Cyborgs are for lovers!

Confession: I love cyborgs. I first read Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” as an undergraduate (in Anna Joy Springer‘s experimental writing class, a course that has had lingering impacts on me, my writing and my reading ever since) and although I didn’t understand all that much of what Haraway was saying, I loved it. It was weird and complicated and full of inside jokes that I very much wanted to get. I’m teaching Gender and Technology in the information, technology and informatics program at Rutgers this semester, and in preparation for the unit on cyborgs, I asked students to look for photos and videos of cyborgs, and to write up little blurbs on how gender related to the media they found. If you want to check out what they found, here’s a link to the course tumblr.

Some of the descriptions of gender are fairly straightforward (“I think this cyborg is a man because …”) but some of them are a bit more nuanced (Stephen Hawking’s choice of a masculine voice synthesizer).  I was blown away that one of my students submitted a fairly in-depth analysis of an Adrienne Rich poem.  As a whole, the themes are largely what you’d expect – sci fi, sex appeal, probably not as much bestiality as Haraway would have wanted.  And although I’m aware that for some portion of my students, the process was probably just a Google search and a quick synopsis that touched on the first thing that said “gender” to them, even those searches say something about cyborg imagery in popular discourse.  Haraway’s article was written before most of my students were born, but in re-reading the text in preparation for class, I was struck by different ways I found her piece still useful – hybridity has continued to make traction as a means of feminist analysis (particularly in terms of methodology), her comments on the industrial-military complex in education continues to be salient, and the feminization of labor (although the term “homework economy” hasn’t made much headway) is at the core of a lot of dialogue on class and labor.  It’s fun to come back to this piece periodically, partly because I get more Haraway’s humor, partly because I’m appreciative of how influential the piece has been and how relevant it continues to be, partly because I like thinking of cyborgs as a theoretical, visceral nexus of bodies, machines, technologies, discourses and perversions.

3 thoughts on “Cyborgs are for lovers!

  1. John Carter McKnight

    Interesting that most of the images chosen by your students are twenty years old, post-dating Haraway’s piece by a decade, but still quite dated – and this at a time when pop culture is, if not as cyborg-filled as the 90s were, still pretty full of them, but in a different aesthetic than the classic 90s American Terminator or Japanese gynoid.

    Iron Man of course is a cyborg, and like Hawking dependent on his enhancements for survival. Captain America is more in the Haraway vein, of a biological enhancement, and the bestselling game Deus Ex is entirely about biotech enhancement, while Oscar Pistorius’ artificial legs and chemical enhancements for athletes are still in the news.

    I wonder what it is in the “cyborg” concept that draws us to dated, 90s visions rather than those immediately around us. Much as I love Haraway’s article as well, it suggests that we might be due for a new framing, in which students can see their own times and culture.

  2. I also still really like Haraway’s piece, but to me it is most useful in talking about tactical identity work and how collective identities like “women of color” or “queer” can be advantageous politically. I like that it decouples the identifier from the biological.

    I still, frequently, read papers where people rapturously discuss the cyborg body and how it is so liberating, etc. I think this is generally a misread of the article, but it does point to how cyborg theory itself is so out of fashion that there’s not much around to analyze the representations that John brings up above. Most recently I’ve seen slides including the robot in those Svedka Vodka ads which is not liberating at all, it’s like classic capitalist sexploitation. Haraway would probably classify that as the “blissed out cyberbunny” which she dismissed most of the “cyborg grrrls” 90s Wired junk as. See this interview with our own Lisa Nakamura:

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