Technics of Cyberfeminism: Strategic Sexualisations. Between Method and Fantasy

Yvonne Volkart

Forthcoming in: Reiche, Claudia/Sick, Andrea (eds.) (2002): Technics of Cyberfeminism. <mode=message>

I would like to suggest cyberfeminism as a postmodern narrative switching between fact and fiction, based on a community of various women all over the world who want to explore and change the role of gender in our world of capitalism. Cyberfeminism is committed to a postmodern policy of self-empowerment that reaches beyond simple principles of liberation and identity. Identity is an expanded concept performing a relational play between many agents and identities, many bodies and genders. Identity is conceived as something fractured, split, fluid and in motion, it is the offspring of various powers and desires. "Feminism is about grounding, it is about foundations and about political myths", Rosi Braidotti writes in her book 'Nomadic Subjects'. These and the following sentences referring to Donna Haraway's 'A Cyborg Manifesto' correspond exactly to my vision of cyberfeminism. Braidotti: "Haraway invites us to think of the community as being built on the basis of a commonly shared foundation of collective figures of speech or foundational myths. These myths, which are also purposeful tools for intervening in reality, have an impact on our imagination."
If cyberfeminism is a (performative) narrative, two aspects are crucial, although not always distinguishable: one is the method or 'technics', the other the construction and content of the fantasy. As I elaborated in my essay 'The Cyberfeminist Fantasy of the Pleasure of the Cyborg' in the cyberfeminist anthology 'Cyberfeminism. Next Protocols' , and as I'm going to explain later, one of the most crucial cyberfeminist fantasies revolves round the process of becoming a cyborg and enjoying it.

The technics and methods of cyberfeminism, especially of early cyberfeminism as developed by Sadie Plant, VNS Matrix or Allucquère Roseanne Stone, consist in the disturbing strategy to completely embody, feminise and sexualise digital technologies, cyberspace as well as ongoing conditions of subjectisation. Sentences like "The clitoris is a direct line to the matrix" is not only bad girls' dirty talk appropriating male metonymic (pars pro toto) identifications of woman and her sex (clitoris, cunt, pussy, slime, wound...) in order to subvert female ascriptions. Moreover, it is also a way of demonstrating that a lot of cultural fantasies about the utopian (cyberspace) or about future subjectivities are unconsciously based on and reproduce traditional gender stereotypes, using the female character as mediator, without including and addressing female subjects.
In her speculative gender investigations into the culturally coded psyche of cyberpunks and hackers, Stone showed that a main interest in entering cyberspace stood in correlation with the desire to penetrate a woman: "To enter the deep, complex, and tactile (individual) cybernetic space or (consensual) cyberspace within and beyond. Penetrating the screen involves a state change from the physical, biological space of the embodied viewer to the symbolic, metaphorical 'consensual hallucination' of cyberspace; a space that is a locus of intense desire for refigured embodiment. Penetration translates into envelopment. In other words, to enter cyberspace is to physically put on cyberspace. To become the cyborg, to put on the seductive and dangerous cybernetic space like a garment, is to put on the female."
By bluntly sexualising cyberspace and digital technology, early cyberfeminists showed that much of the talk about the question of how to exist in a networked information age was captivated in and reproducing unconscious universalisations and connotations of gender and the female body. Although such mimicry is dangerous, especially if it presupposes a separatistic female community of sisterhood or lesbians only, I perceive most of these mimetic sexualisations and reductions of complex conditions of postmodern subjectivisations onto mere questions of sex and body as radical and very special strategic technics of cyberfeminism in order to repeat, reveal and deconstruct hierarchic gendered fantasies. And beyond deconstruction, a sentence like "The clitoris is a direct line to the matrix" can also be understood as a sexual language that addresses and articulates fantasies of women.

Cyberfeminism promotes both the fantasy of becoming a minoritarian cyborg and the pleasures involved in this process of decline. One of the key texts for this fantasy is Donna Haraway's manifesto for the "ironic" figuration of the cyborg. Haraway's cyborg is a symptomatic figuration, which embodies, or, more accurately, is born of the new conditions within network capitalism and military complexes, representing an "ironic and political myth" for female emancipation. In her 'A Cyborg Manifesto', she developed methods to perceive the special role which gender plays in the emergence of the "informatics of domination". She was one of the first feminist theorists who was not overwhelmed by capitalism's new ways of oppression and who was not blind against the increasing and also different significance which gender gained within these processes.
Based on Michel Foucault's theory and earlier feminists work, she described the (gendered) body as both a site where various power dispositifs cross and a site where subjectivity is shaped by desires and pleasure. As a common ground as well as an ironic myth, she designed the cyborg body as a body of symptoms, a signifying body of effects, a body that speaks without words of the oppressing factors that constitute and intersect it. But this body is also a desiring body, a shapechanger, a body that does not obey. This cyborg body is - as Haraway writes - beyond "other seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity."

