estudos feministas / études féministes
Surfing the Waves of Feminism: Cyberfeminism and its others
Since the early 1990s, cyberfeminism has been a discursive
arena for analyzing inter-connections of gender, new technology, and the
Internet in particular. Nevertheless, there remains little agreement over
key-words: cyberfeminism, gender, technology
Broadly speaking, cyberfeminism stands for feminist appropriation of information and computer technology (ICT) both on a practical and theoretical level, for critical analysis and rethinking of gendered power relations related to technology. Within media studies, cyberfeminism has been understood as synonymous with feminist studies of new media that investigate interconnections of gender, embodiment and technology.
There seems, however, to be little consensus over the meanings and boundaries of the concept of “cyberfeminism” beyond this. If anyone can, and everyone should invent her own cyberfeminism, as the cyberfeminist network Old Boys Network (OBN) has suggested, the concept seems fluid to the point of nominalism. To the degree that cyberfeminism has been characterized by diversity, playfulness and impossibility of exact definition, one may ask what happens when difference becomes a truism. Furthermore, since multiplicity - multiple feminisms and differences among women - is articulated through the prefix “cyber” and often against the term feminism, questions concerning the story of feminism and the meanings given to the cyber prefix necessitate some analysis.
In what follows, I consider the meanings of cyberfeminism and its relations to feminism in an attempt to understand how various celebrations and reiterations of the prefix “cyber” have implied an othering of feminism and feminist politics, and how this division corresponds with the division of online and offline.
Cybefeminism: brief genesis
The term cyberfeminism has been attributed to the artist group VNS Matrix and theorist Sadie Plant. According to an often reiterated story of genesis, cyberfeminism came to being in Adelaide, Australia, 1991 as the VNS Matrix, a group of four female artists (Josephine Starrs, Francesca di Rimini, Julianne Pierce and Virginia Barratt), “decided to have some fun with art and French feminist theory” (Pierce 1998, 10). The group authored “A cyberfeminist manifesto for the 21st century” inspired by Donna Haraway’s 1985 “A Manifesto for Cyborgs.”
VNS Matrix's projects like All New Gen and Corpusfantastica MOO fund resonance with Sadie Plant who became the best-known theorist of cyberfeminism, at least in Europe. For Plant, VNS Matrix’s often playful projects illustrated the affinities between feminine modes of language and the communicational forms of the Internet. VNS Matrix's slogan “the clitoris is a direct line to the matrix” became the motto for Plant’s (1996a) own cyberfeminist manifesto, “Feminisations: Reflections on Women and Virtual Reality” that outlined a development towards entropy, networks, and self-organizing systems. The narrative of feminisation evolved in the texts published by Plant in 1995-1997, outlining a narrative trajectory of women and networks from prehistory to the era of computing. The broad, metaphorical, and often rather ephemeral narrative ties women and machines together as tools and others of masculine culture and promises complicated and intertwining webs that will eventually overturn the phallogocentric hegemony. According to Plant (1996b, 182), the cyberfeminism surfacing in feminisation “may not be feminism at all” to the degree that feminist activism is, for Plant, outdated and unfitting for the contemporary situation in which patriarchy's tools and machines (women, computers, and media) have grown out of control (173.)
Plant’s writings have been widely published and referenced and in several readers and anthologies on new media and Internet culture they represent cyberfeminism in general. In other words, Plant’s work has become key reference of cyberfeminism similarly than Haraway’s cyborg manifesto which - in the words of Natalie Magnan - has been canonized as a “holy text” of cyberfeminism.
Haraway’s (1991) manifesto, of course, does not address the Internet but questions of feminist agency and binary thinking. It aims to bridge borderlines drawn within feminist theory in relation to sexuality, “race,” and class, and suggests irony and alliance as alternatives to celebrations of a “natural” unity and generalizations over the category of women. The cyborg stands for a metaphor of feminist subject, a boundary figure that moves across the hierarchical categories of the natural and the artificial, the organic and the technological without positioning technology as a masculine other of women and nature, as was done in some cultural feminist writings in the 1970s (cf. Griffin 1978; Daly 1990). Doing this, Haraway also formulates a critical feminist position in relation to technology and the natural sciences.
