The First Cyborg in Chthulucene

Cyborgization means human co-development with machines: new technological entities arise in response to human and social needs, and at the same time humans and social behaviors adapt to conditions and possibilities (the so-called affordances) offered by machines.

Donna Haraway is one of the most important figures in the contemporary humanities. Her ticket to a remarkable career was the pioneering “Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s” (1985), a cult text, familiar to anyone interested in the development of science and technology in a wider social, cultural, and political context.

Haraway, then working at the University of California in Santa Cruz, received an o er from the Socialist Review, a magazine published by the West Coast Collective; they needed a text outlining the perspective of what was possible and saying how to achieve it. Let us recall that it was the time of consolidation of the neoliberal ideology, Margaret Thatcher was preparing for her battle with the miners, and Ronald Reagan was slowly approaching the end of his first term as president of the United States.

In the Soviet Union, the real socialism project was dying together with its old men. In Poland, the belief in the viability of democratic socialism, still visible in the Solidarity program, was crushed by the tanks of December 1981. In France, the socialists, who under the leadership of François Mitterrand and in alliance with the communists in 1988 started an ambitious left-wing project, were soon confronted with a new force—globalization and globalized capital. “There Is No Alternative” for free-market liberal capitalism, TINA for short, became the slogan of the day, which for many still remains in force.

Science Is Subject to Human Weaknesses

This was the atmosphere in which Donna Haraway, a biologist by training and a committed feminist-Marxist intellectual by temperament, was tasked with inventing an alternative. When studying biology at the prestigious Yale University, Haraway had discovered that she was less interested in pure science and more in practicing science as a social and cultural activity. Thus she joined a growing community of researchers who rejected the positivist belief in the alleged neutrality and objectivity of the scientific method. Like any other area of human life, science is subject to human weaknesses—it is influenced by relations of power in laboratories, by beliefs, and by cultural stereotypes.

It is good to be aware of these weaknesses, as they can be important for interpretations of the data obtained during research. For example, does the language of competition, aggression, and domination used for describing behaviours in groups of apes describe real relations in these groups or is it a projection of relations which reign (and certainly reigned) in laboratories dominated by men?

Like any other area of human life, science is subject to human weaknesses—it is in uenced by relations of power in laboratories, by beliefs, and by cultural stereotypes.

Did Charles Darwin not use the vocabulary of 19th-century Victorian capitalism when describing the mechanisms of evolution? After all, Pyotr Kropotkin, who relied on other observations, came to the conclusion that cooperation rather than competition was the great force driving evolution forward.

A critical approach to the system of science in its actual form did not discourage Haraway from science and technology itself, therefore she did not take the path travelled by many feminists in those times. In reaction to the patriarchate ruling the world of technology and science they chose a denial of technology, often for the sake of a sentimental ecologism feeding on a vision of recovering harmony through a reconciliation with Mother Earth.

War as a Technocratic Enterprise

The scholar from Santa Cruz was very well aware of how the industrial-military-scientific complex was consolidating and that its essence was the development of computer technologies. Thanks to Robert McNamara and his computers, the war in Vietnam turned into a technocratic enterprise, managed by C3I (Command, Control, Communications, and Intelligence) systems. Under Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the American army entered the stage of star wars, an incredible increase of military expenditure and investment in the newest technological solutions. The spirit of consolidation of power and capital in the hands of the patriarchate permeated popular culture. This was the time when William Gibson published perhaps the most important cyberpunk book, The Neuromancer (1984; it popularized the term “cyberspace”), Ridley Scott surprised the world with The Blade Runner, and James Cameron introduced Terminator (1984).

Instead of giving in, Haraway decided to take away the initiative from men and when Ronald Reagan was starting his second term, she announced her “Manifesto for Cyborgs.” She surprised everyone: the socialists from the East Coast Collective hated the text, unlike the West Coast Collective, which was enraptured. Similar divisions appeared in feminist communities. And little wonder—Haraway went across traditional binary divisions of technology/culture, humans/nature, man/woman.

The “Manifesto” proposes a new language, based on the acknowledgement that the symbiosis of humans with technology, especially in the age of the IT revolution, irreversibly changed not only the living conditions of people.

A critical approach to the system of science in its actual form did not discourage Haraway from science and technology itself, therefore she did not take the path travelled by many feminists in those times.

The essence of humans also changed—we became cyborgs, “chimeras, hybrids of machines and organisms.” Cyborgization means human co-development with machines: new technological entities arise in response to human and social needs, and at the same time humans and social behaviors adapt to conditions and possibilities (so called affordances) offered by machines.

