Imagined Bodies, Imagined Communities
Imagined Bodies, Imagined Communities
The model of the body which many scholars are finding very useful as a metaphor is that of the cyborg. Although cyborgs have been around discursively ever since the idea of a mechanical human was conceived, it was Donna Haraway who first explored the feminist possibilities for the cyborg in her article "A Cyborg Manifesto." In this article, Haraway attempts to create what she calls "an ironic political myth" which combines postmodernism with socialist feminism. Central to her myth is the image of the cyborg, which is "a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction." The cyborg for Haraway is both a metaphor for the postmodernist and political play of identity as well as a lived reality of new technology. As she says, "I am making an argument for the cyborg as a fiction mapping our social and bodily reality and as an imaginative resource suggesting some very fruitful couplings." The cyborg stands for shifting political and physical boundaries which, in its interface with us and the world around us, often wittily pulls the rug out from under what we perceive to be "natural".
With its indiscriminate boundaries, the merger between nature and civilization gives us the cyborg. The cyborg is "a cybernetic organism, a fusion of the organic and the technical forged in particular, historical, cultural practices." Yet the cyborg, according to Haraway, resists what has gone before; it is more than the sum of its parts. "The cyborg incarnation is outside of salvation history. Nor does it mark time on an oedipal calendar, attempting to heal the terrible cleavages of gender?" In addition,
The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world; it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-oedipal symbiosis, unalienated labour, or other seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity.
Since the cyborg does not exist as nature or culture, but is rather a hybrid of both and more, it is not limited by traditional binarisms and dualist paradigms. The cyborg is polymorphous perversity. It is both visionary in its polyvocal play and troubling in its origins: Haraway sees the cyborg as "the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism."
Since boundary politics are one of our concerns in the discussion of women's bodies and nationalism, it is important to note that the cyborg is about challenging facile boundary demarcations. Haraway feels that there are three major boundary breakdowns in the formation of the cyborg. The first is between human and animal. She notes:
Biological and evolutionary theory over the past two centuries have simultaneously produced modern organisms as objects of knowledge and reduced the line between humans and animals to a faint trace re-etched in ideological struggle or professional disputes between life and social science.
As we increase our knowledge about genetics and their manipulation, the idea of humans as the perfection of creation diminishes, or at least sobers us up a little from our drunken spree of supposedly sacred stewardship---although it?s still clear that we?re on top of the political food chain. However with the development of transgenic organisms, the idea of genetic integrity/unity of the organism is called into question. Haraway notes wryly: "The organism has been retooled materially in the New World Order, Inc. as well as semiotically." In Modest_Witness @ Second_Millennium. FemaleManŠ _Meets_ OncoMousetm, Haraway?s latest publication, she presents us with the figure/metaphor of the OncoMousetm, the world?s first patented animal. Oncomice are designed genetically to reliably develop cancer so that researchers can study processes and treatments for humans. "Like other family members in Western biocultural taxonomic systems, these sister mammals are both us and not-us; that is why we employ them." The OncoMousetm is more than a patented organism, though that fact alone is cause for thought; OncoMousetm represents a human-animal symbiosis/merger of corporate technoscience. As we manipulate its reliable cancers, we inscribe its brief existence upon ourselves.
The second boundary breakdown which Haraway notes is between organism and machine. Not only are our household machines, such as bathroom scales which talk or VCRs which record programs automatically, becoming more lifelike and taking on personalities, but humans are coupling with machines for medical purposes: pacemakers, dialysis, artificial limbs and joints, hearing aids. In addition, creating an organism-machine interface need not require complicated medical equipment; weightlifters routinely manipulate their body?s characteristics with machines and telemarketers wear their telephone headset snuggled close to their brains. It is futile to rage against the encroachment of machines in the late 20th century; like the revenge-seeking household appliances from an episode of the Twilight Zone, machines take on life and infiltrate our space whether we like it or not. The latest version of my computer software is "smart" enough to know that when I type "teh" that what I really mean is "the", and in fact to write this sentence required some minutes of wrangling with the computer so that it would even allow me to leave "teh" the way it was.
The third boundary breakdown is between the organic and inorganic. "Marked with the stigmata of a dream, a symptom, and an ordinary research project? scientific efforts to splice carbon-based life forms to silicon-based computer systems take many shapes, from the merely ideological to the technically productive." With the frenzied research into the development of bio-CPUs which utilize organic virus-like components, the microelectronic revolution will become ever more invisible. Haraway notes: "Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves, a section of a spectrum? People are nowhere near so fluid, being both material and opaque." Far from the big grinding gears and metal millstones of yesteryear, today?s machines carry almost infinite amounts of information on a tiny chip hidden somewhere behind an attractive facade. Machines have become Ariels to our Calibans; we are the golems made of mud and machines that which breathe life into the world around us. This ethereal invisibility renders machines potent weapons: "They are as hard to see politically as materially. They are about consciousness?or its simulation."
