Reading with/through Donna Haraway: Towards a Cyborg Ethics of Reading the Contemporary (Digital) Literary Text
University of Brighton
Citation: Cutting, Sam. “Reading with/through Donna Haraway: Towards a Cyborg Ethics of Reading the Contemporary (Digital) Literary Text.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 20, 2019. doi:10.20415/hyp/020.ex03
Abstract: This essay argues for the critical relocation of Donna Haraway’s cyborg as a figure for thinking literary critical reading in the twenty-first century. It locates the cyborg in relation to contemporary perspectives on cyberfeminism, and then highlights current work that aims to both critique and renew the ethical import of the cyborg figuration. Through an exploration of the role of reading in Haraway’s landmark collection Simians, Cyborgs and Women, a movement towards a cyborg ethics of reading for twenty-first-century literary texts is posited, which emphasizes the technological situation of both print and electronic literary texts as a significant ethical and political consideration for literary criticism. This is then gestured towards in a reading of Joanna Walsh’s digital work Seed.
Keywords: cyborg, cyborg ethics, digital literature, Donna Haraway, reading practice, ethical criticism, Seed, Joanna Walsh.
“We” are accountable for the inclusions and exclusions, identifications and separations, produced in the highly political practices called reading fiction. To whom we are accountable is part of what is produced in the readings themselves. —Donna Haraway (Simians, Cyborgs, and Women 123, emphasis original)
Locating the Cyborg
This essay makes a claim for the renewed relevance of the work of Donna Haraway for reading the literary text in the twenty-first century. It looks to consider how Haraway’s perspective on the relation of social life and technology, “the disrupted unities mediated by high-tech culture” and the “highly political practices called reading fiction” (Simians 123), might generate radical ways of addressing the literary text, and help to articulate a way of reading which sees a connection between literary reading and thinking about the ethics of technology. This is to suggest a movement towards a cyborg ethics of reading, which might do political-ethical work by emphasizing the situations of reading and the accountability of literary technologies. It follows the observations made by Helen Merrick and Margret Grebowicz in Beyond the Cyborg that “[Haraway’s] commitment to science fiction as story, reading strategy, and tool for theory is taken seriously by very few critics” (Grebowicz 5). It looks to position Haraway’s reading strategies as a tactic for reading the technologically situated literary text. This suggestion to read the literary with-and-through the cyborg engages with the work of critics such as N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, in asking that such texts be recognized as a technology with particular affordances and limitations. Haraway’s cyborg-thinking, which is good at reading technology, can help to understand the reluctant cyborg which is the twenty-first-century literary novel, situated as it is in a digital environment. Hayles’s own description of the cyborg suggests how it is a figure for reading, in that the cyborg is “both a product of this process and a signifier for the process itself” (“The Life Cycle of Cyborgs: Writing the Posthuman” 158). The process of reading is integral to the agency of cyborgs and their continuing fictional and social reproduction.
The cyborg of “A Cyborg Manifesto” is many things. It is, in one sense, a conceptual engine for attempting to articulate a needed ethico-political space. It is instinctively resistant, though, to conceptual instrumentalization, and serves multiple functions in Haraway’s original text. It signifies the always partial and ongoing, as the introduction to Simians, Cyborgs and Women explains: “These boundary creatures are, literally, monsters, a word that shares more than its root with the word, to demonstrate. Monsters signify.” (Simians 1) Cyborg imagery does not straightforwardly denote a subject position of the technologized woman, although this is certainly one dominant way in which cyborg thinking is manifest in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Life in the relentlessly literal networks of contemporary digital communication may be sensationally called the life of a cyborg, but cyborg thinking should simultaneously be considered a particular practice of critical knowledge, as the proliferation of cyborg theory and cyborg studies suggests. In the cyborg’s boundary existence is located a radical potential to challenge established narratives and binaries which construct power. In the term “monster,” Haraway’s cyborg embraces the idea of messiness and complexity, as well as the role of animality and horror. Indeed, the positive-monstrousness of the cyborg is a part of what is subsumed by transhuman imaginings of moving beyond the apparent difficulties of the body. These images of the non-human confront the reach for universal logic or totalities of identification, the primary target of Haraway’s original manifesto being the “natural” concept of woman. A “cyborg worlding” is “not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (Simians 154), which means it is never comfortably singular, as image, metaphor or subjectivity.
