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A Discourse on Social Change

Spring 2017 Winning Short Essay

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Cyborgs and Socialist Feminism in the Environmental Justice Movement

By: Brian Gialketsis

In A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s, Donna Haraway uses the concept of the cyborg, an organism distinct from that of human, animal or machine, to create an imaginative vision for overcoming a fractured and ineffectual socialist feminist movement. She claims that rather than identity politics, critics should focus instead on encouraging a feminist vision that forms coalitions through “affinity” (8-10), and the central metaphor of the cyborg allows her to transcend the limitations and critique the assumptions of traditional notions of boundaries, namely surrounding race, gender, feminism and politics in the transition to the Information Age. Basic tenets of the emerging field of environmental justice include considering aspects of identity, specifically race and class, in the disproportionate burden of negative environmental risks, disparities and outcomes. In an ecofeminist fashion, Haraway’s ironic cyborg imagery connects the female body with nature, therefore functioning as an empowering image for the environmental justice movement by providing a new “common language for women” (1). Since both Haraway’s Manifesto for Cyborgs and the contemporary environmental justice movement are concerned with identity and identity politics, Haraway’s cyborg imagery can be used as a means to advance and strengthen environmental justice theory to include Haraway’s principles of deconstruction and socialist feminism from the 1980s.

Before connecting the vision of the cyborg to environmental justice, Haraway’s vision of the cyborg must first be elucidated. She writes, “A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (1) and states that she is “making an argument for the cyborg as a fiction of mapping our social and bodily reality and as an imaginative resource” (2). These quotes show both the literal definition of the cyborg and foundations of Haraway’s imaginative version of it, drawing special attention to the fact that her version consists of “social reality,” defined as “the attitudes, beliefs and opinions that are held by the members of a society or a group” (“Social Reality”). Thus, this definition of the cyborg gives society the agency to construct a vision of the cyborg, in a call for a paradigm shift, that benefits the most people or groups suffering from marginalization or oppression—in context of Haraway’s piece, women. The concept of social reality also evokes notions of lived experience that parallels Haraway’s desire for the cyborg to “change what counts as women’s experience in the late twentieth century” (2).

Even Haraway’s subtitle, “An Ironic Dream of a Common Language for Women in the Integrated Circuit,” provides much insight into what she intends to and does accomplish in her essay: write about her cyborg vision in an attempt to convince the reader that this vision can aid the socialist feminist movement. While Haraway ironically writes that there is and should be no “common language for women,” she argues instead for an “infidel heteroglossia” (Haraway 37), referring to a rogue version of Mikhail Bakhtin’s “close conceptualization of that locus where centripetal and centrifugal forces [of language] collide” (Bakhtin 428). In Dialogic Imagination, Bakhtin describes centripetal forces as the forces that draw language to standardization, unification and centralization (270), while he describes centrifugal forces as stratifying and decentralizing (or decentering) language (425). Bakhtin explains “heteroglossia of language” as the way one language can consist of distinct “dialects” or varieties, and extrapolating from his idea of heteroglossia in language, he applies heteroglossia to the social, calling it “social heteroglossia” (278), which refers to the fact that language and narratives contain multiple voices that express different world-views.

Haraway evokes Bakhtin’s notions of heteroglossia, or multiplicity of social voices, in place of the all-too-often-called-for “common language for women” from feminists. She deliberately uses irony to undermine the assumption that a common language is appropriate for a movement comprised of people from various identities other than “woman.” For example, Haraway evokes Chela Sandoval’s work regarding “women of color” and how “the definition of the group has been by conscious appropriation of negation” (9), thus unfairly homogenizing and totalizing the women’s movement and women’s experience. Here she draws attention to the need for a new kind of feminism, enabled by “cyborg heteroglossia” (6), that subverts the militaristic (5), “White Capitalist Patriarchy” (16). However, Haraway claims that the “comfortable old hierarchical dominations” of woman and nature are in the midst of transitioning to what she calls the “informatics of domination” (16), a new oppressive force that she sees as made possible by the “social relations of science and technology” (26). Haraway’s connection between science, technology and the socialist feminist movement displays her need for cyborg heteroglossia.

While Haraway criticizes “traditions of ‘Western’ science and politics” including “racist, male-dominant capitalism; the tradition of the appropriation of nature as resource for the production of culture; [and] the tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other” (2), she remedies some of these problems by creating a “post-gender” (3), cyborg world that excludes gender by deconstructing all binaries and boundaries mythically. The context in which she wrote her manifesto certainly shaped this cyborg vision, as science, technology and Norbert Wiener’s term “cybernetics” were popularly discussed during the 1980s (Wiener). Haraway draws special attention to the lack of femininity in this post-gender cyborg world, thus focusing on the lack of notions of genesis, the inability of the cyborg to “recognize the Garden of Eden” and the fact that cyborgs “do not re-member the cosmos” (4). This shows that Haraway doesn’t want the cyborg associated with the restoration of Eden but instead moves away from the repressive vision of our origins, our origins that dictate ends and where we return (Zakariya). Departing from, or deconstructing, our origins allows us to look critically at environmental justice and question how gender and the body also factor into the complex disparities of environmental burdens.

