Donna HarawayEdit

Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective [1991]Edit

In her essay “Situation Knowledges”, Haraway begins by sketching the dynamic contentions at work in the feminist evaluation of science. Like many feminists of the period, Haraway finds herself trying to maneuver a greased pole of radical constructivism (all knowledge is socially constructed) on one end and empirical feminism/feminist claims to objectivity (Marxist-styled theories of science which insist on legitimate objectivity). Haraway summarizes the initial goals of the discursive agenda of radical constructivism:

I, and others, started out wanting a strong tool for deconstructing the truth claims of hostile science by showing the radical historical specificity, and so contestability, of every layer of the onion of scientific and technological constructions, and we end up with a kind of epistemological electro-shock therapy, which far from ushering us into the high stakes tables of the game of contesting public truths, lays us out on the table with self-induced multiple personality disorder” (186).

What this leaves is a question of how to simultaneously work toward “radical historical contingency”, awareness of the significance of semiotics (i.e. our technologies of signification), and a way to enable accounts of the world that acknowledge some quality of “real” and provide a suitable foundation for imagining better futures. Haraway writes: “We could use some enforceable, reliable acocunts of things not reducible to power moves and agonistic, high status games of rhetoric or to scientistic, positivist arrogance” (188).

To resolve this very dilemma of how to develop a possible objectivity, Haraway recommends a turn toward vision, an often maligned sensorial mode. However, in Haraway's account, this vision is embodied, a vision from a specific source, not the disembodied nowhere/everywhere body of modernist, panoptic masculinized “knowledge”. For Haraway, “feminist objectivity means quite simply situated knowledges” (188). While this discussion of vision has a metaphoric quality, it is expressly materialized in the body of the observer, which permits feminists “to construct a usable, but not an innocent, doctrine of objectivity” (189).

Haraway reiterates: “Objectivity turns out to be about particular and specific embodiment, and definitely not about the false vision promising transcendence of all limits and responsibility. The moral is simple: only partial perspective promises objective vision” (190). Coming to understand how all positions of vision work, organic, technical and otherwise becomes a mode for embodying feminist objectivity. In such an estimation, our eyes are just one form of technology; locating ourselves offers the opportunity to make responsible knowledge claims. It is not enough to take on subjugated or oppressed vision (we must all strive to view from the bottom rung), nor to take up relativism (all visions are equally relevant to knowledge). By taking up partial perspective, we seek knowledge “potent for constructing worlds less organized by axes of domination […] Science has been utopian and visionary from the start; that is one reason 'we' need it” (192).

For Haraway, the postmodern double of self-identity should not immediately mean the “subject is dead”. Rather, “I prefer to call this generative doubt the opening of non-isomorphic subjects, agents, and territories of stories unimaginable from the vantage point of the cyclopian, self-satiated eye of the master subject […] The split and contradictory self is the one who can interrogate positionings and be accountable, the one who can cnstruct and join rational conversations and fantastic imaginings that change history” (192-3). Splitting is a useful image in this regard, “heterogeneous multiplicities”, as is positioning (193) . Double vision is called for.

The final piece of Haraway's puzzle is the call to treat objects of knowledge as actors that are constituents in knowledge production. Whereas traditionally, sciences turn objects into simply “objects for human use”, enacting a resourcing (enframing) on the object so as to subjugate nature to culture, Haraway wishes is to imagine objects of study as actors and agents (Latour's quasi-object seems to haunt this passage), themselves mobile. Rather than appropriating our objects, we must see the world as an active subject and we ourselves with little control over it (this opens up a space for humor). It is indeed possible to construct knowledge that is biologically situationed, rather than presuming the object exists for us.