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Sollfrank, Cornelia

Cyberfeminism : Revolution

Tactical use of terms

Speaking about the political ‚left’ and being ‚leftist’ nowadays may sound a bit clumsy but still can be relevant if the issue is clearly defined. But speaking about ‚revolution’, and being ‚revolutionary’ in fact seems to completely lack any realism.
- Borrowed from zelig.rc2 -

Speaking about the political ‚left’ and being ‚leftist’ nowadays may sound a bit clumsy but still can be relevant if the issue is clearly defined. But speaking about ‚revolution’, and being ‚revolutionary’ in fact seems to completely lack any realism. The speaker who uses such terms will make himself/herself immediately the target of sarcasdic and polemic attacks. The same is the case with ‚Anarchy’/ ’anarchistic’, ‚class-war’ etc., and also the use of the term ‚Avantgarde’/ ’avantgardistic’, in the field of art.

All these terms seem to function like brands, which means that their image is more relevant than the actual content. At the same time they offer a projection field for individual needs and desires. The question is if auratic terms like ‚revolution’, ‚anarchy’ etc. should consequently be avoided, ignored, banned ? At least, there lies a certain charme exactly in the anachronism they transport. And what is more important, they may function as a trigger. Their suggestive power can be used under certain conditions for self-empowerment, which means it can be made politically effective, by taking an indirect way. Maybe it is not correct what these terms are saying, or maybe they are not saying much, but what they certainly bear is the potential to mobilise people.

At this point I would like to introduce another model which has been used by the German artist Joseph Beuys. Explaining the strategies of his project "Büro für direkte Demokratie" (Office for direct democracy) he once said : "For me it was only important to hang whatever term on the wall ; people just had to find the term interesting. Then this term could function as an entry point to the actual problem." (translation C.S.) His idea of the use of a term was, to function as an ‚entry-point’.

Tactical use of Cyberfeminism

I am introducing the idea of a tactical use of terms, because I would like to apply it also to the term ‚Cyberfeminism’. But of course it cannot work in the same way. What is different with Cyberfeminism ? First of all ‚Cyberfeminism’ is a reletively new word and does not refer to a long tradition. It’s one component ‚feminism’, has a history throughout the last century but unfortunately never succeeded in creating the kind of romantic image like for example ‚anarchism’. On the opposite, feminism has gained a more and more negative reputation, and gets associated with a lot of unpleasant characteristics. As I think that it is in fact important and necessary to reinvent and practice feminist politics in the 21st century, my strategy is to rework the image by expanding the term, to create a suggestive power which goes beyond traditional understandings of Feminism, and thus mobilizes people and energy. The innovative dimension of ‚Cyberfeminism’ lies in the futuristic implications of ‚cyber’ which hopefully change the somewhat old-fashioned and dusty image of good old feminism. ‚Cyberspace’ comes from the 1980s science-fiction literature, and suggests a futuristic use of technolgy, which attached to ‚feminism’ in fact results in a new and promising term which is fact could take on the function of a ‚trigger’.

History of Cyberfeminism

The invention of Cyberfeminism dates to the year 1992, when independently from each other, the English cultural theoretist Sadie Plant, and the Australian artist group VNS Matrix put the term into use. Plant associates the term with a relation between women and technology, which she describes as intimate and subversive. For her, Cyberfeminism is the "theoretical answer to the fact that more and more women give their innovative input into electronic art and virtual technologies." In her book ‚Zeros and Ones’, she fully expounds this theoretical point. Her basic assumption is that with the digitalization of society comes a female signification. Because this process is not very evident, she takes up different threats to prove her theory, weaving them together into a model of the new society. The expansion of non-linear, decentralized, and non-hierarchical structures plays a central role in this shift : Plant sees in them "the return of the female principle". However this process does not result from political or other types of intervention ; rather, it happens automatically , with no overt effort. With this assertion, she transfers power and creativity to the new technologies, their inherent charcteristics and the constellation from which they arise, an understanding which can also be called techno-determinism.

Plant sketches an utopian model and claims it as reality. The female and the digital society are her favourite topics, and she brings them together in a way from which neither can escape. Yet what is meant to be a positive utopia causes a certain uneasiness, due, in particular, to its notion of closedness. In the course of presenting her argument, Plant invokes an eclectic mix of ideas. Notable are her engagements with Irigaray’s concepts about female symbolization, traditional historiographic methods (e.g. producing heroes/heroines and identification figures, such as Ada Lovelace ; much of this was heavily critized by feminists in the 1980’s) ; Freud’s exposition of women’s weaving as symbolic penis envy ; and the universality of the Turing machine, which she compares to female mimicry. Apparently, Plant did not leave any question unanswered. Reading Plant experimentally-as if her commentaries were ironic - invests her texts with a subversive power. Unfortunately, she meant them rather more rigidly.

The approach taken by VNS Matrix, the artistc ancestresses of Cyberfeminism, is quite different. Although they share Plant’s sense that digital society is a feminization, their poetic emissions from and about the female body are always accompanied by a wink and a nudge. Moreover, their mostly literal efforts to contaminate technology with blood, slime, cunts [sic] and madness were anarchic enough to profane the prevalent myth that technology is just "toys for boys".

