Academic journal article German Quarterly

Rereading Christa Wolf's "Selbstversuch": Cyborgs and feminist critiques of scientific discourse

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Rereading Christa Wolf's "Selbstversuch": Cyborgs and feminist critiques of scientific discourse

Article excerpt

In her seminal "Cyborg Manifesto," Donna Haraway invokes the cyborg, that hybrid of organism and machine, as a figure for a subversive feminist practice. Haraway breaks with traditional feminist approaches that have relied on Western origin myths and dualistic thought.1 Instead of rejecting or avoiding the male-dominated fields of technology and science, Haraway, by embracing the figure of the cyborg, calls on women to actively shape scientific and technological developments. This call resonates with Christa Wolf's story "Selbstversuch," in which a female scientist participates in and critically comments on a biochemically induced sex-- change experiment. Wolf's story combines elements of science fiction and bio-technological discourse-two areas in which cyborgs abound. Thus "Selbstversuch" provides an ideal framework for critical reflections on the relationship between gender and science in general and on Haraway's feminist reading of the cyborg figure in particular.2

The main protagonist in "Selbstversuch" assumes a double role: she is a scientist who prepares and subsequently undergoes the experiment, and who writes the classified research report during the experiment (this official report is merely alluded to in the text); and she is the first-person narrator and "author" of the story "Selbstversuch: Traktat zu einem Protokoll"-a "treatise" on the official scientific report.3 She writes this treatise in hindsight, i.e., after breaking off the experiment and transforming herself back into a woman.

In this critical commentary, ironic and personal in tone, she addresses her professor, who functions rhetorically also as the embodiment of male-dominated scientific discourse. The reference in the story's subtitle to a "Traktat" (treatise)-traditionally representing a scientific or philosophical argument-illustrates the narrator's objective: to challenge established scientific conventions from within. The narrator's ironic comment, "[es gibt] nichts Komischeres [...] als Frauen, die Traktate schreiben" (SV 86-87;4 "there is nothing funnier than women who write treatises," SE 215) indicates the social sanctions (ridicule) for female authorship of a male-dominated genre and hence the transgressive character of her undertaking.

Supplementing the classified research report with a treatise penned by a female author accomplishes three things. First, by adopting the perspective of the usually silenced subject of the experiment, this appendix questions the exclusive truth claim of the scientist-embodied in the official report. Second, the treatise gives voice to another traditionally silenced subject position: that of the female scientist who no longer adheres to an androcentric position. Thus the female subject/scientist takes control not only of her body (by breaking off the experiment), but also of the way the experiment is interpreted. Third, by breaking the secrecy code of the classified report, the treatise brings out into the open the moral void left by the report. As I will illustrate later in the article, the treatise ultimately calls for a different approach to the sciences, one that considers the ethical and social implications of bio-technological research not as separate from but as part and parcel of its epistemological foundation.

Wolf wrote "Selbstversuch" in 1972(5), situating the story twenty years into the future-in the year 1992. Yet from today's perspective, the story takes place in the recent past and the experiment has indeed lost some of its science-fiction dimensions due to advances in the field of bio-technology, especially in the areas of genetic engineering and reproductive technologies. Even the 1989 film adaptation of "Selbstversuch" produced by DEFA and directed by Jochen Vogel in the last year of the GDR's existence demonstrates the extent to which "reality" has caught up with the sci-fi character of the original text. The only part of the film that remains "unreal" is the technology of the actual sex change (induced through a series of injections). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.