Donna Haraway interview transcript (1996)
According to search engines, the two texts I wrote in the nineties about cyberfeminist Donna Haraway (a Wired interview and an essay) are among the most frequently-cited things I've written. So I've decided to put the full transcript online. Most of this material has never been published before. It's slightly rough, but Haraway says some fascinating things. The interview was conducted 5 August 1996 at her home near Healdsburg CA.
HK: tell me about your background
DH: The university of Hawaii was my first job. I went to graduate school in biology at Yale in cell and developmental biology, but fairly early on - about the time of the qualifying exams - I discovered that what I was really interested in was the way biology was a part of politics, religion and culture in general - I was much more interested in biology as a cultural practice than in doing biology as a research science, but I had no idea how to make that happen. At the time, in graduate school, I was part of a commune, which is in fact the background of this house - and we were politically active, and involved in gay liberation and womens liberation, and various issues around antiracism and antiwar work in that period - we’re talking about the late sixties. That was really formative in the way I thought about doing biology. Both fellow graduate students and other faculty were up to their ears in anti Vietnam war work around chemical herbicides - in other words science-related issues to do with war, sexuality and race [laughs] you know, you take the triad.
With war sexuality and race to work from - the issue that seems to me most important - and that isn’t so true now - is that other graduate students in the sciences were deeply involved in this. There was not a sense that the left-of-centre political analysis was coming from folks other than the scientists. There was a serious, politically active culturally-alert movement inside the sciences that came out of in part atomic scientists - nuclear war issues - in the context of the US, the Vietnam war and other issues. I felt like I was trained up as a biologist in contact with these issues.
My first job - I married my friend from the commune who was also very actively gay. We figured out ultimately that we wanted to do a little brother-sister incest, but we didn’t have any other model than getting married [laughs] - so we did! Anyway, we went to Hawaii together. Jay got a job in Honolulu teaching, of all things, world history. I trailed along as a faculty wife! Which was a very peculiar identity. I wrote some of Jay’s lectures, his lectures on China for example, what are you to do? I was unemployed and writing my dissertation. Jay was freaking out as a first-year faculty member and we were living in Honolulu, where the first thing I ran into was the anti-nepotism regulations which dated from the depression era - if one member of the family had a job at the university, another member of the family could not. It was part of the whole legal structure of enforcement of compulsory heterosexuality and male dominance in the fairly straightforward meanings of those words. So one of the first things I had to do was to be involved in a group which made it possible for me to get a job at the U. of Hawaii in defiance of the anti-nepotism regulations. So I got a job, finally, in the second year, in the General Science department.
The man who hired me - I altered my CV for philosophy, history, biology - and sent it out while writing my dissertation and sending it back to my supervisors at Yale and finishing my PhD - but the General Science department was established to teach science as this ontological category to non-science majors. And it was a very interesting way to start teaching because I was teaching fashion design majors and tourist management majors, folks running the tourist economy - and they were filling their science requirement. Our job was to teach science as a model of rational citizenship. Unlike politics and religion, we were supposed to teach the history of science and modern science as the model of rationality, in the middle of the Pacific ocean in the middle of the Vietnam war. The Pacific strategic command was right downtown. Jay and I were both active in gay liberation, though we stopped being married a couple of years after we moved to Honolulu but stayed in the same household as we did until Jay died a few years ago. The combination of political work where we were teaching and the things that were going on in the world continued to make science in general and biology in particular feel like it was at the centre of a lot of very interesting things - including pedagogy. People my age who were genetically unable to teach science as the model of rationality [laughs] - it just didn’t -
So I taught in Honolulu in the General Science department and stayed there for four years. Jay lost a tenure decision at the U. of Hawaii that was messy and ugly and unfriendly in ways that tenure decisions always are - a real mess - and we both left. Jay went to Houston and I went to Baltimore and went to the History of Science department at Johns Hopkins and taught for six years and continued to feel that science, culture and politics were all part of the same thing. I’d met Rustin then and the three of us - he, Jay and I with our fourth friend started looking for land in California, drove around and found this place and bought it in the late seventies - before any of us had a job here - and started working at repairing the old house. Then in 1980 I got a job at UC Santa Cruz in the History of Consciousness department - which itself went back to the sixties - the name gives it away - it was and is an interdisciplinary PhD program for folks who really need a strong interdisciplinary element -who wouldn’t be better off in philosophy or history or whatever and often older folks who’ve done something beside school as well as some younger folks -a mix -. The job that I got was in feminist theory, which I think was the first one in the US that was specifically for that subject. I’ll tell one story - at the interview there was a moment that convinced me that this was the place I wanted to work - I came in off the plane, got picked up by a couple of graduate students who, once they had dropped me at the hotel were heading off to a birthing celebration - in an alternative birthing community - at which they told me - remember I’m coming in from Baltimore, an East-coast very conservative institution - so they tell me that at the ceremony the placenta is to be served to be eaten, and I think to myself - well - alright [laughs] - physicality, celebration of the body, that sense of nature in Santa Cruz, and I think sure, OK - and then they told me that it was to have been cooked - that was one step too many for me - anyway after my job interview there was this astonishing discussion at dinner involving physical anthropologists, a couple of folks in literature and these two people in history - basically doing ethnography, me in history of biology - about who could eat the placenta. Could a vegetarian eat the placenta? What about - there was this wonderful theological discussion, all of us a little bit drunk by that time I think and we ended up deciding the only person who was obliged to eat the placenta was a vegan - on the grounds of food for life, not from death. The biochemistry of the proteins was definitely not the consideration - nor was the old Catholic meat on Friday point going to get you very far [laughs] - the point was that I understood I was in my community. These were the folks who would understand the craziness of it all.
