Conceptual Cluster 11: Posthumanist Philosophies

by bradyburroughs

Björk's twin cyborgs in the music video "All is Full of Love"

Björk’s twin cyborgs in the music video “All is Full of Love”

A ‘cognisphere’ without cyborgs is like a ‘research studio’ without feminisms

 “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.” –Donna Haraway 1991, p.181

“The cognisphere takes up where the cyborg left off. No longer bound in a binary with the goddess but rather emblem and instantiation of dynamic cognitive flows between human, animal and machine, the cognisphere, like the world itself, is not binary but multiple, not a split creature but a co-evolving and densely interconnected complex system.” –N. Katherine Hayles 2006, p. 165

In her re-thinking of Donna Haraway’s notion of the Cyborg, also in relation to Haraway’s most recent work on the companion species, N. Katherine Hayles proposes Thomas Whalen’s concept ‘cognisphere’ as a potential model that more readily relates to our lived situation today. She states “Haraway’s insistence that the world is ‘relationality all the way down’ applies as much to technology as to companion species. …As inhabitants of globally interconnected networks, we are joined in a dynamic co-evolutionary spiral with intelligent machines as well as with the other biological species with whom we share the planet.”[1] Hayles sees the cognisphere as a way to incorporate all of the ‘interconnected cognitive systems’ we are submersed in everyday at a global scale, but rather than locating them within a single figure like the cyborg, she hints at a more disembodied set of cognitive flows that bounce between multiple figures and sources.

While I can understand the cognisphere as a relevant description of the complex networks we live in, and even agree with Hayles’ important point that today our lives are equally infused with technology and biology, I think the cognisphere perhaps loses some of its political potency in what I perceive as a move toward a model that is more abstract and less specific. I would argue that the compelling strength that the cyborg possesses as a tool for provoking political change, is its ability to evoke our recognition/sympathy with the single ‘human’ figure of the cyborg, while the split subjectivity enables a necessary distance to our own human animal selves in addressing difficult areas of struggle. In other words, the melding of technology and biology are already there, and it is rather a question of the specific single figure of the cyborg, as opposed to an abstract multiple set of flows. I wonder, how do you politically organize abstract sets of cognitive flows? And is it more easily dismissed than a collective struggle of many single figure cyborgs?

Likewise, I detect another (unconscious?) move away from the political dimension of Haraway’s cyborg in Hayles’ shift from ‘consciousness’ to ‘cognition,’ in order to make the transition from humanist to posthumanist and a clearer connection to technological environments. Although Haraway ends her text with the cyborg in a rival relation to the goddess, I suspect that it is not only a reminder of how important internal self-critique and self-reflection are, over privileges within the practices of ‘white’ feminist theory and politics, but it is also a strategic connection back to important historical feminist ties and perhaps a homage to those who came before us. In the shift to ‘cognition’, Hayles leaves behind ‘consciousness’ and its connection to the feminist tradition of ‘consciousness raising’, which was an important part of feminist history and a tool of empowerment (often for women who didn’t have an academic voice). ‘Cognition raising’ doesn’t pack the same punch I’m afraid, and it loses touch with a lineage of specific feminist tools in an attempt to become more generally inclusive… and perhaps less politically loaded?

In relation to architectural theory and pedagogy, this idea of ‘genericizing’ or mainstreaming has surfaced in at least two local instances recently. First, a group of feminist cyborgs made a proposal to host an international architectural conference, suggesting the specific theme of ‘Feminist Architectural Practices’. A conflict arose when multiple cognitive flows suggested that the conference should focus on a more general ‘Ecologies of Practice’ theme, with the argument that it is more inclusive. My argument is that the more specific feminist thematic doesn’t exclude anyone, regardless of their feminist (or non-feminist) affiliations, but rather gives a necessary point of resistance to provoke vital discussions, as any relevant conference theme should. Second, in the midst of reformulating the profile of a masters design studio with an explicit feminist base for the coming school year, this same group of feminist cyborgs received a set of cognitive flows suggesting they alter the profile of the studio to a broader (more general) ‘research’ profile, with similar reasoning of inclusivity. Donna Haraway herself sent a message in response to this, “Feminist cyborg stories have the task of recoding communication and intelligence to subvert command and control.”[2]


N. Katherine Hayles, ‘Unfinished Work: From Cyborg to Cognisphere’  in Theory Culture Society 23; 159, 2006.

Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, London: Free Associations Books, 1991.

[1] Hayles 2006, p.164

[2] Haraway 1991, p.175