The cyborg has since had a vibrant and well-document life as a theoretical figure and topic in studies of new media. The multiple affinities between human bodies and machines (functional analogies, prostheses, technological aides) discussed through the cyborg figure have been seen to question the naturalness of the body and the categories of humans, machines, and animals. Within cultural theory, cyborg references have been used in a critique of the autonomous modern subject. Nevertheless, these rationalized articulations of body-machines also owe to the cybernetic framework that tends to view the body less as a material object than an abstraction or an informational pattern (Hayles 1999, 100). This tendency to do away with the body and to imagine disembodied feminisms and agencies online implies both abstraction of the body and bypassing the meanings of embodiments (bodies as lived, experienced, and sensed).
While Haraway (2000, 85-86), trained in biology, writes of bodies as both material and semiotic, Plant (1997, 3) metaphorizes bodies as multiplicities of intensities and pulsations. And while Haraway emphasizes situated knowledges, scholarly answerability, and possibilities of feminist politics, Plant presents a narrative of evolution that denies both individual and collective agency (cf. Fernandez 2003). According to Plant (1997, 45), the goals of the women’s liberation movement will evolve automatically in the course of feminization and digitization and this does not necessitate - or even enable - political agency. This somewhat optimistic (and deterministic) view may partially explain the authoritative status that Plant gained during the techno-boom of the 1990s, before the dot.com bubbles burst.
Although Plant remains one of the best-known cyberfeminist authors, her work does not represent cyberfeminism in general, nor is it accurate or useful to depict cyberfeminism as a unified field of views and practices. If one is to make sense of the diverse uses of the term cyberfeminism, these can be broadly categorized in at least three, albeit overlapping ways. Plant’s version of cyberfeminism stands for an aim to depict technology-satured culture and the (im)possibilities of feminist agency in a similar way than postmodern theory can be understood as an attempt to map the implications of late capitalism, media, and consumerism for ways of experiencing and making sense of the world. Such use of cyberfeminism as a broad tactical term can also be found Haraway’s manifesto and Rosi Braidotti’s (1996; 2002) work.
A second possible definition of cyberfeminism implies a critical analysis of cybernetics in relation to feminist thought - of cyberfeminism as a critical textual position. This kind of setting can be connected to Haraway’s writings, Sarah Kember’s (2002) work on artificial life, Alison Adam’s (1998) work on artificial intelligence, N. Katherine Hayles’ (1999) research on cybernetics, as well as the projects of the subRosa collective consisting of artists, activists and researchers. It should be noted, however, that scholars such as Alison Adam (1997) have strongly disidentified themselves with cyberfeminism, and hence this tentative categorization is very much a product of my own interpretation.
In a third possible definition, cyberfeminism stands for analysis of the gendered user cultures of ICT and digital media, their feminist uses, and power structures (cf. Squires 2000; Springer 1996). This is also the way in which cyberfeminism is widely used in the United States as anonymous with feminist studies of new media. Yet this schema can only cover one side of the uses of cyberfeminism. To the degree that the cyber prefix remains undefined and exceedingly slippery—standing for things computer-generated or -mediated, cybernetic views of the human, or postfeminist thought—its implications in terms of feminism remain in flux. In my view, the most central question concerning the definitions of cyberfeminism has to do with the relationship of cyber and feminism: whether cyber is seen as marker of context within, or a marker of distance towards feminism.
Long live irony
The relationship between cyberfeminism and feminism is a multifaceted one. In addition to feminists working on digital media and appropriating the cyber prefix, women disidentifying with feminists have felt more comfortable embracing cyberfeminism. In her presentation at the second cyberfeminist international (the Old Boys Network, a.k.a. OBN organized three of these in 1997-2001), artist Corrine Petrus (1998, 75) explains that she does not consider herself a feminist “but maybe I want to call myself a cyberfeminist. There is one thing I like very much about Cyberfeminism and this is, that nobody knows what it is exactly. It has no boundaries yet.” The prefix “cyber” stands for novelty and new possibilities based on a departure from feminism as well as the elasticity of the term itself.
