CYBERFEMINISM SPCL - With a little help from our (new) friends?

By Caroline Bassett, 10 September 1997

Sadie Plant's writings have been instrumental in defining many of cyberfeminism's foundational concepts. Here, Caroline Bassett takes one of her recent essays, On the Matrix: Cyberfeminist Simulations, as the point of departure for a critical look at feminism's most recent progeny while Josephine Berry reports from the conference Wired Women where some of cyberfeminism's more popular figurations were placed under the microscope.

What is cyberfeminism? Sadie Plant claims it is an absolutely post-human insurrection - the revolt of an emergent system which includes women and computers, against the world view and material reality of a patriarchy which still seeks to subdue them. This is an alliance of 'the goods' against their masters, an alliance of woman and machines. It is a revolt of the chattels.

It also claims to be a revolt on a certain - rather grand - scale. At the opening to On the Matrix:Cyberfeminist Simulations, Plant says that cyberfeminism - and/or the complex systems and virtual worlds upon which it is based - have the capacity to undermine the "world view and material reality of two thousand years of patriarchal control." Later in the same article she suggests this is already happening. "Tomorrow came" - we are, she says, already downloaded.

Cutting across the absolute certainty of this rhetoric of transformation though, is a surprising admission of uncertainty. Plant freely admits that she is talking about an "irresponsible feminism", more than that, she wonders if what she is talking of "is a feminism at all."

This uncertainty opens up certain questions about cyberfeminism. Crucially this one; does it amount to a politics, or a technology? Is Plant talking about a possible feminist response to computerisation? Or is she rather documenting/predicting a technologically-determined alteration in the condition of woman. An alteration which woman should embrace because it is a change in their favour, but which they can do very little about.

Two themes in particular emerge as keys to unraveling the claims of cyberfeminism. First, it is useful to consider how Plant locates cyberfeminism within debates around the subject. And, second, the arguments Plant makes around the nature of self-organising machines.


Cyberfeminism is only a new twist in a long love/hate affair between modern feminisms and technologies. From Mary Shelley's Franken-stein onwards, feminism has found in technology an edge point. It is regarded as desirable, treacherous, despised, but always as revealing of the condition of women, and as implicated in it.

In this sense cyberfeminism is part of the feminist tradition. But it also repudiates it. Plant's cyberfeminism emerges, in fact, out of what she understands as the failures of earlier feminism - more broadly out of the failure of the Enlightenment. She doesn't want a re-enchantment of the world.

Cyberfeminism, then, begins at the point when humanism is abandoned. Plant's analysis focuses on the French philosopher Luce Irigaray's contention that for women a sense of identity is impossible to achieve since women cannot escape the 'specular economy' of the male. An economy in which, through the controlling phallus and eye (the member and the gaze) woman is always comprehended as 'deficient'. Woman is always "the sex which is not one", the sex which always lacks the equipment to have one.

Given this analysis, the goals of earlier feminisms, those which have demanded for woman her place as the also-subject of history, her share of human domination over nature, are the wrong goals. Pursuing the "masculine dream of self control, self-identification, self-knowledge, and self-determination" as Plant puts it, will always be futile, since "any theory of the subject will always have been appropriated by the masculine"(Irigaray).

The only possible politics for the sex which is not one, and can never be one, is a politics which takes as its starting point the destruction of the subject.

The question then is how this work of destruction might be carried out. Irigaray's answers have always been tentative. Plant is not so diffident. She has an answer. And it is, of course, self-organising technology; the femaleness of the new species. Which is not a species but an emergence. And one dangerous to men.

Plant's contention is that self-organising technology; "a dispersed and distributed emergence composed of links between women, between women and computers, computers and communications links, connections and connectionist nets" can perform Irigaray's work of destruction (which is the grounds of possibility for new works of assembly), because it provides space for woman to assemble herself - with a little help from her (new) friends. Cut loose from patriarchy, woman is now "turned on with the machines".(Do we want this?)

Man meanwhile, despite his Cartesian disdain for being 'earthed' is also enmeshed in cybernetic space, becoming simply a 'cyborg component of a self organizing process beyond his perception or control'. From where Plant begins - with the necessity for destruction, infiltration, and corruption - there is some joy to be had in finding Man caught in the nets he spread precisely to consolidate his own position. (Perhaps we do want this.)


This turn of events depends, of course, not only on a particular analysis of the position of woman. It also requires a particular understanding of technology. And here, I think cyberfeminism falters.While Eco-feminism holds technology as hostile to woman precisely because it understands that technological 'advances' represent a further encroachment by 'man' upon 'nature' and 'woman', cyberfeminism, by contrast, asserts that complex systems and virtuality work the opposite way around.

How so? For cyberfeminism, the new nature of new machines might be encapsulated in the notion of self-organisation; As Plant puts it "tools mutate into complex machines which begin to think and act for themselves". These machines, being emergent, do not have origins to be faithful to. They twist beyond the specular economy. And the particular twist they take is towards the 'female'. Computers do not represent an encroachment of logic, but its confusion. Crucially then, the valence of technology has changed.


