History of Cyberfeminism

Historically, Cyberfeminism as a movement erupted in multiple simultaneous locations in the 1990s. This was a time when technological developments like the personal computer and the internet became readily available to the masses (though primarily to those in possession of money and cultural capital). The first of these eruptions occurred in 1991, in the form of “The Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st century produced by the VNS (read: venus) Matrix, a collaboration between Josephine Starrs, Julianne Pierce, Francesca da Rimini and Virginia Baratt in Adelaide, Australia. Their manifesto boldly states “the Clitoris is a direct line to the matrix’ and has served as the inspiration and declaration of Cyberfeminism, to create a female space  or mythos in the daunting universe of the world wide web.

Cyberfeminist Manifesto

At the same time that the VNS Matrix began their guerrilla cyberfeminist campaign through art and poetry, Sadie Plant, a cultural theorist, also used the term “cyberfeminist” to describe her academic work which focused on technology in Western society. Between 1991 and 1997 the movement went viral, culminating in the first Cyberfeminist International at Documenta X in Kassel, Germany. During the conference, the women collaboratively constructed a definition of Cyberfeminism called the “100 Anti-Theses“. This document lists one hundred things that cyberfeminism is not, and is composed of statements in four separate languages. The decision not to Cyberfeminism has allowed the term a versatility that many previous types of feminism lacked, though it is perhaps this lack of solidity that allowed the Cyberfeminist movement to drift into obscurity. To learn more about the cyberfeminist movement, check out “Defining Cyberfeminism” and “Theoretical Influences of Cyberfeminism“.

Founding Texts and the First Wave

Both the idea of the cyborg, and the necessity for creating women’s language are evident in the inaugral pieces of cyberfeminism. As previously noted, both the VNS Matrix and Sadie Plant are often credited with the development of cyberfeminism as a term. The statement, “The clitoris is a direct line to the matrix’ emerges as a perfect example of the fusion of the cyborg, écriture féminine, and female sexuality.

Sadie Plant

Sadie Plant reclaims technology for women in her depiction of Ada Lovelace’s life, though plan is primarily focused on connecting women’s language to technology. For those unfamiliar, Ada Lovelace is the disupted creator of programming, who has been written out of the history of computers much like Alan Turing. Plant connects Lovelace and technology by focusing on women’s creative processes. Plan explains that Ada, ‘did everything topsy-turvy, certainly thought to have come into the world feet downwards,” and quotes Doris Moore saying, “Ada’s method, as will appear, was to weave daydreams into seemingly authentic calculations’ (plant, 27). Plan suggests that Ada’s though processes were necessary for early programming, and a language not spoken by men at the time, thereby forming a creation myth of coding with Ada at the center.

Cyberfeminism in Art

Beyond these founding texts cyberfeminism has manifested itself in a multitude of ways, perhaps most importantly in art. In the very beginnings of the movement, art was a major force with projects such as Francesca de Rimini’s “gash girl” and “doll yoko‘ pieces, Vera Frenkl’s “Body Missing” and Caitlyn Fisher’s hypertext novella, “‘These Waves of Girls“. Though each of these pieces are very different, there are similarities in the execution relying on hypertext, ambiguity and hybridity as key themes of all the pieces.

Doll Yoko, a collaborative project produced by Frencesa da Rimini, Ricardo Dominguez, and Michael Grimm in 1997 is somethign that could only be produced on the internet. Picture, music, and text assault the reader upon entering the sight and each click of the mouse leads the user deeper and deeper into the haunging/life of doll yoko, which is composed of violent imagery and explicit textual violence.

Doll Yoko by Francesca da Rimini, Ricardo Dominguez, and Michael Grimm

While at first the links ar elinear, eventually htey become muddled, more than one per page until the user is lost in a maze of images, texts, and noises withotu knowing where they are of if there is an end.

This is similar to “These Waves of Girls”by Caitlyn Fisher, an award winning 2001 project. Entering the “These Waves of Girls’ the user is assaulted with women’s laughter and then taken to a table of contexts like page where the user can explore. More focused on literature, this project weaves multiple stories together with images and sounds. One page leads to a cacophony of voices, verbally telling each of the stories labeled “chorus: the story spills out of us we scramble to tell you at once”. These projects are composed of multiplicity, ambiguity, and labyrinth like patters creating places of confusion and emotion; yet nevertheless, woman is the center of attention.

Transition

In a piece called “Info Heavy Cyber Baby” julianne Peirce of VNS Matrix describes the first wave of cyberfeminism: “Cyberfeminism was about ideas, irony, apropriation and hands-on skilling up in the data terrain. It combined a utopic vision of corrupting patriarchy with an unbounded enthusiasm for the new tools of technology. It embraced gender and identity politics, allowing fluid and non-gendered identities to flourish through the digital medium”.

This movement was filled with a plaful, ironic and mischeivous tone that Rosie Braidottie called the “political of parody” in her article “Cyberfeminism with a Difference“. Braidotti points out that parody and irony are important tools of cyberfeminims, “The ironical mode is an orchestrated form of provocation and, as such, it marks a sort of symbolic violence and the riot girls are unsurpassed masters of it”. Beyond art, the early movement created women only lists, self-help groups, chat groups, networks, libraries of open-source materials, creation of new images of women, and strategic essentialism. For example, the Old Boys Network   serves as a hub for cyberfeminist writings, practices, and links to other cyberfeminists. Another example, the website “Function: Feminism” maintains a a timeline of cyberfeminism (which according to their timeline became defunct in 2006).