Thus Haraway?s cyborg myth is "about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work." The myth captures the "contradictory, partial and strategic" identities of the postmodern age. Yet Haraway aims for more than a pleasant science fiction, more than what might be critiqued as a bourgeois fantasy. She points out that: "Who cyborgs will be is a radical question; the answers are a matter of survival. Both chimpanzees and artefacts have politics, so why shouldn?t we?" Haraway feels that the cyborg myth has the potential for radical political action as it frees feminists from a desperate search for similarity with one another, since physical/epistemological boundary breaks can be extrapolated to political boundary crossings.
Nationalism, Identity, and the Cyborg Body
How can we use the metaphor of the cyborg as a point of entry for discussing new ways of conceptualizing national identities and political subjects? I think the trope of the cyborg is particularly useful for examining notions of diaspora, plural identities, and most importantly, difference.
Homi Bhabha articulates these questions of difference in the context of the postcolonial national subject. He argues that not only do traditional theories of nationalism assume an essentialist stance with regard to assumptions of social homogeneity, but that they neglect an analysis of how "the nation" deals with difference within itself in favour of examining how "the nation" defends its borders from an outside threat. If we compared this to the two models of the body I have discussed, we see that traditional modernist theories of nationalism are working with a body/nation that is static and possesses discrete borders and boundaries. Bhabha, on the other hand, might be more amenable to Haraway's body model of the cyborg, as it deals both with external and internal boundary crossings and contradictions, and it actively refutes the singular modernist subject, as Haraway notes:
In a sense, the cyborg has no origin story in the Western sense--a "final" irony since the cyborg is also the awful apocalyptic telos of the "West's" escalating domination of abstract individuation, an ultimate self untied at last from all dependency, a man in space. An origin story in the "Western", humanist sense depends on the myth of original unity, fullness, bliss, and terror, represented by the phallic mother from whom all humans must separate, the task of individual development and of history, the twin potent myths inscribed most powerfully for us in psychoanalysis and Marxism.
Haraway's metaphoric cyborg body shifts analytic focus from a singular, homogeneous body/nation to a body/nation of often dissimilar elements, whose synergetic whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Thus, like Bhabha, Haraway might argue that the power of her cyborg trope is not in its individual aspects, but in the coming together of fragmentary or partial components.
Bhabha echoes this idea when he writes in "Frontlines/Borderposts":
The move away from the singularities of "class" or "gender" as primary conceptual and organizational categories has resulted in a useful awareness of the multiple subject positions--of race, gender, generation, institutional location, geopolitical locale, sexual orientation--that inhabit any claim to identity in the postmodern world. What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the necessity of thinking beyond initial categories and initiatory subjects and focusing on those interstitial moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of "differences".
Bhabha contends that it is precisely in the space of synthesis of "unrelated" elements that "the intersubjective and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated." His vision of national subjectivity is not one of harmonious adherence to a homogeneous norm, or of a bodily system where all parts have their place in a larger singular whole, but rather one in which national identity is developed "in the competing claims of communities where, despite shared histories of deprivation and discrimination, the exchange of values, meanings, and priorities may not be collaborative and dialogical, but profoundly antagonistic, conflictual, and even incommensurable..." Avtar Brah, in Cartographies of Diaspora, adds that "the person [is] a complex and continually changing subject who is the site of multiple contradictions, and whose everyday practices are associated with effects that may reinforce or undermine social divisions." This vision mimics the trope of the cyborg which is "resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity", as well as Haraway's contention that in terms of political activism, one cannot "affirm the capacity to act on the basis of natural identification, but only on the basis of conscious coalition, of affinity, of political kinship."
Bhabha also argues that national subjects do not exist in a kind of fixed and static manner, but rather are produced in a "double time" by the contradictions and conflict of the past and present. Much like we do not tend to think of biology having a history, or of bodies changing through history and through lifetimes, we often do not find in traditional theories of nationalism an acknowledgement that people within a nation are both shaped by and actively engaged in shaping their national experiences and visions. Bhabha writes:
We then have a contested conceptual territory where the nation's people must be thought in double-time; the people are the historical 'objects' of a nationalist pedagogy, giving the discourse an authority that is based on the pre-given or constituted origin in the past; the people are also the 'subjects' of a process of signification that must erase any prior or originary presence of the nation-people to demonstrate the prodigious, living principles of the people as contemporaneity: as that sign of the present through which national life is redeemed and iterated as a reproductive process.
