RYAN GRIFFIS

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a book review
Domain Errors! Cyberfeminist Practices, a subRosa project edited by Maria Fernandez, Faith Wilding, Michelle M. Wright, Autonomedia 2003

"Mesa says that many of the women she worked with in the clean rooms are dead, gone before their time. 'I alone know of ten women who worked with me who are no longer here. It's more than just a coincidence.'"
Ioffee, Karina, "The Clean Room Paradox," El Andar Magazine, Fall/Winter 2001

 

"Well the bosses think they're pretty clever with their doubletalk, and that we're just a bunch of dumb aliens. But it takes two to use a see-saw. What we're gradually figuring out here is how to use their own logic against them."
Indian microelectronics worker quoted in Prema Murthy's "Mythic Hybrid" 2002 http://turbulence.org/Works/mythichybrid/index.html

 

"First-," "Second-" and "Third-Wave." It is interesting that the same metaphor has been used to describe social-technological paradigms as well as historical movements in feminism. Feminism may not often be associated with technological developments in the popular imagination, but there is a record of linkages between the trajectories of gender consciousness and technology. Take the development of the "new feminism" following World War II. As it's often written, this movement's "roots lay in the broad social changes wrought by industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of a new economy based on mass consumption." (Griffith, Robert, Major Problems in American History, D.C. Heath, 1992) There is a web of events and ideas that is understood to have intersected with those developments, creating that "Second Wave" of feminism: the civil rights movements; the student activism of the "New Left"; French theory; anti-war activism; consciousness raising efforts; books like Our Bodies, Ourselves. Such connections between gender and technology are most certainly not a strictly historical phenomenon. So, what are the connections, entrenched and emerging, between current forms of feminism and new technologies like the two biggies: information and biological technologies? Enter "cyberfeminism."


Domain Errors! Cyberfeminist Practices, a new book project by the subRosa collective, looks forward into the present conditions of feminism, technology and collaboration. Establishing itself as a performative engagement with (international) cyberfeminism - the name given to various recent forms of gender awareness that are also active in new technologies - the book takes on the task of theorizing as well as documenting what feminism could look like in the Information Age. While some have mythologized the "cyber" as a break with history, Domain Errors! positions cyberfeminism within a continuum of gendered struggles, pointing out that women's struggles have continued in, and out of, the digital e-conomy. As one of the book's contributors, Susanna Paasonen, outlines in "The Women Question," the haste to capture every virtual market has led to a reinforcement of "common knowledge" about what constitutes Women as a homogenous group. And this reliance on stereotypes and truisms (women like curves over straight lines and prefer pink) is hardly a benign, or even misguided, template for content and aesthetics online: "The attempts to increase the percentage of female internet users by producing women-specific services can contribute to the reproduction of gender stereotypes, and a naturalization of the status quo." (p. 106) Such marketing assumes, indeed reproduces, women as an Other to technology, a passive, feminine consumer contrasted to the normalized, masculine creator/user.


Recognizing the exclusionary practices of earlier forms of feminism, including early cyberfeminism, Domain Errors! is rigorously focused on widening the base for gender awareness. As two of the editors point out, "the lives of white women and women of color are mutually reliant." (p. 25) The same high tech industry that keeps many women out of prominent positions in corporations employs women of color in both the "first-" and "third-world" in hazardous working environments. For subRosa and their collaborators, cyberfeminism must make the symbolic and literal jump across the borders that separate women, whether they are racial, economic or geographic.


But it is important to point out that Domain Errors!, while much pleasure is to be found within its pages, is far from a utopian, "We Are the World" chorus sung by the privileged on behalf of those without access. subRosa is proposing, indeed practicing, a multi-centered feminist approach that represents challenges to dominant culture from positions only now starting to gain a wider, if reluctant audience. Feminism, along with many other liberation movements, has often, and accurately, been criticized for its own exclusionary practices. The previous waves of feminism have rightly been questioned for neglecting the situations of women outside of the dominant, white affluent mainstream, just as the "New Left" student groups were justly called on their neglect of women's struggles. Oppression has managed to get through the firewall of cyberspace, and race does indeed shape our experience of the digital. " Racism and Cyberfeminism in the Integrated Circuit," the first section of the book views these issues through the representation of race in the film "The Matrix," (Lisa Nakamura) through the "digital divide" (Michelle Wright) to a conversation between two Indian women with different attachments to technology (Rhadika Gajjala/Annapurna Mamidipudi) and the conditions of difference in Moscow (Irina Aristarkhova).