Rhonda Shaw, writing in 2003, describes the many attempts to assess the adequacy of the cyborg as a way of thinking feminist politics at the “fin de millennium,” identifying its description as a “metaphor, image, innovation, and event” (47). Importantly, Shaw highlights the limitations of a lack of situated approaches in thinking with the cyborg, when considering “the maintenance of renewal of cultural identities and physical bodies in socio-economic contexts”:
These ethical-political features of contemporary socio-cultural life (…) are all too easily marginalized by unreflective invocations of cyberspatial identities and cyborgification that tend to present non-physical and physical identity construction, restoration, and enhancement as an option or personal choice available to all subjects. (51)
It is this highlighting of the limitations of the critical cyborg which can be addressed through an emphasis on the literary, fictional and readerly positions the cyborg thinks through and interacts with. Importantly, the intersubjective awareness of the cyborg is most clearly manifest for Haraway in practices of writing and reading, practices between which the boundary is always permeable. Resistance to totalizing concepts relies on being able to effectively read, in that “[i]f we learn to read these webs of power and social life, we might learn new couplings, new coalitions” (Simians 170). This means looking to “story-tellers exploring what it means to be embodied in high-tech worlds” (Simians 173). If the cyborg is an image or event in the twenty-first century, it is as much one of continuous textual interaction as it is of implantation or augmentation. The ways of seeing which are suggested or opened by reading and writing stories are, suggests Haraway, influential to serious discursive structures, to the extent that “[s]tories are a core aspect of the constitution of an object of scientific knowledge” (Simians 82). Thinking about the reader of literary texts through the cyborg is not to imagine the augmented posthuman rejecting print literature as a dated mode of conveying stories. Thinking reading the contemporary literary work as cyborg is to move it away from the initial conceptions of transcendental, cyberspace fiction and into the also-serious reality of the constitution of knowledge to which the term “literature” still contributes. It is, after all, an effective boundary figure, comfortable navigating “the belly of the monster” (Haraway, “Promises of Monsters” 70).
This argument for the renewed relevance of the cyborg finds itself at a difficult location, a constantly shifting interdisciplinary site. Such a node takes in what Helen Hester has termed “Cyberfeminism 2.0,” as well as literary studies and comparative media studies. It is important here to give some partial sense of where Haraway’s cyborg is located by contemporary feminist and media thinkers, in order to make a claim for its relevance to literary-critical writing and reading in the present moment. Such a figuration is primarily associated with its origins in socialist feminism, as well as posthumanism, cited countless times in related academic literature (Hayles, “Unfinished Work” 158).1 It is also a considerable influence on cyberfeminism, though cyborg theory can be distinguished from cyberfeminist thought more generally as Stacy Gillis has explained (Gillis 186). The cyborg figuration has never been entirely comfortable under umbrella terms, and can be found to resist too fixed a positioning.
Paasonen, in “Revisiting Cyberfeminism,” explains that Haraway’s cyborg has “been extensively adopted in discussions on embodiment, technology and cyberfeminist politics” (341) and that it has been interpreted as representative of cyberfeminism. This is perhaps because of the cyborg’s ironically iconic status as human-machine, given that “cyberfeminism” has remained a slippery concept in relation to both “cyber” and “feminism” (349). The cyborg’s apparent transgression of the human machine boundary is both aesthetically and iconically vivid, and critically well-rehearsed. Helen Hester refers in detail to Paasonen in her recent appraisal of the possible directions of cyberfeminism, “After the Future: n-Hypotheses of Post-Cyber Feminism.” While Hester doesn’t explicitly refer to the cyborg, she suggests that a textual strategy of multiplicity—“suggestive, stirring, and rich in allusion”—is characteristic of the “dominant strands of pre-millennial cyberfeminism more generally,” of which Sadie Plant’s work is cited as a key example. For Hester, such multiplicity can signify not only “radical gender political potential” but also, more threateningly, “an expendable and exploitable employee-operator.” Hester’s overall claim is that cyberfeminist work could do well to conceive of “the strategic necessity of articulating (and thereby generating) a political identity without foreclosing in advance what that identity might mean” (Hester n.p., emphasis added). Putting forward articulation as a mode of generation for a politics is, arguably, suggestive of practices of reading and writing, and in fact brings to the fore Haraway’s work on the distinction between articulation and representation in “The Promises of Monsters.” Hester acknowledges the necessary digital proportions of such articulation, referring to the Xenofeminist Manifesto of the Laboria Cuboniks Collective of which she is a part: “We need to articulate a feminism fit for a world ‘that swarms with technological mediation’” (Hester n.p.).
