Susanna Paasonen, researcher, Cinema and TV studies, University of Turku, Finland
Article published in Iliyana Nedkova and Catherine Williams (eds), VR Act and read Cd-Rom. Liverpool: ACT 2000.


From cybernetic socialism to feminisation: feminist dreams of cyberrevolution

The preconditions for feminist revolution exist - indeed, the situation is beginning to demand such a revolution" - Shulamith Firestone

29 years ago, in 1970, Shulamith Firestone outlined a feminist revolution in her The Dialectics of Sex. New technologies of communication, computing and reproduction alike were for her vehicles, indeed, preconditions for a feminist revolution. Nearly 30 years later, feminism, revolution and cyberculture have all become defined in radically different ways. Dreams of cyberrevolution circulate widely in contemporary public discourses, and also in (cyber)feminist theory, but with rather different overtones. I will focus here on two feminist dreams of cyberrevolution: Firestone’s Dialectics of Sex, and the more recent work of Sadie Plant. How do these authors outline the relation between digital revolution and feminist politics? What kinds of understandings of gender, technology, revolution, and politics can be read from their work? And what has happened to revolution during these three decades?

It is an understatement to say, that the contexts of writing - social, political, cultural, and theoretical alike - are radically different for Firestone and Plant. Cyberfeminist practice is situated, and cyberfeminist theory is about, the Internet and new media technologies, whereas Firestone's cybertheory is about the societies in which technology is used. Dialectics of Sex was written a year after ARPANET, the precursor of today's Internet, was created as a network connecting universities, and before the invention of e-mail or the microcomputer. Firestone's work is concerned with cybernetic socialism rather than computer technology, and grounded in re-readings of Friedrich Engels in particular. Understandably enough, revolution takes on very different meanings, when it is outlined by Plant in the context of French feminist philosophy, digitisation, and cyberpunk fiction. Plant’s Zeros + Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture was written in 1997, during an era in which information networks and computing had become essential parts of everyday life, work and leisure alike, in the industrialised "West".

The so-called second wave feminist writings and agendas are far too often overlooked as outdated, naïve, or both, and lacking the sophistication of the 90s feminist theory. As Faith Wilding has noted, 70s feminism is seen by some cyberfeminists as monumental, essentialist, anti-technology as well as anti-sex, although there might actually be little understanding of the history of feminist theory and practice. Paradoxically, "in actual practice, cyberfeminism has already adopted many of the strategies of avant-garde feminist movements, including strategic separatism (women-only lists, self-help groups, networks, and woman to woman technological training), feminist cultural, social, and language theory and analysis, creation of new images of women on the Net to counter rampant sexist stereotyping (feminist avatars, cyborgs, genderfusion), feminist net critique, strategic essentialism, and the like." (Wilding 1998, 7)

The tendency to abandon 1970s feminism without trying to grasp its contents is, of course, not only limited to cyberfeminist writers. These views, lacking in historical perspective, fail in general to acknowledge the importance of earlier feminist theory in creating utopias, visions of alternative societies, as well as means for accomplishing these futures. Thinking about change always includes an utopian moment - it is about social dreaming and desire for alternative ways of being. Feminist revolution, as outlined in the 70s, was about creating new gender systems and cultural structures - better worlds worth dreaming about and striving towards.(Sargisson 1996, 1, see also Bammer 1991, 48-49) As Firestone (1970, 256) put it, "there are no precedents in history for feminist revolution [-] there is not even a utopian feminist literature in existence". After radical feminism this was no longer the case, but in the late 1990s utopias are often searched for elsewhere.

In the 1960s and 70s, what Firestone called "the second wave of the most important revolution in history", looked at the radical action used in the women's suffrage movement as means of achieving their goals and aimed at continuing this "aborted revolution". Revolution has since been if not forgotten, at least radically redefined. Whereas the feminist revolutions of the 70s were socialist ones, and aimed at changing the material conditions of life, revolutions surface in the 90's as metaphors for dramatic change, a future promise.


