The Future is Female

Cyberfeminists tried to reinvent feminism for the information age. But, as fundamental issues of difference and exclusion come to the fore, the quest for a specific cyberfeminist theoretical identity seems to be moribund. A bit of self-doubt and a new constituency might be the answer, says Irina Aristarkhova

The ‘Very Cyberfeminist International’ conference in Hamburg was the culmination of several cybferminist events organised by the Old Boys Network (OBN) – a network of feminist artists, activists and theorists whose members include Verena Kuni, Helene von Oldenburg, Claudia Reiche, and Cornelia Sollfrank. Having previously organised two ‘Cyberfeminist International’ conferences – the ‘First Cyberfeminist International’ (Kassel, Documenta IX, 1996), and the ‘Next Cyberfeminist International’ (Rotterdam, 1999) – participants were eagerly anticipating what kind of cross-national and cross-cultural networks had been built over the past five years. And of course it was interesting to speculate over what the word ‘very’ implied – was the event planned to be ‘Very Cyberfeminist’, ‘Very International’, or ‘Very’ something else?

By the time the event finally came around, apparently due to disagreements and personal conflict within OBN, the conference deserved the title of ‘Very Emotional’. Instead of treating it simply as a symptom of OBN development (or the end / transformation of the group?) it might be more productive to review this emotional uproar in the light of the issues, listed in the programme, which were never adequately discussed at the conference: ‘Resumption of New Border Concepts’, ‘Media and War Techniques’, and especially the network and networking in general.

The conference started with a presentation of posters. The posters were big, bright and numerous, dealing, rather predictably, with themes such as: ‘network’, ‘machine’, ‘sexuality’, ‘cyborgs’ and ‘bio-technology’. The most exciting, in my opinion, was a presentation by SubRosa from the US who made a multi-functional poster that you can wear, recycle, use as a kitchen towel, curtains, etc. – a complete departure from the ordinary 2-D still images presented by others.

On several occasions I heard that this – the third – Cyberfeminist International conference, would distinguish itself from others by welcoming diversity among feminists engaging with new media. Sadly, even if some of the white women participants share the illusion of diversity, women of colour at the conference all expressed their dissatisfaction with the lack of discussion and concrete engagements with the topics of race, ethnicity and cultural difference in relation to new media. According to Maria Fernandez: ‘As with other OBN events, the Very Cyberfeminist International was successful in bringing white women together, especially those from Europe and the United States. As with previous OBN events, the Very Cyberfeminist ‘International’ did little to foster communication between white women and the rest of the world. Rather than helping to bridge differences, it exacerbated them. Racial difference seemed to be extremely divisive as points raised by women of colour were met with antagonism. When the same points were raised by white women, the speaker was invariably met with encouragement or at least respectfulness. Even superficial familiarity with post-colonial theory might have helped to prevent the common stereotypes into which the few women of color at the conference were pushed: oppressed, ignorant of technology, bound by the body, political, not intellectual etc.’

Apparently the issue of racial and ethnic difference remains the hardest to address at any new media event – whether academic or activist. Just like at last year’s Third International Cultural Studies conference in Birmingham (where I organised two sessions on ‘Cyberfeminist Strategies’), the majority of discussions on cyberfeminist theory, gender, new communication and bio-technologies were nearly all ‘totally white’. These discussions dealt with post-human and post-modern conditions, woman-machine hybrids, entailed a critical revaluation of disembodied cybertheory, and touched on differences among women whilst at the same time silencing and repressing many of them. It feels like we have to start all over again – first Western feminism was blind to difference, then we started paying more attention to differences among women. Now, after being swept by uncritical, universalising cybertheory and practice for the past decade, we have to learn again that race has not disappeared in the age of the Internet and human-machine interactions, never mind its potential for gender bending and ‘identity tourism’ (as Lisa Nakamura termed such ‘race swapping’). At the same time, I feel that a careful outline should be made of the earlier use of terms such as ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ in postcolonial and feminist theory, to stop us from bypassing the ethical and political complexities of such notions and their use altogether.

The discomfort shared by most over the concept of ‘post-humanity’ also met with an inadequate response from those who cautioned that, once again, we are being lured by the illusion of oneness – which sounded like old wine in new cyber-tech bottles. Such tensions were accompanied by a constant chorus of questions raised by OBN members : ‘How do YOU do this or that?’; ‘What can we do?’; ‘How can we welcome other women?’; ‘We had very good intentions and an open-door policy – why does it seem to have failed?’ Of course, nothing has failed – I think that this crisis within OBN represents the impossibility of ‘discussing difference’, but the strong desire and will to actually start practicing it.

Apparently, it seems, the main European players of cyberfeminism are still struggling to find ways to create more heterogeneous communities, especially with the ‘other’ women in their own countries, who are conspicuously absent from conferences like this (which was especially apparent during the poster session). Let us not naively fool ourselves that ‘there have been no great black women cyberfeminists’, or that ‘the door is open, but they are not coming to our meetings’.

The question remains: what, if not feminism, could survive its own deconstruction and flourish? Feminism has always been hyper-critical and attentive to every gesture it makes, every action it takes, every statement it formulates on difference among women – why should cyberfeminism, which claims to be so sophisticated and complex, be running scared? Many of the presentations gave us hope. They pointed to a different kind of work going on in the critical and political circles of Europe and the US: in France (Isabelle Massu, Nathalie Magnan); in Belgium (Laurence Rassel); and the US (SubRosa). That was the strength of this conference and of OBN too – despite the internal disagreements between the organisers, they managed to bring a group of interesting and diverse women together.

We did witness a RAWA (Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan) presentation at the end of the conference that seemed like it had practically nothing to do with the ‘cyberfeminist agenda’ as such, but was an informative fund raising event (I was told that this presentation had traveled through the US and Europe in almost identical form). Of course, it leads us to the question of ‘framing’ such presentations, as if an organisation like RAWA should be included like a trophy (and token) for any and every feminist event wishing to claim diversity and ‘cutting-edge political credentials’. Apparently a great deal of effort and resources were spent on bringing them to the conference. Their presentation was an important event in itself, but one was left wondering how the RAWA presentation, a one-off show, could save us from the necessity of engaging in day-to-day interactions with racial / ethnic others, on-line and off-line (‘corps-a-corps avec l’Autre’, to paraphrase Irigaray).

So what about cyberfeminism: its network, tactics, theory, art, and politics? All of that was part of conference life too, though these subjects might not have been discussed by the conference speakers during the main sessions. What seems to have changed in cyberfeminism is the fact that it is no longer desperately seeking to distinguish or distance itself from feminism or anything else (‘What is it? Where is it? Are you a Cyberfeminist or a Feminist? Please identify yourself…’). This points to its maturity and proliferation, to its increasing depth. When a movement evolves without guarding its borders and membership too closely, as was the case in Hamburg, we might start to anticipate a future ‘Any Cyberfeminist International’, that would focus on the issues of everyday Cyberfeminist theory and practice. That is what I consider the main success of the conference, and of course, of its organisers. Old Girls Network?

Irina Aristarkhova <uspia AT> writes and teaches in art & technology, cyberculture, feminist theory and ethics. She lives in Singapore and Moscow

Proud to be Flesh