mute on Mon, 27 Oct 1997 22:13:23 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Josephine Bosma: What are Words Worth

This text appeared in the latest edition of Mute, in which there
is a little special about cyberfeminism.


What are Words Worth?

How to discover the cyborg in yourself? Once the question was, in answer to
the ultimate patriarchal image of god as man and man as god: how to
discover the goddess in your female self. Tragically long after the council
of Trente somewhere in the 16th or 17th century where the question 'Do
Women Possess a Soul' was raised, the discussion about women being a social
construction or a species that is essentially born, has continued deep into
our times. After Donna Haraway's Manifesto for Cyborgs' "I'd rather be a
cyborg then a goddess", the term cyberfeminism was born. 'Rather being a
cyborg then a goddess' means shaking off some last remains of possible male
sexism which lie hidden within the meaning of the word 'goddess'.
Cyberfeminists attack patriarchy within one of its bases of power: the
creation of rules for communication and the exchange of information. Taking
part in the development of the internet, which is by no means a finished
product, and defining the world differently from there, they can slip
outside of traditional structures. Like most 'alternative' net.related
culture however, cyberfeminism has stayed in the margins of both real life
culture and the internet for the past six years. Now cyberfeminists seem to
be expanding their territory.

Technology has always been dominated by its male contributors (despite many
attempts to get girls to participate), but with the internet it seems
technology has bred one of its rare products that women can easily connect
to. Here we have a toy or tool that is not just highly technically complex,
but also offers great social challenges. This is technology that 'lives'
and is connecting to lives, creating new realities, emphasising dormant
freedoms of expression and being. Now that computers are connected to
networks and offer an expanding social perspective, it is much more
interesting to get involved in the development of the hardware, software,
theory and social practice of 'computerlife'. As Alla Mitrifanova, a
cyberfeminist and media critic, amongst other things, says: "Generally
speaking the internet reality is a specific cyberfeminist issue. I think
that net communication could easily show this freedom of presentation mode:
freedom of images, of roles, of subject-concepts."
        Now this freedom needs to be explored and, more importantly, it
should produce new realities that extend to the real life situations
(outside the net that is) of women, as it's still 'war' the minute you go
out on the street. Alla Mitrofanova thinks that with a change of
(self)perception, comes an automatic change of reality: "Some knowledge
constructions, some psychic constructions, discursive and non-discursive
practices regulate our physical activity and that's why there is a
correlation between our presence in the internet and our real behaviour
outside of the computer screen. While we have no centre in the internet
space and can choose different possibilities, we can see in real life that
our behaviour shows signs that there is no centre, no male or female
position in the field of motivations, and that we are relatively free in
the choice of aesthetics." The question provoked by a statement like this
of course is: do experiences like this go beyond the very personal and how
deeply can they affect social and political life in the long term?

The term 'cyberfeminism' needs some exploration and elaboration. With its
relative incomprehensibility outside of a small circle, this might not be a
bad thing. Sometimes that means starting from the beginning. The Old Boys'
Network, an initiative of amongst others Cornelia Sollfranck, who is mostly
known for performance art, will explore the following questions in the
Workspace at Documenta this year: "Cyberfeminism.... Fresh ideology? New
code of behaviour? Artistic playground? Semiotic straightjacket?" Cornelia
Sollfranck would like to keep the term cyberfeminism as open as possible:
"As far as I know there are no definitions or there are many different
ones. We'll try to bring together all the different notions of this term.
We'll think of strategies for how this term could perhaps help set up a new
goal, a new political goal." And: "For me cyberfeminism is a concept of
every single person starting to think by themselves and not reading the big
thinkers." This last idea seems like an unwise misinterpretation of
democratic and emancipatory principles. Especially in a time when the
development of feminism into post-feminism, neo-feminism, cyber-feminism is
scattering the powers of women and confusing their goals, all will benefit
from some historical awareness. The writer Faith Wilding wrote after
pre-reading my article: "I think we should all read whatever we can.
Ignorance of what has been done and thought by others will only lead to
needless repetition and lost time."

"I think, in light of our experiences online, our investigation of network
communication areas and mailinglists and websites, that women don't have a
dominant voice in these media, although they have a lot to say. Maybe the
environment of the internet is really a great environment for women,
because people can't interrupt what you're saying. Men can't interrupt you.
You can always finish your sentence online," says Kathy Rae Huffman,
curator and media critic. She has started an initiative called Face
Settings with her friend Eva Wohlgemuth, who is an artist, that deals with
communication between groups of women. Being born travellers and explorers
they are interested in getting groups of women just outside the "network
community" connected and giving them a "kickstart" on the internet. Besides
all the other specific information that can be found there, they have
online parties via their website and a closed mailinglist called Faces.
Concerning the groups of women from 'remote' places like Zagreb, St.
Petersburg, Bilbao or Dublin that are not so present within many internet
discourses, Kathy Rae Huffman says: "They have different perceptions of
what the internet is and what communication means. It's much more important
to be connected to people outside, they don't have many opportunities."
Asking yourself what cyberfeminism means, the sharp contrast between the
opportunities for rich and poor, men and women, races and cultures within a
fast developing high tech world becomes disturbingly evident, it grows on
you in an eerie way.

