Haraway: a Cyborg Manifesto

Every now and then, I am asked if I can summarize the Cyborg Manifesto. Every time, my answer is a resounding “no”, because what would be the point? It would, to be brutally blunt, be counter to the many points made along the way, beginning with the very first line:

An ironic dream of a common language for women in the integrated circuit

This point is mirrored in the final paragraph, wherein Haraway writes:

This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia. It is an imagination of a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the circuits of the supersavers of the new right.

Any attempt to strictly and straightforwardly summarize the Manifesto would immediately run into trouble when faced with these two snippets. By beginning with the statement that this is an ironic dream of a common language, and ending on the note that this is in fact not a dream of a common language, the neat categorization characteristic of orderly summation becomes ever so slightly undermined. Things can not be both A and not-A, and yet here it is, proclaiming to be both, unabashedly and unapologetically. It is language, but – I think you can agree with me on this point – it is not common in the least.

To make things worse, this is the point. Haraway is not trying to give you the analytic rundown of what the concept of cyborg is, means and implies, working through all the definitions with helpful clarifications along every step of the way. This is a manifesto, where the act of reading forces readers to shift their thinking on the subject in order to retroactively fill in the gaps. By partaking of the language and immersing oneself in the verbiage, uncommon thoughts become possible. Adopted at face value, it indeed becomes an infidel heteroglossia, capable of alienating even the most integrated of individuals. Take for instance the following passage:

The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.

There is a lot going on here, not least in the juxtapositioning of oppositional concepts. Untangling the precise nature in which a cyborg is an illegitimate offspring of both capitalism and socialism would be a substantial project in and of itself, but the Manifesto is not the place where this work is performed. The point, again, is to move readers to a place where such retroactive reasoning can be undertaken. This is the irony of the common language – if you stop too long to think about it, it becomes drastically less common by the second. By providing this launch pad from which to propel yourself into adopting an uncommon language, the text performs an ever so small act of violence upon its readers. The thought is now in your head; it is up to you are your curiosity to find out what it means.

Seeing how this is the mode in which the Manifesto operates, a quick clean summary which extracts the main points and lays them out in a neat orderly fashion (preferably with bullet points) – would miss the boat entirely. The point is to assault your brain with language and immerse your thinking in it for the duration. What does it mean that “[o]ur best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals”? Any one answer to this question would be insufficient, given the vast range of interpretations opened up by having made the statement. The irony of the common language is, yet again, that it isn’t.

This mode of presentation has the advantage of getting the creative juices going. At the same time, it suffers from the disadvantage of being an infidel heteroglossia. The Manifesto does not give readers anything for free, and merely reading through from beginning to end is a slog, an accumulation of efforts too large to be readily performed with enthusiasm by newcomers. There is always the risk of readers throwing up their hands and proclaiming that they can’t even, leaving the words unread. (This audio version might prove helpful in that regard.) To borrow an insight from 80s cultural studies: it is unimportant how a text is structured if no one actually reads it.

If anything definite can be said about the Manifesto, it is that it is a relentlessly 80s text. This manifests itself by a myriad of references and things taken for granted that are simply not obvious to our current moment. It takes a certain amount of historical knowledge to realize that the references to star wars is not just about the movies, but also about the cold war endeavor to build space defenses against nuclear missiles. The intellectual context of the text is one where the Soviet Union was a very real and immediately felt presence on the world stage. Readers from the cybernetic future have the combined advantage and disadvantage of knowing how things turned out. Predictions can be deemed either accurate or mere speculation, but the basis of these predictions can not so easily be reconstructed. Unless you are already familiar with this past mode of thinking, the Manifesto will be slightly more alien than it intended to be; it will not provide you with the expository discourse necessary for its decryption.

The main point about cyborgs – then and now – is that they herald a new world order which we do not know yet. Things could become more of what they already are, or completely different. Or, as the almost thirty years since the publication of the Manifesto have shown us, something in between, where radical brand new innovations inevitably find themselves conforming to old established patterns, revealing that we already knew the shape of things to come, but simply had not extrapolated far enough yet. This could be both a cause for despair and a reason to double down on the ironic dream of a common language. If the future is already written, then there is an ever more pressing need to point out its inconsistencies and fault lines. Proclaiming that one would rather be a cyborg than a goddess means carving out a piece of uncertainty for oneself, and – this would be the point – an abject refusal to ask permission to rewrite one’s own code, be it common or uncommon.

Haraway: a Cyborg Manifesto