This is the first in a series of writing commissions developed in relation to material from Kathy Rae Huffman’s media art library while installed at Res during 2016/17. The next stage of this programme will launch in January 2018.
After the Future: n Hypotheses of Post-Cyber Feminism
by Helen Hester
This essay seeks to critically examine some of the strategies (critical, political, and aesthetic) implemented by a previous generation of feminist thinkers, and to understand which elements of this activism might be effectively repurposed for today. More specifically, it speculates upon what the cyberfeminism of the 1990s – a diverse ‘range of theories, debates, and practices about the relationship between gender and digital culture’ (Daniels, 2009: 102) – might have to offer emancipatory political projects in the twenty-first century. Given that there are a range of gendered challenges specifically relating to ‘living in the condition of virtuality’ (Hayles, 1999: 18) – from sexual harassment via social media to privacy and the protection of online images – there is still much to gain from engaging with pre-millennial cyberfeminist thought. However, not only have technomaterial conditions changed considerably over the past twenty years or so, but the theoretical underpinnings of some cyberfeminist endeavours appear in critical need of an update. In what follows, I will seek to acknowledge and build upon important activist genealogies, whilst gesturing toward some possible avenues for expanding upon and revising this element of our feminist history.
In her 2011 article “Revisiting Cyberfeminism,” the critic Susanna Paasonen points to a waning interest in cyberfeminist initiatives within contemporary media arts practice. Attributing the ‘fading attraction of cyberfeminism’ to shifts in the discursive environment (2011: 346), she notes that the term “cyber” has come to connote a kind of technoutopianism that does not sit well with the perceived mundanity and increasing domestication of much of the digital sphere. As a prefix, she contends, “cyber” no longer feels sufficiently current, and is thus unlikely to do much to capture and mobilize the political imagination. However, there is no denying the transformational impact of digital technologies upon contemporary cultures, societies, and lived experiences, and as such, it is crucial that today’s feminists find new ways of interrogating digitality alongside gender and sexuality. We need to articulate a feminism fit for a world ‘that swarms with technological mediation, […] abstraction, virtuality, and complexity’ (Laboria Cuboniks, 2015: n.p.). Re-entering the debates around cyberfeminism and exploring new directions for its creative and critical insights – a process already increasingly apparent within artistic, theoretical, and activist circles alike – may be one way of achieving this.
Our discussion starts with the work of the philosopher Sadie Plant, whose writings are taken to be illustrative of a number of aesthetic and political tendencies within cyberfeminism. However, the latter part of this essay is primarily concerned with one of the key texts included within the Kathy Rae Huffman archive – the collected proceedings of the First Cyberfeminist International, and the “100 anti-theses of cyberfeminism” contained therein. The questions animating me here are as follows: What does it mean to be a cyberfeminist today? How can we articulate a rigorous, substantive, and purposeful vision of cyberfeminism without being exclusionary or restricting possible incidences of difference and contestation? In short, what is Cyberfeminism 2.0, and how can we build it? If I cannot hope to answer such substantial questions within the limited space available to me here, I at least hope that what follows will indicate both my personal indebtedness to cyberfeminist practice, and my hopes that – in interrogating the limits of its twentieth century incarnation – we might be able to enter into a collective process of revising its commitments.
Our Name is Zero, for we are Many
Pre-millennial cyberfeminism frequently displays an interest in networks and numerousness, permeation and plurality. In her book Zeros + Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture, for example, Sadie Plant discusses the development of the typewriter and the computer, linking these technologies both to women as users and to a broader notion of feminization, understood in terms of complexity, connectivity, and disruptive multiplicity. Plant states that:
If handwriting had been manual and male, typewriting was fingerprinting: fast, tactile, digital, and female. […] Text was no longer in the grasp of the hand and eye, but guided by contacts and keystrokes, a matter of touch sensitivity. An activity which had once been concentrated on a tight nexus of coordinated organs – hand and eye – and a single instrument – the pen – was now processed through a distributed digital machinery composed of fingers, keys, hammers, platens, carriages, levers, cogs, and wheels. (1997: 118)
The typewriter, then – closely linked with access to the workplace for a distinctive (white, cis, able-bodied) demographic – is read as a feminized technology. It disturbs and disorders the phallocentric “one” with a multiplicity of elements that are decidedly not one – which are, in fact, more akin to the legion female zero.
