We are all cyborgs: How machines can be a feminist tool

(Illustration by 7iber)

By Nour Ahmad

Upon hearing the word «cyborg», perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is a fusion of human and machine. Our imagination might even drift to an image of Frankenstein’s monster or a depiction such as Major Mira Killian in the anime Ghost in the Shell. A cyborg is actually just a hybrid — part mechanism, part organism. The cyborg, as a concept, is associated with scientist, innovator and musician Manfred Clynes, who deployed it in his 1960’s article Cyborgs and Space, where he argued for altering the human body to make it suitable for space travel.

We, thus, might perceive this concept as being in the future, far from the here and now. However, Donna Haraway, an American biologist and feminist, claims the opposite. She believes that, already today, we are all cyborgs. More significantly, she posits that the advent of cybernetics might help in the construction of a world capable of challenging gender disparities, a proposal she made in her 1985’s essay titled A Cyborg Manifesto

How, then, would the notion of cybernetics make for a post-gender understanding of the world? And how would it be a tool for women to undermine the roles imposed on them by society? 

Cyborgs and human nature

The investigation into human nature has always been an essential pursuit for schools of philosophy and a basic assumption made by political ideologies. The answer to the question “what does it mean to be a human?” determines the orientation of a political movement or an ideology. Patriarchal societies have historically adopted an essentialist interpretation of human nature, so as to justify male domination over women. It makes the claim that each of the sexes has a specific role to play and, ultimately, considers the feminine to be secondary to the masculine and thus subjugates women. In such societies, predetermined sets of values and behavioral patterns are strictly enforced on both sexes.  

In A Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway explores the history of the relationship between humans and machines, and she argues that three boundaries were broken throughout human history which have changed the definition of what is deemed cultural or otherwise natural. The first such boundary was between humans and animals, and was broken in the 19th century after the publishing of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. As the biological connection between all organisms was discovered and publicised in this book, it served as a rejection of notions of human exceptionalism and superiority, turning the evolution of the organism into a puzzle. It also introduced the concept of evolution as necessary for understanding the meaning of human existence.  

The second boundary-breaking event relates to the relationship between machines and organisms (be they human or animal). As the industrial revolution arrived, all aspects of human life became mechanised. As human dependence on machines surged, machines became an inseparable part of what it is to be human; an extension of human capability.

As for the third boundary, it concerns the technological advancement that has produced evermore complex machines which can be miniscule in size or, in the case of software, altogether invisible. First came developments in silicon semiconductor chips that now pervade all of life’s domains. As these machines are practically invisible, it is then difficult to decide where the machine ends and humans start. This machine thus represents culture intruding over nature, intertwining with it and changing it in the process. As a result, boundaries between the cultural and the natural became more and more intangible.

"...the advent of cybernetics might help in the construction of a world capable of challenging gender disparities"

In this context, Haraway uses the cyborg as a model to present her vision of a world that transcends sexual differences, expressing her rejection of patriarchal ideas based on such differences. Because a cyborg is a hybrid of the machine and the organism, it merges nature and culture into one body, blurring the lines between them and eliminating the validity of essentialist understandings of human nature. This includes claims that there are specific social roles reserved for each of the sexes which are based in biological differences between them, in addition to other differences such as age or race.

You are cyborg!

Since first practicing agriculture, using tools to increase production and developing language and writing, humans have been able to boost capabilities and expand their potential. Today, the implantation of artificial organs has been a vital development in the field of medicine, while the smartphone, for example, serves as an extension of human memory, our senses and our mental functions as well. The advancements made in GPS and communication technologies allow us to be present remotely and even grant us the ability to exist outside of the limitations of our time and space frameworks. All these aspects of technology are an expansion of human beings and an augmentation of our physical and cognitive abilities.

Taking all of this into consideration, the cyborg seems present here and now. In an interview with Wired magazine, Haraway said that being a cyborg does not necessarily mean having silicon chips implanted under one’s skin or mechanical parts added to one’s body. The implication is, rather, that the human body has acquired features that it could not have been able to develop on its own, such as extending life expectancy. Indeed, in our current state, cybernetics exist around us, and in simpler forms than futuristic visions. Even maintaining our physical fitness is today cybernetic, from the use of exercise machines to the many food supplements available as well as clothing and footwear engineered for athletic activity. Moreover, the culture surrounding fitness could not have existed without viewing the human body as a high-performance machine whose performance can be improved over time.

On the other hand, a cyborg is “a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” according to Haraway’s manifesto. The internet has brought about profound changes in human consciousness and human psychology. Virtual reality does not only surround us, but it also involves us in its own processes. The social dimension to technology plays a role in the construction of our identities, whether through online games, discussion forums or social media, where our identities can be as multiple as the online platforms that we use.     

Therefore, we can now say that we are all cyborgs, as technology “is not neutral. We’re inside of what we make, and it’s inside of us,” as Haraway formulates it. In modern life, the link between humans and technology has become inexorable to the extent that we cannot tell where we end and the machines begin. 

Cybernetics and feminism

Feminist issues lie at the heart of the concept of cybernetics, since the latter’s prospects erase major contradictions between nature and culture, such that it is no longer possible to characterise a role as natural. When people colloquially use the word ‘natural’ to describe something, this is an expression of how they view the world, but also a normative claim about how it should be as well as a statement on what cannot be changed.

In this context, the cybernetics erase gender boundaries. For generations, women have been told that their “nature” makes them weak, submissive, overemotional, and incapable of abstract thought, that it was “in their nature” only to be mothers and wives. If all these roles are “natural” then they are unchangeable, Haraway said

Conversely, if the concept of the human is itself ‘unnatural’ and is instead socially constructed, then both men and women are also social constructs, and nothing about them is inherently “natural” or absolute. We are all [re]constructed when given the right tools. In short, cybernetics have allowed a new distinction of roles, based on neither sex nor race, as it provided humans the liberty and agency to construct themselves on every level.

"Because a cyborg is a hybrid of the machine and the organism, it merges nature and culture into one body, blurring the lines between them and eliminating the validity of essentialist understandings of human nature. This includes claims that there are specific social roles reserved for each of the sexes which are based in biological differences between them, in addition to other differences such as age or race."

Therefore, through her notion of the cyborg, Haraway calls for a new feminism that takes into account the fundamental changes that technology brings to our bodies, to reject the binaries that represent the epistemology of the patriarchy —binaries such as body/psyche, matter/spirit, emotion/mind, natural/artificial, male/female, self/other, nature/culture. Technology is simply one of the means by which the boundaries between identities are erased. Cyborgs, in addition to being hybrids, transcend gender binaries and can thus constitute a way out of binary thinking used to classify our bodies and our machines and accordingly “lead to openness and encourage pluralism and indefiniteness.”

Haraway’s idea is based on a full cognizance of the ability of technology to increase the scope of human limitation and thus open opportunities for individuals to construct themselves away from stereotypes. And while Haraway describes A Cyborg Manifesto as an ironic political myth that mocks and derides patriarchal society, she still claims that cybernetics lay the foundation for a society in which we establish our relations not on the basis of similarity, but on harmony and accord.

The article was originally published 9 May 2019 by 7iber. Read the original here. 

Translated and edited by AlJumhuriya/Docstream

Navigating a changing world: media’s gendered prism

IMS’ media reader on gender and sexuality

Navigating a changing world: media’s gendered prism

IMS’ media reader on gender and sexuality