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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cyborg Feminism and "Richard III"

I could gush about Donna Haraway and athlete/model/actress/badass Aimee Mullins, but instead I'll try to reign it in and focus on why this feminist theory tailored to our technological age has anything to do with a play written hundreds of years ago about a man with a disability.

In A Cyborg Manifest: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century Donna Haraway describes how the cyborg in today’s world of biotechnology, robotics, and cybernetics is not limited to its monstrous science-fictional image of future warfare and domination but is also a powerful tool of post-modernism and feminism, undermining the binary tradition of white, masculinist, Western culture to allow new understandings of sexuality and selfhood. Haraway’s argument rests on the premise that “we are all cyborgs,” who join material reality with imagination, function outside of gendered notions of reproduction and erase the boundaries between public and private spheres (384-5). Cyborg politics not only calls attention to its own artificiality, it also challenges the naturalization of dichotomies like body/mind, organism/machine, nature/culture, women/men. Haraway suggests that the cyborg is “a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self” that “[indicates] that science and technology provide fresh sources of power” (388-9). The female cyborg is freed “of the need to root identification in vanguard parties, purity, and mothering” and becomes empowered by her appropriation of “masculine” information and technology (392). Cyborg feminism asks the question “why should our bodies end at the skin?” and insists on bodies as “maps of power and identity,” actively communicating and creating new meaning. Haraway’s cyborg imagery provides “a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves,” concluding by stating that she “would rather be a cyborg than a goddess” (394).

Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto functions as a potentially powerful framework for a play that participates in a Western masculine literary tradition, particularly for new ways of understanding issues of deformity and gender in Richard III within a contemporary setting. For example, rather than trapping Richard’s deformity within the boundaries of systems of whole/part, or male control, aggressiveness and fertility/feminized weakness and sterility, it can also be understood within the cyborg imagery of the “enhanced” human, challenging Richard’s role as naturally depraved or villainous and accusations of his mother/sorceress-creator as perpetrator. Queen Margaret’s identity as a war veteran might also explore new territories of gender identity, her physical and political immobility potentially complicated by her access to technology. Cyborg feminism also calls into question the “naturalness” of the female characters as cursing witches, lamenting mothers, usurping queens or powerless widows. When women have access to masculine technology, military force and cyborg identities, a patrilineal monarchy that rests on the strict dichotomy of women as reproducers and men as rulers become entirely unstable. Within a cyborg feminist framework, the women of the play are neither harpies and hags nor helpless victims, excluded from masculine military strength and equated with nature, but instead they seize significant agency. Their curses become their powerful tools of communication, their access to technology as a means of participating in the chaos and killing. Even the considerable reproductive power enjoyed by the women of the play can be understood as part of their cyborg identities, pushing the boundaries of female agency at the intersection of biology and politics at a time when the nation was concerned over its female monarch, the embodiment of this contradiction of gender identity. When seen as part of cyborg feminist discourse, the disruption of order in Richard III is no longer the result of “problematic” overturned gender roles, but representative of both Elizabethan and contemporary politics and culture, full of frightening and liberating uncertainty punctuated by advancing technology. Within a world of cyborg imagery, Shakespeare’s characters no longer have fixed meanings within political or gender discourses, giving the production freedom to challenge traditional performances of Richard III and its characters while addressing culturally relevant issues such as post-modern identity, advancing cybernetic technology, and polymorphous sexuality and gender roles.

Want to see more? Check out Cyborgs and Prothetics.

Donna Haraway. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Twentieth Century.” Feminist Theory, A Reader. Second Edition. Ed. Kolmar, Wendy and Frances Bartowski. McGraw Hill Companies, Inc. 2005.

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