Theories of the emancipating potential of emerging information (IT) and biological technologies have subsided over the last few years, yet we still face policy and rhetoric that represents technological development as a cure-all for social ills. The "digital divide" can be filled with fiber optics, more upgrades and a "computer in every classroom." For techno-futurists, including many feminists, the gendered and racialized body would be supplanted by the virtual and the techno-human hybrid. But, as Domain Errors!, suggests, the cyborg body is often a desire of "those categorized as the norm in previous colonial and eugenic taxonomies." While the language of race has been strategically disowned in scientific and technocratic communities, Maria Fernandez reminds us that beliefs based on notions of racial differences still largely influence social dynamics. Racial ideology may be, as Fernandez suggests, part of a plastic memory imprinted within our cognitive systems through "legitimating performances" - an ideological set of habits that are not so easy to recognize, let alone transform.


The combination of IT and biotech has created a technological paradigm - termed the "Biotech Century" by Jeremy Rifkin - that encompasses everything from agriculture to reproductive medicine. These technological developments have had, and will no doubt continue to have, profound effects on how women's (racial) bodies are viewed and treated. The imaging technologies that can see to harvest eggs from female donors are, as Lucia Sommer points out, somehow incapable of seeing "the unpaid or underpaid labor of postcolonial workers" that are comprised largely of women. (p.128) "The Female Flesh Commodities Lab," the second and middle section of Domain Errors!, takes an active look at developments in bio- and reproductive technologies - including the history, and current practice, of eugenics (Emily de Araujo/Lucia Sommer), a look at how the assisted reproduction technologies (ART) industry has appropriated the rhetoric of "a woman's right to choose," (subRosa) and explorations of the meanings of these technologies for sexual and familial identity (Faith Wilding, Pattie Belle Hastings, Tania Kupczak, Amelia Jones).


While theoretical critiques are crucial to the project of cyberfeminism, Domain Errors! is more than a new treatise on feminism and critical theory. The old dictum than the "personal is political" is rigorously performed here, but the identities that constitute the personal have been expanded and activated, as has the definition of the political. While the book's third and last section header, "Research! Action! Embodiment! Conviviality!" best expresses this performative intention, all three of the book's sections combine theory, anecdote, documentation and poetic projects. Poetic and visual projects, like those by Lucia Sommer, Christina Hung and Hyla Willis, accompany critical and documentary texts. Terry Kapsalis and Claire Pentecost team up to deliver an extraordinary photo-accompanied essay on the eerily eugenics-inspired American Girl doll phenomenon. There is also the welcome discussion and documentation of artists projects, including subRosa's "Sex and Gender Ed in the Biotech Century" and Nell Tenhaaf's CUSeeMe projects, that provide visual as well as contextual references from the artists. This is not just theory informing practice - it is theory from practice. Conviviality and embodiment are given as methodologies for resisting the alienation and unproductive competitiveness often found in the technological and cultural sectors.


If the current path of technological creation and use is to be diverted - to the benefit of more, instead of less, of the global population - then we need to develop new methodologies and networks for research and development with those that have been excluded and silenced by the vacuum of the global clean rooms. While many point to open source programming as a move towards utopia, we can't assume that such changes to software structures and intellectual property are enough. Social systems of contestation, implemented in all domains of life are necessary to challenge the desire for political dominance, and the stability it seems to represent. Domain Errors! provides one example of what a cyberfeminist methodology and network might look like, and asks for more. For subRosa and their collaborators, cyberfeminism can hardly be based strictly in the ether of cyberspace, but must activate the spaces of play, work, and physicality, especially those that remain invisible to, yet affected by, the e-conomy.