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Cyborg Lessons, part 1

I’ve been reading a lot since we entered this new normal, and a group of friends is currently engaged in a deep read of Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. We got through the first 15 pages of it last night. I’m trying to find a good way to succinctly describe it, but this was a 1985 essay using the idea of the cyborg as a rejection of rigid boundaries like human vs. animal and human vs. machine. Haraway uses the cyborg archetype to urge feminists to move beyond the limitations of traditional gender, feminism, and politics; she pushes for unity around affinity with recognition of identity. Considering it was written 35 years ago, it feels strikingly relevant in the present day–and yet, not.

The whole essay takes delight in its own contradictions, though, and it begins with a section called An Ironic Dream of a Common Language for Women in the Integrated Circuit. One of the members of our group said it reads like the text generated by natural language processing algorithms, and another said there was enough different dimensions to it for everyone to find something in there that resonated with them, whether it be in a good or bad way. Haraway critiques drawing epistemological fences (in other words, creating specific terminology or buzzwords to define knowledge) and its impact on creating divisiveness within movements, specifically feminism, and yet she’s constructed many of her own here in the form of this essay.

We got to talking about our cyborg-ness during the current moment in a pretty literal way, like how we’re continuing to work and stay social with tools like Zoom, social media, our phones, and so on. But straying back to Haraway’s more esoteric explorations of rigid boundaries, we also found ourselves musing about the word “normal” right now, the boundary that maybe many of us want to align ourselves along, that maybe many of us are feeling we desperately want to get back to. Is it true as people have said that “If we get this right, we’ll never go back to normal?” We talked about Arundhati Roy’s piece “The pandemic is a portal” in the Financial Times, where she writes: “Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality,’ trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

It’s another fresh contradiction for us to mull over as we yearn for a return to what was and yet know that’s probably not only impossible but irresponsible, too. What I think A Cyborg Manifesto helps us see in this moment is the need to ready ourselves for whatever comes by teaming together, to let our nostalgia for the past be muted by the need for a more human future for everyone, to find affinity and build “a political form that actually manages to hold together witches, engineers, elders, Christians, mothers, and Leninists long enough to disarm the state.”