In the years that followed, Rosi Braidotti, Sadie Plant, Zoe Sofoulis, VNS Matrix, the Old Boys Network and others have all worked on these issues. From my point of view, the cyberfeminist cyborg vision provides exactly this analysis of the very special intertwinement and emergence of late capitalism, new media, and gender. And it is this thoughtful insight into the gendered dynamics of networked capitalism that defines a cyberfeminist perspective.
Although the early cyborg in 'A Cyborg Manifesto' is represented as a postgender human and non-human artefact, the cyborg seems to be a girl. In an interview, Andrew Ross and Constance Penley asked Haraway which gender the cyborg had, and Haraway finally admitted that the cyborg could be a "polychromatic girl", a "bad girl", but never a "sensitive man". Answering this question about the gendered 'truth' of the postgendered cyborg, Haraway suggests that the question of gender is not a thing of the past, not even in the fantasies of a postgender cyborg. If we want to address the positioning of a subject, gender is always at stake.

Whereas Haraway speaks of the cyborg as a polychromatic bad girl, I said the cyberfeminist cyborg is 'widerspenstig'. This word is hard to translate into English, meaning 'unruly', 'untamed' or 'stubborn'. Inspired by Shakespeare's comedy 'Taming of the Shrew', and never used to describe men, it connotes a kind of erotic feminine bodily resistance. The notion that unruliness is either unconscious or genetically determined because resistance is seen as something localised in body and gender itself, defying discursivity, can be seen as specifically 'female'. These aspects of a biological or unconscious resistance of an unruly woman find a direct correspondence in the 'hysteric woman' who became a 'shero' of Women's Lib in the 70's. The hysteric and the untamed shrew are connected to cyberfeminism's crucial fantasies of the cyborg that embodies the utopian through her/his/its own hybrid corporeality rather than through political enactments. The cyborg is more woman (girl) than man, always at the borders, a posthuman, multiple and flexible entity that fights for its life, for a temporary viable stay in a non-human world. She is fluid, dispossessed, nomadic. Embodying various technological fantasies, she is at the same time a genetically determined symptom or effect of the information age as well as a very special agent to subvert and pervert the dominant inscriptions.

Politics of Pleasure

The fantasy of the cyborg contains the fantasy of the "pleasure in the confusion of boundaries" between the sexes, humans and non-humans, etc. This kind of pleasure has been widely discussed and investigated by theorists and artists like Judith Halberstam/Ira Livingston , Rosi Braidotti, VNS Matrix, Francesca da Rimini , and as I will show, Irina Aristarkhova, Sadie Plant, and Shu Lea Cheang. The aim to liberate pleasure and to conceive it as a site of female subjectisation, is nothing new. It already defined one of the crucial aims of 70's feminism, especially of theorists like Luce Irigaray who is enthusiastically embraced by cyberfeminists. However, the plea to enjoy the dissolving of dualistic boundaries, to imagine a figuration that is always already ambivalent and paradoxical, and to understand these processes as an opportunity for new ways of being, is an issue of postmodernism.