The potentially troubling intersections of this analysis with elements of psychoanalytically-inflected theory are obvious, and have been much remarked upon by feminist critics. As Diana McCarty notes in her review of the book in the First Cyberfeminist International reader, Plant ‘embraces the notions of such thinkers as Freud and Irigaray, and remixes them. Are women different? Of course. Is it all about genitalia? Why not?’  (1998: 79). From my perspective, however, the really substantial limitations of the text are to be found elsewhere. Quite aside from what some have viewed as its problematic essentialism, Zeros + Ones is apt to run multiple tendencies together and to make associative leaps between phenomena. We are led from psychoanalytical accounts of plaiting and weaving, to the connection between automation and women’s labour force participation, to cyberpunk and science fiction. We slide between ’90s club culture, accounts of femininity as a disruptive technology, and the history of the development of the Analytical Engine. This insistent blurring of the boundaries between concepts strikes me as substantially restricting much of the text’s diagnostic capacity and political utility.
This is in no way to deny the affective power of the text; Plant’s analysis of technomaterial conditions is suggestive, stirring, and rich in allusion. Her lashing together of silicon and carbon, bodies and binary code, certainly makes for an exhilarating read, and the rhapsodic quality of her prose generates an enlivening sense of received wisdom being uprooted . However, it is precisely this textual strategy that allows the idea of multiplicity (as manifested in the distributed touch of the typist) to be theorized as a signifier of a radical gender political potential, rather than as, say, a quality of an expendable and exploitable employee-operator. In this sense, Zeros + Ones is more of an imagistic provocation than it is an intervention within the extra-textual political landscape. It exemplifies what Alberto Toscano has described as a politics of illusion – ‘the persuasion that the powerless can prevail over the powerful without concentrating and organising their forces’ (2011: n.p.). Such an attitude is characterized by acceptance of the myth that ‘amid immensely asymmetric social warfare, the amorphous swarms of an uncoordinated multiplicity would somehow carry an advantage against the sclerotic infrastructure of power’ (Toscano, 2011: n.p.). Arguably, this rather optimistic approach to digitality and connectivity is characteristic not only of Plant’s work, but of the dominant strands of pre-millennial cyberfeminism more generally.
Heretical and Antithetical: Cyberfeminist Politics
Notably, a thematic concern with capillary diffusion across tentacular, decentralized networks is articulated in, or reflected by, the form taken by many activist interventions during the second half of the 1990s. In other words, an interest in digital distribution and proliferation seems to be mirrored by the types of artistic practice and concrete action that came to the fore during this period. Paasonen remarks, for example, that ‘Cyberfeminist politics has been scattered and practiced on the micro level in networking, women’s technology workshops, and various other kinds of critical interventions’ (2010: 72). Indeed, as Julianne Pierce approvingly noted at the time,
The updated version of cyberfeminism is more about networking, webgrrrls, geek girls, FACES, OBN, online publishing, career prospects, list servers and international conferences. It’s about Hybrid Workspace and the 100 anti-theses, it’s about getting grants and funding to create opportunities to meet and make work. It’s about training and creating opportunities, making money, doing business and doing deals. (1998: 10)
Here, cyberfeminism’s conceptual preoccupation with decentralization is paired with (and expressed via) an apparent preference for scattered micro-politiking.
From at least the time of the First Cyberfeminist International in 1997, this approach has manifested itself as a reluctance to define cyberfeminism or to dictate specific goals. In Pierce’s words, ‘perhaps we should abandon “cyberfeminism”. There is no longer one cyberfeminism, there are now many cyberfeminisms – as it grows and mutates and is adapted by the growing number of digital tribes’ (1998: 10). Cornelia Sollfrank, meanwhile, notes that attendees at the International’s workshops ‘couldn’t agree on one definition of Cyberfeminism, but agreed NOT to define the term. The strategy of keeping the term as open as possible was consensual’ (1998: 1). This reflects a broader tendency within the movement to favour approaches maximally hospitable to difference, and to encourage participants ‘to articulate their own personal agendas and politics’ rather than imposing perspectives from above (Paasonen, 2010: 73).
