I’ve recently been revisiting Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ in order to think more critically about a posthuman theory of dance. I’ve also turned to Haraway’s more recent work, including a talk called “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene” (2014). Whereas in ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ (1985), Donna Haraway famously rejected the conventional, dualistic conception of the natural, positing the cyborg as a “boundary rider” that stands for a feminism with “no origin story” (ie. “identification with nature in the Western sense”) (325), In her recent talk Haraway returns to the natural world (at the level of the planetary and of the micro-organism) to advocate for “relationality,” again through a kind of “speculative fabulation” or “speculative feminism” that can open up alternatives to mythologies of “heroism” and “utopia” (AURA). Like she does in ‘Cyborg Manifesto,’ here again Haraway wonders about what kinds of “mythological limitations” restrict the Anthropocene, or a world centered around the human (AURA). Whereas the “organic” female body posed a problem for Haraway in ‘Manifesto,’ it seems she has moved past the natural or organic as cultural categories that limited “female embodiment” to expectations of “skill in mothering and its metaphoric extensions” (‘Manifesto’ 348). Haraway wishes to construct her own myth, unsurprisingly centered around a monster (whereas in ‘Manifesto,’ it was the cyborg, here it is the Cthulu, a Lovecraftian conglomerate of octopus, dragon and human). Haraway also takes as inspiration for her monster, Medusa and Melissa, goddess of the bees, a “figure of extraordinary powers” (AURA). Taking its Latin etymology in Monstrum (meaning “omen” or “warning”), Haraway’s cyborg is a monster because of its perversion of the “natural” and ability to once again challenge our conventional conception of the human body.
The NFB film ORA (2011), a collaboration between choreographer José Navas and filmmaker Philippe Baylaucq in which dancers were filmed with 3D thermal imaging, can serve as a visualization both of Haraway’s monstrous intervention to the ‘human’, and of Haraway’s concept of kin-making through a kind of ecological relationality, as explored in her talk. ORA begins with what looks like cells splitting. One amorphous blob births several others, each alike in size and colouring. These are not humans. These are bodies of a different sort. As the ‘bodies’ come into focus (and their human form reveals itself), their temperature (usually invisible to the naked eye) is the most visible part of them. As such, the dancers in ORA dance not just through the movement of their “bodies” as distinct entities through space, but the insides of them “dance” (emanate, shimmer) as well. Glowing like atmosphere, their corporeal presence looks almost computer-generated. They are avatars whose liveliness is symbolized through the light that emanates from within. But the reality is that their “light” is not symbolic but rather the most human thing about them—the thing that makes them explicitly not computer-generated (their heat). The trailing luminescence of these bodies, along with the palimpsestic traces of heat, left behind when they make contact with the ground, conjures up Haraway’s question: “Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin?” (‘Manifesto’ 346). Yet when we look at each other in the world (and without the aid of thermodynamic technologies) we do not see human heat as light. In ORA this heat is visualized and made filmic, so that the dancing body becomes a fascinating way to trace heat as a technology of the living mammal (and complicates Haraway’s “informatics of domination” chart, where heat is coded as “natural”) (334).
Conversely, there is a kind of deathly veneer to the dancing forms, even as they glow with life. The places where the face lacks the warm flow of blood (the nose and the eyes) remain dark and cavernous, drawing attention to skeleton beneath skin and further dehumanizing (or making monstrous) the dancers in a kind of “danse macabre.” How ironic that the very signs of life in these bodies (heat) should make them look more dead than alive! Just as aesthetics of Haraway’s monster are at play here, so too can her anti-anthropocentric kin-making project be read into the relational qualities of the dance. Baylaucq’s choreography displays a subtle mimetic quality: dancers’ limbs sway like underwater sea creatures, and bodies moving in formation resemble the relational processes of organic systems. Yet this mimesis is abstracted or made less gimmicky by the fact that these are not recognizable human forms. There is a beautiful simplicity to the bodies that does not rely on metaphor; these are cyborgs that are transformed as such through the making visible of an ordinarily invisible human quality. The dancers in ORA are made monstrous not by the invention of new, scary qualities, but through a “remixing” of the qualities they already possess, so that “the certainty of what counts as nature […] is undermined, probably fatally” (‘Manifesto’ 327).
Haraway, Donna. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene.” Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA), Faculty of Arts, Aarhus Universitet, 30 October, 2014, Denmark.
Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” The Routledge Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, edited by Neil Badmington and Julia Thomas, Routledge, 2008, 324-355.
Ora. Prod. René Chénier. By José Navas. Dir. Philippe Baylaucq. National Film Board of Canada, 2011. YouTube. ORA. NFB, 6 Jan. 2016. Web. 11 Sept. 2016.