As Maria Fernandez and Faith Wilding (2003, 18-20) point out, many cyberfeminists feel ambivalent and uncomfortable towards feminisms and this discomfort is often associated with unfamiliarity with feminist histories and paradigms. Cyberfeminism has been posed as new kind of feminism accessible to diverse groups of women—and young women in particular. Similar formulations of postfeminism, third wave feminism, new feminism (Walter 1998), and power feminism (Wolf 1993) have been published as manifestos and accessible non-fiction titles since the ‘90s. While I appreciate the goals of new feminisms in reaching out to women who find it difficult to identify or even sympathize with feminism, I am more wary of the rhetorical tactics involved. In a recurring rhetorical move, these new feminisms celebrate female sexuality, empowerment, and independence and situate themselves in opposition to “1970s feminism.” Paradoxically, these similar aims are equally celebrated in the feminist publications from three decades ago.
Cyberfeminist internationals encouraged cyberfeminists to articulate their own personal agenda and politics (Sollfrank 1998): for those drawing on Sadie Plant this has meant poetic and often apolitical versions of feminism, whereas for others cyberfeminisms is essentially a form of grassroots level activism and struggle over technological agency, and still others understand it as feminist media studies. Such “customized” definitions make cyberfeminism easy to apply and appropriate, but difficult to see as a collective point of identification. It may be equally difficult to see what kind of dialogue cyberfeminism enables.
Cyberfeminists have appropriated terms referring to 19th century socialism from manifestos to internationals in the name of irony. The first cyberfeminist international at the 1997 Documenta X exhibition in Kassel agreed not to define cyberfemism and produced “The 100 anti-theses of cyberfeminism” (100 things that cyberfeminism is not). According to these, cyberfeminism is not a fragrance, separatism, for sale, abject, a picnic, caffeine-free, anti-male, or a banana. The common nominators of cyberfeminism have been found mainly from irony and opposition - although there has been variation in their respective targets. Cornelia Sollfrank (1998, 61) sees irony - humor and seriousness combined - as the quintessential cyberfeminist strategy that makes it possible to join contradictory views. Suspended in productive tension, ironical cyberfeminism “is not just a rhetorical strategy, but also a political method.”
Irony seems to have become a cornerstone of cyberfeminism from Haraway’s ironic cyborg to VNS Matrix’s ironic art projects and OBN’s politics of irony. Cyberfeminist irony has been targeted against “old boys networks,” male dominance in gaming and cyberpunk imageries as well as stereotypes attached to feminism. In these instances, irony can be understood as a critical stance that disturbs gendered structures of power related to new media.
Yet irony involves interpretation, reading, and recognizing something as ironic, and there is little guarantee that the views of people producing and reading the texts necessarily meet. As Linda Hutcheon (1994, 14) has noted, the uses of irony include moments of misunderstanding and messy meaning. Irony may well function as a kind of boomerang if ironic distance is erased and things read literally. Irony becomes a problematic - or at least heavily limited - strategy also when its referent, point, or location is left unclear. Saying one thing and meaning another is a means of joining contradictory views but perhaps not the best means for making an argument or discussing things parallel to each other without setting them in opposition. In cyberfeminist texts, irony has been used to create distance (towards “cyberculture” and/or feminism) in ways that may also translate as superiority.
Cyberfeminist emphasis on novelty and irony can also bypass questions concerning power and inequality. While differences among and between women are emphasized and individual women are invited to outline their personal cyberfeminisms, these are not necessarily followed by reflections on power, location, and difference central to postcolonial and queer feminist research. We may “all know” that “all women are different” but without analysis of how identity categories, locations, or structures of privilege work in and through these differences - both online and offline - this knowledge is as little else than a truism. A discourse on difference needs to be self-reflexive so as not to produce a “doubletalk” in which diversity and multiplicity is emphasized without questioning and disrupting the normative position of white, middle-class, heterosexual Western women as agents of (cyber)feminism.
Enter the next generation
Cyberfeminist is situated in a crossroad of art, research and activism and the debates over the meaning of cyberfeminism have also to do with the varying backgrounds of individual cyberfeminist, as well as their respective understandings of feminism. According to the former VNS Matrix member Julianne Pierce (1998, 10), cyberfeminism is an “incredibly important ‘movement’ “ that “is certainly ‘feminism,’ as it advocates that women participate in creating and defining the present and future of techno culture. But somehow the ‘feminism’ is the problem, some of the old guard see it as a vacuous fashion statement (a sort of cyberspice), and the young guard don't need feminism anymore.” Pierce suggests abandoning the term, or updating it in a plural form to correspond to its many strands. In any case what is needed is a shift from utopian visions to considerations of power, money, and Internet business: “The new cyberfeminism is about confronting the top-down with the bottom-up [--] It's about creating foundations to build upon, so that in the next millennium we can carve our own paths, create our own corporations” (Pierce 1998, 10).
