The Cyborg and the Golem
In JRR Tolkien’s Ring, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, there is a member of the fisherfolk, originally a hobbit of Stoors, named Smeagol who, upohis murderous acquisition of The Ring, is granted longevity. But it is only of a physical kind, and after almost half a millennium, when he is discovered in his cave by Bilbo Baggins (uncle of the soon-to-be digitally challenged Frodo), Smeagol no longer knows himself as Smeagol. Rather, he has become…Gollum.
Now, my thought is that Tolkien was much too good a linguist for that reference to be accidental. Gollum looks and sounds much too much like golem, and the character of Gollum talks and acts much too much like a golem for it be mere coincidence. According to today’s columnist, Abigail S .Kluchin, the golem is born of dust, and it is returned to dust when its creator deems that it has fulfilled its purpose. But, for the golem, the difference is that the creator in question is not supernatural, but natural, another of the createdâ€”a human being like you and me.
And, thus, beginning with today’s column-the first in a two part series titled “The Cyborg and the Golem: Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Feminism and the Problem of the Origin Myth,” we here at Metanexus start a month-long exploration of cyborgs and artificial intelligence, of golems and Frankenstein monsters, and of science, religion, and spiritual machines. Today’s columnist, Abigail S. Kluchin, a former Metanexus Intern, is currently a Senior majoring in religious studies at Swarthmore College and a student of Scott F. Gilbert, for whom she wrote this paper, “The Cyborg and the Golem: Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Feminism and the Problem of the Origin Myth” as part of Gilbert’s course “Interpretation Theory 91: Mind, Body,Machine.” For it is when our metaphors obtain to a reality greater than lived reality that myths, monsters, and madness are born.
Scott F. Gilbert is a professor of Biology at Swarthmore College where he teaches developmental genetics, embryology, and the history and critiques ofbiology. He received his B.A. in both biology and religion from Wesleyan University (1971), and he earned his PhD in biology from the pediatric genetics laboratory of Dr. Barbara Migeon at the Johns Hopkins University(1976). His M.A. in the history of science, also from The Johns Hopkins University, was done under the supervision of Dr. Donna Haraway.
Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Feminism and the Problem of the Origin Myth
The cyborg, writes Donna Haraway, would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust. The cyborg, Haraway’s ironic political myth, is a creature of partiality and non-innocence. It does not long for a universalizing creation myth or origin story, nor does it dream of a cohesive identity. Its self-images are far more slippery, its mythologies more fragmented. The cyborg inhabits a post-diaspora world that neither remembers nor believes in a time before dispersion. And its task, as Haraway claims, is to survive in the diaspora. Yet despite her insistence on the desacralized character of the cyborg’s world, Haraway is still writing a myth — a myth with a decidedly irreverent protagonist, surely, but one which is nonetheless thoroughly embedded in mythological and even religious imagery that is distinctly un-ironic in its origins. Following Marge Piercy in her sciencefiction novel He, She and It, I would like to read the figure of the cyborg against that of the golem, the Jewish legend of a man of clay, like Adam,brought to life through prayer and kabbalistic incantations, a legend that has persisted through centuries even to the present day.
Haraway’s invocation of the cyborg is a veritable call to arms to the feminist-socialist community and beyond. Cyborg feminists, she maintains,have to argue that ‘we’ do not want any more natural matrix of unity and that no construction is whole. Her cyborg is an irreverent figure that rejects what Haraway considers the universalizing tendencies of religion as exemplified in its fundamental myths, the origin story followed by the apocalypse, a human race born as one and converging towards a recognizable end. The story of the golem is relevant here as a sped-up version, the textin miniature, of the origin story and its apocalyptic finish. Like man as modeled in Genesis, the golem is born of dust, and it is returned to dust when its creator deems that it has fulfilled its purpose.
Through the golem legend and the Biblical stories it evokes, I would like to consider the implications of the old myths and origin stories for a cyborg world and argue that they are hardly as dangerous as Haraway argues through her insistence on the irreverence of the cyborg and its refusal of the creation myth. I will argue that Haraway and cyborg feminism would do better to attend to the images of the artificial and the blurring of boundaries that such stories do in fact provide. Haraway’s cyborg is a myth with a purpose, if not a unified one; it is a figure that can, particularly through writing — which is, as Haraway claims, of special significance for all colonized groups — reclaim the disputed territories of meaning, power, and pleasure.