Three claims Plant makes for technology 'as female' are these:

One. Like woman, computers are simulators, having no fixed identity, but rather performing as. Both are therefore, using Irigaray's formulation, 'not one' but always multiple, being both nothing (zero) and everything/everywhere at once. The nature of the computer and the nature of women converge.

Two. A second way in which the female is invoked is via a return - to weaving, understood in On the Matrix, as an authentic 'feminine craft' (certified female by Freud). Weaving, undeniably processual, comes to symbolise elements of technology which cannot be explained in terms of domination and control (i.e. of man putting nature on the carpet). Plant suggests this technology, always technically demanding, has sewn its cross-stitches into the new:

"[f]emale programmers were to find connections between knitting, patchwork, and software engineering and find weaving secreted into the pixellated windows which open on to cyberspace."Weaving is invoked as a celebration of that which is/always has been female about a certain kind of technology. Plant's alliance between 'the goods' - females and female technologies, suddenly looks remarkably similar to the old 'cobwebs against bombs' tactics of the weaving women of Greenham Common.

Three. Finally, Plant claims that only those at 'odds' with the masculine can access the plane of the new machines. If new technology is not masculine, it is because some of its inventors were not either. She invokes Alan Turing, the inventor of the Turing machine, the forerunner to the modern computer, who was forced to take oestrogen as 'therapy' after being convicted of homosexuality by the British courts. Turing's brain she says, "newly engineered and feminised", produced the Turing machine.

As a matter of fact, it didn't. Turing invented his machine before he was prosecuted and certainly before his 'therapy' took hold (at least according to Alan Hodges' biography). But the factual error is less significant perhaps, than the rather brutal essentialism evident here (Is a hormone really all it takes to 'be' a woman?)

Cyberfeminism claims to ride the new edge of technology, but it also rides a very old edge of feminism. Plant is essentially essentialist; there is little in her account which suggests ways in which the category of the female might itself be subject to mutation.


In another way too, cyberfeminism's conception of emergent/self organising technology is to be questioned. Technology changed, says Plant, but can this be said to be equally true of computers, neural networks, telecoms networks, nano-technology (the latter of which could very easily read as an attempt at absolute, molecule by molecule control of nature), biotechnologies, AI?

On the Matrix glances across an array of technologies, each one produced as 'proof' of "the change", each one never precisely described. As a rhetorical strategy, blinding with science (or in this case technology) has surely been (over)done. In addition, there is always a tension between contention and tense; "tomorrow came", says Plant, but she admits that many of these technologies are still under development.

There is a problem then with cyberfeminism's understanding of technology. Plant's assertions about the long list of technologies she invokes are, often, simply assertions.

More than that, they might be understood to reduce technology in so far as they characterise it as 'female'. Surely it will never be enough to understand emergent technology 'as feminine', just as other technologies can never be understood purely and simply 'as masculine'? This, paradoxically, is to deny the complexity of technology.

This conflict, between gender essentialism and technological transformation, is a faultine that runs through cyberfeminism. It means that although cyberfeminism understands that everything has changed, in the end, it also suggests very little has changed. Despite the rhetoric, cyberfeminism is not ambitious enough.


To return, finally, to the question of a feminism. Following the threads of Plant's arguments through On the Matrix, it becomes clear, I think, that Plant never provides a definitive answer to the question: "technology or politics?" There is always, in her work, a slippage - from what might be effected through a politics practised by women, to what will be effected by virtue of virtual (and complex) systems.

This slippage is the point for Plant who courts and develops ambiguity in her writing, consistently con-fusing and re-fusing distinctions between woman - who is "turned on by the machines", and self-organising machines themselves.

Woman and machines, gathered under the same unvarying sign (the sign of the female - the always multiple zero set against the One - a non binary opposition) are, as Plant sees it, elements of the same networks. In this proliferating confusion, distinctions about who or what is doing what to whom - distinctions that is, about what might amount to 'doing politics' and what might amount to celebrating a technology, might seem difficult to draw. More than that; they might even seem irrelevant. "As technology changes, woman changes", says Plant. Shouldn't that be enough for us?

I don't think it is. Because it lets cyberfeminism off the hook. It makes certain claims to being an active, radical form of politics; one adapted to post-humanism. But it also comes close to suggesting that the position of woman is simply intrinsic to a certain form of technology.

In the moments, in which cyberfeminism relies not on humans (women) but on the emerging force of machines, which she presumes are 'female', Plant seems to me to deliver us less to a politics than an eschatology; a hope and desire for future things. In this way, despite the sound and fury, of cyberfeminism's (effective) rhetoric, and despite the power and precision of its destructive moment (the destruction of the desire for a re-tooled Enlightenment), it often comes close to a politics of quietism.

Sadie Plant, On the Matrix: Cyberfeminist Simulations In Cultures of Internet, (ed) Rob Shields (Sage, 1996)

Caroline Bassett <caroline AT> is a freelance technology journalist, columnist for MacUser, and a doctoral student researching hypermedia at Sussex University.

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