English 738T, Spring 2015
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Vindication of the Rights of Cyborgs?

Posted by Jennifer Ausden on Tuesday, March 13th, 2012 at 4:33 pm

Prior to starting this week’s reading, I ran a mental inventory of my preconceptions surrounding these texts and their shared themes. After dropping “feminism” in the center of the mental Venn, my next thought was in the temporal lobe, so to speak: “Vindication” was published in 1972, and “Manifesto” in 1980. As Lit folks, we often find a text’s birthday is of relative relevance…while temporal location grants us access to historical context, we can get anachronistic with it: distance in time between two texts is not necessarily indicative of distance in relevance or theme. We put texts in conversation across centuries, often with fruitful conceptual results. And that’s certainly the case with “Vindication” and “Manifesto.”

Inspecting further through the lens of temporality, I think these women can signpost distinct moments in the chronology of the US women’s rights movement. Here’s my stab at a timeline:

Wollstonecraft — “Vindication”


Susan B. et al — Nat’l Woman Suffrage Assoc.


Friedan — “The Feminine Mystique”














First Womens Rights Convention


19th Amdt — Women’s right to vote


Haraway — “Cyborg Manifesto”

Sure, I’d agree this is reductionist, but it can be helpful nonetheless: and I think the very process of considering markers in the evolution “the woman question” facilitates access to some further ideas.

For example, perhaps we can look at Wollstonecraft as the pioneer of the first phase – moving women socio-spatially from “fringe” to “center” – and Haraway as a pioneer of another ( I hesitate to say “second”) phase, one insisting on blurred spaces, as well as a reality that is irreparably complicated, simultaneously interconnected and fractured. Similarly, we do not locate in Haraway a distinct jumping-off point for a discussion of woman; no cohesive definition of what she might have been, and this connects with her sentiments that “the cyborg has no origin story in the Western sense” (150). This, she finds, “is actually “a ‘final’ irony since the cyborg is also the awful apocalyptic telos of the ‘West’s’ escalating dominations of abstract individuation, an ultimate self untied at last from all dependency, a man in space” (150-151). The modern cyborg is at once a realization of ideological evolution, and a contained-self processing unit (…a new CPU?)

When we’re looking at something like “womens rights” in “society,” there seems to be a strain between WOMEN [laws, gender and societal norms, and metastructures] and the WOMAN [actual, individual female bodies and minds]. So how have the stakes evolved, really? Are we actually comparing apples to apples…were “women” in 1792 the same as “women” in 1980?

Authorial intent surely differs as much as historical context. Wollstonecraft has her eyes on the equality prize, and must rely on a certain degree of us-them either-or logic; Haraway needs a dichotomy-free framework.  For Haraway, we’re simply beyond gender duality, and beyond long-held stereotypes of the female reality that have, in fact, ironically grounded much feminism and related identity politics, as well as the cultural meta modus operandi. Perhaps, then, Wollstonecraft’s vision of gender equality becomes realized in the blurring of the human condition to which Haraway gestures? “We are all cyborgs now,” she says…and while I’m not sure this generalization jives, exactly, with her concern that “the production of universal, totalizing theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality,” I rather like to think that this could stand in as some perverse resolution to Wollstonecraft’s call for a social focus on the moral development of all humans. Under Cyborgism  we can be equal parts in communication…we can tune our moral monitors to the same program…by escaping dualism, we can stride towards species actualization, and become “more human than human,” a la Blade Runner?

Wollstonecraft’s concern for women’s moral development walks in hand with the topic of power: ultimately that women need power over their whims and vices, and need to make an autonomous claim for their personal development. Women must fight the oppressive emphasis on feminine passion and pathos, and foreground strength. This is a hardness in place of a softness, an agency in exchange for cloistered virtue. Haraway’s cybernetic organism I think is a very pleasing image of hardness and softness (at least in its human animal/machine breakdown), representing a constitutive code quite distinct from the code underlying dominant social functions and territories. The appeal of Haraway’s breakdown is evident aesthetically in a contemporary example, the Borg Queen:

From <http://images.wikia.com/borgcollective/images/a/a1/Borg-queenside.jpg>

New Woman is not a helpless creature, but a power system: for Wollstonecraft, in fact, one which needs cultivation and moral cultivation as much as if not more than man. Woman‘s virtue is overstated, says Wollstonecraft, and quite frankly is plagued by “ignorance and slavish dependence”. Woman’s fondness for pleasures is not pure and innocent, but uncultivated and immature. 

Is a cyborg a cultivated and mature female? Ultimately, it is hard what to make of this new Woman: The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self” (164). Contradictions are constitutive in the new politics. 

Like our Blade Runner replicants, the problem lies in the question – what IS human; what IS woman? Is “the woman question” a lower-tier problem than the “human question” – or a point of access to it? Ultimately, does modernity…post-modernity…meta-modernity?…does our time need a “Vindication the Third: Of the Rights of Cyborgs”?

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3 Responses

  • Nigel Lepianka says:

    This is an interesting issue to digest, but this is my unrefined, initial response, which I may end up coming back to correct after finishing _Vindication_:

    But I do not see the two distinct “phases” you reference, mainly because I see that both Wallstonecraft and Haraway are asking for the same thing, which you stated yourself: “insisting on blurred spaces, as well as a reality that is irreparably complicated, simultaneously interconnected and fractured.” At the beginning of _Vindication_, Wallstonecraft points out that she wants to see women become more “masculine”, which I think is a more polite way of insisting on the hybridity (cyborganism?) of women as opposed to the essentialism of men (“Society, therefore, as it becomes more enlightened, should be very careful not to establish bodies of men who must necessarily be made foolish or vicious by the very constitution of their profession, [25]). Woman’s “hardness and softness” is as much a binary figuring as Haraway’s machine and organism, as both are insisting upon women as being, or maybe emphasizing, their liminality.

    It is also interesting to see the word “cultivation”. Cultivation implies labor, and labor is what ties women to capitalism in the modern world: they reproduce, and reproduction is what sustains capitalism- if we decided that a cyborg is a “cultivated” woman, is she just being prepared (again?) to be marketed? iWoman?

    As I said, these were initial reactions, which I’ll think about more as I finish _Vindication_, perhaps with an eye to how woman must “cultivate” herself beyond dependency in Wallstonecraft’s terms.

  • Amanda Giffi says:

    I think the phases Jen points to arise from the shifting definition of what is woman. The characteristics attributed to, legal rights of, professions of, and etc of women have certainly changed from Wollstonecraft ‘s to Haraway’s (to our) time. The fact that we still need to define woman (often still against man) seems to me that we really aren’t all cyborgs now. Although, I do think there are aspects of the cyborg argument that I see in Wollstonecraft, especially what Jen refers to as “a very pleasing image of hardness and softness,” which I think is what Wollstonecraft is asking of women.

  • Neil says:

    I agree with much of what you written, but while it is true that MW works within a gender binary, she argues importantly that gender is performative and that any person is capable of a wide spectrum of gender behaviors across the binary. This, it seems to me, is what makes her such a compelling precursor of DH, who moves the argument beyond the gender binary itself, as you point out.

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