The “swarming” of technological mediation has been being articulated by scholars combining knowledge practices of media and literary studies throughout the early twenty-first century. Jessica Pressman’s Digital Modernism makes clear the necessity of a technological literacy in the complex processes of reading and writing in the contemporary, and argues that “until the book is seen as a very specialized form of art and technology we cannot today get our bearings among the new arts and the new media” (Digital Modernism 50). Pressman’s reading of Stephen Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts highlights the ideological questions underlying surrounding technological mediation. The status of the literary in Hall’s novel is understood by Pressman as a “privileged site for challenging the standardizing influence of digital culture” (“The Aesthetic of Bookishness” n.p.). Pressman highlights that reading and writing about-and-with digital technologies involves a constant agonising over value judgements surrounding what forms of reading and writing matter.
Thinking with the insights of Hester and Pressman, the legacy of pre-millennial cyberfeminism appears to be that new (digital) forms cannot utterly refigure power relations through the brute utopian power of their multiple possibilities. Rather, important conceptual, textual resistance can be waged by constant careful, critical, reading and writing, the situatedness of which must be a central part of the critical questions that present and future cyberfeminists, or xenofeminists, ask. Hester’s call to rethink cyberfeminism in the contemporary moment, and Pressman’s highlighting of the book as technology, are seen here as a context from which to reconsider Haraway’s cyborg. The context of contemporary literary study is suggestive of further sites for such renewal. Arguably, the discipline called the digital humanities is comfortably embedded in the economic and symbolic capital of the university in late capitalism (Allington) and electronic literature is present as a text produced-in and studied-by DH labs. The cyborg can be reoriented at the node of the literary, the ethical and the technological, so that it might once again work as a disruptive presence to such comforts.
New Locations for the Cyborg
The relevance of the cyborg for doing critical work at these sites of uncertainty is not a given. Critics have recognized that Haraway moved towards the theorising of a kinship of critical figures with the publication of The Companion Species Manifesto (2003). However, some of those same critics have arguably been too quick to pronounce on the demise of the cyborg as a useful critical figure. In “Unfinished Work: from Cyborg to Cognisphere” (2006) Hayles suggests that “the cyborg no longer offers the same heady brew of resistance and co-option. Quite simply, it is not networked enough” (159-60). This is connected to the lessening of the “shock value” of human body modification, although it is important to recognize that this was only ever one part of the cyborg’s conceptual make-up, one that Haraway has highlighted the problems of: “human/posthuman is much too easily appropriated by the blissed-out, ‘Let’s all be posthumanists and find our next teleological evolutionary stage in some kind of transhumanist technoenhancement’” (Gane and Haraway 140). Hayles attempts to position the cognisphere in place of the cyborg. However, stating that “the cyborg is no longer the most compelling metaphor through which to understand our contemporary situation” (165) reduces the living figuration to a limited trope for a singular subject.2 Further to this, Hayles claims that Haraway “asserts that the cyborg can no longer do meaningful work at the present moment and has accordingly turned to companion species” (“Unfinished Work” 165n1).3 Yet, Haraway’s own acknowledgement of the limitations of the cyborg is never so total. Haraway states, in the same issue of Theory, Culture and Society, that “[t]he [Cyborg] ‘Manifesto’ argued that you can, even must, inhabit the despised place. The despised place then was the cyborg, which is not true now” (Gane and Haraway 156). This is a reference to the ironic and difficult origins of the cyborg as a feminist figuration, one of which is military hardware, a signifier of male technoextension of personal agency to facilitate military destruction. To say that the cyborg is not located in the same despised place is not the same as claiming that there cannot be meaningful work done with this figuration.
Haraway’s relocating of the cyborg as a “junior sibling” in the “bigger queer family of companion species” (Haraway, Companion Species 11) does not mean the cyborg remains wholly inadequate or irrelevant as a figuration, but in fact demonstrates one of the central premises of Haraway’s work: that constant situating and resituating is vital for doing serious political thinking. Three years before this, Haraway makes the very claim that the cyborg might continue to figuratively respond to the tightening of internet networks, that “cyborg figurations can continue to do critical work” if they retain an awareness of the dangers of becoming a figure of comfort: “the cyborg may be an alibi that makes the technoscientific bourgeois figure comfortable, or it may be a critical figure” (Ihde and Selinger 52). If the masculine-transcendent cyborg image associated with transhumanism is a troubling revenant in the contemporary moment, given the advances in implantation and augmentation approaching the third decade of the twenty-first century, then the literary figuration of Haraway’s cyborg becomes all the more significant for political thinking. It provides ways of re-articulating stories told about physical cyborgization and the monetization of prosthetics development, technologies that are seriously important to the survival of those marginalized and unrecognized in contemporary capitalism, such as disabled and trans people, who rely daily on access to technological peripherals and medical support.
