c y b e r
f e m i n i s t
t h e o r y
Dr. Jyanni Steffensen
Alice Jardine, writing in "Of Bodies and Technologies" states that the fields of theories and practices covered by the words "the body" and "technology" are enormous.5 Firstly for Jardine there are questions of gender and women, especially to the extent that both are frequently absent from discussions of technology and the body - as if men's and women's bodies had been represented in the same way throughout western philosophies and histories, as if women (as historically constructed bodies) had had control over the technology. In Jardine's account, technology always has to do with the body and thus with gender and women in some form. She asserts that sexual difference is present when we investigate technology at the level of male fantasy as with the virgin and the vamp, where technology is represented as an asexual virgin mother, neutral, obedient and subservient to man, or as vamp, castrating phallic woman, threatening and out of control. Gender is relevant psychohistorically: the maternal has been a crucial imaginary and symbolic order trope in the psychohistory of male technological fantasy, and also in the more recent histories of the ways in which, she says, machines and women have come alive and to identity at approximately the same time. Jardine, following Foucault, is concerned that we are being programmed for new and sometimes frightening megamachines and with their effects on the flesh.
Cyberfeminist theorists, such as Donna Haraway, Sadie Plant and Sofoulis, imagine and articulate a different relation between body and machine, and between women and technology. This theoretical trajectory is based less on an hierarchical dualism between dominant megamachines and submissive bodies and more on a transgressive strategy and politics which imagines and constructs a perverse alliance between women and machines. Taking Jardine's observation that women and machines have come alive and to identity at approximately the same time, Sofoulis' observation that women and computers are structurally equivalent (for man), that is, user-friendly, and Plant's recounting the tale of a paranoid man on television who thundered that "women and robots are taking our jobs," cyberfeminism simply points out the subversive alliance between women and all non-human intelligent activity, and the extent to which these connections have always been in place. Plant writes in "Cybernetic Hookers" that women and machines have become disloyal - they have begun to think for themselves. She defines a cyberfeminist end of the millenium as the "Empire of the Senseless" whose replicunts say: "Fuck him, he was only a man. Men, especially straight men, aren't worth anything. Anymore. In this city, women are just what they always were, prostitutes. They live together and they do whatever they want to do."6 Plant defines woman as neither man-made with the dialecticians, biologically fixed with the essentialists, nor wholly absent with the Lacanians. She is, for Plant, in the process "turned on with the machines."7
VNS' hypertext remains critical of the male-centred rationales of cyber-culture, while appropriating the languages of this culture, and re-writing the female techno-body within the spirit of Donna Haraway's influential, and self-admittedly utopic, essay, "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s."8 Haraway writes that she is constructing an argument for the cyborg as a fiction mapping social and bodily reality and as an imaginative resource which might suggest some fruitful couplings. She argues for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction. In Haraway's conceptualisation the cyborg body, linked postmodernly to pleasure, is located in the interplay of surfaces, intertexts and generic dialogisms. She writes that:
For Haraway the cyborg is committed to partiality, irony, perversity and intimacy. A cyborg world might be one in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permantly partial identities and contradictory positionality. Haraway asserts that some differences are playful and that some are poles of world historical systems of domination. She defines "epistemology" as knowing the difference. Furthermore she reminds feminism that technological determinism is only one ideological space opened by the reconceptualization of machine and organism as coded texts through which we might engage in the play of writing and reading the world. "Textualization" of everything in post-structural, postmodernist theory has, according to Haraway, been damned by Marxists and socialist feminists for its utopian disregard for lived relations of domination that ground the "play" of arbitrary reading. However, she insists, post-modern strategies like the cyborg myth subvert myriad organic wholes - the certainty of what counts as nature. A source of insight and a promise of innocence is undermined, says Haraway, "probably fatally." The transcendant authorisation of interpretation is lost, and with it the ontology grounding "Western" epistemology. For Haraway, the alternative is not cynicism or bad faith i.e. accounts of technology determinism in which "man" is destroyed by the "machine" or "meaningful political action" by the "text." Who cyborgs will be is a radical question.10
VNS Matrix. Dentata's Battle with Circuit Boy 1993
