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A cyborg reading of ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’

fawei's picture


What’s a cyborg?

Several of the texts we have looked at during the course on Gender and Technology have put forth the idea of modern humans as cyborgs. We have become so increasingly dependent on technology over the years, from personal computers to simple things such as glasses, that writers such as Andy Clark and Donna Haraway assert that we may consider them part of ourselves rather than tools. There lines between human and machine are blurred, in other words we exist as ‘human-technology symbiotes’ (Clark 3) - and since we are so drawn to further improving and utilizing technology, we are naturally inclined to continue as such.

As someone living in an environment strongly influenced by technology, I can accept that – my laptop is certainly an important part of my everyday life, to go a day without the internet is a somewhat painful experience. Technology is improving, machines run faster and more independently but rather than being scared of these things as a force that may one day oppose humans, I find these things exciting as ways of improving the human lifestyle. I may indeed be a ‘cyborg.’ But the diagnosis of society didn’t stop there for Haraway.


Haraway, and the students’ problem without clarity

In Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto,’ she discusses the ‘limits of identification’ and encourages the mixing of categories or perceived dichotomies – not just the categories of human and machine, but of gender, race and politics. Throughout this text Haraway puts women and the idea of femininity parallel to cyborgs, they are mixtures of categories affected by their environment. But specific solutions are not stated; likewise the benefits of abolishing/mixing dichotomies remain vague. Several harmful effects are listed such as how a feminist group of a certain race will exclude all other races, simply because the categories of race are recognized (Hraway 156) but the benefits are still unclear. All we really know is that to be a cyborg-like mixture is better than to be the ideal form of any one category – as Haraway says, ‘I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess’ (Haraway 181.)

Several students in this class also found Haraway’s writing style more difficult to process than (for example) Clark’s, even though they were discussing similar topics, at least in their opening sections. As a writer she seems to avoid conclusive or simple statements - in keeping with her claim that mixtures are preferable to categorized clarity. In an interview with Haraway conducted by Lykke, Markussen and Olseen, it appears that this was intentional. An interviewer asks Haraway about the notable ‘deconstructions of the barriers between theory and literature.’ Haraway proceeds to respond that while this is ‘not altogether intentional’ it does help convey her message encouraging ‘layered meaning’ as opposed to the ‘tyranny of clarity’ (Smelik 33).

So it appears Haraway never intended for the text to have a clear cut message. This is likely the reason why the text might be difficult for students to read and understand. But while the abstract and vague writing style may hold true to Haraway’s desire to dethrone clarity and categories, I believe it also obscures some of her other intentions implied in the text, as well as obscuring understanding for the audience.


What will I do/to prove what?

I will try to evaluate specific aspects of difficulty in ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ and see if it fits our traditional concepts of a difficult text. What exactly makes the text difficult to interpret? There are different aspects to Haraway’s writing style that both convey her message yet make reading difficult. To show that even Clark and Haraway’s ‘cyborgs’ would run into problems, I will do both subjective literary and a computer aided analysis of the text, and try to reconcile the information of both.

The purpose here is to demonstrate the communication problems that arise without clarity in writing – problems that apply even for a paper on that very topic.


‘Computer’ reading

To have the computer interpret the difficulty of the text, I ran a very basic program that would look for the frequencies of things that caused problems in reading. In an attempt to have this analysis be mostly objective or at least, generalized to the majority, the things the program would look for were based on a survey done by a composition teacher, asking students what they found most difficult in reading and writing.

75% of students in the writer’s class picked grammar as their biggest problem, so the program looked for things like punctuation and sentence length. In addition, 13% complained about run-on sentences which here is detected by features such a punctuation count, number of conjunctions used and length of sentence, and 14% had most trouble with punctuation (Marsh 821). I also asked a few other Bryn Mawr students what they found difficult when reading, and their responses included ‘large words’ and some formatting choices such as paragraph spacing, that were possible to program. It would be possible to improve this kind of experiment with a greater amount of participants, or a questionnaire like Marsh’s aimed at a different audience (specifically for this essay, our class) but patterns can already be seen what is currently available. While some other texts were run through the program for tests, comparing the first pages of the Haraway and Clark articles that we read highlights well the difference in style between the writers:

Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’


Passage length: 941 words

Sentences: 104

Paragraphs: 7

Average 9.04807692308 words per sentence

Average 134.428571429 words per paragraph

Average 5.20297555792 letters per word

Punctation count is 139

Large words (6 letters and over): 398

Small words (3 letters and under): 369

Conjunctions: 94

Clark’s ‘Natural-Born Cyborgs’


Passage length: 965 words

Sentences: 114

Paragraphs: 12

Average 8.4649122807 words per sentence

Average 80.4166666667 words per paragraph

Average 4.62694300518 letters per word

Punctuation count is 154

Large words (6 letters and over): 291

Small words (3 letters and under): 419

Conjunctions: 89


Overall, the Haraway excerpt had more of the features described by students as making difficult reading. Sentences and words were on average larger than in Clark’s writing and they were distributed over fewer, larger paragraphs – some of Haraway’s paragraphs were 50 words longer than Clark’s. It seems that it is at least partially possible to quantify difficulty. And these numbers do explain, at least in terms of grammar and formatting, why the text might be difficult for readers.

