Review of Modest Witness

Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™. By Donna J. Haraway. New York: Routledge, 1997

(Draft of book review published in Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy)

Ingrid Bartsch, Carolyn DiPalma, and Laura Sells

It is impossible to translate the joy, excitement, and anticipation with which we came to Donna Haraway’s newest book. With the enthusiasm of teenagers acquiring tickets to a sold-out concert we gleefully waved our new books down corridors and in the doors and faces of colleagues, who looked at us with some concern. It was only when trying to announce the title that we were returned to sobriety.

The unusual title of the book, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™ reflects what Haraway calls her practice of “compulsive listing.” Typical to Haraway’s style, one sentence contains an analysis that spans the breadth of “life itself.” Such breathless sentences usually include at least one central theoretical concept framed as a trope or figure, a series of ten or so instances ranging from a master molecule to the entire universe where this trope is evident, and an analysis of the political economy of life. We joke about pasting sentences such as these over the computer, faithfully memorizing them, and then chanting them as mantras when faced with recalcitrant modernists who insist on the possibility of objective knowledge. The title itself is a shorthand for her critique of the political economy of science. Haraway in fact needs the first fifty pages of the book to explain the complicated title through a detailed exegesis of each term.

In Haraway’s idiom, we have been interpellated as a plant biologist, political theorist, and rhetorician to examine this title and her project–replete with restriction enzymes, hypertext, seed banks, totipotent stem cells, kinship, Lynn Randolph, cyborgs, plutonium, blood, civics lessons, yearning, reproductive technologies, tropes, topoi, speculums, epistemophilia, life-history strategies, air pump, and gene fetishism–with Haraway groupie decoder rings in hand. Explaining the title is necessarily deferred, and the reader may wish to return to Haraway’s unweaving of it later, as we shall do in this review.

The book is highly self-reflexive, even confessional. She reviews the implications of her previous work, addressing its misunderstanding and misappropriation. For instance, in explaining the relationship between feminist standpoint theory, strong objectivity, and situated knowledge, she makes indisputably clear her debt to the “nonessentialist” positions of Harding and Hartsock (199, 304 n 32). In assuming the role of modest witness, she often complements her lyrical style with uncharacteristically direct statements: “My technique is resolute overreading. I know no better strategy to deal with the vermin-infested normality of rational discourse. Just state the obvious. Say what should not have to be said” (253). Short, sweet, and far from the merely “ludic.”

This self-reflexivity extends to her treatment of technoscience. There is nothing new in her critique of science. Instead, she reassembles this critique, using a robust political analysis with multiple figurations, interpretations, and interpretive systems. In direct conversation with Sandra Harding’s work on the politics of science in a democratic society, she argues that we need a democratic, liberatory, critical science, intervening in science in a way that democratizes rather than commodifies or commercializes it. She writes, “Science projects are civics projects; they remake citizens” (175). She secures this argument in part by pointing out that the general biology course has replaced the humanities course, Western Civilization, as the essence of liberal education wherein students learn a disturbing civics lesson about the artificial separation of science, technology, ethics, and politics. Biology, Haraway states, “is now and will become even more the locus of the most widely shared university experience. That fact is full of consequences” (117).

Although people accuse her of deserting science, she explicitly confirms her simultaneous commitment to biology and feminist critiques of technoscience. She writes, “I still use biology…to persuade my readers and students about ways of life that I believe might be more sustainable and just. I have no intention of stopping and no expectation that this rich resource will or should be abandoned by others” (104). Calling herself an “unreconstructed Marxist,” she likewise repeats her “dogged” commitment to Marxism: “I remain very interested in how social relationships get congealed into and taken for decontextualized things” (8).

