Today many important critical theorists of various orientations discern the promise of radical democracy and of a more symmetrical production, distribution, and consumption of knowledge and commodities. Thinkers as diverse as Lyotard, Ellsworth, Landow, Burbules, Standish, and Haraway are united in seeing new possibilities for the individual as an autonomous initiator and participator, a reality which enhances fresh opportunities for all people who share the Net. “Authority as we have known it will change drastically”,(1) says one; radical democracy is about to be realized in the Web, claims another. (2)
In the feminist movement there are many and diverse voices criticizing while favoring the new technological developments, others who are skeptical, and still others who enthusiastically welcome the current developments in cyberspace. In this paper we treat only the most favorite of the feminist receptions of the new development, "cyberfeminism".
The participants of cyberfeminism in its narrower sense all share "hard" postmodern philosophical assumptions, while some of the participants of the cyberfeminism in its more general sense are committed to "soft" postmodern philosophical rhetorics. The former are committed to incommensurability, to seeing the subject as a mere position in language games, and to the abandonment of "meaning", "dialogue", and "emancipation" while the latter are committed to dialogue (contextual), an emancipated subject, and the legitimation of claims for emancipation, democracy, and self-constitution. It should come as no surprise that some of the participants move back and forth from "soft" postmodernism to "hard".
Our aim in this article is to critically reconstruct
the critique and the utopia of cyberfeminism. We argue that for all the
importance of this critique the bottom line is that cyberfeminism does
not advance feminist emancipation and is far from contributing to the elevation
of counter-education, which will challenge the violence of the hegemonic
order of things and its educational manipulations. Cyberfeminism, we assert,
is part of the system that has to be overcome and not a radical alternative
to the system and to its normalizing education.
Cyberfeminism: "Soft and "hard" postmodern influences
Within cyberfeminism the adorers of cyberspace are united in their optimism about the prospects of educational emancipatory elements in cyberspace. They share a broader cyberoptimism which invisions cyberspace as an arena where “all voices are equal” and marginal groups raise their "voice" and participate in a radical democratic environment. It is a space where “power becomes imaginary” (3) since “in simcult the essential is nothing and nothing is essential”,(4) and “the death of the political” (5) finally comes about. Within this process "women do become more important... as machines get more autonomous, so do women. I think women - once they start to make the connection - feel more comfortable with the technology. And really the notion that it is masculine is a convenient myth sustained by the present power structures. This myth is increasingly irrelevant and is an untrue picture of what’s occurring”.(6)
This particular feminist version takes part in a more general critique of the entire western culture and its social asymmetrical organization. It explains the patriarchal social hierarchies by its phallogocentrism; it attacks western centering of privileged knowledge, its conception of objective reason, its binary rational dichotomies, and its abstractions which permitted, justified, and developed an oppressive intersubjectictivity in which women were subordinated in all dimensions and levels of life. According to Sherry Turkle, cyberspace opens an alternative to traditional western symbolic and material, individual and collective oppression, (7) which is phallogocentrist in its essence.
The "hard" postmodern influences are manifested
in cyberfeminism as conceived by some as post-feminist self-constitution
and as post-human by others. (9) According to
Plant, "cyberfeminism is an insurrection on the part of the goods and materials
of the patriarchal world, a dispersed, distributed emergence composed of
links between women, women and computers, computers and communication links,
connections and connectionist nets". (10) Zeo
Sofoulis, another representative of "hard" postmodernism in cyberfeminism,
celebrates the post-phallic conjunction of women's art and high-tech. (11)
Representatives of the "soft" postmodern influences of cyberfeminism have
explicit feminist emancipatory perspectives and they refuse to see themselves
as post-feminists or as post-human Under the title "cyberfeminism" Kira
Hall reconciles two conflicting feminist responses to computer-mediated
communication, liberal cyberfeminism and radical cyberfeminism. "The first,
influenced by postmodern discussions on gender fluidity by feminist and
queer theorists, images the computer as liberating utopia that does not
recognize the social dichotomies of male/female and heterosexual/homosexual….
The opposing perspective… has resulted in the separatist development of
numerous lists and bulletin board systems which self-identify as 'women
only'". (12) For Faith Wilding, cyberfeminism
is more than a chance to create new formulations of feminist theory and
practice: it addresses the complex new social conditions created by global
technologies - "it is a browser through which to see life". (13)
Cyberspace: new prospects
Whiting within cyberoptimism - of which cyberfeminism is only an element - cyberspace is presented as a space where digital information is freely transmitted electronically, without the theoretical, emotional, existential, and political preconditions of traditional western culture. It is an arena where knowledge is decentered (14) and authority is overcome in a new Nietzscheian gay science. (15) Here the truth or falsity of this information is not a constitutive element. Accordingly, within cyberspace it is a function, not a potential true (or false), redeeming (or damning), correcting (or misleading), or transcending element. It is freed of claim of universal validity and it is not committed to force itself on the Other who manifests his or her dangerous potential by not agreeing, not being part of the “we”, the "just" or the “truth”. In cyberspace, as a non-transcendental decentralized communication system, questions of origin, authenticity, or true knowledge becomes irrelevant.(16) There is no room for the claim for authority within this framework, which also deconstructs the claim for (patriarchal-oriented) transcendence of the author (17) or the legitimate interpreter, which normally serves to subvert women and other Others while speaking on their behalf. (18) Truth as a constitutive idea, as an assumption, or as an erotic quest, is foreign to cyberspace and its dwellers. Yet cyberspace, according to the cyberfeminists, opens new possibilities and frees the traditional religious, intellectual, theoretical, and philosophical discourses of many aspects of their traditional immanent violence.
According to the cyberoptimists, within cyberspace
there is no room for traditional western metaphysical and actual violence.
Traditionally, western violence springs from western knowledge’s commitment
to universal validity and from its immanent commitment to protect the wall
that separates the true from the false, those who have valid criteria from
those who have invalid ones, the sage from the savage. Within “cyberculture”
there is room for “cyberpunk”, in which sublegitimate, alternative, and
oppositional subcultures, often framed by a radical body of politics, have
their say at the center. (19) As a term applied
to a broad range of representational media and cultural practices (e.g.
films, comic books, role-playing games, hacking, and computer crime) the
cyberpunk is very much connected to cyberfeminism. Within this framework
it is conceived as a "critique of the masculinist techno-cultural discourses".