But something not mentioned in this section has been the difficulty students found with themes and context. In Marsh’s class survey, 26% of the students found ‘Themes’ the most difficult thing to understand when reading, making it the second most popular choice after ‘Grammar’ (Marsh 821).  Unfortunately, with a program it is hard to find a pattern than can detect, let alone group descriptors. It seems that specific word types only be found with contextual clues such as ‘a’ or ‘an’ preceding a noun, or suffixes such as ‘-ing’ or ‘-ly,’ but even these do not apply in every case. This is a shame, because nouns, verbs, adverbs and the like are generally the words that give meaning, not the easily detectable punctuation or conjunctions.

As such, a computer might have a hard time summarizing the actual meaning of a passage. Here is Microsoft Word’s ‘Autosummary’ of the Haraway chapter from class:

It is no accident that woman disintegrates into women in our time. Science fiction, postmodernism


Women in the Integrated Circuit

Cyborg citizenship



Second World War




Loss of meaning isn’t the only problem with this summary. The computer seems to have picked up the significance of ‘women,’ ‘cyborgs’ and ‘circuits’ in the passage but does little to describe them. The syntax and grammar are also scrambled, something that was not present in the original text. More powerful programs have been shown to be able to detect emotion, but specific words rely on context, or having been input with all its description in the computer to begin with. Altogether though, this seems to show that a computer would have a hard time giving meaning and understanding to Haraway’s paper, or at least communicating its outcome to people.


‘Human’ reading

In Lykke Markussen and Olesen’s interview, Haraway and the interviewer both describe ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ as being ‘in a sense,’ ‘literary’ texts’ (Smelik 33.) It is possible to analyze the text as a literary piece to try to determine its effectiveness in building its message, and delivering it. It may also help specify more aspects of the text that make for difficult reading, contextual aspects that a computer might miss.

I agree with Haraway and the interviewer that the text can be seen as literary. The various dictionary definitions of ‘literature’ link it strongly to the concepts of time, culture and art. ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ does apply to both of the former, it also seems to qualify as art because (as the interview implies) there are many possible interpretations. But Haraway also says she does not intent to write in an unclear way (Smelik 33.) To intentionally include ‘layered meanings’ while trying to maintain clarity seems contradictory. This is evident in several places throughout the text.  

The lexis of the chapter overall is mixed to a point where it is inaccessible to most readers – the main themes seem to be feminism, politics (labor related) and technology, but there are complicated case examples where seemingly irrelevant or sidelined subjects are evoked, such as biology (Haraway 175.) While the topics may be linked, there is such a great variety of them described in highly complicated terms that most non-specialist readers would be alienated.

The lack of imagery in any way makes understanding difficult. The descriptors used are abstract, or they are avoided altogether. It is understandable that Haraway does not want to imply there is any universal, modernist idea of perfection, but communication seems to be hindered in the process. Technical vocabulary is often described in terms of more technical, abstract vocabulary. For example, the ‘integrated circuit’ is described in other words as ‘a world so intimately restructured through the social relations of science and technology’ (Haraway 165) which is no less complicated, and the mysterious ‘organic aspects’ are described as including ‘organisms and families,’ equally broad terms (Haraway 162).

In addition, instructions and descriptions of goals are unclear, or exist only as criticism of an existing idea. For example on page 155, it is said ‘there is not even such a state as ‘being’ female,’ which displaces those who identify as female without giving them an alternative (although it’s implied that they are instead cyborgs.) There are also cases where vague metaphors are substituted for any explanation of the real-world idea, for example on page 159 where she is comparing radical feminism to socialist feminism: ‘to be constituted by another’s desire is not the same thing as… violent separation of the laborer from the product.’

This is just a brief analysis of the text. But the root of the problem seems to be that clarity and layering are having opposing purposes in this text. Clarity is for the purpose of easy communication of ideas, but layered meanings emphasize how our current language, with its ‘negating’ (Haraway 156) descriptors, is a flawed form of communication.


Combined ‘Cyborg’ reading, does it help improve reading of ‘mixed’ texts?