Haraway reiterates in 2006 how “[the cyborg] is not an exhaustive description but it is a non-optional constitution of objects, of knowledge in operation. It is not about having an implant, it is not about liking it” (Gane and Haraway 139, emphasis added). The cyborg still has a long way to go; they remain “recent” (147). The damaging limitations present in cyborg thinking as it has been figured need to be addressed in any renewal of the power of the cyborg for reading. In a recent article, Jillian Weise highlights the invisibility of disabled people in the “Cyborg Manifesto” and in the discussions of real world significance of human-technological imbrication influenced by it. Weise states, “I keep waiting for Haraway to amend her manifesto, or at least acknowledge the disabled bodies upon which her work is built” (n.p.). The cyborg myth currently lacks an understanding of the economic and social reality of being disabled under twenty-first-century capitalism. “CYBORG CONCERNS,” emphasizes Weise, are articulated through the questions “Can I afford my leg? Will a stalker, a doctor or the law kill me?” (Weise n.p.)
If the cyborg, as in Hayles’s claim, is “not networked enough” the solution is not a whole new network configuration, but more purposeful political connections. It is also important to acknowledge that, as Chela Sandoval expresses, cyborg politics have always existed, “as a requirement of consciousness in opposition developed under previous forms of domination” (Wolmark 248). While the ethics of reading are arguably newly implicated by technologies of the digital and digitally-inclined literary text, Haraway’s cyborg must be considered as one re-telling of a story of oppression, which must continue to be heard and retold. A remixing of the “Cyborg Manifesto,” Jade E. Davis’s find-and-replace edit “A Black Slave Manifesto” itself purposefully relocates the manifesto by highlighting its shortcomings in relation to recognizing previous forms of domination which contributed to the formation of a politics which is “cyborg.”
New work is being done in the contemporary moment in a variety of disciplines, and two examples provide a sense of how the cyborg figuration is supporting important, feminist interventions. One is an explicitly ethical networking of the cyborg from Margaret Toye, and the other is a resonant relocating of the cyborg in sound studies by Annie Goh.
Toye looks to reengage with the cyborg as an ethical figure, emphasizing how Haraway’s “literary background” is “not often foregrounded” and is sometimes “dismissed as a postmodern interest in language” (189). Toye emphasizes the literary and creative elements which have always constituted the cyborg, stating that it “needs to be reassessed and extricated” from misconceptions surrounding it, in order that it might retain its “important function for the way it creatively interrupts our regular way of thinking” (183, emphasis added). Referring directly to Hayles’s “Unfinished Work,” Toye suggests that the “historical specificity” of the cyborg is what drives Haraway’s critics away from the figure (196). Furthermore, Toye signals the link between the cyborg and practices of reading and writing, when stating that she is “troubled that many of Haraway’s recent critics fail to value the figurative, the literary, and the fictional” in her work (196).
Toye redescribes Haraway’s critical frame as a “cyborg poethics,” a “[foregrounding of] poetics and hermeneutics as approaches to writing and reading that combine ethics, politics, aesthetics, and a focus on embodiment together” (195). Cyborg poethics signals the productive possibilities of repositioning and reappraising the cyborg, calling for writers and readers to think varied disciplines and situations together. The cyborg foregrounds physical intimacy and personal articulation, highlighted by putting the figure into a “close encounter” (185) with Luce Irigaray’s ethical concept of the interval between:
(…) the cyborg could be considered to be a crucial contemporary ethical figure that occupies what Irigaray describes as the ‘‘interval between’’ in our contemporary information age. As such, the cyborg is the figure that best describes what mediates our relations to each other, to ourselves, and to our world in this context. (Toye 189)
What Toye’s work towards a cyborg poetics emphasizes is that the cyborg is a figuration for helping with articulation, rather than fixed or static representation.4 This describes an ethics which views social relations as constantly in process, not total, and thus aware of the impossibility of knowing the other. It is implicitly a claim that to think as a cyborg is to see ethical possibilities as constantly working at thresholds of being, where “the poethics of cyborg writing is also a poethics (or hermeneutics) of cyborg reading.” (192)
Annie Goh similarly looks to reposition the cyborg as a critical figure for interrupting and rethinking the discipline of sound studies, to “enact a disturbance within traditional sonic thinking” (284). Such a disturbance is predicated on the refiguring of cyborg poetics, as the “proposed cyborgian figure of echo in sounding situated knowledges is tasked with a critical re-navigation of notions of subjectivity and objectivity in sound studies” (284). Goh highlights a resemblance between the echo as figured by Gayatri Spivak and Haraway’s cyborg. While Goh acknowledges that further investigation of “speculative elsewheres” likely “needs further companions of feminist figurations,” the cyborg is a figuration that begins to map “a productive way for future examinations of sonic knowledge production” (298) because of the way it interrupts conceptions of “natural” or universal soundings.
