Transhumanism’s relationship with postmodern philosophy and critical theory is a strange one. For example, Nick Bostrom’s influential “A History of Transhumanist Thought” spans centuries, covering the gamut from Utnapishtim to the President’s Council on Bioethics, but makes little mention of those who radically challenge the core Enlightenment narrative upon which he builds his history. Figures like Nietzsche, Marx, and Donna Haraway do all receive a nod in Bostrom’s essay, including Haraway’s cyberfeminist motto, “I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess,” but their ideas go unanalyzed. Of course, the context for these thinkers is often ignored and their works simply mined for epigraphs and potent, argument-punctuating lines such as Haraway’s.
Make no mistake: Bostrom’s essay (indeed, his entire corpus of work) is essential reading for any serious transhumanist. But there are gaps in his history that are reflective of a larger dismissal of certain philosophers by transhumanist intellectuals. Among those neglected, I would list Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Jurgan Habermas. Clearly there is insufficient time and space to even begin to discuss all of these figures properly, so I would like to draw your attention to just one in particular, Donna Haraway, and her work with cyberfeminism.
Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” is the locus classicus of cyberfeminism. Published as an essay in 1985 and then redrafted as a chapter in Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature in 1991, the manifesto has aged particularly well, remaining relevant within feminism and cultural studies, and it is often quoted in transhumanist works. The manifesto was written as a rebuttal of eco-feminism, a philosophy that views technology as inherently patriarchal and advocates communism and deep ecology as a counterpoint to what they see as the Western capitalist patriarchy. Drawing partially upon Foucault (whom she also mocks), Haraway argues instead that the very forms of power used by hegemonic forces can be used for resistance and liberation.
Haraway co-opts hegemonic power through her figure of the cyborg. She begins by defining the cyborg as a blasphemous, ironic, rebellious, and incomplete entity that undermines the categories we so cherish in Western society: animal-human, organic-machine, and physical-nonphysical. Though a product of Western capitalist patriarchy, like all good science-fiction heroes the cyborg is disloyal and insurrectionary. Thanks to its heritage, Haraway sees the cyborg as capable of taking the West’s concept of historical and intellectual progress, the capitalist drive for communication and cooption, and the patriarchal hierarchy and transmute all three into a postmodern socialist-feminist counter-force. Haraway’s cyborg is a rhetorical refutation of both eco-feminism and Western capitalist patriarchy, acting as a kind of guerilla postmodern subject, able to take the potent qualities of its enemies and utilize them for its own purposes. In short, Donna Haraway’s cyborg is rebellion embodied in a single techno-organic subject.
Cyborg feminism - woman with face mask and goggles“A Cyborg Manifesto” helped to found cyberfeminism and cyborgology, the latter of which was expanded upon by Chris Hable Gray. The former, cyberfeminism, focuses on the ways in which science and technology interact with gender roles and their mutual constructions in society. In addition to Haraway’s continuing work with companion species, technologically mediated communities and critical science studies, theorists like Judy Wajcman, N. Katherine Hayles, and Nina Lykke have all contributed significantly to cyberfeminism. The corpus of cyberfeminist literature reads like transhumanism through the looking-glass: an odd counter-perspective that parallels, contrasts, undermines and buttresses simultaneously. When Haraway says, “Monsters have always defined the limits of community in Western imaginations,” she captures this counter-position perfectly. Transhumanists point to the pinnacle of what it believes humanity could become; where it might be going, and asks, “why not?” and “how do we get there?” Cyberfeminists (and postmodernists in general) look at the abject, the debased, the grotesque and the marginalized and ask “why is it so? How did this become the fringe?” Transhumanism needs cyberfeminism because it functions to expose the way in which defining the “human,” and in turn, the “transhuman,” can repress, reject, and otherize those it claims to help.
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