Introduction"What is cyberfeminism? Sadie Plant claims it is an absolutely post-human insurrection -the revolt of an emergent system which includes women and computers, against the world view and material reality of a patriarchy which still seeks to subdue them. This is an alliance of 'the goods' against their masters, an alliance of woman and machines. It is a revolt of the chattels."
Caroline Bassett, With a little help from Our (New) Friends?
During the recent Cyberfeminist International (CI) meetings at Documenta X in Kassel, Germany (1), much discussion centered on whether or not there should--or could--be a definition of cyberfeminism. FACES (a women only on-line list) had been debating this issue with varying degrees of passion for months; the press and other interested parties wanted to know; we, the participants, wanted to know. The chance to talk about this important issue face to face was invaluable since this perplexing question lies at the heart of many of the contradictory contemporary positions and attitudes toward feminism(s) on-line, which need to be addressed if there is to be an engaged (cyber)feminist politics implemented on the Net. By looking more closely at the reasons put forth against defining cyberfeminism, and their implications, and by offering some possible definitions of cyberfeminism, I hope to suggest how such a politics might be translated into practice. The impetus for this essay springs from the experience of eight days of intense daily living and working with almost forty women participants of the 1st Cyberfeminist International. The daily collective interactions, discussions, presentations, meals, work, and play, represented a browser through which possible practices of a cyberfeminist movement became visible. The women present understood this to be a significant historic moment; subsequent on-line discussions and planning are adding to the evidence that much research and development still lie ahead.
"The 1st CYBERFEMINIST INTERNATIONAL slips through the traps of definition
with different attitudes towards art, culture, theory, politics, communication
and technology--the terrain of the Internet."
Some definitions of cyberfeminism have already been offered in the writings and art practices of Sadie Plant, VNS Matrix, Linda Dement, Rosi Braidotti, Alluquere Rosanne Stone, and others. Why then this preoccupation with definitions of cyberfeminism in the CI discussions? The reasons given for refusing to define cyberfeminism--even though they may call themselves cyberfeminists--indicate a profound ambivalence in many wired women's relationship to what they perceive to be a monumental past feminist history, theory and practice, and its relevance to contemporary conditions facing women immersed in technology. I will discuss four of the main manifestations of this ambivalence and explore their implications.
1. Repudiation of "old style" (70's ) feminism.
Why is it that so many younger women (and men) know so little about even very recent histories of women, not to speak of past feminist movements and philosophies? It is tempting to point the finger at educational systems and institutions which still treat the histories of women, minoritarian, and marginalized populations as ancillary to "regular" history, relegating them to specialized courses or departments. In the US, young women entering college often blithely claim equality with men declaring that feminism isn't needed anymore--in complete disregard of the fact that the very structures of the institutions are masculinist; that what counts as the main body of knowledge to be conveyed is still almost entirely white, male, and western European; that the new technology departments springing up everywhere are heavily male dominated (2); and that women professors still are less likely to be tenured, tenure-track, or full-time, and often still make less than male professors at comparable ranks. And all of this despite the fact that as a recognized field of knowledge and study, feminism and gender studies are firmly established in academia.
But the problems lie deeper than the education systems. The political work of building a movement is a technology which must be learned by study and practice and needs the help of experienced practicioners. The struggle to keep practices and histories of resistance alive today is harder in the face of a commodity culture which thrives on novelty, speed, obsolescence, evanescence, virtuality, simulation, and utopian promises of technology. Commodity culture is forever young and makes even the recent past appear remote and mythic. On a recent panel a young woman said that 70's feminism has taken on mythical proportions for her generation, making the prospect of measuring up to such a history overwhelming for her and her peers. Conversely, many older feminists are unsure of how to connect to the issues of new media generations, and how to go about translating feminist ideas to the information culture. The problem for younger women then, becomes one of how to create a feminist politics and activist trajectory of their own to address new cultural and technological conditions and experiences.
To be sure, the problem of the loss of historical knowledge and active connection to radical movements of the past is one which is not limited to feminism--it is an endemic problem for leftist movements in the US. By arguing for the importance of the knowledge of history I am not interested in invoking nostalgic homage to moments of past glory. If cyberfeminists wish to avoid making the mistakes of past feminists, it behooves them to know and analyze feminist histories very carefully. And if they are to expand their territory on the Net and negotiate issues of difference across generational, economic, educational, racial, national, and experiential boundaries, they must seek out coalitions and alliances with diverse groups of women involved in the integrated circuit of global technologies. At the same time, close familiarity with postcolonial studies, and with the histories of imperialist and colonialist domination--and resistance to them--are equally important for an informed practice of cyberfeminist politics.