HK: When did the primatology interest start?
DH: In the mid seventies. In a way they started - I’ve been interested in animals forever - and - in biology and ecology and animal behaviour and all the rest of it, just as a human being in our culture - but what I studied in biology was cell and developmental biology, nothing bigger than a molecule - but in the mid seventies, and in the context of working at Johns Hopkins and in the context of US feminism at that time, primate behaviour was a kind of matrix for many kinds of discussions, certainly debates around aggression, sexual violence, dominance, hierarchy of all kinds, models of disease, psychopathology, you name it - and primates were part of what was going on – space-race stuff - the whole issue of training up monkeys and chimpanzees as surrogates for man, polio research using several hundred thousand imported monkey kidneys, the animal trade, the zoo trade, the various issues around the use of endangered animals - the Indian government absolutely had a small cow at the use of rhesus monkeys imported for disease research being used as subjects for radiation experiments - how much radiation could a primate sustain and still be an airplane pilot - seriously - outrageous and unethical work that caused international scandals - we became more and more aware of primates as a way of thinking about the world very broadly - it was a story to tell that would pull together as a story and the other primates were part of almost all the issues I cared about, from conservation to questions about whether you can or cannot use other animals as models for human social behaviour
HK: Was it this question of borders between animals and humans which led on to the cyborg thing?
HK: It’s really in the context of the cyborg thing that I’ve ended up coming here. Wired is a magazine about technology, and about social change relating to technology. In a way, in order for me to write a piece about you in the pages of Wired, I have to say that the cyborg thing is not simply about feminist rhetorical strategy - although that’s a very strong thing in the cyborg idea - but that you’re describing ‘real’ effects of real technologies. I want to know whether you think that’s fair, or whether I’m having to twist that -
DH: No, no, I don’t think that’s twisted at all. I think that’s at the centre of the case. And good feminist theory and theories of techno-science are about practice, about real world stuff, and stuff that works, that inflects, that forces feminist theory to reconsider what it means by the social, what it means by body, what it means about issues about subjectivity, what constitutes subjects and objects, and feminist concerns in techno-science are in my view deeply embedded in the kinds of issues I’m trying to talk about in the Cyborg manifesto, and not in a kind of parallel world.
HK: So there is a sense in which - we are becoming cyborgs? Or we have always been cyborgs?
DH: Certainly not always. What interests me about cyborg as an image, I’ve learned more since I wrote that manifesto, because at the time I wrote it I was just trying to come to terms with putting a lot of things together - it was the first piece I wrote on my computer [laughs] besides which I was invited by socialist review to write 10 pages on the state of socialist feminism - and that’s what happened - which turned out not to be 10 pages on socialist feminism, except it *is* on socialist feminism, but - the reason that the figure of the cyborg interested me - and I can say it better now than I could then - was specifically because it was historically definite - it wasn’t all the time that we were - the cyborg is not about all possible relationships between humans and technology - it is in fact a very specifically historically located figure and practice and embodiment and form of hybridity between human beings and other kinds of actors, both machinic and animal and each other. Cyborg is not about ‘we have always already been cyborgs’, it’s about specifically mid and late twentieth century historical production.
HK: I was thinking about what the boundaries might be. So it’s absolutely not at the point where, I don’t know, we start constructing our bodies with diet, with various sorts of technology then there is a break - because if you say that you could take it back much further - as soon as agriculture turns up -
DH; Right. And I’m really not interested in doing it that way. I’m more interested in trying to get at explosive specificities than I am in telling continuous stories from the dim past. The term cyborg is of course a 1960 word - a neologism of 1960 - it comes specifically out of an essay written by a psychiatrist and an engineer who are working to produce the enhanced man for extraterrestrial exploration. I didn’t know this when I wrote the manifesto. I got that later when a graduate student handed me the piece - the guy who did the cyborg handbook. So what they were after was post Norbert Wiener, post Office of Scientific Research and office of Naval Research - the British equivalent - a post WW2 research organisation which produces the interdisciplinarities which give us systems research and operations research and computers and in the context of the cold war the development of information sciences and computers is high priority.
