ON THE POLITICAL CONDITION OF CYBERFEMINISM
Faith Wilding & Critical Art Ensemble
Cyberfeminism is a promising new wave of (post)feminist thinking and practice. Through the work of numerous Netactive women, there is now a distinct cyberfeminist Netpresence that is fresh, brash, smart, and iconoclastic of many of the tenets of classical feminism. At the same time, cyberfeminism has only taken its first steps in contesting technologically complex territories. To complicate matters further, these new territories have been overcoded to a mythic degree as a male domain. Consequently, cyberfeminist incursion into various technoworlds (CD-ROM production, Web works, lists and news groups, artificial intelligence, etc.) has been largely nomadic, spontaneous, and anarchic. On the one hand, these qualities have allowed maximum freedom for diverse manifestations, experiments, and the beginnings of various written and artistic genres. On the other, networks and organizations seem somewhat lacking, and the theoretical issues of gender regarding the techno-social are immature relative to their development in spaces of greater gender equity won through struggle. Given such conditions, some feminist strategies and tactics will repeat themselves as women attempt to establish a foothold in a territory traditionally denied to them. This repetition should not be considered with the usual yawn of boredom whenever the familiar appears, as cyberspace is a crucial point of gender struggle that is desperately in need of gender diversification (and diversity in general).
The Feminist Cycle
One aspect immediately evident is that the Net provides cyberfeminists with a vehicle crucially different from anything available to prior feminist waves. Historically, feminist activism has depended on women getting together bodily--in kitchens, churches, assembly halls, and in the streets. The organizing cell for the first phase of feminism was the sewing circle, the quilting group, or the ladies' charity organization. Women met together in private to plan their public campaigns for political and legal enfranchisement. In these campaigns the visible presence of groups of women plucked from the silenced isolation of their homes, became a public sign of female rebellion and activism. Women acting together, speaking in public, marching through the streets, and disrupting public life were activities that opened up political territories that were traditionally closed to them.
During the second wave of feminism, which emerged in the early sixties, women again started meeting together to plan actions. They met in consciousness-raising groups that became the organizing cells for a revived feminist movement. This time, feminists began to master a new tactic: creating counter-spectacle in the media. Women staged actions targeted at highly visible public icons, like the Miss America Pageant, Playboy offices and clubs, Wall Street, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Pentagon, and the White House. Everywhere the actions occurred, the news media was there to document outrageous female misbehavior. If the first wave was marked by women's incursion into new political territories, this second wave was marked by a march into new economic territories and by a reconfiguration of familiar territories. Most significant was women's demand for access to the means of financial independence-a struggle that continues in the third phase of feminist practice. On the more traditional end of the struggle, domestic space was no longer perceived as a totalizing feminine space, but was re-presented as a space of ambiguity with both celebratory and exploitive characteristics. On the political front, feminism focused on liberation practices, and left many of the old right wing practices behind, such as temperance movements.
The third wave of feminisms (cultural-, eco-, theoretical-, sex positive-, lesbian-, anti-porn-, multicultural-, etc.)--often collectively dubbed Postfeminism--continues to use these models of public action and rebellion. A recent case in point was the short-lived but highly visibleWomen's Action Coalition (WAC) that began in New York in late l991, following a series of events that enraged women in the US (the Hill/Thomas hearings; the William Kennedy Smith and Mike Tyson rape trials; the judicial battles over abortion rights). WAC produced a spectacle that was hip, sexy, cool, fun, outrageous, and visible. Eight thousand women joined in the first year, and chapters sprang up around the US and in Canada. Much of this initial success was due to the highly effective communication and networking system that WAC immediately organized. Central to this system was the phone tree, combined with adequate access to fax machines, e-mail, and media contacts. In a sense, WAC was an early proto-electronic feminist organization. Having motivated and organized so many women, WAC reinvigorated feminist activism, and, in the US, led a new wave of contestation in all the traditional feminist territories. Like most radical organizations, it was only a temporary tactical organization. It was unable to survive its rapid growth, and all too soon reached critical mass, when explosive splintering forced it to choose one of two outcomes: purge and bureaucratize, or dissolve. WAC wasn't able to organize its way out of the contradictions of difference, nor was it able to continue resisting some of the dogmatic tendencies of "mainstream" and "security state" feminism which proscribe certain behaviors, beliefs, and lifestyles. While the former option of purge and bureaucratize was first attempted, the fabric of radicality was strong enough that dissolution spontaneously occurred.
The third wave (with a few exceptions) has missed moving into one crucial area, however, and that was the revolution in communications and information technology. Cyberfeminism represents a new set of explorers ready to move the struggle into this new territory. As yet, the movement is still too young to face struggles inherent in the economy of difference. As on most frontiers, there still *seems* to be room for everyone. At the same time, there are lessons to be learned from history. Radical movements in their infancy tend to return to past patterns. Cyberfeminism is no different, and key issues such as feminine subjectivity, separatism and boundary maintenance, and territorial identification are bound to arise again, even if they seem dead in other feminist territories.
What is the territory that cyberfeminism is questioning, theorizing, and actively confronting? The surface answer is, of course, cyberspace, but such an answer is not really satisfying. Cyberspace is but one small part, since the infrastructure that produces this virtual world is so vast. Hardware and software design and manufacture are certainly of key importance, and perhaps most significant of all are the institutions that train those who design the products of cyber-life. Overwhelmingly, these products are designed by males for business or military operations. Clearly these are still primarily male domains (i.e., men are the policy makers) in which men have the buying power, and so the products are designed to meet their needs or to play on their desires. From the beginning, entrance into this high-end techno-world (the virtual class) has been skewed in favor of males. Beginning with early socialization/education, technology and technological process are gendered as male domains. This is not to argue that women should become part of the new despicable "virtual class" (Kroker), but that they need access to the tools which are now dominated by this class.
Women are an important consumer market, and help maintain the status quo when the technology is used in a passive manner. For example, most institutions of commerce or government are all too happy to give women computers, e-mail accounts, and so on if it will make them better bureaucrats. This is a very similar situation to late 50s/early 60s America when middle-class husbands were more than happy to buy a second car for their wives--as long as it made them more efficient domestic workers. Technology in this case was used to deepen the confinement of women within their situation rather than liberate them from it. (As a general rule, anything you get without struggle should be viewed with intense skepticism). The technology and technological processes to which women currently have access are the consequence of structural economic necessity. However, all we need is a shift in consciousness to begin the subversion of the current gender structure (this is the positive side of so many women being on-line).
Cyberfeminism is also a struggle to be increasingly aware of the impact of new technologies on the lives of women, and the insidious gendering of technoculture in everyday life. Cyberspace does not exist in a vacuum; it is intimately connected to numerous real-world institutions and systems that thrive on gender separation and hierarchy. Finally, cyberfeminism must radically expand the critique concerning the media hype about the "technoworld." While the utopian cyber-spectacle has been adequately deflated by documentation of its abuse of the bureaucratic class, low-end technocratic class, and workers involved in product manufacturing, this critique, in terms of gender and race, has been very modest. For example, who can possibly believe that age, race, or gender do not matter in cyberspace? We must also ask what awaits people in a minoritarian position once they are online? While there are virtual pockets in which continuity exists, the overwhelmingly representative situation is geared to the same majoritarian consciousness that is found in the real-world. In other words, elements of social stratification are reflected and replicated in cyberspace.
Separatism and Boundary Maintenance
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.
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.
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. 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.
Cyberfeminist Body Art
Bodies 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. To a large extent the explosion of body art on the Net is simply a transposition of what already exists in other media. But 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. 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 virtual 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 past.
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