Why farmpunk?

A farmpunk could be described as a neo-agrarian who approaches [agri]culture, community development and/or design with an anarchistic hacker ethos. "Cyber-agrarian" could supplant neo-agrarian, indicating a back-to-the-land perspective that stands apart from past movements because it is heavily informed by conceptual integration in a post-industrial information society (thus "forward to the land" perhaps?) The art and science of modern ecological design—and ultimately, adapting to post-collapse contexts—will be best achieved through the combined arts of cybermancy and geomancy; an embrace of myth and ritual as eco-technologies. In other words: the old ways of bushcraft and woodlore can be combined with modern technoscience (merely another form of lore) in open and decentralized ways that go beyond pure anarcho-primitivism. This blog is an example of just that. Throughout, natural ecologies must be seen as the original cybernetic systems.

**What we call for at the farmpunk headquarters**
°Freedom of information
°Ground-up action + top-down perspectives
°Local agricultural systems (adhering to permaculture/biodynamic principles) as the nuclei of economies
°Bioregional autonomy
°Computers are optional but can be used for good—see peer to peer tech, social media for direct popular management of natural or political disasters (e.g. Arab Spring), or the mission of the hacker collective Anonymous

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Will the best allegory for postmodern subjectivity please stand up? My angle on the Cyborg Manifesto

Believe it or not, I only just read "The Cyborg Manifesto" a few months ago. I was born the year it was published (1985), so my generation grew up in a post-Cyborg-Manifesto-World, and I'm realizing that many of the ideas central to this blog are spiritually descended from the kind of work Haraway was doing in that essay. It was awesome to have the opportunity to read her essay closely for my Feminist and Queer theory class this spring.

    In Donna Haraway's seminal and iconoclastic essay she introduces the cyborg as the central figure in an "ironic political myth" that she offers as an instructive and potentially liberating allegory—a myth deployed to combat more destructive myths in the thunderdome of cultural representations. In particular this methodological myth might serve, she suggests, as a tactic for women to re-imagine agency, embodiment and subjectivity, particularly with respect to updating outmoded identity politics and liberatory rhetorics in socialist and feminist thought.

    Echoing the concerns of other postmodern and post-structuralist feminists, Haraway takes issue with essentialist concepts wielded in some dominant feminist movements. Examples would be the concept of "women's experience" (that there is anything universal about it) or early ecofeminist rhetoric that idealizes Edenic matriarchal human legacies, or symbolically associates women/female with earth and holism. Although these imaginings have been part of the necessary dialectical landscape of feminist thought and the strategic complexities of opposing the subordination of women, they have perhaps erroneously pitted the technological and the fragmented in opposition to women, in simplest terms applying a morality of "technology = bad, earth = good". There is a sense in which mechanization, science and technology have been associated with patriarchy by feminists, but also by patriarchal systems of thought themselves (for example, the idea that women are not naturally proficient at math and science). Therefore, the association of technology with male and of earth with female in feminist thought, although it might have served as a way for women to re-appropriate being named as "other" and excluded from participation in high "culture", no longer represents a viable strategy for understanding the cybernetic ecology of personhood in a globalized and increasingly computerized world. Haraway points out that these narratives have been the creations of white first-world women, and indicates that any productivity such narratives might have is to the extreme detriment and exclusion of women of color, women in third world countries or women who face any constellation of multiple oppressions not experienced by white women in America. Although she doesn't use the terminology of "queer" or "trans", this essay was a harbinger for the project of problematizing essentialism in feminist thought from trans and queer perspectives as well. Haraway is criticizing approaches in 2nd wave feminism and certain idealistic strands of ecofeminism as participating—however unintentionally—in the same sort of essentializing discourse as their "oppressors" and not deviating in any radical way from the very philosophies and ideologies that have been so oppressive. Folded into Haraway's manifesto is the perpetual question of what it means to be embodied, to be a subject, and to be "female" (or any gender) in the late 20th century. She wants to encourage speaking and thinking from a lived place (with)in a cybernetic ecology—where we exist embedded within cybernetic systems (both semiotic systems as well as physical, technological systems) that transgress and complicate borders and boundaries of flesh and not-flesh, human and machine, and animal and human. Implicit in here is also the deep critique of Cartesian dualism (thinking of the mind and body as separate things), which Haraway feels is still an ideological pillar in feminist thought.