In its emphasis on economical independence and power to feminist activity, this formulation renders cyberfeminism as kin to power feminism, as advocated by Naomi Wolf (1993). This connection is created also on another level as the juxtaposition of “the old guard” and the young one that corresponds to a degree with Wolf’s definition of power and victim feminism. Similar emphasis can be noted in Riot Grrrl zines and sites that are often read as cyberfeminist manifestation. Basing on alternative punk cultures and photocopied zines, grrrl sites certainly make use of irony and parody in their design and layout in ways that suggests certain affinity with cyberfeminist tactics (Ladendorf 2002).
Several grrrl zine authors have found it important to argue against the idea of Riot Grrrl as a feminist movement. Zine authors Carla Sinclair and Lynda Weinman make this stance explicit in an interview with Amelia deLoach (1996): “I am not part of any movement—I am an independent person w/my own ideas and beliefs”; “I am not a part of it. I am definitely a feminist, very interested in seeing more equality among gender lines. But I’m not political particularly or dogmatic. I just live what I believe.” According to Rosie X, editor of GeekGirl, “this idea of a movement is based on an older style feminist rhetoric which tended to homogenize all women with the same wants/needs/desires to embrace each other” (deLoach 1996; also Wakeford 1997, 60-61). Similarly, Marion Leonard (1998, 110-112) argues that although the “use of the word grrrl suggests a certain feminist affinity,” this does not make Riot Grrrl a movement.
While a discourse on individuality is part and parcel of Grrrl statements, this does not automatically translate as lack of feminist identification. On the contrary, the well-known manifesto, “Riot Grrrl Is” (2002, originally published in 1991) is explicitly feminist, anti-heterosexist and anti-racist. In spite of this, feminism tends to figure as monolithic otherness and remainder of past decades where sisterhood was understood as sameness. In this sense, both Grrrl and cyberfeminist manifestations owe to the discourse of “third wave” feminism that, especially in its more popular forms, lays emphasis on diversity in ways that may ultimately translate as individualism.
Cyberfeminism is associated with assumptions of possibilities and freedom that are not connected to previous forms of feminism. Possibilities of freedom, again, connected to the still hyped up expectations concerning new media - and especially information networks - as the means of sociocultural transformation. Reading though cyberspace discourse, Zillah Eisenstein (1998) has analyzed the cyberfantasy of the Internet as a site of freedom of speech, voluntary communities, and futuristic promises. This cyberfantasy is recycled in research as well as journalism. It positions the Internet as an alternative dimension to offline existence - as disembodied, free, global and self-regulating - but doing this, it masks and reproduces global capitalism, patriarchal structures of power and neoliberal faith in the individual while remaining silent on questions concerning power. Although Internet hype has suffered severe drawbacks since the turn of the millennium, the investement in cyberfantasy seems more long-term.
The diversity and freedom proclaimed in cyberfeminism needs to be defined against a reference point standing for the opposite and 1970s feminism figures often as such otherness - standing equally for monumentalist, essentialist, anti-technology and anti-sex stances. Nevertheless, cyberfeminist practices include several tactics familiar from 1970s, such as separatism and cunt art (Fernandez and Wilding 2003).
As Maria Fernandez (2001) has pointed out, cyberfeminism has contributed to a narrative of feminism as mutually opposing waves while divesting feminism as a political category. This conceptual and representation strategy is not unique to cyberfeminist writers. In her overview on postfeminist theory, Ann Brooks (1998, 1) conceptualizes feminism as an “evolutionary movement” towards the maturity signified by postfeminism. Paraphrasing Sara Ahmed (1998, 70), this can be read as “a curiously modern narrative of progress” that largely overlooks the coexistence of different feminist paradigms with their varying tactics and goals. The diversity of feminisms seems to have little space in such oppositions that enables positioning poststructuralist theory as the other to 1970s feminism and - in Teresa de Lauretis’ ironic terms - as the “dark horse and winner of the feminist theory contest” (de Lauretis, 1989, 6-8).
