Cyborg Subjectivity

Cyborg Subjectivity



In public discourse, technology has often been portrayed as existing opposite to nature. The question of the relationship between humans and our technologies is not a new discussion and neither is the fear that technology may lead to a possible “dehumanization” or “denaturalization.” From 1840 to 1940, these ideas are expressed by many theorists, and the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sigmund Freud, and Erich Fromm serve as specific examples. Each of these authors is concerned with the implications that technology will have on the subjective experience of individuals, as well as the collective impact that technology will have if used as a blanket solution for social and civil problems.

In this essay, I will be using Donna Haraway’s 1984 A Cyborg Manifesto as a counter-example to these concerns. Haraway’s work uses the figure of the cyborg, a being that is part-organism, part-machine, to argue that with attentive action and concerned consciousness, technology does not need to be dehumanizing, and can rather act as a “re-humanizing” force with which we are able to claim agency over our subjectivity. Leó Bronstein, a twentieth-century art historian, acts as an intellectual precursor to Haraway, and writes about both the consumption of art and the use of machines and tools as inherently participatory activities. Haraway’s myth of the cyborg is used as an example through which we are shown the ability to take responsibility for our subjective experiences.

Emerson and Freud

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his 1840 essay “Self-Reliance,” questions the impact that technology has on the modern man. In this ultimately optimistic essay, Emerson preaches the importance of being true to one’s deepest identity, asking readers to find, respect, and act upon their core values. Emerson writes a paragraph on the social and personal implications that technology has on the modern, “civilized” man, emphasizing the need to recognize what technology allows us, or causes us, to forget. He says:

The civilized man has built a coach, but he has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and being so sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber. 1

In this passage, Emerson emphasizes the disconnect between the natural world and the technological existence of modern humanity. Not only is technology spoken about as being unnatural, but Emerson implies inherent to technology is a fundamental force that separates humans from the natural world. He recognizes the fact that technological tools are created with the intent of solving some specific natural problems; what Emerson is specifically questioning is the fact that these technological solutions may be encumbering us with additional problems.

In Self-Reliance, Emerson identifies technologies that solve problems that are not actually problematic. By naming a natural phenomenon a “problem” to be solved, our technological solutions end up becoming the actual problem in that we come not only to rely on, but depend upon these solutions. In doing so, we lose our natural ability to engage with these “problems.” In Emerson’s essay, technology is cast as a thief: By fulfilling a specific environmental function, the tool which comes to be relied on robs humans of their abilities to naturally fulfill those functions.

Ralph Waldo Emerson believes that technology removes us from nature by replacing natural solutions to problems with technological ones. Sigmund Freud in his 1929 book, Civilization and its Discontents, creates his discourse with technologies that are already inherent to culture. Freud recognizes “technology” as a set of cultural tools designed to protect us against the “violent forces” of nature. His background allows him to cast a psychoanalytic shadow over technology, darkening Emerson’s concerns. No longer are technologies offered as solutions to “problems” that are problematic by name only, but real issues are emerging as by-products of technological developments.

In his writing, Freud gives examples and counter examples to reach the full limits of his discourses. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud’s discussion of technology follows this pattern. He begins by positioning technology as a force with which humanity dominates nature, a force that is manifested in tools and necessarily exist to fight against the violent and harmful forces of nature. He then urges his readers to remember that the taming of nature is not the only key to our happiness. Freud encourages the recognition that those technologies recently present in his modernity, such as the telephone and the locomotive, can lead to an increase in the level of individual happiness, asking:

Is there, then, no positive gain in pleasure, no unequivocal increase in my feeling of happiness, if I can, as often as I please, hear the voice of a child of mine who is living hundreds of miles away or if I can learn in the shortest possible time after a friend has reached his destination that he has come through a long and difficult voyage unharmed?2

Freud, despite his antithetical phrasing, recognizes that these modern technologies do often cause a positive gain in pleasure. The fact that one’s child lives hundreds of miles away could cause a certain pain to a parent; with the telephone, contact can be made between the child and the parent as if they still lived in the same place. Similarly, the anxiety caused by friend’s sea voyage can be alleviated through technological communications.