HK: So this new flesh is born at the same time and out of the same culture as the internet
DH: That’s exactly right - and it produces whole new forms of sociality, of subjectivity and objectivity, literally produces - embodies seriously mutated worlds from what existed on this planet before - and it’s not nearly ideals, its new flesh. That ends up involving diet, for example - I head off to my exercise club and I could buy the new Kalms stress ultrapack - high performance carbohydrate loading - a whole set of discourses about using your body as a high performance machine - you know, a new Nike for each toe [laughs] literally - if you remember that left and right feet weren’t differentiated in shoe manufacture before the Civil War and juxtapose that with a different Nike for each toe depending on whether you’re planning on walking or running - and the kind of sculpting of the body as a high-tech information machine - at levels of subjectivity as well as performance.
HK: But we’ve thought about bodies as machines for much longer than that -
DH: That’s old. But it’s a particular kind of machine, and it’s the machine where concepts and practices of information are inescapable. So that it’s the autonomous control theory built into the machine that interested me in the cyborg. It’s the circular causal system, the information processing system, the autonomy built into the automaton - that’s what intrigued me - an industrial military administrative product.
HK: Because you come back to this several times - this question of information management
DH; Which becomes one of the main practices.
HK: I was interested - you oppose C3i, cybernetic strategies to maintain and regulate the machine - the practice you oppose to that is textual criticism, which struck me as inadequate.
DH: It was inadequate. I wouldn’t write it that way now, and I was wrong - I wish I’d rewritten it. Partly what I was trying to say was that the body - the cyborg body that’s produced in this informatics of domination is a semiotic body. It’s a body made of signs - a body made of light. A body made of bits. On the one hand the cyborg body is a textual body. There’s nothing but information - recoding - the kind of semiotic material practice that would be able in some sense to recode, not merely oppositionally, but repossess and inflect those bodies in a more liveable direction - cyborgs for survival - what I was trying to do with the textual metaphors was play with them to accomplish a number of things - one of them was to stress the ways that what was going on in the human sciences - semiotics, literary criticism, theory, wasn’t so different to what was going on in engineering - really are the same kinds of moves that are going on in the textualisation of everything in literary theory - the kind of textualisation of the world in cyborg practice, so there was no way you could take the humanist subject as some kind of oppositional subject over and against this military and industrial cyborg world, because these various communities of practice were essentially doing the same thing.
You could even throw that one back historically and show ways that theories of signification fed both streams of work and that it is an artefact of the organisation of the university that makes these communities feel like they’re operating in different worlds.
HK: It’s one of your main points that humanism is no good for opposing the machines, or our image of them.
DH: Either you’ve got a self-defeated humanist subject that doesn’t get it in terms of the Western material semiotic world that we’re really living in, or you’ve got - all of the different manoeuvres that try to work with the world we’ve got, like it or not, try to move with the various splits - the discussion we had about dancing [people having a problem with technology being introduced into dance teaching - ‘dehumanising’ the dancer, or subjecting the dancer to ‘the machine’] all of those moves are impotent, completely
HK: There is a level at which the member of the public picking up a copy of this magazine is going to say what do you mean I can’t think of myself as a human being - this is as much for me writing this piece - how are we to translate the ideas about the posthuman and going beyond the gut things people think about themselves as human beings - how are we going to persuade them that it’s liveable to think in another way?
DH: I frame it differently. And I try to avoid terms like posthuman. And instead my instincts are more ethnographic, if you will - do you know Emily Martin's work - an anthropologist, wrote a book called Flexible Bodies? She spent a lot of time trying to figure out how people actually think about themselves in relationship to immunology. So she got lots of accounts from a wide range of people in terms of race and class and so on - rather than telling Emily’s story let me go back to saying that my instincts - how DO people think about what it means to be healthy or well? To be skilful, to be sick? To have a body and have feelings. To be emotional? What kinds of language do people use to talk about themselves? How do they form relationships with objects in the world? What kind of practices are they engaged in? And this kind of ethnographic way of thinking throws up that there is no such thing as ‘human’ in a historical sense - that human beings as we know them and as they are always already immersed always already producing what it means to be human in relationship with each other and with objects - obviously - and so there is no posthuman here - it’s not giving up all these things you feel organically in order to live in the machine
HK: Those are the fear images which come up again and again
DH: Yeah and they are very interesting as fear images. And they are very interesting as one of the sets of nightmare stories we tell ourselves - but they’re just that - they’re one of the sets of nightmare stories and the same folks are going to tell a whole family of stories and not all of them are nightmares. And I’ve got - much messier and more interesting set of ways - for example even talking about emotion, about what you feel about your kids and what you feel about your lovers - your dog - all kinds of peculiar things are going to get involved in that - like the drugs you take. I’ve got a dog with arthritis that’s taking a new kind of pain control medication that handles the chemistry of pain differently from aspirin - so I’m sitting in a vet’s office with an old dog that has since died who’s having an arthritis problem and I’m watching the dog next to me getting prescribed Prozac - now why is the dog getting prescribed Prozac? For self-wounding. The dog’s person is working in a high level job and is working eighteen hours a day and the dog’s going crazy with loneliness. The dog eats on itself therefore - in nervous anxiety - the dog doesn’t get enough companionship - and the human person is saying no no I can’t give the dog Prozac - it costs too much and my health insurance doesn’t cover it. He doesn’t feel RIGHT. So I’ll put this collar on my dog’s head that will prevent it from eating itself - anyway [laughs] do you see what I’m saying
DH: The point is that we, living in *this* world, by these kinds of social relations, these kinds of machines, these kinds of medicines, this material semiotic world is always already full of what I will call cyborg relationships - these boundaries that put together humans, animals and machines in historically specific ways where the full apparatus of technoscience is at the heart of it.
