|The Truth about Cyberfeminism
- The question "What is Cyberfeminism? " is definitely the
one I am asked to answer most often. Everybody who is confronted with
the term for the first time, wants an answer. But even after years
of dealing with this question, it might happen, that you still do
not have the definite answer, that you have to ask yourself again
and again, or maybe you have the answer, and simply do not want to
give an answer!?
The First Cyberfeminist International, the first cyberfeminist conference
which took place in September 1997 in Kassel, Germany, agreed on not
to define the term. Instead, we wrote the 100 Anti-Theses. These Anti-Theses
clearly define what Cyberfeminism is NOT. Here you get a little selection:
--Cyberfeminism is not an ism --Cyberfeminismus ist keine entschuldigung
--Cyberfeminism is not lady.like - Cyberfeminismus ist keine kunst
- Cyberfeminism is not a horror movie - Cyberfeminism is not ideology
--Cyberfeminisme n'est pas une pipe --Cyberfeminism is not a single
woman. But even after reading all the 100 Anti-Theses, you probably
will still feel kind of unsatisfied regarding the question you started
- In our times, when you are looking for information, it makes sense
to do a search on the net. If you make a search with the most popular
engines, you will find about 500 links to Cyberfeminism all together.
You will find manifestos, texts, individual biographies, and art projects.
You will find euphoric proclamations, utopian concepts, but also critique
on cyberfeminist concepts and theories. I highly recommend to do this
search, because you get a good feeling for the diversity of all information
which is summarized under this term, and you will certainly come across
the crucial thinking and writing concerning Cyberfeminism. Many women
(and some men also), who often do not know each other and each others
work, are summarized under the same umbrella, and all continue to
write the story, but at the same time it becomes very clear, that
everyone has a different concept of Cyberfeminism.
- One link you will certainly get is the one to the Old Boys Network,
is the website of the international cyberfeminist organisation, a
network I started to spin with two other women in 1997. Meanwhile
it grew and changed a lot, and if you are interested, you can find
more information about the Old Boys Network on our website. Generally
speaking, OBN is also oriented around the primary question: "What
is Cyberfeminism?". If you are looking for quick answers, you
could have a look at the FAQ on our website. FAQ stands for Frequently
Asked Questions, and is a file in question and answer format. Many
websites have FAQ files, as they compile information about a certain
topic and eliminate the need for personal responses to queries and
questions. The OBN FAQ file contains different and even contradictory
answers, as they have been given by the individual members of OBN.
Here are some quotes:
-- a feminism, of course--focussing on the digital medium.
-- a vehicle for discussing certain methods in theory, art or politics.
-- the updated version of feminism dedicated to new political issues
raised by global culture and media society.
-- a new product and the marketing strategy at the same time
-- much more than every other feminism linked to aesthetic and ironic
strategies as intrinsic tools within the growing importance of design
and aesthetics in the new world order of flowing pancapitalism. ..."
- Yvonne Volkart, a Swiss art critic and theorist, and also member
of OBN, says that Cyberfeminism is in fact a MYTH. In the introductory
talk to the next Cyberfeminist International she said: "A myth
is a story of unidentifiable origin, respectively different origins.
A myth is based on a central story which is being retold over and
over in different variations. This characteristics make it fit very
well current, postmodern needs. A myth denies ONE history as well
as ONE truth, [At this point you definitely know that the title of
my lecture is meant ironically!] and implies to search for truth in
the spaces, in the differences between the different stories. But
speaking about Cyberfeminism as a myth does not mean to mystify it,
but simply indicates that Cyberfeminism only exists in it's plural."(end
- Although I agree with Yvonne in her understanding that there is
not ONE histroy and ONE truth, paradoxically, I would like to make
an experiment at this point, and try to write a little history of
Cyberfeminism. The invention of Cyberfeminism is dated 1992. Independent
from each other the English cultural theoretist Sadie Plant and the
Australian artist group VNS Matrix started to use the term. It simply
resulted from the fusion of "Cyberspace" and "Feminism".
Interestingly the choice was made for the prefix cyber",
and not for techno" or virtual" to indicate
something new. Actually cyber" is derived from cybernetics.
Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, based his theory on the
assumption that there is an analogy between organic and technologically
regulated systems, which transmit and process information. In the
mid 80s the science-fiction author William Gibson added another meaning
to the original one by his cyberpunk trilogy. He created cyberspace,
the spaceless, virtual world of electronic networks, an etheral space
of collective hallucination. In cyberspace the body has vanished,
flesh only exists as wetware. This vision clearly indicates a holistic
and maybe even a sexist phantasy, as women are mainly regarded as
fembots and cyberbabes. In light of the sexist ideas inherent in the
word cyber, the addition of the word feminism creates an ironical
twist and offers space for alternative interpretations for what cyberspace
- Additionally, creating cyber"feminism was a smart marketing
idea. Gibson's novels had initiated a huge hype, and the prefix cyber
was used in all kinds of possible and impossible combinations, i.e.
cyberbody, cybersex, cybermoney, cyberfood, cyberhippies, cybertrash
and so on. It indicated a new era, a time in which everyone would
be free from all material problems, namely the body (freedom from
pain, sex, hunger, thurst...). Adding these concepts to feminism sounds
paradoxical, because at least until the 80s when the categories of
man and woman were deconstructed or expanded by introducing gender",
feminism clearly referred to the natural" and pysical entity
of bodies (man/woman). And feminism still is widely identified with
old school feminism" -- especially, the broadly popular
efforts associated with, e.g., the women's lib movement of the 1970's.
These movements typically emphasized an ideological and intentional
understanding of politics, expressed themselves in terms of "men"
and "women," often took separatist and technophobic forms,
assumed a moral high ground in their efforts to compensate for social
discrimination and female victimization, and aimed to achieve clearly
defined goals (e.g., legislative reform, etc.).
- The more differentiated forms of feminism which emerged in the mid
80s and 90s, which mostly took place in academic life, were more theoretical
than the political rhetoric of the 70s feminism; it required deeper
thinking and gave fewer instructions political action. Simply by attaching
the happy cyber hype to the term feminism in the early 90s, again
opened up an immense potential. The synonym for an unreflected, euphoric
understanding of new technologies, which cyber definitely
is, breathed new life into the debates around gender and feminism
-- and it sells again.
Going back to the history. Although, VNS Matrix and Sadie Plant came
up with the term in the same year, it stands for different approaches.
Plant associates Cyberfeminism with a relation between women and technology,
which she describes as intimate and subversive. For her Cyberfeminism
is the "theoretical answer to the fact, that more and more women
give their innovative input into electronic art and virtual technologies."
- In her latest book "Zeros and Ones", she fully expounds
this theoretical answer. Her basic assumption is, that a female signification
comes along with the digitalization of society. To argue her theory,
she takes up different threads and weaves them together to a model
of a new society. The spread of non-linear, decentralized and unhierarchical
structures play the central part. Plant recognizes them as the return
of the "female principle". But this process does not result
from political or other intervention, but happens automatically, without
any effort. Making this assertion transfers power and creativity to
the new technologies, their inherent characteristics and the constellation
they arise from.
- Plant sketches a utopian model, and claims it as reality. The female
and the digital society are her inspiration, and she brings them together
in a way from which both cannot escape anymore. What was meant to
be a positive utopia, causes a feeling of uneasiness by it's immanent
hopelessness. For her argumentation, Plant engages Irigaray's ideas
of female symbolisation; traditional ways of historiography (producing
heros/heroines and identification figures like Ada Lovelace); Freud's
concept of weaving women symbolizing their penis envy; and the universality
of the Turing machine that is compared to female mimicry. Apparantly
she didn't leave any questions unanswered.
- Here ID like to propose another experiment, which is to read
Plant as if she would make an ironical assertion. That gives back
subversive power to her rigid concept. Unfortunately it is not meant
- The approach of the artistic ancestresses of Cyberfeminism, VNS
Matrix, is quite different. Although they share Plant's sense that
digital society is a feminization, their poetic emissions from and
about the female body are always accompanied by a wink and a nudge.
