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cyborg goddesses

2009 January 28
by J S

Over twenty years after its first publication, Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto steadfastly remains a formative text in what has become a heterogenous body of postmodern feminist critique. In its image of the cyborg, it configured what would become the lasting ideal of an unapologetically transgressive, interstitial, self-inventive, and, perhaps most centrally, anti-essentialist feminism. Haraway’s idiosyncratic and irreverent text revels in ambiguity and difference, and claims emancipation from the gendered binaries on which oppressive ideologies, past and present, were constructed, as well as from the totality and totalitarianism of the “whole.”

Particularly of interest to me in my re-reading of the Cyborg Manifesto for this class was Haraway’s theme of (re)constructing new identities from/within the margins of normative categories. She describes (perhaps somewhat appropriatively?) the then-emergent identity category “women of color” as a cyborg identity, hybrid, self-inventive and anti-essentialistic. However, she notes that the “cyborg” praxis of women of color is complicated by the distinct emergence of themes of renaturalization, organicism, and even eco-feminism in such writers as Audre Lorde (174). She compliments these women for constructing what might be considered the supreme work of the cyborg: its self-aware re-organicization as a “whole,” and thus its self-transcendence as interstitial cyborg.

In the last twenty years, I believe that this latter type of cyborg – if it can even be called such – has risen to prominence in the more progressive sectors of the radical feminist project. A good deal of recent scholarship has focused not on the irreverent, “cyborgist” mocking, bending, and subversion of norms, but rather on a more difficult, and perhaps more transformative work: the articulation of new selves. Those whose voices (and thus abilities to formulate identities) have been marginalized and silenced by dominant codes begin the complex work of examining, articulating, and (re)constructing their beings, using “cyborg” language. This hybrid, even paradoxical craftsmanship involves both a deliberate critique of normative subjectivity and a deeply self-aware and self-reflexive re-invention of a transient, fragile “self” – in some fleeting way, a whole, but only in the sense that a vast constellation can be called a whole.

Asked to provide a utopian image of gender and technology, I considered a number of vastly different options before deciding upon the music video for the song You are My Sister by Antony and the Johnsons.

This profoundly moving video features the faces of a number of trans- and cisgendered women, each adorned in an unconventional glamour of her own, turning in slow circles and fading into one another; these solemn rotations, accompanied by the coiling of computer-generated DNA strands, are reminiscent of the “spiral dance” referenced several times in Haraway’s manifesto. Singer Antony’s ethereal bass falsetto, speaking of adoration, memory, and shared pain, provides tender backdrop to the women’s images. The overall effect is at once laden with otherworldly, glamorous, even alien beauty and with profound human emotion.

The women of the video, considered in terms of their relationship to “womanhood,” are neither simply the irreverent hybridized cyborgs proposed by Haraway in 1987, nor merely the monolithic eco-feminist goddess-figures she denounced as figments of reactionary feminism. Rather, the women in You are My Sister are, or have chosen to be, both hybrid cyborg beings and self-reflexively reconstructed organic selves: “cyborg goddesses,” if you will. As Harawayan cyborgs, they shape themselves, employing “artificial” praxes of body modification – hormonal, surgical, cosmetic, decorative – in the technologized construction of their bodies; as “goddesses,” however, they demonstrate and embody the compelling if theoretically fragile (ie not essential) tenets of womanhood admired by the singer’s lyrics: deep internal strength, beauty, gentleness, grace. Simply, they are women, both natural and hybrid, as all women, given the artificiality of that category, must be. Their womanhood is a choice, a fabrication, enabled through technologies and artifices; and yet it is very real, very natural, and very deeply beautiful.

Lest I mischaracterize Haraway’s arguments as calling primarily for an existential invention of the self, I would like to point out the themes of solidarity and support in her work – themes which I see as fundamental to You are My Sister. In her Manifesto, Haraway calls for a political praxis based on affinity rather than on constructed axes of identity and ideology. I think that there is tremendous power and healing potential in such praxes; the tender and deeply supportive lyrics and music of You are My Sister exemplify this radical, transformative solidarity. Antony’s refrain is overwhelming in the simplicity and directness of the care it offers: “You are my sister, and I love you. May all of your dreams come true.” Although there is nothing overtly political in these statements, they exude a degree of affinal support and solidarity that puts ideological politics to shame; given the thoroughly queer context of Antony’s music and this video in particular, such words can only be called radical. Yet, above all, it is the profound atmosphere of care and tenderness in this video that I would consider its supreme utopianism.

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