HK: So this image of the bounded human subject which only comes outside itself and meets the world -
HK: Descartes is the big villain, kind of thing
DH: That’s a pretty good story for getting at what - even if it isn’t Descartes it’s a good parable.
HK: So that’s what’s crazy about this
DH: That’s what’s crazy - and everybody knows that’s crazy
HK: Nobody believes you can doubt everything
DH: unless you ask them to give you a pre-packaged story at which point everybody knows how to emit it. Everybody can give you the proper nightmare, or the proper story of the human subject alienated from the world. Everybody knows how to run that story by. But if you start talking to people about how they cook their dinner or what kind of language you use to describe trouble in a marriage and you’re very likely to get notions of tape loops, communication breakdown - you’re likely to get amazing stuff
HK: Noise and signal
DH: if you go at it ethnographically as opposed to dogmatically. How could people actually work within technoculture?
HK: Our big images of bodies this summer have been from the Olympics. I was wondering whether there was anything in particular you had noticed?
DH: Nothing in particular - among other things the way the athletes train is a fabulous example of the interaction of medicine, diet, clothing manufacture, equipment manufacture, training practices, visualisation - using computer graphics to analyse motion - any event is a fabulous example of what it means to achieve internationally recognised excellence in a scientific culture - and upping the ante all the time. What does it take to compete? And why do people train in the US.
HK: There seem to be these huge mechanisms for putting every athlete into the arena in the first place. You can’t get there without an assemblage of technology
DH: It’s an apparatus of performance and production and that apparatus involves international division of labour in spades - that we’re familiar with in factory production, but in sports production
HK: The crisis they’re all facing at the moment is - what are the boundaries of ‘human’ performance - the whole ideology of the Olympics is -
DH: The ideology is about the boundaries of ‘human’ performance, but a good bit of what’s happening is the boundaries of technical performance - which is that human-machine hybrid. Some events - I read an interview with the head guy in charge of timekeeping, which is some very big deal - and each event has a different standard of timekeeping, some events allow you to subdivide time down to the limit of the most sensitive timekeeping devices that can be mobilised in that environment. But other events don’t. So the timekeeping has - a decision has to be made about what kind of time to use and what kinds of instruments - in order to produce the discrimination - and what kinds of sensors, and whether or not you can use visual replays to second guess a referee - and whether the human call will or will not have final authority over the machine
HK: Happens in tennis a lot
DH: And baseball. If you sit in a modern baseball stadium you’ve got the instant replay technology and the umpire makes a call you’re not allowed to show the instant replay - but these are fabulous examples of technosocial decisions - of the relationships not just between the human in general and machines in general - but very specifically located human beings and machines and administrative apparatuses
HK: The place where it seems most up-front is something like motor racing because there it’s explicitly a technological practice - they’re making rules about types of tyres and you can’t use this kind of engine or whatever, and there this thing about human essence doesn’t seem to be such a problem - but the debate over this Irish swimmer fascinated me
DH: Fill me in.
HK: What happened was - she’s been as far as I know a reasonably high-class athlete but not world-beating before and the favourite to win various swimming events was an American woman and the Irish woman won event A by a substantial margin - and the first reaction of the American commentator - this piece of commentary was broadcast worldwide - was that she can’t have done this. This is not possible. It has to be
DH: It has to be illegally enhanced
HK: The media start stirring up the problem and she wins again, and wins a third time - and she’d beaten the American. There was a lot of bad feeling. The American swimmer who was her nearest rival was induced into saying - or implying [break in tape] swimming seems to be the easiest thing - bodies moving through water - but it’s there that they’re having the greatest crisis about what it means to be ‘human’
DH: It’s also fascinating - how you define a drug is also an issue. You are expected to train technologically with a diet that’s particularly well planned to enhance your physiological performance so that you go into your event with the right kind of - every nutrient in sight - and at what point - it’s a fascinating place where there’s a theological debate over what kind of invention counts as artificial and what counts as natural - because the theological boundary between the natural and the artificial is played constantly in sports [break] Tell the history of the world from the point of view of caffeine, sugar and chocolate and you’ve got everything from the history of slavery down to addiction
HK: At the same time - you read about coffee houses in the seventeenth century and it was explicitly a drug - tracts were being written against coffee.
