Infinity + Muse= Human

Infinite: unbounded or unlimited; boundless; endless.
Muse: think or meditate in silence, as on some subject.
2.Archaic. to gaze meditatively or wonderingly. meditate on.
4. to comment thoughtfully or ruminate upon.
5. the genius or powers characteristic of a poet.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Most Apt Metaphor: Donna Haraway's Cat's Cradle and the Internet

In the effort to understand the internet as a kind of epicentre of philosophical possibilities, one can come across a number of different ideas for exactly what it means; exactly what it is and exactly the potential it has. Or, at least, that's the goal of all this effort.

As far as I'm concerned though, while Haraway's "A Game of Cat's Cradle" does not address the idea of the internet directly, --and instead chooses another line of discussion which I will parse out in more detail soon-- it still manages to offer what I would consider to be one of the best metaphors of the internet and it's potential, that I've seen. That metaphor hinges on the image of the cat's cradle. The similarities of that image and the notion of the network, as well as the potentiality for 'movement', overlap and 'space creation' are all useful as ways in which we can define and understand the internet and perhaps our society as a whole. In part, the Cat's Cradle functions as a very useful metaphor for the network idea, and it also offers a look at how we might better understand the internet and its future. That potential is contained within certain parts of the article itself, and while it is one of the main reasons the work peaks my interest, I should first more correctly define the ideas in the article that have the greatest impetus for Haraway.

The central focus of Haraway's article is a certain notion of nature and the way in which it is inherently altered and essentially defined by the various aspects of culture, specifically techboscience. "Nature" as she writes it, is the "densely packed location for ethno specific, cultural, political and scientific conversations about allowable structures...and...possible plots in the sacred secular dramas of technoscience" (Haraway). It is a kind of "commons" in which we engage in our systems, our notions and our ideas. However, her conception of nature is more than just a place or centrality, it is also "about figures, stories and images"-- somewhat less centralized tidbits that help us define our lives and beliefs.

As Haraway describes it. this trope-filled 'nature' is "a tangle of materialized figurations" and as people who live in this nature, we are all children of culture. Each of us are "Nature-tropic", turning to these images, ideas, discussions and stories "as as a...plant turns to the sun". Having said all of this, her major concern is for the role of technoscience and the possibilities that it has to 'refigure' our nature and the way in which it can create realities of images, and stories. That is, for Haraway, Technoscience is a practice of "turning tropes into worlds" and therefore, understanding it and re-thinking it, can lead to something very interesting.

Hereafter she sets off on the goal of re-imagining "key discourses about technoscience". To do this "queering the normalized categories" and "cross-stitching" possibilities is part of the project, as is troubling the usual stratagems and systems that usually define our world-- the very ones set in place by discourses of technoscience, in part.

To clarify, the goal for Haraway is to "create liveable worlds" that contain different possibilities, new space, and new theories and which recognize that there are different life experiences than those doled out by the work of science. To Haraway, the metaphors are militaristic, male dominated, and hetero-sexual. They are dichotomous. The nature that technoscience represents...the ideas that are considered as natural or naturalized in our society is limited and therefore needs to be expanded.
In a few words, Haraway is attempting to queer nature. To queer what is seen as natural. She wants to destroy the notion that certain images, lives, constructs and ways of living are 'natural' and others are not.

Using technoscience as an example of a base-dispenser of the figurative tropes and real-world policies and ideas that force our world to create dualistic, close-minded spaces, Haraway attempts to show just how language (and the images, tropes and stories that are contained within and expressed by it) can work to structure our world.

