Interview with Sadie Plant



Nat: You are the director of the "Cybernetic Culture Research Unit" at Warwick Uni. What kind of research is it that you engage in there? If academe is really losing its grip on the process of conveying knowledge - as you put it in your paper "The Virtual Complexity of Culture" in FutureNatural - then how does your Graduate Research Unit differ? How does one practically go around inserting a "connectionist/bottom-up" approach in an institution?
Sadie: An interesting twist to your question is that I actually left a year ago. Not really for negative reasons, or for the difficulties your question implies, but these difficulties certainly are there. There can be a high personal price to pay for trying to initiate the kinds of institutional changes that are necessary to make any real rigorous inter-disciplinary work happen. Often, in universities, which are so structured in terms of subjects and departments and so on, you can have lots and lots of multi-disciplinary centres, but the notion of a new subject area in itself is very difficult to cultivate. And as you rightly point out in your question, it is indeed difficult to do that particular kind of work in an institution. I have spent 7 years enjoying and trying to do this work in an institution, as long as it as to some extent succeeding. But about a year ago, I decided that I would concentrate on my own writing. But the "Cybernetic Culture Research Unit" is still at Warwick, and the whole rational of it was that it would be a bottom-up form of organisation. That has always been the strength of it. I hope that the graduate students, who were about a dozen at that time, will continue to run it. All the students were working on their own project, and they all had some interest in new technologies, but necessarily new technology as bits of machinery, but more in the cultural and philosophical inclinations of it. To give an example: one student was working on queer theory, but using models from complex dynamics, and trying to get a new conception of culture and how you could explain the distribution of a term like "queer". His work – which is still continuing – is tending more towards a viral model, and he’s looking at the kind of post-AIDS queer phenomena. Not just taking "virus" in its obvious sense, but using that as the occasion to examine viral contagion in a broader context. So it is THAT kind of interaction between culture and technology, rather than the standard influence of the one on the other. 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. Now practically, in teaching it’s of course really difficult to insert a bottom-up approach, because the whole notion of teaching and education is through and through top-down. Even in contexts like the Research Unit, we’re still incredibly primitive in how we actually communicate information. I must admit that my own preference is writing. That obviously has its own problems, but at least it removes the sort of idea that you are somewhere on a stage with your knowledge, dispensing it to the people in the classroom people who don’t know. I do think that it is an urgent necessity to get beyond that stage, especially when you’re dealing with intelligent adults. I haven’t really followed the education theme that seriously, but I have written a couple of pieces about education, and I think that the crisis in education goes all the way down to school education. It will be really interesting to see what happens to generations of young school-going children, who are already familiar with computers and the internet, and can thus access their own information. I think that the interesting challenge teachers of many kinds are now faced with, is what their role is. And if anything, I think it is a much more facilitating role. My own approach on teaching has always been an emphasis on basic skills and enthusiasm. I think that if you can give people the resources to do their own work, the better it is…they have to find their own content.