This might be said to represent not only an expression of cyberfeminism’s commitment to proliferation, multiplicity and distribution, but also, an attempt to engage with perceived changes within the radical politics of the era. Sollfrank explicitly positions the critical interventions of the First Cyberfeminist International as an extension of paradigm shifts within the broader feminist landscape. She remarks that the ‘mass women’s movement of former years has been fragmented into a bewildering variety of feminismS [sic]. Identifying oneself as a woman is no longer enough to serve as a productive connecting link’ (1998: 1). In response to a perceived breaking down of old protocols of solidarity, pre-millennial cyberfeminism needed ‘to find new strategies for political action’ (1998: 1), and many activists understandably balked at the risks of performatively constituting a new political subject in this context – not least because of the risks of potentially exclusionary boundary-drawing this process of constitution might involve.
As a result, some cyberfeminists came to favour disidentification as an approach to movement building. Perhaps the most famous example of this tendency is the Old Boys Network’s “100 anti-theses of cyberfeminism”. As its name suggests, the anti-theses seek to provide a negative definition of cyberfeminism, loosely mapping this position through a series of playful and performative rejections rather than via an assertion of overarching identity. So, one encounters a series of refusals such as ‘cyberfeminism is not a fragrance’, ‘cyberfeminism is not error 101’, and ‘cyberfeminism is not about boring toys for boring boys’ (1997: n.p.). Whilst the OBN’s website archives the anti-theses in the form of a numbered list, the First Cyberfeminist International reader represents them in the form of a diagramme. Here, negatively charged words or phrases (depicted next to encircled minus signs) are distributed around the word ‘CYBERFEMINISM’ (which is itself surrounded by a clutch of free-floating plus signs). In keeping with the conceptual preoccupations of the movement, the anti-theses are represented in a dispersed and non-hierarchical manner (Old Boys Network, 1998: 89).
There is much to like about the OBN’s negatively characterising gesture. It is memorable, witty, and packs a rhetorical punch. Perhaps more importantly, it facilitates freedom from restrictive and potentially divisive acts of labelling and definition, creating an image of the movement from which few are likely to feel substantially estranged or excluded. This is an important move in an attempt to construct a feminism not based on ‘woman’ as a straightforwardly unificatory signifier. This gesture, however, also risks generating a cyberfeminism without a sense of direction and without a collective purpose – a position in which (from my perspective, at least) little appears possible in terms of working cooperatively to effectuate change or to extend capacities for meaningful action. This is perhaps reflected in the OBN’s rather individualistic assertion that ‘As soon as you have developed your personal approach to Cyberfeminism, you are a Cyberfeminist’ (FAQ: n.d). Such claims have led twenty-first century critics such as Judy Wajcman to describe cyberfeminism as ‘post-feminist’ in its emphasis on ‘neo-liberal values of individual choice and voluntary association’ and in its eschewal of ‘programmes of social and political change’ (2004: 76). Whilst disidentification might have felt like a worthwhile tactical gambit 20 years ago, we may now be better able to locate and appreciate both its political utility and the exact character of its limitations.
Although the OBN’s fastidious circumnavigation of a self-declared identity avoids the direct alienation of any potential ally, it also ends up offering only limited opportunities for coordinating collective action beyond the most minimal scale. A sense of inclusion and individual agency may be facilitated, but wider structural discontents are at risk of being overlooked or neglected. As a new generation of activists struggle with the demands of operating under conditions of socioeconomic complexity, this kind of disidentificatory response may continue to seem inviting – but it also strikes me as insufficient, and as ceding too much. Postmodern cyberfeminism was responding to pressures and trends within dynamic gender political landscapes at the fin de millennium, as well as engaging with developments in the wider technopolitical milieu. As that milieu continues to shift and evolve, new tactics will inevitably be required.
Conclusion: Xenomorphing Cyberfeminism
So, we have seen that the Old Boys Network eschewed self-identification, thereby mitigating the perceived dangers of the diverse strands of their practice coalescing into a pre-defined movement. In the ‘mess of mediation, between the poles of visibility (for privilege and rights), and invisibility (to escape limiting grammatical and hegemonic incorporation)’ (Tsang, 2005: 9), cyberfeminism opted to remain elusive. This created barriers in terms of thinking beyond the individual in order to make collective demands, and thereby (through the dissemination and subsequent influence of the text) worked to shape and constrain cyberfeminism’s horizons of possibility. For this reason, I have used much of this essay to dispute the contemporary usefulness of the methodology behind the “100 anti-theses”. Indeed, as we approach the twentieth anniversary of the First Cyberfeminist International, it may be an appropriate juncture at which to reflect upon whether the strategy of political disidentification must be abandoned altogether, or if it might instead be upgraded and made appropriate for today.
It is worth noting that whilst the OBN and their cyberfeminist peers were navigating the interregnum between second wave feminism and the swelling of the third wave, today’s feminist subjects are processing a rather different set of fallouts . Instead of sifting through the ashes of the mass women’s movement, we are coming to terms with the fragmentary legacies of postmodernism. The specific form of feminism that many of us inherited – informed by ’90s cyber activism, amongst other things – was perhaps somewhat too modest in its ambitions, afraid of asserting itself for fear it might alienate, disenfranchise, or estrange. As such, much of its hunger for large-scale emancipatory change appeared to have dissipated. Of course, much of the respectful caution that characterized elements of the positions that came before us is admirable, and I by no means wish to diminish the importance of the shifts that they helped to instigate. However, we must ask if these can be married with more emphatic approaches. Following James Pei-Mun Tsang’s formulation, articulated in dialogue with cyberfeminist perspectives, we must cast ‘a vote to get somewhere, to progress (an unfashionable ideal), to get specific about commonality, and not to hide in the realm of impossible negative’ (2005: 16).
The “100 anti-theses” decline to directly articulate what cyberfeminism is or might be, instead relying upon a (frequently clever and charming) approach of negative definition. The bolder, if somewhat riskier, move for techno-literate and politically informed contemporary feminist practice might be to move beyond negative definitions in favour of a more emphatic (and potentially contentious) assertion of collective identity. Now that one set of future-oriented feminist imaginaries and tactics is approaching obsolescence – now that we are, in a sense, after the cyberfeminist future – it is time to consider and generate alternatives. Contemporary activists at the intersection of gender and the digital would do well to declare rather than demur, to take calculated risks whilst avoiding outright recklessness, and to synthesise our voices with the anti-theses. It is time, in other words, to revisit the usefulness of things like making claims, articulating norms, and mobilizing categorical statements, in full knowledge of the dangers involved and in full appreciation of the serious sensitivity of the pre-millennial feminist initiatives upon which we build.
One specific mechanism by which we could take on the task of reanimating cyberfeminism for the twenty-first century could be a direct, revisionary engagement with the OBN’s original project. Such an engagement could take as its starting point the development of a series of positive statements about what any successor to cyberfeminism might look like, and reconfigure “The 100 anti-theses of cyberfeminism” as “n hypotheses of post-cyber feminism” – an extended series of positive yet speculative definitions outlining what this position might look like at the current historical juncture. Relatively short and punchy, like OBN’s original formulations, these could act as a jumping off point for more in-depth critical exploration, aesthetic experimentation, and political intervention, whilst hopefully stimulating the proliferation of further revised and refined theses. To quote Faith Wilding of the cyberfeminist organization subRosa, such an approach recognises that:
(Self)definition can be an emergent property that arises out of practice and changes with the movements of desire and action. Definition can be fluid and affirmative – a declaration of strategies, actions, and goals. It can create crucial solidarity in the house of difference – solidarity, rather than unity or consensus – solidarity that is a basis for effective political action. (1998: n.p.)
In short, the “n hypotheses” model might offer ‘a mutable architecture that, like open source software, remains available for perpetual modification and enhancement following the navigational impulse’ of collective gender political reasoning (Laboria Cuboniks, 2015: n.p.).
Why suggest an unlimited number of hypotheses here? Doesn’t this undo our commitment to emphatic claims making at the very moment we appear to insist upon it? Partly, this is to recognise just how justified the OBN and other cyberfeminists were when they pointed to the perils of self-definition. Articulating identities is indeed fraught with risks. As Tsang points out it, it would be ill-advised to ‘disavow declarative function, but we must productively work with the fact that it continuously breaks down’ (2005: 16). In talking of “n hypotheses”, we acknowledge the inevitability of this breakdown – the inability of any single declaration to capture our intentions, for example, or the probable failure of any given articulation to galvanize a collective political will in the ways that we might hope. We point to the strategic necessity of articulating (and thereby generating) a political identity without foreclosing in advance what that identity might mean. The iterative and open-ended nature of “n hypotheses” (reminiscent of both gender performativity and Butlerian approaches to hegemony building) stresses their availability for emendation and our appreciation of the fact that any emancipatory political project must incessantly revise its commitments.
In the case of “n hypotheses”, the mechanism of iteration (facilitated by the absence of a pre-determined endpoint) is designed to allow for divergence, refutation, and innovation, but also to provide a crucial space for attestation in which identity can be articulated and mobilized for political, theoretical, and creative ends. In other words, it reworks the OBN’s classic project, shifting away from disidentity politics in favour of an attempt to assert the distinctive personality of any successor to cyberfeminism. At the same time, it also acknowledges the problematic and potentially exclusionary dimensions of any such attempt, working to mitigate these via its embrace of provisionality and contingency. Where to begin, though? In the assertive spirit of this essay, allow me to offer a provisional definition of my own; one which is inevitably informed by the circumstances in which I operate and by my own situated knowledges. It may be the first of “n hypotheses of post-cyber feminism”, but – despite being an inaugural proposition – it should by no means be considered primary. This hypotheses eschews originary status, answers the call of the anti-theses, and awaits and invites revision.
Hypothesis: Xenofeminism is a gender abolitionist, anti-naturalist, technomaterialist form of posthumanism, building upon the insights of cyberfeminism. Its future is unmanned .
- This accusation may be partially undermined by Plant’s consistent framing of the female/feminine/feminist in terms of the simulatory or the virtual (many thanks to Amy Ireland for drawing my attention to this point). This is also reflected in comments by the Australian cyberfeminist collective VNS Matrix. Discussing the group’s provocative slogan ‘The Clitoris is a Direct Line to the Matrix’, member Virginia Barratt remarks that ‘this was read by many as essentialist, but […] we were talking about the clitoris as a technology’ (2017, personal correspondence, June 30).
- What is Sadie planting, and what is Sadie plucking?
- This one relatively small-scale action did transit to something larger, then – but only to exert a chilling effect upon the possibility of such transits in subsequent cyberfeminist projects.
- Or, if that suggests too precise a transition, at least coping with one specific moment on the perpetually choppy waters of shifting gender political priorities, perspectives, and commitments.
- I was reminded of this slogan (which is taken from a VNS Matrix poster from 1994) by Virginia Barratt and Petra Kendall, who titled their recent short course on future-oriented gender politics, “The Future is Unmanned: Technologies for Corrupt Feminisms”. Discussing the origins of this phrase with the Australian cyberfeminist contingent, however, it became apparent that its emergence was the result of a sort of intellectual cross-pollination. The poster’s slogan was itself a reworking of a line from a Sadie Plant article from the year before: ‘No longer the void, the gap, or the absence, the veils are already cybernetic; an interface taking off on its own unmanned futures’ (1993: 11). I would like to extend my sincere thanks for this information to Virginia Barratt and Amy Ireland. I dedicate this essay to them.
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—, 1997. Zeros + Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture. London: Fourth Estate
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Toscano, Alberto, 2011. ‘The Prejudice Against Prometheus.’ STIR. Accessed 8 March 2017. Available at: https://stirtoaction.wordpress.com/2011/08/15/the-prejudice-against-prometheus/
Tsang, James Pei-Mun, 2005. ‘Vocalization in an Ethical Matrix.’ Yes Species. Chicago: Sabrosa Books, 8-25
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Wilding, Faith, 1998. ‘Where is Feminism in Cyberfeminism?’ Old Boys Network. Accessed 5 July 2017. Available at: http://www.obn.org/reading_room/writings/html/where.html
Helen Hester is Head of Film and Media at the University of West London. Her research interests include technofeminism, sexuality studies, and theories of social reproduction, and she is a member of the international feminist collective Laboria Cuboniks. She is the author of Beyond Explicit: Pornography and the Displacement of Sex (SUNY Press, 2014), the co-editor of the collections Fat Sex: New Directions in Theory and Activism (Ashgate, 2015) and Dea ex Machina (Merve, 2015), and series editor for Ashgate’s ‘Sexualities in Society’ book series.