Key Theories of Donna Haraway

Donna Haraway (b.1944) has been concerned with deflating the uncritical acceptance of key oppositions, which have political implications, related to the domain of science, particularly to biology: human– animal, animal–machine, mind–body, male–female, fiction–reality, nature–culture, science–society. She is famous, above all, for having given a new lease of life to the term, ‘cyborg’, an entity combining both cybernetic, non-organic, as well as organic qualities, and she has been involved with socialist- and eco-feminism.


The Cyborg

For Haraway, the existing system (political, social, economic, cultural) is sustained, not by essential truths discovered by science, but by the stories science tells, or constructs, for itself and the world, as well as by the stories told within the political order, stories which often serve to perpetuate the inequalities in the system. ‘Cyborg’ derives, she tells us, from science fiction, not initially from developments in science, even if science subsequently comes to invent a similar entity. Cyborg is the paradigm case of the ‘confusion of boundaries’ – and thus of boundaries as constructed – characteristic of all attempts to keep opposing fields separate. As Haraway’s manifesto says: ‘we are cyborgs’, both machine and organism. Even more: ‘The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics’ (Haraway 2004a: 8). It is also more female than male and thus serves as the basis of a new feminist relation with technology.

Confusion of Borders, and Science’s ‘Story Telling’

Haraway’s keen interest in porous borders of all kinds, which produced the theory of the cyborg, is thus situated (a term Haraway likes) in the context of socialist feminism at a political level and within a sociology of knowledge frame, at an epistemological level. This implies that knowledge, including scientific knowledge, will be a ‘situated knowledge’, a knowledge inflected by the historical and social conditions of its production. Modernist Western knowledge, for example, will be dominated by a male vision set in an Enlightenment frame, which sees the other (the other culture or society) as a lesser version of itself. Thus, the Enlightenment also contributes to the colonialist mentality, which says that indigenous peoples cannot speak for themselves, they must be spoken for and represented. In effect, it fails to grasp the implications of situated-ness in its drive for objectivity and the glorification of Reason and rationality – ‘its’ rationality, of course. Objectivity, in Haraway’s terms, is a story Enlightenment consciousness tells itself.

As part of this epistemological view, science, rather than being exclusively the source of rigour and objectivity is also socially constructed – is ‘woven of social relations’ (Haraway 2004c: 187): it has a class, gender, culture, species and biological context, as well as a methodological context. It is woven of layers and has no core. It is also connected to a love of knowledge bordering on erotic enjoyment. Many ideas of science about nature are the result of the stories it tells itself: at one time, nature is the untamed other in feminine guise, or it is comforting Mother Earth; at another time, it is the inscrutable object that science ceaselessly investigates in order to discover its Laws and its essence; at yet another time, nature is the colonial other of African or Pacific societies; more recently, nature is the text to be read in the code of mathematics and biomedicine. For Haraway, we will never get away from ‘story-telling’ in science, or from bias. So it is important for those who care about the world to invent their own stories while at the same time scrutinising those which have become part of accepted wisdom and a substitute for truth, those, in short, which are ideologically inflected, but appear as essential truths. Or, indeed, just as Edward Said in Orientalism (1978) had proposed that Western visions of the Orient were an implicit statement about how the West saw itself as superior, so studies of primates often imply what it means to be a superior and civilized white man. Through the ‘other’ (the Orient, the Primate) one establishes the coordinates of the white, ‘First World ‘‘self ’’’.

Tropes and narratives articulate the ideas of science. This can also be seen in the notion of the cyborg. For not only is this entity fully technological, it is also part of a narrative of the new human, or the post-human, being. As Katherine Hayles has pointed out, were Haraway’s figure simply the product of a narrative discourse about what might be possible, we would be dealing with science fiction. Were it an exclusively technological phenomenon, without any discursive identity, it could be consigned to the domain of bionics or medical prostheses. The cyborg thus ‘partakes of the power of the imagination as well as the actuality of technology’ (Hayles 1999: 115). The great strength of Haraway’s approach thus pertains to embedding the practices of science and its products within a discursive formation. This is why she invokes semiotics, philosophy and literary theory in her analyses and, in particular, regularly cites Foucault, Bakhtin and Whitehead as well as feminist scientists and philosophers such as Harding, Irigaray and Fox Keller.


