Yesterday I re-read Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” [PDF hosted by AAAARG.ORG]. The first time I read it was when I was starting to think about what it means to be post-gender, but I have to say that this re-reading was so much richer and full of interesting stuff than that first reading could ever have been. My context has been strengthened and my own thinking has become more sophisticated, as well.

One of the things that means a lot more to me now is Haraway’s concept of the cyborg as a being who does not strive toward totality of theory, or ultimate all-encompassing explanation. Something I have struggled with has been this demand placed on me, especially as a public face of trans advocacy, to come up with some nugget or essence of what it is to be a transgender person. I guess there isn’t a kernel that some fundamental “trans-ness” can be boiled down to.

And maybe that is part of what resonates so strongly with me about this anti-imperialist critique of feminism. Unlike other critiques of feminism I have read, Haraway identifies a very particular characteristic of most feminisms (and most -isms, really), especially of the radical variety. Haraway writes

The feminist dream of a common language, like all dreams for a perfectly true language, of perfectly faithful naming of experience, is a totalizing and imperialist one. In that sense, dialectics too is a dream language, longing to resolve contradiction.

And I think this gets at something very important about what it means to me to be a transgender person — many cis people tend to read into my self-identification an attempt to resolve the apparently irreconcilable contradiction between man/woman, whereas I think putting the weight of such a reconciliation on an individual is basically harmful and sort of, well, imperialistic. It is the use of a differently (and intentionally) gendered body to negotiate a certain gendered social reality that has come to be thought of as oppressive.

I suppose ultimately what excites me the most is the idea of an ideological system that is content with its incompleteness, that being a cyborg or being post-gender (post-human) is about a kind of becoming as opposed to a being. It seems to me that this is about shifting lines of definition, not just of oneself but also of one’s society and social categories, regulations, and expectations.

In attempting to formulate a cyborg politics, Haraway asks, “what kind of politics could embrace partial, contradictory, permanently unclosed constructions of personal and collective selves and still be faithful, effective — and, ironically, socialist-feminist?” The rhetoric of both socialism and feminism don’t give room for incomplete, in-process identities. An in-process identity requires an affordance for what Haraway calls “polyvocality.” I think Haraway’s critique of Marxism and feminism is on point in ths way — and why feminist theorizing about transgender bodies and identities has a historical tendency to be screwed up. I don’t think that transgender selves or any semblance of totality.

On the contrary, I tend to think if there is anything at the core of trans-ness, it is a joyful expression of “permanently unclosed” identity if I’ve ever seen it. What feminist theorists get wrong about transgender selves and transgender bodies, then, is trying to squeeze a process (i.e., a temporal metaphor) into a spatial metaphor of categorization. I think this idea needs a little working out, especially since our understanding of time is spatially mediated, but the point is you cannot make a process or even a series of relations into a category because it is ongoing, open-ended, destabilized, and generative.

Trans people are the ultimate cyborgs. “Our” postmodern identities are predicated on an acceptance of the partiality of our perspectives and selves, even as a collective. I also think that in “our” constant contemplation and manipulation of language, “we” live Haraway’s “struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication.” She even goes so far as to say that this struggle is a subversion of “the structure of desire, the force imagined to generate language and gender, and so [subverts] the structure and modes of production of Western identity.” (emphasis mine)

What I’ve learned in the past year or so is that the struggle for postcolonial identity, transgender identity, and a complex conception of multiple overlapping identities is a matter of struggling against exactly that structure. Complex multiple identities — at play in both the theorization of the postcolonial self and the transgender self — make it impossible to theorize about a totality of people. Who, after all, are the “transgender people” of this world? Who are really the “subaltern”? Who do we intentionally or accidentally exclude by naming these things?

Haraway’s critique of feminism translates directly in this way to (my) transgender critique of feminism. Re-reading this in light of everything that I have learned in the past two or three years was a total joy. I am sure I will be revisiting many of these ideas soon, hopefully a bit more rigorously. Thanks for playing!