Suggestions for Good Cyberfemme (House)Keeping : Or

How to Party without the f*@! Boy Scouts!

What's Housekeeping got to do with it?

Somehow "housekeeping" seemed like a nice and traditional metaphor to illustrate the uneasiness wherein convergences of gender and technology are subsumed. The "housewife" has traversed quite an interesting identitarian trajectory, and has been upgraded from her dependency on family relations (her identity as wife is defined in relation to her role as spouse and mother), to being an "active producer" in constructing the domestic space (she's a home maker), to the last upgrade of a domestic engineer (she designs, constructs, and executes the domestic machinery). Well isn't this great? She's come a long way baby: from wife, to maker, to engineer…but in effect she's still trapped in the drudgery of housework. In other words, the tools she uses may have become increasingly hi-tech, her status may have been technologically elevated, yet she may solely become a producer and/or consumer of these technologies providing that her consumption and production preserve her position in the patriarchal system.

Now this may sound all very bleak, but I mobilise this metaphor in order to exemplify how cultural and gender ideologies are scripted in technologies and the discursive practices surrounding them, and how in cyberfeminist theory we might risk to obliterate the impact of these defining elements, thus risking to perpetuate the socio-cultural assumptions we set out to upset.
 
 

So grrrlZ, ditch the dishwasher, trash the metaphors and sell tradition to your grandma!
 
 

Boy Scouts will be Boy Scouts will be Boy Scouts

We know them all: the boys who pretend to do their own washing-up, but actually mama's still doing it for them. Mama will never become the leader of the pack coz that might infringe on the boys' play-time. When girls start playing with boys then, more often than not, they ought to become boys, and have to abide the rules of the game. Well, thank you very much, guys! The game is over!

However, it's not that simple…
 
 

So grrrlZ, ditch the dishwasher, trash the metaphors and sell tradition to your grandma! And get a modem of your own!
 
 

Cyberfemmes are so chic or just Fools for Fashion?

As contributing editor of Fringecore Magazine (a pan-European bi-monthly journal of the cultural fringe and the weird) I am one of the very few women contributors to the mag. This may seem as a small detail, but nonetheless I'd like you to keep it in mind coz it illustrates how (sub-)cultural practices - I mean this in the widest sense from 'zine publishing to mailing lists etc. -often become susceptible to Boy Scouts Mentality and end up making it difficult for women to participate or in the worst case end up excluding them. Anyway, for Fringecore I mainly write about gender and technology. Now over the past year I have interviewed women who might be considered cyberfeminists. These women come from different disciplines and backgrounds, but what they have in common is their interest in gender and technology and their academic affiliation. What I did at the Next Cyberfeminist Conference was present a collage of what cyberfeminism(s)" mean(s) to these women, and add some critical asides. Basically my aim was to trigger a discussion about the discrepancies between feminist theory and feminist practice. Central to the interviews was the questioning of the relationships and interactions between gender and technology. And here technology means much more than IT and Communication Technologies.

Grrls may need modems, but grrls ought to know that their lives are much more linked with technology than being wired up: reproductive technologies, household technologies, and all these other (everyday) technologies which OR keep them constrained in traditional gender roles OR supply them with the opportunity to break out of these roles. So I think that first of all we have to work towards an inclusive TECHNOLOGICAL AWARENESS. That is, when we think in a critical fashion about women and digital technology, we ought not to cut that off from all the other technologies which pervade our lives. In other words, we shouldn't mark off and isolate the "cyber" experiences of women, but rather integrate them in the overall system of women's technological experiences. I think this holistic approach is important. So my first suggestion for conceptualising an effective cyberfeminism would:

I feel that the theory - whatever that may be - particularly falls short here. This is perhaps due to the fact that a lot of " academic cyberfeminist" writing has been done by people who come from the humanities, and who are easily seduced by the practice of discourse production, hence run the risk to lose a feel with RL. The danger here is that discourse ends up being a substitute for politics, and neglects to carry an emancipatory or transformative value.

At one time - about 3/4 years ago - you'd get all these fashionable Cultural Studies books about technology. Everybody was looking at film and cyberpunk novels; so if you didn't mention Ballard's Crash, Johnny Mnemonic, Blade Runner, Robocop or any of Gibson's novelsyou were totally beside the point. I do not want to diminish the importance of lit crit and film crit; they are important practices to understand culture. But you're not engaging in techno criticism then, you're doing lit crit or film crit. What happens in these writings is that "TECHNOLOGY" becomes this variable parameter everybody can fill in to his/her needs/tastes, which leads to - sometimes even grotesque - generalisations. More often than not technology is viewed in this Foucauldian sense as a production of discourses and institutionalised social practices etc, which has to an effect that technology ends up being discourse and ends up being black-boxed. That's dangerous, and especially in relation to women technological determinism is dangerous:

It is preferable to remain as concrete as possible when we think about technology, referring to particular technologies in specific contexts rather than to Technology as a monolithic demonic or liberating historical force…it is important to recognise when the term technology is being used primarily metaphorically [yes in PoMo discourse metaphor becomes reality, it becomes truth, coz metaphor and discourse is all there is] to refer to something other than itself. We must be careful… to tease out the ideological implications of technocritical thought and rhetoric"

( Kathleen Woodward. "From Virtual Cyborgs to Biological Time Bombs: Technocriticism and the Material Body." Culture on the Brink: Ideologies of Technology. Eds. Gretchen Bender and Timothy Druckrey. Seattle: Bay Press, 1994).
 