In other words, the people within a nation exist with a split subject-object consciousness that simultaneously draws on "the past" (either in the form of teaching and learning "actual" historical events or as nostalgia for a mythically created golden age) and actively develops "the present" (in political action, organization, and "performing" national identities). Haraway further develops this theme and notes that this kind of dual consciousness can bring with it some profound discomfort in the postmodern age, as unpleasant kinships are discovered:
In the appeal to intrinsic natures, I hear a mystification of kind and purity akin to the doctrines of white racial hegemony and U.S. national integrity and purpose that so permeate North American culture and history... History is erased... in the doctrine of types and intrinsic purposes, and a kind of stasis is piously narrated... I cannot hear discussion of disharmonious crosses among organic beings and of implanted alien genes without hearing a racially inflected and xenophobic symphony. Located in the belly of the monster, I find the discourses of natural harmony, the nonalien, and purity unsalvageable for understanding our geneaology in the New World Order, Inc. Like it or not, I was born kin to... transgenic, transspecific, and transported creatures of all kinds; that is the family for which and to whom my people are accountable.
While Haraway for the most part is optimistic about the possibilities of a cyborg body politic, she is also critical of the processes which produce and maintain the material conditions for its existence. For example, while she is interested in the opportunities for new bodily combinations inherent in the study of transgenic organisms, she is also substantively concerned with the rhetoric and practices of companies such as DuPont which operate in the "New World Order, Inc." to patent living transgenic creations. However, she concludes that one can be profoundly critical of the military or industrial contributions to technological developments while also finding positive political possibilities. After all, the cyborg thrives on contradictions. Thus, "while we are interpenetrated by technologies that include discourse, humans also make collective and elite decisions which determine the scope and impact of technologies." Subject/agent and object oscillate in this paradigm.
The trope of the cyborg has proven to be a fruitful one for theorists concerned with postcolonial identities and the nation-state. Chela Sandoval, in her article "New Sciences: Cyborg Feminism and the Methodology of the Oppressed", uses the trope of the cyborg to explore "[w]hat constitutes 'resistance' and oppositional politics under the imperatives of political, economic, and cultural transnationalization". She makes the provocative argument that "cyborg consciousness" is not merely a function of an age of technology, but can also be used to represent the experiences, identities, and politics of subaltern subjects required to migrate, integrate, and work knowing "the pain of union of machine and bodily tissue, the robotic conditions" of particular forms of labour. In other words, "cyborg consciousness can be understood as the technological embodiment of a particular and specific form of oppositional consciousness..." Sandoval adds that what was once the particular province of oppressed or marginalized people is now the "mode-of-being best suited to life under postmodern and highly technologized conditions in the first world." In her view, it is the postcolonial subaltern subject whose survival tactics will be most useful in an age of transnational capital, global migration, and plural identities.
However, Joseba Gabilondo counters in his article "Postcolonial Subjects: Subjectivity in the Age of Cybernetic Reproduction" that in fact the cyborg is merely a luxury of first world technopolitics, since "postcolonial [subaltern] subject positions are always left outside of cyberspace... [and are] also left outside of consumer culture by capitalism, thus signifying the exteriority of both cyberspace and consumer culture." Gabilondo goes on to argue that "[p]ostcolonial subject positions are necessary in order to create the outsideness that cyberspace and consumer culture need to constitute themselves as the new hegemonic inner spaces of postmodernism." While he acknowledges that the Enlightenment-era body politic model, discussed earlier in this essay, is also no longer useful, he proposes that the cyborg body politic is intrinsically linked to capitalism and consumer culture. Thus only subjects within privileged capitalist contexts may benefit from developing cyborg consciousness, or are even able to do so. This point of view is a nearly direct contradiction to Sandoval's point that cyborg consciousness has always existed as part of subaltern subject positioning. I think Gabilondo's approach to cyborg consciousness is too narrow, and restricts itself to mass cultural manifestations of technology. Sandoval's paradigm is much more useful and broad in its application.
Chris Hables Gray and Steven Mentor, in their article "The Cyborg Body Politic", provide a compelling synthesis of both Sandoval's and Gabilondo's streams of critique. They begin by proposing that "the postmodern nation-state is certainly more of a cyborg than it is a machine with a divine soul", as in the previously discussed Enlightenment-era model of the political body. Rather, the postmodern state "mixes humans, ecosystems, machines, and various complex softwares (from laws to the codes that control nuclear weapons) in one vast cybernetic organism, linked itself in many ways to the rest of the polities and other forms of life of the Earth." They connect this postmodern state both to "contemporary informatics" of technoscience and to the recognition of plural postcolonial identities. Yet, they make the interesting point that "contemporary images of the body politic continue to reflect the mappers' desire for coherence and readability, for the reduction of social conflicts to bodies or units capable of control..." Thus although what Sandoval calls the "cyborg consciousness" is clearly in evidence, in multiple forms, ideologies of unitary and unified political bodies still command a great deal of power. In this sense the cyborg body politic can be read as a threat to particular conceptions of nation-state and nationalism.