Before discussing how a cyborg combines the two views, it should be said that this experiment cannot be described as perfect. Both the computer and human analysis have some sense of imperfection to be expected. The main problem here is that neither is purely ‘human’ or ‘machine.’ They are both in a way, cyborgs.

Firstly, the computer program was built based on the perceptions of humans. Even though it objectively looks for certain punctuation characters in a text, and records lengths and averages more accurately than a human, it does not do so unless it is programmed to, and it is only programmed to because humans dictated that these were the rules it would follow. If it were programmed to see how many times the letter ‘n’ appeared, it would do so with the same concentration, if we could call it that. A computer’s understanding of difficulty is going to be based on the humans it is intended to work with.

Meanwhile, the human interpretation is in turn somewhat affected by technology. Although the link is not as clear as a computer program’s with its user or writer, the person is affected by their environment and this includes the surrounding technology. The environment has as much effect on the brain as intuition, or other internal processes and this is what Clark describes as being the ‘mind-body scaffolding.’ (Clark 11) And of course, there is the resulting subjectivity that comes from living in each person’s personal ‘scaffolding,’ and each person’s concept of ‘difficult reading’ will be slightly different.

If this is the case, the ‘combined’ analysis may be redundant. The ‘human’ and ‘machine’ both did seem to show the same thing, however, that Haraway’s text is difficult even for a cyborgic student to understand.


So how tyrannical is the ‘tyranny of clarity?’

In the end, what made the text difficult, and what was the impact when reading? Computer program analysis showed that formatting produced some difficulty, and the human analysis showed that the lack of tangible imagery (by avoiding concrete language to describe technical vocabulary) made it hard to envision what Haraway was trying to encourage. Both of these criticisms bank on the importance of visual cues in communication.

Without criticizing Haraway’s message, that categories can be harmful, I do think that the writing style of this text hurt its ability to communicate effectively with many kinds of readers. It does well to help us imagine what reading would be like without concrete nouns and verbs to provide context and images, but this does not seem like an attractive prospect, especially since nearly all the real-world examples provided are negative.

There are many essays which value visual cues as one of the most important parts of communication. For example, in ‘Education: The Practice of Freedom’ the writer defines true literacy as ‘to understand what one reads and to write what one understands; it is to communicate graphically.’ It may seem like there is a large metaphorical distance between someone learning to read and write, and Haraway’s writing but we are still using the same language within our ‘scaffolding’ or environment. To use this language to prove itself wrong just makes communicating an idea too complicated.



Works Cited:

Beardsley, Wilfred A.” Simplifying the Classics”. The Modern Language Journal Vol. 21, No. 6 (Mar., 1937), pp. 396-397.

Clark, Andy. Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. (New York; Oxford, 2003)

Freire, Paul. Education: The Practice of Freedom. 1976.

Haraway, Donna. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181.

Marsh, Philip M. “Simplifying and Humanizing English Composition”. The English Journal Vol. 29, No. 10 (Dec., 1940), pp. 819-825.


Other reading:



Liz McCormack's picture

capturing clarity

Wow, this was really interesting--hinting towards an ambitious project to capture the "clarity" of a text--a neat idea.  I liked very much your juxtaposition of the computer and the human as two different cyborgs in their own right.   The analysis of both provided insights, each with their own advantages.  The computer comparison between the results for Clark and Haraway were definitive and provocative.  While you did the "meaning/clarity" analysis on Haraway and demonstrated the elements in her writing that obscured clarity, I wondered what you would have found in a similar analysis of Clark.  Would you have found counter examples that illustrated successful writing techniques for clear meaning? i.e., your example of visual metaphors?

I am very curious to hear your thoughts on what kinds of programs should be written to further the analysis of text for meaning and clarity.  I wonder what might be out there already and what organizations and institutions would have an interest in such programs and capacity?  Governments?  Business?   If you were to get interested in developing tools, or in using tools like this, what would be your recommendations for the next steps?

fawei's picture

I feel kind of silly now

I feel kind of silly now because we went into machine reading and similar topics with Hayles' articles after I did this paper. She brings up a lot of the newer uses for computers in digital humanities that oppose (?) traditional close reading. 

To improve computer interpretation, a much more complicated program than the one I made would need to be developed... this one mainly ended up finding things about writing style and not meaning. It would probably have to store data and have some kind of dictionary to begin with (or at least a way to learn from input if people think inputting all the possibilities as the start is lazy). I don't think would be as hard as it sounds to do that part (mass sorting text files into lists is doable). Giving context to the words on their own is harder... words can be assigned titles like 'verb' and 'noun' but then homophones are problematic there. Maybe some kind of network with the frequency of a word being preceded/followed by words of a certain type.

But then there is what we talked about in later classes about keeping data pure (still not sure I'm understanding that.) With that in mind, maybe the computer 'understanding' isn't that important?