DH: Well, in the same science and politics class where we did the diaper safety pin [note: we spoke before about DH doing an analysis of the contradictions of a safety pin being worn by one of her students as a symbol of her involvement in an alternative birthing movement] there was another - they were a great class - most of the folks in the class thought organic farming techniques were bound to be much better than agribusiness methods and while I tend to think that’s almost certainly true for a range of reasons it turned out that the folks who were willing to be most outspoken had a well-developed theological argument about natural farming versus using chemicals - that was the issue. I said - let’s think about it this way - let’s think about a rice plant. And from the rice plant’s point of view, what the rice plant wants to do - a la Richard Dawkins, is grow faster and make babies before the insects that eat the rice plant before the insects that eat the rice plant grow up and make their babies to eat the tender leaves - so that the rice plant is in a race with the insects that eat it and one of the things that’s going on is a kind of race to reproduction and that’s one of the strategies the rice plant can use to get its babies out before the insect depletes its energy stores so much that it can’t make babies. Or the rice plant can put toxins in its leaves - it can make alkaloids - and it’s kind of expensive, energetically-speaking, to make alkaloids, so the rice plant or any other plant is likely to have a kind of double strategy going - of making babies as fast as it can under the circumstances, and making toxins and putting the toxins in the part of the plant most relevant to the particular pest it normally encounters. Now let’s say you’re trying to help organic farming, and the rice industry and trying to wean the California farmer off chemicals - so you’re breeding rice plants that make more alkaloids, so that instead of applying the pesticide - forget genetic engineering - we’re not going to talk about that in this story - whether if the toxins are applied externally it counts as ‘chemicals’, but if you breed the rice plant to enhance their natural alkaloid production it counts as organic - now the question is - who gets the poisons? If you apply the chemicals externally the chances are the people who get the poisons are going to be the agricultural workers - a lot of illegal labour from Mexico - a lot of labour that’s under-regulated and underprotected underpaid, underseen - you don’t *see* most of the disease burden - and making that disease burden visible takes extraordinary work - so that in the recent grape boycott the issues have not been unionisation, but pesticides
HK: So people have been refusing to pick grapes?
DH: No, it’s about getting people to refuse to buy them, because the pickers can’t bear the burden of not picking them. Money. So these have been point of consumption boycotts, which have been efforts to make visible the disease burden borne by agricultural workers. Now we all agreed in class that this was a very bad thing. But they were also wondering whether the consumer was going to be getting more of the alkaloids if you breed for natural pest resistance - what would it take to make visible a different kind of toxic burden that’s going to come through natural processes - but natural processes that are of course historically implemented and produced - by plant breeding - and these are all hypothetical examples - but what happened in the class is that the students all of a sudden got it - that the distinction between nature and culture is a conventional one - not one that’s always already there. What I found as a teacher is that that is so counter-intuitive that deep down in our heart of hearts in this culture we believe there is a real difference - whether it’s sports or agriculture or diet there’s going to be some way to reconvince ourselves that nature is really just ‘there’ and culture is laid on top of it like icing on a cake. That’s the model that folks are really committed to like belief in god.
HK: And that’s what the cyborg breaks down.
HK: OK, I’ve written down this quote about communications revolutions mean the retheorising of natural objects as technological devices, mechanisms for the production, control and dissemination of information - do you see evidence in the culture as a whole of people beginning to think about themselves in the same way as they do about their networks or their complex systems?
DH: Oh yes. And people think about it differently depending on where they are in the division of labour. For example - I can do it more easily through biology than I can through internet-type technologies - but I think the result is the same. I think people think about themselves as a function of which genes they may be carrying, or which type of genetic disability their children might bear
HK: the genome as a ‘blueprint’ for the person?
DH: Right. Folks think about genetics as a kind of programming of themselves, and very readily make the connection between the notion of computer programming and biological programming. Genetic discourse as popular discourse is sunk deep in our society - look at Richard Dawkins’ popularity - what he’s doing has come to feel like common sense. If you happen to have a gene - one of my friends is an anthropologist - works in a community of people who have Marfan’s syndrome, connective tissue disease - Abe Lincoln’s disease - it can cause various kinds of heart problems and it can be very serious and it’s a single gene mutation, it’s a protein - the Marfan protein was isolated by a woman named Portman, a biochemist. She worked with patient advocacy groups - she’s isolated the gene, characterised the protein, it’s this amazing hybrid social relationship. People have formed societies they really care about - where they get their friends, they go to each other’s weddings, kids, people who form thick lives with each other on the basis of having the same altered protein. And they, Paul Rabinow, an anthropologist at Berkely calls this biosociality. Where maybe in the past, or once upon a time, the story goes, folks were in really caring relationships with each other based on where they lived. Neighbourhood associations. It’s not that that doesn’t exist any more, it does, but in addition and sometimes instead of that kind of relationship you’re going to find folks with relationships they really CARE about based on what they know about their genes, or based on whether they’re in touch with each other in a list group. Distributed communities. Rather than having a preconceived opinion about whether these are good ‘thick’ societies or whether they are ‘thin’ bad ones, I think it’s an ethnographic question. I think the issue is to look and see. There is a tremendous amount of anthropology going on right now - in laboratories, on the internet - around distributed communities in both computers and biological stuff - trying to figure out what kinds of relationships people are forming with each other and the non-human world.
