Donna Haraway, Camille Paglia. Nov 2012
At the end of my Group 1 five minute introductory presentation, where I discussed my interest in the powerful bond between women and cats, the history of misrepresentation they shared and the discomfort they
evoked in patriarchally structured societies, Tony Apesos whispered: “Read Camille Paglia’s ‘Sexual Personae’, she has a wonderful section on cats”. Several people have recommended that I peruse Donna Haraway’s ‘Cyborg
Manifesto’, and most recently, Jan Avgikos urged me again, as she looked at my collage composites. In this essay, I would like to review the core theories Paglia and Haraway have proffered and consider their relevance to my work.
In ‘Introduction: The Cyborg Manifesto Overview’ on artweb.uwaterloo.ca’s site, it states that “Haraway formulated the concept of the cyborg – a pluralistic hybrid of man and machine – to function as a metaphor for the post-modern human”. It is then explained that Haraway, created this metaphor in order to better encompass the contemporary individual’s unique references and ties to their cultural, religious and ethnic background, as well
as the multitude of social roles and personas one adopts. “Blaspheming” (a term Haraway uses to simultaneously express regard for and critique) against second-wave feminism’s attempt at returning to nature in the 1980s,
her cyborg model not only encapsulated the debunking of the concept of universal truth but also acknowledged our symbiotic relationship with technology. She proposed that machines should be considered as a possible vehicle to liberation by feminists. The culturally modern cyborg is devoid of any mythological lineage or gender orientation and is essentially dependent on “three crucial boundary
breakdowns” (Haraway, p.151) which are: the breakdown between human and animal, animal/human and machine, and finally the blurring of the physical and non-physical. The merging of human and animal recognizes animal activist and feminist ideologies concerning the welfare of all living beings, as well as the dependence of advanced medical procedures on using animals for their success. The melding of organism and machine, is seen by Haraway as elementary to our survival as it “enhance[s], alter[s]
and adapt[s] our bodies” (artweb.uwaterloo.ca’s). Lastly, our reliance on nano-technologies, electronic signals and electromagnetic waves is the basis for her theory of the cyborg being a hybrid of the material and the imperceptible. In short, Haraway extends Postmodernism’s vital recognition of ‘The Other’ to include animals, machines and technology as well as the invisible. By doing this not only does Haraway challenge the idea of an essentialist identity, but also advocates our responsibility to undermine existing hierarchies and limitations, by actively seeking to obscure these borders.
“Without society, we would be storm-tossed on the barbarous sea that is nature” (Paglia, p.1), “We are hierarchical animals. Sweep one hierarchy away, and another will take its place…” (Paglia, p.3), “Woman does not dream of transcendental or historical escape from natural cycle, since she is the cycle… Moon, month, menses: same word, same world” (Paglia, p.10). Within the first few pages of her book ‘Sexual Personae’, Paglia somewhat sensationally, expresses notions directly opposing Haraway’s arguments for humans as socially responsible, evolving entities. Her premise is that, women who embody chthonic forces of nature, continue to triumph over men’s strategic attempts at subduing them. In her view, western literature, art and all social institutions are a testament of men’s deep-rooted fear of
these infernal forces and their (failed) efforts at controlling them. Paglia has written extensively on numerous aspects of popular culture and its icons (such as Madonna and Lady Gaga), which she sees as a direct manifestation
of the prevalence of pagan sexuality (Paglia, 1991).
Paglia presents an intriguing polarity that of the “Appolonian” penis, which can be “seen, measured, compared and assessed” versus the “Dionysian” vagina possessing the qualities of being “amorphous, lurid in colour, impossible to quantify or simulate architecturally”. As man feels threatened yet drawn to the uncontainable nature that he sees in “the liquids that flow from [woman]…”, he turns to transcendental and theological ideology in
consolation (Cassel, 2007).
Both Haraway and Paglia have been widely criticized for their theories by a broad range of critics, academics and feminists. As Haraway approaches her subject from a mostly scientific (science fiction) perspective, most of the criticism directed at her, comes from that community. Her writing has been accused of being “methodologically vague” (Hamner, 2003) and using language that “sometimes [conceals] in an apparently deliberate
way” (Cachel, 1990). Paglia, on the other hand, has provoked a backlash of feminists who have attacked her for demagoguery (Ivins, 1991), while Naomi Wolf charged her with being someone who “poses as a sexual renegade but is in fact the most dutiful of patriarchal daughters” in 1991.
Although I believe that different people are motivated by a multitude of reasons, I do think that academics whose intention is to actively partake in the current discourse of prevailing theories of thought, are forced to take extreme and rigid stances. This radicalism is a construct serving as a platform from which debate ensues. On a personal level, Haraway’s cyborg metaphor is perfectly apt to describe my sense of my own fluid and eclectic identity, which finds limiting definitions and expectations of race, gender,
religion and lineage, abhorrent. Her emphasis on social responsibility also deeply resonates with me, as being driven by that sense of “morality” gives direction and meaning to my life. However, I do not have a natural affinity for Haraway’s somewhat compartmentalized and scientific aesthetic. Paglia’s provocative antics serve to compound her cult persona, but in my opinion distract from some profoundly interesting concepts. I do not agree
with her fatalistic view of women and men being (subconsciously) propelled by essentialist, biologically ascribed qualities, because I find it reductive, irresponsible and confining. However, I do find a germ of a spiritually
empowering idea in her insistence on the connection between the awesome force of women and nature. I am aware of the danger of romanticizing the concept but am (subjectively) convinced that it can be truly purposeful as
a fertile ground for questioning the historical subjugation of women and nature, and the demonisation of all things pagan, as well as inspiring more informed choices in general.
In a more specific relation to my work, Haraway’s ideas complement my own experiments with creating “chimeras” that draw from my diverse identity, and legitimise my urge to hybridise its discordant elements. Paglia’s take on the resilience of paganism and its association with the “feminine”, supplements the aesthetics and themes I employ in exploring dark, abject, magically ritualistic subjects. Both writers provide me with a useful link
between contemporary discourse and that of the 1970s, as some faculty members have warned me about revisiting “retro” topics, and support my investigations’ relevance. In my next essay, the semester summary, I intend to go into more detail of linking Haraway’s and Paglia’s theories with my recently completed projects.
In my final paragraph, I would like to return to one of my favourite symbols/(pagan) deities, the cat.
“Cats live in the occult… [the cat] really is in league with the chthonian… The cat’s sophisticated personae are masks of an advanced theatricality… With its taste for ritual and bloody spectacle… the cat is pure pagan pomp.”
The recurring feline motif in my work continues to function as a reference to the “feminine”, the dark, the wild, the untamed, the independent, the secretive, the private and the intimate, for me. The cat’s simultaneous embodiment of the ethereal and the corporeal, makes it the perfect
intermediary between this and other, more amorphous existences. I was recently struck by another pertinent connection when reading about Venus the Chimera Cat, whose face is split down the middle as a result of a rare
genetic condition, that causes radically different appearances to manifest in the same animal. The left side of her face is that of an orange tabby with a blue eye, and the other side is half of a black cat with a green eye (David Mizejewski, 2012). This fits in nicely with my cyborg/chimera creations.
Word count: 1336
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Paglia D., ‘Sexual Personae; Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily
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