Historically, Western discourse surrounding the figure of the cyborg before the 1980s has reflected a dualistic view that became prominent in the Interwar Period, which promoted either a utopian or dystopian view of the cyborg and technology. However, the publication of Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the late Twentieth Century” in 1985 introduced a new conception of the cyborg, one that called on feminists to use technology for social progress. Haraway originally studied science, earning a PhD in Biology from Yale University in 1972. This scientific background, as well as her interest in technology, feminism, and humanism, eventually led her to the topic of cyborgs.[1] She began working on her manifesto in response to The Socialist Review’s 1983 call for feminists to reflect on the future of socialist feminism in the context of the early years of Reagan’s presidency and the decline of leftism in the US.

The manifesto addressed key issues of the time, specifically Reaganomics and the widening income gap, international Cold War politics, and unprecedented technological advancement. This also occurred against the backdrop of larger issues in feminist and Marxist theory. Feminists had long critiqued Marxist theorists for their inability to incorporate gender difference in their framework of class oppression, and Haraway’s essay clearly responded to this history. Additionally, some prominent American feminist theory in the 1970s and 80s was characterized by what Mari Mikkola calls “classificatory gender essentialism,” which is “the view that some shared gender-defining social feature(s) exists.”[2] In other words, some feminists argued that there was something that all women experienced (i.e., gender socialization[3] or sexual objectification[4]) that defined womanhood. Many feminists took issue with this position, including Haraway, who in her manifesto argued that “there is nothing about being ‘female’ that naturally binds women.”[5] Another issue Haraway sought to counter was the technophobic nature of contemporary feminist theory, which viewed technology and science as instruments of patriarchal oppression. Haraway aimed to create a political strategy that could harness the power of technology for the liberation of women without upholding essentialist notions of womanhood.

Figure 1: Cover for An Analysis of Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century (The Macat Library), 2019.

Responding to larger trends in feminist theory and the context of the time, Haraway’s main purpose in “A Cyborg Manifesto” was to articulate a new type of socialist-feminist politics that rejected and confused the constructed binaries present in Western culture. The cyborg, a hybrid creature, was the central figure of her political myth because it is the very embodiment of the breakdown between the constructed categories of human and machine. Because cyborgs complicate and subvert the boundary between machines and humans, they have the potential to destabilize other diametrically opposed categories, like male and female, technology and nature, and ‘East’ and ‘West’. Haraway also believed the cyborg was an apt metaphor for feminist politics because “we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism—in short, cyborgs.”[6] In other words, as people’s lives become increasingly mediated by technology, we become more and more cyborgian, whether or not we physically resemble science fiction cyborgs. She argued that the cyborg had potential to symbolize “a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self,” because it represents a fragmented, constructed body/self that reflects the interconnected, postmodern human experience in contemporary times.[7] The cyborg Haraway articulated was a more complex interaction with the idea of this figure, one that other scholars adapted and expanded on to more explicitly complicate gendered boundaries.

The very publication of “A Cyborg Manifesto,” was mired in controversy, and it has continued to be the subject of lively debate and criticism since 1985. Many scholars have since published responses to the manifesto, critiquing Haraway’s problematic discussion of race and disability, or arguing that her work promotes a naively technophilic viewpoint. Malini Johar Schueller’s 2005 essay “Analogy and (White) Feminist Theory: Thinking Race and the Color of the Cyborg Body,” critiqued Haraway’s incorporation of race, arguing that it represents a precursor to the problematic tendency in feminism to incorporate race through analogy.[8] In her essay, Haraway attempted to integrate race: she noted her own position as a white, American woman, criticized the idea of a universal feminist language, and used theories and writings by people of color.[9]  She also argued that the group of “women of color” could give insight into constructing political solidarity that was based on coalition and affinity rather than essential identity, making “woman of color” a cyborg identity, “synthesized from fusions of “outsider” identities.”[10] However, Schueller contended that this use of analogy between cyborg identity and women of color was problematic because it disregarded “situatedness and locatedness,” universalizing all women of color into a homogenous group.[11] Julia DeCook’s recent article echoes Schueller’s criticism of Haraway’s Western-centric mode of thinking, noting that “the idea of the cyborg itself is borne out of a Western philosophy of selfhood and technology.”[12]

Disability scholars and activists like Donna Reeve, Alison Kafer, Aimi Hamraie, and Kelly Fritsch have also taken issue with Haraway’s limited understanding of disability and the interactions between disabled people and technology.[13] This disability analysis is relevant because Fan Xiaoyan and Lee Bul’s cyborgs, which are missing legs, arms, and heads, have bodies that could be considered disabled. These scholars all believed that the cyborg could be a tool for confronting ableism and theorizing disability politics, but disagreed with Haraway and other scholars’ superficial treatment of physically disabled people as quintessential cyborgs. By arguing that “perhaps paraplegics and other severely handicapped people can (and sometimes do) have the most intense experiences of complex hybridization,”[14] Haraway presented this poorly defined category as an unchanging monolith without actually exploring their experiences of “complex hybridization.”[15] This also applies to the work of scholars like Chris Hables Gray, who used disabled people as exemplars of cyborg qualities; Kafer argued that if disabled people are cyborgs (and non-disabled people are not), “cyborg qualities become markers of difference, suggesting an essential difference between disabled people and nondisabled people.”[16] Rather than breaking down boundaries, this application of cyborg theory to a discussion of disabled bodies reinforced the binary distinction between “normal” and “abnormal” bodies. Disability scholars have also taken part in a more general critique of Haraway’s optimistic, or even naïve, view of technology’s liberating potential. Reeve, for example, pointed to the many problems of surveillance, control, and dependence that disabled people face in their interaction with assistive technologies.[17] Haraway presented the interaction of the human body and technology (especially prostheses) as positive and empowering, and never the source of problems. These problems are evidence of some of the shortcomings of cyborg theory, which has been readily applied to Lee Bul and Fan Xiaoyan’s sculptures in existing scholarship.