Cyberfeminists find great interest in cyberpunk as a manifestation of a
"post-human" condition, which opens new emancipatory possibilities. Of
special importance here is the issue of anti-phallogocentrism and the quest
for a feminine total alternative in the form of connectionism. Here the
overcoming of male-oriented knowledge, intersubjectivity, and control of
nature is articulated within a post-human utopia which reflects the influences
of "hard" postmodernism: "cybernetics and genetic engineering combine to
denaturalize the category of the 'human' along with its grounding in the
physical body".(21) According to the cyberoptimists,
cyberspace contains various and conflicting logics, interests, and possibilities.
It contains not only freedom for all different bodies of knowledge such
as fluid, contingent, and hybrid, and sacks of claims, propositions, and
beliefs; it opens its gates to symmetrical representation of different
narratives, assumptions, claims, and yardsticks about knowledge, not solely
to different narratives and bodies of knowledge. It permits non-ethnocentrist
dialogues among differences, according to this line of argument, yet it
also encourages multiperspective receptions (22)
of the various dialogues. This is a very important educational element
of cyberspace and it opens new possibilities for the constitution, representation,
and acceptance of silenced women’s narratives.
Within cyberfeminism the abandonment of the "masculine" claims for universality, eternity, objectivity, transcendence, and a priori validity of judgment claims and values is of vital importance. Parallel to it is the abandonment of traditional western immanent commitment to violate the otherness of the Other and his/her alternative truths. In this sense cyberspace is a new human environment, a virtual space that is determined by its immanent openness. This generates a new kind of intersubjectivity, which Langdon Winner calls "cyberlibertarianism". (23) This is due to the nature of cyberspace as a Net, as a chaotic non-hierarchical interchange among various sets of information, values, identities, and interests, which is always partial, temporal, and local, and not linear. Here the constitution of knowledge and the relation to it are less harsh, compulsory, linear, abstract, and merciless, and it is much more open, sensitive, caring, instinctive, play-like, or "feminine". For this reason, while it is open to everyone’s participation it does not have universalistic pretensions; nor does it have claims about the eternity of its truths or about objective or eternal validity of its foundations, yardsticks, agreed conclusions, and goals. In this sense it is an alternative to the masculine, instrumental or phallogocentric-oriented concept of knowledge and to hierarchical intersubjectivity.
One of the manifestations of western phallogocentrism, according to this line of argument, is to be seen in meta-narratives and in their role in the formation of the western mind and human coexistence. Within this context a special role is reserved for hegemonic written cannons, formal curricula, and books, and their operation in the general process of authoritarian normalizing education. This applies especially in the school arena,(24) where the book (or truth), the teacher, and the hegemonic cultural and social hierarchies are presupposed, justified, and reinforced. By contrast, within the framework of cyberspace “the center of western culture…the fixed, authoritative, canonical text, simply explodes into the ether”.(25)
Within cyberfeminism, cyberspace is conceived as a totalistic alternative to the historical masculine role which is symbolized by the phallus. According to Plant, "the phallus and the eye stand in for each other, giving priority to light, sight, and flight from the dark matters of the feminine. The phallic eye has functioned to endow them with the connection to what has variously been defined as God, the good, the one, the ideal form or transcendent truth".(26) For Plant, while the phallus guarantees man's identity and his relation to transcendence and truth "it is also this which cuts him off from the abstract machinery of a world he thinks he owns". (27) In contrast to the phallogocentristic knowledge and communication, which is hierarchical, linear, and violent to the Other or to the irrational/false/unproductive, within the computer and in computer-mediated communication the order is feminine and connectionist, not hierarchical. Information in cyberspace is not centered, but is "inherent everywhere".(28) The phallus, linear thinking, hierarchy, transcendence, and domination are replaced by the female clitoris, which is conceived as "a direct line to the matrix".(29) This distopia is based on the feminization of the world. (30) It is founded on the female "hole that is neither something nor nothing",(31) in which the fertility of the Net, of connectionism, intuitionism, and simulation opens new horizons for life. Life now is understood in terms of "a perverse alliance between women and machines". The transcendent authorization of interpretation is lost, and with it the ontology grounding western epistemology. As so common in traditional cults, cyberfeminists try to articulate a cyberfeminist mythology in which computer technology from its beginning already entailed the telos of the overcoming of the masculine inner logic and its hierarchical order. As a postmodern mythology, here the emancipation is not of the human subject, not even of "the woman", but of machines and women who liberate themselves together from the male-dominated world. Sadie Plant invests much effort to show that the important programmers of the computer were women whose role has been forgotten. She uses mythical language to elaborate an alternative grand narrative to the masculine one. She starts with creation, life in the Garden of Eden, and the Fall, reconstructs the establishment of male-dominated human history, and finishes with cosmic connectionism; here, within cyberfeminism, as before the Fall, everything binds together with everything else. Here there is no room for the human being as manifested in the masculine history of domination, suffering, and quest for truth.
Cyberfeminism tries to show that cyberspace is feminine in its essence. Within this effort it conflicts with general postmodern anti-essentialism. This is where feminine and masculine essence and telos are compared historically and conceptually in order to constitute a teleological explanation starting from Adam and Eve and concluding in cyberspace as a feminine totality, or as an improved Garden of Eden. Following the mythization of the female, and in line with the post-human women in cyberpunk, in the mythology that Plant introduces it is only natural that women gave birth to "the first programming language for an abstract machine yet to be built". Her reconstruction of the invention of the proto-computer Turing machine is supported by poor historical work. This encompasses the resurrection of the (post-Garden of Eden) "Apple", "poison", and the "feminizing hormone oestrogen…which gave rise to a powerful set of mathematical ideas, one of which is known as a Turing machine".(32) The constitution of cyberspace is represented as the final victory of the feminine over the masculine essence and its philosophical and political manifestations.
