Cyborgs or goddesses? On 'Human Resources Management'

By Richard H. Roberts
1 Dec 2011

For a life-long, dedicated – indeed passionate – academic, a decision to draw back from writing and reflection for a year, and to step into the sphere of singing, music-making and shamanic practice is not taken lightly.

Such a decision can be precipitated by life-changing grief. Given societal changes in identity and expectations with regards both sexuality and gender, it is unusual, almost freakish, to remain with a single partner for decades. Thus to be in grieving and recovery at the end of a long conjugal trajectory gives rise to a compound sense of isolation: there is sorrow, but the very experience may itself soon be regarded as the relic of an unlamented past.

I well recall a sad discussion with a class of undergraduates in which they expressed their view that it was highly improbable that they would ever experience a long-term partnership of the kind likely to sustain a children and a family. As Anthony Giddens has pointed out, in late modernity the multiple burdens placed upon dyadic relationships are intense and frequently unsustainable over long periods as demands change over time.

Given this challenging scenario, how might we adjust to such dramatic inter-generational changes in socio-cultural expectation when, as yet, our biological determinants and cognitive limitations have not been fully overcome? Of course all categorisation in terms of binaries could be regarded as nostalgia for archaic, masculinist socially-constructed dichotomies but this is worth probing further.

It is now twenty years since the publication of Donna Haraway’s prescient, ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ and this is an anniversary worth revisiting (Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York; Routledge, 1991, pp.149-181).

Cyborg imagery can help express two crucial arguments…: first, the production of universal, totalising theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality, probably always, but certainly now; and second, taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skilful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts. It is not just that science and technology are possible means of great human satisfaction, as well as a matrix of complex dominations. Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia. It is an imagination of a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the circuits of the supersavers of the new right. It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories. Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.

Re-examined in the retrospect of two decades, Donna Haraway’s declaration of intention deserves modified reiteration: ‘We (I include men) are no longer goddesses or gods; but we are not yet cyborgs’. Haraway was of course (amongst many other things) responding negatively to the emergence of the chthonic Goddess-centred feminism associated with such figures as the late and unforgettable Monika Sjöö who (with Barbara Mor) produced The Great Cosmic Mother: rediscovering the religion of the Earth that appeared in 1987 (New York: Harper and Row), and her viewpoint is essentially optimistic.

Haraway appeared to argue that the dissolution of categories and an unrestrained melding with technology and embracing of cyborg empowerment affords the best future for consciousness emancipated from the limitations of both biological determination and social construction.

There are a number of responses to this cyborg feminist utopianism that could be examined. For example, one could argue against such optimism on the basis of the seemingly ineradicable and ongoing primordial significance for some of life-events like pregnancy, birth, inter-human fellowship, and death. This is to my mind a realisation that comes to most people as theory breaks down in the face of experience.

There is, however, a darker threat to Haraway’s cyborg utopianism, and this is represented by the imposition of a growing fusion of ever more sophisticated information technology with social construction driven by the tentacular strategic empowerment of human resources managerialism (HRM), and controlled though the assumption (in the basis of the elimination of trust as an obstructive residuum) of the imposition of total transparency.

This form of strategic empowerment is creating a kind of technological neo-sovietic regime in settings like that of the United Kingdom where the separation of powers has been significantly weakened. Indeed, one of the many reasons why the present writer is a Scottish nationalist is because in the absence of the tensions between Parliaments in Edinburgh and London there would be little left to obstruct the relentless drive towards the centralisation of totalising, ostensibly rational power in the United Kingdom.

Leaving to one side the larger scheme addressed by Haraway, let us for a moment look at the context of any human attachment that exceeds strict utility in a performance culture confronted by dramatic economic crisis and decline. In this setting, all attachments and life transitions are a potential liability. In a culture consistently controlled by HRM every life encounter of social atom (i.e. you or me) is with a potential collaborator – a competitor – or an enemy.

Each such encounter is dialectical: the other is a latency composed of both collaborator and competitor/enemy, and all that can therefore take place is a temporary alliance of intention and objectives: this is antagonistic cooperation. In consequence, the embodied human attributes shared by both parties to the encounter have to be subordinated to utility.

For the cognitive elite cadres to which most academics aspire, mutual recognition is first essayed through a mutual sensing and then a sharing of common theoretical postulates; once contact is established, projects can then be co-organised, books edited and written, and new courses promoted.

Personal relationships and even physical affinities may complement this temporary constellation (even a dedicated Kopfarbeiter might on rare occasions resile from meeting performance targets and relapse wearily into copulation or cognate somatic practices) – but the day will surely come sooner rather than later when such bonds must be broken.