While cybergrrls sometimes draw (whether consciously or unconsciously) on feminist analyses of popular representations of women--and on the strategies and work of many feminist artists--they also often uncritically recirculate and re-present sexist and stereotyped images of women from popular media--the buxom gun moll; the supersexed cyborg femme; the 50's tupperware cartoon women, are favorites--without any analysis or critical recontextualization. Creating more positive and complex images of women which break the gendered codes prevailing on the Net (and in the popular media) takes many smart heads, and there is richly suggestive feminist research available, ranging from Haraway's monstrous cyborgs, Judith Butler's gender masquerade, Octavia Butler's recombinant genders, and all manner of hybrid beings which can unsettle the old masculine/feminine binaries. The many lines of flight of cybergrrl-ism are important as vectors of investigation, research, and invention. But these can't replace the hard work which is needed in order to identify and change the masculinist structures, content, and effects of the new technologies. If it is true, as Sadie Plant argues that "women have not merely had a minor part to play in the emergence of the digital machines.....(that) women have been the simulators, assemblers, and programmers of the digital machines."(4) then why are there so few women in visible positions of leadership in the electronic world? Why are women programmers and hackers still a tiny minority, and often considered anomalies? Why is the popular perception still that women are generally anti-tech, and at best secondary players in the high tech world? Sadly, the lesson of Ada Lovelace is that even though women have made major contributions to the invention of computers and computer programming, it hasn't changed the perception--or reality--of women's condition in the new technologies. Being bad grrls on the Internet is not going to change matters much either, nor challenge the status quo, though it may provide refreshing moments of iconoclastic delirium. But if grrrl energy and invention were to be coupled with engaged political savvy and practice.....Imagine!
3. Net utopianism
4. Fear of political engagement
Definition as a political strategyLinking the terms "cyber" and "feminism" produces a crucial new formation in the history of feminism(s) and of the e-media. Each part of the term necessarily modifies the meaning of the other. "Feminism" (or more properly, "feminisms") has been understood as a historical--and contemporary--transnational movement for justice and freedom for women, which depends on women's activist participation in networked local, national, and international groups. It focuses on the material, political, emotional, sexual, and psychic conditions arising from women's differentialized social construction and gender roles. Link this with "cyber", which means to steer, govern, control (especially automated systems), and we conjure up feminism at the helm: New political, social, and cultural possibilities which are quite staggering. "CyberfeminismS" (7) can link the historical and philosophical practices of feminism to contemporary feminist projects and networks both on and off the Net, and to the material lives and experiences of women in the New World Order, however differently they are manifested in different countries, among different classes and races. If feminism is to be adequate to its cyberpotential then it must mutate to keep up with the shifting complexities of social realities and life conditions as they are changed by the profound impact communications technologies and technoscience have on all our lives. It is up to cyberfeminists to use feminist theoretical insights and strategic tools and join them with cybertechniques to battle the very real sexism, racism, and militarism encoded in the software and hardware of the Net, thus politicizing this environment.
While refusing definition seems like an attractive, non-hierarchical, anti-identity tactic, it in fact plays into the hands of those who would prefer a net quietism: Give a few lucky women computers to play with and they'll shut up and stop complaining. This attitude is one of which cyberfeminists should be extremely wary and critical. Access to the Internet is still a privilege, and by no means to be regarded as a universal right (nor is it necessarily useful or desirable for everyone). While brilliant consumer marketing has suceeded in making ownership of a PC seem as imperative as having a telephone, computers are in fact powerful tools possession of which can provide a political advantage (the personal computer is the political computer). If the Internet is increasingly the channel through which many people (in the overdeveloped nations) get the bulk of their information, then it matters greatly how women participate in the programming, policy setting, and content formations of the Net, for the information coming across the Net needs to be contextualized both by the receiver and the sender. On the Internet, feminism has a new transnational audience which needs to be educated in its history and its contemporary conditions as they prevail in different countries. For many, cyberfeminism could be their entry point into feminist discourse and practices. While there is a great deal of all kinds of information about feminism available on the Net (8) --and new sites are opening up all the time--it must be remembered that the more this information can be contextualized politically, and linked to practices, activism, and conditions of every day life, the more it is likely to be effective in helping to connect and mobilize people. A potent example can be seen in the Zamir Network (Zamir "for peace") of BBS and e-mail which was created (after the eruption of civil war in Yugoslavia in l99l) to link peace activists in Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Bosnia across borders via host computers in Germany. The point is that computers are more than playful tools, consumer toys, or personal pleasure machines--they are the master's tools, and they have very different meanings and uses for different populations. It will take crafty steerswomen to navigate these channels.
While cyberfeminists should avoid some of the damaging mistakes and blindnesses which were part of past feminist thinking, the knowledge, experience, and feminist analysis and strategies accumulated thus far are crucial to carrying their work forward now. If the goal is to create a feminist politics on the Net, to empower women, and to create new possibilities for becoming and action in the world, then cyberfeminists must reinterpret and transpose feminist analysis, critique, strategies, and experience to encounter and contest new conditions, new technologies, new formations. (Self)definition can be an emergent property which arises out of practice and changes with the movements of desire and action. Definition can be fluid, and need not mean limits; rather, it can be a declaration of desires, strategies, actions, and goals. It can create crucial solidarity in the house of difference-- solidarity, rather than unity or consensus--solidarity which is a basis for effective political action.
