The Cyborg as a Solution to Stigma

Lyla Fujiwara '10, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University (Fall 2006)

Even generalizations have a function in our society. They shape our world into consumable bites so that we can create the illusion of omnipotence, and ignore our own massive ignorance. We are like machines in that way, our interface is our society and we process the world in a simplified code of stigma and generalization. As Haraway argues in A Cyborg Manifesto, by imposing this code on those around us, in particular women, we create the metaphorical cyborg.

Feminists, tried of being stigmatized by the framework of a patriarchal society, are anxious to rewrite this code. But as Haraway argues, the attempts to do so often backfire because many movements run into the problem of attempting to consolidate the 'female experience'. This quest for a totalizing ideology that accurately expresses so many, often, contradictory viewpoints of what it means to be female is impossible. Haraway argues a cyborg is by nature a divided and contradictory being; its inability to be made whole, to reference the natural, is the source of the metaphor's power in relation to the feminist movement. Haraway states:

It has become difficult to name one's feminism by a single adjective ? or even to insist in every circumstance upon the noun. Consciousness of exclusion through naming is acute. Identities seem contradictory, partial, and strategic. With the hard-won recognition of their social and historical constitution, gender, race, and class cannot provide the basis for belief in 'essential' unity. There is nothing about being 'female' that naturally binds women. There is not even such a state as 'being' female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices. Gender, race, or class consciousness is an achievement forced on us by the terrible historical experience of the contradictory social realities of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism. And who counts as 'us' in my own rhetoric? Which identities are available to ground such a potent political myth called 'us', and what could motivate enlistment in this collectivity? Painful fragmentation among feminists (not to mention among women) along every possible fault line has made the concept of woman elusive, an excuse for the matrix of women's dominations of each other. For me ? and for many who share a similar historical location in white, professional middle-class, female, radical, North American, mid-adult bodies ? the sources of a crisis in political identity are legion. The recent history for much of the US left and US feminism has been a response to this kind of crisis by endless splitting and searches for a new essential unity." [Haraway 155]

After Haraway criticized the US feminism she suggests that we should examine more closely the realm of Science Fiction and the literal cyborg. Through transgressing what are normally seen as sacred boundaries, such as that between human and machine, Science Fiction literature and film reveals the coded generalizations and stigmas of our society and the short comings of our patriarchal language. Where the reader seeks essential wholeness and innocence, that which was lost upon humans exile from Eden, he finds Haraway's cyborg:

The cyborgs populating feminist science fiction make very problematic the status of man or woman, human, artefact, member of a race, individual entity, or body. Katie King clarifies how pleasure in reading these fictions is not largely based on identification. Students facing Joanna Russ for the first time, students who have learned to take modernist writers like James Joyce or Virginia Woolf without flinching, do not know what to make of The Adventures of Alyx or The Female Man, where characters refuse the reader's search for innocent wholeness while granting the wish for heroic quests, exuberant eroticism, and serious politics. [Haraway 178]

Haraway continues:

All characters (in Superluminal) explore the limits of language, the dream of communicating experience; and the necessity of limitation, partiality, and intimacy even in this world of protean transformation and connection. [Haraway 179]


1.Think about how the science fiction novels and films we've read and viewed have displayed women. Which do you think successfully explored the boundaries of man and machine, and help to destroy the common concepts attributed to female embodiment? (Related discussion by Patrick Nagle and Amnity Kurt)

2.One theme approached in science fiction texts, such as Gibson's Neuromancer Trilogy and Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang, is the separation of mind from body. These texts question whether the body is simply a "resource of (the) mind". How do these explorations relate to the liberation from stigmas that are attached to physical being? Are minds existing without bodies still gendered?

3.Why doesn't Haraway explore "contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices" in their relation to shaping the embodiment of women? Do you think they are relevant to her argument?

4.What is your opinion of Haraway's argument that we are searching for a wholeness and innocence derived from our creation myths? Do you think that the Christian creation myth has had as potent an effect on society as Haraway implies?

Related Materials


Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist -Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York; Routledge, 1991. pp.149-181.

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Last modified 17 November 2006