Such an endeavor requires that the cyborg avail itself of all of the tools at its disposal. Haraway claims that cyborg writing must not be about theFall, the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language,before writing, before man. I would contend, rather, that this theorized and fabricated hybrid must itself theorize and fabricate not only anew but also with the myths of creation and destruction, playing with the idea of original innocence rather than rejecting it outright. To do otherwise is to succumb to a reactivity that subverts Haraway’s ownself-proclaimed subversive myth, permitting the cyborg to define itself in reactive terms rather than through the technique of recasting, refiguring,and reworking of ideas that otherwise she champions in her call to cyborgfeminists to seize the tools to mark the world that marked them asother.
Haraway gradually evokes the figure of the cyborg throughout the essay,naming it again and again. The cyborg is resolutely committed topartiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian,and completely without innocence. It is not reverent; it is anappropriator of stories and blurrer of boundaries; it takes pleasure inthese transgressions. It is a world-changing fiction, a chimera, acreature in a post-gender world. It is a creature of social realityas well as a creature of fiction. The cyborg is no longer confined to thepages of science fiction; it is all of us, inevitably. Its emergence fromthe realm of fiction has been heralded and made possible, Haraway, argues,by the dissolution of three key sets of boundaries: between human andanimal, organism (animal-human) and machine, and between the physical andnon-physical.
The biological sciences, particularly Darwinian evolution, have shown up thearbitrariness of the boundary between human and animal, and, as Harawaywrites, many people no longer feel the need for such a separation. Theboundary between animal-human and machine initially seems less easilytransgressed. Yet as people grow increasingly more attached to theirmachines, to the point at which deprivation of a phone, a computer, anelectronic organizer feels much like an amputation, the severing of anatural extension of the body, the boundary grows more ambiguous. Perhapsmost importantly, Haraway contends, machines are simply smarter now. WhatHaraway refers to as pre-cybernetic machines were not self-moving,self-designing, autonomous. They could not achieve man’s dream, only mockit. The integrity of the author/creator/inventor, in distinctopposition to that which was created, was preserved. Now, however,
late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous thedifference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developingand externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply toorganisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and weourselves are frighteningly inert.
The final boundary transgression is related to the second: the loss of thedistinction between the physical and the non-physical. Machines and thesubjects of scientific inquiry have been growing steadily smaller, smaller,until they are virtually invisible and essentially ever-present, from theminiature surveillance camera to the silicon chip to the subatomic realm ofquantum mechanics: modern machines are quintessentially microelectronicdevices: they are everywhere and they are invisible. Modern machinery is anirreverent upstart god, mocking the Father’s ubiquity and spirituality.
The pervasiveness of the breakdown of these boundaries permits the cyborg’semergence from the realm of pure myth to that of political-social myth. Itowes its escape to their dissolution. The relation between organism andmachine has been a border war, writes Haraway, and the cyborg’s role isessentially that of a foot soldier. The cyborg takes pleasure in theblurring, transgression, and even breakdown of these boundaries. Rather thanrecoil in fear at the dissolution of the familiar, the cyborg revels in theadmission of the fragmentation of what was never truly whole, the admissionthat the idea of oneness, wholeness, is a fallacy and a harmful deception,and that boundaries are arbitrary and need constantly to be troubled anddestabilized. It takes pleasure in the proliferation of possibilities ofidentity through the transgression of boundaries rather than beingfrightened by the disintegration of seemingly discrete categories.
In this transgressive space, in this partialized universe, the cyborgquestions the dichotomies between mind and body, animal and human, organismand machine, public and private, nature and culture, men and women,primitive and civilized. It is in this discursive space, laughing atthe idea of the natural, that the cyborg writes its own stories, createsits own mythos. For one should not forget that the cyborg is above all apurposeful figure for Haraway; it is the centre of [her] ironic faith, herpolitical myth, her contribution to socialist-feminist culture and theoryin a postmodernist, non-naturalist mode. It is a new myth forged toproliferate still more new mythologies. The cyborg eschews the language andthe literary traditions that urge unification and universalization, thestories that speak of a shared origin and equally shared demise . It doesnot seek a common language, nor to establish common categories such aswoman. Rather, it recognizes those goals not only as truly mythical – inthe sense, that is, of impossible – but also as necessarily detrimental tothose who perpetuate them and to those whom such categories claim todescribe.
The cyborg is a writer and a rewriter, a reshaper, an appropriator, arefigurer. Its language is self-consciously spliced; it does not lay claimto an original language before violation. It is language on theboundaries, language about language, about access to the power tosignify. Most importantly, for Haraway, Cyborg writing must not beabout the Fall, the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness beforelanguage, before writing, before Man. Cyborg writing is about the power tosurvive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizingthe tools to mark the world that marked them as other.