    She makes the important point that the cyborg (as a trope) can be seen as either emblematizing patriarchal totalitarian control and the hubristic quest for perfection/deification, or it can from another angle be seen as a new ontology with liberationist—not fascist—potential. Better yet, the ultimate challenge is to be able to envision both things simultaneously—in other words, to envision that the cyborg does actually refer to both liberation and control—which evokes the ability of "doublethink" in George Orwell's 1984. "Doublethinking" is holding and accepting two antithetical beliefs in one's mind simultaneously without generating cognitive dissonance. In fact such 'doublethinking' is actually necessary, not in service of top-down control, but in service of producing the best possible map for contemporary reality (that is to say, we, the people, have to "take back" this power from corrupt hegemonic systems). "Cyborg" could be a totalitarian creation, but also a bastard child, an "illegitimate offspring" giving rise to an ironic identity that Haraway compares to Cherri Moraga's envisioning of Malinche (the quasi-mythical mother of mestiz@ culture) as a "violation…that allows survival". Haraway easily justifies the tactic of doublethink, stating that "single vision produces worse illusions than double-vision or many-headed monsters."

    Haraway articulates a sort of iconography of the cyborg, an image that she describes is "at the center of her ironic faith, [her] blasphemy". This figure is neither hero nor villain; it bears neither a causal connection to any origin myth nor represents an eschatological reaper of human atonement, but rather works toward a useful re-appropriation of the demonized "evil" cyborg — or the related trope of the insurgent "android", an imagined humanoid manifestation of Artificial Intelligence - that has been represented as a sort of collective nightmare of technoculture (e.g. the "Borg" in Star Trek). Instead, the cyborg is seen as the definitive contemporary iteration of the trickster figure in late-capitalist, nascently post-industrial society. As a trickster, the cyborg performs a sort of campy ambiguity and effortlessly collapses multiple dichotomies, including animal and human, god and man, male and female, gay and straight, true and false, serious and frivolous, deliberate and whimsical, etc. They call into question what counts as technology, nature, identity, gender, and perhaps most interestingly, what counts as "right" and "wrong". A central attitude of Haraway's cyborg (as with the perennial trickster) is not cynical, but playful—and intrinsically morally relativist.

    Published in 1985, Haraway's essay came during the the dawn of cyberpunk science fiction, which manifested in both literature and film and was close on the heels of the popularization of personal computing (the Apple II in 1977 and the Commodore 64 in 1982). Additionally there were advances in electronic communications technology that had significant cultural impact—in particular, precursors to the internet and world-wide-web such as dial-up BBS, Usenet and the prototypes of commercial online services like Compuserve and AOL. Both Blade Runner and Tron came out in 1982 and the novel Neuromancer by Willam Gibson, considered paradigmatic of the cyberpunk genre and aesthetic, was published in 1984. In classical cyberpunk stories, the setting is often a dystopian near-future society, almost exclusively urban and characterized by extreme political and economic corruption. The tone of cyberpunk fiction is often dark, nihilistic and cynical, and as with Haraway's cyborg, there is no loss of innocence; the subjects of the stories were born knowing nothing outside of post-industrial, technophilic police states, and the plots often revolve around the protagonist as a computer hacker, subverting the technology of his oppressors for his own gains and goals, which are sometimes but certainly not always altruistic. Most often they are simply in accord with a survivalist ethic. Of this very ethic Haraway writes "Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other". (111) This is redolent of the famous line from one of William Gibson's short stories, "the street finds its own uses for things", describing the relationships between users, technology and underground or black market economies. Haraway's cyborg too is guided by adaptationist ethics and strategies, but it moves beyond simply a hermeneutic of revenge or revolt, and exists somewhere in a productive dis-identificatory space between assimilation and rejection.