HK: Biological communities centred around AIDS
DH: An obvious and thick example. and the kinds of expertise, the kinds of collaborations which have developed so that it’s now not uncommon for physicians and patients to collaborate over treatment and AIDS activist networks have made a huge difference from that. And AIDS activist networks inherited no small amount of that from the women’s health movement before, because lesbians from the women’s health movement were AIDS activists.
HK: So instead of having science and medicine operate *on* the passive body, it becomes a cooperative venture.
DH: The word patient is wrong because of the very etymology of the world. My Pollyanna self looks at the history of the women’s health movement and looks at the history of AIDS activism and sees people who have become active agents, making communities that join with other communities - regulatory communities - the NIH, the research labs, the Centre for Disease Control, the international scene around who has access to which drugs on what terms - with physicians, with patients - you’ve got people who have constructed major kinds of skills for living which are quite historically distinct.
HK: I found your comments about the immune system in Simians very striking. The relationship between the immune system and the internet.
DH: One of the big specialities in biology these days is bioinformatics. In the genome project stuff, but in molecular biology in general, including immunology, you cant move as a biologist these days unless you’re in thick interdisciplinary collaboration with informatics. To help you figure out what kinds of databases you need to deal with these Niagara falls of data you’re getting . How to distribute the data internationally. And on and on. There is no way to do biology these days without collaborations between software engineers, chemists, cell biologists -
HK: I’m always reading about how people are taking biological metaphors and biological models and applying them to nonorganic -
DH: ALife is a fascinating place to look for traffic between notions of life which come out of one or another area of biology - say behavioural ecology - and which come out of some area of AI work and putting together a speculative model of self-replicating variant systems.
HK: It seems to me that networks are getting to level of complexity where we’re going to have to treat our inorganic networks in the same we treat organic networks - in terms of - not even trying to exert top-down control over them
DH: But rather to cohabit. I think that’s already true. It’s been true for a while. Defence computers are probably a very good example. It’s been a long time since anyone was able to control the complexity of those programs. That’s not a particularly friendly example - the stuff of nightmares.
HK: I was going to start talking about common images of human images of technology. Either they’re kitchen of the future, we’re going to space, whereby we will be empowered by technology - the other one is the machines control us - you use the word cohabitation
DH: to open up another space, another way of thinking about it
HK: A third way between those two
DH: It’s the real way. It’s what actually happens. It’s these very messy, very mixed-up scenes of cohabitation - not apocalypse or salvation - but these cohabitations are framed by these narrative practices of apocalypse and salvation.
HK: That’s fascinating because we tell ourselves these stories.
DH: I’ve spent a lot of time with these images. Secularised Christian stuff.
HK: Usually the people who advertise in Wired have an individual v. herd attitude - you are an individual, defined by your consumer choices
DH: There was the period in there where you had the convention of the face as screen. Little visual ideas which become rapidly conventionalised. That signify new kinds of rationality as machinic
HK: Orwellian things turning up in British advertising at the moment. Masses of people being addressed. The product breaks through this in some way.
DH: I want to back up - we were talking about how you justified doing this story in terms of feminist rhetorical stuff versus ‘real’ technological analysis.
HK: I’ll be quite frank with you - that’s an effect of the politics that’s going on in the magazine.
DH: Granted. I think that’s entirely transparent. I want to show that feminist concerns are inside of technology and not a rhetorical overlay. We were talking about cohabitation - between different sciences and forms of culture, between organisms and machines. Every form of important issue around labour and health, who dies, what does it cost, who has access to what kind of skill, gated community versus city of Quartz, those are issues inside technoscience. Part of the reason I really care that feminist theory is understood in this thick physical way as opposed to this series of rhetorical positions is because I think that the issues which really matter - who lives and dies and at what price - whose nature - the political questions are inside these embodiments. They can’t be got at.
HK: There is no way of talking in the abstract
DH: In a serious way.
HK: It’s material effects of particular -
DH: And material-semiotic effects. The difference between object and sign is exactly what you can’t get. That’s where I think feminist theory is probably inside these implosions.
HK: It seems to be specifically what certain parts of what’s going on at Wired deny. I was quite surprised coming to America and talking to some people on the American left and finding how hostile they were to Wired.
DH: It has a particular reputation as kind of technophilic spaced-out very masculine and very white. It’s also an interesting space to try to be present.
HK: Maybe you could unpack for me - there is this thing about the ‘digital revolution’ that Wired promulgates. It seems to be to do with human agents being allowed to do more things and have more toys or leisure because of technologies. Maybe you could give me a succinct statement as to why that worries you - and another way of maybe seeing that. I was thinking about hybridity and cyborgs. Presumably the angle is that technology changes people
DH: It’s not an external relationship. These are internal relationships.