So how can it be re-shaped? How can we re-figure that which is figurative to create real change in the world in which we live? For Haraway, it starts with the notion of the Cat's Cradle. After all, Cat's Cradle is a game "made up of figures" just as our nature-world is composed of the same. Though Cat's Cradle is like a web of strings, it functions as an apt structural metaphor for the way in which relationships, ideas and spaces can be constructed. As Haraway cleverly notes "we might find some knots of interest for tying up approaches to technoscience" within it.
a feminist multicultural antiracist technoscience is what Haraway pushes toward, and importantly, such a technoscience does not respect the boundaries that have been so built up in our life. Boundaries like human/ non-human normal/ irregular, nature/culture and immaterial and material. She acknowledges that these boundaries are blurred and do not represent what is natural, but only what is. In the blurring of these binaries, Haraway describes how they intersect and overlap. For example, on page 63 she writes that storytelling is "in no way opposed to materiality" despite the fact that it is a non-physical action in the common-sense that she is trying to avoid. As she writes, "materiality is itself tropic: it makes us swerve, it trips us; it is a knot of the textual, technical, mythic oneiric, political and economic" (63). That is, materiality effects ALL of these aspects, and because storytelling is a part of materiality in Haraway's understanding, it too has a profound effect on the political, technical and economic.

And is that really so surprising? After all, politics is a kind of story.

A politician planning a campaign ad might wonder "What story can we tell about ourselves as politicians, as a political party, that will effectively endear us to the populace". Similarly, a politician conducting a smear campaign must search for stories to tell about his opponent, and perhaps they are stories related to economic, educative, or familial failures.

Cat's Cradle comes in, here, because it is itself a metaphor for overlap. A tangled web of strings and notions, and possibilities, connected and interwoven. And it is a powerful metaphor for the way that it suggests the very structure of our world, in truth. Tecnoscience likes to suggest things simply: pick, choose, name, and classify. Develop, release, edit, re-test, upgrade, make obsolete, define, refine, eliminate, produce. All are actions with clear and quick ends to ways of world-making. But the image of world-making as it stands in the Cat's Cradle metaphor is much more accurate. It demands overlap, demands the crossing of strands of ideas and the tangling of sectors, strategies, understandings and groupings. No category, no action, no material, no function exists on its own as 'natural' in this mode. Instead, each of the above are but knots, loops, strings, lines and frays in a vast and inter-spun system of string. A web. A network. A place where the movement of any one micro-idea, any one string nessecarily jostles the other. Where there is no linearity of natural/un-natural but rather a vast complexity of interlocking lines, each this way-and that-- each dependant.
Cat's Cradle suggests a dialogue too, in it's makeup, whereas the decree of boundary-driven technoscience inaccurately frames a human-societal story that is a monologue. technoscience suggests that "This is the way things are. This is usual. This is unusual. This is wrong. This Is right. This is Man. This is Woman." Cat's Cradle suggests that each and everyone of this linearities is up for complication, debate, jostling, and knotting.

This is the inherent beauty of the metaphor, and indeed, of subsequently focusing on the very notion of metaphor period. In doing the later, Haraway establishes just how fundamental the metaphor is in the act of world-building. Highlighting the military metaphor of science folk suggests a negative image, sure, and perhaps that's a successful attack on their world-building agenda in the first place. However, more pertinent I think, is that suggesting the power and prevalence of story and metaphor in society sets the stage for re-imagining the world in the Cat's Cradle kind of mode. The network mode. The overlapped, undetermined, full-of-potential, and full -of-ambiguity mode that it is.

In those ways too, the Cat's Cradle is the very representation of the battle that theory tries to fight against dominant discourses, because it represents the intertwined, tangled and otherwise inseparable goals of notions like Feminism, Anti-Racism, Anti-Ableism and so on. They all seek an end to their marginalization and to the ideas of what is and is not normal and natural, but they too are rife with complexity and competing theories, and disagreements within themselves. The theorist of each is almost like a Cat's Cradle player themselves, with their hands thoroughly stuck in the maze of lines, trying as hard as they can to create new and interesting shapes and weave their way through the challenges that such a labyrinth of strings (or ideas and structures) that society poses. Occasionally too, more than one theorist and more than one pair of hands is needed to make sense of the more difficult things of the world, just as

Cat's Cradle is not always best played alone.

