h a b i t a r ooe noo(p u n t o)oo n e t



The Truth about Cyberfeminism

Cornelia Sollfrank

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 with...

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 other's 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, (www.obn.org). It 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:

"Cyberfeminism is...
-- 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. ..." (end quote)

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 quote)

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 could be.

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 I'D 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 that way.

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 for boys."

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" relate 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 more mobile
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 it.

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.