Harway on our Cyborg Society

David Ellis '08, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University (Spring 2005)

Haraway suggests that everyone in our hi-tech society is a cyborg: a complex entity where biology and technology, man and machine, have become one. She describes the cyborg as "a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction" (149). The self is a social construction that does not depend on a body, but on interaction and discourse. Technology provides a means to construct a new body, a new identity. In fact, because we depend on technology, it shapes our notion of self: we can hardly imagine ourselves without it!

Our bodies can be changed by technology, but even without physical augmentation or prosthesis, the tools we use change our lives dramatically. Using a computer connected to the internet, I can chat with friends and strangers in a virtual environment, where my online persona could be an old woman, a business executive, a Taiwanese schoolgirl, or anyone else I can imagine -- and I can switch at any time. But construction of avatars, apparent shapeshifting and even identity theft are not restricted to the online world. As social beings, we maintain our constructed selves on a daily basis, and can even change our identity from one moment to the next.

I introduce myself in the real world (and sometimes in cyberspace) as David, and my interlocutors infer from this that I am male. Sometimes they can also see what I look like, so they might decide that I am young, caucasian, and relatively slim. Our conversation is inevitably affected by whatever these people think they know about college-age white men. But when I was little, and dressed up for Hallowe'en, I would be seen as a ghost, or a superhero, or maybe just a trick-or-treater in a generic costume. The way I presented myself (and my self), the symbolic form I had taken on, was my identity. Judith Butler holds that gender is not a biological characteristic determined by genetics, but is socially constructed through performative utterances.

Butler examines Harlem drag balls, an enclave in which societal norms of gendered bodies become elastic. Her essay is in part an examination of the documentary film "Paris is Burning", but she also elaborates on existing social theory to explain the underlying gender issues. According to Butler's definition of performativity, gender is a series of actions that do not just indicate a person's gender, but create it. Gendered naming of a person (for instance, "hey, dude" or "yeah, girl") is an example of interpellation, which is a type of performative utterance, creating (or reinforcing) the maleness or femaleness of the subject it identifies. Clothes and cosmetics worn in drag enable a transition between gender roles. Some performers leave the assumed identity at the ball, while others maintain it throughout their lives.

When someone changes identities, she (or he, or it) leaves part of herself behind, a fragment of her life to be resumed later. This asynchronous quality is also characteristic of contemporary cyborg existence. Some aspects of identity are short-lived, selves that exist only in certain restricted contexts. For example, if you only act a certain way around your grandmother, and she moves away or dies, that part of you will disappear, because it is no longer supported by social interaction or discourse. If this guy you know is only a selfish and annoying brat in email correspondence, then when the power goes out or his technology fails somehow, that part of his cyborg self dies, too. Maybe he will revive when the backup generator kicks in, but his existence is intertwined with technology: if he cannot reach his companions, if the medium of his interlocution is obstructed, he will cease to exist.

A disembodied consciousness like an A.I. also needs communication protocols to exist in its electronic social network. Cyborg children are still learning who they are, actively shaping the core of their selves. Cyborg women depend on societal constructions of female gender in addition to their technology, and cannot create their social selves in the absence of either. And the middle-aged cyborg man? Well, he faces all the same problems every cyborg (everybody) does, and his midlife identity crisis will likely involve a whole network of self-components: technology, body -- a man and all his machines.


Butler, Judith. "Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion", in Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex". Routledge, 1993.

Haraway, Donna J. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge, 1991.

Course Website cyborg Body & Self

Last modified 14 April 2005