With her text 'Cyber-Jouissance: An Outline for a Politics of Pleasure' Irina Aristarkhova designed a theory of cyberspace "as a source of pleasures for and among women" . Based on early feminist (Irigaray) and cyberfeminist issues of pleasure as a progressive path for identity politics, Aristarkhova further develops the idea of a female community sharing fantasies beyond hegemonic concepts of gendered subjectivities, although she maintains - strictly following Irigaray (and Plant) - the concept of gender difference. Referring to Irigaray and Foucault she insists that pleading for pleasure as a way of subjectisation doesn't necessarily imply essentialism: "There is no jouissance outside a political, though it cannot be reduced to a soley political dimension." And she continues: "As Foucault has shown in his 'History of Sexuality', in our societies there have been much more governmental investments and normalisations in the realm of desire and its embodied forms, than in the domain of pleasure, which makes pleasure more amenable for a political (feminist) intervention and strategic resistance." The term 'pleasure' "seems more effective and promising for feminist politics and female subject inventions" than 'sex' or 'desire'.
Aristarkhova, like Irigaray and early cyberfeminists, invests into a politics of pleasure as a way of creating female subject positions. She refers to Foucault who preferred the term 'pleasure' to its alternative, 'desire', because it seemed to him less burdened with the history of our western culture and its constraint to find the secret of life in sex The term 'pleasure' offered to him - as for Irigaray and Aristarkhova - the imagination and possibilities of body practices beyond the sexual dispositif, i.e. beyond hegemonic forms of sexuality under the domination of "king sex", as he once called it. According to Foucault, western society is captivated in the dispositif of sex, which would reduce every diversity and plurality of performing pleasure to the one-dimensional inquiry of a sole truth based on sex, and specifically on the questions: 'Which sex are you?', 'What kind of sex are you performing?', 'What is your pleasure?' etc. From his perspective, there is a direct link from medieval confessions to the sexual diaries of the 19th century, the psychoanalytical inquiries and the liberation of sex in the 20th century: the urge to subjugate the complexity of being and becoming under the question of sex. 'Sex' and 'desire', according to Foucault, function as a universal key answering the question of who we are supposed to be. Within this western framework, everything about your existence can be answered within the terms of your sex.

With his ideas of micropolitics as well as of the politics of pleasure Foucault tried to reject the power of the sexual dispositif and to develop a different way of thinking. This is also the case with Aristarkhova, who concurs with Foucault's theory that the dispositif of sex generates (gendered) subjectivities. Quoting Foucault she writes: "It is important when trying to relate to our 'womanness' not to ask questions like: 'Who am I?' 'What is the secret of my desire?' Rather, we should ask 'What relations, through femininity, can be established, invented, multiplied and modulated?' Here femininity is not reduced to any kind of 'truth in sex', but is seen as an opportunity to create a multiplicity of relationships." This is also what Aristarkhova suggests as "cyber-jouissance", as "pleasure for women in being together": The creation of female ties, relationships outside of "allowed spaces".

The concept of cyberspace proffered by Aristarkhova is something completely different from the well-known concepts of cyberpunk's "consensual hallucinations", from which Stone extracted latent gendered fantasies. In Aristarkhova's interpretation, cyberspace is an alternative metaphoric or virtual 'space' for women, less a space than a kind of networked agency, a collective practice between various agents, which seem to be homogenised only by the term 'woman'.
This vision of a decentering cyber-jouissance is promising and utopian, especially with respect to the imagination of dispersed progressive subject positions. Pleading for a separatistic community under the label of "womanness" (Aristarkhova), she unfortunately refers to and reproduces the traditional gender dichotomy. In contrast to her differentiated ideas on pleasure, cyberspace, and networking she doesn't question the fixed entity 'woman', nor, in her references to it, Luce Irigaray's evocations of sisterhood: "Irigaray said: 'We must learn to speak to each other so that we can embrace from afar. When I touch myself, I am surely remembering you. But so much has been said, and said of us, that separates us.'" For Aristarkhova, the feminist community has "to face and think through sexual difference. [...] It is an invitation to be born together, to be women and subjects, to leave for ourselves a body, which derives pleasures from this process. To-gether. More than one, not identical, and still - we." Thinking through cyberfeminist ways of subjectisation, Aristarkhova plays a dangerous game at the edge of fantasies about a common origin, about giving birth to 'ourselves' as a woman.
In order to adopt Foucault's idea of 'pleasure' beyond the western dispositif of sex, Aristarkhova arrives at a rather puristic program, deleting the sexual aspect of pleasure. As examples of the promising new communities of pleasure, she names Russian women's organisations wherein "it is not necessarily pleasure that is aimed at in these spaces [] they do feel to-gether, they share everyday tears and humor and it gives them energy". She depicts these communities as sites of "that kind of 'de-sexualised' pleasure that was discussed earlier."
Whatever these women might do and feel together, Aristarkhova's emphasis on the tremendous pleasure and "cyber-jouissance" of women networking and communicating seems to be an example of the above discussed cyberfeminist strategic 'technic' to sexualise and feminise conditions of subjectisation. Instead of speaking of a desexualisation, as she does, it would seem as if her own point of view were extremely sexualised, grounded in the question of sex: in the womanliness of the networking agents. Is she, against her will, stuck in the dispositif of sex? Or does this difficulty reveal another problem, one that maybe Foucault, and she with him, did not foresee? Could it be that Foucault's wish to find a pleasure beyond hegemonic power dispositifs were nothing more than a simple offspring of the sexual dispositif, as well? The search for an identity 'beyond'? This question is hard to answer within the framework of this paper, all I can say here is that Foucault did not attempt a further development of his ideas on body and pleasure (his second volume in the series on sexuality and truth Der Gebrauch der Lüste was not exactly about his vision of a pleasure beyond as vaguely suggested in the first volume).