Staying in true form to himself, Freud provides a counter-point to this positive outlook, emphasizing that although technology can act as a pleasurable force against un-pleasurable situations, ultimately these situations are products of technologies. Freud states:

If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice; if traveling across the ocean by ship had not been introduced, my friend would not have embarked on his sea-voyage and I should not need a cable to relieve my anxiety about him.3

Freud makes the case that some of the tools we use to conquer nature and increase our levels of happiness actually create problems and may have an ultimately negative impact on our lives. Freud’s discussion of technology enhances the need to consider the “economics of happiness.” If any given tool can lead to an increase in our levels of pleasure or happiness, we must also consider the amount of pleasure or happiness that same tool may take away. Freud encourages us to judge critically these economics when creating, using, and assessing modern technologies.

Freud views technologies as problem solving tools while recognizing the fact that these tools may create more problems than those they intended to solve. Emerson views technologies as tools that intend to solve problems that are not actually problems. Both, in a way, view technology as a force that “steals” time away from us, by either creating a solution that births its own particular problems or by declaring an unproblematic phenomenon a “problem to be solved.”

Fromm on Modernity

Several years before the end of the Second World War, Erich Fromm published a book titled The Fear of Freedom, sometimes known as Escape from Freedom, in which he analyzes the psychological relationship with freedom, focusing on the twentieth-century rise of Nazism as his driving example. In this book, he also describes the twentieth-century social relationship with technology. He argues that the world is losing its pre-established structures of meaning, and due to this loss of structure, it is difficult for individuals to find meaning in their personal and professional lives. He cites modern technologies as a specific cause:

Radio, moving pictures, and newspapers have a devastating effect on this score [the loss of meaning]. The announcement of the bombing of a city and the death of hundreds of people is shamelessly followed or interrupted by an advertisement for soap or wine. The same speaker with the same suggestive, ingratiating, and authoritative voice, which he has just used to impress you with the seriousness of the political situation, impresses now upon his audience the merit of the particular brand of soap which pays for the news broadcast. Newsreels let pictures of torpedoed ships be followed by those of a fashion show. Newspapers tell us the trite thoughts or breakfast habits of a debutante with the same space and seriousness they use for reporting events of scientific or artistic importance. Because of all this we cease to be genuinely related to what we hear.4

Spiritually, if not literally, synthesizing the concerns held by Freud and Emerson about technology, Fromm gives a scathing overview of the impact that information technologies have on his, and our, modern society.

Today, this problem has not been remedied and occupies the public eye with a daily significance. Even passively, Fromm’s fears express themselves in our modern world of social media. The claim of “fake news” is used to cause public doubt of the reputability of public media; additionally, social media websites are flooded with incorrect but widely shared information to take the place of credible news. In the span of a single Twitter feed one is bombarded by a painful concoction of meaningful and meaningless claims: the news of a bombing, mass shooting, or the murder of an unarmed child are found next to celebrity gossip columns, relatable fun facts, and what I had for breakfast. It becomes difficult to find meaningful personal engagement with the flood of information in modern media, and once that engagement is made, the significance of misfortune in the world is a painful one at the least.

Fromm frames communications technologies as devices that work actively to desensitize people and create an emotional gap between the real world and the world described by the radio, shown on the screen, or expressed on the page. Fromm claims that this gap does not act as a passive force because of which we become desensitized, but rather is an active engine that diminishes our ability to genuinely relate to the things that are happening in the world. Radio, moving pictures, and newspapers all provide information about what is happening in the world but are not necessarily happening to the consumer. These media bypass space and time by injecting a different moment into the present space and time of a listener, viewer, or reader. This bypassing, Fromm argues, comes at the cost of any meaningful interaction between these different presents. In other words, Fromm sees that with modern information technologies, distant people are objectified as statistics or headlines, and intimate connections are lost in favor of consuming information that has no personal relevance. In an age before technologically enhanced news, would hearing of a massacre have had a larger emotional impact on an individual?

Fromm claims the systematic degradation in the quality of our structures of meaning to be a result of technology. He elaborates upon this result, claiming that, “We cease to be excited, our emotions and our critical judgment become hampered, and eventually our attitude to what is going on in the world assumes a quality of flatness and indifference.”5 In saying this, he aggressively answers Freud’s fears that the prevalence of technology in our modern lives may lead to a lessening of happiness with a resounding yes. For Fromm, the modern use of technology acts as a dehumanizing force that replaces empathy with apathy.