Women in Revolt

Feminism is, by definition, about politics. Doing politics, again, presupposes an agency. Unlike in the 70’s, discussions on feminist revolution are rather rare to come across these days, but discussions on political agency are still very much on the agenda. (see Pulkkinen 1996) I find an interesting shift happening in the context of cyberfeminism, where there actually are discussions on revolution, but often surprisingly little space outlined for political agency or action.

In the women’s liberation movement, revolution was on the agenda on several levels: as revolution in the public sphere as well as in private lives, and as a rhetoric of revolution which illustrated the need for radical subversions and the aspiration towards a future freed from the problems of today. (Morgan 1970, xvi-xlvi) Activism, in this context, meant organising protests as well as deconstructing notions of gender and subjectivity on a more conceptual level. In both cases, laying firm claims to political agency was important, since without a belief in one's power to change things there could be no change.

In fact emancipation was - and is - to a large degree about women redefining themselves as feminists, as political agents. These agents were corporeal, maternal, sensual, sexual, and - in all cases - no-man's property. Reclaiming the body was a manysided project for Firestone, who saw technology as means of liberating women from the barbaric burdens of pregnancy. In her view, through revolution women are to seize control of reproduction, human fertility, and the social institutions of childrearing, and to restore the ownership of their own bodies. "[F]eminists have to question, not just all of Western culture, but the organization of culture itself, and further, even the very organization of nature". (Firestone 1970, 2; 11; 226) This is something to call a radical conception of feminism and change, which can be only achieved through the revolt of women, the underclass. Nature and culture alike are to be questioned, changed and manipulated, if women are to be freed from oppression based on their ability of childbirth and reproduction.

Firestone's feminist revolution overturns society, eliminates sexual classes, as well as those based on ethnicity, "race", and economy, breaks down biological family structures based on ownership and rigid power relations, and redefines the concept of labour. Ultimately, then, the goal of a feminist revolution is to abolish culture as it is currently understood. In the post-revolutionary society electronic media will function as memory and data banks, and learning will shift from remembering facts to learning the skills of programming and media use. Large communal computer banks, modern communications centres, computerised library and film centres, and learning centres, will be easily reachable in a cybersociety, and elementary skills and knowledge will be based on those of operating new machines. Also "[p]rogramming skills may became universally required."(Ibid., 11-12; 266-268) As work will be largely automated, people will be liberated from work as imperative into work as activity based on pleasure. Obviously enough, technology is central for this change: "[T]he dawn of the cybernation [means] the takeover of work functions by increasingly complex machines - a new culture based on a radical redefinition of human relationships and leisure for the masses." For Firestone, technology is progressive and liberating, unless used improperly. Thus it is important for women to seize control of technology in order to ensure no improper use takes place and that feminist goals can be achieved.(Ibid., 224; 228-229)

On an ontological level, both Firestone and Sadie Plant see computers and technology as liberating, but on very different grounds. For Plant, women's liberation is analogous with the birth of more and more intelligent machines, and computers are linked with women's culture, feminine ways of communicating and interacting. Women, like machines, have been tools for male culture, but women and machines alike are getting out of control: "tools mutate into complex machines which began to learn and act for themselves [--] As media, tools and goods mutate, so the women being to change, escaping their isolation and becoming increasingly interlinked." (Plant 1996a, 173-174) For her, feminisation will eventually lead to the liberation of both women and machines from the confines of male supremacy and power.

This context for thinking about women, technology, and change, is clearly radically different from Firestone’s. In Plant’s words, "It's important to realise that there is never an instantaneous change -- but, nevertheless, if you look at the historical situation and women's lib so far, you can begin to track future potential. Access to technology is widening. Even though we still have problems, it seems implicit in economic and political terms that these processes are automatic." Thirty years after the birth of radical feminism, Plant discusses cyberrevolution in relation to an automatic process of liberation of both women and machines: "just as machines are getting more intelligent, so women get more liberated! [...] Changes are occurring almost as an automatic process [...] as machines get more autonomous, so do the women" (Rosie X 1995) Revolution is in the air, then, but of whose making is it? If it is so, that "when intelligent space emerges alongside the history of women's liberation, no one is responsible" (Plant 1996b, 37), as Plant claims, are there not elementary problems concerning agency? If there is "no one responsible" for the feminisation as liberation, what implications does this have for political action? Might not one think that agency is being placed within the unmappable forces of feminisation, out of reach, and impossible for one to influence?