Once part of 'The Network', will all 'cyborgs' automatically be equal? What
does it mean to communicate online? Eva Wohlgemuth: "We think that women
are communicating differently and we somehow observe how we are doing it
ourselves. We observe our contact with other women." A basic idea behind a
lot of cyberfeminist rhetoric is the disappearance of gender on the net.
However, this idea is often uttered carelessly. In the same way that the
alleged absence of the body in virtual networks has created many
misunderstandings, now the wish for freedom of gender and the fragile real
presence of this freedom in a liberated mind are connected to the
invisibility and intangibility of presence on the net, creating the
illusion of freedom from undesired genderrelated social and political
contructions. What freedom is there in the 'disappearance of gender' when
this freedom is one of hiding in travesty, androgyny or invisibility? Could
there be other approaches for establishing this greatly desired freedom?

As written language is the main medium of communication on the internet, it
is a logical step to see if maybe here there is already a noticeable and
usable difference in communication and the creation and perception of
knowledge and culture. Like with the present changes the internet brings,
there has been a previous 'information revolution' with the invention of
print at the end of the middle ages. This invention liberated us from the
possession and creation of knowledge by the church, but it had some
disadvantages too. "If there is one thing that print has given us, it is
the concept of standardisation. Partly because print itself doesn't change,
the medium has helped to promote a mindset in which we want other aspects
of life - and language -  to remain fixed and unalterable." In the book
Nattering the Net by Dale Spender, a researcher and teacher who is also
'co-originator' of WIKED, a database on women, the first chapter is a
wonderful reader for anyone involved in the books-versus-computers debate.
"The dismay and distress at the passing of the print era has more to do
with bringing to an end a patriarchal presence that has been encoded in
communication than it has to do with the loss of print." Writing on the net
is different. This means once again that powers will shift and culture will
be redefined. To have influence in this, one has to be present and shape
the change. This presence needs to be a noticeable and clear one.

Josephine Starrs of VNS Matrix mentioned, when asked which women had
influenced her, the French philosophers Irigaray and Kristeva. Their
'écriture feminine' has a radical approach to language as a liberation
tool. When asked if she sees different styles in discourse between men and
women online Josephine Starrs says: "..I am thinking now of one of VNS
Matrix: Francesca Da Rimini aka Gashgirl, ...her writing is particularly
influenced by feminist writings. It has sort of grown up and then expanded
into the online thing, because it's a nonlinear kind of writing and because
you can use the hypertext in a different kind of way. I do not want to
generalise, but there is a nice style that women are developing in their
online writing." Academic, male discourse as it is extended on some
internet mailing lists, is an insult to the nets' possibilities. The
intentions of writers who refuse to let go of traditional reasoning are
often lost in the lustre of datafragments that whirl across a computer
screen. I can imagine some good and maybe funny cyberfeminist actions here.
Rules and traditions concerning linear reasoning and the creation of
meaning by academies and institutions could be tackled in performance-like
interventions on different internet platforms. Women who engage in this
should be aware of the fact that what they do might not be appreciated. The
internet was designed and produced by many, many males and they are very
protective about its protocols and traditions. "Internet research has to
have an appropriate analytical discourse: not descriptive, not
hierarchical, but operative..." Alla Mitrofanova is a good analyst of the
tool she likes to work with: "The Internet came not through thinking, not
through concepts or images, it came through practice, through functioning."
It is within this functioning that new ideas and interventions could occur.
Diana McCarthy, involved in the organisation of the Faces mailinglist,
writes: "I think one of the main failures of feminism was that it went for
equal inclusion in a rotten system. What I'm more interested in is a
feminism that looks to change paradigms that are bad (even if they are

Maybe some of the qualities of the commotion, the creation of visions which
erupt with the development of a radically new communication tool bear close
resemblance to the experience of the uncovering and denouncing of
restrictive social phenomena. Maybe some freedom lies in the dissection and
deconstruction of the style of media use by the 'dominator', patriarchy.
Maybe all we have to do is amplify, intensify the revolutionary force of
the new media themselves. The definitions of rationality, science and art,
all restrictive, male academic traditions should have trouble surviving. We
do not only want the streets back, as the slogan for safe streets goes, we
also need a much more radical change: we need language back.

Josephine Bosma

Radio Patapoe

"As a woman I have not enough formal expressions, in discourses there is no
cultural expression of the body and the sexualised body. Motherhood and
pregnancy are totally hidden under medical and pedagogical discourses. We
have silence in the most productive existential experiences. Having freedom
we have kind of strong creative obligations to produce more formal
expressions in a poetic way. That is what cyberfeminism and other
extravagant self articulations are about."

Alla Mitrofanova, Rotterdam, April 19th 1997.

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