The break can be positive when the cognitive elite worker senses that a theory or project has had its time and decides to move on; such separations may, however, be traumatic for others; but the agent who aspires to world class status cannot afford to be sentimental and has to move out into the pond again to look for new partner prospects.

Less positively, the break sometimes comes about when interdisciplinary team members are instructed by an unquestionable authority to cease collaboration, because, for instance, a growing affinity expressed in a nascent cross-unit teaching programme might run counter to strategic organisational objectives such as maximisation of student fee income in one sector as opposed to another.

Strangely, the break can frequently be attended by a brutal ritualisation of separation, for given the growth of somatic and affective bonds, reasons have to be found and blame ascribed. This can be seriously unpleasant and it is of course a complete reversal of ritualisation and ritual undertaken so as (pace Victor and Edith Turner) to promote communio.

This contemporary situation in the HRM-ruled life-world of cognitive elites is paradoxically not wholly dissimilar to the position of slaves in pre-Civil War North America who could not marry not least because such bonds might impede their subhuman status and value to slave owners as a fungible commodity.

Of course, for a cognitive elite the achievement and successful management of the limited but functional conscious awareness of personal commodity status required by HRM is the basis upon which depends maximisation in good times – and bare survival in bad times.

What might be the wider implications of comprehensive adjustment to the post-human condition and reconciling ourselves to becoming the mere conscious substrate, the informed passive receptivity that seeks to acquire and manifest the skill and knowledge bundles that are surrendered to HRM?

One implication is as regards intellectual property: the systemic virtualisation of teaching and learning, and the resource capture by those controlling higher education outlets of the ideas of academic staff through (e.g.) the forfeiture of intellectual ownership and copyright that enhances commodification and impedes mobility because the staff member’s thoughts have in effect been expropriated, and s/he will have lost much of their cultural capital. They will thus enjoy a degraded commodity status: the Kopfarbeiter is not so much slave as serf, tied to the organisation as a dispensable resource.

A question also arises that pertains to teaching and learning: once a cognitive elite has adapted and conformed to the construction, the systematic production of social identities through methods derived from HRM, then what becomes of their relationship with the learners with whom they may still have a residual relationship?

A dilemma emerges here: should a teacher either equip a student with the capacity for informed passivity and the surrender of attributes required by HRM and thus ensure their survival as commodities in the labour market, or perhaps fatefully disempower a student in the labour market by modelling and anticipating critical reflexivity of the kind that risks both teacher and learner becoming unemployable?

In my field research (religion) I have often encountered practices that challenge the prescriptions of contemporary consensus reality inasmuch as somatic and psychic risk are of integral importance. Thus, for example, whilst many may have fire-walked, in my experience it nonetheless requires a certain level of inner preparation and confidence before stepping out on to the crunching bed of glowing charcoal. Indeed for some of those broken by their past, such activities set in a ritualised context are genuinely liminal and facilitate the kind of death/birth transitions that bring about human maturation. Teaching and learning may not involve a literal walking on coals but there should be risk and excitement.

In my judgement the systematic ‘professionalisation’ of teaching and learning along lines dictated by managerialism proscribes that dimension of risk and well-managed ordeal essential to the emergence of embodied, responsible, empathic human beings, as opposed to post-human simulacra.

Through self-displacement into the performance of music, both instrumental and song, I find myself in a life-world in which the distinctions between ‘the learning experience’ and actual competence are starkly exposed. This is a cosmos of activity, theory, meanings and activities informed by discipline, ordeal and risk, in which deception is usually futile – and genuine attainment requires much hard work.

It is all very well for Haraway to decry universals, but my point is that seen in Durkheimian terms, HRM imposes a ‘Performative Absolute’ and an integrative universal (see my forthcoming paper, ‘Contemplation and the “Performative Absolute”: submission and identity in managerial modernity’ in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Management, Spirituality and Religion). The Performative Absolute is, however, a dieu cache, the very essence of which is the self-concealment of its totalising power.

In the final analysis the question is this: is our world now so crisis-fraught and complex on all levels that any deviations from centrally-directed ‘best practice’ orchestrated by HRM are inevitable as the price of survival. This then confronts us with the adoption of the ‘Scandinavian’ benign social universal: whatever is not compulsory should be prohibited in the interests of the general social good.

Does technological utopianism, the conquest of the tyrannies of a biological and social construction, stand up as a means of emancipation, or, given the multiple global crises that reflect in ecological and human unsustainability, should we not revisit the kind of territory opened up by Sjöö, Mor and others and look to the recapture of embodied responses to the new totalitarianism that afflicts us?

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© Richard H. Roberts is Visiting Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Stirling. His work, background and publications history are summarised here.


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