views updated


A cyborg is a crossbreed of a human and a machine. The cyborg metaphor was coined by the astronautics researcher Manfred Clynes and the psychiatrist Nathan Kline (Clynes and Kline 1960, pp. 26–27), who argued that space travel required the development of "self-regulating human-machine systems." Such systems were termed cyborgs, from cybernetic technology and organism. However, the term is not restricted to astronautics. Robotic beings that blur the distinction between humans and machines inhabit myriad science fiction novels and films, such as Star Trek (1979), Robocop (1987), Blade Runner (1982), and Terminator (1984). Above all, cyborg derives its intellectual influence from Donna Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto (1985).

This manifesto rang in Haraway's presence as a leading theorist in the field broadly defined as science and technology studies. Haraway was educated as a primatologist, philosopher and historian of science and technology. In the early twenty-first century she teaches as a professor of the history of consciousness at the university at Santa Cruz, United States. In addition to a long list of essays, Haraway is the author of Crystals, Fabrics and Fields (1976), Primate Visions (1989) and most recently, the Companion Species Manifesto (2003), in which she revises her view of cyborgs by arguing that dogs are more important.

The Cyborg Manifesto is a complex, ironic, cacophonous text. Although it initially was addressed to feminist thinkers, it has had a considerable impact in the broader field of science and technology studies. It moves from reflection on the human condition in technological culture to a critique of politics and power relations. Haraway's critique includes current feminist strategies, which she describes as an extension of "identity politics" that defends fixed identities by victimizing the excluded. The manifesto argues for the pleasure of confusing identities. It invites feminists to play with ideas as hybridization and crossing boundaries.

People ceaselessly strive for an ordered world. Science and technology are considered as means to improve that ordering. But at the same time, they unwillingly destroy the ordering principles. As a result of findings in science, technology, and medicine, traditional binary oppositions between human and animal, organism and machine, nature and culture, man and woman, fact and fiction, body and mind, and subject and object increasingly have been blurred. Humans and animals more and more resemble cyborgs, with their bodies being equipped with pacemakers, dental prostheses, implants, and xenotransplants or modified by genetic engineering or cloning. Outside the body the dependency between living beings and machines has increased too.

The cyborg is not only a descriptive category. According to Haraway, the blurring of borders should be actively pursued. "By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics" (Haraway 1994, p. 150).

Cyborgs not only disrupt orderly power structures and fixed interests but also signify a challenge to settled politics, which assumes that binary oppositions or identities are natural distinctions. Actually those oppositions are cultural constructions. Haraway underlines the critical function of the cyborg concept, especially for feminist politics. The current dualistic thinking involves a "logic of dominance" because the parts of the dualisms are not equivalent. Thus, the logic produces hierarchies that legitimize men dominating women, whites dominating blacks, and humans dominating animals.

Instead, Haraway suggests that people should undermine these hierarchies by actively exploring and mobilizing the blurring of borders. "Perhaps, ironically, we can learn from our fusions with animals and machines how not to be man, the embodiment of western logos"(Haraway 1991b, p. 173).

This might suggest that Haraway simply reinforces what science and technology already do: blurring boundaries. But Haraway wants to make explicit the assumed identities and boundaries, whereas science and technology blur them in an implicit and unintended way in their strive for control of nature and order. This unintended blurring has also been articulated by the French philosopher Bruno Latour in "we have never been modern" (Latour 1993). Latour speaks about hybrids, which are mixtures of humans and nonhumans, like cyborgs. According to Latour, modern science and technology have caused a "proliferation of hybrids." Cyborg politics tries to escape the logic of dominance and its inherent essentialism: "Queering what counts as nature is my categorical imperative. Queering specific normalized categories is not for the easy frisson of transgression, but for the hope of lovable worlds" (Haraway 1994, p. 60).

The virtue of cyborg politics is that as soon as individuals acknowledge their identities and boundaries to be culturally constructed, they can reconstruct them in a more thoughtful way. And as soon as people acknowledge that their identity and that of others is necessarily fragmented, they can no longer dominate others, neither be dominated, Haraway asserts. Thus, the ironical play with boundaries is not without obligations. Players should take responsibility in reconstructing them (Haraway 1991a). The model of dominance should be replaced for a model of responsibility for other people as well as for machines. Like people, machines have no singular identity: "the machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment. We can be responsible for machines, they do not dominate or threaten us. We are responsible for boundaries, we are they" (Haraway 1991b, p. 180). However, how this responsibility towards machines and boundaries should be shaped in practice, remains unsettled in Haraway's work.

The philosophical importance of cyborg politics is not situated entirely in its anti-essentialism, for this is a common philosophical theme (Munnik 2001). Its importance is in the focus on the political potencies and challenges of technology crossing fundamental boundaries. Cyborg politics distinguishes itself from most critical approaches by not one-sidedly stressing the fearful risks of new technologies. By emphasizing peoples' responsibility of reconstructing identities, cyborg theory offers a radical and original approach toward the philosophy of technology.


SEE ALSO Androids;Posthumanism;Robots and Robotics.


Clynes, Manfred, and Nathan Kline. (1960). "Cyborgs and Space." Astronautics 13: 26–27, 74–75.

Gray, Chris Hables, ed., with assistance of Heidi J. Figueroa-Sarriera and Steven Mentor. (1995). The Cyborg Handbook. New York: Routledge. Forty-three original and reprinted articles on the origin of the cyborg concept; cyborgs in engineering, medicine, and fiction; and cyborg anthropology and politics. The foreword is by Donna Haraway.

Haraway, Donna. (1991a). "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century." Socialist Reviews 8: 65–108. Included in Haraway's Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Haraway, Donna. (1991b). Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Haraway, Donna. (1994). "A Game of Cat's Cradle: Science Studies, Feminist Theory, Cultural Studies." Configurations 2(no. 1): 59–71.

Latour, Bruno (1993). We Have Never Been Modern. New York, Harvester Wheatsheaf. Translation of Nous N'avons Été Modernes (Paris: La Découverte, 1991).

Levidow, Les, and Kevin Robins, eds. (1989). Cyborg Worlds: The Military Information Society. London: Free Association Books.

Munnik, René. (2001). "Donna Haraway: Cyborgs for Earthly Survival?" In American Philosophy of Technology. The Empirical Turn, ed. Hans Achterhuis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Smits, Martijntje. (2002). Monsterbezwering. Amsterdam: Boom.