The notion of ‘embedding’ might also be emblematic of Haraway’s subtle feminist approach in analysing the practices, history and female scientists’ contribution to primatology in Primate Visions. As well as the actual study of apes, primatology includes dioramas of stuffed animals in museum presentations, especially as these were established between the wars. Given that sexual behaviour, survival and leisure strategies and categories such as male and female, are as much a part of the study of primates as they are of human society and evolution, the boundaries between the human and the animal world become evermore porous leaving the analyst with the challenging task of interpreting the work of the interpreters of primate behaviour. What Haraway discovers is that in Natural History, which studies the evolution of all living things, the ideological assumptions about female–male relations (man, the hunter, for example), which primatology seeks to confirm, are often projected back onto current human behaviour, so that one can speak of ‘simian’ (ape-like) behaviour in those human groups which have not reached the heights of the civilization ofWestern man. Primate evolution, then, was, and sometimes still is, seen as a primitive precursor to the human species. Representing Natural History itself (part of a larger theme of scientific principles and their representation), Haraway shows, constitutes a story in its own right. Thus a diorama in a Natural History museum might show a gorilla ‘family’ as the precursor to the modern nuclear family, but the quest to obtain gorilla skins in Africa, as was the mission of Carl Akeley, could allow all the aspects of male ‘machismo’ to play themselves out in the hunt. As Haraway puts it: ‘What qualities did it take to make animal‘‘game’’? One answer is the similarity to man, the ultimate quarry, a worthy opponent. The ideal quarry is the ‘‘other’’, the natural self. . . . Hunter, scientist and artist all sought the gorilla for his revelation about the nature and future of manhood’ (Haraway 2004c: 158–59). Ideally, the animal slain should put up a brave fight, not be cowardly, and be as close as possible to an ideal representative of its species. What Haraway shows, therefore, is that not only is there a plethora of stories implicit in the representation which is the diorama itself (in its text, as it were), but the very construction and emplacement of the diaramic elements is inscribed with another set of theoretical and ideological assumptions. Thus, ‘form’ (the diaramic element) does not simply give shape to a textual and image content, or to stories, but itself contains another story, or set of stories. The same can be said of the rise of Natural History museums as institutions. On one level, the contents of museums instruct and educate the public about the evolution of living creatures, including the human species. Often this story is politically tendentious, privileging certain aspects of evolution over others. On another level, the way this educating is done is also part of the political and social implications of Natural History: thus, it makes all the difference in the world as to whether the contents of the museum are the result of hunting safaris, or whether they are largely photographic and painterly representations.

Immanence Over Transcendence?

As a number of astute readers have noted, Haraway’s writing embodies a subtle fabric of erudition, theoretical sophistication, vivid description and political astuteness. This, however, is also an author who ultimately plumbs for immanence (= immersion) over transcendence (= objective detachment). Knowledge, she argues, ‘is always an engaged material practice and never a disembodied set of ideas’ (Haraway 2004b: 199–200, Haraway’s emphasis). Knowledge is thus always ‘embedded’ in a situation, rather than being external to it. This includes the fact that a passion for knowledge implies that the boundary between objective principle and subjective desire is always fluid. Of course Haraway rejects the charge, so crudely put, of relativism. Not all ‘stories’ (as she says) carry equal weight with regard to validity. And her success in practising feminist theory in the realm of Natural History and biology, and what has allowed a sympathetic hearing from critics who might otherwise disagree with her political stance, is her capacity in her studies to more than match the rigour of science itself.

Nevertheless, the kind of immanent transcendentalism Haraway practises cannot be sustained. For situated knowledge – where Haraway immerses herself in the stories, both personal and otherwise, of the fields she studies – is also supposed to allow the interpretation of and commentary upon that knowledge. In other words, Haraway, like certain representatives of the phenomenological tradition, refuses to acknowledge externality there where it is most evident: in the practice of analysis and interpretation, an externality seen most of all in the recognition that science itself is woven of stories (is narrativised). Consequently, Haraway must invoke a certain transcendentalism (= detachment, externality) in order to demonstrate the very insights (that science is immersed in social and ethical processes of all kinds) that she has been so successful in bringing to the fore.

Finally, the realisation of her insights owes much to the theoretical tradition (Western philosophy) that is the object, both implicitly and explicitly, of critique. Such a critique is only possible because of the very transcendence that this same tradition makes possible. The question is not whether transcendence is inevitable (it is), but whether, passion – a love of knowledge, in Haraway’s terms – rules out, or is at least the binary opposite of, transcendence. We can have a passion for transcendence, as monastic life illustrated (not to be imitated, perhaps), a passion for Spartan living. With her concern to break with binaries, is it not true, then, that Haraway has one last binary to deflate: transcendence–situatedness?

Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers From Structuralism To Post-Humanismm Second Edition  John Lechte Routledge 2008

Haraway, Donna (1989), Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science, New York: Routledge.
—— (1991), Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge.
—— (2004a), ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s’ in The Haraway Reader, New York and London: Routledge.
—— (2004b), ‘Morphing in the Order: Flexible Strategies, Feminist ScienceStudies, and Primate Visions’ in The Haraway Reader, New York and London: Routledge.
—— (2004c), ‘Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908–36’ in The Haraway Reader, New York and London: Routledge.
Hayles, N. Katherine (1999), How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in
Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Said, Edward W. (1978), Orientalism, New York: Pantheon.
See also: Maturana, Virilio
Haraway’s major writings
(2004) The Haraway Reader, New York and London: Routledge.
(2003) The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
(2000) How Like a Leaf: An Interview with Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, New York:
(1997) Modest_Witness@Second Millenium: FemaleMan#_Meets_OncomouseTM: Feminisms and Technoscience, New York: Routledge.
(1991) Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge.
(1989) Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science, New York: Routledge.
(1976) Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields: Metaphors that Shape Embyos, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Further Reading
Bell, David (2006), Cyberculture Theorists: Manuel Castells and Donna Haraway, London and New York: Routledge.
Schneider, Joseph (2005), Donna Haraway: Live Theory, New York and London: Continuum.



Categories: Cybercriticism, cybernetics, Digital Theory, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, posthuman, Technocriticism

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