Steven Kurtz on Mon, 14 Jul 1997 22:15:56 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Cyberfeminism Part 2

Notes on the Political Condition of Cyberfeminism continued:

Separatism and Boundary Maintenance

Whenever feminism begins pushing its way into new territories, the avant garde
members of the movement face incredible problems and nearly insurmountable odds.
Cyberfeminism is no different. Relatively few women have the skills to see
through the cyber-hype, to understand the complexity of the system, and most
importantly, to teach other women how to survive and actively use the system.
For most women in the technosphere, it takes all their energy simply to survive
transgressing the norm and learning massive amounts of dense technical
information.  Just doing the latter is a difficult task that few people
accomplish, but throw in the condition of gender isolation (learning and working
in a male domain) and the generally negative social representation of being a
geek girl (i.e., going against the grain of female construction) and it becomes
immediately apparent that alienation levels are extremely high.  Under such
conditions, as in the past, separatist activity has been a useful tactic, as
well as one that can foster efficient pedagogical situations.

Kathy Huffman often jokes that "in cyberspace men can't interrupt you [women]."
The joke is funny because it does represent a truth of gendered interruption;
however, the pessimistic side of this point is that women are interrupted in
cyberspace. They are often overwhelmed with counter-discourse, ignored, or
totalized under the sign of being "politically correct." A remark by a woman may
not be interrupted, but continuity of discourse, with particular regard to
women's issues, is often interrupted. Here again there is a need for separatist
activities at this point in post/feminist decolonization of cyberspace. During
this early stage of development, women need to experiment in developing their
own working and learning spaces. This kind of activity has occurred in all
phases of feminists territorial decolonization, and has shown itself to be very
productive. Separatism should be welcome among cyberfeminists and among those
who support a cyberspace of difference. It should be remembered that separatism
among a minoritarian (disenfranchised) group is not negative. It's not sexist,
it's not racist, and it's not even necessarily a hindrance to democratic
development. There is a distinct difference between using exclusivity as part of
a strategy to make a specific perception or way of being in the world a
universal, and using exclusivity as a means to escape a false universal (one
goal of cyberfeminist separatism). There is also a distinct difference between
using exclusion as a means to maintain structures of domination, and using it as
a means to undermine them (another goal of cyberfeminist separatism).

At the same time, separatism can reach a point where it is counterproductive.
The cycle of useful production in regard to separatist activity can be traced by
the applicability of one of its main slogans, "The personal is political." In
consciousness-raising groups, personal information is typically disclosed. Then
patterns begin to emerge out of these disclosures. Notions that were thought to
be personal, private, idiosyncratic, and psychologically bound turn out to be
points of group knowledge and represent sociological tendencies. Group members
come to realize that their "individual" problems are only mirrors of social
pathologies that affect all the people of a given class, race, gender, etc. In
turn, each individual comes to realize that it is not a personal flaw that led
he/r to be in an unacceptable socio-economic situation, but that the structure
of the political economy is to blame. In order for this process to succeed,
there must be a solidarity of identity, and when oppression is high, this can
only happen in a separatist environment. However, once these social currents are
discovered and this knowledge is deployed among the given social group, the need
for separatist activity drops and can even become counterproductive. At this
point, the uneasy romance between coalition and diversity can begin.

For feminism in general, the time for separatist action seems to be over;
however, we must remember that all areas of society are not equally
gendered-some territories are more equalized than others. Given that cyberspace
is one of the most inequitable, it should be expected that a number of early
feminist organizational and educational tactics will be revived.

Feminine Subjectivity

Cyberfeminism is currently at that unfortunate point where it has to decide who
gets to be a separatist cyberfeminist and who does not. The haunting question of
"what is a woman?" once again returns. In theory, this problem is graspable, but
first, what is the problem? Looking back on any feminist movement, there have
always been tremendous conflicts within women's groups and organizations brought
on by attempts to define feminine subjectivity (and thereby, "us" and "them").
In the second wave, the feminine was defined in a manner that seemed largely to
reflect the subjectivity of white, middle class, straight women. The third wave
had to debate whether or not transvestites, transsexuals, and other "males" who
claimed to be female identified should be accepted into activist organizations
(and at the same time, women of color, working class women, and lesbians all
still had grounds for complaints). In addition, it was never decided how to
separate the feminine from other primary social variables that construct a
woman's identity. For example, part of the problem in many feminist
organizations, and in WAC in particular, was that the middle class professional
women had the greatest economic and cultural resources. They therefore had
greater opportunity for leadership and policy making. The women outside of this
class felt that the professionals had unfair advantages and that their agenda
was the primary agenda, which in turn brought about a destructive form of

These are but some of the practical problems that have emerged out of the issue
of exclusivity and imperfections inherent in definitions. Defining feminine
subjectivity can never be done to the satisfation of all, and yet, practically
speaking, it has to be done. 

The current theoretical solution to this problem is to have small alliances and
coalitions that do not rely on bureaucratic process. Such coalitions should be
expected to dissolve at various velocities over time. Also, naively humanistic
or metaphysical principles (depending on one's perspective) like "sisterhood"
should be left in the past, and we must all learn to live with the conflicts and
contradictions of a house of difference. Of course, this is easier said than
done. Truth changes with the situation. In a territory like a US or British
cultural studies department, we can talk about living in a house of difference.
In other more inequitable territories, it is more difficult, and clear
boundaries (often essentialized) of differences for identity purposes are often
required. For example, telling a person of color who has just been beaten by the
police that "the officers were only reacting to a racist textual construction
that links people of color with the sign of criminality" is probably not going
to have much resonance (even though in legitimized academic territories the
argument is quite convincing). While the simpler explanation, "your ass just got
beat because you are a person of color" will be quite convincing, because in
this case, who is on what side of the racial divide is unambiguous in the mind
of the unwilling participant. In this context, the hard boundaries of
essentialism make sense and have greater explanatory power until the ambiguity
that emerges out of successful consciousness raising and contestation becomes a
part of everyday life. Consequently, one can expect that essentialized notions
of the feminine will continue to appear and find acceptance.** 

Dinner Parties

Cyberfeminism is currently drawing upon social and cultural strategies from past
waves of feminism. For example, dinner parties that celebrate women's
achievements and serve as convivial coalition building events are a famous part
of feminist history, as witnessed not only in the fundraising dinner parties
held by female suffragists, but also in Judy Chicago's Dinner Party; in Suzanne
Lacy's art/life performances; in Mary Beth Edelson's "Last Supper" detournement;
and in the countless feasts prepared and served to each other by feminists all
over the world in the past decades. In recognition that women need to feed each
other and desire conviviality, Kathy Huffman and Eva Wohlgemuth in their Web
project, "Face Settings," are using the medium of the dinner party as an
organizing and educational tool for cyberfeminists. The events--which often
happen during international media festivals and symposia where men are the
leading actors--are meant to overcome the isolation of cyberculture, to get
women connected to each other, and to help them begin to learn and use
electronic technology in producing their own work. It has been shown that
forming strong working groups among people who only communicate virtually is far
less productive than forming groups among people who also meet in the flesh. For
this reason, it is important for cyberfeminist to make opportunities to meet
together bodily and form affinity groups to facilitate building a transnational,
transcultural movement. And what better way than a dinner party to dissolve the
estrangement so often produced by even the friendliest online communications?
Indeed, the virtual medium must not replace the affective and the
affinity-building functions of presence.

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