Gray and Mentor are able to articulate a more complex version of the cyborg body politic than the one envisioned by Gabilondo. While they acknowledge, like Haraway, the "noxious forms" of technoscience and power, they also argue that "the cyborg can be a place to learn a new conception of agency", something of interest to political subjects in a variety of configurations.
As for the nation-state, Gray and Mentor sound its death-knell, writing that "[t]he age of the hegemony of the nation state is ending." Echoing Bhabha's call to examine difference within the imagined community, Gray and Mentor note that the cyborg body politic destabilizes not only nations in relation to one another, but also in relation to themselves. They note:
There is a proliferation of political forms that overlap and even contradict each other, as postmodern states struggle against devolution from below and empire from above, their bodies are drained of sovereignty by transnational corporations on one side and nongovernmental organizations and international subcultures sustained by worldwide mass telecommunications on the other.
This is a provocative statement, for not only does it address the disunity of the nation-state when juxtaposed with other nation-states, but also the disunity that the nation-state experiences within its own borders. As an example, Gray and Mentor propose the concept of "diasporic nationalism", which is manifested in "large groups with identities based on the nation state [being] dispersed across the world... [with the result that] the nation's body is no longer identical with its territory." Like xenotransplantation of donor organs into other host bodies, diasporic nationalism signifies the metaphoric destabilization of the unified national body.
Conclusion: The Body as Praxis
To conclude this essay, which is really just a beginning exploration of an idea, I think it is useful to propose avenues for feminist critique which are indicated by this essay. In this essay I have tried to argue that theory, particularly theory around the body, is political. Medical and technoscientific discourses about bodies and gender are not, as we have often been told, "objective", but rather inform and are informed by highly specific historical, political, economic, and social conditions and agendas. Though discourses are not to be confused with material conditions, I believe that discourse plays a powerful role in how we imagine our communities, which in turn shapes and are shaped by our experiences of those communities. As a result, a feminist critique of both nationalism and science, not to mention epistemology, continues to be necessary.
In Chela Sandoval's article "New Sciences", she argues that Haraway's metaphoric cyborg is a useful tool for developing a "methodology of the oppressed" and an "oppositional cyborg feminism". She puts this in both a postcolonial and scientific frame of reference, stating that:
A scholarly and feminist consciousness-of-science, then, of objectivity as 'situated knowledges' means, according to Haraway, the development of a different kind of human relation to perception, objectivity, understanding, and production... that what is an 'object of knowledge' also be 'pictured as an actor and agent' (198), transformative of itself and its own situation while also being acted upon.
In other words, Sandoval is proposing another way of doing the "imagining" about our communities.
In addition to postcolonial subjects/bodies, scholarship around nationalism and the body has identified disability as a subject of critique. Helen Meekosha and Leanne Dowse write in "Enabling Citizenship: Gender, Disability and Citizenship in Australia" that:
Disability is a feminist issue, but is largely ignored in feminist debates... The concept of a disabled citizen could be described as a contradiction in terms. The incarceration of some people with disabilities... has been and continues to be an act of denial of citizenship... their bodies and minds constitute their crime... Nationalism and disability interpenetrate in a variety of ways with a complex array of outcomes... The process of building/imagining ethnic and nationalist communities often actively seeks to exclude certain groups which threaten a sense of cohesiveness.
From this quote, it is evident that a critique of the national body or body-as-state should operate on several levels: first, on a concrete level wherein people whose bodies do not fit the ideal are denied civil/citizenship rights (which indicates that they are not considered fully part of the nation-state); second, on an abstract level wherein the imagined communities do not include bodies who are perceived as a threat to the unified whole. As Meekosha and Dowse note, "The nationalist project and disability are linked not only in the process of exclusion but also in the claiming of a political and social space."
Thus there are many directions and opportunities for feminist critique of and theorizing around (to name but a few) technoscience, postcoloniality, disability, agency/subejctivity, and of course, nationalism using the metaphor and experiences of physical and metaphoric bodies. In our present world of transnational identities and capital, a conception of the body-as-state that is predicated on a unified, hierarchical and clearly bounded body is no longer fruitful or positive (if it ever was). The cyborg as theory, experience, and methodology provides a rich point of entry into new kinds of imagining bodies and communities. As Sandoval concludes:
Each [cyborg] technology of the methodology of the oppressed thus creates new conjunctural possibilities, produced by ongoing and transforming regimes of exclusion and inclusion.