Cyberspace has a feminist "essence" for Plant,
and this is why it is a "natural" space for women. This is because they,
in contrast to men, were always unconsciously living and preparing themselves
for the historic moment of the construction of cyberspace. They did so
by "always" living connected, according to the model of the Net, in their
traditional marginalized gossip locations, in their communal work at the
fields, in the kitchens, in their work as telephone operators or secretaries,
and in many other locations and venues.(33)
Plant maintains that the new arena is unique in that the stance of productive
knowledge, the needs of technological development, and the powers that
are dissolving the traditional male-dominated world are irresistibly forcing
feminine connectionism. Within what we see as her teleological reconstruction
under the feminized/computerized context, the "order-emerging-out-of-massive-connections
approach defines intelligence as no longer monopolized, imposed, given
by some eternal, transcendent and superior power, but instead evolves as
an emergent process, engineering itself from the bottom up”.(34)
In Plant’s reconstruction the historical development of computer technology
brings about a post-human, and in a way post-feminist, or "real feminine"
totality which is in conflict with the inner logic of the phallus that
guarantees man's identity and relation to transcendence and truth - and
cuts him off from the abstract machinery such as computers. Within the
phallogocentric culture men were traditionally identified with the truth
or the quest for truth and transcendence, while women were identified with
"simulation, imitation, lies, and intrigues" - and this is exactly what
makes cyberspace "feminine".(35) This feminist utopian
representation of cyberspace as an emancipated arena, as a non-violent
emancipation from the quest for originality, truth, and transcendence in
cyberspace,(36) has to be addressed.
Addressing "soft" cyberfeminism and its utopia
Against the utopian presentation of the cyberspace as women's Eldorado we should place the studies of Susan Herring, Kathleen Michel, and others, who challenge the representation of the Internet as a feminist environment where non-phallogocentric knowledge has the upper hand.(37) There is plenty of evidence to show that men dominate the Internet and that actually it is quite a violent environment even in its more feminine aspects. As Leslie Regan Shade shows, in many respects even in academe, “cyberspace is not a gender-free space”.(38) The contingency of information gathered by the “link” system and the plurality of windows with no center, hierarchy, transcendence potential, or a priori validity claims, was not followed by a non-violent “feminine” trend or by a new non-aggressive intersubjectivity. Counter-educational potentials for equality and respect for the Other are certainly not realized towards women and among women in this arena. Needless to say, the question of being human and the internalization of oppression by the oppressed women, highlighted in their cooperation with the evil industry of the male world’s normality and in their resistance to it, are here totally ignored. We will argue that the reasons for the importance of the de-humanization or for the efficient normalization of the post-modern feminist emancipatory project within the framework of cyberspace lie in the inner logic of the system.
On the second level, we should challenge the optimism of the cyberfeminists, who present the Net as a terra where “soft” post-modernism is realized in actual "feminized" intersubjectivity. Our claim (which will be developed later on) is that the dwellers of the cyberspace do not avoid and do not overcome social manipulations which constitute, guide, develop, and destroy their potential autonomy as human subjects in "normal" power games. Actually they internalize oppression, identify themselves with it, and realize it, while forgetting their otherness, their potential uniqueness as well as their responsibility to the otherness of the Other and the imperative of the dialogue which they are. The Internet is not an arena where alienation is overcome. Instead, alienation is forgotten. It is part of the abandoning of human life as a mission, as a responsibility, as a challenge. This abandonment is part of an advanced de-humanization process, which ironically is conscious to itself – but from the standpoint of the system, as its agent (and victim). This is why for the cyberfeminists, as for so many other cyberoptimists, the successful de-humanization process and the tyranny of an apparently aimless technological advance are conceived as something to celebrate. Our claim is that there is nothing new in the normalization process as such. All normalizing education processes are targeted against the human potentials of the subject. The uniqueness of cyberspace is in its sophistication and effectiveness. In contrast to the cyberoptimists' claim, we claim that cyberspace is not a politically and economically neutral sphere: it is rather one of the most sophisticated manifestations of current global capitalism and its culture industry. As Paul Standish shows,(39) it reflects a new stage in the distancing of techne from its original meaning and from human destiny, which according to Heidegger are inseparable. Contrary to the cyberoptimists, we argue that the supposed “anarchy” and freedom of exchange of knowledge and representations of silenced “voices” are very problematic, and they are so in the two following senses.
(a) While actually allowing silenced "voices" to be heard, they are open to sophisticated psychological, economic, technical, and ideological manipulations and distortions. Unidentified intruders or any participants can enter the dialogue, distort massages, and pretend they are committed to an open dialogue while actually working to subvert or destroy the conference, misusing the free participation in discussion groups. The concept of cyberspace as an ideal speech situation or as a manifestation of free multicultural dialogue is highly problematic. This is because of the absence in cyberspace of what Levinas calls “the face”(40) of the Other, because of the disregard of the otherness, the shedding of responsibility by the ethical I within a transcending dialogue which actualizes counter-education. In cyberspace as an arena of constant fluid information, identities, passions, and fashions there is no room not only for responsibility and love but for critical distance also. The absence of critical distance does not allow alienation, dialectics, and challenging the self-evidence or the hegemonic consensus. It is problematic also because of the postmodern concept of indeterminability within constant border crossing, and absence of acknowledged norms and standards. Contingency and fluidity are problematic here not only concerning the context but also concerning the identity, the consciousness, or the self of the subject. Here there is room for resistance and change but there is no room for (the absence of) freedom, reflection, and struggle for non-contingent change, no room for eros and dialogue.
(b) The concept of feminist emancipation in cyberspace represents a new stage in the development of technology and of globalization of capitalism, in what one may call virtual capitalism. Far from being a neutral arena where authority, hierarchies, and manipulations are dissolved, the Internet, as a manifestation of virtual capitalism, is a worldwide profit-making system, which struggles mightily to serve a will to nothingness. Here there is less room for reflection, transcendence, and dialogue, and no room for the uncontrolled, anarchic domains which are propagated by the “soft” post-modern cyberoptimists who are still faithful to the suggestive powers of positive utopias such as the free subject, non-violent dialogue, and solidarian intersubjectivity.
We claim that the proclaimed new possibilities
for free choices of individuals, their self-constitution, and uncontrolled
intersubjectivity is an illusion. This illusion serves the current normalizing
education. This illusion and others, such as fluid identities of the fragmented
subjects, are important as parts of the new stage of subjectification.
