Carlson Post 7: The Mangle of Cyborgs

I was really interested in the feminist ideologies of the Donna Haraway reading for this week, “Situated Knowledges,” especially after last week’s class conversation on the sexism present in Stewart Brand’s book. Coincidentally, I was also assigned Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” for my critical theory class this week, so I couldn’t help but put that essay in conversation with the Digital Humanities, and specifically with Pickering’s The Mangle of Practice. At one point in Haraway’s manifesto, she seems to get at the root of Pickering’s argument regarding the relation of machines to humans and human intervention, as she states:

“The second leaky distinction is between animal-human (organism) and machine . . . But basically machines were not self-moving, self-designing, autonomous. They could not achieve man’s dream, only mock it. They were not man, an author to himself, but only a caricature of that masculinist reproductive dream. To think they were otherwise was paranoid.” (Leitch 2193)

Pickering says something eerily similar when he writes:

“Think of the field of machines that constitute the established material performativity of science at any given time. This machinic field does not exist in a human vacuum. Though the machines and instruments of science often display superhuman capacities, their performativity is nevertheless enveloped by the human realm. It is enveloped by human practices . . . by the gestures skills, and whatever required to set machines in motion and to channel and exploit their power.” (Pickering 16)

Both passages point out the power that exists within machines, but highlight the necessity of human intervention in order to harness that power. It’s incredibly interesting how Haraway interprets this as “mocking,” which brings up the element of frustration that this has the potential to bring out in humans. We can create an advanced machine, but not the perfect machine, since machines still require the “mangle” of a human touch in order to produce results.

This discussion of the distinction between human and machine by Haraway and Pickering harkens back to the notion of technological neutrality that we’ve discussed several times in class. To me, it appears that Pickering would argue that a machine cannot remain totally neutral due to its reliance upon human intervention. Not only do humans create machines, but they participate in the dance of “resistance and accommodation” with the machine that instills a human bias upon that machine.

Works Cited:

Leitch, Vincent B. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs.” The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001. 2190-2220. Print.

Pickering, Andrew. The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Print.


4 thoughts on “Carlson Post 7: The Mangle of Cyborgs

  1. georgie a says:

    Thanks for the great breakdown Laurel! I’m interested, too, in whether we can view machinic agents as always exercising some type of influence on human agents through material affordances: for example, any human invention is going to see future users affected by the creator’s original design goals and processes, and a non-human material object such as water limits the user through, say, its liquid and solvent properties. I could be way off base, but at this stage I view a non-neutral machine as being non-human in formation, coupled with a limitless use capacity. Unlikely I’ll stumble over a non-neutral tool anytime soon!


  2. Laurel, thanks for this! I found myself revisiting a few older blog posts after reading Braidotti because I felt something was missing–and this is it! Braidotti’s unwillingness (or more accurately, her inability) to recognize the machine’s lack of neutrality kept me from signing off on her posthuman argument 100%. Your post helped me ferret out my own discomfort with her views, and points to a gaping hole in digital humanities scholarship: cultural critique + technological forensics. Perhaps this course will illuminate particular methods to delve into an ethical, but distinctly NON-neutral, understanding of digital scholarship.


  3. I am also interested in this idea of “technological neutrality.” As Pickering says in the quote you highlight, machines do not “exist in a human vacuum,” and so many technologies are developed with the very purpose of making human life more efficient, pleasurable and productive. If these machines are mostly meant for us, how are we supposed to think them outside ourselves?

    Further, Braidotti’s statement about the “normatively neutral structure of contemporary technologies,” namely that machines “are not endowed with intrinsic humanistic agency,” begs the question what is humanistic agency, really? (And is it so impossible that a machine would be in possession of it?)

    Your pairing of Pickering and Haraway’s quotes here reminds me of Spike Jonze’s her, a film that (though troubling in its “nostalgia” for a kind of pre-posthuman sincerity – as if that exists) illustrates this quandary nicely. The film maps that “leaky distinction” that Haraway speaks of onto a romantic relationship between a man and his OS. They “grow” together and learn from one another, as couples tend to – until she outgrows him and transcends to a realm “past matter,” inaccessible to humans. In order to make sense of this betrayal, it is configured as “cheating,” but really it illustrates a kind of agency (built or learned out of human interaction and then re-tooled as liberation from said interactions).

    Jonze’s film presents a machine-power that requires, as you say (so wonderfully), “the “mangle” of human touch to produce results,” yet which extends beyond human access.

