What are Words Worth

published: July, 1997

This early article appeared in Mute magazine, and shows some of the discourse and thoughts on cyberfeminism that were going around at the time.

 mute8 cover


"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.

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 is historically 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, Women’s International Knowledge Encyclopedia and Data, 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 that 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 efficient)."

Maybe some of the qualities of the commotion, the creation of visions that 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.