One of the questions posed by Sofoulis in "Virtual Corporeality" is: "What place does the female body have in cyber-space?"11 She initially answers this question in the negative: " Femininity and maternity are present, but displaced onto masculine and corporate technological fertility." Sofoulis is not simply conflating the biological (ie. female) and the sociological category of gender (ie. woman) with "femininity" and "maternity." What she is specifying is a masculine excess which finds expression in feminine and techno-maternal figures, for instance the "womby red brain-womb" of the computer HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey or the womby computer Mother in Alien. Instead of a female-identified woman, Sofoulis suggests, we find an Athenoid (daddy's girl), or an emotionally remote, machine-woman. We also regularly find a "fembot" like the false Maria in Metropolis who is commissioned as a sexy tool of a male-dominated state. Women in these masculinist scenarios are represented as signs or objects, but not usually as the possessors or subjects of knowledge. If women and computers are structurally equivalent in a masculinist imaginary, then cyberspace can be as a maternal or a feminine body - a matrix - to be penetrated, cut up and manipulated in quests to appropriate and control resources. However, on the other hand, argues Sofoulis, the prospect exists from a feminist perspective for adopting more dialogical and negotiated styles of interacting with computers and other material semiotic actors. One possible source of fascination with artificial intelligence and technobodies for feminists, women science-fiction writers and techno-artists, she suggests, is that "if these artificial second selves can be loved and accepted as powerful, resistant, speaking subjects, so too might women, long acclaimed as monstrous to conventional categories of self and other."12
Psychoanalytically, Sofoulis mobilises Melanie Klein's theories of part-objects (e.g. breast, penis); Klein's relocation of primary castration as the loss of the breast (for which the penis might then be a substitute); the "epistemophilic phase" (imaginary research into the mother's body for good objects [e.g. penises, babies, faeces]); and the "femininity complex" of boys as a framework for reading masculinist techno-art mythical productions such as "womb-brains." She asserts that whereas phallocentric explanations focus on the boy's discovery of woman's lack, equally decisive for subsequent cultural production is the mother-identified pre-oedipal boy's discovery of his own lack of maternal organs of breasts, vagina and womb.13 In Klein's narrative of the "femininity complex" of boys, maternal/female organs are targets of envy and appropriation. But, Sofoulis adds, following Klein, this maternal identification and envy is denied and compensated for by an over-valuation of the phallus and oedipal identification with the father.14 Sofoulis continues that the disavowed elements of maternal identification and organ envy are sublimated into "cultural activities in which men play out fantasies of intellectual and technological productions as forms of reproduction, where inventions are brainchildren of 'fertile' minds and men can unite with technologies to produce monsters without the aid of women."15 What Sofoulis is driving towards is the formulation of a realm of the mythic along with those of the imaginary and the symbolic. What she suggests is that within the context of the idea that maternal identification and envy is repressed from the symbolic order, it is not repressed from cultural production generally, but is rather sublimated into the mythic. This domain of the mythic includes, for Sofoulis, both technology and art. From this perspective, Sofoulis reasons, the oedipus complex provides a partial resolution of the boy's femininity complex. It eases the boy's journey into male dominated spheres of cultural production where pre-oedipal fantasies are legimated as culturally valued activities conducted in the Name-of-the-Father and signified as phallic. Sofoulis asserts that on closer scrutiny these cultural productions of art and technology bear the marks of a more polymorphous system of significations and fantasies (e.g. anal, oral, maternal).16 If, as Sofoulis points out, the imaginary "femininity complex" of the boy (i.e. his envy of, and fantasmatic appropriation of maternal/female organs) is sublimated in the cultural production of mythic "womb-brain" configurations then one might speculate as a corollary that in a feminine mythic the appropriation of missing male organs might apply. In "Slime in the Matrix" Sofoulis suggests just that: "If masculine sublimation in technoculture has been about acquiring the missing feminine organs (e.g. to make magical brain-wombs), the VNS Matrix images mythically develop the slogan 'Give a girl a spanner' and suggests that feminine sublimation might involve the appropriation of the phallus as a magical symbol."17
However, Soufoulis' re-appropriation of Kleinian part-object theory leaves one of Klein's basic assumptions critically unexamined. Klein developed the "womb envy" and male "femininity complex theory" as a counter to Freud's theory of "penis envy" and "masculinity complexes" in feminists and female homosexuals. What neither Klein of Soufoulis unpack is that, while the womb/penis dichotomy might work as a paradigm for heterosexual procreative sexuality it simply reproduces (in reverse) the ubiquitous understanding of heterosexual procreative sexuality as sexuality per se rather than as one minor form of sexual organisation (and combinations of part-organ referents) among many. The mother I would argue also (along with breasts and wombs) has a clitoris. In other words the Kleinian/Sofoulis theory effects the same symbolic clitoredectomy as most mainstream psychoanalytic discourses. VNS on the other hand, explicitly adopt the slogan 'The clitoris is a direct line to the Matrix' as well as reappropriating the mythical phallus.