by guest contributor Audrey Watters
Audrey Watters is a freelance writer, research intern for ReadWriteWeb, tattooed gamer/geek, book and beer snob, recovering academic, part-time badass.
I fear that anything I could write for Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging in celebration of women’s achievements in science and technology, would have to include my own personal technology experience narrative. It would have to start in 1977 with my first glimpse of Princess Leia and my love since then of all things geeky, all manners of phaser guns. It would have to include my commissioning of a butcher’s jacket from my family’s grocery store so that I could play “mad scientist” in the basement. It would have to trace the direction I took some time in middle school when I felt I was much more adept at crafting ideas via the written word than I was at growing things in petri dishes, through my time in college as the young woman who minored in Women’s Studies but took the “easy” science and math classes for graduation because somewhere along the way I’d got the message that science and technology weren’t really my thing. All these events—and a multitude of others—have shaped who I am as a woman who thinks and writes about technology for a living, who loves to play video games, who’s damn fond of gadgetry, and who’ll devour even the pulpiest of science fiction, but who always feels a bit uneasy about my relationship with science and technology and its relationship in turn with gender, power, the environment, economics, and politics.
The messiness of my own experiences with science and technology contribute, in no small part, to my love of and appreciation for the work of scientist and feminist scholar Donna Haraway.
It was when penning my undergraduate honors thesis on feminist science fiction that I first read Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” an essay originally published in 1985. It blew my mind.
It was, at the time, the most difficult piece of academic prose I’d come across. I had to read (and reread) it slowly. But eventually I “got it.” And I loved it—I loved its playfulness, its subversiveness. I loved its melding of science and science fiction, its references to crytography, Captain Kirk, Frankenstein, the Garden of Eden, and Reagan’s Star Wars program.
“A Cyborg Manifesto” is “an effort to build an ironic political myth” centered on the the figure of the cyborg, part human part machine, a figure Haraway argues can help subvert”the traditions of ‘Western’ science and politics—the tradition of racist, male-dominant capitalism; the tradition of progress; the tradition of the appropriation of nature as resource for the productions of culture….” Like Frankenstein’s monster, she argues the cyborg is a creation of science and technology but one that is unfaithful to its creator; but unlike Frankenstein’s monster, the cyborg “does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden; that is, through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate, through its completion in a finished whole, a city, a cosmos.” According to Haraway, the cyborg, a product of science and technology, might have been developed by Defense Department R&D, but it has potential for great liberation.
Rereading “A Cyborg Manifesto” now takes me back to my time in college when I would spend much time “unpacking” dense academic theory. Haraway meant much to me in that world of “the mind.” But when I met her in person, events transpired that forced us both to consider “the body.”
I was a graduate student at the University of Oregon and one of the organizers of a conference where Haraway was to keynote. In true testament, perhaps, to my geekiness, I was thrilled with the prospect of meeting one of my academic idols. But the opportunity was sickeningly twisted by a series of events involving another group with whom I was involved at the time (local environmental activists)—events that Haraway writes about in part in the first chapter of her most recent book When Species Meet:
“Technophilias and technophobias vie with organophilias and organophobias, and taking sides is not left to chance. If one loves organic nature, to express a love of technology makes one suspect. If one finds cyborgs to be promising sorts of monsters, then one is an unreliable ally in the fight against the destruction of all things organic. I was quite personally made to understand this point at a professional meeting, the wonderful “Taking Nature Seriously” in 2001…. I was subjected to a fantasy of my own public rape by name in a pamphlet distributed by a small group of self-identified, deep ecology anarchist activists, because, it seemed, my commitment to the mixed organic-technological hybrids figured in cyborgs made me worse than a researcher at Monsanto, who at least claims no alliance with ecofeminism.”
Because she’d written about cyborgs and about the Oncomouse, she was vilified and threatened—and the threat implied something worse than the pie-in-the-face prank that was prevalent at the time.
The incident was a reminder for Haraway that the privileges afforded her by her class, nationality, and academic superstar dom did not shield her from threats to her body as a woman. It’s something that many of us working and playing in the field know too well.
Even though I spend most of my day in virtual worlds and online interactions, I do still have a body. It’s a cyborg body, I’d contend, one that blends the technological and the organic, one that likes to challenge white-supremacist-patriarchal-capitalism, but I’m flesh—and female flesh—nonetheless.
But as Haraway wrote in 1985 and as I’m still fond of repeating, “Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.”
This post is part of Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging (videologging, podcasting, comic drawing etc.!) to draw attention to the achievements of women in technology and science. You can read more about Ada Lovelace Day at the website.