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.

References

[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.