Bronstein and Haraway

Common to Freud, Emerson, and Fromm is the fear that technology may lessen the subjective potency of human beings. Writing in the 1980s, Donna Haraway, in A Cyborg Manifesto, addresses this concern. She presents technology as a tool that can refine and develop a person’s subjectivity by embracing the inherent connections between nature and technology. Technologies can be used to extend human capacities, but they should not have to take away from the human experience, whether that be the development of useful skills or the engagement with powerful emotions. The myth of the cyborg is an invitation to recognize the simultaneous similarities and differences that humans have with their technologies, and use this recognition to refine and rewrite their use of tools and bodies. For the cyborg, emotions can be honed like tools and bodies can become subjective vessels of expression; at the same time, a watch can represent a significant emotional object and the television or newspaper can serve as a means of expressing solidarity with far away people. Technology, for the cyborg, is not a dehumanizing force which steals away the human capacity for empathy and skill; technology, for the cyborg, is an extension of its being and a tool by which ultimate subjectivity can be found, embraced, and walked beside with as the cyborg crafts its own path through the universe.

As groundbreaking as Haraway’s thinking was and is, her position about technology is not without forbearers. In the 1930s, art historian Léo Bronstein wrote about the relationship between machines and tools and about the relationship between humanity and technology at that time.  One perspective that Donna Haraway presents of a possible cyborg world is a world in which people do not need to fear dualities, and do not need to be afraid “of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.”6 Bronstein’s Space in Persian Painting, published in 1994 and researched and written between 1935 and 1940, engages with art from a similar perspective, and it can be said that Bronstein is a cyborg writer.

In the introduction to Space in Persian Painting, Professor Talat Sait Halman says that “Bronstein was a grand master of dialectics and dualities. He had a genius for hyphenated essences.”7 The hyphenated essence of Bronstein’s philosophy is his joining of seemingly opposite concepts, such as solitude and solidarity, into a single phrase, with a single mind, seen in this example as solitude-solidarity. Looking at the solitude of Greek art and architecture in contrast with the solidarity of Roman art and architecture, Bronstein posits that these seemingly opposite styles in fact share a common totality and are simply two expressions of the same meaning. He calls this unity a “Two-Oneness,” a recognition that there is a duality but also that there is unity because of the fact of dualism. It is in this act of hyphenating that Bronstein represents a cyborg writer. The joining of these dissimilar and even opposite ends of a binary do not negate either end; rather, the essence of each end is fully embraced, and through the recognition of differences, together they become more.

Bronstein, in order to discuss the act and experience of interacting with a piece of art, first lays out his own definitions of two common critical thinking terms, synthesis and analysis, which may be helpful here:

Synthesis: not connection, but adhesion; not stability, but continuity, mobility, absolute fullness of our visual contents, and thus inevitable “deformation” of the latter.

Analysis: connection, distinction, framing, series, static presence; and thus, fidelity of the “objective” appearance of space-contents.

We might say: one is sympathy-fusion, pure eye-feeling; the other, attentiveness, pure eye-comprehension.8

The synthetic is a totality, the analytic is a single piece. The synthetic exists in a fluid state, and the moment it becomes organized and sorted by a conscious activity, it becomes the analytic, a frozen moment of fluidity with which one can access the distinctions of specificity. Synthesis is “meaning” in motion; analysis is the observation of “meaning” at a given point.

Bronstein’s joining of the subjective and objective experience of visual art is a cyborg act, and exists closely to Haraway’s notion of the cyborg as a being of fusions. Haraway claims that one must look at both perspectives of the cyborg world simultaneously, and for Bronstein, this simultaneity is a natural fact of the sense of sight and the visual experience. Halman writes about Bronstein that he, “accomplishes the remarkable feat of looking at [visual art] from the outside as well as from the inside, out of innumerable angles and encompassing perspectives.”9 This simultaneity, represented by Bronstein’s act of hyphenating is the act of a cyborg being, a being which transcends boundaries by fusing them and existing as a product of that fusion. Halman reminds readers that not only did Bronstein exist as this hyphenating being, but he encourages us to do the same, remarking that, “Bronstein asserts, ‘we, the spectators, must reconstruct for ourselves by our own visual participation.’ He gazed, embraced, interacted, joined, took active part, coalesced.”10 In this, Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto echoes Bronstein’s call for participation: Becoming cyborg is not a passive act, but an active participation in the fusing of the world and walking along boundaries, actively reconstructing them and reworking them in this revolutionary act of fusion.