Perhaps the best way to frame the content of this book is to look at Haraway’s notion of the vampire project. Vampires, Haraway writes, are monsters or narrative figures with the specific task of polluting natural kinds; they “make categories travel” (79-80). The vampire project begins when Haraway unfolds the shift from biological essentialist categories based on blood and gene to the possibility of antiessentialist categories based on affinity and made possible by the transgenic tinkering of technoscience, tempered by notions of justice. Chapters 2 and 3 focus the discussion of life and kinship on technoscience and on “the question of taxonomy, category, and the natural status of artifactual entities” (53). Transgenic organisms, those with mix and match genes, compromise the natural conditions that separate species and make it possible for scientists to create, own, and patent new forms of life. “Life itself is a capital-accumulation strategy” (65). Through gene manipulation and the creation of synthetic DNA, scientists and the industries that fund them can create any organism for the right price without regard to the sociocultural implications of the beings they create or the ones that are displaced as a result of introducing new species. Each organism’s place in the world is defined by its genomic database. In taxonomy, relationships between organisms are defined by how closely their DNA resembles one another. Scientists, inexplicably elevated to God-like status, establish the norms, decide where categories begin and end, have the power to create new categories, and even to profit from them. The rigid categories of science can be tinkered with, plutonium can become transuranic, and genes can be tickled, all in the effort to produce such questionably useful, life-enhancing and profitable commodities as the zucchana (a cross between a zucchini and a banana; add eggs, flour, sugar and walnuts; bake at 350 degrees). In contrast to these disturbing transgenic images, Haraway offers other potentially liberatory mutations such as the figures of FemaleMan© and OncoMouse™.

The OncoMouse™ (the first patented animal) is a product of corporatized biology and industry that, like Haraway’s cyborg of the “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” remains unfaithful to its origins. Mutually constitutive, science research and industry have married, producing the “corporatization of biology” and a fractured community of scientists who no longer have shared interests but compete for corporate resources. Industry supports marketable research and demands ownership through patents. “The social norms in biological research and communication changed from expert-communal and public ideals . . . to approved private ownership of patentable results, widespread direct business ties of university biological faculty and graduate students to corporations, . . . and greater secrecy in research practice” (92). The public no longer has a place in the discourse of science, particularly in the highly specialized world of technoscience. Public attitudes and knowledge about science and technology, or lack thereof, are used to exclude them from the process and to perpetuate the myth that science is not only different from other cultural practices but is, indeed, culture-free.

In chapter 4 Haraway, acting as vampire, offers a “critical hermeneutics of genetics” in which she argues that the Human Genome Project (HGP) operates as genetic commodity fetishism (160). “The gene as a fetish,” she writes, “is a phantom object, like and unlike the commodity,” so that the “focus on the realm of exchange hides the realm of production” (142, 143). While in earlier chapters Haraway critically intervenes in the production of knowledge about genes, in this chapter she treats the commodification of genetic mapping by turning her wry gaze to the cultural production and popularization of the human gene. Within the general population, uncritical enthusiasm for the HGP is somewhat disturbing. The chapter specifically targets several advertisements for the Human Genome Project published in Science, the premier science journal in the United States.

To make the argument about genetic fetishism, Haraway compares the visual and epistemological practices entailed in gene mapping with a number of other visual practices. She uses as a key trope the computer simulation game, SimLife, which she calls a pedagogical primer for “life itself,” to weave an analysis of perspectivism and the politics of spatial representation in Western cartography, Western art and portraiture, and ultimately genetic mapping. Key to this, is her focus on boundaries and POV or point of view, two concepts central to the production of knowledge that she began in earlier work and elaborates on in Modest Witness. Maps, she argues, are structured on the fundamental practice of denial in technoscience wherein the model becomes “mislocated” as the thing and then becomes a commodity fetish for the realities it charts, leading to the very possibilities of prediction (GIS modeling), ownership (land, genes, scientific discoveries), and reified intellectual categories and boundaries. While the commodity fetish leads to reified categories, the vampire pollutes them through its reproductive practices.

