To Be a Cyborg or Not?

Being a cyborg is hard for me to imagine. Why would I want to be something else instead of me? But one can question, aren’t you already a cyborg? Indeed. With a Fitbit band on my wrist and an iPhone constantly held in my hand (I don’t feel secure enough if it’s in my pocket), I can hardly deny that I am a cyborg. Anyway, isn’t a cyborg a human plus machine/technology? In fact, in her A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway shows that a cyborg can mean more than that. A cyborg can be human plus machine, but it can also be animal plus machine, or all of them mix together. What is important is that clear boundaries now disappear, and what has been guarded behind the boundaries – identity – will shatter as well. An alternative world Haraway visions is constructed via affinity, not identity. Affinity is not fixed. Unlike identity, affinity is not an inborn quality. Instead, one can choose with free will or even build an affinity. It is fluid, flexible, possible to be deconstructed and then reconstructed. With multiple affinities, there emerges cyborg.

Thinking about such an understanding of cyborg and then look at both Haraway’s and Hammonds’ chapters on race is helpful. What these authors are both trying to say is that race, as either an idea or a belief, is constructed, even though it is commonly taken as part of one’s identity. Haraway believes that race as an identity quality (that people believe) should be shattered, and new affinity connections should be built (e.g. she talks about vampire). Technology is able to delineate a dream by visualizing a woman’s face with multiple racial backgrounds, but this will only re-emphasize the masculine power which existed on racial differences, based on Hammonds’ understandings. If our present world is inevitably racist, then building affinities and becoming cyborgs will lead us to another future.

However, as “a woman of color,” I have to say that the chapter that I resonate with the most is Moya’s. It is not simply because her postpositivist realist theory of identity is something that I can operate, but more because she admits, and accepts, as a woman of color herself, the history and the reality (and everything carried by them) which made us who we are. Affinity is beautiful, and cyborg is also fantastic – but aren’t they dreams too? We, no matter as a white woman or a woman of color, need a way to achieve these dreams. To me, the first step is to accept who I am, where I am, and the things that build me. Then, maybe little by little, I will have the courage to question my identity, to even deconstruct, and build a new “self” from numerous affinities. Before being a cyborg, I desperately have to see my historical identity.

There is one last thing that I want to share: I have never seen myself as a woman of color before reading A Cyborg Manifesto.

Imagine Alternative Sciences and Identities

Science and identity are perhaps two of the most commonly mentioned terms in the field of Science, Technology, and Society (STS). How does science shape our identities and how do our identities affect the process of developing science? To examine the relations between science and identity, this essay will delve deep into the following papers: Situated Knowledges [1] and A Cyborg Manifesto [2], which are both written by Donna Haraway, an outstanding feminist scholar. I will first introduce these papers briefly and then put them into dialogue to see how they contribute to the understanding of science and identity together.

Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective was originally published in Feminist Studies in 1988. Essentially, it is a paper that heavily criticizes traditional science and the kind of objectivity it represents. Instead, it advocates a new vision of objectivity: feminist objectivity. Haraway starts off by claiming that the present science is an arena of masculine power that awes abstraction, universality, and pure objectivity, while denigrating specificity, particularity, and subjectivity. There is a clear line between these two categories. The former is pursued and the latter is avoided. Those who believe in this image of science are in fact the ones who know less about science. These people believe the so-called scientific objectivity is valuable and convincing because it will not be contaminated by human cognition or perspective: it is absolutely true and is not subject to change. However, she argues, even though this is what science has been shown in the textbook, it is not real – scientists know quite honestly that science is socially constructed; it relies on human beings and the knowledge it produces is “manufactured knowledge (Page 577).” But the way people worship scientific objectivity cannot promote real understanding or real knowledge. To offer an alternative, Haraway promotes a “feminist objectivity” that emphasizes the situatedness of knowledge, addresses connections and relations, and embraces resonance but not dichotomy. It blurs the boundary between objectivity and subjectivity. Here, she points out that all knowledges are situated within particular contexts and can only be viewed from certain perspectives. Therefore, there is no singular or universal understanding of knowledge. Knowledges must be plural. Under this feminist objectivity, human identity is welcomed, because identity actually assists us to gain true understanding. What she also mentions is that feminist objectivity does not equal relativism since relativism negates contexts or perspectives so that responsibility also disappears. One can only know by committing to a situation, to a standpoint, to a perspective. Genuine feminist objectivity is formed by numerous partial perspectives; it calls attention to an alternative science.

Three years after Situated Knowledges was published, in 1991, Haraway wrote another influential piece: A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism. To set the context, Haraway spends half of the paper criticizing the dominating belief of abstract individuation, “a man in space (page 152),” and the embedded dichotomies it includes are men vs. women, humans vs. animals, humans vs. computers, etc. Haraway challenges the understanding of these dichotomies by stating the boundaries they draw and the separations they produce are not constructive to our society and ourselves – these dualisms inevitably split people further apart and yield conflicts. In addition, as a human being, one has been forced to begin knowing oneself from one’s body and it is exactly because of the power assigns to one’s body that we must develop an alternative way to construct identity. Hence, as its title entails, Haraway comes up with an alternative identity – the ironic cyborg, which is opposite to “a man in space.” It is ironic because it is meant to confuse, to challenge, and to amuse. Because the cyborg has no historical origin in Western cultures and does not belong to any of the existing categories, there is no way to refer it to any classical concept or even talk about it based on our current language. It is, in fact, a fusion of all categories and all concepts. It emphasizes on connection and affinity, not separated distinct identity. Haraway relies on this imaginary cyborg to disclose the political issues in society. For instance, none of race, class, or sexual orientation naturally exists to define identity. Cyborg informed politics should also bear its characteristics. She goes on to talk about an example of how a woman survives as a cyborg at different locations, such as home, market, and school, to show the importance of not framing woman’s identity through man, but as a cyborg that affiliates with animals, machines, and other artifacts. Therefore, to destruct the current identity also means creating new possibilities. Haraway offers one of them.