Based on the various and contradictory early cyberfeminist strategies of sexualisation mentioned, and on Aristarkhova's affirmative reading of Foucault's rejection of the dispositif of sex in order to rethink female subjectisation, I rather get the impression that the dispositif of sex is still alive, although transformed, mutated, and appropriated by other agents than Foucault had in mind.
With the following interpretation Shu Lea Cheans sci-fi porn I.K.U., I would like to suggest that in cyberfeminism the dispositif of sex still plays an important role, raising the question of identity in a networked capitalist society. Pleasure, sex and/or desire and the dissolving of gender dichotomies are key issues in the discussion of subjectivity, so crucial, that they are never absent, even if the discussion revolves around other 'pleasures'. Luce Irigaray coined the term "mimetic strategy" to signify the strategy of deconstruction of female ascriptions. Could cyberfeminists' sexualisations be interpreted as such a mimicry of the importance of the dispositif of sex, simultaneously accepting and dismissing its power, or is it simply reproduced and reaffirmed? What is certainly true is that cyberfeminists raise - in a way that Foucault did not foresee - the question of gender. They show that gender is not a constant entity, and not only the limited offspring of a limiting dispositif of sex, but rather something varying and variable, although its appearance is constant, endlessly raising the question of how to find dynamic forms of temporary subject positions.

Who Has the Keys?

Shu Lea Cheang's independent sci-fi porn movie I.K.U. is both an example of the cyberfeminist fantasy of a cyborg body of symptoms within the gender politics of modern-day capitalism, and of the cyberfeminist's strategy to rearticulate the dispositif of sex. I suggest that I.K.U. does not only reproduce, but also transform, without dismissing its origin. In 'I.K.U.' sex functions as a universal key to shape a subaltern cyborg's subject position. Apart from addressing a porn audience — there is most likely a strong appeal to a female and queer porn audience - this film is also widely shown in the context of the arts and subcultural movements. Before going into further detail, I would like to quote Cheang's synopsis of the plot, which is not easy to grasp while watching the movie. Synopsis:

"The Tyrell Corporation is now [the] Genom Corporation, a multinational enterprise of creature industry has built a porno empire with IKU CODERS. The IKU CODERS travel in SEXSCAPE, hot sexing with men and women to collect mosaic orgasm data. The elevator closes at the end of Blade Runner.
I.K.U. picks up Rachel and Deckard, now named Reiko and Dizzy, inside the elevator. Reiko, her body a mega-gigabyte harddrive, is a Gen XXX IKU coder. During the elevator ride down, Dizzy initiates Reiko's sex drive and start up her OS I.K.U.3.0.. Reiko's arm, imprinted XXX, gets transformed digitally into unicorn and penis and inserted inside vagina and asshole to collect mosaic orgasm data upon the moment of I.K.U. The Gen XXX Reiko is launched at a series of role-playing game[s], appearing in [a] SEVEN configuration. SEVEN Reiko are out on [a] mission, cruising the night world [of] Tokyo. Mash, a stripper who rides a Supercycle, is a retired GenX IKU CODER who looks after Reiko. [] BEWARE OF THE VIRUS. Reiko eventually [is] infiltrated by Biolink's TokyoRose virus and experiences a system breakdown in the under under world of PINK. Mash comes to the rescue by teaching Reiko masturbance [masturbation] and show[ing] her the secret reset button. A re-started Reiko goes out [on] her way and catches up with Hustler Akira in a Japanese fish restaurant where all sex positions are worked out to fulfill the data collection. Dizzy, the GENOM Salary Man, the IKU runner, reappears at the end of the film. Armed with a dildo retriever, he is on duty to download Reiko's XXX data in a climatic fuck of all fucks during the elevator ride up [to] the GENOM headqua[r]ter. []"