Nat: You are a self-proclaimed cyberfeminist. What does that mean to you?
Sadie: I have only used it as a descriptive term, and unfortunately I have acquired it as label. I always wish that I hadn’t proclaimed myself a cyberfeminist!! What you get is publishers publicity’s gloss, which is in itself an interesting syndrome to see the packaging in operation. I think that a lot of people have read the work that is called cyberfeminist, and these people aren’t necessarily feminist at all. They are looking at complex dynamics and so on, they are not getting the "cyberfeminist" spin on it. You know, my book Zeros and Ones certainly intervenes in a lot of feminist debates, but I don’t see it as a feminist book, and I think that a lot of the more intelligent readings of it don’t either. So there’s an interesting discrepancy between what’s on the cover of the book and all the publicity surrounding it, and what’s actually in the book…which is a bit of a shame. But having said all that, there is something interesting about this term "cyberfeminism", which is why I mentioned it in the very first place. I have no idea what it would mean to be a cyberfeminist, but there was a moment a few years ago where people started talking about this word "cyberfeminism". Amongst the things that first intrigued me about it was that it seemed to pop up almost at the same time in lots of different places, most notably Australia. I guess that people were sort of seeing the limit of the crude old traditional notion that technology is male, and any attempt to get beyond that got tagged with the "cyberfeminist" label. But I see it as something much more interesting than only that: one of its potential uses is - not considering it as some kind of movement or anything - but 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. There has been a tendency to either see feminism as a political movement making certain changes happen, therefore claiming responsibility in a positive sense…or at the same time there’s the feeling that it failed to achieve certain things, and is therefore blaming itself. But I think that a political movement is never entirely responsible. That is, IT is not making anything happen…the human element is not the only element of issue; it’s very much tied up with really complex technical, economical and cultural changes. The danger of moving in that direction is that you could easily slip in some sort of crude economic sermonism, which is an equally bad mistake. But I have tried to find a point where you can get between those two positions. You basically deal with questions as "If any positive social changes are simply a matter of political decisions and political activity, then presumably one could have had feminism at any point in the last 2500 years…but WHY NOW? Why was it in the 20th Century that it really happened?" Obviously then it becomes inextricable from various material changes. The technological ones are particularly interesting, NOT because they are very determining or making anything happen, but because they have a close relation to the infrastructure of how things work in a culture, and they provide very stark examples of different kinds of organisation. So, for example, the shift from the telephone system to the internet really does parallel very similar cultural and social shifts. 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. From that point of view, you can look back historically, and see that the Industrial Revolution was like the first kind of significant shift in social relations on a genderfront, and then obviously the World Wars were also a major point. THAT was initially more the kind of cyberfeminism I was interested in.

Nat: It’s a very misleading term, because the prefix "cyber" sort of invokes the internet, while you are referring to all different kinds of technologies and their various impacts. Sometimes I ask myself whether this type of feminism does not fall prey to (white academic) cultural imperialism. What’s in it for women who do not have the economic/educational possibilities? Is their agenda being addressed at all? What about those women in factories soldering chips for example?
Sadie: Well, I think that this side of it is actually very interesting. 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.

Nat: That’s a very optimistic view you’re taking there. If this is some sort of female bonding, then men are still using these technologies on the backs of these women.
Sadie: O yeah, absolutely. Exploitation is exploitation. But the difference is that the women in those factories are - albeit hopefully at a faster rate – going through the same changes women went through in the West during the Industrial Revolution, or in the wake of the 2nd WW. We took a couple of 100 years to get through from feudalism to having this conversation. I think that in a number of countries in South East Asia the transition from being stuck in the home, to actually running the factory is a relatively short step. It may take a generation, but it’s not going to take the 200 or 300 years it took us. It’s hardly a good situation, but by the same token I do think that it has a dynamic to it…it’s not fixed like that. The roles that those women are playing, and even the geographical location of these factories is a passing phenomenon; it’s not stuck there for all time…there is a dynamic there….that would be the positive side. So yeah, they’re stuck in the chip factory, but they’re not as stuck as they were in the home. And another thing, which is similar to women in the West, a small amount of economic independence relative to none at all goes a long way.

Nat: In an interview with RosieX you state that the whole chaos/techno culture is a feminised culture, and that our culture as a whole is becoming more feminine. The social constructivist in me raises an eyebrow here. In short, what do you mean by this?
Sadie: Well, again, I DO want to get away from a simple social constructionist position, because I don’t think it just comes down to simple social construction. I mean, if it did then why don’t we just change it?! So, we know that’s wrong. Likewise, we know that crude biological determinism is wrong too, because you can change things. So, we have to find a middle path between those two, where things are both socially constructed, but where they also tend to accrete and accumulate certain kind of characteristics both socially and genetically/biologically. So that over centuries you do end up with a set of characteristics that which DO tend to be called female/male or masculine/ feminine, but which are by no means fixed. I think that in the days that we thought of biology as just "stuff" that was just sitting there, and completely out of the picture, then these would be very unhelpful things to say. But now that our ideas about biology are being so quickly revised, and we realise that a particular shape of a population – even if it has been that way for centuries – is not necessarily fixed, and that along with cultural and social changes, do come physical and bodily changes too. In addition to that, there’s a far more rigorous awareness now of the interaction of humans with their environments, in all sort of contexts. So the human body, or for that matter "to be a woman" is no longer this biologically fixed thing. This comes back to the notion of culture at all levels: cultures in your body, cultures in the city…and they all have to change. I do think we are witnessing a period wherein these changes ARE actually happening.

