Fact and fun combine in Donna Haraway's work of literary pyrotechnics to describe our technoscientific world. Gail Vines reports.
Donna Haraway's writing is flamboyant, funny, challenging - and not a little daunting for the uninitiated. With literary pyrotechnics, she weaves together technoscience's stories and dreams, facts and delusions, striving to make visible the web of connections linking "nature'', "culture'' and technoscience, to help us see how society's "knowledge projects'' work. It is a remarkably ambitious task.
But there is nothing sanctimonious about Haraway, a professor in the elite history of consciousness board at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She wants to see a world where science is "lively'' and full of possibilities, and her texts are peppered with gentle humour rather than strident indignation. For Haraway, comedy - in stories, cartoons and corporate advertising - is the object of study and method. "Jokes are my way of working; my nibbling at the edges of the respectable and reassuring in technosciences and in science studies.'' Of her latest book she says: "I want those who inhabit Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium to have a good time."
Yet reading Haraway is not a barrel of laughs. She highlights issues that resonate around the momentous debates of our time - potentially threatening things on the boundaries of our lives, such as genetic engineering, multinationals, militarisation. "She is dealing with all this, not as a catharsis but as a kind of confessional,'' says Marilyn Strathern, professor of social anthropology at Cambridge. "She is trying to think all these things together, to think all our burdensome connections. It is ethical work, a moral enterprise."
Perhaps these contradictions provide the key to Haraway - a fusion of moral seriousness and political responsibility with a playfulness that revels in life's absurdities. She writes that her work is "an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction''. The boundaries set for disruption are the time-worn distinctions that set nature apart from culture, subject from object - "that whole family of binaries''.
Haraway shot to international renown after A Manifesto for Cyborgs in 1985. This exploration of human-machine hybrids, Haraway at her most mischievous and haunting, has spawned a flood of cyborgology - much of it with an apolitical, technologically messianic edge. "There is that playfulness, that breaking down the distinctions between fiction and fact, that goes on in Haraway's work,'' says Maureen McNeil, reader in women's studies at Lancaster University. "Perhaps that's why some people read her as celebrating some forms of technology."
The cyborg image has become "a kind of Gestalt test,'' Haraway says. "People turn it into many things that I neither intended nor in any way feel part of - especially a strain of celebratory 'fusion-with-megatechnology leads to freedom' which leaves me horrified."
The impetus behind Haraway's essay was rather different. Responding to the technophobia of a North American strain of ecofeminism in the early 1980s, Haraway tried "to find some way of holding oppositions together - to avoid technophobia but still be critical''. She uses "critical'' not in the sense of negative, but to indicate the need to "try to understand where we are historically and what our responsibilities are''. "Haraway is pointing out that we are literally living in and through a technoscientific culture while trying to critique it and think of alternatives,'' says McNeil. "It is incredibly difficult and that's what is so exciting about her work."
Primate Visions, published in 1989, charts the shifting concerns of primatology, throughout the 20th century. Her eclectic approach encompasses science fiction novels, zoos, TV nature programmes, museums, cartoons and advertisements as well as the scientists and their concerns. The result is history of science with a difference. "We have not been here before,'' commented Michael Neve in a Times Literary Supplement review.
Haraway's latest work has less of a plot line, yet it has its own logic. The book grew out of another essay, "Situated knowledges'', in which Haraway refuses what she sees as the false choice between realism and relativism. The nonhuman world is out there, and we can gain knowledge of it; the real debate is about more interesting things - about what gets to count as nature, what gets to count as knowledge of nature, and who gets to count as a knower.
For Haraway, the subject of knowledge is always located somewhere, with a perspective that is necessarily partial. Not surprisingly, then, she scrupulously locates herself in her own texts: "I will critically analyse only that which I love and only that in which I am deeply implicated.'' Reared as a Catholic, trained as a biologist, Haraway is acutely aware of both the powers and pitfalls of universal accounts. "A huge amount of contemporary technoscientific work and writing is barely secularised Christian narrative,'' she says. "It constantly leads us to expect ultimate threats and ultimate promises. The apocalyptic discourse is particularly deadly."
One day, she writes, we might "learn to live without the bracing discourses of salvation history.'' We cannot live without stories altogether, but changing the stories we live by is a "modest intervention'' worth making. "There is much too little pleasure taken in unresolvable complexity, and much too much going for a small stock of very conventional stories."
Haraway's stories of technoscience are not so much to be read as to be experienced: technoscience is a drama with a cast of millions, not all of them human. "When I call my work experimental critical fiction, what I am trying to do, along with many other people, is to try to find other ways to perform relationships in language, to give us a clue about where we are.
"I'm physically interested in words,'' she says, "and I spend a lot of time inside paragraphs trying to make the images work.'' For Haraway, words are like bits of a ship encrusted with barnacles, "all these barnacles from the history of uses and kinds of investments you and other audiences have in the language''. When she sits down to write a sentence, "I think I know what I'm going to say, but by the time I get to the end of the sentence, it has committed me to half a dozen positions I don't hold,'' Haraway laughs, "just because of what it takes to get through a sentence. Then, if I happen to like the sentence, I have to figure out how to hold the positions.'' Her fascination with words is longstanding. "My father was a sports writer. I remember conversations about words and pleasure in writing. I also think that growing up Catholic was very important to me. I was immersed in symbolism and I loved it. Long after I lost my faith in any explicit terms, I felt immersed in that symbolic universe."
Introduced to biology in high school, Haraway was intrigued with the living world and with biology as a cultural practice. "Early on I found biology a source of metaphor, just as Catholic ritual was." Awarded a scholarship to Colorado College, Haraway became an English, philosophy and biology triple major - training that laid the foundation of her intellectual trajectory. With backing from ecologist Evelyn Hutchinson, she negotiated an interdepartmental dissertation at Yale in philosophy, history of science and biology - published as Crystals, Fabrics and Fields: Metaphors of Organicism in 20th-Century Developmental Biology.
After going first to teach biology at the University of Hawaii, she moved to a post in the history of science at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore in 1974. "The history of science always struck me as a branch of feminist theory,'' she laughs, "and this seemed to make some of my Hopkins colleagues nervous.'' Passed over for promotion in 1980, Santa Cruz hired her in the same month "for the same reasons, for the same writing. It was an interesting lesson for me in depersonalising these things, and understanding that there are really serious historical confrontations about who is going to reproduce themselves in institutions. You look around and the people that have been hurt and thrown away by these professional systems are everywhere,'' she says. "Even if you have been lucky personally, you know a lot of people just as good as you, who weren't."
All the same, "Donna Haraway is unique,'' says Strathern, "and should stay unique. She should not be imitated.'' Her problem, says Strathern, is that she will continue to encounter no one who encompasses all that she encompasses. "Her work is not a programme or a model or a paradigm, not a packaging of knowledge that you can then go away and do something with. She speaks of a world which one inhabits but which one wouldn't ordinarily speak of. So her work is not designed to be drawn into other people's work in the usual way. Rather, she is describing, performing, the world we inhabit."
Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium, Routledge, Pounds 14.99