Steven Kurtz on Mon, 14 Jul 1997 22:16:50 +0200 (MET DST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Cyberfeminism Part 3

Notes on the Political Condition of Cyberfeminism continued:

Cyberfeminist Education

Cyberfeminists have already grasped the importance of making hands-on
technological education for women a core priority. But this education needs to
be contextualized within a critical feminist analysis and discourse about women,
Netculture and politics, and the pancapitalist labor economy. Cyberfeminists
need to make their voices heard much more strongly in the discussion of Net
development. In doing so, cyberfeminism needs to think about who they consider
their constituency. As a cultural and technical avant garde, cyberfeminists need
to remember that most women who now work with computers and information
technology in first world countries are at best glorified typists, for whom the
computer simply represents an intensification of work. The question must be
asked: What relationship do these women have to technology?  How is this
relationship produced, and how can it be contested? Cyberfeminism could provide
a consciousness raising site where women can tell stories about their
experiences with all the different aspects of technology, and how it affects
their lives.  Such a site could teach women to question the increasing
transparency of technological incursion into their workplaces and into everyday
life. And of course, there must be ongoing education, information, and activism
concerning the feminized "global homework economy (Haraway)" which is profoundly
worsening the lives of women in developing countries.
Feminist education (women's studies) as it was pioneered in the US in the early
1970's included the idea that a "separate" education, where women would not have
to compete with males, and where they would have the freedom to frame issues and
ask questions that challenged the hegemony of received practices and ideas.  The
Feminist Art Programs in California, for example, maintained their own studios,
courses, and teachers within an institutional academic structure. But more
deeply, it also became evident that a separate space allowed uncensored and
radical experimentation that included the meltdown of traditional disciplines,
practices, and territories of expertise, and that initiated some postmodern art
practices that have changed the face of mainstream art and art history in the
US. What might a feminist educational program in computer science and media
technology accomplish? Imagine!! 

Cyberspace lends itself nicely to the creation of separate learning and practice
spaces for different groups, and it seems fruitful to expand and maintain these
spaces for now in the spirit of feminist self-help. One of the most important
educational tools cyberfeminists can offer is an ongoing directory of electronic
strategies and resources for women, including feminist theory discussion groups,
electronic publishing and exhibition venues, zines, addresses, bibliographies,
mediaographies, how-to sites, and general information exchange.  While
compilations of these resources are already underway, there is a growing need
for a more radical and critical feminist discourse about technology in
cyberspace (as opposed to discourse in critical and media studies departments in
universities). In cyberfeminism, this discourse arises directly from actual
current practices and problems, rather than from abstract theorizing. Thus
cyberfeminism offers the development of applied, activist theory.

An obvious group to target for cyberfeminist networking, education, and
expertise is the first generations of young women now graduating from schools
and colleges (mainly in the US and Europe) who have had some training in
electronic media and in media theory. Having already begun to work in electronic
media in school, many of these young women will be searching for ways to get
electronically connected, and thus will experience in full force the gender
whammy of cyberspace. While many of them have had some exposure to feminist
theory and practice in the academy, most of them will be faced with a terrifying
void when it comes to feminist support and access in cyberspace. Since
cyberspace seems to attract younger women, it is important that cyberfeminists
develop projects and sites for purposes of recruitment. 
Cyberfeminist Body Art

Bodies generally are all the rage on the Net--whether they are obsolete, cyborg,
techno, porno, erotic, morphed, recombined, phantom, or viral. But most of these
"bodies" are little more than recirculated commodified images of sexuality
(particularly female and "deviant" sexuality) or medical imaging (such as the
infamous Visible Human project), and are presented uncritically.  Many artists
are contributing to an explosion of body art on the Net, much of it simply a
transposition of what already exists in other media. 

Cyberfeminist body-centered art is coming alive on the Net. As to be expected,
the vagina and the clitoris have pride of place in much cyberfeminist work such
as that of VNS Matrix. "Cunt art" was a fiercely joyous, liberatory, and radical
rallying icon for feminist artists and activists in the 1970s. Women's
consciousness-raising and medical self-help groups regularly examined each
others' genitals and reproductive organs, and the speculum became the symbol not
only of sexual liberation, but also of feminist demands for reproductive freedom
and for a woman-centered health-care system. As Donna Haraway suggests in
_Modest Witness_, feminists interrogating technoscience (and particularly the
new reproductive technologies), need to arm themselves with "the right speculum
for the job," one that "makes visible the data structures that are our bodies."
The visualization and data-gathering engines that drive both the new information
and reproductive technologies can be redirected and applied to the task of
"designing the analytical languages [the speculums] for representing and
intervening in our spliced, cyborg worlds" (Haraway, p. 212).

Cyberfeminism can create reconfigured networked bodies in cyberspace, bodies
that are passionately incorporated in textual, visual, and interactive works.
Simultaneously, deconstructive projects that address the proliferation of
dominant cultural, gender, and sexual codes on the Net will be more effective if
they come from a strong, libidinal center, and are understood through the filter
of women's history. Indeed, cyberfeminist body art projects are haunted by
women's bodily histories. They are often motivated by rage against the forces of
censorship, repression, and normalization. Primarily, though, they are motivated
by absence--the absence created by female infanticide, clitoridectomy,
anorgasmic medications, suttee, footbinding, enforced celibacy, sexual
misinformation, lack of birth control information, rape, forced pregnancy, and
by female restriction and confinement.