    This period - the 1980's - also coincides with the "second Gilded Age" discussed in family historian Stephanie Coontz's work, marked by a rise in conservative politics and the coupling of capitalist ideals and consumerist ethics with conservative moral ethics. This era, the era of personal computing and precursors to the internet  because of its political and social backdrops was threatening to feminists as well as gays, lesbians and other minorities compared to the political progressiveness achieved in the 60's and early 70's. It is understandable that a need for a liberatory cyberpunk narrative was dire for the feminist subject in the mid 80's. Haraway even mentions the replicant Rachel in Blade Runner as a symbol of confused desire in a half-awakened or un-self-aware cyborg culture. Haraway's essay indeed was a prophecy whose time had come, although a cyberpunk consciousness was already emerging in hacker culture and was I would argue actually typified in Blade Runner through the veiled allusions to the male protagonist/hero figure actually being a replicant himself. However texts like Blade Runner and Neuromancer, while hinting at the possibility that the cyborg has a soul and might even be able to be "good" despite the totalitarian conditions of its creation, still featured male protagonists and played to the masculinist Western hero narrative quite strongly. Haraway wanted to extend this consciousness to a feminist, post-gender and socialist framework. The critical ingredient for her is the adaptationist ethic embodied in the figure of the cyborg, which you can see hints of in early cyberpunk works like Blade Runner and Neuromancer, but are much more overt in texts that surfaced a decade after the publication of A Cyborg Manifesto, like the Matrix and Battlestar Galactica, where the complication of traditional moral frameworks that is incurred by cyborg subjectivity is explored even more deeply. In post-cyberpunk works like the latter, the question of who is "the bad guy" and who is "the good guy" have become even more muddled, through not only revelations that humans are oblivious to their own cyborgian or machine-based origins, but that even their struggles for liberation might to some extend be helped or masterminded by the very entities they thought of as enemies. In a post-cyberpunk world, the concepts of "enemy" and "ally" can becoming meaningless. (I hope to explore this tangent more in a future post.)

    Being partially engendered by the invention of the first computers in the 50's, early cognitive science and concomitant theories and metaphors for cognition (including those present in the cyberpunk science fiction of the 80's) are predicated on a computational understanding of mind that has become more and more discredited. In such a framework the mind is conceived of as a type of Turing Machine, which I've written about/critiqued previously in a post on dynamicist models of cognition. Haraway's essay hints at the pervasive epistemological effects of computationalism when she notes that "modern medicine is…full of cyborgs, of couplings between organism and machine, each conceived as coded devices" (emphasis mine). However, it is unclear to what extent the Cyborg Manifesto is complicit in the myth of computationalism, since Haraway is so wary of mind-body dualism and given her disclaimer in the beginning about the ironic and mythopoeic nature of the manifesto. Thus her work could be seen as an incredibly prescient anticipation of more dynamic, ecological and situated models of cognition and sociality (particularly in light of the fact that she has since then turned a similar focus to the topic of companion species). It is also worth noting that the mid to late 80's saw a rising interest in Derridean deconstruction and poststructuralist linguistics in the Anglo-American academy, in which language is seen as pre-figuring all human knowledge and comprehension of reality. This has serious methodological ramifications for the analysis of literature and historical texts, which is primarily how it became relevant in the humanities and social sciences. Such a view of the world as "made of" language has also been a central part of the mystical philosophies of visionaries like Philip K. Dick and Terence McKenna, who's ideas, though in many ways analogous to those of Derrida and Saussure, don't receive nearly enough attention in the academy (I suspect because they are so politically radical and generally iconoclastic). Poststructuralist theories challenged objectivism on both a phenomenological and methodological levels, and questioned the tenability of “materialist theories of experience and the ideas of causality and agency inherent in them” (from The Past as Text by Gabrielle Spiegel, p. 4) This, no doubt, has been woven into cyberpunk narratives that envision the world as "code" that can be manipulated and programmed. Indeed, there is still much life in this storyform... but only the future will tell how exactly it will evolve, since our definitions of what constitutes "code" have changed since the 80's and continue to change.