These two papers share plenty of commonalities. First of all, they both imagine alternatives on fundamental concepts: one on science, the other one on identity. Haraway approaches these papers similarly by setting out to criticize the status quo and then constructing other possibilities, both through a feminist epistemology, which is the second commonality. Her feminist epistemology embraces partiality, particularity, plurality, ambiguity, and situatedness, almost on the other end of absolute objectivity, as shown in both papers. The purpose for imagining alternatives is to create a more inclusive and thus more understanding reality by deconstructing and reforming the present world. Haraway believes that human, science, and technology all need to participate in this process, because human produces science, science is included in technology, and science and technology together influence human. They are all connected and related.

Nevertheless, there are also quite a few differences between Situated Knowledges and A Cyborg Manifesto. In Situated Knowledges, Haraway only confronts science and scientific objectivity. She challenges science as an entity but does not mention human identity or how it can be affected by science. Certainly, what lies behind her argument of situated knowledges is feminist epistemology. Manifesto is based on Situated Knowledges, but instead of solely looking at science, it problematizes the whole idea of identity, including the identity that results from scientific development. Moreover, Manifesto goes one step further – it sits upon feminist ontology, whose embodiment is the ironic cyborg. Therefore, this paper is not only questioning how people think (i.e. epistemology), but indeed more deeply on what make them think this way (i.e. ontology). In Situated Knowledges, Haraway talks about objectivity through science. In Manifesto, she points to subjectivity through identity. While discussing objectivity is similar to looking around at the world outside of ourselves, examining subjectivity is reflecting on our own honestly. She draws connections between identity and science in Manifesto by implicitly asking these two questions: Is our subjectivity truly defined by ourselves as free human beings? Or is it still somewhat or even completely structured by the scientific objectivity? Of course, the reality falls into the latter and this is why she fights for alternative science and identity. They can actively shape each other on multiple levels.

Why are science and identity important? Because they both speak to power. Power is the overarching theme that affects science, identity, society, and all of us. Unequal distribution of power and even the existence of power are the causes of numerous social and political issues. To provide alternative ways to think about and then construct science and identity is to disclose different power relations and to be aware of them. Can we balance power and solve all the problems? Haraway does not give us an answer. It is certainly an ambitious goal to erase all the boundaries in our world, but it does not hurt to imagine what if they don’t exist and what the world will then look like. Imagination is good. To imagine alternatives is even better.

In this essay, I briefly introduce two seminal papers by a famous feminist Donna Haraway: Situated Knowledges and A Cyborg Manifesto. I then discuss how they both relies on a feminist epistemology that emphasizes plurality and particularity, while Manifesto goes a step further to inform a feminist ontology. Both papers speak about how science and identity can influence each other and how it can be problematic when they are based on ideas such as separation, objectivity, and so on. Haraway, therefore, imagines alternative sciences and identities that aim at destructing the present understanding of them and reconstruct new connections that focus on affinity and situated perspective. These alternatives, hopefully, can disclose a clearer view of power relations and hence help create an inclusive world.


[1]  Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14.3(1988): 575-599.

[2]  Haraway, Donna. “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.

Conflict, in learning and in constructing identity

I would like to explore the notion of “conflict”. In their book Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation Lave and Wenger talk about how learning takes place under various situations and how newcomers are able to become old timers through learning. On page 116, authors introduce conflict as follows:

Conflict is experienced and worked out through a shared everyday practice in which differing viewpoints and common stakes are in interplay.

Here, it is easy for readers to take “differing” and “common” as words referring to differences and commonalities among different individuals. What I’m arguing is that conflict also exists in one individual’s mind. Differing viewpoints and common stakes mentioned in the quote above can be presented in one single individual’s mind when one is growing and learning. Sometimes this kind of conflicts can be supportive, other times they can be truly destructive, in terms of destroying one’s identity.

When I first came to United States, I thought I would engage in great learning experience as a master student in HCI. I looked forward to doing some really design and humanistic stuff. I never doubted my learning ability or my English level. However, it turned out that I was not nearly as correct as I imagined. I thought I could convey my ideas pretty well, but when I couldn’t recall common expressions in group meetings I then started doubting myself as a proper English speaker. What was more, I encountered both minor and major cultural differences here and there in my life. I was afraid to ask questions and to bring confusions to other because of my unfamiliarity to United States. Conflicts, presented as cultural differences, were in fact the gaps between my previous identity and the new identity that I was still struggling to construct at that time. Although people kept telling me there was nothing wrong with me, I later still questioned my identity really hard, because I looked so inferior, drastically different from who I used to be.

Therefore, I appreciate Lave and Wenger since they mention change of identity as part of the learning process in their book. In addition, I feel grateful about their statement on page 51: “Participation is always based on situated negotiation and renegotiation of meaning in the world. This implies that understanding and experience are in constant interaction – indeed, are mutually constitutive.” I could have offered myself a little bit more understanding at that time but I didn’t. Looking back, I guess what I was lacking was also an appropriate level of introduction to even the boundary of participation. How was I able to legitimate peripheral participation when I didn’t know where to start? I wish I had read this book earlier to make myself feel more comfortable and confident.

Therefore, learning can be fulfilling when the learner is welcomed and willing to participate. As I see my own identity changes through my learning process, I keep reminding myself to be more understanding when communicating with other people. Learning is a lifelong journey that we as humans learn to understand ourselves and be with ourselves peacefully under various situations. As people come from different backgrounds with different values, it is fair that everybody has a right to be understood situatedly.