Towards a Cyborg Ethics of Reading
Moving towards a cyborg ethics of reading requires a detailed understanding of the role reading plays in Haraway’s work. This is found in her essays on situated knowledges and in her work on Buchi Emecheta. It is important to see Haraway’s emphasis on reading as a practice for feminism as a historical and intersectional enterprise. Ruth Salvaggio describes the reading Haraway puts forward in this essay as another contribution to reader-response theory, that readers “may well interrupt texts in a variety of ways, by reading against the grain… by wilfully adopting or casually engaging the written text as an opportunity for interaction” as “[coming] alive through contested and interactive readings” (52). For Salvaggio, Haraway’s point is that “feminists cannot risk perpetuating a ‘closed narrative’ for any of our stories, especially those (…) which delve into the complexity of ‘women’s experience’ in a global postcolonial world” (53). Haraway’s “attention to narrative” becomes a way of understanding scientific practice, and by-extension technological practice, as “story laden” (51). The print-digital distinction is a site where reading against the grain must continue to happen.
For Haraway, the literary is always already implicated in the same power relations as scientific knowledge, because “straightforward readings of any text are also situated arguments about fields of meanings and fields of power” (Simians 114). As readings always take place “in fields of meaning” they are thus processual—“[r]eadings must be engaged and produced; they do not flow naturally from the text” (114). Understanding reading as a situated argument which is always produced acknowledges that to perform reading even in a “straightforward” way is to engage in a form of technological process. To engage in literary criticism is to perform and constitute a particular technology of reading, the literary text. If “almost any serious knowledge project is a thinking technology insofar as it re-does its participants,” then cyborg reading acknowledges that the literary is a thinking technology: “it reaches into you and you aren’t the same afterwards” (Gane and Haraway 154). The ways in which readers “aren’t the same” in reading contemporary literature are arguably very often deeply entangled with technological conditions. Even if a text does not appear to make a claim for a particular ideological stance on the relations of subjectivities within digital technology and communication, the very form of a text produced in the contemporary moment obviously contains questions regarding the reading process and access regarding the networks of association, which lead to ethical questions regarding the particular values assigned to or possibility found within that particular reading. Does my reading online, or in tangible book form, resituate my reading in a way which I see as more valuable? Which characters or voices have access to digital communication technologies or technologies of reproduction? Does my perspective on technological interaction in a text change if the form is open to supporting such interaction? Who is able to access this text?
In this context, the literary novel is a particular technological, textual object, readings of which are contested and agonized. Readers, university departments and publishers are just three nodes in the process of engaging and producing readings of these sorts of texts. These nodes contribute to and shape the possibilities for reading, and thus shape the “[s]tories of the origin of the family, of language, of technology” (Simians 83). Thinking technologies are essential to ethical and political possibilities. Reading, especially critical reading, must then retain “sensitivity to echoes of significance embedded in available metaphor” (Simians 87), including metaphors used in relation to technological communication. For example, one of the central metaphors which requires such sensitive reading in the contemporary moment is that of connection/disconnection, dominant terms which do much conceptual work in a variety of critical writing about agency, technology, and subjectivity.
