Dona J. Haraway – Simians, Cyborgs, and Women


Dona J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Routledge, 1991.

This book might be one of the most original, thought-provoking, and influential books in the history of social studies of science and technology since the 1980s, transversing from feminist theories and SF literatures to primate studies and military communication technology. Haraway tries to construct, deconstruct and reconstruct a heteroglossia of the social relations of science and technology by assembling and reassembling a variety of disparate components. And her interests extend over human, social, and natural science. In this complex geography, one might find at least three key points (main ideas) that Haraway investigates throughout the book, though it is impossible to separate them from each other.

Body politics and science of liberation

It is Haraway’s basic view that, instead of a neutral connection between the political and the scientific, there is a conjunction between them and that their collaboration constructed though history makes the domination by the specific group of people (White, Men, heterosexual and so on) natural: “That union has been a major source of ancient and modern justifications of domination, especially of domination based on differences seen as natural, given, inescapable, and therefore moral”(7-8). And natural sciences – especially the (animal) behavioral sciences and other applied branches of biology – are playing an important role in managing and controlling society by naturalizing social differences and the division of labor. “We have allowed the theory of the body politic to be split in such a way that natural knowledge,” says Haraway, “is reincorporated covertly into techniques of social control instead of being transformed into sciences of liberation”(8). This sort of assertion is based on, or related with, Foucauldian power-knowledge relations and furthermore on the concept of biopolitics. For a long time since ancient society, science and knowledge have been served for those who controlled society and have contributed to justification of the exploitations (of nature, women, or colored people). What Haraway counts as techniques of social control are, first of all, biosocial sciences (psychobiology and sociobiology) that prevailed in the early twentieth century.

Ironically, those sciences observed animal behaviors and animal societies (as natural objects) in order to find the origin and essence of human beings and their society. According to their functionalist (here Clarence Ray Carpenter and Robert Yerkes) interpretation of animal behaviors, the social order in the animal (primate) society ruled by the alpha male (male leader) was seriously broken down when he is removed from the group. The problem is that they analyzed this as a universal principle of social groups. Thus our human society also is maintained by the same social hierarchy and structured around the domination of powerful males: “The chief point is that without an organizing dominance hierarchy, social order supposedly is seen to break down into individualistic, unproductive competition”(18). Another example of sociobiological studies, looking at the animal as a mirror for the human, focused on primate’s sexual economy. Based on his research on the sexual biology of monkeys, Solly Zuckerman argued that “the only universal for all the primates is the menstrual cycle”(23-4) and the “male fight to obtain the maximum number of reproductive opportunities”(28). In this social functionalism or evolutionary theory, scientists wanted to find “selection for behaviors and emotional patterns that maintain societies as successful breeding population over time”(33).

However, there have been critical transformations in life science at the beginning of second half of the twentieth century. “Between the First World War and the present,” claimed Haraway, “life science moved from physiology to systems theory, from scientific medicine to investment management, from Taylorite scientific management and human engineering of the person to modern ergonomics and population control, from psychobiology to sociobiology”(45). To apply Foucault’s ideas to this narrative, modern science has turned its interest from making the “docile body” into governing “population.” Instead of human engineering “studying traits of the body, mind, spirit, and character in order to fit ‘the person’ perfectly into the proper place in industry”(56), the new form of life science (Wilson’s sociobiology) was adapting system engineering which could be made possible by the communications revolution. This revolution “changed the strategy of control from organism to system, from eugenics to population management, from personnel management to organization structures (sociotechnical systems and ergonomics) based on operations research”(58). As an evolutionary strategy, communication within the system means optimization (not perfection) of society: “Optimization does not mean maximum productive efficiency at all time” and “crucial to system optimization are the mass effects of many variables, not perfection of the individual worker ant”(64). What is remarkable in the system optimization strategy is that genes were regarded as “materialization of information” and “individuals are intermediate structures constructed, or rather instructed, by the genes”(62). Haraway warns that sociobiology fundamentally contributes to the continuation of current domination but with very innovative forms: “sociobiological reasoning applied to human societies easily glides into facile naturalization of job segregation, dominance hierarchies, racial chauvinism, and the ‘necessity’ of domination in sexually based societies to control the nastier aspects of genetic competition”(67)