Chapter 5 is a “freedom project” that troubles reproductive freedom, pursues the stubborn western oppositions built around the signifers of touch and vision, and attends to the unsettling deconstruction of feminist science studies. “Reproductive politics,” writes Haraway, “are at the heart of questions about citizenship, liberty, family, and nation” (189). Haraway insists that we recognize that every form of feminist inquiry, every speculum and viewing technology, serves specific interests. She recognizes vision as a conquering act while she uses feminist science studies as a (virtual, gynecological, and statistical) speculum, “a tool for widening all kinds of orifices to improve observation and intervention,” to probe the sacred and the comic, to trace the “ontological choreography,” and to place “marked groups” at the center of analysis (191). Taking demography and theoretical population biology to task, she examines the political stakes of a missing gaze in uncounted and unvisualized fetuses and babies. As part of her investigation into the justice of who survives in the particular case of a Brazilian slum, Haraway reports an interesting deconstruction of breastfeeding as practice and culture, rather than as innate knowledge. “Breast milk is not nature to the culture of Nestlé’s formula. Both fluids are natural- technical objects, embedded in matrices of practical culture and cultural practice” (209). The linkages found in the New World Order are not cause and effect, but they matter. Haraway challenges us to devise analytical languages and create speculums that will trouble touching and visualization of the powers and knowledges that are our bodies.

Recognizing race as a difficult and problematic category for individuals and nations, and biology as a complex cultural material-semiotic practice rather than as the body itself, Haraway, in chapter 6, examines bioscientific categories for their slow mutations. She traces the politics, profits, ethics and effects of a “vampire project”: collecting blood-cell and cheek-tissue samples from diverse and dynamic indigenous peoples–referred to as “isolates of historic interest” (249). Declaring race as a “fracturing trauma” of both the national and the personal body, and animated by the noninnocent figure of the vampire, Haraway asks questions about the “vectors of infection that trouble racial categories in the twentieth-century bioscientific constructions of universal humanity” (213-14). She uses a Lynn Randolph painting as a visual text along with an impressive eleven-page (albeit eccentric) taxonomy of “related discontinuities” and “contentious homologies” as a kind of interactive hypertext and “diffraction grid” with which to pursue the incremental transfiguration of categories from race, to population, to genome in civic and personal bodies (232). Blood ties, family, and kinship are dangerous and difficult notions and, as a result, Haraway finds herself on the side of “at least some” of the vampires longing for a different production of humanity: “something more and less than kinship” (265).

The book is “organized around the anatomy of meanings” (14). Beginning with the title, for instance, the syntactical marks (@, ©,™) are “origin narratives” about the production of knowledge that map an argument about writing technology, authority, and technoscience culminating in the commodification and transmutation of science into technoscience. Like loci on genes origin narratives mutate and recombine to create new maps, new modes of understanding, or new figurations. Figuration, for Haraway, is a theory of representation that critiques the literal realism of science, scientistic thinking, and “secular Christian Platonism,” and offers an alternative in self-conscious troping, or embodied, performative images. Always historicizing, like any good Marxist, Haraway writes with in a specific chronotrope–or conjoined node in the space-time continuum–which she sums up as the “Second_Millennium.” The Second Christian Millennium is characterized by hypercapitalism, ecosystem, and global entertainment. The Modest Witness counters the traditional model of scientist as heroic knower. The Modest Witness is a situated knower, who witnesses–that is, recognizes–the public practice of science. She is “embedded relationally,” which serves as a prophylaxis for both relativism and transcendence (37). The Modest Witness is a cyborg figure who has kinship or affinity with other cyborg creatures: the transgendered FemaleMan© (from Joanna Russ) and the transgenic OncoMouse™ (brought to you by DuPont).

A cat’s cradle for Haraway is an embodied string game the point of which is to pass on the patterns to another person to see how they reconfigure. The skeins of Haraway’s cat’s cradle– witnessing, wormholes, vampire and freedom projects, cosmic acts of onanism, hardening of the categories, bumptious nonliteral worlds, ontological choreography, agential realism, diffractions, resolute over-reading, DNA-soaked order, Wonder Woman, Maude and Rob, night births, magico-secular transubstantiation, cyborg nuclear units, border traces, congeries, SimEve, Platonist optics, and implosion—are bound by a profound sense of yearning. We encourage others to become modest witnesses and embrace the joy and risk of playing cat’s cradle with Donna Haraway. You can order your decoder rings at the following Internet address: Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™.