Key thinker: Donna Haraway (1944–)
Donna Haraway (1944–)
Donna Haraway was born in Denver, Colorado. She attended the Catholic St. Mary’s Academy in Cherry Hills Village before enrolling at Colorado College to study Zoology and Philosophy (Haraway, 2000:6-7). Haraway moved to Paris as a Fulbright scholar in 1966, where she studied Theology and Philosophy (https://egs.edu/biography/donna-haraway/). In 1972, Haraway received her PhD in Biology from Yale with a thesis titled ‘The Search for Organizing Relations: An Orgasmic Paradigm in 20th-Century Developmental Biology’. At Yale, Haraway collaborated closely with the Departments of Philosophy, and History of Science and Medicine. This focus on interdisciplinary study would remain a key aspect of Haraway’s political thought throughout her career (https://www.berlinerfestspiele.de/en/berliner-festspiele/programm/bfs-kuenstler/bfs_kuenstler_detail_199957.html).
Between 1974 and 1980 Haraway taught the History of Science and Women’s studies at the University of Hawaii and Johns Hopkins University. In 1980, she joined the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she is currently Distinguished Professor Emerita (https://histcon.ucsc.edu/about/faculty-directory.php?uid=haraway). Haraway’s post-humanist and feminist theories of technology and ecology have become important points of reference for scholars in diverse academic fields. Her work has fundamentally changed the ways in which we approach feminism, animal studies, or environmental criticism today (see 38.6. Conclusion). Haraway’s work has also inspired science fiction writers like Octavia Butler and Philip K. Dick who have taken up her ideas in their novels (https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/haraway-donna).
Donna Haraway is considered one of the leading thinkers in history of consciousness studies, an interdisciplinary field of inquiry which draws on diverse theoretical approaches to solve complex intellectual problems (https://histcon.ucsc.edu/about/under-about/index.html). Haraway is best known for her writing on the cyborg, a concept she developed in a 1985 essay titled ‘The Cyborg Manifesto (see 38.2.1. Cyborg Manifesto). In her feminist and post-humanist (see Key Concept: Posthumanism) critique of Marx, Haraway takes issue with his conception of human nature and his privileging of the working class as the normative political subject (see 13.2.1. Modes of Production). Marx argued that human beings shape (or dominate) nature with the help of technology and that, in return, our human nature is shaped by the labour process (see 13.2.1. Modes of Production). The clash between capitalist relations of production (capitalism) and the forces of production (technology, machinery) eventually results in the working class actualising its human nature by becoming the history-making subject that transcends capitalism.
For Haraway, however, human beings aren’t the only actors engaged in the transformation of nature. In fact, non-human agents play an essential role in this complex and contradictory process (see Key Concept: Posthumanism). Marx’s theory of human nature, Haraway argues, contains humanist assumptions which privilege human rationality and attribute to humans some exceptional qualities that distinguish us from non-human species. But Haraway insists that no such human nature or essence exists; instead, the human body is always-already intertwined with various technologies that allow us to make sense of the world around us. She employs the concept of the cyborg to show that the rigid boundaries separating humans from animals or machines are fictitious (see 38.2.1. Cyborg Manifesto). Haraway goes beyond the Aristotelian theory of forms, which argues that forms come into existence when living beings shape matter (see Chapter 3 on Aristotle). For Haraway, there is no strict separation between matter and the forming power; matters, then, are not simply objects that can be known but dynamic agents that can take on a formative role in knowledge production. Haraway is associated with ‘new materialism’ (see Key Concept: New Materialism), which argues for a more complex understanding of matter that accounts for how important feelings or affects and non-human agents like labs or institutions are in shaping the composition of knowledge.