In I.K.U., Reiko's masturbation functions as a kind of self-revelation, as a process of becoming a subject. Shu Lea Cheang writes in the synopsis: "Like Rachel [in the film Blade Runner], Reiko tries to find where she comes from. This is the scene where she learns how to masturbate. [] so that Reiko can have orgasm without the help of others. This encourages Reiko to realise her self-consciousness." The scene seems to be important in the film, not only because we get the impression that masturbation rescues her from her collapse after the encounter with Tokyo Rose , but also because in these scenes, the aesthetics are very different from the rest of the film. After Reiko's first investigation of her body, sound and colour change, then we see Reiko diving in water. The next image is Reiko masturbating in a tub. It is almost silent, no noise or music, no nightlife in the background, only whiteness and Reiko moaning alone in the tub. After coming, she seems to be different, she looks transformed, everything is very white and light, like in an overexposed photograph. It is as if she had awakened from a bad dream. She leaves her capsule hotel and joins Hustler, the male prostitute she met earlier, we see that both like each other, they are happy to see each other again. And then she fucks with Hustler. This scene is one of the most intriguing and aesthetically complex in the movie, because we see them through the flowing water of an aquarium with swimming fish in a fish restaurant. We see men (cook, waiter, customers) watching, killing, preparing and eating fish, and watching the fucking couple. The sequences change, the male gazes cross, everything seems to be transparent, fleshy and fluid at the same time.
This scene differs from the ones preceding it. There is water again, an important factor in the other scene, where Reiko gained self-consciousness by masturbation. There is the fluidity of spaces, between the interior and the exterior, of gazes, bodies, positions, and fish. Everything seems to be in a kind of melting process, humans and non-humans loosing their boundaries, although not completely. Reiko, in this scene, is not on the verge of transforming into water, fish, or a molecule. The mosaic pattern, into which she or her partners always turn in the fluid and overwhelming situation of orgasm, is only temporary. Like the watching men, she keeps her human/cyborgian shape, albeit a shape that is not fixed. Reiko is never one, never herself, she embodies seven different types of women; in every new situation she is changed.
The situation in the fish restaurant reflects a kind of meta-situation, blurring the borders within a traditional hierarchical and capitalist setting that shows men as voyeurs and consumers. On the one hand, the setting is homey, intimate, and romantic, on the other, it is public, like a theatre, and brutal, it is about eating/consuming/fucking and being eaten/consumed/fucked.

When Reiko fucks with Dizzy, the black salaryman of the Genom Corporation, he turns out to be a woman; his cock is very small, like a big clitoris. And he/she seems to be the most fulfilling lover for her. The film ends with daylight, with Dizzy waiting for Reiko next to his car in the countryside. He plays with the car's keys in his hand, showing that he has the key. The nights in the city are over, we are at the start of a new day. Reiko gets in the car, and Dizzy says: "Do you love me?" She answers: "Yes. I love you". He continues: "Do you trust me?" Reiko: "Yes". And they drive away. One year later, the same scene with Hustler. They too drive away, on a street in the countryside. At the end of the movie, we see many 'female' torsi moving in the water, swimming, diving, as if they were fish, belonging to the water. They moan, but we see no faces, only fragments of many bellies and their metallic navels demonstrating that they are replicants and belong(ed) to the Genome Corporation. We read the sentence "To be continued".

The end is not clear: All we know is that both - Reiko and Hustler - wanted to leave, go somewhere with Dizzy. Indeed, this is exactly what 'I.K.U.' in Japanese means: 'Going'. For 'orgasm', the Japanese say 'I.K.U.', 'going', and not - as in English or German 'coming'. Reiko literally fulfils the meaning of 'I.K.U.', she has gone and joined the community of waterwomen, as did Hustler. Dizzy with his/her ambivalent sex has a very special role in this film. He/She is not only the Genome Corporation's salaryman, who initiated Reiko into her life as a sex slave, he/she not only provided her with the most ecstatic orgasms. He/she is also an agent of a secret of which only he/she has the key. In order to know, to partake of this/her secret, one has to follow, to love and trust him/her. Similar to Mash, who is the mediator of self-revelation, he/she is the mediator of a knowledge beyond.