Old Boys Network

These projects, however intriguing, are also what caused people like Faith Wilding to ask “Where is Feminism in Cyberfeminism“. Many women had created their own definitive spaces on the internet, but cyberfeminism with all its ambiguities had not made itself particularly political. Wilding critiques this “cybergrrl-ism” as something that embraces an attitude of “anything you wanna be and do in cyberspace is cool” and refuses to engage “in a political critique of women’s position on the Net”.Other critiques Wilding makes are the tendency of cyberfeminists to venerate the net as a new utopia, a fear of political engagement, and a rejection of previous feminisms without ever truly understanding them.

domainerrorscyberfeministpractices

Wilding briefly critiques the repudiation of “old style’ feminism noting that “close familiarity with postcolonial studies, and with the histories of imperialist and colonialist domination – and resistance to hem – are equally important for an informed practice of cyberfeminist politics’. Indeed, despite the international nature of cyberfeminism, there is a strong lack of attention to privilege. As Maria Fernandez and Faith Wilding note in the opening chapter to the book Domain Errors: Cyberfeminist Practices, “Although cyberfeminism presents itself as inclusive, cyberfeminist writings assume an educated, white, upper middle-class, English speaking, culturally sophisticated readership.”

The first wave of cyberfeminism largely ignored postcolonial theory and paid little attention to difference other than the difference they were concerned with constructing in the form of the cyborg. One other problem with the embracement of ambiguity byneglecting material reality. In their excitement to create hypertext poetry and multiple identities online, cyberfeminism ignored specific impacts of other technologies on women’s lives.

The second wave of cyberfeminism began addressing some of these concerns beginning with a piece called “Cyberfeminism technology and international ‘development'” co- authored by Radhika Gajjala and Annapurna Mamidipudi. Written as a dialogue, this piece begins to explore what it means “…to say that the Internet and technology are feminist issues for women in developing nations, when the project of development in itself is saddled with colonial baggage” (Gajjala and Mamidipudi, 9). What follows is a dialogue between the two relating their various interactions with technology as third world women, critically expanding the horizons of cyberfeminism.

Despite this expansion, cyberfeminism stilll comes under critique for failing to acknowledge issues of race. In her article, “Is Cyberfeminism Colorblind” María Fernández points out that “From 1997 to present many cyberfeminist writings and works of art extol the multiplicity of identity choices facilitated by the computer. As the emphasis is primarily the selections of virtual identities, this implies the disappearance of the fleshed body marked by traditional categories of class, sex, and race” (Fernández, 1).

Fernández sums up the problem as cyberfeminists refusal to see postcolonial theory as anything other than a theory of strict identitiy cateogires, “In short, women of colo rremain trapped in their bodies as their (whit) Euro-American coutnerparts tansit cyberspace unencumbered either by bodies or identities…the native is anchored to the land as the colonist has freedom of movement” (Fernández, 3). Despite these critiques, Fernández is able to name a few insitutions that have begun to address concerns of technology, race, and nationality.

Cyberfeminism 2.0

One of these, subRosa, founded by Faith Wilding in 1999 is a collective dedicated to understanding and education people about the relationship between gender, race, and reproductive technology. This differs from the first wave in multiple ways. First, subRosa is concerned with women’s material reality and includes gender, race, class, and nationality as important categories of analysis. Secondly, subRosa is politically active on and off line, their projects often combine art with education. Installations such as “Can you see us now? Ya nos pueden ver?” attempted to map the intersections of material and affective labor in North Adams, MA and Cidudad Jurez, Mexico.

Can you see

Their project “Epidermic! DIY Cell Lab” encouraged people to familiarize themselves with the processes underlying genetic engineering by setting up an experimental lab in an art gallery. This fusion of art, a typical method of cyberfeminism, with an engagement in political activism and attention to categories of location and identity mark a new era of cyberfeminism, moving from postructuralist constructions of cyborg identities to materialist considerations.

untitledThis trend has continued with collections such as Domain Errors! Cyberfeminist Practices edited by María Fernández, Faith Wilding, and Michelle M. Wright from 2002, and the most recent Cyberfeminism 2.0 edited by Radhija Gajjala and  Yeon Ju Oh published in 2012. The introduction to Cyberfeminism 2.0. written by Gajjala and Oh, articulates the current problem of cyberfeminism, mainly “Where Have All the Cyberfeminists Gone?”.  Gajjala and Oh answer this questions by arguing for the necessity to delve into the ways in which “…digital technologies play out while interweaving the themes of female body politics, affective/reproductive labor, feminist geography, subjectivity formation, and social/cultural divide” (Gajjala and Oh, 2). This new vision of cyberfeminism addresses postcolonial theory and situates women and technology in specific historical and physical localities, paying more attention to “women in the integrated circuit” than the multiple identities of the cyborg (Haraway, 170-173).

While Cyberfeminism 2.0 may be the future of the theoretical cyberfeminist movement, women have carved out their own feminist spaces on the internet. Doing a cursory search of “feminist blogs” turns up hundreds of websites that purport to have some relationship to feminism. Many of these bloggers write about their personal lives in relationship to feminism, though just as many seem to be devoted to feminism or gender inequality in popular culture, politics, the public sphere. Can we call these people cyberfeminists? The question is difficult to answer. Many of them have nothing in common with the original conception of cyberfeminism as an indefinable movement  concerned with the construction of multiplicity and the cyberworld as a potential utopia. However, perhaps these multiple voices communally form the basis of the cyborg, multiple identities addressing feminism from all angles and many positions. These questions, and questions dealing with privilege, class, race, nationality, oppression, neoliberalism, cyber space, gender, subjectivity, labor will continually need to be addressed as cyberfeminism moves forward and expands to grapple with growing concerns from rapidly developing technologies.

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