Nat: But why a change towards "the feminine"?
Sadie: Well, rightly or wrongly (we both would probably like to say wrongly), there are certain ways of doing things or certain attributes, or qualities which have been considered "female" or "feminine" in the past…whether we like it or not. It does seem to me that the demands of contemporary culture, such as adaptability, multi-tasking, flexibility and so on, are all qualities that for no good reason – obviously for the worst of reasons – women have had to exercise to simply survive. To begin with, it was just an interesting observation that a culture that seems so bent on standardisation, centralisation, hierarchies etc - the computer almost being the epitome of all of that – should be developing into a culture which seems to demand quite the opposite. Suddenly, the skills which have been promoted so much in the past – that is, a very straightforward and logical way of thinking, i.e. the classic male thinking – begins to become quite disfunctional. You only have to look at employment and demographic patterns to see that there’s such a big shift towards women’s employment away from male employment…of course with all the problems of low wages, part-time work etc etc. Nevertheless, it is really a big cultural shift. It seems to me that this is very directly because these new technologies demand new ways of working, and it just so happens that portions of the population which seem best equipped for that are women. If nothing else, there’s a real interesting irony of history here: the attempt to promote the specialised top-down way of doing things has turned the tables to produce quite the contrary.

Nat: I am really interested to link up what you just said to Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Life. This movement away from expert systems, which depend on propositional/top-down knowledge, to systems with more of a bottom-up approach, actually creates a space where you can insert all kinds of different epistemologies, such as skills-knowledge, bodily knowledge and female epistemologies. You know, the sort of knowledge that has always been devalued.
Sadie: Yes, "intuition" is a good example of that. Intuition is almost becoming a technical term in the newer distributed systems of Artificial Intelligence, where you can actually observe the connections being made in a connectionist system. The only way of talking about them is actually as flashes of intuition. And it’s incredible that the most denigrated kind of thinking [intuition] – because associated with the feminine – is almost overtaking rigorous logic. If you really want a machine to think, you allow it to be intuitive. What is so interesting about this all, is that it wasn’t feminism that came along and demolished all that…it demolished itself. That’s the beauty of it all. I also think that you can make very similar parallel historical observation about the classic image of patriarchal social organisation, that in trying to effect itself it has undone itself. The more you DO aim at that kind of centralised control, the more you endanger it flipping into its opposite. And we’re living in a time now, where both tendencies are equally prominent: one the one hand there’s the Microsoft centralisation tendency, and on the other hand there’s increasing – almost anarchic - street-level grassroots techno-activity. Each is feeding of the other, really. I think the most valuable thing one can do, is undermine the whole paradigm of a top-down approach.

Nat:I’d like your comment on this quote from VNS Matrix "Bitch Mutant Manifesto": "The net’s the partheno-genetic bitch-mutant feral child of big daddy mainframe. She’s out of control, Kevin, she’s the socio-pathic emergent system. Lock up your children, gaffer tape the cunt’s mouth and shove a rat up her arse."
Sadie: Gosh!! What can I say about this?!? OK, when I first saw VNS Matrix’ work, I was so impressed with it because it seemed to be as far away from a kind of "victim feminism" as you could get. At that time that attitude was so refreshing! You know, that sense of some insidious, emergent, uncontrollable tendency…which is of course by no means a fiction of the VNS Matrix collective imagination…it’s a broadly felt cultural fear. I think that VNS Matrix had a way of articulating that, and become some kind of beacon for a lot of women who just couldn’t go on because they became associated with the "victim role". The beauty of VNS Matrix is that you could obviously read their claims as just metaphorical statements, but it’s not just artistic fantasy. I mean, the partheno-genetic quality of it as an emergent organisation, the whole mutation and feral tendencies…If it would only be a metaphorical statement, then it still would be powerful, but what’s so impressive about it, is that it is talking about actual developments as well. So, for all those reasons I’m a fan.