Léo Bronstein, in his interactive traveling through the world of Persian painting, makes his way into a discussion about the relationship between tools, machines, and humanity. He refers to his contemporary, Lewis Mumford, quoting Mumford’s insight that “the difference between tools and machines lies primarily in the degree of automatism they have reached.”11 Bronstein, with his force of hyphenation, expands upon this by denoting a machine as a “thing-which-walks-by-itself,” a definition that infuses automatism into the inanimate, which he claims to be apparent from Mumford’s views. Bronstein then includes Mumford’s immediate conclusion to the boundary between tool and machine:

Moreover, between the tool and the machine there stands another class of objects: the machine-tool: here in the lathe or the drill one has the accuracy of the finest machine coupled with the skilled attendance of the workman. When one adds to this mechanical complex an external source of power, the line of division becomes even more difficult to establish.12

Embedded in this analysis is the implication of the cyborg: Just as the line between machines and tools becomes blurred in Bronstein and Mumford’s time, the advent of cybernetic technologies is blurring the lines between organisms and machines in Haraway’s time. Haraway, just as Bronstein and Mumford, recognizes this blurring of the lines, and she repurposes the image of the cyborg, a being that is part-organism, part-machine, into an evocative myth which can assist with the process of shifting boundaries, and working with boundaries as they are changing. Even Mumford’s conclusions could be considered cyborg: It is when the machine-tool fusion is powered by an external power source, such as the skilled work of a human, that all elements truly fuse and go beyond their individual functions. In the hands of a skilled stone sculptor, a pointed bar of iron becomes a potent machine-tool, capable of channeling the creative drive of the artist into and through the medium of expression.

Continuing his wandering discussion, Bronstein notes that the unification of electricity and water, seen in the invention of hydraulic motors and engines in 1832, is the mark of a significant new technological era. He remarks that this era, more than just a technological revolution, may represent a revolutionary change in the private lives of civilization, saying that, “this change would be our historically conscious return, this time, to a more back-to-the-tool, back-to-the hand vision of ourselves and what is more than ourselves.”13 He follows this thought further, positing that, “the technological revolution that would bring about a new and higher stage in the mechanical notion of movement, with all the resulting scientific and cultural repercussions, could be realized without practical implications: that is, without provoking the immediate invention or construction of the actual machine.”14 This is a hopeful ideal: that scientific and cultural analysis could become prepared for the technological revolution before it happens in the material space of invention. In reality, the Second World War created a need for the technological revolution, and the new and higher stage of mechanical movement became embodied in microelectronics with the development of the computer. This cybernetic revolution, as Bronstein predicted, did have resulting scientific and cultural repercussions, repercussions that Haraway addresses in A Cyborg Manifesto. The myth of the cyborg is therefore the theoretical manifestation of Bronstein’s conscious return to a back-to-the-self and to what-is-more-than-the-self, a fusing of cultural and scientific facts and a boundary space in which the adhesion of organism and machine allows humanity to become revolutionary with, not for or against, the revolution of machines that is cybernetics.

In Romantic Homage to Greece and Spain, published in 1993 and written during the 1950s, Bronstein outlines the essential core of his philosophy: the duality between the apocalyptic and the psychomachic. The apocalyptic is totalitarian; Bronstein poetically describes it as “the un-seizable totality of personal experience by a ‘totalitarian’ inescapability of geometry’s perfect form, perfect curve or perfect angle . . . I named it the world of Apocalypse in man.”15 The perfection of the circle in Ancient Greece was held as a totalitarian ideal: To live within this image was ultimately good, and to live without, ultimately evil. The psychomachic, on the other hand, is represented by a spiral, a fluid act of moving forward. Bronstein explains, “I named it the world of Psychomachia: the psychomachic man in us—the self-emerging creatureness of the creature: man and his inner struggles of good and evil, of evil and good, without the threat of sin or virtue.”16 The apocalyptic world “needs,” and it demands a sense of totalitarian control, where the psychomachic world gives the freedom of choice and relieves us of the need for the fear of death and the anxiety of life.