Haraway’s perception of reading and writing as practices which challenge and reimagine value and experience, by their sensitivity to the significance of available metaphor, is located in the phrasing of two questions from the introduction of Simians. These are questions which can be readily transplanted into the work of twenty-first-century literary critics of print and electronic literature:
How can our “natural” bodies be reimagined—and relived—in ways that transform the relations of same and different, self and other, inner and outer, recognition and misrecognition into guiding maps for inappropriate/d others? (…) [H]ow can we develop reading and writing practices, as well as other kinds of political work, to continue to contest for the material shapes and meanings of nature and experience? (Simians 3-4)
Not only are reading and writing practices “political work” but they are practices which engender the contestation of material shapes and meaning which condition social relations—they are practices with constantly changing ethical consequences. The processes of reading and writing are integral, not in the guise of a disembodied exercise through which to reproduce a suitably democratic subjectivity but as a catalyst for reimagination. Reimagination as the result of reading emphasizes the complexity of experience, and helps to accommodate contestations for meaning which may arise from perceived “misreading” or re-reading. It is not simply that the “right” way to read (and therefore, to retell and/or write) must be outlined, but rather that reading must be recognized as a constant process of rearticulating “material shapes and meanings of nature and experience” (Simians 4). Reimagination denies that reading is straightforwardly didactic process, instead emphasizing that the boundary between reading and its multiple resonances cannot be identified as a static conceptual structure. Reimagining in reading is discursive but it is also embodied, because reading processes do not start or end with an isolated individual.
It is Haraway’s essay on the British-Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta which contributes concretely to a cyborg ethics of reading: one that understands the reader themselves as “a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” and that “[s]ocial reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction” (Simians 149). The essay contains extant observations on how reading fiction contributes to reimaginative practices, and in outlining three different readings of works by Emecheta provides a demonstration of critical self-awareness. It is reading which is aware of its own status as a situated argument. In framing her survey of these readings, Haraway situates the reader in her Women’s Studies classroom, and makes a direct claim for the ethical resonance of readings:
Experience may also be reconstructed, re-membered, re-articulated. One powerful means to do so is the reading and re-reading of fiction in such a way as to create the effect of having access to another's life and consciousness, whether that other is an individual or a collective person with the lifetime called history. These readings exist in a field of resonating readings, in which each version adds tones and shapes to the others, in both cacophonous and consonant waves. (Simians 113)
Women’s Studies is central to Haraway’s thinking in the Emecheta essay, as well as the notion of reading a technology. Different readings, it is suggested, “may function as technologies for constructing what may count as women's experience” (Simians 114), but these readings do not necessarily have to conform to the idea of fiction-as-identification. Haraway’s sense of the complexity of the reading experience understands that while “[f]iction may be mobilized to provoke identifications” it can also provoke “oppositions, divergences, and convergences” and even “produce connections without identifications” (Simians 114). Reading is never a simple practice, and if it is to be understood as having relevance for a situation, or if it is to contribute to an argument about living, it must be in a constant process of contestation: “[I] wanted my women’s studies undergraduate students to read, mis-read, re-read, and so reflect on the field of possible readings of a particular contested author” (Simians 117). Haraway, a particular contested author herself, presents two critical appraisals which respectively read the significance of Emecheta for feminist scholarship, as well as part of her own situated reading. Haraway’s writing of the reading practice is itself an attempt to amplify resonance, consonance and cacophony over the controlled volume of reading-as-totalizing. The description by Haraway of her own reading of Emecheta’s work through the experience of its teaching is significant for its acknowledgement of the dissonance and difficulties of reading:
(…) there was a utopian moment nestled in my reading, one that hoped for a space for political accountability and for cherishing ambiguities, multiplicities, and affinities without freezing identities (…) I wanted to stay with affinities that refused to resolve into identities or searches for a true self. My reading naturalized precisely the moments of ambiguity, the exile status and the dilemma of a “been-to” for whom the time of origins and returns is inaccessible. (Simians 121)
Here is found a partial articulation of a cyborg ethics of reading. It resonates with literary ethical criticism’s desire to view reading as a process of ethical undecidability, that which literary critic Dorothy Hales articulates as an “irresistible encounter with what one does not try to know” (903). This understands that reading presents a “dilemma” of having affinity with a space of “origins and returns” with only the effect of access. It emphasizes the ability to “cherish” rather than “resolve” ambiguities and affinities, denying that reading searches for an articulation of a single self whether in a character or as a reader.
In light of the above, cyborg ethics might be said to read the collapsing boundaries between human and non-human as ambiguous and as signalling multiple identities. The cyborg reader attempts to articulate a politics of possibility which is founded in reading, which resists the literary as the antidote to the technological, but understands and acknowledges the difficulty of holding the two together. A cyborg perspective sees through the anti-technological claim critiques of contemporary digital communication, and highlights that the literary text forms part of the web of power relations which makes those very technologies “fully implicated in the world” (Simians 176). As the “Cyborg Manifesto” articulates, politics can be understood as “written into the play of a text that has no finally privileged reading or salvation history.” A part of being freed of the need to “root politics in identification” is to be able to read multiple technologically mediated identifications as serious and valuable. To restate that “[t]his is not just literary deconstruction, but liminal transformation” (Simians 176-7) in 2019 is to understand that the transformation continues apace, and that forms of literary deconstruction are among the most important ethical articulations, when stories about technology are so essentially entangled with ways of talking about what subjectivities are possible and whose interactions are valuable.
