Posted by: soniahs | September 2, 2010

Exam reading: “Cyborgs, simians, and women”

This book, by Donna Haraway, has some very influential ideas about identity and politics in an increasingly technologically-mediated world. Unfortunately, there’s a lot in here that I really can’t agree with- namely, her attack on science from a feminist/Marxist perspective. While I agree with her thesis that science often has been used to justify oppression of various sorts, my perspective is that this is a misappropriation of science for political purposes, rather than an unavoidable outcome of objective rationality.

I’m not arguing that scientists are pure, with no hidden biases and motivations for their research. Everyone has biases, but it seems that most scientists, when confronted with evidence of their biases, are willing to rethink their views. Are there systemic barriers to such change? In some cases, yes. But I feel that these are things that can be attacked without effectively throwing away our best system of tools for proving that bias exists, and that it’s inappropriate.

Summary: Three main sections: 1) exploration of the oppressive nature of objective science; 2) exploration of the impossibility of describing a single “women’s” or “women of color’s experience”; and 3) description of an emerging cyborg identity in which nature, culture, and technology intertwine to shape us. Subject/object distancing in science is implicated in oppression and patriarchal dominance politics (primate & human health research in particular are used to perpetuate repressive ideologies); what we need is a new situated objectivity that recognizes the limitations of our partial perspective and regards objects of knowledge as “material-semiotic actors” (constantly generating their own meanings). The cyborg concept can be seen either as the ultimate domination of nature by technology or as the fusion of nature, the human, and technology. Biological metaphors become cultural metaphors; for example, the postmodern view of no unitary identity has parallels in biology (different cell lines in immune system, women sometimes as fetus containers). She describes the information society as an “informatics of domination:” workers are becoming feminized- low job security, replaceable, shredding of the social safety net, cultural impoverishment.

Comments: After reading this book, and a few other papers on the subject, I’m still unsure what “feminist science” would entail. I see a possible continuum in Haraway’s book ranging from using standard scientific methods to investigate consistent bias within a field (e.g., asking questions about female kinship patterns in apes, rather than the traditional focus on male aggression), to a separate set of standards of evidence (and a new epistemology) for feminist science vs. mainstream science (e.g., admission of folk medicine as science because it’s a deeply-held belief), to the idea that all science is just rhetoric, used to construct social reality. While Haraway explicitly rejects that third view, she is vague about the specifics of what she wants to see. So, she does provide specific examples of the 1st view, so maybe this type of criticism is sufficient for her, but also places a lot of weight on redefining objectivity, which would seem to indicate that she wants a new epistemology. I absolutely agree with the first view, and absolutely disagree with the latter two.

Links to: Liu (politics of info economy); Hayles (top-down vs. emergent systems theory-H. book is older, so perhaps she addresses this in later work?)


  1. […] on science, culture, and feminism In my post yesterday about Donna Haraway’s book, “Cyborgs, simians, and women,” I talked […]


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