These worlds of the apocalyptic and the psychomachic are echoed in A Cyborg Manifesto with Haraway’s presentation of the two perspectives of a cyborg world. The first perspective, that of the final installation of a masculine, war-like, matrix of domination and totalitarian control, is apocalyptic; the second perspective, that which embraces dualities and imperfections and relieves the need for fear, is psychomachic. And we will be reminded of the fact which Bronstein saw and Haraway puts to words that, “the struggle is to see from both perspectives at once . . . Single vision produces worse illusions than double vision or many-headed monsters.”17 To see from only one perspective is to take the dominating needs of that perspective as the only possibility and to take as truth the illusion that the other perspective is impossible. The cyborg, a fused being that exists in the boundaries between materials and perspectives, embraces double vision and many-headed monsters and tries to understand a non-totalitarian totality. The cyborg is a vehicle for subjectivity and allows a being to use the tools that surround it to craft and re-craft its selfhood, its body, and its world.


Donna Haraway presents her 1984 essay A Cyborg Manifesto as “an effort to build an ironic political myth faithful to feminism, socialism, and materialism.”18 In doing so, she skillfully forges the image of the cyborg into a potent tool which reframes the human relationship with technology. For Haraway, the cyborg exists as a being of boundaries, born out of the interim space between borders, and exists as a being that reframes and rewrites boundaries as it walks. For the cyborg, partial identities become the whole of existence as dualisms are negated not by some totalizing force that demands that binaries become one, but by the appreciation for the whole of each part, and the important recognition of the simultaneous similarities and differences between those parts. The theorists from 1840 through the Second World War express and create fears that the path of technology is the path of dehumanization, objectively removing nature from the human experience and turning the world into a problem of data processing. If this view of technology can be expressed as “dehumanizing,” Haraway’s myth of the cyborg can be expressed as “re-humanizing.”

The myth of the cyborg is a tool with which individuals can forge their subjectivity in an act of specificity and agency. The recognition that technology is an extension of what it means to be human and not a negation of it is a liberating and radical approach to our relationship with technology and gives us the space in which to readdress all boundaries in our lives, whether those be political, cultural, ideological, literal, or imaginary. The myth of the cyborg is an invitation to become more than human while becoming entirely human, to liberate oneself from the matrices of domination that seek to convert life into information to be traded, manipulated, and ultimately controlled.

The figure of the cyborg is not innocent. In order for it act as a re-humanizing force there must have first been an act of dehumanization. For the cyborg, there is no utopian ideal that is free from the clutches of a controlling matrix of domination. The cyborg does not know the bliss of the Garden of Eden; neither does it know the Fall from this bliss. The cyborg exists as a being which falls from and jumps back into the Garden at will, entirely responsible for its subjective agency, and rejoices in this pleasurable responsibility perhaps because it was never forced to live in the Garden. The cyborg is not united but it is whole, a wholeness that is celebrated in an act of joyful comparison and the invocation of subjective meaning.

The totalitarian will that attempts to control what can and cannot be considered possible has no power over the cyborg, for the cyborg embraces its inner power to craft its own matrices and use them as tools by which subjectivity is refined. The cyborg has no need to turn another being into a means of generating power; the cyborg’s power comes from within, from each and all of its parts, from the constant fusing and un-fusing and re-fusing that happen inside and around the cyborg being. The cyborg does not need totality and therefore becomes total in spite of itself, finding ultimate existence in the simultaneous happenings of irony and sincerity that are the cyborg.

  1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Stephen E. Whicher (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1957), 165.
  2. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, Translated by James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1961), 35.
  3. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 35.
  4. Erich Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom (1942), via (accessed April 12, 2018), 216.
  5. Erich Fromm, Fear of Freedom, 216.
  6. Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century, The Cybercultures Reader, edited by David Bell and Barbara Kennedy (London: Routledge, 2000), 295.
  7. Talat Sait Halman, introduction to Space in Persian Painting, by Léo Bronstein (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1994), xiii.
  8. Léo Bronstein, Space in Persian Painting (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1994), 3.
  9. Talat Sait Halman, introduction to Space in Persian Painting, xii.
  10. Talat Sait Halman, introduction to Space in Persian Painting, xi.
  11. Lewis Mumford quoted in Léo Bronstein, Space in Persian Painting, 67.
  12. Lewis Mumford quoted in Léo Bronstein, Space in Persian Painting, 67.
  13. Léo Bronstein, Space in Persian Painting, 78.
  14. Léo Bronstein, Space in Persian Painting, 79.
  15. Léo Bronstein, Romantic Homage to Greece and Spain: My Fable, Their Art Painting (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers), 34.
  16. Léo Bronstein, Romantic Homage to Greece and Spain: My Fable, Their Art Painting, 34.
  17. Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 295.
  18. Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 291.
Back to Top