in techno-societal rhetoric because it alienates disabled persons from their literal social realities. This is why I take issue with Haraway’s Manifesto – it is meant for everybody, but it is not really meant for everybody.

 

[1] Vivian Sobchack, “A Leg to Stand On: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality” in Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2004) at 209.

[2] Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991) at 21.

[3] Audre Lorde, “Breast Cancer: Power Vs. Prosthesis” in The Cancer Journals: Special Edition (San Francisco: aunt lute books, 1980) at 60.

[4] Bill Kirpatrick, “’A Blessed Boon’: Radio, Disability, Governmentality, and the Discourse of the ‘Shut-In,’ 1920-1930” (2012) 29:3 Critical Studies in Media Communication at 165.

[5] Gerard Goggin & Christopher Newell, “The Business of Digital Disability” (2007) 23:3 The Information Society at 163.

[6] Ibid.

 

 

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