Reading feminist texts on gender, technology, and cybernetics produced in different decades makes it difficult to make clear-cut categorizations. While there certainly are differences in theoretical tools and concepts employed, there are also shared tactics and horizons of imagination. If one is unwilling to account for the diversity of what has counted as a feminist discourse of technology then defining cyberfeminism or third wave feminism against this imagined other hardly enables the articulation of an alternative discourse. Defining tactics and theoretical stances through negation is far easier than looking at overlaps, continuities and shared aims, yet these are crucial for understanding the field of feminist studies of media and technology.
Surfing the waves
Categorizations of waves, decades, and generations help to map out the transformations in feminist theory and practice, differences in both starting points and aims, but they also tend to produce problematic simplifications that add to the story of feminism as a narrative of progress leading to increased sophistication.
Cyberfeminist and grrrl articulations postulate a “second wave” feminist discourse that defines technology as tool and form of masculine violence. Yet reading feminists texts of the 1970s and 1980s reveals a large variety of stances from Shulamith Firestone’s (1970) technophile appropriations of technology for the ends of feminist revolution to appropriations and critiques of technology in cinema and photography (Penley 1988; Spence 1995). Certainly there has never been such a thing as “a feminist definition of technology” but positions toward and critiques of different technologies, attempts to appropriate them and alter their meanings have been multiple and contradictory for some time before cyberfeminism. Although feminist authors may define technology as a product of male-dominated culture, its possible meanings are not fixed by its origins (Donna Haraway points to this, writing of cyborg as bastard offspring unfaithful to its military origins and originating fathers). The question, then, concerns signification, tactics of representation and the use of these technologies (how they are made to signify), rather than their assumed, unchanging essence.
Following Lynn Spigel (2001, 361, 370), generalizations over the waves or stages of feminism simplify the past in order to affirm the present - these visions of the past implicitly suggest the “ ‘progress’ of contemporary culture” and its “hip attitudes.” The past is de- and recontextualized “in order to believe in the progress of the present,” and this involves as much forgetting as it does remembering (362). I find this particularly pertinent in the uses of feminism in cyberfeminist and grrrl practices that tend to be rather selective in terms of remembering and forgetting the legacy of feminist thought. This is due to the tendency to surf the waves of feminism without digging into their contents and inner tensions. If one dives into the pool of feminist thought it is far more difficult to tell the waves apart.
Riding high on the wave crest of irony is a tricky tactic: identifying with the “newest wave” of feminism implies being on the top but also inevitable fall as the wave breaks—after all, there is only one way to move from the crest of a wave. Similar problem seems to haunt categorizations of feminism more generally from Julia Kristeva’s model of the three stages of feminism to the one of the first, second and third wave of feminism. It is possible to read these categorizations as symptoms of a dialectic (sub)consciousness. Yet the open question remains: What will happen after the synthesis? What to do with cyberfeminism when the third wave hits the shore?
My suggestion is simple enough: to take seriously Haraway’s suggestion from two decades ago and to think through alliances and affinities between women and feminisms rather than oppositions and binaries; to think besides previous feminisms and other feminists rather than beyond them (cf. Sedgwick 2003, 8). Binaries such as old and new feminism, second and third wave, offline and online may be useful in charting developments and sketching out differences, but far less useful as analytical tools. Certainly it is far easier to point out the need to dismantle the power of binary thought than it is to articulate alternative forms of thought and location (2) but this need not keep us from trying.
It is fortuitous irony that cyberfeminism, drawing so centrally from the cyborg manifesto, seems to reiterate the kind of binary thinking the manifesto tries to dismantle. Cyberfeminism needs to be both online and offline and to question the premises and implications that this division has in the first place. Cyberfeminism can function as a critical position and point of agency towards the politics, economics, and cultures of cyberculture but in order to accomplish this it needs to remain grounded and situated, embodied and political.
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Susanna Paasonen, Ph.D, is assistant
professor on digital culture at University of Jyväskylä and adjunct professor
on media culture at University of Tampere, Finland. Susanna has been collaborating
on net art projects and writing on cyberfeminism since the late '90s.
She has also edited and published several books on media studies, feminist
theory and popular culture, including Women and Everyday Uses of the Internet:
Agency & Identity (ed. with Mia Consalvo, Peter Lang 2002) and Figures
of Fantasy: Women, Internet and Cyberdiscourse (Peter Lang,
estudos feministas / études féministes