How Like A Leaf
V. Cyborg Surrealisms
Thyza Nichols Goodeve: In all of your work you lay out your evidence and adjust your level of critique but you also do something else that I gather comes out of science fiction (or is why you like science fiction). You speculate specifically through myth-building. Certainly this is true of "A Cyborg Manifesto" and "The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies," and Modest_Witness, where you are not just doing one layer of analysis -- say of critique or unmasking relationships--but you are also involved in building alternative ontologies, specifically via the use of the imaginative.
Donna Haraway: Yes, that is true, and I think you are right, it is why science fiction is political theory for me.
TNG: Which brings in the centrality of Octavia Butler's science fiction for you. When you first encountered her Xenogenesis series it must have felt uncanny. I mean her work is the perfect science fictional corollary to such essays as "The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies."
DH: I feel about Octavia Butler much the same way that I feel about Lynn Randolph. Octavia Butler does in prose science what Lynn does in painting and what I do in academic prose. All three of us live in a similar kind of menagerie and are interested in processes of xenogenesis, i.e., of fusions and unnatural origins. And all three of us are dependent on narrative. Lynn is a highly narrative painter, Octavia Butler is a narrator, and as you mentioned, the use of certain kinds of mythic and fictional narrative is one of my strategies.
TNG: I'd like to ask a questioin about form, particularly about the mode of writing you choose. It seems to me that the mode of analytical writing you use to get at your ideas is also, in some ways, a deterrent. In other words, you are constantly being reined in by the linearity and contiguities of sentence-by-sentence construction and argumentation when your whole point is to constantly ask us to keep a multirelationa, multidimentional, associational thick reading -- a hypertext modality as we go. Have you ever used another modality than academic writing, or would you? A hypertext CD-ROM for instance. Or is that not the point?
DH: I have thought about it, and it is certainly why I have as many visual elements in the book as I do. But I think, finally, what I am good at is the words. But the collaboration with Lynn Randolph has been very important to me and in Modest-Witness adds another dimension to the prose.
TNG: How did that collaboratioin come about?
DH: She is sixty years old, lives in Houston and was an anti-war activist for many years around Central American issues. But in the late1980's she was at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College where she read " A Cyborg Manifesto." She painted a cyborg as her response to that essay and mailed me a photograph. I wrote her back saying how excited I was by it. And then there was a fairly long lapse until we just started mailing one another again. I would send her drafts, she would send me slides. There was no deliberate connection but I would see her paintings and some of them would really influence me. And simiarly my work was incorporated into her painting. But it was never a conscious decision for the two of us to collaborate on any one theme. For instance, the image on the back of Modest_Witness--The Laboratory, or the Passion of OncoMouse (1994)--she obviously painted in conversation with my OncoMouse argument, but after I saw it I did more writing. So the relationship developed into an interchange between the two of us where we never deliberately collaborated but, in fact, we were constantly collaborating. I think of her visual contributions to the book as arguments, not just illustrations. TNG: They are almost like Catholic allegories.
DH: Yes, we joked about my kind of "cyborg surrealism" and her "metaphoric realism".
TNG: I actually had problems with the paintings--and this may just be a matter of taste--precisely because of the kind of realism she uses. They make her historical context too literal for me.
DH: In the fine arts there are so many strong passions about illustration versus art, about didacticism versus pure art. Her paintings are patently about something and therefore they are didactic. They have an out-front political quality to them. But even in paintings that I don't like as much as I like Tranfusions and The Passion of OncoMouse, which are my two favorites, I love the kinds of juxtopositions she sets up, DNA strands, galaxies, microchips, and so forth.
TNG: Actually the problem I have with her images is related to the tension I noted above between your theory and writing--choosing to write in an annalytic academic tradition although your ideas and theories are driven by figurations and a kind of multidimensional movement of meaning--or hypertext poetics--that are not integral to the modalities of academic writing. Randolph is locked inside the same contradiction--using a kind of garish hyperealism to literalize the imagery and "arguments" she draws from your ideas. And as I say this, maybe the point is to work inside those contradictions and I am the one who is being too literal!
DH: I just don't agree with your interpretation of Randolph's realism. I think she is committed to certain "realist" conventions and narrative pictorial content in order to foreground the joining of form and content. She takes up a resistance to the imperatives of abstract formalism as the only way to paint.
TNG: Which is what she means by "metaphoric realism"?
DH: Yes, and for her, and me, this metaphoric realism---or cyborg surrealism--is the excessive space of technoscience--a world whose grammar we may be inside of but where we may, and can, both embody and exceed its representations and blast its syntax.