In making these statements, I'm attempting to express just how useful and interesting the metaphor itself really is, in terms of its application to our world-- and to "world making" in general. In a real way, the real day-to-day makeup and interaction of our world might well be related to Cat's Cradle-- a world of complexity, overlap and overflow, of shifting shapes that create new spaces, and of tangled messes that possibly need sorting-- or maybe that do not. Our world is one of tangled relationships between spheres which are supposedly separately but are really knotted. Politics is fractional and yet knotted to a central hope. It is tied to economics, which is tied to consumers, which is tied to children and adults, who are both tied to education, which itself deals with issues of exclusion and inclusion, it is a social place and therefore needs to be asked social questions. Issues of race, privilege, ability, rights-- all of these spring up in each sector and form the very tangles that makes Cat's Cradle what it is. Our world IS tangled like this, and often, we erect structures and ideas and over-arching methods and stories to attempt to disentangle it or turn it into a more useful shape. Theorists like Haraway do some part of this, always, but for Haraway, the goal is to make us understand just how knotted these things all are.

We live in a knotted, tied-up, tangled-up world, rife with a criss-cross and a crosstich of ideas, motives, hopes and letdowns, but it is so often defined by structures that view life as simple matters of black and white. Good and bad. Right and Wrong. Natural and Unnatural.

Cat's Cradle is not that simple though.

Our world is not that simple. So remaking that story, and shifting the dominant tropes from militaristic and imperialistic ideals of conquering, discovery, dominance, classification and systemization to ideas that are more open and flexible, and that promote the possibility of blurring and overlap is of utmost importance. And in some ways, the beginning of that story of change of potential is best begun with understanding just how fundamental the Cat's Cradle metaphor really is.

As Haraway writes in concluding, " Cat's cradle is where I think the action is in science studies, feminist studies, antiracism, and cultural studies--not in the mind-numbing militarized games" of technoscience and the structure of society as it stands today under that metaphorical system. As she writes it, Cat's Cradle stands to "be a less-deadly version for moral discourse, knowledge claims, and critical practice than heroic trials of strength". It is a more apt metaphorical alternative for the reality of the world we live in, and for creating a better world to live in later.

Cat's Cradle is empowering for that reason, and understanding just how important and fundamental metaphors are for our world-making needs is just as important.

I firmly believe Haraway has hit a kind of metaphorical jackpot with a multiplicity of meanings and possibilities, in her reference to the Cat's Cradle.

A few words on the Internet

While the intent of Haraway's article has very little to do with the internet, in some ways it is just as powerful a metaphor for this part of the discussion as well. Just like the internet, the web of strings that typifies a Cat's Cradle also typifies the internet. Both are designed around countless strands of criss-crossing figures. For the internet, the very idea of the network is that multiple hubs are linked together. Together, they create shapes in the form of access points and data mines which can then be turned and coded into web pages-- Images of the world we live in. From the cat's cradle of the internet emerges all manner of things-- Blogs, videos, information, world news, stock market, all that-- and yet so much more. After all, the internet is a web and not a linearity, and in that complex structure of overlaps and possibilities the internet has the potential to create new and free space. In these spaces, different stories can be told and legitimized. Whole sections which were once viewed as un-natural can find their own spaces for expression and existence on the internet. Just for argument, for example, the LBGTT community can thrive therein, because the internet can provide a forum for its members, or for any person or idea or project or goal. The internet hosts countless mini-realms in which progressive ways of living and seeing the world are promoted and in which groups that do not fit an easy category can find a haven.

Further, Haraway discusses the notion of Material Refiguration and part of that process takes place via the internet and the way in which the internet allows us to forget about distance, body, and other physical expressions by dissolving the lines between the material and immaterial in our everyday. The blending of the real and the virtual into one another that (occurs because of the internet) is just one more expression of the potential of the network image (Cat's Cradle and the internet) has to create a new kind of world, with a new kind of story. This new kind of tale is not one that ought to be an easy line between natural and unnatural, but rather, it is a tale based on the very concept of the network-- of bridging gaps, breaking physical conceptions, and connecting all different types of people to help create all new shapes and all new puzzles to go with them.