 

So grrrlZ, ditch the dishwasher, trash the metaphors and sell tradition to your grandma! And get a modem of your own! And get real!
 
 

Crashing the PoMo Party or Partying Along!!

 

Interview with Anne Balsamo

Anne Balsamo was at the time of the interview Director of the Graduate Studies Program in Information, Design and Technology, and Associate Professor in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She is the author of the widely acclaimed book Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women (Duke UP, 1996). She's from a humanities background, but teaches at a technical university, and her insights are informed by the latter. This is to say, she is much more involved with the material repercussions of certain technological practices; this is contradistinction with the other women (I interviewed) who keep some sort of "critical distance"; hence run the risk of ending up as discourse machines, disregarding material realities, eschewing involvement. So I asked her about the flirtation of (cyber)feminism with Post-Modern techno-babble (Deleuze/Guattari, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Foucault), which in my opinion is often masculinist and a-historical, dated (rhizomes for breakfast, rhizomes for lunch and rhizomes for dinner), and do NOT actually pertain to the reality of women (see also some of the postings on the nettime list). These practices may depoliticise and de-activate emancipatory purposes when internalised by women.

When I asked her about this and her call in her book to "Crash the PoMo Party" she replied:

Anne: Post-modernism takes itself so seriously, but you just cannot take the pronouncements they offer on women seriously because it’s just simply an impossible epistemological position for women… 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. I’m just a little suspicious of the seamlessness, you know. There don’t seem to be any contradictions, there’s 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…When you think about "flows" and the global circuit of capital, then I still think that it’s 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. It’s 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 shouldn’t do theory...of course we should. But I guess there’s 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. Now this in contradistinction with someone like Sadie Plant - the theorist we all love to slag off - who has really acquired the label of a cyberfeminist, but who is really much more on the side of fashionable discourse production. I asked her about the research conducted in the Cybernetic Research Unit, where she used to teach at Warwick University: Sadie: All of the students, whatever they were working on in very different areas, were all very materialist-philosophical in mind. They would mainly be reading Deleuze and Guattari, and Foucault and so on. In effect we were looking for new paradigms how to rethink culture, rather than the traditional academic humanist sort of way to view culture. It seems to me that technology can not only be used to talk about human culture, but actually ANY sort of culture: from culture in a petri-dish in a biological context, right through to the notion of global culture. So that’s the kind of – certainly not anti-humanist – but more NOT-humanist ideas we were working with. I think the tension between these 2 views is quite clear: whilst Anne argues for a techno-criticism which is grounded and specific to the material realities of women's lives, Sadie wants to appropriate Technology as a paradigm to explain ANY sort of culture, according to theories articulated by a French Boy Scout's Club. So again, in Sadie's case I wonder whether -if at all - there's space for women to function as subjects. I know that the term "subjectivity" has graced, or plagued feminist theory for decades, but nonetheless, feminist and female subjectivity is a very important issue. And I really do have my doubts whether the current infatuation with rhizomes etc can provide us with that. An alternative place to look at would be feminist science critique, which is much less based on rhetoric than the stuff you'd get in cultural studies/humanities. I think that more particularly Feminist Standpoint Epistemology (articulated by people like Sandra Harding, Helen Longino, and yes!! (early) Donna Haraway) might provide us with tools or openings towards a workable cyberfeminism. People got so carried away with Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto", and it has been misread so many times, that they almost over-looked her powerful concept of "Situated Knowledges". I am arguing for politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims.

(Donna Haraway, "Situated Knowledges" in Simians, Cyborgs and Women. FAB: London, 1991)
 
 

So grrrlZ, ditch the dishwasher, trash the metaphors and sell tradition to your grandma! And get a modem of your own! And get real! And throw your own party!
 
 
 

FSE in a Nutshell

(Sandra Harding in "Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology." Feminism and Science. Oxford UP: NY, 1996)

Involvement

This theory combines involvement with knowledge; it provides you the opportunity of becoming an agent, that is a subject. And moreover, FSE identifies the historical and social relativism of all knowledge claims. When I talk about involvement I do not only mean a critical involvement in the production processes of technology/technological artefacts, but equally a critical consumption of these technologies. At this stage I'd like to add a comment of an interview done with film scholar Vivian Sobchack, coz she really brings home the importance of a situated embodied knowledge. Vivian was basically attacking this whole fashionable concept of the body becoming obsolete in cyberspace:"beating meat" and all that sort of macho prank. Beating the meat is, after all, a Boy Scout's term for wanking… Vivian: Part of my project is, indeed, this kind of critique of this technophilia, that forgets where the imagination of the technophilia comes from. You know, all the extreme talk of 'downloading' consciousness (like Hans Moravec) and getting rid of 'the meat and 'the wetware' now changed to 'uploading' consciousness, which I think is very funny. But my agenda essentially, is to keep reminding people that even the most extreme imagination of disembodiment is coming from a consciousness that's embodied. So part of my mission is to constantly keep reminding people that whatever the fantasies… they are ultimately grounded in the transparency, in what becomes one's zero degree visiblity, of one's own physical existence. But that is the grounding, and it gets forgotten.
   