I here turn to a work of electronic literature, Joanna Walsh’s Seed, in order to briefly engage in a cyborg reading. Seed ostensibly uses a hypertext form, connecting different sections of text via five story vines presented in a mobile app, which can always be accessed via web browser. The vines are sections of prose in varying length, generally fairly short, the sequence of which is represented by an intricate illustration of a vine and plant icon, with some of the latter greyed out before being activated by the reader’s interface interactions. Such narrative strands, the preface to the text states, become “entangled and disentangled,” beginning sometimes from the same section, and growing as the reader interacts, clicking on the months which expand the first-person narrative.
The notion of hypertext as a form which can “usefully problematize our relationships to technology and society” (Johnson-Eilola 383) is familiar in cyberfeminist thinking; Johndan Johnson-Eilola, writing in 1993, suggests that “as the locus of control slides away from the writer, the writer/reader becomes a cyborg, both materially and intellectually” (383) and that this cyborg activity helps the reader “to consider our technological activities in a deeply social way” (384). This works as a shorthand articulation of what a cyborg engagement with text attempts to see: the contested power relations between text and reader in the fragmentation and re-articulation of women’s experience. In Seed the necessity of the reader’s technological agency in creating the text is implicitly referenced throughout. The “Rosemary” story vine, for instance, ironically points towards the reader’s interface interactions:
We stay here only with each other, not letting anyone in, not going out the valley. But these things we are told have no borders.
End of July. The dark comes in slight wetness in the air. It is still summer.
(Can we have a life out here?)
Think nothing. Then you can’t do it.
(Seed, “Thunder” 3)
The catatonic isolation of the protagonist’s environment is contrasted with the apparently unlimited agency of the reader to act by reading, connected to the Internet on a mobile device. The imperatives “[t]hink nothing” and “do nothing” introduce a stasis to the atmosphere of the text which the reader cannot help but disturb; they are always already doing something, swiping on screen with finger or mouse cursor, or tapping keyboard arrow, to navigate a woman’s experience which is consequently fragmented and dismembered. The hypertext form does not grant total readerly control, but highlights a problem of readerly ethics, the reader being implicated in the ways in which such experience becomes bordered, delimited. The reader remakes the borders of the text in their navigation of it, which is juxtaposed with the seeming knowing isolation of the protagonist. The reader is constantly reminded that they are able to choose their situation in relation to this making of the world.
This readerly power in the hypertext form, however, is not total, and ambiguities which resist resolution manifest throughout Seed, due to the formal properties of the text. The text appears to deny the possibilities of “origins and returns” (Simians 121) given its shifting status during reading, the narrative vines growing as the reader reaches particular parts of the narrative. To return to the beginning is, then, to return to the start of a conspicuously new text, not only already read but refigured by its own technological affordances, activated by the reader.
The protagonist can also be read in one sense as a cyborg; she is a careful reader and writer, not a figure of science fiction, but one of who contests what can be imagined. The voice of the protagonist challenges the borders set up by the reader, without recourse to the notion of posthumanism. This is demonstrated in the presentation of desire in the text, which rejects the clichéd borders of what counts as sexual experience, breaking such feelings out of a familiar sociality:
At which we run we run which brings the giggles when we giggle we feel that thing between our legs it stops us running almost. It makes us go faster only on the spot though we don’t know what we want to happen.
The protagonist, stating “we don’t know what we want to happen” in a repetitive, poetic description of feeling that “stops us running almost” communicates an elliptical sexuality. This resists the notion of coming to “know” sexuality, perhaps implied in the coming-of-age label for the text. It describes what is felt without reference to the social conditions of such feeling—it is a passage suggestive of a “new coupling.” Such ambiguities resonate with a complex identification. It is also the reader who doesn’t know “what we want to happen” but must continue to shape the narrative path which is the vessel for these new feelings. In this sense, the reading of Seed is thus conspicuously a technology for “constructing what may count as women’s experience” whereby the reader partially controls the story of a teenage girl, but also is confronted with moments where such control and identification is undermined or forced to be reimagined. As Julian Hanna points out, “digital stories always have parallel paths and alternate endings, restarts and repetitions” (Hanna n.p.), but the way in which Seed appears to constantly shift the power of the reader forces a careful consideration of what counts as women’s experience. Seed is a text which knows as much, and communicates this often, with an irony that draws a parallel between the reader and the protagonist as “creatures” both of social reality and of fiction: “I only had one chance to tell this tale,” states the protagonist in a one-line section, “[s]o I don’t tell it.” The reader, conversely, has multiple chances to re-tell (or re-write) this tale by their interface interactions, but in doing so must recognize how such re-telling is a form of social and technological privilege. The borders of fictions are limits which can, and should, be constantly reimagined, in order to “go faster” not for the sake of progress, but “on the spot,” a place where the question might be breathlessly asked: what do we want to happen?