This is a process of production of the postmodern I who is detached from
her otherness, and ultimately does not represent her potential autonomy,
self-constitution, or responsibility, for the Other and for herself, and
her potential dialogical transcendence/self-constitution.(41)
This "subject" is a construct of a subjectificated self: it is not an ethical
I who manifests the human dialogical potential.
Subjectification, normalizing education, and the ethical I in the cyberspace
Education is a positive movement of making the subject into a "subject" who will act as an object of normalization, construction, education, and destruction. As such, he or she is supposed to be an agent of the system, ensuring the realm of self-evidence which he or she reflects and perpetuates and the social order of which he or she is a construct. Education is always committed to educate in light of a positive utopia or a relevant distopia. Counter-education is utopian too, yet it is committed to a negative utopia, challenging the success of normalizing education and the current order of things. Education, in all its versions, as a movement of reducing the subject to a "subject", committed to ensuring that human beings will not be able to activate reflection.(42) Reflection is not to be reduced to a cognitive activity. Primarily it is an ethical stance and it precedes reason, morality, and politics. Reflection manifests the human dimension in the subject as some one who refuses to become some thing. In reflection she or he manifests responsibility for transcendence. Transcendence over the given, over the self-evident, over the normalized I which was constructed and manipulated by the system. Responsibility for reflection and transcendence is not to be detached from responsibility for the totally Other. Here the Other is not an object for manipulation, control, education, or destruction but a precondition for a subject as an ethical I, a precondition for the struggle of refusing to be a "subject" who functions as an object of "its" system. By normalizing the subject, education causes her potential for autonomy to be forgotten, distracted, or "productive". It turns the imperative for reflection on and the responsibility for the internal and external Other into its opposition, onto reflectivity, for a commitment for the self-evident, the secure, and the pleasurable. Normalizing education makes the subject a fiction, a naive and/or dangerous positive utopia or distopia. From its absolute responsibility for the totally Other the ethical I confronts the meaninglessness of the world she has been thrown into and the realm of self-evidence in which it is being normalized. The ethical I confronts the chasm between the ethical and the reasonable, the private and the public and does not try to escape a dangerous life. For the ethical I mere life is not the aim of life. The ethical I is responsible for the otherness of the Other, for the not-yet, for the potential. The ethical I has nothing to do with a utopian or positive utopian reproduction of the given reality. Negative utopia of overcoming all self-evidence and facing meaninglessness (in the form of contingency, contextualism or the gulf between ethics and reason) is realized in dialogical life in which the otherness of the Other – not her sameness – is a precondition for reflection and transcendence. The ethical I struggles to be a subject – always within a dialogical movement – with the Other. However, we have to remember that the subject is not given, autonomy is but a potential, and the Other when not destroyed or "educated" contains her otherness, alienation, and danger, and only as such is love possible. Dialogue, reflection, and transcendence are not given either; they are not to be realized as part of the given world, as the "soft" cyberfeminists want us to believe. However it is a concrete utopia, which can be struggled for and realized, even if only in microscopic settings. Within counter-education, reflection and transcendence can be realized for an instant, and then they disappear again, making room for normalizing education and the hegemonic order of things – but also for indeterminability, conflict, dialectics, and openness to diversity. Its negativity, its absence is what makes utopia an open possibility. It makes possible the "subject" struggling to become a subject and it makes possible readiness to be called upon by the totally Other. When challenging normalizing education, counter-education cannot have the upper hand; this is because it is a negative utopia. The moment it has the upper hand it will become part and parcel of normalizing education. As such she struggles to realize the utopia of the subject, resisting the present given reality in all its guises: as "facts", "deconstruction", and fragmentation. Counter-education in this sense cannot join the party of the cyberoptimists in any of its versions. What the cyberoptimists are celebrating, even in the "soft" postmodern version, is the disappearance of utopia, the demolition of reflection, and the abandonment of transcendence as part of overcoming traditional metaphysics. The moderate cyberoptimists pretend to herald emancipation from the arrogance of libertarianism and from what we call normalizing education. We claim, however, that here before us is not the end of normalizing education but its sophistication. The cyberoptimists praise cyberspace for overcoming centralist education, censorship, hegemonic interests, and metaphysical claims for truth, universal validity, and transcendentalism in all its forms. Only under these conditions are women freed, according to "soft" cyberfeminism. We think, however, that as long as there is no room for the ethical I, for reflection and for transcendence in cyberspace – as we become part of the system or become the system itself ("we are the Net") – we are more effectively enslaved, not liberated, like the prisoners in the Platonic cave. The individual who is praised by the cyberoptimists is a "subject" not a subject - the manifestation of the power of the system to mystify reality, produce and control the self and its strivings, conceptual apparatus, interests, and competence. The struggle to become a subject and to realize the responsibility of the ethical I in a dialogue in which there is room for reflection and transcendence represents the erotic resistance to Tanatus. Cyberspace as the framework for the most sophisticated myths is fertilized by the nihilistic quest for nothingness and represents the triumph of Tanatus; the quest for abandoning responsibility for life as more than mere life, throwing itself to the endless temptations of virtual capitalism.
Within this process the privatization of the subjectified-normalized self, its reification and its quest for unoriented symbol exchange and pleasure-producing illusions are essential. In this sense the assumed Web’s contingency, and chaotic and “dialogical” change of identities and subjectivities, are misleading. This is because their productivity is actually determined by their effectiveness in camouflaging the process by which this false subjectivity, its will, and its Tanatus-oriented quests are produced as an agency of capitalistic expansion and of normalization processes which it has not the will or competence to unveil and resist. One of the best manifestations of the presence of capitalistic organization of the choices and realization of the reified and controlled “free will” is the way the “links” operate in the Net.
