A cyborg is an odd creature, not entirely of woman born, but one which lives in the complex hybrid spaces between man and machine, a fictional creature with a lived social reality. Traditional conceptions of humanity rest with our primate origins, our connection with nature and our material existence; the cyborg however unites the man with the man-made, where human augmentation reaches beyond the traditional senses. Hearing is amplified through the use of the telephone; sight through televisuals and touch through haptic technologies. Identity and personhood extends beyond the embodied into the ether. It is in this world that contemporary womanhood is situated.
Technology is not created in a vacuum, it is the dominant with access to resources – material and human that drives technological development. Much of contemporary technology is developed for military and commercial purposes, for the exercise of domination, power and control whether physical or economic. Technological production enslaves Third world women, paid bobbins to produce expensive luxury consumer electronics for Western consumption; uneven technological distribution empowers the wealthy over the poor and technological consumption enslaves workers to their bases, ever on call in a virtual workplace. Yet technology is subversive, once the genie is let out the bottle, it cannot be contained.
Advances in technology, although originally developed to wield power, eventually seep to the masses. Literacy – a highly prized skill, which required scarce and expensive resources in the middle ages was originally used to enhance the power of the Church, but eventually provided mass communication through the development of the printing press and the ball point pen. Many of the developments in audio-visual technology, such as the polaroid camera (first edition: “The Swinger”), cable television and streaming video was driven by the pornography industry, yet now provides citizen recording. So too with the rise of the internet – originally conceptualised by the US military as a means of maintaining information and survival in the event of a nuclear strike, today it operates as a mass communications device. In the West, mass technology is ubiquitous, although this is not yet the case in the developing world, the growth rate is phenomenal, with several steps of development skipped – why lay land lines in Africa when mobile phones require so much less infrastructure.
And it is here that the cyborg emerges. Identity – once entrenched in the physical body – has now transcended its boundaries. People exist now not only as collections of cells but as collections of data packets on remote servers. Experience is lived not only in the physical world, but in the virtual; being has transcended physical limits not only through direct prostheses, but through virtual resonances and trace elements. Identity is created, reformed and melded through conscious processes. Identity politics in a world of constructed identities makes reductions to essential nature and physical manifestation absurd.
In such a world, gender becomes a construct. While sex is fixed and immovable, gender becomes much more fluid, but that is not to say that male domination disappears in the virtual sphere. Rape is after all a crime of the mind as any drugged rape survivor will tell you, regardless of no physical injuries nor memory of the event, women who have been raped still feel violated and traumatised. The first documented case of a rape in cyberspace occurred in LambaMoo, where a “player” set up a programme to action sexual violence against several other player characters. Despite no physical harm, the person behind the worst of the violence experienced a traumatic reaction and difficulty coming to terms with the public violation of her identity.
Liberation rests on a raising of consciousness, an awareness of the dominant ideological hegemony, of the oppression suffered and the means of overcoming it. Gender is however only one source of oppression, class; race and sexuality all intertwine in a myriad of power structures, along with many other more fluid ones. When identity becomes fluid, as is the case in cyberspace, oppression does too.
Marina is an odd heroine. The interpreter and advisor to Cortes, she was sold to him as part of a package of twenty slaves and bore their mixed race child. A legendary character who bears different identities at different times. As the embodiment of treachery, the quintessential victim and the mother of the new Mexican people, she encompasses Eve, who ate the apple against God’s will, Mary impregnated by God against her will; a rape by any other standards, and Gaia, the all giving mother, feasted upon by her parasitic offspring. Her treachery, abuse and exploitation are wrapped together in her nickname of “La Chingada” – “the fucked one”. Many third wave feminists have identified with Marina, a victim, an oppressor and a creature of circumstance depending on your viewpoint, but above and beyond that she is model of differential consciousness.
The second wave of feminism has long been criticised as being a White Middle Class movement, which ignores the realities of intersecting oppressions experienced by women in poverty or women of colour. Dominant ideology reproduces itself through state apparatus, overtly in the form of the police, courts and justice system, but also covertly through the benevolent state functions of education, health provision and media regulation. To effectively challenge dominant ideology, it is necessary to dance. Women of colour experience duel oppressions and seek solace in the company of their co-oppressed. As women they challenge the patriarchal attitudes found in their culture and heritage; as Blacks, they challenge the arrogant assumptions of hegemonic womanhood. These oppressions meet but in different ways at different times.
With the rise of Islamophobia, many Asian women found it an insurrectionary act to adopt the hijab. Young second and third generation women brought up in a Western culture to westernised parents started wearing the hijab as a an assertion of their culture within the community oppression. In such a context it is meaningless to look at the hijab as a tool of womens oppression – although in some circumstances that may be the case, as the act was an act of solidarity and defiance. Their identity was fluid: as physical embodiments they were both Asian and female, however they chose to prioritise the oppression which they felt most keenly at that time.
We can learn from women of colour, who nimbly deal with the duality of oppression in their identity. Sometimes prioritising one, sometimes the other, they nimbly move between the differential, challenging the dominant ideology – not through the politics of identity, but through the politics of affinity. By identify and locating their oppression in a community and actively challenging at its weak spots they undermine the underlying ideologies which seek to dominate. Rather than a fixed identity, which is defended; their identity shifts to highlight the differential and exchange solidarity with the oppressed.
Slutwalk is another example of oppositional consciousness. Although its roots are in poor housekeeping, its meaning has been sexualised, as technology has negated the need for much female domestic labour, so women are prized for their sexual rather than domestic production. The slut is a creature who challenges sexual mores. Most often applied to young, white women it seeks as a disciplinary tool to reinforce the boundaries of acceptable female sexual behaviour. By the aggressive identification with the slut – “the fucked one” of the Chicano feminist discourse, it undermines that discipline and challenges the ideology that gives rise to it.
And so too for the cyborg. Identity is no longer fixed and immutable, but presented and represented over and over again. By identification with the marginalised and seeking out power differentials and locating strategy through praxis, a map of active resistance can be drawn. The co-option of technological advances offers us new options to actively challenge, new methods to record experience, new tools to develop affinities and new mediums of communication.
The Goddess is dead. Long life the cyborg.
Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century, further developed in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature
Julian Dibble, “A rape in CyberSpace”
Chelia Sandoval, US Third World Feminism: The theory and method of oppositional conciousness in the postmodern world further developed in Methodology of the Oppressed (Theory Out of Bounds)
First published on Village Aunties on 15th July.