Construction and deconstruction of radical- and socialist-feminist science

What would be the reason that Haraway describes the history of the life sciences in terms of the embodiment of hierarchical domination in society? She wants to narrate a new story from the feminist perspective. That is to say, one of her main tasks in the book is to build a radical- and socialist-feminist theory of body politics or how to develop socialist-feminist life science.

The feminist identity politics has been the political and epistemological project to “remove women from the category of nature and to place them in culture as constructed and self-constructing social subjects in history”(134). However, whether feminists have affirmed “the categories of nature and the body as sites of resistance to the dominations of history” or argued “against ‘biological determinism’ and for ‘social constructionism’” the problem is that, according to Judith Butler, “gender identity discourse is intrinsic to the fictions of heterosexual coherence, and that feminists need to learn to produce narrative legitimacy for a whole array of non-coherent genders”(135). To overcome sex/gender discourses and identity politics which seeks after women’s agency, feminists need to deconstruct the ‘subject’ and to break up with “’coherent’ or masterful subjectivity” (147). That means they need to pay attention to, in Trinh’s terms, “the emergence of inappropriate/d others.”

New subjectivity of the cyborg

What could be the next step for radical feminists after the deconstruction of the subject? Haraway suggests an alternative concept of body (or subjectivity) in the late twentieth century: the “cyborg” whose image could be blasphemous. “A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” and “a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women’s experience in the late twentieth century”(149).

Haraway took the cyborg as an inappropriate/d other not only to create an irreducible ontological model of body but also to breakdown three crucial boundaries in human history: between human and animal; between organism and machine; and between physical and non-physical. In some sense, the cyborg can be extended to the animal, machine, and non-physical matters, breaking the myth of Western civilization: (hu)man as the measure of the universe. But, the cyborg does not seem to refer to a specific group of people in reality but to an image of people who cannot be subsumed to traditional system of production (capitalism, colonialism) and reproduction (patriarchy) – who are out of the domination of race, gender, sexuality, and class.

The cyborg is an unidentifiable, non-classifiable subject belonging to nowhere. It is not clear, however, whether the cyborg is free from the “scary new networks” or “informatics of domination”(161). In other words, though the cyborg might be presented as a new subjectivity of this age, one can have some doubts whether it is a subject of resistance or just a new technological apparatus for reproduction. To put it differently, we have no idea whether it is alternative or just descriptive. “Communications technology and biotechnologies are the crucial tools recrafting our bodies” and these tools “are constructed by a common move – the translation of the world into a problem of coding, a search for a common language in which all resistance to instrumental control disappears and all heterogeneity can be submitted to disassembly, reassembly, investment, and exchange”(164). Is the cyborg the most fitting subject who has survived and can survive this high-tech environment?; Or is it the most transgressive body which cannot be captured by the web of communicational and biological technology?

Nonetheless, as the new concept of body, it is true that the cyborg has an advantage to cover and link heterogeneous subjects dispersed in the form of network. And, as Haraway concluded her “Cyborg Manifesto” article, “cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves”(181). It is obviously an audacious or blasphemous dream to imagine ourselves to have the flesh incorporated with machine, although it is not just all imagination. I want to see the cyborg as an emergent body, citizen and political subject, and thus it can be both an industrial product destined to artificial obsolescence and an alternative way of existence liberated from control and domination of patriarchal capitalism in the global postmodern high-tech informational/genetic/networked society.



  1. Applying sociobiological thinking to human societies is a perilous undertaking. But the sociobiology of the New World Order must be revealed!!

  2. Hugh: “What does Haraway have to say about globalization?”

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