The New York-based communist collective Red Bloom invited me to speak today as part of its Marxist-Feminism reading group and discussion series hosted in the pebbled garden at the wonderful bookshop Unnameable Books. It was lovely that there were bright green leaves fluttering immediately on hand when we got to the bit about “how like a leaf” the cyborg is. The event went so well, and it was standing room only. The discussion – in small groups – taught me a great deal about the uses of irony and the shifting valence of ‘science’. It was really great. I am thrilled that so many people are enlivened by cyborgicity right now and are doing critical bricolage with its conceptual arsenal. I am including my introductory remarks here.
[I then went on to read the first 2,000 words or so of my essay ‘Cthulhu Plays No Role For Me’.]
What I’m going to do in a minute is basically go through the beginning of my article about Donna Haraway in Viewpoint magazine. It is quite a euphoric take on this text, as you will see. That is partly because what I am doing in that article, in the second half, is uncomfortably like sticking the knife in my former hero. I am arguing there that Haraway has now abandoned the political soul of cyborgs and that, in her latest stuff, which I don’t like, she has abandoned the revolutionary perspective on becoming-human that we are all reading here today thanks to Red Bloom and Unnameable Books. The basic beef I have with her is that her 2017 call against making babies, she has (as I put it) “gone over to the goddesses” and lapsed into precisely the kind of ecofeminism she opposed decades before – the kind of ecofeminism that is predicated on an invisible whiteness and which lapses all too easily into misanthropy.
But that’s another story and it isn’t what we are necessarily gathered here today to discuss, though it is almost definitely worth scrutinizing this text also, for tacit tendencies towards the same. For my part, I read A Cyborg Manifesto as an antiracist text and am happy to remain a defender of it, as is probably obvious. To me it is elusive and wonderful and confusing and unsatisfying and exciting precisely because it is so many things. But certainly it is a refutation of white feminist and also Marxist-humanist figurations of the human. In this sense I think it is fundamentally in sympathy with the work of Haraway’s contemporary Sylvia Wynter. In fact I would suggest that Red Bloom might read some Sylvia Wynter next. For Haraway, as for Wynter in a different register, examining the social relations of science and technology in historic perspective necessarily makes a mockery of the universal ‘human’ so beloved of psychoanalytic feminists and Marxists alike. For them more so even than for liberalism it functions as a transhistoric value of bounded purity premised on original unity with “nature”. For Haraway, in contrast, the only real constant is the combined and uneven violence that constitutes human animals as chimeras. At the same time, paradoxically, she is delivering a universalist humanist message: Do you read and write? That’s a banal miracle of techno-organic virtuality. Eat cooked food? Your flesh is cyborg. As Haraway later said: “I never wanted to be a posthumanist.”
Given the aims of Red Bloom, I imagine that what we are aiming to do today is ask ourselves what the early Harawayian sensibility can do for us politically in the here and now and tomorrow. I hope it goes without saying that I am open to being challenged on the radicality of the Manifesto and greedy for conversation on it. I have been flatteringly billed as a ‘Haraway scholar’ on the event but, in true Harawavian spirit, I suppose, I am not totalizingly certain about being this. I am partial in both senses of the word; passionate, but not finally sure. I suggest we ask ourselves: what inspiration does this document contain – if any – for our consciousness building and our organizing – for coalitional praxis, affinity, unity, strategy? What in it remains apt – especially given the continued and resurgent popularity of technophobic humanisms and ‘goddess’ feminisms? And which bits – for instance its optimism about poststructuralist textual strategies, or its dig at bisexuality as just another ‘seduction to organic wholeness’ – are downright wrong?
First up, I want to bring to your attention the fact that it is A cyborg manifesto, A Manifesto for cyborgs – not the cyborg manifesto, as it is almost always called. This implies from the get-go that there can and must be others. Other manifestos for today’s cyborgs. Because, if we look around today, we can see that the notion of cyborgicity still has a hold on the imagination of radicals – in particular, as far as I can see, for revolutionary transfeminism and antiracism. Trans people, decolonial feminists and antiracists surviving under white supremacy have, to differing degrees, taken on the account of embodied subjectivity given here in the Manifesto – taking it to heart to greater and lesser extents and doing bricolage with it towards their own ends. Many of you will know that The Transgender Studies Reader and other canonizations of trans history tend to include the manifesto as a crucial articulation of the unnaturalness and monstrousness of gendered existence and postgender becoming. The philosopher Joy James reads Haraway side by side with Fanon “in search of a Black Cyborg”. The theorist of black technopoetics, Louis Chude Sokei, suggests that Haraway was articulating creolization: a concept of the self that actually comes from previous Caribbean, Latin American and specifically slave traditions. Haraway herself pretty much inarguably underemphasizes the racial character of the cyborg, although as you will have noticed she does insist it is there. Chude Sokei is actually quite sympathetic to Haraway while noting that she has provided, in essence, “a theoretical abstraction of African-American slave subjectivity” through the lens of gender and technology. The animal and the machine were after all, as his book The Sound of Culture demonstrates, alternative names for the enslaved black sub-human. And on this note, an artist called Jade has just recently done a find+replace job on the whole text in which the word ‘cyborg’ is switched with the phrase ‘black slave’. I encourage you to look up that experimental document– it’s on google docs under the title ‘From the Cyborg to the Black Slave’ – and to consider (even right now, in your head) which aspects of the theorization of cyborgicity you’ve just read are likely to illuminate and be illuminated in turn by being cast in terms of enslaved blackness, and which aren’t. And so without further ado, here is how I introduced, glossed and historicized A Manifesto for Cyborgs in an essay last month…