Conclusion – Blaspheming, or “Not Liking It”
The question remains only partially answered—what does it mean to perform a cyborg ethics of reading? It is, in short, an explicit engagement with cyborg figurations as a serious way of reading contemporary literary texts. This might mean highlighting where characters are partial and/or multiple in the performances of their subjectivities. It might mean showing awareness of the particular text as a thinking technology, that it is produced by a particular technological context, such as its explicit and conspicuous status as “literary.” It certainly means acknowledging that the technological situation of a reading is always already an ethical one, that multiple and marginalized positions are performed through reading and writing, and that some of these practices avow thinking the impossible as resistance to all-too-possible violence. Reading with the cyborg is a reading which knows that ethics is technology, and that claims for the ethical singularity of the literary text are the result of a particularly conservative technological thinking.
This positioning of the cyborg as a literary critical figure is meant to highlight, as Toye also does, its ethical capability. Haraway’s movement towards companion species, and recently in declaring the need to “stay with the trouble” doesn’t have to mean the wholesale rejection of the cyborg as a critical figuration: “we need a whole kinship system of figurations as critical figures” (Ihde and Selinger 52). Critical paths suggested by a cyborg ethics of reading include reading texts which do not obviously demonstrate a cyborg ethos. As Jeff Wallace, in “Literature and Posthumanism,” observes, “[c]urrent approaches seem constrained to the selection of authors whose work appears amenable to a philosophy of posthumanism” (699, emphasis added). If literary criticism is to help articulate possible ways of being otherwise which can contribute to the re-articulation of cyber/xenofeminism, it cannot remain merely amenable to texts, especially not those which already appear to be “doing” theory for cyborgs, which risks making the cyborg into a comfortable bourgeois figuration. Cyborg reading asks that critical reading not only read against the grain, but must attempt blasphemy where it can. The literary is a theology. Its claims for singular intelligences and masculine transhumanist images can be productively resisted by interrupting them with the very figure it looks to corral through amenable identification. This is not to only restate multiplicity, but to claim careful, situated reading as a way of encouraging reimagining that is “not about liking it” (“When We Have Never Been Human” 139). Not about liking claims for the value of a singular, eloquent intelligence or for enlightened amusement, which ignores the multiple and entangled situations of those whose reading and writing is a site of continued resistance.
Further work must be done on ways in which radical and politically situated readings can see literature within a media ecology as a provocation for thinking political and philosophical elsewheres. The cyborg does not suit ancestry. It is present, encouraging a constant repositioning, a turning of the map, so that the marginalized or inappropriated others in the swarm of digital mediation might be carefully read, and be able to carefully read themselves. A here unexplored or implied element of cyborg reading could be described as the performance of textual care. With this, Sarah Ahmed’s description of books as spaces of encounter, provides the beginning of further articulation:
The materials are books, yes, but they are also spaces of encounter; how we are touched by things; how we touch things. I think of feminism as a fragile archive, a body assembled from shattering, from splattering, an archive whose fragility gives us responsibility: to take care. (17)
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- Situating of the cyborg thoroughly in the context of posthumanism is beyond the scope of this essay. For a helpful outline of the distinctions between Posthumanism and related disciplines see Francesca Ferrando’s “Posthumanism, Transhumanism, Antihumanism, Metahumanism, and New Materialisms Differences and Relations.”
- This argument by Hayles seems at odds with her earlier articulation of cyborg thinking in How We Became Posthuman: “Manifesting itself as both technological object and discursive formation, it partakes of the power of the imagination as well as the actuality of technology” (114-5).
- Marianne DeKoven makes a similar claim (1694).
- For an exploration of the distinction between articulation and representation, and the consequences for thinking about media images, see Haraway’s “The Promises of Monsters.”