Queering it

     "Cyborg" and "Queer" are both linguistic strategies for navigating postmodern subjectivity. I see Haraway's cyborg as (among other things!) anticipating queer theory, which was to develop a few years later in the early 90's through the writings of like Judith Butler and Eve Sedgewick. Haraway calls for the quest for liberation to be refocused from a search for "identity" to a search for "affinity" or affinities, which is to say, an active construction of relationships, among humans but also among ideas and across multiple frameworks of meaning (her essay serves as a living example of a cyborg text, operating in both the realms of fiction and non-fiction, poem and prose). Identity is too individualistic, too essentialist; affinity on the other hand is coalitional, it is the very currency of the biotic world, which evolves and adapts by means of ecological relationship. Haraway's cyborg represents a rejection of identity and with it of traditional notions of redemption and salvation. Cyborg describes an ontological queerness, the paradox of natural unnaturalism, or unnatural naturalism, whichever you prefer. Similarly, "queer" is a sort of non-identity or anti-identity that does not require any sort of unitarianism or essential quality and questions notions of behavioral continuity and ideological integrity. According to Sedgewick queer refers to an "open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances" which echoes the ways in which Haraway discusses the cyborg. Queer is not an objective category like "gay" or "lesbian", and although it is adjectival it does not necessarily describe a noun. Rather it is a first-person signifier of some sort of oppositional position, which may encompass particular experiences, intentions, pasts or futures. It pertains particularly to "performative acts of experimental self-perception and filiation" (Sedgewick). Similar to "cyborg", queer is a strategy with which to reconcile potentially dissonant ramifications of the postmodern condition. A key political task for Haraway is to "dissolv[e] Western selves in the interests of survival". So it is also with "queer"… queer is imbued with the postmodern and post-colonialist understanding that all creation is hybridization or bastardization, and the nostalgia for a primordial wholeness or perfect morality is an illusion.

    Queer has been extended to even describe ecology and the very ontology of the biosphere, of evolution itself. Cyborg denotes a reliance on or incorporation into the self of technologically-enabled processes of semiosis, but when and where do these processes "begin"? Where, indeed, did technology begin? Long, long ago perhaps with the advent of the first sign, but can that even be named? If queer and cyborg could be associated with any identification, it is perhaps a productive identification with fragmentation. Reconciling fragmented lives and selves is something that is still very relevant today, and perhaps even more relevant. Yet the above discussion does not exhaust the mythic possibilities for mapping personhood, identity/affinity, and desire in 2012. "Cyborg" and "queer" came on to the scene 20 years ago now. Lots has changed, more than we can even comprehend, and as is one of the defining missions of this project, new stories need to be told.

(To be continued)


~Justin said...

First, thanks for this post! The Cyborg Manifesto (CM) is, in my (male and anti-postmodernist) opinion, one of the greatest written works of the past 50-100 years. Easily one of the most thought provoking pieces ever written.
Now, that being said, I'm going to briefly mention some things that I may put into a longer rebuttle soon. 1 doesn’t matter, 2 will have to wait, and 3 is really the only interesting thing that this says so you can move on to the bottom haha.
1- Don’t forget Snowcrash (Stephenson). While this doesn't really address your arguments head on, it is another great example of the cyberpunk genre that can easily be viewed along side of the CM. The female lead, YT, is described as quite the looker but in her actions is presented as a futuristic superwoman who both outwits and outguns her male counterparts at almost all times, while at the same time has the emotionality that one expects from a female lead. Also set in a futuristic neo-capitalist urban USA, it bends stereotypes in ways that some might find interesting.
2- I also liked what you hinted at, that enemy and ally becomes useless. This seems oddly in line with a post-modernist read as these roles are entirely context dependent in much of the general corpus of scifi but I'll wait and see what you do with that later.
3- Finally, the computational view of the mind hasn't been discredited at all. In fact, it is one of the strongest paradigms in science today. Cognitive science is, ultimately, an information processing paradigm; this assumes computationalism. The breakthroughs in the different forms of artificial intelligence, particularly those strains dealing with the creation of cognitive architectures (see Ron Sun's work) or MAAI (Multi-Agent AI) show that computational models of cognition are useful even given disparate social and environmental contexts. Ultimately this is the impasse that becomes apparent when cognitive scientists talk to postmodernists. The context-dependency of all postmodern relativism is disproven by cross-cultural cognitive empirical data: and the wound is only deepened by claims of strong computationalism.
What I would find interesting would be what someone like Haraway would say given the current trends in cognitive science, the science leading much of the physical cyborg debates, have to say concerning “experience” and relativism and how there may be useful general claims that while violating certain post-modern tenants can serve to better the socio-political (and economic) situations of humans who don’t fit into the boxes defined by bathroom doors.

