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A Tragedy for Cyborgs

From: Configurations
Volume 1, Number 1, Winter 1993
pp. 171-196 | 10.1353/con.1993.0001

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Configurations 1.1 (1993) 171-196.

University of Leeds

There is a text that considers women, science, technology, politics, and the future, and it contains certain characteristic notions and qualities, set in particular relations one to another. It has learnt from Karl Marx .It is poised before a difficult and unknowable future, where the accelerated pace and "vertiginous violence" of science are recognized, and where the social structural effects of science are insisted upon, as is the necessity for reconstruction. It posits "woman," "free," with "no illusions," in a new and intensely intimate relationship with machines, necessary because she "could not go backward." It embraces complex, partial, and split personal identities, life marked by multiplicity and contradictions that resist unity and synthesis, life that "must merge in its supersensual multiverse, or succumb to it." Here, the questions of politics and science are not separate, but simultaneous and similar: "politics or science, the lesson was the same." Its analysis can invoke myth and goddess, while forswearing origin, "this Eden of their own invention." A favored setting for the stimulation of inquiry is the Exhibition Hall or Museum. The favored trope is irony, which hedges the historically informed imagination, exhilarated and perplexed, troubled and incited by science, as it confronts the barriers to an intelligible and convivial future.

For the reader of the 1980s and l990s whose field is the contemporary critique and historical analysis of the culture of science and technology, the foregoing description of a text may evoke the work of Donna Haraway, preeminently her "Manifesto for Cyborgs." That essay, whose "inspirational spin" has seen it reprinted twice, its author interviewed, and a "Postscript" added, thereby rapidly attained a status as near canonical as anything gets for the left/feminist Academy. However, as the very particular diction of the text citations above indicates, they are taken not from the radical edge of eighties postmodernist feminism, but from the Brahmin heights of Bostonian culture in the first decade of this century, from Henry Adams -- for it is he, the self-described "conservative Christian anarchist," cybernaut avant la lettre. Adams wrote of Diana not as beauty, but as "force"--"she was the animated dynamo" --and he saw that woman "could not go backward. She must, like the man, marry machinery.'' He wrote ironically, too, "lying in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of l900, with his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new," and in a state of acute consciousness concerning technological rupture, "the break of continuity [which] amounted to abysmal fracture for a historian's objects"; that fracture being the objective correlative, presumably, of the historian's subjectively broken neck.

If Adams's machine-woman marriage and virgin dynamo evoke, respectively, Haraway's "cyborgs signal disturbingly and pleasurably tight coupling," and her more generalized, feministcoded cyborg image, then it is tempting to pursue in detail the further elisions of image, diction, rhetoric, and predicament that this essay's opening description of Adams's writing indicates are both possible and plausible. It might be further supplemented by detour into twentieth-century written fiction and film, which could detail the lineal descents and mutations of the virgin dynamo, through (say) the robot Maria in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, down to Rachel in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and Ripley in James Cameron's Aliens, and Haraway's cyborg. Though this is perfectly possible, I am not remotely enough of a film historian, or an Americanist, to be equipped to undertake it across the requisite eighty years of history. By contrast, there may be more to be gained from readings that place the "Manifesto" within a more immediate and contemporary circuit of meanings than could be encountered by a strategy that fostered a patriarchal lineage for a feminist text. Haraway wrote, now oft-quoted, that she "would rather be a cyborg than a goddess"; and she would presumably rather not be Henry Adams, however suggestive he may be with respect to the modernist historical and cultural roots of a feminized American cyborg scenario.

The comparison with Henry Adams makes only two relatively straightforward points. Firstly, it could invite an exploration of the senses in which cyborg postmodernism, whatever...

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