As Nicholas Burbules shows, the key element in the hypertextual structure in cyberspace is the link.(43) The cyberoptimists regard links as matters of spontaneity, preference, and uncontrolled creative connections. Burbules warns, however, that
the act of a link is not simply to associate two givens…links change
the way in which material will be read and understood: partly by virtue
of the mere juxtaposition of the two related texts…and partly by the
implied connection that a link expresses…this involves the reader making
connections within and across texts, sometimes in ways that are structured
by the designer/author…In on-line texts, links define a fixed set of relations
given to the reader, among which the reader may choose, but beyond
which most readers will never go. Moreover, links do not only express
semic relations but also, significantly, establish pathways of possible
movement within the space; they suggest relations, but also control
access to information. (44)
As Suzanne Rice and Burbules rightly claim, the use of the link and
reflection on the strategic interests and personal limitations of its designers
ultimately rely on values, communicative virtues, patience, and sensitivity
to the context.(45) These, however, are made
possible by critical education of the kind that cyberfeminism is committed
to destroy. But we would like to go farther than Burbules. The disregard
of the call of the totally Other, the unattainability of the quest to be
an autonomous subject, the unrealizability of reflection and transcendence
– in other words, the absence of the messianic moment in cyberspace, all
ensure the reproduction of the "subject" as an object for the system’s
manipulations which are at once contingent and rational, necessary and
meaningless. Postmodern conditions ensure feminist educational emancipatory
rhetoric as a productive element within cyberspace as a violent, efficient,
productive system of subjectification or a deceiving, anti-humanist pleasure
machine. It does not allow responsibility for the suffering of the Other,
challenging the mysteries of the self-evident and the trivial, or a struggle
that realizes a moral commitment to change reality. In this sense, not
only is cyberspace far from being the lost feminist post-alienated Garden
of Eden, it is in fact the most advanced challenge to the emancipatory
project and to the emancipation of women. The tension between the normalizing
educational powers and counter-education is even sharper in "hard" cyberfeminism,
where the subject is supposed to be altogether absent, an obsolete thing
of the modern world which was successfully drawn into the chaos of complete
contingency, hybridity, fluidity, and meaninglessness.
Addressing "hard " cyberfeminism and its distopia
"Hard" postmodern feminists conceive cyberspace as a new distopian environment. Within this framework Elizabeth Lane Lawley claims that the definitions of “woman” and “man” are shifting within cyberspace. She argues that “we cannot fix a single center from which the experiences of women with computer and communication systems can be viewed”.(46) In explicit opposition to the critics of instrumental rationality and its immanence in current information technologies, she sees in cyberspace an educational promise for women’s liberation that will enable them to overcome the subject-object, man-woman, nature-culture dichotomies within which they have been traditionally oppressed. This is where Lawley, following Donna Haraway, finds the cyborg ideal so important. Lawley describes a post-gender world as the environment where the hope for woman’s liberation can finally come true as her final elimination.
The anti-essentialism of “hard” postmodernism becomes an “emancipatory” element by the defeat of gender differences.(47) The possibility of unlimited re-inscription and change of the body in cyberspace fascinate Lawley. Actually it is a vision of overcoming the bodiness but not the thingness of men and women. It is a vision of eliminating the body as different from the mind, consciousness, or myth. She is fascinated by the possibility of entering an environment where it is impossible to divide the appearance from its construction, the subject from its creations, the representation apparatus from “reality”; she aims at overcoming the historical categories of “women”, “other”, or “object”.(48) The hybridity and fluidity of women’s identity promises, according to this vision, women’s emancipation. This is in a world where “we may be forced to deal with shattered categories and shifting identities”.(49)
Lawley does not care that the cyborg not only transforms “woman” and “man” but also the very relevance of the subject. The celebration of contingency, hybridity, constant change, and emancipation from the challenges of reality is seen here as emancipation of women in a very special manner: by eliminating the woman or the feminine. Here women and computers rebel against the phallogocentrist world and create a new, holistic space were the cyborg is at home, where there is no room for the subject and for the messianic moment, where the utopia of dialogical creation and self-overcoming are abandoned. The fluidity and contingency of endless identities, passions, and myths, accompanied by the end of authenticity, ensure, according to Plant, the end of male domination and actually of domination as such.(50) This does not hinder some of the other "hard" cyberfeminists, such as Verena Kuni, from speaking of the future world as a feminized arena.(51) Yet by dissolving the category of the subject and her Otherness, we argue, it will be even harder for men and women to challenge the apparatuses of creation, representation, and distribution of normalizing education. In face of the exile of spirit, the jargon of emancipation and radicalism is still kept alive, but in a cynical manner. The “hard” postmodern cyberfeminists make use of the language of emancipation and dissent while abandoning the ideals of the subject, dialogue reflection, transcendence, and responsibility. These ideals and quests are abandoned here for the sake of their being more easily swallowed by the system and adjusted to the Net, the Web, virtual reality, MUDs, or other manifestations of system. This point is still clearer in the case of Donna Haraway.
Haraway’s departure point is traditional western male-dominant culture. According to her, this is a racist culture, which includes progress and appropriation of nature as the resource for the production of culture.(52) She sees in the postmodern conditions (53) new emancipatory potentials for women: technological and social evolution have brought about a situation where “the dichotomies between mind and body, animal and human, organism and machine, public and private, nature and culture, men and women, primitive and civilized are all in question ideologically”.(54) Haraway maintains that within the new conditions the world becomes a problem of coding and resistance to instrumental control. Note that in contrast to the “soft” postmodernists, Haraway does not refer to a feminist emancipation in light of the new constellation as an arena where the patriarchal world is becoming feminized, alienation reduced, and more equality, respect for the Other, and solidarity realized. She sees the postmodern condition as an arena where the issue of the subject, her life, and her possible emancipation is becoming radically transformed, and the Enlightenment’s ideal of the subject is being overtaken by the postmodern cyborg.
As one of the manifestations of the postmodern condition the cyborg “is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as creature of fiction”.(55) Haraway does not look for more equality between men and women, between cultures and classes; she is not in quest of a solution to the traditional problems of philosophy and society. Instead she opens a complete alternative, beyond relativism, temporality, and partiality, as suggested by the various educational trends in the “soft” postmodern feminism. “Soft” postmodernism has abandoned the search for perfect harmony. Its educational alternatives are optimistic about the prospects of overcoming asymmetrical relations, inequalities, and oppression in postmodern conditions, especially in cyberspace. Haraway goes in another direction, where there is no quest for free dialogue and more symmetrical relations among different identities, interests, cultures, races, sexes, and classes.