Thus, it is not difficult to see how the originators of the term Cyberfeminism would use it in very divergent ways. Beyond these differences in origin — notions of "the feminine" and the constructed relation between the female and technology — there is yet another, multiple variant : the ways in which the term is used by a generation of cyberfeminists — by no means similar in age — who use the term in idiosyncratic ways to designate heterogenous projects, ideas, movements, ideals, attitudes and activities. Something novel has appropriated the same name ! And the novel I am talking about has to do with the tactical use of the term, the appropriation and redefinition of the term by a bunch of Cyberfeminists who began to appear in 1997, and founded the Old Boys Network, the first international Cyberfeminist Alliance.

OBN and Cyberfeminism

Our mission statement was : "OBN is dedicated to appropriating, creating, and disseminating Cyberfeminism. Our concern is to build real and virtual spaces in which Cyberfeminists can research, experiment, and act. These activities aim to provide a contextualized presence for different, interdisciplinary and even contradictory approaches to Cyberfeminism." The idea of taking the term Cyberfeminism and filling it with one’s own vision instead of complaining about what predecessors had done wrong, was central. Cyberfeminism as something you cannot learn, you cannot read, you cannot understand, but that you invent and do yourself, brought back agency to many women/feminists who had felt they had arrived at a dead end. Furthermore, my new comerades-in-arms—other artists, scientists, and activists—were ready to develop their individual Cyberfeminist visions, to open up a discussion, and to form a context which would make all this happen. If Cyberfeminism was not there before, certainly from now on nobody would be able to prevent it from happening.

A mailing-list and the website were supposed to be the technical backbones of the network, but what brought life to the abstract ideas of getting organized and starting a discourse, were the flesh meetings, called Cyberfeminist International Conferences. I will not go into details about the conferences, because everything is well-documented on our website. But it is worth mentioning structural differences of the three conferences as well as speak about the development of the network itself.

The First Cyberfeminist International, took place in September 1997 in Kassel, Germany, and was based on the idea of an ‚open stage’, which means everybody could come and present his/her approach to Cyberfeminism. (OBN’s agreement on dealing with gender is to only accept ‚women’ in the network, but ‚woman’ - in our definition - is everyone who calles herself ‚woman’, independetly from her biological basis.) The ‚open stage’ in Kassel had resulted in the clash between at least two generations and between eastern and western feminist traditions. The conflict extended to sophisticated theory versus expressive art, the the need for political action versus the desire for fun. The various strategies presented ranged from education to providing alternative role models, and from irony to refusal and everything in-between. But each of us had an explicit matter of concern : feminism was our common either negative or positive reference point, and our motivation for searching for a new potential in Cyberfeminism. From that day on, one of the basic disagreements was what role feminism should play in Cyberfeminism... The little prefix ’cyber’ however never caused such controversies, although it involved it’s own problematic. Still, we were sure we would start a new era, and that our lack of a common reference would not just allow but even require a new approach to politics. The first steps to our cyberfeminist politics was the agreement of all participants on not to define the term. Instead, we wrote the 100 Anti-Theses. These Anti-Theses clearly define what Cyberfeminism is NOT. Here is a little selection : "...—Cyberfeminism is not an ism —Cyberfeminismus ist keine Entschuldigung —Cyberfeminism is not - Cyberfeminismus ist keine Kunst - Cyberfeminism is not a horror movie - Cyberfeminism is not ideology —Cyberfeminisme n’est pas une pipe —Cyberfeminism is not a single woman..." []

The idea behind not to define the term, was to communicate the notion of openness. Instead of expressing concrete political goals our intention was, to bring diverse and contradictory approaches together on the same platform and make the differences productive through confrontation, a principle we later called ’politics of dissent’. The focus of OBN used to be on structural and formal aspects which would allow different contents, and not so much on the contents itself. The contents, the cyberfeminismS, were personal and individual. Nevertheless, what has to go with a ‚politics of dissent’ is to analyze and compare personal motivations, ideas, and goals, to communicate them, and to start a confrontation. Meanwhile, the aspect of making difference productive has turned out be quite an utopian idea.

Before I will talk about the dynamics of networking and collective work, I would like to mention the two other conferences in short. The second conference was titled ‚next Cyberfeminist International’, and took place in April 1999 in Rotterdam. Unlike the first, it was not an open stage, but a group of 7 women had put together a program which was structured in three different topics : "Hacking as method and metaphor", "Split bodies and fluid gender : the cutting edge of information technology", and "Feminist Activism/ Resistance/ Intervention/ Globalism". The procedure of putting the program together and selecting speakers was a mix of sending out an open call and of own search for contributors. The selection process aimed to circumscribe the field of cyberfeminism and to intensify a discussion around the choosen themes. The date for the second conference had been set with regard to the next5minutes conference for tactical media in Amsterdam that directly followed, and where OBN had been asked to organize a panel and to report on the preceding conference.

