Productive Posthuman Paradoxes: Haraway’s Deconstruction and theInternal Contradictions of Posthumanism

“The nature of thought itself must change if it is to be posthumanist” (xvi),states Carey Wolfe, in the introduction to her book What is Posthumanism?Because cybernetics deals with the apparata of communicative power and control, itseems only fitting that this essay will tackle the implications of cyberneticposthuman communication and thought, focussing on the means of expression as astrategy to alter the long lineage of rational humanism. When I was first introducedto posthumanist thinkers, their logic seemed contradictory because they are relyingon systems of logic and a language system that are inherently humanist to provetheir posthumanist perspective. But upon further reflection, I would argue that self-contradiction serves to deconstruct humanist tendencies such as structuralism,linear logic and binary opposition because contradiction relies on a lack oftraditional logic. Posthuman rhetoric exists in a cybernetic state of negativefeedback between rational and irrational, where definitions are relied on while beingdisplaced, creating an oscillation between multiple different dialectical trajectories.As this dialogue resides in a liminal space, it is well suited to tackle the decenteredstate of post-hegemonic power; a hierarchy that is still present, but distributedthrough language, machines and capitalism. I would like to make the argument thatposthumanist contradiction is a productive paradox and a fruitful topic ofexamination. In this sense, I would interpret Haraway’s use of definitions aspurposefully self-contradictory and ultimately more relevant for the dialogue shepartakes in than taking a binary status against the hegemon; Haraway incorporatesself-contradiction as a strategy to deconstruct humanist logic. I will start by outliningthe internal contradictions of posthumanism and then go into how, through a process of negative cybernetic feedback, self-contradictions can prove useful totackle the presence of decentralized power in the systems of communication weinhabit.

The internal contradictions of Posthumanism make it a difficult field tosympathize with while relying on the tenants of literal rationalism, where twoopposites cannot exist side by side. However, upon further examination, thisparadoxical way of thinking is perhaps exactly what Wolfe means when she arguesthat we require new cognitive tools to understand what it is to live as a posthuman.To summarize Wolfe in the introduction of What is Posthumanism, the criticism ofhumanism is often inherently humanist: “posthumanism derives directly from idealsof human perfectibility, rationality and agency inherited from Renaissancehumanism and the Enlightenment” (xiii). However, in order to change our ways ofthinking and subvert male-dominant Western logic, perhaps to exist in a state ofrational contradiction is a productive move, allowing one to deconstruct humanismfrom within. Contradiction is, by definition, a collision of two incompatible or invertedconcepts. This kind of collision is not logical; it is paradoxical. But to construct acorrelation between unrelated fields, as in cybernetics, is not by definition, rational.Nor is to map kinship between human and animals, or to attempt to decenter thehuman in favour of a fluctuating relation between all entities. Haraway states in hertalk “From Cyborgs to Companion Species” that the “method of asking the questionof relationality has not yet been taken seriously, and that has to do, in part, with thestructure of our institutions and even so with the structure of our minds, because wehave a sort of a historically induced mode of brain damage”. Statements aboutrelationality seem problematic when they relying on academic discipline andcontemporary theoretical language designed by humanists to express themselves. These arguments are rendered particularly difficult when language iscited, by formidable dualists like Descartes, as what separates us from all otherbeings. But as I will prove, Haraway is an excellent example of a posthumanistthinker who takes these things into consideration, and uses them productively asdeconstructive tendencies.