A Cyberfeminist cellHow might cyberfeminists organize to work for a feminist political and cultural environment on the Net? What are various areas of feminist research and net activity that are already beginning to emerge as cyberfeminist practice? The 1st Cyberfeminist International during Documenta X in Kassel can serve as an example of a prototype cell of feminist Net organis(m)ation.
A varying and diverse group of more than thirty women--with a steady core of about ten--worked and lived together during the CI. The women were self-selected by open invitation to members of the FACES (women-only) mailing list (affiliated with nettime). The main responsibilities for organizing the CI workdays was taken on by OBN (Old Boys Network)--an adhoc group of about 6 women--in on-line consultation with all participants. Besides deciding on the content of the CI, the OBN took care of the myriad details of housing, travel, scheduling, technological needs, interfaces with nettime and Documenta, budgeting and communications. Because of the open and exhaustive on-line communications between the OBN leadership and participants, collaborative working relationships were already established by the time the participants met together face to face in Kassel.
From the first day this collaborative process--a recombinant form of feminist group processes, anarchic self-organization, and rotating leadership--continued to develop among women from more than eight countries, and from different economic, ethnic, professional, and political backgrounds. Each day began with participants meeting to prepare the Hybrid Workspace, work on various task-forces (text, press, technical, final party, etc.) and organize the public program for the day. There followed three hours of public lectures and presentations for Documenta audiences. Afterward the closed group met again for dinner, and to discuss common issues such as the definition of cyberfeminism, group goals, future actions and plans. Work was divided according to inclination and expertise; there was no duty list and no expectation that everyone would work the same amount of hours. Space was opened up for conviviality, impulsive actions, brainstorming, and private time. At all times connection of participants to the FACES list was maintained electronically. Practically all group activities were video- and audiotaped and photographed. Many of the women brought their own computer equipment from home and set it up in the open work/meeting space; and most of the lectures were accompanied by projected images and readings from the lecturers' web-sites. Two of the Russian women who were traveling to Kassel by a circuitous, even illegal, route because of visa problems, faxed in their trip diary all week as a performance, until they actually arrived. Another participant taught the group how to set up CU_SeeMe_ connection and continued to participate virtually after she had to leave. Thus there was an interesting interplay between virtuality and flesh presence. The face to face interactions were experienced as much more intense and energizing than the virtual communications, and forged different degrees of affinity between various individuals and sub-groups, while at the same time making all kinds of differences more palpable. Brainstorming and spontaneous actions seemed to spring more readily from the flesh meetings. The opportunity for immediate question and answer and extended discussion after delivery of the papers also enabled more intimate and searching interchanges than are usually possible through on-line text only communications.
There was a wide variety of content presented in the various lectures, web projects, and workshops: Theories of the visibility of sexual difference on the Net; a workshop on digital self-representations of online women in avatars, databodies; analyses of gender representations, sex-sites, cybersex, and femporn; strategies of genderfusion and hybridity to combat stereotyping, essentialism, and sexist representations of women; a proposal for schizo-feminist embodiment; discussion of the fetishistic desire for information, and the paranoia created by the new technologies; a quiz on famous women in history; studies of differences between women and men programmers and hackers; an examination of electronic art based on language rather than numbers; reports on the organization and nature of webgrrls lists, and much more (9).
The chief gains from the CI were trust, friendship, a deeper understanding and tolerance of differences, the ability to sustain discussions about controversial and divisive issues without group rupture, mutual education about issues of women and the e-media, as well as a clearer understanding of the territory for cyberfeminist intervention. Some participants felt that too much time and energy had gone into the public programs at the expense of more in-depth closed group discussion. But there is much to be said for cyberfeminists being able to present their research-in-progress to each other in this kind of discursive and experimental format. While the CI did not result in a formal list of goals, actions, and concrete plans, there was general agreement on areas of further work and research. These include:
Conclusion"(Cyber)Feminism is a browser through which to see life." (10)
If cyberfeminism has the desire to research, theorize, work practically, and make visible how women (and non-women) worldwide are affected by new communications technologies, technoscience, and the masculinist, capitalist dominations of the global communications networks, it must begin by formulating its political goals and positions clearly. Cyberfeminists have the chance to create new formulations of feminist theory and practice which address the complex new social conditions created by global technologies. Subversive uses of the new communications technologies can facilitate the work of a transnational movement which aims to infiltrate and infect the networks of power and communication through activist, feminist, projects of solidarity, education, freedom, vision, and resistance. To be effective in creating a politicized feminist environment on the Net which challenges its present gender, race, age, and class structures, cyberfeminists need to draw on the researches and strategies of avant garde feminist history and its critique of institutionalized patriarchy. In order to disrupt, resist, decode, and recode the masculinist structures of the new technologies, the tough work of technical, theoretical, and political education has to begin. Cyberfeminists must resist utopic and mythic constructions of the Net, and strive to work in activist coalitions with other resistant netgroups. Cyberfeminists need to declare solidarity with transnational feminist and postcolonial initiatives, and work to use their access to communications technologies and electronic networks to support such initiatives.