Haraway cites this ironically ignorant trait of cyborgs, created by “assembly” rather than birth as humans know it, as fundamental to “why [she] want[s] to see if cyborgs can subvert the apocalypse of returning to nuclear dust in the manic compulsion to name the Enemy” (4). This ignorance of, or lack of connection to, gender and genesis allows the cyborg myth to transcend notions of accepted norms regarding the topic of socialist feminism. The cyborg vision notes problems of the “whole,” as historically no society has ever captured the whole population’s opinion or everybody’s full identity. This is in part due to political dissensus; thus, everyone who disagrees with the whole becomes wrong and the whole becomes repressive (Zakariya). She describes the cyborg as “a kind of disassembled and reassembled, post-modern collective and personal self” (18). In a footnote, Haraway writes, “My position is that feminists (and others) need continuous cultural reinvention, post-modernist critique, and historical materialism; only a cyborg would have a chance” (6). This quote evinces that Haraway uses the post-modernist cyborg vision to advance feminism in the face of social re-creation.

Haraway cites three “boundary breakdowns” of the late twentieth century that make her “cyborg political fictional (political scientific) analysis possible” (4). In her first breakdown, she writes, “the boundary between human and animal is thoroughly breached” (4). Noting the similarities between and sameness of human and animal, she connects feminism to animal rights, demonstrating her way of thinking about womanhood and nature as indissociable. She argues that the cyborg “appears in myth precisely where the boundary between human and animal is transgressed” (4-5). In her second breakdown, Haraway remarks that the distinction between “animal-human (organism) and machine” constitutes a “leaky distinction” (5). When discussing how machines and technology have changed in this leaky distinction to include more self-movement, self-design and autonomy, Haraway writes “now we are not so sure” regarding the disconnectedness between how man views himself and pursues his dreams and how machines have always been thought of as only able to “mock man’s dream” (5). She writes, “Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert” (5). This quote shows that she hopes her cyborg vision will spur action and empowerment in socialist feminism beyond what has been possible thus far. In her third boundary breakdown, a “subset of the second,” Haraway writes, “the boundary between physical and non-physical is very imprecise for us” (6). In the wake of miniaturization to the point that machines have become “invisible,” she brings up this boundary to reveal the “fluidity” and applicability of her cyborg myth (6-7). She ends this section with, “Cyborgs are ether, quintessence” (7), showing that cyborg imagery provides fluid embodiment to socialist feminism that allows the reader to imagine a new socialist feminism in this new age.

This new vision of socialist feminism relates to modern environmental justice by providing a paradoxically unifying yet heteroglossic voice to those people who do not have one. Haraway’s breakdown of boundaries and totalizing identity politics highlights the fact that many sociologists consider race, class and gender as social constructs (“Social Constructs”). After reviewing two decades of scholars’ claims about environmental justice, Mohai, Pellow and Roberts conclude, “hundreds of studies have now documented unequal [environmental risk] exposures by race, ethnicity and economic class” (“Environmental Justice”). In his “Conclusions and Implications” section, Lawrence Bobo states: “America is not a color-blind society. We stand uncomfortably at a point of defeating Jim Crow racism, but unsure whether, through benign neglect, to allow the current inequalities and polarization to take deeper root, or to face directly and proactively the challenges of bias, miscommunication and racism that remain” (Bobo 295). With charts demonstrating a widening racial wealth gap after the Civil Rights era, a large disparity in wealth and negative perceptions of people of color, evidence from Goyette and Sheller depicts quite apparently America’s distance from post-raciality (Goyette). Class, according to O’Rourke, is comprised of socioeconomic status, social status, and political factors, including income, wealth, occupation, education, prestige and connections to power and influence (O’Rourke “Class & Inequality”; Gialketsis “Environmental Justice”).

Haraway’s deep connection between socialism and feminism links class, especially O’Rourke’s definition regarding power and influence, to gender and womanhood. As she draws attention to the socially constructed aspects of identity, Haraway exposes race, class and gender as parts of a whole identity, of a cyborg identity. Linking race, gender and class doesn’t seem so ridiculous in Haraway’s post-modernist critique, as they collectively contribute to a person’s total identity. When discussing the poetry of Katie King in relation to the work of Chela Sandoval, Haraway writes, “The politics of race and culture in the U.S. women’s movements are intimately interwoven. The common achievement of King and Sandoval is learning how to craft a poetic/political unity without relying on a logic of appropriation, incorporation, and taxonomic identification” (10). This is one of Haraway’s goals, too.