HK: So we’re far more changed by changes in our technological environment -
DH: The ideology of the digital revolution is so t- thin. It’s a caricature of itself. I feel like when I’m reading or hearing a believer in a libertarian digital revolution, I’m aghast at the cartoon version of the world that appears to satisfy the speaker - that way of thinking about freedom - that way of thinking about ??? the whole set of language in which the digital revolution talks about freedom is laughable. It’s like listening to a born-again Christian giving you a particular version of salvation history. Only not as good. Born again Christians are likely to have a much better sense of rhetoric. And a much thicker sense of how to do a good story than the digital revolution folks. I’m probably much more sympathetic than most of the people I know to the notion of technoculture as ??? in transformative ways - you can give the origin story from World War 2 as much as you like but it’s never nothing but it’s origins. You can tell about military domination from now until the cows come home - you’ll never touch what you need to understand - you can’t tell domination in an automatic way and get at these technologies. I think the left in the broad sense has disempowered ourselves, itself by its own technophobia. it’s bad news. It’s been true in feminist politics too. This kneejerk technophobia - and the digital revolution folks seem to me the mirror image - what I think is true and what I’m committed to working inside of is this world which is being reformulated - in which subjects and objects and ways of working together are being reformulated in these practices and everybody’s responsible for it - it’s a question of politics in the sense of living in a world of connections - and it MATTERS which ones get made and unmade.
HK: A technophobe. The great Wired word for it is ‘luddite’, for which you can read ‘non-believer’ - somebody who did have a kneejerk hostility to technology could take the ‘informatics of domination’ idea and say
DH: She’s agin it.
HK: And say she’s agin-it and these machinic technologies are going to enslave us
DH: Or they could take another part of that idea where I’m talking about the fact that domination is never still and there’s always room to move - and telling yet another domination story is not necessarily going to help - and I’ll be accused of being a blissed-out Wired groupie.
HK: This is the thing, isn’t it. Neither of those positions are true, and neither of those positions are adequate to deal with what’s going on. I have friends who are just blanket hostile - who think you can avoid being implicated by not owning a PC
DH: We had two computers up here before we built our bathroom. Out here in the woods.
HK: There has to be a strategy that doesn’t reject technology completely - is it about saying that tech itself is neutral, but it’s how you use it?
DH: No! Technology is not neutral. It’s more that we are inside of what we make and what we make is inside of us. And we are not equal in all of this. We’re divided by all kinds of social locations - skill, money, race, neighbourhood, you name it. The infinite divisions are reproduced in technology. It’s really about what kinds of worlds are we building. What kinds of things are we making. Including subjectivities. We’re responsible for those. That’s my moralistic self. I think part of being responsible is about play, pleasure, all kinds of - the good things. But it’s also about having a clue about under what conditions does who make these machines. Under what conditions does who train for the Olympic support. Who’s got access to what kind of skill? Under what conditions is the Web becoming worldwide? In the primate work I was asking ‘who gets to love nature’? What nature? At what cost? It’s the same here.
HK: So what’s a workable strategy? One of the most potent points you make concerning the informatics of domination concerns translation. As things become digitised, whole areas are opened up to management and control.
DH: Any time you can make a powerful translation you’ve got access to something you didn’t have before.
HK: You paint a picture of digitisation as potentially problematic for people who want to resist domination.
DH: It’s also a powerful political tool for people who are working against authoritarianism as well.
HK: Tell me more
DH: One could probably do it best with concrete examples. If you’re serious about building an effective politics these days, something like PeaceNet or EcoNet are going to be powerful tools. They’re going to put you into the same potential collaborations and distributed communities as the folks - you can’t work outside of - outside of the world you’re in. It’s a matter of how you form the networks you need, what kinds of materialisations of power you need to overcome the lies, and sometimes that will mean resisting the emplacement of a technology. No thankyou I will not take cable under those conditions. Take your company and - go elsewhere. I think opposition is one potentially important strategy. But it’s one strategy - and if we’re serious about shaping technoculture into humane liveable worlds you have to be skilful. It’s that simple.
HK: It’s a question of on the ground, local decisions about particular things?
DH: Sure. It’s about forming the kinds of alliances that matter. AIDS networks aren’t a bad example. Not everyone’s a pharmacologist or a molecular biologist. But you form collaborations with folks who are. We need a politics where the ties that *we* make are powerful. You don’t do that by a kind of purist - I won’t touch your dirty technology position. You do that by finding the places and the people where there’s a possibility to do something hopeful.
HK: [talks about striated space and smooth space. Deleuze and Guattari] That smoothing of space, the reduction of different types of thing into one space can so easily be overrun - annexed by power
DH: Not so much annexed by power as - produces new kinds of power.
HK: I was thinking about the eye - the Western, disembodied, all-seeing eye - surveying this space - if you’ve got the State using digital technologies
DH: It’s powers are vastly enhanced. No question about it.
HK: The combinations of digital technology and a state which wishes to use them to dominate is terrifying. And since the digital technologies are coming whether we like them or not. It seems to me that in order to stand a chance of creating a humane technoculture that has to go hand in hand with some kind of strategy of dismantling the state - to decentralise power.