Let's remember Michel Foucault's sentence about the logic of desire and the power of the sexual dispositif in our western society. He deconstructs sex and desire as the universal keys in our quest to know who we are. On the one hand, I.K.U. strictly follows the script of the sexual dispositif, on the other it also seems to follow Foucault's and Aristarkhova's pleading for a pleasure beyond the hegemonic conceptions of sex: Both Reiko and Hustler - the sex slave and the male prostitute - come from the sex business. Now they want to get to know more. The self-revelation in the tub teaches Reiko about the secrets of life that lie in sex and desire. Once infiltrated, she and Hustler want to know who they are, and Dizzy, the transsexual, has the keys. From this point of view, the movie's plot exactly reproduces this universal function of sex as a site of the truth. The protagonist's way to of gaining self-consciousness in various steps can be interpreted as the adoption of the sexual dispositif and its power to shape identity.
But apparently, a kind of break with the dispositif of sex is also suggested, as the truth of sex remains unclear and ambivalent. Dizzy's sex is not one, as Irigaray would say, and the bellies in the water seem to look rather female than male, still you cannot or rather don't want to see it exactly. What matters is the fact that they are multiple and many. After 90 minutes presenting various fucking people and genitals, after Reiko's self-revelation, the movie ends with a kind of transformation of sex, promising a new kind of pleasure beyond the simple fucks and the question of which sex you are which we enjoyed before. This kind of new pleasure here announces a pleasure of loosing the face, of loosing the body, of loosing gender and sex, being a fluid and amoebic entity in the water. Although these entities are marked with the XXX on the arm and the metallic navels, and therefore could belong to somebody or something, they now seem to be deliberately floating. These entities are no more (and have never been) autonomous subjects, they are collective, split and decentered, ambivalent or rather female than male.

The blue movie vision of exploited replicants forming a non-hierarchical collective corresponds to Sadie Plant's preamble for Zeros + Ones, although there, the setting is the other way round. Shu Lea Cheang ends were Sadie Plant begins - with the vision of an oceanic life of non-human and low entities, not, like Plant, loudly evocating universal sisterhood, but instead subtly suggesting it:

"Those were the days, when we were all at sea. It seems like yesterday to me. Species, sex, race, class: in those days none of this meant anything at all. No parents, no children, just ourselves, strings of inseparable sisters, warm and wet, indistinguishable one from the other, gloriously indiscriminate, promiscuous and fused. No generations. No future, no past. An endless geographic plane of micromeshing pulsing quanta, limitless webs of interacting blendings, leakings, mergings [] And then something occurred to us. The climate changed. [] We found ourselves working as slave components of systems whose scales and complexities we could not comprehend. Were we their parasites? Were they ours? Either way we became components of our own imprisonment. To all intents and purposes, we disappeared."

Sadie Plant's further argumentation in this book is well known. She writes about women as the secret and hidden agents of information technology, about capitalism having always been infiltrated by female agents, never having been what it claims to be: a coherent dominant system with their female slaves working for it.
I think that Shu Lea Cheang's argument within this sci-fi-porn may be similar: There's no need for the replicants to make a revolution and to overthrow the Genom Corporation's capitalism. If the slaves are able to connect to their hidden and repressed desires, so that flows of wishes and lines of flight begin to stream, things will change and work against the system's power and domination automatically. The deterritorialising effects of their paradoxical subjectisation as one woman having lust and as manifold entities in a fluid environment seem to be enough to deterritorialise the system.

Perform Sex

It is very important that the act of liberation happens in two steps: Reiko first has to 'find herself' by losing herself in orgasm, in order to connect with her cyborg body, her flows of desire, and only then can she effectively lose herself (lose her face) by merging with others. Therefore, Shu Lea Cheang's sci-fi porn can be understood as a cyberfeminist project offering multiple and various ways of constituting and questioning cyborg subjectivity. First, as a porn, it addresses and turns people on to perform sex. The various representations of the protagonists are important as they allow the audience to subscribe to these fantasies or not. Whereas a lot of people, especially women, told me, that they cannot identify with the protagonists and that they find the fantasies too phallic and conventional, I find that there is a constant attempt maybe not so much to establish a "pussy point of view" , as rather to create images that play with a certain tendency to blur the boundaries, of bodies and sexes without however completely dissolving them. Structural elements of these aesthetics of a dissolving are for example the figuration of Reiko who changes into seven different characters. (It takes time to realise that the various women are always Reiko). Another repeating element is the situation where she collects the XXX data with her arm that morphs first into a big dildo and then into something like a penis penetrating a hole. At the same time, it seems to be something indefinable, an entity between male and female genital, plant or animal. A further element of blurring is the mosaic pattern that diffuses the body of the sex performer into a pattern of colours, sound, and data. And the strongest element of the dissolving of fixed entities is certainly the repeated emphasis on water, its varying qualities, and its crucial role within the processes of finding pleasure and a position as a cyborg subject.