Plant's notions of agency are based on the work of Luce Irigaray. According to Plant, women have been denied the possibility of an agency along with those of identity and subjectivity. Only male norms, masculinist ideas of self-control, self-determination and self-control prevail, and the strategies left for women are those of mimicry or silence. Women are trapped in the patriarchal economy, but its power over women and their lives is beginning to collapse. (Plant 1996a, 172-173) Plant’s feminisation is, then, a passive revolution -- something to call a cyberevolution. This labelling of liberation as automatic -- let alone natural -- is, to say the least, a risky thing to do in the context of feminist theory and politics. I do not embrace the idea that cultural, social, or political changes happen by themselves, or that the rise of the so-called cyberculture will mean the erosion of male dominance (be it social, economical, political, etc.). The traditions of feminist theory and activism should have taught us, that waiting for an inevitable and automatic process of liberation is not be the best of strategies for fighting social injustice. As Firestone puts it, "the goals of feminism can never be achieved through evolution, but only through revolution. Power, however it has evolved, whatever its origins, will not be given up without a struggle." (Firestone 1970, 36)

Although Plant recognises the importance of women's liberation movement and feminist struggle for women's possibilities today, she shows little interest in discussing the importance of activism. Indeed, revolution as meant by Firestone is, for Plant, plainly impossible. Cultural change can not be regulated or determined by any single factor or group, since "cultures and changes they undergo are far too complex to be attributed to attempts to make them happen or hold them back." Centres of operation no longer exist, there are no defining causes, bases, starting points or reasons, let alone explanations for cultural change. Ultimately "[r]revolution has been revolutionized", and women's liberation is not about political action but processes of digitisation.(Pant 1997, 45) Eventually, then, cyberfeminist activity can here be about exploring identities, exercising feminine ways of interaction and expression, not intentional and planned political activism.(Wilding 1998, 6)


The Nature of Culture

As it is already suggested above, for Firestone, technology is basically instrumental -- correct use of technology enables new kind cybernetic socialism to become reality and free people from wage labour. Although technology is liberating and a quintessential element of cybersociety, it is by no means the driving force behind revolution. Plant, again, sees the ties between users and machines as far more intimate: for her, new media are no "extensions of man", but prosthetic gadgets that cannot be controlled at will. Technology is no reliable instrument, but part of the larger process of feminisation: entropy, a tendency towards disorder as depicted in the law of thermodynamics, erosion of tidy systems. Feminisation shatters the masculinist idea of a rational subject in control of the nature around him and replaces it with dispersed identities, play, and networking. In Plant’s view, "women's relationship with machines is more intimate historically than is men's", and due to cyberrevolution, the male is now "basically becoming redundant".(Plant 1997, 42; 46; 182; Rosei X 1995)

As "feminine" ways of relating to machines and other people are winning over, Luce Irigaray’s "woman" as the other of the discourse, a non-entity become something existing, a shared feminine identity -- an essence rather than a metaphor. (See Paasonen 1998) In Zeros + Ones, Plant writes the herstory of women in computing since Ada Lovelace, and the centuries of women's culture: weaving, chanting and networking. This is all somewhat problematic, taken her grounding assumptions concerning the nature of "women's culture", "female" means of communication, and their "natural" links to digital media. It is not exaggerated to read her tale as one of technological determinism, where feminine multiplicity conquers masculine rationality. The feminine does not read as a textual strategy of mime that shows its own impossibility, as in Irigaray, but rather as an intrinsic feature shared by women and new technology. Thus not only technology, but also gender is described in deterministic terms as something given and something becoming more and more feminine. The future is, in this perspective, indeed female.