Essentially, Cat's Cradle is one of the single most apt metaphors for the way in which society needs to be seen and the way in which it needs to change. Now, the internet may yet be the best example of the Cat's Cradle in practical application, and perhaps it can still do much more to make the kind of world that Haraway is after. The internet is certainly more a dialogue and a dynamic web than a static and linear line of hierarchies and strength trials, though, and that is what is so exciting about it.
We are in the Cat's Cradle now, and the internet is the best expression of a world where the lines are tangled and everything is blurry. We just need to wake up and realize that the discourse of naturalization, limitation, and classification is well and truly archaic, and that the slip-slide of potentiality that is the Cat's Cradle is here to stay.


1. I believe the image and metaphor of the Cat's Cradle is perhaps one of the most important metaphors today. On a contrary note, what problems can you see with the metaphor? What dangers or issues might it create?

2. Do you agree that the internet is on the leading edge of creating a new and blurry world? Or does it work to reinforce currently active power-systems? Give an example

3. Haraway's notion is that story, image and metaphor are all fundamentally important to the way society is built. This means that language is ultimately powerful. Taking the issue of language practically, for a moment:

As the internet grows and continues to connect us together, do you think the language barrier between nations and people will fade? More importantly, is that a good or a bad thing ? If we all speak the same language, does that mean that we will all be subject to the pitfalls within this language and that our chances to find new ways of seeing the world become more limited, or not?

Teaching Aids:

Cat's Cradle:
An explanation of how to play Cat's Cradle that includes pictures is important because it shows the fundamental image that Haraway is using. Notice all the different possibilities for shapes, the over-lapping lines, and the need for the hands and work of others to accomplish the goals. In many ways, the entire game is quite similar to the world we live in, and the way in which our modern day issues require more than one pair of hands to solve. It suggests potential, possibility, as well as the need for teamwork and solutions. It also suggests complexity and the image of the network.

Visualization of the Internet:

The Internet can be visualized in a plethora of ways, but the attributes that each visualization seems to share include a stunning amount of overlap and overgrowth, as well as an immensely sprawling horde of lines, dots, hubs and nodes. These represent just how intertwined and blurred the internet's information pathways are, and in that sense, it can clearly relate the internet to the Cat's Cradle, while underscoring the importance of the refiguration of world-view from one that is static and dominant, to one that is blurred and full of possibility.

How far the Network Metaphor goes:

While this article is related only to the idea that the internet and the network can be used to as a metaphor for God, the point of the inclusion is to show just how important metaphors are to our society and just how full of potential the network metaphor is. That it can possibly come close to describing a diety is, if not bizzare, at least quite interesting.

The Haraway text used:


  1. I don't see us speaking One World Language any time soon. Although imperialism has certainly (and tragically) eradicated many languages, and more still are dying out even today, there is still a strong plurality of languages available to us. Thus, while we will unfortunately continue losing languages and losing diversity, we'll never get down to a situation where everyone speaks a single language. I think there are so many English speakers, Mandarin speakers, Cantonese speakers, etc., that no one language will be able to dominate the future. This is especially true now that the Internet is beginning to accommodate non-English languages and non-Latin alphabets at a fundamental level (the domain name system).

    The Cat's Cradle metaphor is apt for describing the dynamic system by which we investigate, parse, and modify patterns. As with any pattern-based perspective, however, there is always the danger of losing the trees within the forest of the pattern. Sometimes attempting to solve a problem at a wider, systemic level is going to be unfeasible and intractable. While I understand that Haraway is advancing her theory as a way of combating the elitist, exclusionary views of various co-extensive fields, one must be careful when incorporating these fields. Otherwise you risk achieving a pattern so complex that it becomes almost useless when attempting to apply it to problems.

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