Furthermore, a common method for determining environmental injustices uses zoning laws and siting of Locally Unwanted Land Uses, known as LULUs in environmental justice theory and discourse. Proximity to LULUs, such as a landfill, freeway or industrial polluting facility like a coal power plant, determine the quality of life of the people living there. Environmental justice researchers consider race and class the two main contributors to environmental health disparities in the United States, but Haraway’s argument can be applied such that gender also plays a crucial role in determining environmental health outcomes when thinking about environmental justice globally. Both environmental justice and Haraway’s purpose for writing highlight the act of discrimination based on the body. Evidence such as employer interviews, audit studies, survey experiments and voting records all demonstrate unequal treatment for people of color in the United States (O’Rourke “Race & Racism”). Drivers of income trends include tax policies that favor the rich, bank deregulation, jobs disappearing from the middle class, effects of technology on employment and the decline of the manufacturing sector in the United States (O’Rourke “Class & Inequality”). Additionally, institutional processes like planning and zoning of cities for certain purposes contribute to the determination of environmental hazard distribution. For example, if a LULU resides in an area, oftentimes it is because it is one of several sites zoned for that particular use (O’Rourke “Environmental Injustice”; Gialketsis “Environmental Justice”).

According to Mohai et al., “Almost one third of the weighted sample [he studied] lived within 1 mile of a polluting industrial facility; 38.1% of Black and 28.4% of White respondents lived within a mile of such a facility, a statistically significant disparity” (“Racial and Socioeconomic”). These data display that, largely due to socioeconomic status, Blacks live in a greater percentage than Whites near polluting industrial facilities. They continue by stating: “Racial disparities in proximity were explained partially but not fully by socioeconomic differences” (“Racial and Socioeconomic”). Additionally, “Those with incomes of less than $15,000 or between $15,000 and $39,999 were significantly more likely than were those with incomes of $40,000 or more to live within a mile of a polluting facility” (“Racial and Socioeconomic”). Pastor et al. describe facility-housing neighborhoods as having higher proportion of residents of color and as being poorer, with blue-collar jobs and lower initial home values and rents, stating, “our analysis did show that there were significant indications of disproportionate siting in communities of color, even after we had controlled for income and other measures” (Pastor at al. 2005). They note that Whites live “primarily in less urban areas, where risks are lower” (Pastor et al. 2005). Haraway demonstrates her opinion of these issues when she writes, “At the level of ideology, we see translations of racism and colonialism into languages of development and underdevelopment, rates and constraints of modernization” (17).

We can use a contemporary environmental justice issue, climate change, as a case study of how race, class and gender influence disproportionate burdens by the environment. According to the United Nations News Center, climate change disproportionately affects women due to a higher proportion of females living in developing or “poor” countries, which are often struck with extreme climate patterns like droughts, storms or floods (“WomenWatch”), and a disproportionately small influence over “decision making,” with little representation (“Gender Perspectives on Climate Change”). The UN’s website frames climate change as a “sustainable development challenge” (“WomenWatch”), and a report published by the UN claims, “Women are not only victims of climate change, but also effective agents of change in relation to both mitigation and adaptation” (“Gender Perspectives on Climate Change”). The report continues by declaring, “Women have a strong body of knowledge and expertise that can be used in climate change mitigation, disaster reduction and adaptation strategies. Women’s responsibilities in households and communities as stewards of natural resources has positioned them well for livelihood strategies adapted to changing environmental realities” (“Gender Perspectives on Climate Change”). This report demonstrates, along with Haraway’s vision of a cyborg socialist feminist identity, that women can play a key role in combatting environmental and social injustice. According to the NAACP’s website, “Global climate change has a disproportionate impact on communities of color in the United States and around the world” (“Environmental and Climate Justice Program”). From these two sources, we can conclude that Haraway’s cyborg myth functions as an empowering way of breaking down boundaries of identity and proposing a new approach to discussing identity in environmental justice.

Researchers’ accumulated evidence for wide environmental health disparities in gender, race and class provide a factual foundation for Haraway’s cyborg model of socialist feminism. Linking science and technology to her argument, Haraway notes “the ethnic and racial diversity of women in Silicon Valley,” often thought of as the hub of technology, and that “women in third-world countries are the preferred labor force for science-based multinationals” (21). These facts demonstrate Haraway’s point that women construct a large, and increasing, portion of the backbone of modern science and technology. Conversely, Haraway notes how the aforementioned informatics of domination “interweave with the social relations of science and technology” (26). Haraway argues for a tool to “subvert command and control” using “feminist cyborg stories” to “recode communication and intelligence” (30). She writes, “Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly” (31).

As has been demonstrated, Haraway’s cyborg myth functions as a powerful tool to augment the environmental justice movement in the twenty-first century. Science and technology, particularly the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to analyze demographic data and determine which groups live by more environmentally risk-prone areas, significantly contribute to the environmental justice movement (“Measuring Environmental Injustices”). Haraway calls for a heteroglossic movement in socialist feminism, writing, “One is too few, and two is only one possibility” (35). By this she means that a single, totalizing, whole does not fully capture the multiplicity of voices necessary for a just socialist feminist movement, yet two or more voices are just the beginning of possibilities for what could flourish into a formidable and effective feminist cyborg heteroglossia. I call for a cyborg heteroglossia in environmental justice: a deconstructing of identity assumptions and boundaries to strengthen feminism, environmentalism and justice; a method of using the full embodiment of individuals to speak out on behalf of what is best environmentally and socially for the community, where possible within the matrices of hierarchical domination; and an ironically unifying force in the age of science and technology. Womanhood and nature are analogous to Haraway in their cultural domination— socialist feminism provides the ability to protect nature not from science and technology but from “us.”


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