For Haraway, the incommensurability of differences and the radical conception of contingency make possible the formulation of a new totality. Here coding and decoding symbols parallel creation and re-creation of the cyborg as some thing that is supposed to overcome traditional western conceptions of the human subject. In our mind this idea is as the opposite of the object as some one who struggles against the pressure to reduce her into some thing, trying to become someone. For Haraway, as for Plant and other "hard" cyberfeminists, in the sense that it is a creature in a post-gendered world (56) the cyborg overcomes the psychological, social, and philosophical problems traditionally connected to the male-dominated world, and as such it is a manifestation of the telos of western culture.
Haraway introduces the world of the cyborg as an improved Garden of Eden,(57) in which totality is constituted not by homogeneity, eternity, stability, and absolute truths realized in a perfect manner. The cyborg lives while “committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence”.(58) Here "the difference between the human body and machines on the one hand and nature on the other is a thing of the past”.(59) Haraway presents a utopia where the world as a dialectical arena of antagonistic and binary identities, interests, and human powers is overcome. She presents a totality of endless, groundless, aimless, meaningless coding and decoding. The world and the self intermarry, and there is no room for an ethical I, who struggles to realize her potential autonomy by critical reflection and dialogical transcendence, which reformulate the self and the world. It mystifies not only the self and the world but even the utopia, and makes it part of the current realm of self-evidence. She presents a totality “not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia”, which curiously she still defines as “feminist”. It educates to being drawn into a world where Haraway can prefer being a cyborg to being a goddess.(60) It is a world which has regained its totality, as the cyborg is in a spiritless world, without any alienated Other, an object, or a not-I, a world that has to be deciphered, transcended, or overcome.
The post-modern cyborg who is swallowed up by electronic technology is not the modern alienated, suffering subject, who is confronted by the dilemma of destroying the Other or being destroyed, dominating or being dominated. In Haraway’s words, "it was not born in a garden", and therefore it is not committed to return to the Garden of Eden by redemption which is determined by one, absolute, holy truth; nor is it committed to a revolution or realizing the Enlightenment’s (or another) secular emancipatory project which is committed to the realization of a positive utopia. In this manner the human being as some thing, as a cyborg, is relieved of the obligations of the kind of education which was committed to truth and to binary concepts such as evil-pious, true-false, beautiful-ugly, oppressive-emancipatory. "The machine is not an it to be animated, worshipped, and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment".(61) Within this project education is entirely mystified and veiled. It becomes part and parcel of the self-evident and the present order of things. To the extent that it is still identifiable, it can only aim at improving the productivity or the pleasures of the cyborg and eliminating all surviving manifestations of the modern world: differences between men and women (and the oppression which is traditionally attached to them), culture and nature, humans and machines, good and evil, true and false, reality and fantasy. From the partialities, differences, and temporalities which have nothing in common, on the one hand, and the quest for nothingness which determines them, on the other, Haraway is committed to building a new Garden of Eden, a new totality where the self-evident and the present order will not be able to be threatened by anything or anyone.
This is an improved version of the human situation in the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve were already potentially in conflict with God’s imperative or with the temptation of the serpent. They already had a choice, namely in a way they were free to choose, even before eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It was a fragile totality, containing the seeds of its destruction. The educational problems of getting the knowledge of the good, distributing the true knowledge, and living accordingly are but a consequence of the imperfect Garden of Eden.
The postmodern condition, as shown by Plant, Haraway, and the other "hard" cyberfeminists, can offer a perfect totality where the Sisyphean effort of education and its violence will come to an end. What they offer is an arena where there is no room for life as struggle and for human responsibility. The world of the cyborg or the realization of connectionism, where everything amalgamates with everything and everything is connected to everything else in an endless, borderless, and meaningless fluidity, is not an alternative to the logic of control which they identify with western phallogocentrism. Within this version of connectionism, in the absence of the ethical I or the utopia of the subject, there is no room for solidarity and love or for the struggle against the untrue and the unjust. In other words, there is no room for struggling against normalizing education. This is because it was first internalized and then fragmented into endless "differences", where no difference really makes a difference, where there is no room for the Other and her otherness. This kind of connectionism may be realized in the future - and the development of biological computers may contribute to further develop this new totality. We see it, however, as a quest for nothingness, a Tanatus drive that uses a domesticated eros to run away from life as a problem and as a burden, as openness, and a call for the totally Other. Life as an easygoing optimism or "irony" here replaces a dangerous mission, which is an unveiled laziness. It is a celebrated elimination of self, swallowed by the system and its pleasure machines. Here there is no room, no quest, and no potentials for negative utopianism and counter-education. This attitude is also present in MUDs and in virtual reality technologies.
In its ideal, the technology of virtual reality promises a technique that will allow the creation on the screen of a view totally manipulated by a “subject” who will sense virtual reality as perfect reality. She will be able to have anything she imagines on the screen, and by the same token to feel as if virtual reality is perfectly “real” and to react accordingly, physically and emotionally. In the creation of virtual pain and virtual pleasure, totality, infinity, and eternity are reachable. In the case of the perfect virtual-reality machine, which realizes pleasure or suffering, as in the case of the perfected cyborg, is there a possibility to “plug out”? This stage of realized “hard” postmodernism raises hard questions: who here is the subject, and what or who here is the object? What is the meaning of “free decision” or of “creation”, in the sense of who or what manipulates what, who or what is sovereign here? Here we are confronted with a potential pleasure (or infernal) machine in which the challenge of education and that of emancipatory feminist education has no meaning and no purpose. The problematic of suffering, love, mystery, or hope for transcendence becomes irrelevant, meaningless, because nothing is any longer meaningful or meaningless, worthy or unworthy, true or false, real or unreal. Not even the subject and her relation with her Others, symbols, or objects.