In fact, the genre porn may say more about the decision for this type of movie than Shu Lea Cheang herself. Linda Williams wrote in her book Hard Core that porn is a method and a desire to penetrate as deeply as you can into the truth of body and sex. This utterance corresponds to Foucault's insight into the dispositif of sex. It means that the genre porn itself performs this never-ending story of questioning our body and sex, trying to find the secret of life. It is not only the plot that narrates the cultural fantasy of the importance of sex for our subjectisation, it is the genre as well that reproduces Foucault's dispositif of sex, accepting its power, but also mutating it significantly.
I.K.U. is not a simple reproduction of the productive power of the dispositif of sex. It is very important that it does not give any answer to the question of sex. Or rather, the obvious answer is that sex, gender, body, identity, and subjectivity are fluid, never fixed, always diffused, always in motion. Sex/gender do not allow any single identity or subjectivity. The answer is that only in dissolving the gender dichotomy can something like the truth of our existence be found. This may be the positive answer why a cyberfeminist filmmaker who obviously develops progressive ways of cyborg subjectisations, still may not want to give up completely the structural and political significance that gender gains in the processes of its various performings. But it could also be the continuation of the dispositif of sex that is now no longer based on the question of 'What sex are you exactly'? but rather on a kind of promoting sexual ambiguity, maximalising sex and lust, and connecting the question of pleasure with the question of identity: 'How can you simultaneously lose and find yourself in an oceanic orgasm beyond hegemonic and sexed straightforwardness?'. Aristarkhova said with respect to Irigaray: "'You is always changing, it is mobile, nomad, fluid. The relation and articulation of female identity is possible outside his house since we do not need solid ground to express ourselves. We do [not?] need a ground, rigidity kills us, stops our movements. Our bodies do not have fixed contours, they know flows and wetness and multiplicity without disappearance or horror. We do not need to leave the body in order to become fluid and fly in cyberspace."

Utopian Message

Beyond the dystopian scenario, Shu Lea Cheang's porn — like Sadie Plant's and Irina Aristarkhova's texts — contains a utopian message. The process of Reiko's various 'transformations' shows that one does not have to despair, that it is always possible to improve oppressive living-conditions. Shu Lea Cheang doesn't invest in the representation of psychical arrangements instead of political transformation, though. She follows this cyberfeminist fantasy in order to conceive a political body of symptoms and effects, as I have demonstrated above. This means that this body is marked by a capitalism of global information, it is the mere effect and offspring of the information age, made up from the same material: I.K.U. - pure data streams of desire and sexual consumer ideology. Nevertheless, this body is also a corporeal body, a marked body that can be wounded, nfected, and healed or transformed. It is not an immaterial body fulfilling ideologies of wholeness. Reiko's cyborg body of symptoms was never human. Always already posthuman and queer, as Livingston/Halberstam would say. And still, it is not so clear if these faceless entities are not paradoxically and contradictory seduced by ideologies "to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity" . The metaphor of oceanic life forms in this movie is very old, often used to represent fluid subjectivities, and it is still alive, not only in feminists' and cyberfeminists' fictions. I.K.U.'s suggestion that fluid life forms in the water, marked but not explicitly sexed, define the ultimate pleasure beyond the dispositif of sex, could also be seen as a romantic trap, perhaps the one that caught Foucault, Aristarkhova and Plant: finding faceless identities by losing themselves in the cyberspace of pleasure. From that perspective we had to conclude that even the idea of a pleasure beyond the sexual dispositif is only its ultimate fulfilment. And the problem may lie not only in the fact - following Foucault - that sex functions as a universal key for subjectisation, but rather in this final urge to construct an identity beyond, still fluid, but nevertheless 'born' in a 'place' where body and pleasure are conceived to act according to a different economy.


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I.K.U. A Japanese Sci-Fi Porn Feature (Japan 2000), Color, digital 35mm movie, 90 min, Production: Uplink, Asai Takashi, Director: Shu Lea Cheang, Story: Asai Takashi / Shu Lea Cheang, see: [last access 03/17/2001]

All illustrations are stills from: I.K.U. A Japanese Sci-Fi Porn Feature (Japan 2000). Courtesy of Shu Lea Cheang