A Full Cyborg Is an Agent Defined by Its Actions

Haraway points out, however, that the change does not affect only real aspects of everyday life, increasingly influenced by interventions of technical systems. No less important is the change of imagination, the cyborgization of minds, caused, for example, by the works of popular culture we already spoke about. And it is this change that contains an emancipatory potential, an answer to the TINA slogan. The alternative does not exist in the world ordered by the binary divisions quoted above. They are the source of male domination, expressed, for example, in the arms race and militarization.

A paradoxical by-product of this race is cyborgization, which by removing the line between organism and machine opens the way to abolishing other divisions, including the most important one—into man and woman. Because a full cyborg has no sex, it is an agent defined by its actions rather than its sexuality. This discovery opens the way to an alternative. It leads through becoming aware of your cyborg condition and taking control over it through socializing knowledge and technology.

Haraway is conscious of the ambiguity of technological solutions: the Internet may be an instrument of both social integration and achieving domination by corporations. This is where the political nature of technology lies— it opens new possibilities through its ambiguity. It is better than escapism based on the belief that you can run away from modernity to a charming innocence from pre-modern times. There is no escape, but there is a possibility of fighting. “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess,” declared Haraway.

Changing the Perspective on Nature

The text, written more than thirty years ago, has lost nothing of its power and relevance, but Haraway did not stop at it and she formulated other manifestos. The second, from 2003, is “The Companion Species Manifesto.” This vague title conceals another radical move, continuing the path indicated in the “Manifesto for Cyborgs.” If there is no borderline between machines and organisms, then how are relations between organisms, for example people and animals, shaped? Haraway shows that using sharp distinctions between species is absurd. Humans co-develop with the animals surrounding them, the best example of which is their tens-of-thousands-years-long co-development with dogs.

The Internet may be an instrument of both social integration and achieving domination by corporations. This is where the political nature of technology lies—it opens new possibilities through its ambiguity.

Realizing this symbiosis means the necessity of changing your perspective on nature, rejecting—like in the case of the humans/machines relation—binary oppositions. Humans are part of nature, this is self-evident. However, they do not form an isolated, separate species but contribute to the “spider web of life” with other species. The culmination of writings of the more than 70-year-old thinker is the book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene from 2016, another work going beyond the dominant notions. This time Haraway takes up the extreme challenge posed to humans—the awareness of the finality of Earth as the basis of their existence.

In the scientific language, this fact is described by the term “Anthropocene”—it defines the time in which we live and in which people, thanks to the technology they developed, became the main factors shaping the further development of the geoecosystem. This fact is perfectly visible in geological formations, and hence many scholars propose to sanction it by acknowledging that the geological era of Holocene ended and Anthropocene started.

A Return to the Earth from Greek Mythology

Haraway accepts this proposal, although she prefers the term “Capitalocene.” It changes the perspective, because it shows that the actor behind the change is not an abstract human, but a specific, historically developed social-economic system, that is capitalism. But she ends the discussion with her own proposal, to call the new times Chthulucene. Putting together the Greek words khthom (earthly) and kainos (new), she wants to communicate the arrival of a new epoch of return to the earth. Again, it is not about a return to the good Mother, but to the earth from Greek mythology, often hiding sinister forces under its surface, forces which may rapidly end the Anthropocene with the extermination of the arrogant species.

Donna Haraway is a “child of Sputnik,” a program of education in natural sciences with which the USA reacted to the Soviet threat. This program facilitated science education for women and produced the ranks of technocrats and researchers who ensured the Cold War advantage of the United States. However, Haraway did not join these ranks, choosing to engage in the criticism of the capitalist system instead. An interesting choice for a person raised in a traditional Irish Catholic family. Catholicism was for her an important and intense experience until early young age. She does not renounce it today and declares that she is a “lay Catholic.” She emphasizes that the experience of sacraments, especially Communion, had a significant impact on the development of her thought, producing the belief in the force of semiosis, that words (concepts and metaphors) influence reality.

Donna Haraway is a “child of Sputnik,” a program of education in natural sciences with which the USA reacted to the Soviet threat. This program facilitated science education for women.

The prestigious artistic magazine ArtReview called Donna Haraway the third most important figure of the world of art in 2017. In just one year she went forty places up. Interestingly, she is not directly involved in art, but the jury decided that her rapid rise resulted from her equally rapidly rising influence on the imagination of artists. It is the best possible expression of admiration for her almost four-decades-long work of persuading people that there is an alternative, but we need a new language which will create a new reality.

Edwin Bendyk

is Head of the Centre for Future Studies at the Warsaw-based Collegium Civitas and a commentator for Polityka weekly. He is a lecturer, writer, and columnist, author of several books. He runs a seminar on the new media in the Centre of Social Sciences at the Polish Academy of Sciences. Member of the Polish PEN Club.

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