According to Sherry Turkle,
MUDs put you in virtual spaces in which you are able to navigate,
conserve and build... MUDs are new kind of virtual parlor game and
a new form of community. In addition, text-based MUDs are a new
form of collaboratively written literature. MUD players are MUD authors,
the creators as well as consumers of media content... As players
participate, they become authors not only of text but also of themselves,
constructing new selves through social interaction... On MUDs, one’s
body is represented by one’s own textual description, so the obese can
be slender, the beautiful plain, the “nerdy” sophisticated... MUDs make
possible the creation of an identity so fluid and multiple that it strains the
limits of the notion.(62)
Turkle is very optimistic about the feminist emancipatory potential of MUDs since it is an arena where construction and reconstruction of identity take place as a new form of life; life as a play in which one creates and re-creates identities, and the border between “real life” and a “play” is transcended, or at least reformulated for men and women. Turkle emphasizes that “for some this play has become as real as what we conventionally think of as their lives, although for them this is no longer a valid distinction”.(63)
Cyberspace as a manifestation of the "hard"
postmodern world is a world where there is no room for responsibility for
the Other or for one's owns self. Ultimately there is no room for education
since there is no human subject and the kingdom of necessity has disappeared.
We think that within cyberspace and its “hard” postmodern possibilities
and limitations there is no room for responsibility for the Other or for
one’s own self. Ultimately there is no room for counter-education. At last
education is not threatened by any rival. It constitutes a totality, which
recalls the Garden of Eden or Marcuse’s vision of future society, where
the conflicts between nature and culture, subject and object, the pleasure
principle and the reality principle, and even the principle of individuation
(64) are overcome.
Counter-education facing cyberfeminism
The "hard" and the “soft” versions of postmodern cyberfeminism that have been reconstructed here are united in supporting and reflecting the present postmodern condition and its capitalistic subculture. Paul Standish has done a good job in showing the relations among hegemonic economic powers, social inequalities, and the prosperity of cyberspace in schools and in the educational arena at large.(65) Standish, however, is siding (not without some doubts) with the anti-instrumentalism of Cyberfeminism, and thinks that “Cyberfeminism explores the possibility of the recovery of something of those different ways of thinking that might counterbalance or infiltrate a more calculative rationality”.(66)
Standish follows Heidegger’s critique of western
instrumental rationality, and sees in the computer a technological manifestation
of instrumental rationality. He accepts that computers are most efficient
at handling, exchanging, and making available large amounts of information,
and that today western society cannot do without them. For Standish “the
problem is that the ease with which we then access and pass on this information
displaces other ways of knowing and understanding and being in the world”.(67)
However, when referring to recent developments in cyberspace, where the
male-oriented characteristics of the computer are being developed, along
other multi-media potentials, into a “masculine” technology, Standish is
less satisfied with Heidegger’s position, and he sides with the optimism
of cyberfeminism. According to Standish, "in identifying the seductive
ease and harmlessness of the masculine calculative thinking Heidegger may
have failed to anticipate fully the way this transmutes in the physical
experience of new technology. He may also not fully have realized the extent
to which the technology itself is transformed where hierarchical structures
of organization are replaced by the acentic and modal formations of the
We accept the central aspects of the critique of Standish and the cyberfeminists on the instrumentalism of the current technological advance, but we do not share their understanding of the "feminine" characteristics of cyberspace; nor can we share their optimism and Heideggerianism.
Standish does not do justice to Heidegger in the sense that when he refers to the Web he does not ask the question of the inner logic of cyberspace technology or the question of the subject in total disengagement, Geworfenheit. When he refers to the “feminine” character of the Web he forgets to question this reality in face of the question of Dasein in the Heideggerian sense which he praises. For Heidegger "das Dasein ist Seiendes, dem es in seinem Sein um dieses Sein Selbst geht": the subject is unique in the sense that the Dasein is, by its being committed to the question of being. Contrary to Standish we think that, following Heidegger, Adorno, and Levinas, we should develop the critique of instrumental rationality by raising the issue of the concrete possibilities and limitations of human life within cyberspace. Today's counter-education should emphasize the difference between information and knowledge, dialogue and information interchange, change of identity and transcendence in face of the Other as a representation of infinity. Counter-education should also address the questions of cyberspace and the strengthening of capitalism, and why its moral toll and its manifestations in the Culture Industry are not being problematized by current philosophies of education.
When cyberfeminism and its optimism are problematized within this framework, there will be much less room for positive utopianism and more for resistance, reflection, and responsibility towards the Other as a human being, as a girl or a boy, a women or a man, and not as a cyborg or a contingent, aimless, careless manifestation of the system in virtual reality, or in MUDs.
In the face of current reality it is of vital importance to raise the possibility of counter-education. Within counter-education the question of the subject, the possibility of reflection, and the meaning of the struggle for dialogical transcendence are re-evaluated, transformed, and striven for. Here the (potential) autonomy of the subject is vital, and it is realized always within dialogical relations with Others whose otherness is acknowledged as legitimate and relevant for human life. The struggle for such a potential dialogue necessarily entails challenging the realm of self-evidence and the current order, which includes the present self, its interests, knowledge, consciousness, and passions, as enforced by the systematic normalization of the subject.
The present aim of counter-education should be to advance critical philosophy of education while employing postmodern sensitivities, concepts, and conditions. This is a part of its struggle over the possibility of human life within the present process of sophisticated de-humanization by normalization processes like those realized in cyberspace. There the victim of the system becomes its devoted agent by self-discipline, adjustment to the rules of the game, abandonment of responsibility, and commitment to life for the not-yet and the totally Other.
Even if cyberspace is a one-dimensional system,
counter-education can make much use of the tension among the pre-modern,
the modern, and the postmodern over cyberspace. The real oppression
of women and the actual suffering outside cyberspace and its apparatuses
of representation, as well as new possibilities within cyberspace, allow
the presence of hope and the very possibility of refusing the suggestive
power of Tanatus and its educational efficiency. But one of the first steps
should be a critique of the various optimistic versions of current cyberfeminism,
and getting ready for the call of the philosophical Eros and ethical responsibility.
We hope that this article has in some way contributed to this effort.
(1) Mark Poster, “Cyberdemocracy: internet and the public sphere”, p. 11. http://www.hnet.uci.edu./mposter/writings/democ.html
(2) Mark Poster, "CyberDemocracy: internet and the public sphere",http://www.hnet.uci.edu/mposter/writings/democ.html
(3) Mark C. Taylor and Esa Saarinen, Imagologies: Media Philosophy, New York 1994, p. 4.