Futures imagined in cultural theory draw from other contemporary discourses, such as science fiction. Plant draws strongly from cyberpunk writers, and science fiction has been a source of inspiration also for other feminists tackling with the issues of gender and new media technology. This was also the case with Firestone, according to whom the scientific revolution is transforming science fiction into reality. (Braidotti 1996; Firestone 1970, 195) In Firestone's dialectic of sex, culture is a dialogue between people's idealistic and scientific skills and responses: those of imagining and creating unbeforeseen things, and those of controlling the environment through technology. They correspond, in Firestone's view, with the two sexes, female and male: "[T]hose few women directly creating culture have gravitated to disciplines within the Aesthetic Mode. There is good reason for this: the aesthetic response corresponds with 'female' behaviour. The same terminology can be applied to either: subjective, intuitive, introverted, wishful, dreamy or fantastic, concerned with the subconscious (the id), emotional, even temperamental (hysterical)."(Firestone 1970, 197)

This definition of "female" is no far cry from Plant's views of femininity as linked with hysteria, association, and intuition. Following Luce Irigaray, Plant emphasises the fluid and multiple nature of woman, whose "very inability to concentrate now connects her with the parallel processing of machines which function without unified control."(Plant 1996a, 177) However, whereas information networks, feminisation, and cyberrevolution enable for Plant the becoming-woman that Irigaray writes about, the feminine culture unleashed, so to say, Firestone's cyberrevolution is not defined by "Female" modes of culture. Quite the contrary, her dialectic of sex will lead to annihilation of both the technological and the aesthetic mode, and result in an androgyny of sorts. According to Firestone, in the next cultural revolution the male (technological mode) will be reintegrated with the female (aesthetic mode) "to create an androgynous culture surpassing the heights of either cultural stream, or even of the sum of their integration. More than a marriage, rather an abolition of the cultural categories themselves, a mutual cancellation -- a matter-antimatter explosion, ending with a poof! culture itself."(Firestone 1970, 215)

This revolution presupposes total mastery over nature: the aesthetic mode will no longer be needed, as all the dreams of humanity will be realised. Firestone thus relies on the possibility of discovering all the secrets of nature, the impossibility of which is the cornerstone of Plant's argumentation. One could say, that in Plant's view "the aesthetic mode" wins in the end: "Men may think and women may fear that they are on top of the situation, pursuing the surveillance and control of nature to unprecedented extremes, integrating their forces in the final consolidation of technocratic fascism. But cyberspace is out of man's control [--] man confronts the system he built for his own protection and finds it is female and dangerous."(Plant 1996a, 181-182) For Firestone, the cyberrevolution is not the victory of the feminine over the masculine, but a nullification of both: "[w]hen the male Technological Mode can at least produce in actuality what the female Aesthetic Mode has envisioned, we shall have eliminated the need for either."(Firestone 1970, 218) The synthesis of the two dialectic modes will lead in cyberrevolution and cybernetic socialism, in which gender -- along with "race", age, and class -- cease to be defining factors. Artificial reproduction, cloning, and mechanisation of childbearing and childrearing frees women from reproductive toil, and the nuclear family structure will become anachronistic. Post-revolutionary androgyny does not, however, equal gender-neutrality, but rather effacement of the feminine. One might claim, that in this vision, women are liberated to become more like men, and reach the position of Human unmarked by gender, class, nationality, or class -- that is, the masculinist norm.

When it comes to the understanding of gender, Firestone and Plant seem to illustrate the extreme oppositions of gender theory vs. sexual difference theory, as outlined by Rosi Braidotti. Whereas one sees feminine as "a morass of metaphysical nonsense" that should be abandoned in favour of androgyny, the other celebrates the feminine pole of the sexual dichotomy. (Braidotti 1994, 152-154) It is understandable, then, that their conceptions of change are equally opposed.

The intimate relationship postulated between women and information network causes Plant to have little patience for the notions of male dominance on the Internet, which have been voiced throughout the decade. Since feminisation is pictured as automatic and teleological, problems of unequal access are not problems for Plant, since "[w]e are witness to accessible technology via the market forces inherent within capitalism." (Rosie X 1995) Whereas access to computer technology is in Firestone's vision enabled with collective computer centres, for Plant access ceases being a problem due to the plummeting prices of hardware and software alike. One buys into cyberrevolution -- participation in it is dependant on one’s capacities as consumer.

