Home > Uncategorized > Donna Haraway “The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies”

Donna Haraway “The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies”

Haraway, Donna 1991. The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies: Determinations of Self in Immune System Discourse. In: Harawa, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 203–230.

My thesis is that the immune system is an elaborate icon for principal systems of symbolic and material ‘difference’ in late capitalism. Pre-eminently a twentieth-century object, the immune system is a map drawn to guide recognition and misrecognition of self and other in the dialectics of western biopolitics. That is, the immune system is a plan for meaningful action to construct and maintain the boundaries for what may count as self and other in the crucial realm of the normal and the pathological. (204)

Bodies, then, are not born; they are made. Bodies have been as thoroughly denaturalized as sign, context, and time. Late twentieth-century bodies do not grow from internal harmonic principles theorized within Romanticism. Neither are they discovered in the domains of realism and modernism. One is not born a woman, Simone de Beauvoir correctly insisted. It took the political-epistemological terrain of postmodernism to be able to insist on a co-text to de Beauvoir’s: one is not born an organism. Organisms are made; they are constructs of a world-changing kind. The constructions of an organism’s boundaries, the job of the discourses of immunology, are particularly potent mediators of the experiences of sickness and death for industrial and post-industrial people. (207)

[…] bodies as objects of knowledge are material-semiotic generative nodes. Their boundaries materialize in social interaction; ‘objects’ like bodies do not pre-exist as such. (208)

From the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, the great historical constructions of gender, race, and class were embedded in the organically marked bodies of woman, the colonized or enslaved, and the worker. Those inhabiting these marked bodies have been symbolically other to the fictive rational self of universal, and so unmarked, species man, a coherent subject. (210)

Any objects or persons can be reasonably thought of in terms of disassembly and reassembly; no ‘natural’ architectures constrain system design. Design is none the less highly constrained. What counts as a ‘unit’, a one, is highly problematic, not a permanent given. Individuality is a strategic defense problem. (212)

Bodies have become cyborgs – cybernetic organisms – compounds of hybrid techno-organic embodiment and textuality. (212)

The genetics of the immune system cells, with their high rates of somatic mutation and gene product splicings and rearrangings to make finished surface receptors and antibodies, makes a mockery of the notion of a constant genome even within ‘one’ body. The hierarchicaly body of old has given way to a network-body of truly amazing complexity and specificity. The immune system is everywhere and nowhere. Its specificities are indefinite if not infinite, and they arise randomly; yet these extraordinary variations are the critical means of maintaining individual bodily coherence. (218)

The concatenation of internal recognitions and responses would go on indefinitely, in a series of interior mirrorings of sites on immunoglobulin molecules, such that the immune system would always be in a state of dynamic internal responding. It would never be passive, ‘at rest’, awaiting an activating stimulus from a hostile outside. In a sense, there could be no exterior antigenic structure, no ‘invader’, that the immune system had not already ‘seen’ and mirrored internally. ‘Self’ and ‘other’ lose their rationalistic oppositional quality and become subtle plays of partially mirrored readings and responses. The notion of the internal image is the key to the theory, and it entails the premise that every member of the immune system is capable of interacting with every other member. (218)

‘Organism’ and ‘individual’ have not disappeared; rather, they have been fully denaturalized. That is, they are ontologically contingent constructs from the point of view of the biologist, not just in the loose ravings of a cultural critic or feminist historian of science. (220)

It is photography that convinces the viewer of the fraternal relation of inner and outer space. But curiously, in outer space, we see spacemen fitted into explorer craft or floating about individuated cosmic foetuses, while in the supposed earthy space of our own interiors, we see non-humanoid strangers who are supposed to be the means by which our bodies sustain our integrity and individuality, indeed our humanity in the face of a world of others. We seem invaded not just by the threatening ‘non-selves’ that the immune system guards against, but more fundamentally by our own strange parts. No wonder auto-immune disease carries such awful significance, marked from the first suspicion of its existence in 1901 by Morgenroth and Ehrich’s term, horror autotoxicus. (222-223)

Harmony of the organism, that favourite theme of biologists, is explained in terms of the aggressive defence of individuality […]. (223)

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