In the end, I may have VASTLY missed your point, and if so call me out; I’m cool with it. But thanks, I really liked this and look forward to the next part!


the faun said...

(Too many typos on my first response, I'll try this again, lol)

Justin, thanks! I really appreciate you reading and responding to this post. You remind me that I rather sloppily referenced "computationalism" without getting into it much, and that is definitely worth calling out, especially because I don't want readers to get the wrong impression.

What I was referring to was computational models that were prevalent in the 1980's. I have less troubles with connectionism(s), and indeed some argue that connectionist models are merely updated versions of standard computational models. Then there are more dynamicist models, (the work by Tim Van Gelder), which again, some argue break with connectionism and others argue is just an extension or new application of connectionism.

Also—and I hope this doesn't sound like a cop-out, lol!—here I am doing a more literary read of "computationalism"—because I'm interested, at least for the purposes of this piece, in the ways that standard computational models of cognition were/are sort of adopted and reflected by popular culture,"popular" representations of the way the mind works, and general queries about how theory and culture interact.

I know I've said this before but I really sympathize with your (and Prof Martin's) stance on postmodernism in the academy. I am in solidarity with y'all on many points, and perhaps the difference between us is that I'm attracted, as a writer/poet and someone interested in kind of a "new" semiotics, to the potential of those theories to help change political and social climates. But I have no illusions about that-- about the fact that poststructuralist theories are firmly situated within a post-world war two, post-civil rights era and late-capitalist politics. IMO one should turn the analytical methods of PM/PS in on themselves if one really wants to "play ball", so to speak, and doing that is very revealing—and elucidates many caveats with those hermeneutics.

I also think that if taken to certain logical conclusions, postmodernist and especially poststructuralist theories can be extremely unhelpful, to put it simply. They can get too relativist.

But one important note about "Postmodernity". For myself it doesn't necessarily make sense to be anti-postmodernist, because I use it in the sense of historical periodization. Postmodern *theories*, well, they are debatable. But postmodernity to me describes the current state of the world I live in. Postmodernism, to me, is not a theory per se or an aesthetic perspective - it reflects the material and political conditions of globalization, and the realities effected by post-industrial economies and increasingly "information rich" environments (in the words of N.K. Hayles)

In a nutshell, I think that ideas of relativism in postmodern/poststructuralist theories are compatible with new understandings in the brain sciences, particularly in the understandings of neuroplasticity, memory, attention and learning.

Certain futurist/discordian philosophers like Robert Anton Wilson and Terence McKenna, people who are deeply wary of academic "high theory" articulate ideas about language as what constructs reality that are very similar to post-Saussurean/Derridean linguistics. Basically, I don't find postmodern notions of subjectivity and relativism mysterious at all, I think they can be explained through brain science. But I also don't think many people from the PM/PS side hold my optimistic and conciliatory views. The views on the eve. psych and cog. sci end are far more conciliatory because they see themselves as having transdisciplinary and reformative applications. Unfortunately, many in the humanities, yours truly excluded, feel threatened by that. At least, such is my assessment of the playing field.