Moreover, their more literal efforts to contaminate technology with
blood, slime, cunts [sic] and madness were anarchic enough to profane
the prevalent myth that "technology" is just "toys
- I would like to end my history here, highly neglecting Donna Haraway
who wrote the seminal Cyborg Manifesto in the 80s. Her cyborg, the
symbol for a future beyond gender, is considered by many to be the
actual starting point for cyberfeminist thinking. But Haraway herself
never used the term Cyberfeminism or claimed any rights for it.
- Thus, through this brief history, it is possible to see how the
originators of the term Cyberfeminism, use it in very divergent ways.
Beyond these differences in origin -- notions of "the feminine"
and the constructed relation between the female and technology --
there is yet another, multiple variant: the ways in which the term
is used by the new "generation" of cyberfeminists -- who
use the term in idiosyncratic ways to designate heterogeneous projects,
ideas, movements, ideals, attitudes and activities. So, in a short
time, the term Cyberfeminism has been appropriated in many novel ways.
- Cyberfeminism is beginning to appear with some frequency in the
context of art, politics and science. Its clear ending suggests a
political demand or strategy. But it also might indicate an artistic
method. Maybe Cyberfeminism makes artistic practise politically effective,
or suggests artistic methods in politics? What does "politics"
mean within this context?
- As I pointed out before, there is a clear distinction to the feminist
politics of the 70s. Subsequent "feminist" efforts in the
1980s and 1990s already took more differentiated and less overt forms,
which very often repudiated some of the basic premises of their predecessors.
And all these different and diverse feminisms do still exist side
by side. It is in this context that Cyberfeminism has arisen--so it
is not at all surprising that ideas about the feminine and relations
to technology and politics should be wildly divergent.
- The prefix "cyber" serves, of course, as a linguistic
attempt to differentiate these theories and practices from those of
first & second wave "feminisms" -- with varying success,
depending on the contexts. However, as a field between these poles,
it nevertheless succeeds in establishing a new frame of reference
*by its very existence*. And so heterogeneous are Cyberfeminisms that
one could just as easily argue that the term's construction is not
the prefixing of "cyber-" to the body-word "feminism"
but the reverse: "cyber" may be the body and "-feminism"
the modifying suffix.
- In this case, the primary questions might involve how "cyberness"
in addition to the "feminine" realte both to older questions
and to newer technologies. Thus, a happy and fruitful confusion predominates--one
that leads activists, artists, and theoreticians to constantly check
their approaches, to formulate new ones, to implement Cyberfeminisms
for themselves and for their interests, and, of course, to discuss
these questions and concepts. It is not that real social conditions
no longer require feminism; but more complex thought structures and
constellations of power make concrete political approaches more difficult
to identify and achieve on a mass scale.
- These new starting points--different from their predecessors and
from each other as well--require new forms of action. It doesn't matter
whether the methods take political, artistic or philosophical forms,
for the simple reason that politics can take artistic forms and art
political forms, and so on. What *is* important is a common reference
to the relations and alliances constantly being formed, as Cyberfeminism
does not express itself in single, individual approaches but in the
differences and spaces in between.
- In a culture in which the accumulation and advance of technology
is continually expressed in terms of freeing us from nature, there
are certain basic tendencies we must recognize: new forms of subject-constitution,
new distributions of competence regarding new technologies, new infiltrations
of power configurations, and new forms of discourse which are established.
It is in the fields where these phenomena coexist and are coextensive
that Cyberfeminism functions as a unifying moment. It creates the
myth of a political identity without forcing anyone to strive for
- I would like to quote the German artist Joseph Beuys at this point.
Explaining the strategies of his project Büro für
direkte Demokratie" (Office for direct democracy) he once said:
For me it was only important to hang whatever term on the wall;
people just had to find the term interesting. Then this term could
function as an entry point to the actual problem." (end quote,
translation C.S.) I think the term Cyberfeminism is perfect, in order
to take on that function. Using the term is part of the strategy.
- Consequently, Cyberfeminism also stands for political strategies,
as well as for artistic methods--and does so very well. Create your
own Cyberfeminism, any you find out the truth about it.