    Where do machines exist between neutrality and autonomy? I suppose that depends on the machine. And, of course, on the human that interacts with or interprets it…

    Haraway’s observations about the “mocking” nature of machines also reminds me of one of my classmate’s blog posts on Real Dolls, in which she explains that these dolls are created to appear real, but not too real (to avoid uncanny valley- inspired revulsion in their beholders, of course!)

    Autonomy is always a threat to systems of power, which is why these two examples (Jonze’s film and the Real Doll) interest me so greatly — they demonstrate how the potential agency of feminized technology is particularly threatening to its (human, male) consumers.

    This is why I, too, cannot accept Braidotti’s claim that technologies are neutral. Amidst the complex networks and systems of power that govern our activity and thought, nothing can be neutral. Not even (and perhaps especially not) machines.


  4. Nikola Stepic says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful post, I’m glad to be able to comment on it. I really like your discussion of Haraway vis-à-vis what I understand to be the question of technological determinism (or, I guess, its opposite: what arises from the idea of the machine and human [interaction]). I always think back to “technology as articulation,” defined by Slack and Wise as having three guiding principles that assume that:

    “[The] technology is not autonomous, but is integrally connected to the context within which it is developed and used; that culture is made up of such connections; and that technologies arise within these connections as part of them and as effective within them.” (Slack & Wise 112)

    This reminds me of your post when you say that you cannot accept the claim that technologies are neutral. In fact, the technology emerges out of an interaction between the human and a machine. A feminized technology that, as you say, may arise out of this kind of interaction, then, reminds me of De Certau’s tactic in The Oppositional Pratices of Everyday Life, in the sense that everyday life, which I assume to be masculinist especially if we are talking about the production/circulation/ideology of technologies, requires a ruse in rhetoric or practice that lets one challenge the status quo.

    I apologize for the following example, but being a film enthusiast I can’t resist: the idea of feminized technology, especially as you put it, reminds me of Jane Campion’s The Piano, and how Campion in her narrative brilliantly tackles the conundrum you outline. At its center, she positions the character of Ada, a mute woman about to enter an arranged marriage. Ada’s way of communicating with the world is her daughter and her piano, which she plays proficiently and uses in a variety of ways: she strikes sexual bargains based on and around the instrument (in order to retrieve it after it has been unfairly taken from her, she agrees to sleep with the new owner one key at a time until she can have it back), sends messages using it and resists the masculinist rhetoric. I have previously wrote a paper on the topic, where I outlined this problematic in the following terms:

    >>Agata Preis-Smith locates agency in the central character of Ada, however, in her role as an artist, as well as in her communication with the outside world that is achieved either through writing or her playing the piano. She likens Ada’s punishment for breaking the codes of marriage – her finger being cut off – to castration, as it was her “privileged position of an artist, i.e. the master (mistress?) of signification” that allowed her to “exert a shattering authority over male emotions” (23). It is through this metaphor that Preis-Smith invokes Donna Haraway’s seminal article “A Cyborg Manifesto,” finding that Ada’s status as the artist, coupled with the prosthetic finger she obtains at the end of the movie – in other words, Ada’s status as a cyborg – “undermining a whole knot of apparently clear-cut binaries of nature and culture, body and machine, natural birth and mechanical production” (Preis-Smith 25).<<

    The woman as a cyborg reminds me of Slack and Wise’s idea of technology in how they “arise within these connections as part of them and as effective within them” – even from the most reductive idea of femininity as being inextricably linked to pots and pans. I certainly agree with you about the Real Dolls and the potential of uncanny they posess, and can’t help but think that perverting this assumed construction of gender through technology – through the too-life-like dolls, for example, or in The Piano, through inserting graphic sex and violence into what is a typical melodrama – complicates the gendered articulation we take for granted and produces its own uncanny that might just do excellent work.

    De Certeau, Michel. “On the Oppositional Practices of Everyday Life.” Trans. Fredric Jameson and Carl Lovitt. Social Text 3 (Autumn 1980): 3– 43.
    Preis-Smith, Agata. "Was Ada McGrath a Cyborg, Or, the Post-human Concept of the Female Artist in Jane Campion’s The Piano." Acta Philologica 35 (2009): 21-27. University of Warsaw. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.
    Slack, Jennifer Daryl, and J. Macgregor Wise. “Causality.” Culture + Technology: A Primer. New York: Peter Lang, 2005. 101–14. Print.


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