Posthumanism promotes an alternative way of thinking to logic, employingself-contradiction to deconstruct binary opposition. Derrida states, of deconstruction:“The very condition of a deconstruction may be at work in the work, within thesystem to be deconstructed, it may already be located there...not at the center, butin an eccentric center” (Derrida). Derrida’s strategy to tackle texts from within isemployed by Haraway in her use of deconstructed etymology. Haraway’s word playdisrupts and re-routes established linguistic formulae by creating non-linearcorrelations between structural signifiers and more nuanced, hybrid readings oflanguage. In both her book Modest_Witness and her talk From Cyborgs toCompanion Species, Haraway begins with a dictionary definition of a word and thengoes on to describe the traces of it that weave through multiple contexts, languagesand associations. On page 11 of Modest_Witness, Haraway spools out theconnotations of the word “Figure” speaking of Aristotle, the meaning in French andgraphic representation, to name a few examples. This fittingly scientific dissection oflanguage both proves the inconsistency of structuralism and denotes the cyberneticrelationality that words have. To open with definitions as a posthumanist whoseobjective is to deconstruct dualisms seems initially contradictory. However, uponfurther inspection, we can cite it as a cybernetic move to examine the insidiouscontrol exerted on us by language. Haraway’s use of language is like a negativefeedback loop, where she equalizes the input (humanist structuralism) and theoutput (a more nuanced, hybrid linguistic form). To oscillate between dictionarydefinitions and colloquial speech is to equalize them, rendering them states thatbecome one another, rather than an oppositional pair. Haraway’s equalization ismore in line with the posthuman mission of amalgamation than if she were to take afirm stance against any kind of dualistic, literal thinking. Principals of negativefeedback are incredibly relevant in Haraway’s use of language. Haraway’s mergingtogether of two binary opposites, such as the character “FemaleMan” in Haraway’sModest _ Witness can be said to create a negative feedback loop; a balancingbetween two poles. Therefore, like in a system of feedback, perhaps the input and output will eventually become the same, and thus normalize these hybrid oralternate kinds of dialogue.

Haraway also makes use of visual texts to prove notions of relationality andthe decentered human. In Modest_Witness Haraway includes Doonesbury comicsand works of visual art, and in her talk on companion species she shows images ofadvertisements and a “Vitruvian Dog” sketch by Sidney Harris, to name a fewexamples. The Vitruvian Dog image seems especially pertinent, as it invokes areliance on past modes of human-centric rationality for its context, but immediatelydecenters the humanist perspective. Placing the dog in the position of the humancreates an immediate linkage between the central human body and the otheredbody. This strategy to use images as a mode of communication indicates anawareness of the limited potential of language and the necessity of a varied andhybrid text in order to best communicate a message that is rhizomatic. Additionally,rather than creating a text with a singular, unified voice, Haraway includes multiplevoices in order to create a more decentered authorship. To use a plethora ofdifferent voices in order to re-route the linear direction of language into an oscillationis to build meaning up from below; to forge truths from below is a strategy to bettercope with digital and cybernetic power distribution.

Haraway’s use of puns is yet another deconstructive strategy that speaks toa multiplicitious reality, rather than a singular one. “As Shakespeare taught us...puns that interrogate kin and kind are at the root of some of our most importantanxieties and...kinships” (From Cyborgs). To make reference to Shakespearespeaks to the inheritance of Renaissance humanism that posthumanism implicitlyinvokes. However, like a pun, this reference can be re-interpreted from below, co-opting Shakespeare’s poetry on familial connection and kinds of people toencompass a notion of kinship regardless of species. I believe that anacknowledgement of Renaissance humanism’s relationship to posthumanism is farmore useful than to attempt to ignore or discount the formidable past thatposthumanism evolves out of.

