Furries, Therians, and the Cyborg Manifesto

13 Apr 2015 |

This article is about the blurring of lines between human and non-human animals. It looks at how the furry identity muddies the idea of what it means to be a person by challenging the human/animal duality, and draws parallels with similar false dualities such as male/female, straight/gay, and animal/machine. This is all tied into science fiction, futurism, and feminism.

I realise this is an odd opening to my article. However I think this opening is necessary for those of you who saw the word "cyborg", and guessed that I'd be writing about Randomwolf as a robot who learns that the most powerful force on earth is love. If you were hoping to read about the activation of Randomwolf's emotion chip, you may stop reading now. This article is about how furry links with cyborg philosophy. Robot Randomwolf never learns anything about these things we humans call "feelings".

The Cyborg Manifesto, an essay written by Donna Haraway first published in 1985 (full text here*), is a thoroughly readable and prescient exercise in futurism and feminist theory. Haraway posits that technology will strongly influence the way we perceive identity, and that this will have a knock-on effect to the world in general. And while Haraway doesn't predict the rise of the furry community, furries fit neatly into her predictions.

* Note that my link to the full text is pretty obviously a scan. There are a few OCR errors.

Haraway's essay is a manifesto. It is not a review of the current state of affairs, it's a look into the future with hope. Her cyborg future is all a bit Star Trek, with technology removing old prejudices that define gender roles, sexuality, and the differences between humans, animals and machines.

Her thoughts on human relationships with non-human animals and machines have materialized, in part, with the expression of furry identity. Haraway doesn't worry too much about the difference between reality and fiction, persuasively arguing that fictional extensions of real-world phenomena affect the way we think. She argues that science fiction informs science fact, something we can all see in much of today's gadgetry, reflecting as it does the hypotheticals of 20th century science fiction.

As an example, Haraway compares an organism to a "biotic component". If you accept that these two things are strongly related, the fact that one is natural and the other synthetic becomes moot. There is no fundamental difference, in terms of function, between a human ear and one augmented with a hearing aid.

This ties in with furry, because an animal-person identity subverts the existence of a hard boundary between human animals and non-human animals. Most of us have an animal-person identity of some sort, which may fit anywhere on the spectrum as a lightly modified fictional version of our human selves, through to the therians: those who feel they are, on some level, not completely or not solely human.

The muddying of these waters affects the way we relate to non-human animals. For starters, many furs feel a close affinity for their animal counterparts, treating them with a degree of anthropomorphization. That might be as simple as enjoying some cute pictures (e.g. cheelaxing), thinking of them as a special case (for example when it comes to food; many horse furs have very strong opinions about the consumption of horse meat), or by giving a pet the status of family member.

You can see my own furry sensibilities come to the fore by the language I use. I am careful to call humans "human animals" and non-humans "non-human animals". My language shows that I don't give human beings any special or divine status, that I believe in the science of evolution rather than the fabulism of creation, and that I think that non-human animals must be considered to have some rights.

Consider this thought experiment: imagine that you become your furry character, and that the rest of the world stays as-is. Would you expect to be given the same rights as you enjoy now? Of course. Now imagine a genetically-engineered human/non-human hybrid of considerable intelligence - let's say a dolphin anthro with below-average human intelligence, but with intelligence at the lower end of "normal". Should our dolphin-man enjoy the same rights as humans? The answer here, again, has to be yes.

You can see where I am going. Do we give human rights to intelligent primates? If we don't apply any divine uniqueness to human animals, we can't reasonably deny rights to comparable non-human animals, and indeed the Great Apes are given special protections in some parts of the world, notably New Zealand.

And so on, we can step down a rough hierarchy of animals, asking what rights should be given to each. Should pigs be granted the right not to be raised for slaughter? Should mice be granted the right not to be poisoned?

From this perspective, where we accept that humans are just another animal, one with greater cognitive and physical capacity, it's easy to conclude that the two extreme points of view are absurd. On one hand, we should not be granting full human rights to minor animals like mice. On the other, we must grant some rights to non-human animals depending on circumstance and cognitive ability (among other considerations).

My use of language—"human animal" and "non-human animal"—has this political position as an inherent message. I don't think that humans have special non-animal status, and so I'm undermining the creationist duality of human/animal.

This is Haraway's cyborg manifesto in action. By finding examples, real or fantastical, where humans are also partly non-human animal, or machine, we're forced to consider how non-human animals or machines might be treated as humans. As Haraway says, this leads to "kinship with animals and machines", which will affect society in general.