Thus the cyborg objects above all to any type of origin story:
This is not just literary deconstruction, but liminal transformation. Everystory that begins with original innocence and privileges the return towholeness imagines the drama of life to be individuation, separation, thebirth of the self, the tragedy of autonomy, the fall into writing,alienation; that is, war, tempered by imaginary respite in the bosom of theOther. These plots are ruled by a reproductive politics – rebirth withoutflaw, perfection, abstraction. In this plot women are imagined eitherbetter or worse off, but all agree they have less selfhood, weakerindividuation, more fusion to the oral, to Mother, less at stake inmasculine autonomy. But there is another route to having less at stake inmasculine autonomy, a route that does not pass through Woman, Primitive,Zero, the Mirror Stage and its imaginary. It passes through women and otherpresent-tense, illegitimate cyborgs, not of Woman born, who refuse theideological resources of victimization so as to have a real life.
An origin story is always pre-diasporic. It is the Garden of Eden; it is inprincipio with the Verbum. It is lurking in the Logos, that fundamentalmasculine ordering principle that separates the world into discrete, tidyAristotelian categories. It is read in churches and synagogues and studiedin universities. It presupposes a common beginning for humanity, followed bythe story of individuation, separation, the birth of the self, the tragedyof autonomy, and often implies a common end as well, a shared telos that weare all hurtling towards together, whether it be utopia or apocalypse.
The cyborg will not tolerate it.
Despite Haraway’s insistence that the cyborg is a new myth, it isnonetheless reactive and contingent upon old ones. The reason that thecyborg is not simply a reactive figure is its possibility of re-writing,re-inscribing, and re-figuring old myths. The cyborg is always writing more.With the cyborg, Haraway shifts the temporal locus of myth from the distantpast to the present and future. By the late twentieth-century, our time, amythic time, we are all chimeras, she writes. With this move, she opensthe door to discarding the old mythologies to which the cyborg objects, forshe proffers the cyborg itself as replacement. And in a new and newlymythologized age, it is tempting to simply move forward without lookingback. Yet as a writer who is in fact keenly attuned to the power ofreligious and mythological language, she should be alert to the possibility- perhaps even the necessity – of appropriating and using such mythologiesin cyborg writing, rather than turning her back on them.
In the light of the cyborg’s distaste for origin myths, I would like to lookat the cyborg next to the golem, a figure from Jewish legend and mysticaltradition.
The golem, like the cyborg, is a post-diaspora myth, a story born out of acommunity in exile. Unlike the cyborg, however, the golem legend emergedfrom within an organized religion, albeit from the more mystical andesoteric threads within Judaism. The golem is a creature, writes GershomScholem, the foundational scholar of the academic study of Jewish mysticism,particularly a human being, made in an artificial way by virtue of a magicact, through the use of holy names. The Hebrew word golem is used onlyonce in the Hebrew Bible, in Psalm 139:16, from which, says Scholem,originated the talmudic use of the term – something unformed and imperfect.In medieval philosophic usage it is matter without form. Adam is calledgolem, meaning body without soul, in a talmudic legend concerning the first12 hours of his existence.
Among the Hasidei Ashkenaz, the German Pietists of the twelfth andthirteenth centuries, the creation of a golem, turning a creature of clayinto a living man through prayer and incantation, became a mystical ritualassociated with great power on the part of the kabbalist who raises it. Inthis ritual, the kabbalist would invoke the sacred name of God, theTetragrammaton YHWH, chanting elaborate and systematic permutations of theletters of the name with other letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Scholemdescribes the creation of the golem in the context of such a mysticalritual, connected here with ecstatic spiritual experience:
Those who took part in the ‘act of creation’ took earth from virgin soiland made a golem out of it (or, according to another source, they buriedthat golem in the soil), and walked around the golem as in a dance,combining the alphabetical letters and the secret Name of God in accordancewith detailed sets of instructions (several of which have been preserved).As a result of this act of combination, the golem arose and lived, and whenthey walked in the opposite direction and said the same combination ofletters in reverse order, the vitality of the golem was nullified and hesank or fell. According to other legends, the word emet (truth; the sealof the Holy One, Shab. 55a, Sanh. 64b) was written on his forehead, andwhen the letter alef was erased there remained the word met (dead).
The legend of the golem draws heavily on the concept, often apparent inkabbalistic texts, of theurgy, or man acting on God, the ability of theactions of man to bear on God. The raising of the golem is a creation storyof man become God; it is also often the story of the failure of thatpresumption.