Though cyborg theory has been influential in scholarly discourse since the mid-1980s, I question if it is an effective framework for analyzing Fan Xiaoyan and Lee Bul’s sculptures. Firstly, despite cyborg theory’s universalizing message, it is not applicable across places and cultures. Haraway’s manifesto emerged from a very specific set of concerns and circumstances that influenced the formation of her theory, as well as her position as a white, middle-class academic. Schueller and DeCook have already noted that cyborg theory has an overwhelmingly Euro-American or “Western” point of view, problematizing its application in an East Asian context. Secondly, neither Fan Xiaoyan or Lee Bul originally intended for the sculptures to be read through cyborg theory, and they are not embodiments of post-gender beings.[18] Regardless of the potential for cyborgs to represent a post-gender society, several scholars have noted that depictions of cyborgs, across media, are deeply invested in maintaining the gender binary and gendered stereotypes.[19] This may seem contradictory to Haraway’s conception of the figure as boundary-breaking, but Anne Balsamo has noted that “as is often the case when seemingly stable boundaries are displaced by technological innovation…other boundaries are more vigilantly guarded.”[20] In this case, the boundary “vigilantly guarded” is that of gender difference. While it is possible to apply cyborg theory in an analysis of these works, it neglects to take seriously that these cyborg bodies come out of cultures that are distinctly not post-gender. Their works respond to a specific and sexualized female cyborg form present in the dominant media of East Asia, Japanese anime, rather than referring to Haraway’s theory. In what follows, I briefly outline the origin of the cyborg and the sexualized female cyborg body in Japanese culture, which disseminated to the rest of East Asia and the world through manga and anime.

[1] For more detailed background on what led Haraway to the topics of technology and cyborgs, see Jeffrey J. Williams, “Science Stories: An Interview with Donna J. Haraway,” Minnesota Review, no. 73/74 (Fall 2009): 133–63.

[2] Mari Mikkola, “Gender Essentialism and Anti-Essentialism,” in The Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy, ed. Ann Garry, Serene J. Khader, and Alison Stone (New York: Routledge, 2017), 170.

[3] See Kate Millet, Sexual Politics (London: Granada, 1971).

[4] See Catharine MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).

[5] Donna J. Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Manifestly Haraway, ed. Donna J. Haraway and Cary Wolfe (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 16. Other important contributions to anti-essentialist feminist scholarship include Audre Lorde’s Sister/Outsider (1984), Elizabeth V. Spelman’s Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought (1988), and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990).

[6] Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 7.

[7] Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 33.

[8] Malini Johar Schueller, “Analogy and (White) Feminist Theory: Thinking Race and the Color of the Cyborg Body,” Signs 31, no. 1 (2005): 65.

[9] Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 17-18, 21, 26.

[10] Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 54-58.

[11] Schueller, “Analogy and (White) Feminist Theory,” 81.

[12] Julia R DeCook, “A [White] Cyborg’s Manifesto: The Overwhelmingly Western Ideology Driving Technofeminist Theory,” Media, Culture & Society 43, no. 6 (September 1, 2021): 1161.

[13] See Donna Reeve, “Cyborgs, Cripples and iCrip: Reflections on the Contribution of Haraway to Disability Studies,” in Disability and Social Theory, ed. Dan Goodley, Bill Hughes, and Lennard Davis (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 91–111; Alison Kafer, “The Cyborg and the Crip: Critical Encounters,” in Feminist, Queer, Crip (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 103–28; Aimi Hamraie and Kelly Fritsch, “Crip Technoscience Manifesto,” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 5, no. 1 (2019).

[14] Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 61.

[15] Kafer, “The Cyborg and the Crip,” 115.

[16] Kafer, “The Cyborg and the Crip,” 110.

[17] Reeve, “Cyborgs, Cripples and iCrip,” 98-99.

[18] Both artists have indicated in interviews and correspondence that these cyborg bodies are female and respond to ideas about and depictions of women and femininity. See Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Lee Bul,” in Hans Ulrich Obrist: Interviews, ed. Thomas Boutoux (Milan: Edizioni Charta, 2003), 530; Shuqin Cui, “Cyborg Bodies: Transgression across the Real and the Virtual,” in Gendered Bodies: Toward a Women’s Visual Art in Contemporary China (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2016), 188.

[19] See Balsamo, “Reading Cyborgs Writing Feminism,” in Cybersexualities: A Reader on Feminist Theory, Cyborgs, and Cyberspace, ed. Jenny Wolmark (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 148-49.

[20] Anne Balsamo, “Forms of Technological Embodiment: Reading the Body in Contemporary Culture,” in Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment, ed. Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows (London: SAGE Publications, 1995), 216-17.