Celebrity Death Match

I am all for abolishing the dated "victim-feminism" of the 70's and 80's and for grrrl action, but it would be a mistake to just ditch our feminist heritage because it is the latter which allows us to be weary of biased gender ideologies in relation to technology. Having a woman put up things on the net is not per se a feminist action. Having academic theorists proclaim from their ivory tower that female bonding plays an important part in IT; from the Asian sweat-shop worker soldering chips, to the data typist, to the multi-media artist is not going to better the condition of these women. It is not that communication technologies are so darn liberating and subversive! It's the production and consumption of technology; the cultural and socio-economic practices by individuals or groups which render them a subversive - or not - medium. And again I am going to play out Anne and Sadie coz they illustrate this point nicely. Anne ponders here on technological practice and techno-theory which is very much based on a critical involvement with the production. And consumption processes.
 
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 they’re not the same technological bureaucrats that preceded them?  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. It’s 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.
Ok, then here's Sadie starting out to explain what cyberfeminism means…she starts out OK but then switches to a very celebratory and techno-philic account, which made me almost jump for her throat: Sadie: I see it [cyberfeminism] as possible way of looking back on the history of feminism and of "women’s lib", and try to tell a much more materialist and non-linear story about how that has happened. In a sense I have been trying to get to a notion of a non-linear history of feminism. I have never quite put it in those terms, but there’s certainly that side of cyberfeminism as well. There’s this whole historical genealogy of women interacting with technology, but this is also geographically. Now obviously those women in factories are at the bottom of the pile, there’s no doubt about that. But, one the one hand, an interesting observation to think of is that you and I, and all those women are all using or making computers in some capacity, albeit either at the top or the bottom of that ladder. That in itself is an interesting link, given that we are supposed to talk about a male dominated culture. I think what clearly comes out here is a very distorted view of what active production might mean. So yeah, these women are making computers, but what kind of agency do they have in the process? They are not breaking the capitalist or patriarchal hegemony by soldering chips. I wonder what's so emancipatory about them! Same thing goes for data typists, and lots of women using digital technologies…are they actively engaging with them, do they have smth to say about the design interfaces or how they will utilise these technologies? So I am very weary of making these celebratory gyno-social links as in: "Ooowww look at us girlies we're all digital divas whether we're slaving away in a chip factory or whether we're suffering from repetitive strain injury or carpal tunnel syndrome." This makes me think of the 70's sisterhood feminism, which was white middle class and looked over factors as class, colour, sexual orientation, etc. Now THAT got a lot criticism in the 80's and 90's…and we should not fall prey to that again. So before we start jumping around with terms like "virtual sisterhood", we should be sensitive to how inclusive that sisterhood is.
 
 

So grrrlZ, ditch the dishwasher, trash the metaphors and sell tradition to your grandma! And get a modem of your own! And get real! And throw your own party! And get critically involved in the consumption/production processes!
 
 

Wire Up~Act Up

I think that first and foremost we ought to be careful not to turn cyberfeminism into a fashion fad, which merely has a snappy ring to it and nothing more to show for itself. That is, it shouldn't be treated as this transparent signifier we can stick on everything coz then it runs the risk of being colonised by academia, and will eventually end up in mouldy text books instead of a becoming a dynamic practice. We should think about ways how we can mould (conceptual) feminist theory into an applicable tool and involve it in our projects and practices.

Rosi Braidotti, who's a feminist philosopher, and very much of a Deleuzoguatarian partying with the PoMo club; did make some very relevant comments in her interview. I edited out all the references to Lacan and the talk about meta-language for this particular excerpt.
 
 

Rosi: I am very concerned not to lose the connection to the past. I am only in favour of cyber-feminism, so long cyber-feminists remember that there is a long history to this, and we're not starting from scratch! We cannot lose 30, 40, 60..a 100 years of accumulation of knowledge and experience. We must draw these connections. The same goes for post-humanism. I am all in favour so long as we agree, again, on a number of parameters, and see this as a huge shift. But not as a dramatic sort of rupture, because then we are all in terrible trouble. The risk of real relativism, and real anarchism is just about the last thing we need… because then the totally moralistic right wing, in the state of confusion, will come back in with a traditionalist package, and we would have lost the whole show. We need to have progressive, but workable solutions.
   
So grrrlZ, ditch the dishwasher, trash the metaphors and sell tradition to your grandma! And get a modem of your own! And get real! And throw your own party! And get actively involved in the consumption/production process! But still honour your grandma!