Maid in Cyberspace

Sheryl Hamilton

Thoughts on cyberfeminism ...

"All around me, inside me, flowing through me, between me and others, it is easy to discern signs of the flexible, mass marketing of cybernetic delirium. This is a delirium associated with both cyber-products and cyber-experience. "Cyber-this" and "cyber-that". Its [sic] hard to do the ritual of the check-out line these days, without some magnetic cyber-commodity-connectors wrapping their seductive sensors, cheek to cheek, in feedback loops with yours. Commanding attention. Inviting a try. Not that the effects are homogenous. Nor the possibilities. From cyber-sex-shopping-surveillance, to cyber-philosophy, and even utopian dreams of cyborg revolts -- whether for fun, or out of desperation, flaming desire, or for want of more passionate and politically effective connections -- the world around and within me appears increasingly mediated by a kind of cyber-hyphenation of reality itself" (Pfohl, 1997).

So argues Stephen Pfohl, in a recent article entitled, "The Cybernetic Delirium of Norbert Wiener" in CTHEORY. And in short, I agree. I, too, have noted this cyber-hyphenation -- cybersex, cyberbodies, cyberpunk, cybernetics, cyberpolitics, cyberfutures, cyberculture ... And it seems to me that it is more than just word play -- there is something going on in this practice of cyber-hyphenation.

And I want to explore another one of those cyber-terms, cyberfeminism.

One could begin with a definition, by saying what cyberfeminism is. This is not easy however and there are a number of reasons for the difficulties. First, there are as many different definitions of cyberfeminism as there are women who call themselves cyberfeminists, and at least as many from woman who would not!

I think it is also difficult because it is not always a label of which people are highly conscious -- if you asked someone at Studio XX if she were a cyberfeminist, she'd likely look up from her computer, or stop speaking into her microphone, or put down her digital camera and say, "uh yeah ... I guess so .. um, what do you mean by cyberfeminist?"

Finally, I think another reason why the term is so hard to define is because cyberfeminism, like and unlike many other cyber-hyphenated terms, is and is not, that ... that is, hyphenated. Let me clarify. Cyberfeminism as a written word is not usually hyphenated, it is written without a hyphen -- thus, it is not just two things linked together. Cyberfeminism, while drawing upon both of its component parts, in its non-hyphenation, its fusion, encourages something else, a mutation, something more than an amalgam, perhaps something more accurately described as a hybrid.

So, how to explore this hybrid. First, I do want to break the term into its component parts, cyber and feminism, to ask what does cyberfeminism draw from each of these, and then, I want to put the pieces back together again, and explore the possible mutations that result from their coupling.

First, cyber.

Cyber, itself, is a complex notion, not a word in itself, but these days, certainly more than mere prefix. The cyber half of cyber terms is often read as a reference to cybernetics, or the science of control and communication attributed to "founding father", Nordered, or about how it is gendered, cyberfeminism does draw heavily upon the long legacy of feminist research attempting to intervene in the relations of technology. Despite the claims of many of the techno-gurus who hang out in Wired Magazine, that gender, race, age, class are irrelevant in cyberspace, that there are no more hierarchies around gender and other identities in computer-mediated communications and places -- feminists intervening in the relations of information technology argue that however you define it, gender does matter!

(if for no other reason, perhaps, than so many are working so hard to erase it!).

I offer one example of the discourse of some of the proponents of cyberculture:

In the winter 1996 issue of Virtual City, the self-proclaimed "newsweek of cyberculture", a freelance writer tells us about how gender didn't matter when he decided to log onto some bulletin boards and chat rooms as a woman.

It's not the practice of logging on as a woman or anything else that I want to bring to your attention, but rather how he frames and writes about the experience.

Logging on as Ms.Terious, Jesse writes of his experience:

"When I first logged on as Ms.Terious, women asked me questions that in previous visits, had been asked of other new females: `What size pantyhose do you wear?' and `What's a French manicure?'. Once I provided the answers -- and threw in a quick put down of men who log on using women's names -- I was handed a cup of cyber- coffee and welcomed in".

First of all, Jesse is assuming that all of the "women" he encountered were really embodied women. Second, it is interesting the questions he focuses on as a test of being a "real woman" -- frankly if anyone knows what a French Manicure is, please let me know! Finally, note that to cement his identity as a woman, he notes proudly that he threw in a quick put down of men (translation: all women/feminists are men- haters).

But Jesse doesn't stop there.

"Minutes later I had one of the most powerful revelations of my life: I didn't need to do anything special to become a believable woman, I just had to be intelligent, open, attentive and empathetic -- gender differences really didn't matter."

So, in response to this sort of discourse, and in response to huge disparities in practices around technology, feminist research and practic has asked and continues to ask a number of meaningful questions which ground research, political organization, practice interventions, creative participation, lobbying and which overlap with, and have contributed to, the shaping of cyberfeminism.

How do we talk about cyberspace?
what language do we use? what do terms like democracy, disembodiment, etc. mean? who gets to be a driver on the information highway?

What participates in the actual technology of cyberspace?
a recent study in Quebec shows that in the Montreal area, only 30% of users are women, and that in other areas of Quebec, the numbers are closer to 19%. who can afford to participate, in terms of finances, knowledge, time? what are the local and global implications of a primarily English-language medium?

As important as who participates, is what are the patterns of participation?
It's not just important that we increase the number of women participating in these technologies, but that their participation (or not) be an informed decision, that they have the tools to do what they would like with the technology, that they are not limited in how they use the technology.

Who participates in producing and consuming the culture of cyberspace? For example, the profile of a Wired reader (white, male, two degrees at least one from an ivy league institution, and an income of over $85,000 US/year).

