One question that continues to interest me is subjectivity in a post-Derridean world. Indeed, it seems that we have done away with essences and existence with a capital E. We increasingly seek to make critical interventions that do not substantively engage the issue precisely because we are beyond “substance.” This has two crucial implications for our understandings of subjectivity. The first has to do with the questions about interiority that performativity has raised. If we perform ourselves for some (imagined) audience, then may we not be thought of as relational entities? This view still allows for subjectivity as we are “spoken” by discourse within both public and private spaces, and suggests that we “exist” only from context to context. The second largely deals with subjectivity’s relationship with time. If we are constantly “becoming” in relation to factors exterior to us, then it stands to reason that any sense of our endurance is an effect that sits somewhere between memory and foresight. We (re)assemble ourselves by recalling our past; we are pretenders to permanence because we telegraph our “self” into the future. Our only existence within a present moment is this flurry of mental activity, and our actions within the world.
Based upon these observations, I believe that “self” is best understood as rhythm. Subjectivity is never quite inscribed in the moments wherein it is instantiated; consequently, it exists in memories between previous points in time. Each of these moments means in and of itself only as much as a single beat within a song; that is, very little without something before and after. However, in sequence, beats lend a sense of presence to music that cannot actually have substance outside the time of its production, at least in the case of live performance. In this way, our ability to recall and forecast is precisely what allows us to establish a pattern of ourselves that gives rise to fictions of presence. We also give the pattern a beginning and end, with birth and death; however, these origins and conclusions are equally illusory (does the rhythm begin before birth, with two people meeting?). From this perspective, I would argue that the rhythm of our (non)existence in time is never regular, as per performativity and contextual relativity, nor entirely knowable to the human consciousness. Nonetheless, it is precisely the illusion of regularity that allows for the modern subject. Subjectivity in this sense works as an external force that attempts to create essence by fixing the rhythm. Put another way, the “self” was/is always already empty; modernity’s great task was to render it substantive. Importantly, it had the body—the product of Cartesian dualism—to work with; that is, an object with apparent physical permanence. Yet the body, too, is never the same moment to moment, and therefore becomes part of the rhythm itself. We can see, therefore, why the combination of teleological history and taxonomy worked so well insofar as it populated time both diachronically and synchronically—and so gave the subject a bed of presence, anchored within the scientifically-apprehensible body.
In a way, it is modernity’s “filling” of categories that Donna Haraway’s work engages. The cyborg is an intensely attractive figure because it is post-substance. It is also a response to the reification of the natural and artificial as categories, two discursive formations that perform a kind of ontological violence in their perpetual (re)constitution. More specifically, Haraway notes that “[t]axonomies of feminism produce epistemologies to police deviation from official women’s experience” (1991, 156). In other words, any discourse that places identity first—no matter how inclusive it may attempt to be—falls prey to modernity’s fixing of substance. The cyborg, on the other hand, is immune to such colonization precisely because it has no original “purity,” but is rather is always an assemblage of nature, human, and technology. Moreover, the cyborg may not be immune to oppression, but the mode shifts. Haraway speaks of the “informatics of domination”—the modes of quantification that “concentrate on boundary conditions and interfaces, on rates of flow across boundaries” (163). In its place within this new politics, the cyborg is no longer a “subject” as such; rather, it is an integral part within greater architectures of coding. This position empowers the cyborg to act in ways that the (non-hegemonic) subject never could.
By dissolving the distinctions between nature, man, and machine, Haraway does away with existential substance. She thus removes the possibility of intersectionality—for in lieu of identity and body, what can be at the intersection? In so doing, she raises the possibility of new assemblages that Jasbir Puar suggest “foreground no constant but rather ‘variation to variation’ and hence the event-ness of identity” (2011). The cyborg does not bring together identities, but rather pieces of alterity, be they technological or biological. This synthesis of flesh and electronics allows for the potential of “life” everlasting. In this way, Haraway she creates a new cyborgian time. This may basically conform to the uneven rhythms of human time if the assemblage of being is an essentially random process. Yet, in bracketing human time, cyborgian time also suggests the possibility of presence. It is not necessarily embodied (e.g. the data-body), nor does it conform to the modern fixing of patterns.
However, let us continue working at the hyperbolic end of Haraway’s metaphor, for it is here that presence takes on another possibility. In its mechanical components, the cyborg may have the computational power to actually track its own patterns. In this case, we arrive at substance determined mathematically from past actions. This does not invalidate free will, but it does problematize it in terms of what I will call machine time. This is a mode of temporality that borrows from positivism’s promise of perfect efficiency, yet still runs according to modernity’s imperfect epistemologies. It fixes assemblage, and creates patterns of reproduction more finely tuned than any modern subjectivity. It is machine time that underlies R. Joshua Scannel’s note that the algorithm allows “patterns [to] circulate, emerge, destabilize, robbing ‘human’ temporality of meaning, reaching for virtual life trajectories actualized in the vanishing present of an algorithmic calculation that is already always disassembling and grasping at new objects” (2017, 253). Scannel’s argument deals predominantly with a technology of informatic control, and hints that overriding human time has allowed machine time to enact state violence against precarious populations.
My point with this is that the cyborg works across two temporalities: its own, and that of the machine. The two are not compatible. The former allows intervention; the latter prevents it. Indeed, the “Doman Awareness System,” promises a transparency of communication (event-to-documentation) that overrides the notion that “[c]yborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism” (Haraway 1991, 176). As a result, I am inclined to agree with Jasbir Puar’s “cyborgian-goddess,” which I would understand as the assemblage of human and cyborgian time (2011). I make this point because I feel that we should not forget the resistance that still lies latent within human time—or, more accurately, posthuman time. Put another way, our non-essence is a political platform in and of itself. It is precisely this that promises freedom from determinism; or, perhaps, that the capriciousness within the rhythms of posthuman time means that we were never regular repeating patterns. By embracing this idea, we may also begin to overturn the discourses that attempt to regularize us. If we can preserve this non-essence within cyborgian time, and rewrite ourselves in the code of the political, then we arrive at a powerful post-subjective potential indeed.
Haraway, Donna (1991) “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 149–81. New York: Routledge.
Puar, Jasbir (August 2011) “‘I Would Rather Be a Cyborg than a Goddess’: Intersectionality, Assemblage, and Affective Politics.” Transversal.
Scannell, Joshua (2016) “Both a Cyborg and a Goddess: Deep Managerial Time and Informatic Governance” in Object-Oriented Feminism. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.