29 June 2017

Review: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women by Donna Haraway

Hardcover, 287 pages
Published 1991 (contents: 1978-89)
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2013
Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature
by Donna J. Haraway

This volume collects revised versions of ten essays by Donna Haraway: most famous, of course, is the “Cyborg Manifesto," on which I have no doubt I could spend this entire review and only begin to scratch the surface. I, however, found “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” to be the most interesting of the essays here. Analysing scientific objectivity, Haraway begins by claiming that academics and feminists discussing objectivity “have used a lot of toxic ink and trees processed into paper decrying what they have meant and how it hurts us. The imagined ‘they’ constitute a kind of invisible conspiracy of masculinist scientists and philosophers replete with grants and laboratories; and the imagined ‘we’ are the embodied others… a few thousand readers composed mostly of science haters” (183). (There’s definitely some resonance here with the Victorian critiques of science I study; see, for example, Wilkie Collins’s Heart and Science.) Haraway goes on, however, to claim that when this perspective is “lurking underneath” her own work, it consists of “paranoid fantasies and academic resentments” (183).

After discussing various forms of feminist response to claims of scientific objectivity, Haraway posits, “So, I think my problem and ‘our’ problem is how to have simultaneously an account of radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice for recognizing our own ‘semiotic technologies’ for making meanings, and a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a ‘real’ world” (187). Science must acknowledge the existence of other knowledges that cannot be considered objectively while at the same time still being able to make claims about the functioning of the universe that apply to more than one person. Haraway wants her female successor to science to have “a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a ‘real’ world” even if they do not lean on scientific means of understanding per se.

Haraway’s essay—almost a manifesto for feminist objectivity—provides a strong framework for analyzing gender in science. Haraway’s description of the gender dynamics of scientific vision says that women can possess scientific detachment, but only if the old fantasy of “disembodied vision” is discarded: “The eyes have been used to signify a perverse capacity – honed to perfection in the history of science tied to militarism, capitalism, colonialism, and male supremacy – to distance the knowing subject from everybody and everything in the interests of unfettered power” (188). This happens, Haraway claims, because the gaze possesses the “unmarked positions of Man and White” (188).

Her description of the disembodied eye is attention-grabbing: “Vision in this technological feast becomes unregulated gluttony; all perspective gives way to infinitely mobile vision, which no longer seems just mythically about the god-trick of seeing everything from nowhere, but to have put the myth into ordinary practice. And like the god-trick, this eye fucks the world to make techno-monsters” (189). Though Haraway does not directly mention women as victims in this instance, the claim that the disembodied eye rapes the world certainly creates that impression

Finally Haraway’s analysis gives way to presenting an alternative form of feminine science. She claims that “our insisting metaphorically on the particularity and embodiment of all vision… and not giving in to the tempting myths of vision as route to disembodiment and second-birthing, allows us to construct a usable, but not an innocent, doctrine of objectivity” (189). Haraway calls for a new form of vision where the theoretical is connected to the physical and embodied practices of sight. Her final vision is of “the joining of partial views and halting voices into a collective subject position that promises a means of ongoing finite embodiment, of living within limits and contradictions, i.e., of views from somewhere” (196).

Of course I like Haraway, because I think she calls for what the best of the nineteenth-century scientist novels were calling for. Her distillation of the stereotypical feminist response to science reminds me of Heart and Science, and Heart and Science is terrible. But her own position reminds me of Middlemarch, and Middlemarch is magnificent.

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