The third conference, the ’very Cyberfeminist International’ took place in December 2002 in Hamburg, and with its more than 60 active participants was the biggest Cyberfeminist conference so far. It consisted of three parts, and included many new and controversial Cyberfeminist visions. The main section was titled ’new border concepts’ and contained twelve presentations, ranging from feminist indymedia work and cyberfeminist hardware tactics, theories about feminist/cyberfeminist collaborations and bio-media ethics to ’the female seat in the mexican underground network’. An extra session which had been added after September 11 was titled ’New border of terror’, and was dedicated to discussing the relation between current world politics (the war in Afghanistan), and the role of women. An additional smaller section was titled ’networking-knot working - not working ?’, and aimed to discuss about OBN itself— mainly it’s current status and possible future. And this leads directly to the next topic, which is :

The dynamics of networking

What is a network ? Where does it come from ? Why must it fail ? Networks, no matter of humans or of machines, have the characteristic that they are not just there, but somebody has to build them. As you need a certain amount of communication and discussion in order to coordinate the basic things, usually it is a small group who starts. Even if technically all people are related on the same level, there is always informational hierarchies which are installed through ‚inofficial’ communication. Another problem is that usually few do the work necessary to maintain the infrastructure. This free service is taken for granted from the rest, as long as nobody realizes that setting up an infrastructure means deciding upon forms of organisation, which is again the basics of all politics. That means the ones who do the job, have the tools for manipulation... The tricky status of a network becomes most obvious when the network gets an invitation to present itself at some conference, or to write a text for a publication. The kind of networking is taking place in an environment which could be called net culture (including political activism). Although people are usually not getting paid for the work they do in this context, it is not true that there is no economy behind. The economy is a different one, based on gaining cultural capital related to one’s name. This is, in my opinion, the reason for the widely-spread separatism. Everyone needs his or her own label to be filled with cultural capital. All this is of course going on, in front of the background that we all are idealists, fighting for a good thing.

That the issue of networking is essential to cyberfeminism maybe is best explained by a definition of Cyberfeminism which was given by Yvonne Volkart, a swiss theorist. She says "Cyberfeminism is a myth. A myth is a story of unidentifiable origin, or of different origins. A myth is based on one central story which is retold over and over in different variations. A myth denies ONE history as well as ONE truth, and implies a search for truth in the SPACES, in the DIFFERENCES BETWEEN the different stories. Speaking about Cyberfeminism as a myth, is not intended to mystify it, it simply indicates that Cyberfeminism only exists in plural."

What does it mean to say Cyberfeminism only exists in plural ? It means that Cyberfeminism requires an environment which tends to be without hierarchies, and enables a multitude of voices to speak and to be heard. And this environment is a network.


Recently a journalist has asked me whether Cyberfeminism was a movement. I have answered by quoting the German feminist film maker Helke Sander who said : "A movement requires a direction." This is something which OBN has tried to avoid, to make Cyberfeminism a movement into one direction. That, however, creates a fundamental difference to traditional understandings of politics.

Many people think there is a need for Çthe new feminist projectë, but I cannot see adequate goals and forms for such a movement. I have problems to imagine how a cyberfeminist movement could look like. I cannot imagine CyberfeminismS which are right, or wrong, or discussions about inclusion and exclusion. Maybe forces can reunite to take the same direction, as long as there is enough other moving directions possible, and as long the imaginary spaces are not getting shut down.

(politically) Effective and attractive

Now I would like to end by coming back to the initial idea of the talk : the tactical use of language, or of terms. I think the term Cyberfeminism has made a career in the last ten years, and was really successful in terms of changing the notion of femininsm. Many, especially young women got interested and lost their fear of being called Çfeministë, because they found cyberfeminism to be something cool. Now, they can be proud to call themselves Çcyberfeministë. And the fact that Cyberfeminism has gotten an enormous presence in different fields, and is highly disputed, is the proof. The most interesting feed-back I have found regarding the image Cyberfeminism has produced, was in an article by sci-fi authour Bruce Sterling, who called Cyberfeminism to be Çstylishë.

For many years, the important aspect of Cyberfeminism has not been itís actual content, but much more what the term set going, what it made possible. The transformation of the potential into concrete things, texts, aestetical products, political action, discussions, networks, events, economic and educational initiatives, situations, etc. , (also friendships)... shows that the idea of creating an imaginary space is a first necessary step when you want to do ... Çsomethingë... Çpolitical workë. For me, personally, working with the term Cyberfeminism and building networks was an artistic partice. It was a kind of experiment in the sense of pretending the existence of something in order to make it come true. An experiment with the suggestive power of terms, which of course, never is predictable.

Although this may sound cynical in a political context, I would like to claim, that in order to become politically effective, you also have to be attractive. It is not enough to formulate your goals, but also to create an image, an image that has the power to attract people. But no matter, what the term does, it doesnít do the work. The work has been done by connie

Pour la zeligRC2, Paris decembre 2002

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