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Cyborg isn’t a good metaphor for everything

Date: April 20, 2007

I went back to the annual meeting of the Cultural Studies Association, this time to see this particular panel on various applications of the cyborg theory. I’m not all that into cyborg theory (after all, I haven’t read much beyond Donna Haraway’s original Cyborg Manifesto, which is almost 20 years old and I’m sure that the theory has since evolved considerably), but what caught my attention was the title of Maura Daly’s paper, “Pain at the Interface: Thinking about intersex as cyborg embodiment.” When I searched for her name, a bio came up, which mentioned that she was writing a book called “Technologies of Intersex.” The title sounded like one of those typical Cultural Studies texts in which real people are reduced to theoretical device to advance abstract ideas, and I dreaded having to confront it.

To my surprise, Daly’s presentation turned out to be extremely sensitive to the fact that intersex is a lived experience for real people rather than just some concept or theoretical point to be made, and she was well educated in the latest development in the field as well. Daly explained that she had wrote her dissertation on cyborg theory and approached intersex thinking that it would be a good subject matter to apply it, but as she learned more about intersex, she began to question if cyborg really was an appropriate metaphor here. It made me happy: when a scholar commits to a particular theoretical position or mode of inquiry, it’s easy for her or him to view everything as objects to be analyzed or explained using that particular tool. That Daly was willing to question and possibly abandon the theoretical tool she was familiar with shows her dedication to ethical scholarship in relationship to real, live people it may impact.

Which is not to say that intersex doesn’t raise interesting questions to the cyborg theory: for example, intersex as a cyborg embodiment is said to challenge dichotomized and naturalized sex categories, and yet such notion itself carries, ironically, a strange sense of essentialism, that for intersex bodies to occupy the in-between space (i.e. forgo surgical technology) is “natural.” Similarly, Haraway criticizes older feminisms’ yarning for organic “wholeness”; and yet, much of the intersex movement is driven by such yarning. But when the discussion headed into theoretical direction, Daly was careful to clarify that most people born with intersex conditions actually identify and live as ordinary men or women, and that being born with an intersex condition therefore doesn’t imply occupying the social space between males and females. “Most people identify as male or female,” she said, “because it’s torturous not to.” In the end, Daly said that perhaps more complicated analysis is needed to properly address intersex embodiment than cyborg theory’s critique of “natural body” and “wholeness.”

Another part of the presentation I was intrigued by is how intersex movement is committing itself to more medicalizing discourse in order to transform the treatment–and it’s far more complicated than the recent controversy over the term “DSD” (disorder of sex development) versus “intersex”: for example, when we criticize clitoral “reduction” surgery because it “reduces sexual sensation,” where sexual sensation is scientifically measured and compared to the control group, we are in effect medicalizing our dissent. Of course it’s more effective, but nonetheless something I feel is important to keep thinking about.

Anyway, I was very glad that I attended the panel. Daly said that she was worried about misrepresenting intersex people or doing something wrong by writing about it, but it is precisely people like her who should write about it. There are scholars who don’t care about the real world impact of their scholarly work and there are those who do: the former don’t care about what we think, so they keep publishing stupid papers; the latter often are too afraid of making mistakes to actually write. I encouraged Daly to write about her own process of approaching the topic of intersex with a predetermined agenda (i.e. showcasing cyborg theory) and how her goals have transformed as the result of learning about the issue, because I feel that other scholars should definitely emulate her in this regard.


  1. Dalyさんの文章は、読んでみたいとは思いますが、ハラウェイの「サイボーグ」という概念を、ことさら特定のグループの人たち(この場合は「Intersex」の人々ということでしょうか)に適用するという発想そのものが、出発点でそもそも「?」であるように思いました。(ちなみに、Cyborg Manifestoへの日本語訳は、一つではありませんが、私も訳しています。)

    Comment by sakino — April 30, 2008 @ 10:58 pm

  2. Wow… so excited to find this blog! Thank you. I was reading Morgan Holmes’ Intersex (<3 Holmes) at the same time that my girlfriend was reading Harraway's Cyborg Manifesto. And we had some big debates about what the possible interface between the two could be. Trying to write an essay on this now… will definitely try and get hold of the Daly. :)

    Comment by Skye — August 7, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

  3. Ok, WOW again. WOW WOW WOW.

    Intimidated now.

    I had just found this particular post when I made that comment. Now I’ve looked at the whole website. And I’m too excited to sleep.

    Emi, you rock my multicoloured socks!!!!!

    How can I concentrate on academia now? Eeeeek, wanna spend all my time on this site!!!

    Comment by Skye — August 7, 2010 @ 3:34 pm

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