(4) Ibid., p. 7.
(5) Ibid. (no page number).
(6) Sadie Plant, Interview, p. 1.
(7) Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in
the Age of the Internet, New York and London 1993, p. 9.
Lynsay Kennedy, “Cyberspace women’s turf?”,
(8) Sadie Plant, "Vorshung durch Technik",
http://www.thing.de/blau/blau19/plant.htm, p. 1.
(9) Janni Steffensen, "Slimy metaphors for technology:
'the clitoris is a direct line in the matrix'",
http://ensemble.va.com.au/array/steff_01.html, p. 1.
(10) Sadie Plant, "On the matrix". P. 182.
(11) Zeo Sofoulis, "Slime in the matrix: post-phallic formations in women's art in the new media", in Jill Julius Matthews (ed.), Jane Gallop Seminar Papers, Canberra 1994.
(12) Kira Hall, "Cyberfeminism", in Susan C. Herring (ed.), Computer Mediated Communication: Linguistic, Social and Cross-Cultural Perspectives, Amsterdam/Philadelphia 1996, p. 148.
(13) Faith Wilding/, "Where is feminism in the cyberspace?"
http://www.studioxx.org/xwords/cyberfemme.html, p. 10.
(14) George Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, Baltimore and London 1992, p. 77.
(15) Ibid., p. 74.
(16) Mark Poster, “Cyberdemocracy: internet and the public
sphere, p. 3,
(17) Tuomas Nevanlinna, “The critique of the author-figure”, http://www.designmedia.net.nevanlinnadead2_kuva.html
(18) Rosi Braidotti, “Cyberfeminism with a difference”,
Tuomas Nevanlinna, “The critique of the author-figure”, p. 1,
(19) Mark Dery, “Flame wars”, in Mark Dery, (ed), Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, Duke University Press, 1994, p. 8.
(20) Jyanni Steffensen, "Slimy metaphors for technology:
'the clitoris is a direct line to the matrix'",
http://ensemle.va.co.au/array/steff_01.html, p. 1.
(22) Anne Balsamo, “Feminism for the incurably informed”, in Mark Dery (ed.), Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, p. 127.
(23) Langdon Winner, “Cyberlibertarian myths and the prospects for community”, http://www.rpi.edu/~winner/cyberlib2.html
(24) Colin Lankshear, Michael Peters, and Michel Knobel, “Critical pedagogy and cyberspace”, in Henry Giroux, Colin Lanksheare, and others, Counternarratives: Cultural Studies and Critical Pedagogies in Postmodern Spaces, New York 1996, p. 154.
(25) Richard A Lanham, The Electronic World: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts, Chicago and London 1993, p. 31.
(26) Sadie Plant, "On the matrix: cyberfeminist simulations", in Rob Shields, Cultures of the Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies, London 1996, p. 172.
(28) Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, London 1996, p. 132.
(29) Jyanni Steffensen, "Slimy metaphors for technology:
'the clitoris is a direct line to the matrix",
(30) Sadie Plant, Geekgirl no. 1, an interview with
http://www.geekgirl.com.au/geekgirl/001stick/sadie.html, p. 1.
(31) Plant, "On the Matrix", p. 180.
(33) Sadie Plant, "Das Netz ist weiblich" (the Net is
http://konrad.stem,de/leseprobe/1998/45/plant.html, p. 2.
(34) Sadie Plant "The virtual complexity of culture", in George Robertson (ed.), FutureNatural Nature/Science/Culture, London and New York 1996, p. 204.
(35) Sadie Plant, "Das Netz ist weiblich", p. 3.
(36) Ibid, p. 4.
(37) Leslie Regan Shade, “Gender issues in computer networking”, p. 5.
(38) Ibid., p. 6.
(39) Paul Standish, “Only connect: computer literacy from Heidegger to cyberfeminism”, p. 2.
(40) Emmanuel Levinas, “Is ontology fundamental?”, in Basic Philosophical Writings, Indiana 1996, p. 8.
(41) Ilan Gur-Ze’ev, “Counter-education in the era of the exile of the Spirit”, in Philosophy, Politics and Education in Israel, Haifa 1999 (in Hebrew) (forthcoming).
(42) Ilan Gur-Ze'ev, Jan Masschelein, Nigel Blake, "Reflectviity, reflection and conter-education, Studies in Philosophy and Education, 20 (Fall 2001)..
(43) Nicholas Burbules, "Rhetorics of the web: hyperreading
and critical literacy",
http://www.edu.uiuc.edu/facstaff/burbules/ncb/papers/rhetorics.html, p. 1.
(44) Nicholas Burbules, Ibid., p. 3.
(45) Suzanne Rice and Nicholas Burbules, "Communicative
virtues and educational relations",
http://www.edu.uiuc.edu/pes/92_docs/rice_burbules.HTM, p. 6.
(46) Elizabeth Lane Lawley, “Computers and the communication of gender”, http://www.itcs.com/elawley/gender.html, p. 2.
(47) Ibid., p. 5.
(48) Ibid., p. 6.
(49) Ibid., p. 8.
(50) Sadie Plant, Das Netz ist weiblich", p. 4.
(51) Verena Kuni, "Future is female: some thoughts on
the aesthetics and politics of cyberfeminism",
http://www.kunst.uni-mainz.de/~kuni/abs-cf1.htm, p. 1.
(52) Donna Haraway, Simias, Cyboooorgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York 1991, p. 150.
(53) Ibid., p. 161.
(54) Ibid., p. 163.
(55) Ibid., p. 149.
(56) Ibid., p. 150.
(57) Ibid., p. 151.
(59) Ibid., p. 163.
(60) Ibid, p. 181.
(61) Ibid., p. 180.
(62) Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, New York and London 1995, p. 11-12.
(63) Ibid., p. 14.
(64) Herbert Marcuse, “Culture and revolution”, Herbert Marcuse Archive 406.00, 4 in Ilan Gur-Ze’ev, The Frankfurt School and the History of Pessimism, Jerusalem 1996, p. 111 (in Hebrew).
(65) Paul Standish, “Only connect: computer literacy from Heidegger to cyberfeminism”, Educational Theory, (forthcoming).