DH: There are some really good examples. I taught a course in the Spring with an anthropologist - who is studying international environmental movements and ecological issues - In the Indonesian state there’s a group of people who are trying to show they have customary rights to a particular resource - the forest trees. The law recognises customary rights. so selling off the forest to Japanese or US timber companies might be blocked if the group can show they have these rights. So the State government, Djakarta, like every other state government in the world is making use of new geographical information systems to do micromapping. From the States point of view the more you can make into a national resource the more that is controlled from the centre. On the other hand you have a cultural and political system that works in concentric circles of authority and doesn’t refer everything back to the centre. Multicentric - wit ha strong system of respect for customary law at the same time as you have a state with strong military strong bureaucracy - the entire apparatus. So one of thee things that’s happening is collaborations between environmental oppositional groups in the cities with local indigenous rights groups and ecological groups, national and international working in collaboration with mapping - with folks who know how to use these mapping systems to map down to groves of trees and produce overlays to the state maps to contest who has the right to which areas of the forest. This is not exactly a utopian story because it’s not clear who’s winning , but it’s a story about new kinds of collaborations. They don’t choose to become allies of people who know how to use JS stuff. On the other hand it’s not something dirty to do that. it’s an evolving dialectic whereby people continue trying to produce their lives for themselves in the world they inhabit.
DH: The digital stuff. I think that’s like money. It’s like you’ve got a new money form. Money is nothing but a system of translation, after all. And digitalisation is nothing but a potent strategy for producing translations in space and time, and the ability to assemble and disassemble everything from labour forces to the page of a book you’re publishing. It’s a way of moving things around fast. It seems to me that strategies that have been developed to deal with money are useful to deal with digitalisation. Getting some of it. Slowing it down. Breaking it above.
HK: The information market and the capital market seem to be melting into one another.
DH: I’m interested in the biodiversity market. The particular ways that genetic diversity in crops, human tissues, animals, potentially interesting pharmaceutical materials - the many ways that biodiversity, it’S a new word, only a few years old, a new thing - and has been produced very fast. and there are really big stakes around it.
HK: It’s one of these networked entities you’re interested in
DH: And it’s right in the middle of technoculture, of justice struggles and sovereignty struggles. Where the action is!
HK: Let’s talk about sex! ‘Sex is a dangerous modern innovation’. Certainly the Australian cyberdyke crowd
DH: Formidable people. Australian feminists terrify me! Aren’t they impressive? These are my models.
HK: They’re really into the liberation of pleasure. The cyborg thing - it seems to me that there has been a sea change in feminism around the issue of pleasure. The seventies model maybe degenerated into a set of prohibitions, a kind of moralising discourse. The thing that got turned into PC by the right. And now the cyborg seems to have given everyone an excuse to start playing again. For which many people are thanking you.
DH: You never know where your progeny are going to land. I thought I’d taught her to behave better than that. Some people were mad at me for making the cyborg female. It turns out that there are high stakes about the gender of the cyborg. My cyborg was bad girl - because I’m such a good girl I needed this alter ego to keep me honest. At least in the US, and I think the same thing’s true in the UK, one of the really positive things about both gay and women’s liberation was the vitality about issues or pleasure and eros. for all the fuckups - which were multiple - the screw ups around everything from promiscuity to death - I think that what we’ve forgotten about the whole thing is that there was a really serious reaffirmation of pleasure - and that IS part of freedom - and pleasure need not be the indulgence of the rich. It’s complicated, it’s always fraught, always messed up, never innocent - but there’s something life-affirming about sex. And that that really truly got lost in among other things the terrible issues around AIDS, and the complicated issues around pornography, sexploitation - but it’s important to remember that part of freedom is eros.
[chat about Australia, Warwick University cyberculture, mediation]
DH: ...How do you form a good enough common language? Not the dream of a perfect language. Just good enough. How do you make people aware of the metaphoricity of their own ‘stuff’. Things they felt literal. What forms the consciousness of metaphoricity around what seems most natural, least metaphoric?
HK: You raise the possibility of a ‘non-instrumental’ science
DH: I think the thing about control and manipulation that bothers me is that so much of science is produced in aid of wealthy and often militarised projects.
HK: I was fascinated by what you wrote about the human genome project - about the immune system driving a truck through any notion of a simple, stable human genome.
DH: I think any area of biology explodes simple ideas of genetic determinism - the popular doctrines of genetics that we’ve got floating around magazine culture and elsewhere are crazy. The levels of complexity, connectivity and multiple determination are inescapable. Professional scientists are as likely to give you ridiculous metaphors as anyone else
HK: Do you think the human genome project is purely being conducted to give biology a ‘big project’ like particle accelerators?
DH: I actually don’t think that’s true. Again, it’s messier than that. If I have any kind of common line about everything it’s that - it’s messier than that! Because - on the one hand you’ve got this idea and big names and big egos and big money. On the other hand you also have these Niagara falls of sequenced data and gene=mapping data and distributed centres for producing all of this. This information is built into other aspects of biology. You’re talking about diversity stuff, animal behaviour stuff - it’s worth doing.
DH: I’m not a broad science fiction reader. I read a small family of writers - Samuel Delaney, John Varley, Joanna Russ, Pat Cadigan - I think Synners is an amazing book. Sheri Tepper [TK} is OK
[They mumble until fade...]