Part of theoretical feminism's project has been to explore the possibility of
difference in female sexuality and desire. Much French and American feminist,
literary, and psychoanalytic theory in the 1980s was dedicated to this research.
The Net offers possibilities for exploring these questions in a new
technological and information setting, and among a new population of
author/producers who are more grounded in practice than in theory. Although this
line of research seems to have left the binary of woman/nature far behind, it is
by no means certain that it will not fall into some of the traps of essentialist
feminism, or succumb to the lure of simply countering masculinist Netculture
with a feminine Netpornography. There is much to be gained from consciously
interpolating women's histories and bodies into cyberspace; much can be learned
from naming the absences, and beginning to create a multifaceted, fluid, and
conscious feminist presence. 


It seems safe to say that cyberfeminism is still in its avant-garde phase of
development. The first wave of explorers, amazons, and "misfits" have wandered
into what is generally a hostile territory, and found a new land in need of
decolonization. History is repeating itself in a positive cycle, where feminist
avant-garde philosophies, strategies, and tactics from the past can be dusted
off and reclaim their former vitality. Separatist activities in the real or
virutal forms of dinners, discussion groups, and consciousness raising sessions
are viable once again. Essentialist philosophies enacted in body art, cunt art,
and identity maintenance recombine with constructionist notions of identity
development. An epistemological and ontological anarchy that is celebratory and
open to any possibility is threading its way through cyberfeminism. The dogma
has yet to solidify. At the same time, the territory is a hostile one, since the
gold of the information age will not be handed over to women without a struggle.
To make matters worse, a big tollbooth guards access to this new territory. Its
function is to collect tribute from every entity--individual, class, or nation,
that tries to enter. Entrance for individuals comes at the price of obtaining
education, hardware and software; entrance for nations comes at the price of
having acceptable infrastructure, and to a lesser extent, an acceptable
ideology. Consequently, a more negative cycle is also repeating itself, as the
women who have found their way into cyberterritories are generally those who
have economic and cultural advantages in other territories; these advantages are
awarded through class position, with its intimate ties to cultural position and
race. As this group helps open the borders to other disenfranchised groups, it
must be asked, what kind of ideology and structure will await the newcomers?
Will it be a repetition of the first and second waves of feminism in political
and economic arenas? Will cyberspace and its associate institutions be able to
cope with a house of difference? Knowing and understanding the history of
women's struggle (along with other struggles in race relations and class
relations) is essential--not just as a resource for strategies and tactics, not
just so tactical responses to cybergender issues can be improved, but also to
see that the new gender constructions that come to mark the entirety of this new
territory (not just virtual domains) do not fall into the same cycle as in the

Consider this example. In the US, third-wave *activity* peaked in 1991. Barely
three years later, this visible resistance had again died down, leaving
continuing debates about feminism largely to the academy. In l997, federal
"welfare" laws were repealed in an all-out assault on the public safety net for
the poor. At the same time, forced labor through "workfare" and prison programs
has begun to intensify, and the expansion of the feminized global electronic
homework economy has produced a new wave of sweatshop labor. Since these
initiatives have a dramatic effect on poor and working-class women, one would
think that the conditions would be right for a new popular front of feminist
activism and resistance. However, the social body and public life seem so
splintered, alienated, stratified, and distracted by market economy, that as yet
no signs of such activism have appeared. Is this problem partly that the avant
garde has been paid off to the extent that the issues of the poor which do not
effect its members are no cause for action? Is this problem repeating itself in
cyberspace and in its manufacture? There are so many more problems to face than
just access for all.

* Just so the authors' position is clear: We do not support a reductive equality
feminism, i.e., support the existing system, but believe there should be equal
gender representation in all its territories. We do not support pancapitalism.
It is a predatory, pernicious, and sexist system that will not change even if
there was equal representation of gender in the policy making classes. Our
argument here is that women need access to empowering knowledge and tools which
are now dominated by a despicable "virtual class (Kroker)."  We do not mean to
suggest that women become a part of this class. To break the "glass ceiling" and
become an active part of the exploiting class that benefits from gender
hierarchy is not a feminist goal, nor anything to be proud of.

**In her essay, "The Future Looms: Weaving Women and Cybernetics," Sadie Plant
spins a mythical genesis for the convergence of women and machines in a
feminised cybernetics based on women's ancient invention of the craft of
weaving. This convergence "is reinforced by cyberfeminism... a perspective
(which) is received from the future." In the 70's creating a female mythology
was an inspiring and necessary part of recovering and writing the histories of
women, and of honoring female cultural inventions and female generativity (the
Matrix). Cyberfeminist mythologizing is a welcome sign of inspiration and
empowerment, and at this point in time, makes good tactical sense. Such work
offers a clear explanation of a constructive relationship between women and
technology, and it begins the process of rewriting the gender code of
cyberspace. However, in a political sense, the function of the mythic "natural
woman" has its limits. In this case, it seems just as likely that weaving was a
woefully boring task that was forced upon the disenfranchised. (This trend of
boring and alienating work as a the domain of the disempowered is certainly
repeating itself in the pancapitalist technocracy.) As cyberfeminist critique
increases in complexity, and therefore in ambiguity, the current cyberfeminist
mythology will have to fade away much as matriarchal Crete and cunt iconography
did in the late 70s.

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: