Interview with Anne Basamo

 

 
 
 

Nat: What I loved about your performance (in the Beursschouwburg, Brussels) was that you structured it as a sermon. So you ritualise technology and technologise religion - an issue you also take up in your book when you talk about Margaret Atwoods novel The Handmaidís Tale. Can you tell me more about the relation between technology and ritual?
Anne: We can start with the performance here. There are actually two impulses to the performance: one is to try to puncture not only the rituals and religiosity that exist around technology, but also the ritual and religiosity that exist around post-modern theory, much of which is written by men claiming to be proclaiming the nature of woman. Post-modernism takes itself so seriously, but you just cannot take the pronouncements they offer on women seriously because itís just simply an impossible epistemological position for women.

Nat: Also in your book you claim that feminism should "crash the post-modern party" (31). You express caution with post-modern theory, since it tends to leave out the socio-cultural context and indulges in text and discourse. Nevertheless, a lot of the recent cultural criticism involving technology (and I mean the feminist works here as well) exhibits an obsession with, for example, Deleuze and Guattari; all you hear is rhizomes and that sort of stuff. 1000 Plateaux was published over 20 years ago...why are we using these models? Are they relevant at all for the new developments in media and culture?
Anne: Deleuze and Guattari are a perfect example of people who end up being discourse machines. They put in circulation a set of ideas and terms: for example to think the animate instead of the inanimate; to think flows instead of objects...Now these are really powerful terms and concepts. But what happens is that they get turned into this industry to produce more discourse, that then gets applied to the post-modern scene in a way that seems seamless. I mean, people will take up Deleuze and Guattari as if they are the beginning and the end of everything we need to know about our contemporary moment. Iím just a little suspicious of the seamlessness, you know. There donít seem to be any contradictions, thereís always an answer...just like there always seems to be an answer in Foucault. You can always read the current moment through these theoretical lenses, and everything would be taken care of. I think that you have to start looking at the material conditions. I know that there are some feminists who are doing really good work on Deleuze and Guattari, and who are trying to theorise gender that has a materiality to it, so thatís a really good project. However, I donít think thatís the project Deleuze and Guattari did, but itís something other people are going to have to pick up on. When you think about "flows" and the global circuit of capital, then I still think that itís a theory and worldview produced out of a location of dominance, rather than a theory and worldview that can articulate what it might be to be somewhere else in the circuit of capital. Itís a discourse that is strangely de-materialised for as much as it invokes the body (the body without organs)...now of course that may not be their [ Deleuze and Guattari] fault, that may be the fault of theory. This is not to say that we shouldnít do theory...of course we should. But I guess thereís always the danger that you get so seduced by theory - whether it is post-modernist theory or feminist theory - that you just get pulled into these discursive constructs and language games, and forget to try to wrestle with what the material life is like.

Nat: You teach at Georgia Tech a cultural studies program which covers science and technology. Recently there has been a plethora of books in the field of cultural studies which deals with science and technology. How do you see this recent development, and how do you think cultural studies try to bridge the so-called "soft" sciences with the "hard" sciences?
Anne: I am actually teaching a course right now in "Science, Technology and Gender", which is informed by feminist theory, techno-science studies and cultural studies. So I am really wrestling with a whole set of related issues. The interesting thing about cultural studiesí engagement with science and technology, is that it seems like it just happened. It seems like we just started paying attention to science and technology, and oftentimes people would trace that back to Donna Harawayís "Cyborg Manifesto". Although the "Cyborg Manifesto" was a very pivotal piece, and functioned like a manifesto by getting a whole bunch of people engaged in the debates and so on, it actually isnít the place where cultural studies started to engage science and technology. In fact, thereís a long history of cultural studies - informed by the Frankfurt School and Marxist theories - that had an engagement with science and technology. For example, Marxí work about the fate of labour in an increasingly industrial world was certainly a theory about the nature of the human being in an age of technology. What I try to argue about this all, is that these are not just popular questions or fascinations, but that cultural studies has long had a fascination with it; it has long been worried about it, and has long tried to figure out how one lives with a science that seems to have a will of its own, and a technology which seems so determining. I think because science and technology seem to be so divorce of any kind of determining structure, and that by corollary they seem to be the motor of things, thereís this is increased urgency to deal with these matters. And I DO think we have to deal with these things, but we need the historical perspective: we need to know "how do we get here" in order to know how to do things differently. We need to understand how science both enables us to do things, so we have to understand the dynamics of the hard sciences, because they have had a profound impact on the quality of life, especially for the "developed" countries and our understanding of "natural" phenomena. Further we also need to understand how technologies get employed to serve certain agendas, and start to figure out how they may be deployed to serve other agendas. And then weíve got to start and figure out what an other agenda IS, which is a whole other project... So there seem to be lots of ways to come into the issue of science, technology and culture: one is to look at the historical way that cultural studies have engaged these issues; one is to think about how we can live with science and technology. Another is an issue which we deal with at Georgia Tech: how do you educate people who are going to be scientific and technological leaders differently, so that maybe they will DO things differently? How do you help them mutate, so that theyíre not the same technological bureaucrats that preceded them?
 

Nat: What role do you see women play in this account?
Anne: One thing that I try to argue, as in the last chapter of my book "Feminism for the Incurably Informed", is that women have always had a relationship to technology. They have always been technological innovators; they have not been written into the histories of technology - in fact they have been definitionally written out of those histories. That is, if a woman is doing it, then by definition it is not a technology; for example, things like food preparation, menstruation products, childcare, the construction of domestic space and so on. All of those are technologies that create the world, that create our ability to live in the world, and those have been "traditionally" womenís domains. So to claim that women have been technophobic just doesnít make sense to me, especially when you look at class relations. Working class women, labourers, and servants were the machines that performed the daily labour of making a life for the people for whom they worked - whether they were slaves or servants or paid help. Now, there is probably a technophobia, because women get taught not to want a certain kind of technology; they are taught to think that certain technologies are off limits, such as computer technologies, media technologies etc. So thereís a gender division of technologies: simple and domestic technologies we can have, other technologies have been male-identified. So we get taught not to trespass on other peopleís technologies, but that doesnít occur because of our technophobia...we donít trespass because weíve been taught NOT to, or because we havenít been taught HOW to! We havenít been taught how to tinker, or how to solder, or how to program, or how to take something apart and put it back together again. You know, Autumn Stanley has got a great book called Women of Invention, and itís an exhaustive history of all the women who have contributed to the major technological domains, from the classic philosophers to women who are now practising scientists and technologists. She makes the case in this 600-page book that there is no technology that hasnít had a woman involved in its development. So itís not hard-wired in us that we canít do it; itís just the way in which the social structures channel us one way, and men an other way.

Nat: In a recent interview you said that you want to get more production experience in new media. How important do you think "involvement" is for cultural criticism? Moreover, how much of technical skill do you need to be a cultural critic of technology?
Anne: I really think you need to know what the labour is like to build these projects. If I were thinking about this in terms of being a cultural critic - for me that means that you have a commitment to understanding the material substrate of technology: how these things get made; who makes them; what is the labour involved and so on. Now that does not mean that you need to sit for 50 hours a week soldering chips, but I think you need to know what it is to solder a chip...so that you can imagine what it must be like to do that day in day out for 50 or 60 hours a week. You need to know what it feels like to get your hands burnt by the solder. Likewise with multi-media. I donít think you necessarily need to be a multi-media artist to do criticism of multi-media projects. But I think you have to understand what it means to sit at a screen for 12 or 15 hours a day and program something in an application interface that takes up 30 seconds of screen time. Itís easy to criticise the end product without understanding the material labour that goes into producing it; the criticism can never be that simple, though. So silicon chips are perhaps the tool of the devil, but they are also the embodiment of the labour of women who labour for 50 and 60 hours a week building these chips. They are not just the tools of the elite, but they are also the material means by which a whole group of people are oppressed at a physical level. Now multi-media is very labour intensive, and it is often not a single personís project. So for that reason I actually think that there is hope for cultural critics to get more involved in it, without being the ones who are actually programming pixels and so on. You have to be willing to invest yourself, even if youíre not going to be the expert in it or make it your career. You should know the basics because thatís empowering critically (you understand the labour involved) and itís empowering creatively (you get a sense what you can do with this). Thatís my hope for multi-media and these new technologies: they will enable women and men who have a critical perspective to give form to the latter, and to get it to circulate in a way that Ďzines are rather limited, and academic papers as well. But hey, why not put up a web page, do a collage or a performance? These are mechanisms of circulation that the new media enable, and I think that everybody needs to be involved in that. Itís that moment when you have an emergent media, that has not totally been won over yet by one agenda.
 
 

Nat:  In your book you point out that the Harawayian concept of the cyborg foregrounds the opposition between machine and human; that is, "it defines the meaning of both the term Ďhumaní and Ďartificialí" (33). How do you see that technologies indeed "perform" humanity and artificiality? Is this performance gendered in any way? And why are some technological performances naturalised by our culture?
Anne: I would say that one example of a naturalised technological performance is that the computer performs masculinity, in the way that it enacts rationality. It enacts rationality because thatís the mechanism that drives the computer. People are trying to contest and break that; so artificial intelligence and artificial life programs are trying to make the computer NOT perform rationality, but perform spontaneity, irrationality, and so on. I think that computers are both props and stages. They are props for the performance of gender: men use them to augment the fact that they are men. But itís also a stage for gender in terms of the space it make available to us: itís one more place where we perform ourselves. Given the fact that our notion of ourselves is often a gendered construct, it is another space for performing gender. Now this is imbued in cyberspatial places like MUDs, MOOs, and chatrooms, but itís also in the applications that get built...thatís another place for performing a gendered sensibility. We built a multi-media project that we took to the UN Womenís Conference in Beijing, and that was totally designed as a piece of feminist multi-media. We designed it with an explicit commitment to feminist aesthetics, feminist narrative theory, and feminist documentary. Thus the multi-media application was another stage for us to stage our identity...an identity perhaps not so much tied to our bodies, but certainly tied to our social ontology. So I think that computers in particular are technologies that "prop" us up, as well as offer a stage. And the liberatory potential of this lies in the fact that with a stage youíre always thinking that thereís a possibility for doing something different, whereas with a prop thereís the implication that itís always going to reinforce something that is already in motion or something that is already given. And I think that the hope of the cyborgs is that in our engagements with technology something new could happen...itís a space of indeterminacy. This is, actually, the more radical insight about Haraway: the cyborg is neither organic nor machinic, itís both...and we donít know what that means. We canít exhaust that definitionally, because sometimes itís organic and sometimes itís machinic, and sometimes it violates the principle of both, and I think THAT is the promise of monsters.
 
 

Nat: Iíd like to ask you about your opinion on the "post-human" body. Is the euphoria of so-called "post-humanists" (like for example the extropians) naive? Is there such a thing as a posthuman body at all? Where do you situate it?
Anne: I first of all think that the post-human body is a useful abstraction. When I think about another inflection of the cyborg, I think of it now through the last series of Star Trek with the "borgs". Another variation of cyborg identity is an identity that is totally de-individuated: we are members of a hive, and we are not only de-humanised, but of some mechanically implanted consciousness that is instinctual and programmatic. When I think about post-human identity in the sense of the "borg"(being activated by the master program), then it is of course not liberatory. Yet, thereís a positive aspect in being a member of a collective hive, which is based on the critique of individuality: you understand that your humanity and your nature of humanness is very much dependent on the humanness of those around you (the kinships you have, the relationships you have, the fact that you are living in an historical moment). In other words, your situation is NOT an individual situation, but is connected, and what you do has an impact on people on the other side of the world. So there is this other notion of the "cyborgianess" of post-human identity that does not focus on the "post" part, but that de-individuates the notion that human beings are isolated atoms. I think that particularly this aspect of post-human identity is very important. But again, itís always an abstraction, and part of the challenge is to make this abstraction real. That is, make people - who fiercely believe in their individuality - understand that they are not individuals: when we consume, when we contract and exchange labour, when we engage in political acts, we ARE affecting other people. So to get people to stop thinking that human being equals individual, is a positive aspect of post-humanism...to focus on the fact that our individuality is highly constructed by certain programs - as with the "borgs" - is a less liberatory inflection of post-humanism. The challenge is to hope for a notion of individuality, which resists being totally programmed, determined and moulded. But at the same time not to get caught up in this utopian understanding that we are all self-creating individuals, free to do whatever we want.