Culture Machine, Reviews


Donna J. Haraway (1996) Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™. Feminism and Technoscience.

New York and London: Routledge ISBN 0-4159-12458.

Ann Travers

In this book Haraway takes the reader on a textual and visual journey through the Second Millennium. This intellectual journey is organized around the email address that first appears in the book's title. Haraway's story begins with the emergence of the modest witness in early scientific discourse. She then uses the tropes of the FemaleMan and the trademarked OncoMouse to explore the construction of the boundaries between technology and culture, humanity and nature, and science, corporatism and social responsibility, as well as some possibilities for their deconstruction. The book's subtitle, Feminism and Technoscience, locates it within a critical discourse of science and technology, a cultural practice that Haraway has played a leading role in shaping. What results is a quirky attempt to challenge the uncritical attitude of the discourse of Big Science on the one hand, and the single-mindedly cataclysmic and serious tone of the discourse of the Left on the other.

In an effort to establish some terrain and guidelines for feminist engagement with technoscience, Haraway begins by identifying and then deconstructing the seminal figure of the modest witness in science. She locates Robert Boyle's experiment with the air pump as the place where a certain positioning (impartial observers/knowers) of specific subjects (white, propertied men) vis-á-vis a particular notion of public space (laboratory as a public theatre to which access is rigidly controlled) in determining knowledge became synonymous with the scientific enterprise. In addition to excluding women and other 'corporeal others' as modest witnesses or legitimate knowers on the basis of their dependent and embodied status, the construction of the modest witness through the discourse of science was, as Haraway emphasizes, part of an effort by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century men to rewrite masculinity in order to protect science from feminization.

While the ultimate dismissal of the kind of objectivity represented by the modest witness is nothing new, Haraway broadens the discourse around meaning, knowledge and technoscience by continuing to work away at the themes of science, technology and knowledge as social practices with real consequences that emerged from her famous 'Cyborg Manifesto'. She continues her conversation with feminist standpoint theory in this book, dismissing the possibility of an absolute position with respect to knowledge, but making an effort nonetheless to find something to stand on. She maps the need for new epistemological terrain through an exploration of the intentionally troubling 'identities' of the copyrighted female man and the trademarked oncomouse within the temporal and spatial context of the Second Millennium.

Haraway identifies the FemaleMan as the 'elder sibling' of the two (69). Long outspoken with regard to the contrived boundary between science fiction and social theory, she draws on science fiction writer Joanna Russ's 1975 novel, The Female Man. With thanks to Russ, Haraway claims to

Adopt the FemaleMan as my surrogate, agent, and sister not because she is an unmarked feminist utopian solution to a supposed universal masculine domination rooted in a coherent and singular masculine subject -- far from it. The Female Man is the antithesis of a utopian or dystopian novel; the book, in form and content, is the disruption of the expectations of those and many other central gendered categories of linguistic production in white European and American writing technologies. Russ's generic title figure is as much a disruption of the story of the universal Female as of the universal Man. Therefore, s/he is a good participant in the nonmodern conversations we need to have about figuration and worldly practice in technoscience. (70)

Haraway chooses the trademarked oncomouse as a sister trope for the femaleman because s/he is the first patented animal in the world, a product of the laboratory whose existence is dedicated to providing a physical location for breast cancer research. 'Like other family members in Western biocultural taxonomic systems, these sister mammals are both us and not-us; that is why we employ them'. (82)

The oncomouse embodies questions about technoscience and the artificiality of dualisms between humans and animals, culture and nature, and science and technology that Haraway chips away at. Together the figures of the femaleman and the oncomouse destabilize the discourses of uncritical science and anti-science leftism. The boundaries between science and social theory are simply too troubling and too troubled for simplistic or isolationist approaches. Haraway is one of an increasing number of intellectuals who are attempting to know something about both science and society.

Haraway's project in this book is to rewrite what it means to witness and to contribute to a more democratic discourse about the social practices of science and technology. She wants to achieve this by combining Harding's notion of strong objectivity and bell hooks' notion of 'yearning', and by using them in place of foundational assumptions. She argues for combining a yearning for knowledges and discourses that promote and enable some ways of life as opposed to others, with Harding's emphasis on the 'locality in general' of knowledge-making practices and the specific locations of various communities in the construction of scientific knowledge. The purpose of Haraway's focus on the tropes of oncomouse and femaleman is to reveal the limitations of the conventional modest witness and to support the re-writing of what it means to witness. She calls for a 'still gestating, feminist antiracist, mutated modest witness' (191) and explores this call within the context of global capital, the business of technoscience, and the often narrow critical lens of the left in its engagement with scientific and technological discourse. Haraway adopts Harding's mutated notion of objectivity in order to 'queer the modest witness this time around so that s/he is constituted in the furnace of technoscientific practice as a self-aware, accountable, anti-racist FemaleMan' (36).

Haraway's text is replete with artwork, examples of advertisements and cartoons and a twelve-page chart detailing twentieth-century biological kinship categories. The advertisements and cartoons do much to communicate the interpolations between power, knowledge, identity and science, but the presentation of paintings by Lynn Randolph, intended to visually stimulate our understanding of the complex interpolations between science, technology, culture, identity and global corporatism, is less successful. Haraway has long emphasized the artificial boundary between science fiction and social theory/commentary, and her choice of artwork is consistent with that. The paintings, however, are not a particularly powerful match for her incisive analysis. And no doubt for some people -- probably those same people who flip through articles to focus on the statistical analyses rather than the text of the author's work -- the twelve-page chart is useful in capturing the breadth of Haraway's focus. But what stands out for me through reading the book in its entirety is the depth of her engagement with issues relating to science, culture, power, globalization and the discourse of epistemology.

When I began reading this book, I was inclined to believe Haraway had followed Laurie Anderson's model used in her Stories from the Nerve Bible in publishing a provocative combination of texts to give greater depth to the work already done in 'The Cyborg Manifesto'. But the comprehensiveness of her exploration of biotechnology within a global capitalist framework and her call for greater engagement between mainstream and oppositional science scholars advances the critically reflexive and playful position of her earlier work considerably. Haraway's work is powerful because she strives to make connections between and across disciplines and because she so relentlessly pushes the conversation into places of discomfort. I find myself thinking about oncomice, real and symbolic, a lot.

Ann Travers is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.