The concept of the cyborg undermines the heteronormative valorization of the family and biological reproduction (see 38.2.2. Cyborgs, humans and non-humans). Like other socialist feminists, Haraway extends Marx’s theory of production to include unpaid, non-wage domestic work that women perform in the household, and that is fundamental to the reproduction of capitalist social relations (see Chapter 3 on bell hooks). But Haraway goes on to argue that production and reproduction cannot be reduced to the factory or the household, and that we must consider the role that non-human agents play in this process (see 38.2.3. Production and Reproduction). Haraway’s post-humanism challenges liberal feminist conceptions of womanhood, which theorize women as autonomous subjects and lament that they are too often treated as objects. For Haraway, humans are not objects or subjects but cyborgs that are formed in collaboration with their environment. Nature, then, is not a static but relational, dynamic, and constantly in mutual interaction with humans (see 38.3. Organisms, Mechanisms, Vitalism). Haraway captures this complex process in her concept of the Chthulucene (see 38.5. Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Key Points).
Haraway is a proponent of standpoint theory (see Key Concept: Standpoint Theory), which argues that knowledge is produced from located positions that are historically and culturally conditioned. Feminist standpoint theory, for example, argues that gendered experiences of oppression give women specialized knowledge through which they can better interpret their lived reality. But while Haraway acknowledges that oppressed people may better understand the partial nature of knowledge, she insists that they do not have a clearer understanding of the world. For Haraway, there is no such thing as a privileged subject position (e.g., the category of ‘the woman’) that offers an escape to an innocent outside of our society, and we must face the reality of our situation. This is what Haraway means with the phrase ‘staying with the trouble’. Haraway argues that the fusion of technology and humans does not lead to a techno-utopia where we are liberated from the constraints of nature, as positive science claims. Rather, the cyborg is the contradictory result of positivism’s drive for technological progress (see 38.2.1. Cyborg Manifesto) and signals a different, more complicated form of utopia.
In her essay ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, she argues that we should think of science, politics, or any other field of knowledge not as objective but as forms of knowledge that are conditioned by the specific situation of the researcher (see 38.1. Introduction). Throughout the 20th century, the illusion of scientific neutrality, for example, was upheld by a shared standpoint: the white European male. Haraway builds on Thomas Kuhn’s idea of scientific paradigms (see Key Thinker: Thomas Kuhn) to dispute the claim that scientific questions can be understood in simple terms of truth and error. For Haraway, the assumptions and methods that define what counts as science structure what a researcher considers a falsifiable claim in the first place (see 38.3. Organisms, Mechanisms, Vitalism). This, however, does not mean that there is no objective truth. Rather, Haraway insists, situated and diverse knowledge produces a strong form of objectivity that helps us understand the world in all its specificity (Haraway, 1988:583).
Some feminist critics, however, have taken issue with Haraway’s deconstruction of the category of ‘woman’, which second-wave feminists had organized around. Unlike Shulamith Firestone (see Chapter 34 on Shulamith Firestone), whom she accuses of advancing a biologically determinist theory of womanhood, Haraway’s political thought urges us to completely rethink the category so that it might account for differences between white women, women of colour, or trans women, for example (see 34.3.1. An Historical Materialism Rooted in Sex). But Haraway’s claim to inclusivity is not entirely uncontroversial. Sophie Lewis, for example, has convincingly argued that Haraway’s call to ‘make kin, not babies’ is underpinned by a problematic attachment to the idea of population control, which is closely associated with racist and colonialist practices like forced sterilization (https://viewpointmag.com/2017/05/08/cthulhu-plays-no-role-for-me/).
Haraway, Donna (1988) ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’ Feminist Studies 14.3 (Autumn 1988) 575-599.
Haraway, Donna (2004) Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields: Metaphors That Shape Embryos. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
Haraway Donna (2016b) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.
Lewis, Sophie (2017) ‘Cthulhu Plays No Role for Me,’ Viewpoint Magazine (May 2017). https://viewpointmag.com/2017/05/08/cthulhu-plays-no-role-for-me/.
Wark, McKenzie (2017) ‘Donna Haraway: The Inhuman Comedy’ in General Intellects: Twenty-One Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century. London: Verso.