What are the representations of gender both within and outside the medium?

What products have grown up around this medium? How is it being sold?

Who owns the medium? Who controls it? Even if no one owns it, it is always interesting to ask, who is making money from it?

Finally, an important questions that somehow only seems to be asked by feminists, is how are women using this medium?

In short, I think that feminism brings a lot to cyberfeminism, but again, I would pose a few questions to feminism:

- feminism does bring with it the traditional assumption that technology is gendered, but cyberfeminism expressly puts into question notions of gender ...

Does feminism need to rethink traditional notions of gender categories in light of some of the practices, discourses, around these technologies?

- at the same time that feminist analyses of technologies have attempted to embrace a wide understanding of technology, why the focus on the computer as the predominant information technology?

For example, if cyber technologies are information technologies, then what about bio-technologies? Kathleen Woodward asks why biotechnology has not received the same critical attention as media technologies. She poses the questions: What role does gender play in technocriticism grounded in biotechnology, how do these narratives figure the human body?"

What about other information/digital technologies, that are often, themselves, hybrid technologies?

- Finally, who gets to be a feminist?

There remain hierarchies, uniforms, "theoretical language clubs" within feminism that still need to be addressed. How to bring together diversely situated women to address issues of common concern?

There are again, many more questions that could be asked, but I want to move on again, to consider cyberfeminism, as drawing upon strengths and likely some weaknesses from both cyber and feminism, and combining, mutating into something which is not merely the sum of its parts.

Cyberfeminism -- the hybrid

When I began to think about the hybrid cyberfeminism, I came back for inspiration to one of my favourite formulations of technology, by anthropologist, Arturo Escobar. He suggests: "... any technology represents a cultural invention, in the sense that it brings forth a world; it emerges out of particular cultural conditions and in turn helps to create new ones" (Escobar, 1994: 211).

I guess I like to think that cyberfeminism is beginning to explore and more importantly, beginning to create new worlds, in part through, and in conversation with, digital technologies.

As an experiment, I recently typed the word "cyberfeminism" into the article index at the Concordia University library (both with and without the hyphen). Only one article came up. It was an article by Jill Marsden, entitled " Virtual Sexes, Feminist Futures: The Philosophy of Cyberfeminism". In addition to the fact that the article was just yet another reread of Donna Haraway's seminal 1985 essay "A Manifesto for Cyborgs", I guess what I found caused most concern was the label of "philosophy" being applied to cyberfeminism ... is cyberfeminism a philosophy?

I can only answer for myself, but I guess what draws me to cyberfeminism is that I think it does not seek to be a philosophy. Rather than a philosophy, it seems to me that cyberfeminism is an attitude. I don't say that to be flip, but rather to suggest that cyberfeminism, rather than being a doctrinaire set of rules, politics, epistemology, and so on, is more a conglomeration of practices, an orientation, a process of continual exploration, an open space with very few rules, seeking very few rules. Perhaps something that can't, or shouldn't even be defined in the abstract.

Rather than trying to theorize cyberfeminism in a vacuum, or in a purely epistemological context, I find it helpful to look at example of something that I consider to be cyberfeminist, on the assumption that I may not be able to define one, but I can point to one! The example is Studio XX, with which many of you are familiar (and if not, please continue to explore this web site!). Rather than trying to define cyberfeminism, mostly because I don't really know what I would have achieved even if I were able to do so, all I can do is suggest a set of concepts, ideas, ways of being which, for me, begin to describe, rather than define, what cyberfeminism is.

Some of those notions which I see as descriptors of cyberfeminist practice, and which I offer for your consideration include:

hybridity - of technologies, concepts, people, traditional categories

pleasure - in combination, in activity, in thought, and in play

creativity - exploring new way to create, to produce, facilitated by, but not bound to, the technology itself

irony - a way of attempting to see in more than two or even three dimensions, to break out of binaries of good technology/bad technology, good feminist/bad feminist; a sens of play not only in activity, but in thought

space and spaciality - making space, exploring spaciality, disrupting temporality

affinity - rather than more bounded notions of community; affinity as contingent but purposeful groupings

bodies - be they disembodied, virtual, re-embodied, hungry, sore, etc. cyberfeminism puts on the table different potentials for embodying practices and practices of embodiment

contingency or perhaps more accurately fluidity - of boundaries, of people, of ideas

humour - most importantly, a sense of humour about self (and if we have learned anything at XX it is to value the ability to laugh at a situation and at oneself).

That is not to say that cyberfeminism isn't a politics, isn't feminist, isn't cyber, but it is to say that it is a politics which is not about being a politics, a politics which can wink.

That said, I have some questions for cyberfeminism as well.

- what happens when there is a conflict within and between the two halves of cyber and feminism?

- can you be a cyberfeminist without embracing the technology? without embracing feminism?

- coming back to the quote with which I began, is cyberfeminism just another sexy hyphenated way to describe feminist practices that have been going on for many years?

- how can we keep cyberfeminism from being just another cyber-commodity? I guess I should also ask, do we want to?

- what does cyberfeminism gain, and perhaps lose, in embracing and making part of itself the speed, the change, the rhythm, of larger cyberculture, and the technologies themselves?

Perhaps I'll conclude with a belated word on my questions. Throughout this piece you may have noticed that they are not necessarily consistent, some of them contract, some may be banal, others perplexing. That is because they are truly questions; I'm not posing these questions, secretly knowing or thinking that I know the answers. I don't. These are my questions about cyberfeminism, my hopes for cyberfeminism. I hope at the very least they have provoked some thoughts and perhaps some questions in you about that interesting hybrid, cyberfeminism.

Studio XX