Last week I presented the following paper at the British Society for Literature and Science Winter Symposium 2020, as part of the ‘Materialities’ panel.

Materiality beyond machines:
Reading early Haraway

Joana Formosinho, PhD Fellow
Medical Museion, Department of Public Health and CBMR
University of Copenhagen

In this paper, I engage with Donna Haraway’s PhD-thesis turned book, “Crystals Fabrics and Fields: Metaphors that shape embryos (2004)”, first submitted in 1976. I argue that, in this early piece, we witness the profound influence of biology in the development of Haraway’s movement of thought. In reverse, reading her early work offers to contemporary biology a timely account of the organicist effort to eschew metaphors of machines and units while maintaining a matter-bound, empirically-led sensibility.

In ‘Crystals, Fabrics and Fields’, we witness Haraway’s thinking at its embryonic stages, acquiring shape through its foundations in developmental biology, specifically the work of the 20th century organicists (represented by Joseph Needham, Ross Harrison and Paul Weiss). The organicists sought to find a third way between the matter-bound yet mechanistic thought which dominated biology then, and a quasi-metaphysical vitalism which inhabited its margins. Where machine metaphors prevailed, they developed imagery of networks and fabrics; where isolated units of analysis were the norm, they proposed explanations centred around hierarchically organised wholes operating at different scales.

Across accounts of microbiology, development and evolution today, biologists are moving away from languages of individuality and towards languages of interactivity and reciprocal co-construction (Bosch and McFall-Ngai, 2011; Gilbert et al., 2012; Laland et al., 2015). We witness shifts in imagery away from self-determined machinery and towards interdependent ecological aggregates, holobionts and metaorganisms (ibid.), whose boundaries are less easily defined. Haraway’s thought might offer something here: a biological world of fleshy aggregates which are an embodiment of continuously sedimenting relational fabrics. Her insistence on the immeshment of facts, narratives, metaphors and imagery, and modes of thought sedimentation and diffraction, is similarly timely.

Although Haraway’s thought can be traced to organicist imagery of networks and fabrics—and a ‘third way’ between ‘solid matter intrinsic’ and ‘vitalism extrinsic’—there are significant departures. With her cyborgian imagery which became so central to biopolitics (Haraway, 1985, 2016), she disrupts both mechanistic notions of machine and organicist notions of hierarchical networks, reaching for much messier topographies that eschew generalisations and demand localised attention. This wrestle finds echoes today in the challenges of adequately delineating the physical boundaries of holobionts (Skillings, 2016): the more-than-individual co-metabolic composites of (e.g.) human and microbial bodies. 

When thinking about thought and action, she similarly attends to pathways of mattering; the localised topographies through which ideas and actions collide, diffract and merge, and become flesh. Haraway calls for attention to the material life(ing) of thought-in-relation. In this attention to the mutual co-construction between ‘form’ and ‘environment’, a disruption of passive notions of inside and outside, her thought is kin to empirically-born views inhabiting the quarters of biology today. As a biologist’s sensibility so clearly underlies Haraway’s ethos, form and praxis, similarly the cast of her eyes on biology may be of interest to biologists.


Bosch, T.C.G., McFall-Ngai, M.J., 2011. Metaorganisms as the new frontier. Zoology 114, 185–190.

Gilbert, S.F., Sapp, J., Tauber, A.I., 2012. A Symbiotic View of Life: We Have Never Been Individuals. Q. Rev. Biol. 87, 325–341.

Haraway, D.J., 2016. A Cyborg Manifesto SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND SOCIALIST-FEMINISM IN THE LATE TWENTIETH CENTURY, in: Manifestly Haraway. University of Minnesota Press, pp. 4–90.

Laland, K.N., Uller, T., Feldman, M.W., Sterelny, K., Müller, G.B., Moczek, A., Jablonka, E., Odling-Smee, J., 2015. The extended evolutionary synthesis: its structure, assumptions and predictions. Proc. R. Soc. B Biol. Sci. 282, 20151019.

Skillings, D., 2016. Holobionts and the ecology of organisms: Multi-species communities or integrated individuals? Biol. Philos. 31, 875–892.

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