It's ironic that our status as the highest animals—and therefore able to make these complex connections in thought and in language—may challenge the way we treat lesser animals. As Haraway says:

"Perhaps, ironically, we can learn from our fusions with animals and machines how not to be Man."

 

The above sentence takes on a wider meaning if you read it from a furry perspective.

Technology, of course, is not necessarily a force for good. Haraway's manifesto is a call for action. Her action, in this case, is to ensure that technology is used as a tool for diversity, rather than a tool to consolidate the monolithic status quo. Recent arguments about net neutrality are an example of this, with neutrality necessary to minimize the control of technology by corporations and governments.

In general, Haraway argues that technology is a fundamentally progressive force, and therefore there is good reason to hope for positive change. However those hopes don't always become reality, as—sadly—illustrated by one of Haraway's examples (when she wrote the manifesto in 1985).

Haraway looked at the lack of women working in world-building commercial or industrial roles, and considered this an example of male/female duality, where (by default) men go to work and women stay at home. She saw hope in the "ethnic and racial diversity of women in Silicon Valley":

"Can these personal preferences and cultural tendencies be welded into progressive politics among this professional middle class in which women, including women of colour, are coming to be fairly numerous?"

 

Haraway's hope in 1985 seems like folly today.

105-womenincs

Haraway also looked to contemporary science fiction to break down the male/female duality. She names a long list of authors, and interestingly names Samuel R. Delany as a "feminist" writer (at least from a cyborg point of view). This surprised me, as Delaney's work is very male-centric and homosexual, remarkably so for the era in which it was written. Delaney's dearth of female characters had always struck me as a weakness of his work. Haraway sees it differently, where Delaney's male households and relationships subvert the very idea of gender roles:

"Cyborgs might consider more seriously the partial, fluid, sometimes aspect of sex and sexual embodiment. Gender might not be global identity after all, even if it has profound historical breadth and depth."

 

More irony. Haraway sees Delaney's lack of women—as sexual partners—as an idealized version of the world where women are not required to fulfil traditional roles, in this case (and broadly), male/female as sexual conquerer/conquered respectively. By removing the need for women, Delaney has created a vision of the world where both men and women are free to be themselves outside of the constraints of traditional gender identity.

You can see how the world has changed in this direction since 1985 by looking at the questions on our own 2015 Furry Survey. When you are asked about your gender, there is the usual set of checkboxes. Those people who aren't able to easily categorize their gender are asked to place it on the Gender Cyborg Identity Diamond*:

* a phrase I just made up but I hope catches on

105-genderdiamond

Sex is important too. Haraway sees these nuances of gender—and nuances of non-human animality (like furries)—as undermining the ubiquity of heterosexuality. Again, technology is the key:

"Sex, sexuality, and reproduction are central actors in high-tech myth systems structuring our imaginations of personal and social possibility."

 

Haraway happily transgresses the boundary that limits sexual contact to between humans. In this context furries are cyborgs (of human and non-human animals), and the sexual aspects of furry undermine the human/animal duality:

"The cyborg appears in myth precisely where the boundary between human and animal is transgressed. Far from signalling a walling off of people from other living beings, cyborgs signal disturbingly and pleasurably tight coupling. Bestiality has a new status in this cycle of marriage exchange."

 

Her "myth" in this quote includes not just imagined sexual contact between animal-people in furry pornography, but also cross-species relationships in science fiction (hello Captain Kirk), historical myths involving sexual animal-people such as satyrs, and many more.

The cyborg manifesto, then, challenges those parts of society that are "given". It's obvious to a gay person that homosexuals are discriminated against in some circumstances, and similarly obvious to a member of a racial minority or a woman. This hegemony is cultural wallpaper, always there but rarely noticed.

If you're a member of the privileged majority—roughly white, male, and straight - you might be a bit flummoxed by all these racial equality, feminist, and LGBT rights movements. Yet people were once sure that slavery was justifiable, women shouldn't vote, and gay men should be jailed. It turned out all those changes made the world a better place. And so it will be when a mostly black city has a mostly black police force, when somewhere around half of silicon valley professionals are women, and when homosexual couples have the universal right to marry.

All unfair prejudice is based on cultural norms, handed down, shadows of our unequal history. Things like:

  • Human beings are special.
  • Sex is for procreation only.
  • Identity expression cannot involve nuances of gender or species (or technology).

The rise of cyborgs—people who mix gender, or species, or animal with technology—make these cultural assumptions ludicrous. It forces us to change our language to include people who exist outside of the old binary duality, and this helps our culture shift towards a world where assumptions aren't made about gender, race, or sexual behaviour.

The irony of Haraway's cyborg manifesto is that denying that humans are special makes us more humane. As she asks:

"Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin?"