Radical feminism, in its attempts to map the structure and root of women's oppression, produced histories that started from the birth of time and covered all of the globe, that is, stories that laid claims to universalism. These stories were often written by white Anglo-American women, who tended to generalise their experience as women's shared experience and thus also as basis for feminist theory.Morgan 1970, xxix-xxx) I see a similar problem in Plant's work: her story of women and technology is largely about white English-speaking women, and the women contributing to cyberrevolution are those with access to computers, software, and Internet connections. Issues of privilege and situatedness do not seem to concern her: "we are in the first wave of information technology, and of course, issues of access are important -- but soon the issue will not be access but how to avoid it." (Rosie X 1995; see also Paasonen 1998) Revolution is here both automatic and autonomous from any possible action one might take -- an unavoidable evolution.


Revolution revisited

"Women have often been worse off after a revolution. [--] Given our history, it's not possible to assume that women will automatically share equally in gains that come from the present information revolution." -- Dale Spender

Plant’s optimist view on automatic progress are certainly not shared by all identifying as cyberfeminists. As Rosi Braidotti (1996) puts it, "while computer technology seems to promise a world beyond gender differences, the gender gap grows wider. All the talk of brand new telematic world masks the ever-increasing polarisation of resources and means, in which women are the main losers." For many, Plant's visions seem ungrounded in their optimism and unillustrative of the current situation. Her interest lies mainly in theories of new technology, subjectivity, and the feminine nature of information networks, whereas others lay more emphasis on the political and social aspects and contexts of those technologies.(Spender 1995) Indeed, one might say that in Plant’s work, feminism is defined in terms of theory, at the expense of practice: if one is to read possibilities for change from it, the outcome is feminism without an agency.

In alternative formulations on cyberfeminism, attention is also paid to the politics of access, as well as meanings given to technology in practices of usage. This is well put by Faith Wilding (1999): "A new cyberfeminism can draw on a strategic knowledge of feminist history, theory and practice, to thoroughly scrutinize the effects of technology on many aspects of women's lives and to fashion a politics of presence, tactical embodiment, and full engagement with the discourses of technology and power, keeping prominently in mind that all women (all people) are affected by technology in different ways depending on race, class, economic and social factors."

90’s cyberfeminist revolutions are about forming spaces for women’s networks, producing content alternative to that of the malestream, and empowering women as cultural producers and user of technology. These networks have no fixed centres and they do not aim at subverting the socio-economic order, or imagining future societies -- they function at the level of "micro" rather than "macro". Few believe in the possibilities of a socialist feminist revolution, but on the level of the personal as political, dreams of change prevail.

It is important to look at existing feminist utopias are we to understand, where these women have been speaking from, and to see the similarities and differences in our ways of seeing gender, culture, and change. Critical return to things previously written means acknowledging the work of others as well as one’s debt to them.(Braidotti 1994, 37-39) Firestone’s revolution is not only about a future socialist order, but also technology and usage, alternative ways of thinking about gender, ethnicity and class. Rethinking and debating these conceptions that the society is based on is no less crucial today than it was 30 years ago. Firestone’s work can, and should in my opinion, be linked to the continuos attempts in feminist theory to find alternatives, "elsewheres" , for the governing, male-centered conceptions of gender and society. As Teresa de Lauretis has so well put it: "that ‘elsewhere’ is not some mythic distant past or some utopian future history: it is an elsewhere of discourse here and now, the blind spots, or the space-off, of its representation." (de Lauretis 1987, 25)

As I hope to have illustrated above, there are risks in equating digitisation with changes in perceptions of gender, as in the idea of feminisation, since the so-called digital revolution does not in any way automatically challenge the gendered division of labour, let alone the binary categories of gender. In fact, things can also be quite the contrary. Feminist revolution as subversion of the understandings of identity and gender has not, as far as I can see, yet happened. Nevertheless, I choose to dream of this -- unavoidably utopian -- moment of challenging and subverting the prevailing matrices of thought and power – in Rosi Braidotti’s words, of finding "points of exit from the phallogocentric schemes of thought".(Braidotti 1994, 38-39) Where these points are found from, how, and when, remains in the core of any feminist discussion.


Many thanks to Anu Koivunen, Marianne Liljeström, and Kirsi Saarikangas for their helpful comments and criticism while developing this article.



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