Furthermore, language can serve as an apt microcosm to discuss moreinsidious institutional apparatus and societal power distribution; to edit language isthus to edit power distributions. “Difference is not restricted to language but leavesits ‘mark’ on everything—institutions, sexuality, the worldwide web, the body...”(Caputo 104). Present in Haraway’s use of language is an awareness of thehegemonic power it exerts. In her talk “From Cyborgs to Companion Species”Haraway describes the similar ways that animals and humans are encapsulatedand limited by language: “one of us, product of a vast genetic mixture is calledpurebred, one of called white. Each of these names designates a racialdiscourse and we both inherit their consequences in our flesh.” Haraway’s talk goeson to explore the intermingling and similarities that exist between human andanimal, proving once again that the inheritance of labels can be subverted whenthey are proven to exist in a web of relations, rather than as polar opposites. “Thevery meaning and mission of deconstruction is to show that things—texts,institutions, traditions... do not have definable meanings and determinablemissions, that they are always more than any mission would impose, that theyexceed the boundaries they currently occupy” (Caputo 31). We see this tendencyused productively in both Haraway’s notion of “kin” and Wolfe’s work, wherearguments are made for the merging of supposed opposites. In Wolfe’s “MovingForward, Kicking Back: The Animal Turn” Wolfe discusses the way distinctionsbetween animal and human are a flattening of complexity (3) and goes on to arguethee relationship between a horse and a rider is prosthetic: “the very height ofhuman power and mastery turns out to stage interdependency, hybridity, andrelationality as the source of both power and the ceding that power requires” (11).Here, Wolfe proves that power is more complex than the (literal) top-down hierarchythat horse and rider might represent; rather than one powerful entity controllinganother, an argument for cybernetic inter-reliance is made. The “human”component of the prosthetic relationship is merely steering the horse, and thus is nomore powerful than the lower half that moves it. This deconstruction of opposingentities once again proves that power can come from below, “for meaning and reference are always built up slowly and tentatively from below, from within thenetworks of codes and assumptions within which we all always and alreadyoperate” (Caputo 101).

Additionally, Haraway’s metaphor of the cyborg in “A Cyborg Manifesto”proves to be an excellent embodiment of cybernetic oscillation. “cyborgs ..are theillegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention statesocialism” (293). Haraway notes the contradictory standing of the cyborg due to itshegemonic predecessors; her positioning of the cyborgian narrative as within thepowers that be serves to give posthumanist theory the advantage of insiderknowledge so to speak; allowing the cyborg to penetrate its own codification. Thischaracter generates another narrative of meaning being generated from below,where cyborg can subvert the identity given to it by its master. Additionally, thecyborgian figure is one intended to engage with ironic play: “Irony is aboutcontradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about thetension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessaryand true Irony is about humour and serious play” (291). Haraway’s cyborg is theperfect mascot of contradictory collisions, embodying the fragmented remains ofhumanist desires. It does not expect to be saved “through its completion in afinished whole” (293), it is content in its state of internalized yet decenteredhierarchies.

In conclusion, to promote the cybernetic agenda of amalgamation, self-governance and decentralized power, it is far more productive to incorporate andaddress humanism, dualisms and linear logic than to exclude these modes ofthought altogether. To exist within language while attempting to be emancipatory isalready a contradiction, and Haraway is aware of this, so she uses it to heradvantage. Residing in a liminal space between the rational and the humorous, thecorporate and the natural, the physical and the virtual, Haraway creates a dialoguemuch better suited to tackle the decentered state of hegemonic power. For theposthuman subject, power is an infrastructure that is still present, but distributed through language, bodies, machines and capitalism. The deconstructive tendencyof critique from within serves to address post-hegemonic power’s insidiousdistributions adeptly. Ultimately, it is more productive to create an oscillationbetween “opposing” power structures and be paradoxical, than to attempt todiscount one form of power completely.

Works Cited

Caputo, John D. Commentary. Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with

Jacques Derrida. Fordham University, 1997.
Derrida. Directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, interviews with Jacques Derrida,

Zeitgeist and Jane Doe Films, 2002.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto” The Cybercultures Reader. Edited byDavid Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy. Routledge, 2000, pp. 291-324

Haraway, Donna. “From Cyborgs to Companion Species: Dogs, People andTechnoculture.” Avenali Lecture Series, Sept 16 2003, Townsend Center forthe Humanities, UC Berkeley, CA. Lecture.

Haraway, Donna. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse TM. Routledge, 1997.

Wolfe, Carey. “Moving Forward, Kicking Back: The Animal Turn.” Postmedieval: aJournal of Medieval Cultural Studies vol. 2. no. 1. 2011. pp. 1-12.

Wolfe, Carey. What is Posthumanism? University of Minnesota, 2010. 

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