Reloading Cyberfeminism. - Reload: Rethinking Women and Cyberculture - book review
Afterimage,  July-August, 2002  by Katie Mondloch

 
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Reload: Rethinking Women + Cyberculture

581 pp./$29.95 (sb)

(Cambrdige, MA: MIT Press, 2002)

Norbert Wiener initiated the modern use of the Greek term "cyber" (originally meaning to steer or govern) around 1948 to characterize what he called "cybernetics:" an interdisciplinary science that investigates automatic control processes in biological, technical and social systems. Taking off from Wiener's cybernetics, the word "cyborg" (cybernetic organism) was coined around 1962 to describe a human being linked to mechanical devices that assist the human's vital life functions. The cyborg has been foundational for feminist theorizations ever since Donna Haraway's pioneering and influential 1985 article, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," and indeed the cyborg figure is ubiquitous throughout the assorted texts in Reload. Haraway's cyborg feminism hopes that a cyborg identity will allow women to escape the problems enabled by the tired dualisms of patriarchal society--by most accounts making Haarway a cyberfeminist avant la lettre.

Cyber. The addition of a mere five letters can revamp a word's meaning, transforming an otherwise lackluster term into something stylish and forward-looking. The specific undertaking of Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth's noteworthy anthology of fiction and criticism, Reload: Rethinking Women + Cyberculture, is to merge the discourses of feminism, cyberculture and cyberfiction. While the terms "cyberfeminism" and "cyberculture" pervade Reload's collected essays, they are accompanied by few consistent and precise definitions. Before examining this informative anthology in detail, a brief detour to consider the etymology of all things "cyber" is worthwhile.

While surely linked to the concepts of the cyborg and cyberspace (science fiction writer and all-around cyber visionary William Gibson coined the literary term "cyberspace" in his 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer to describe immersive data spaces and virtual reality), the evolution of the term cyberfeminism is not easy to trace and is (tellingly) non-linear and variegated in its applications. The all female artist and activist collective VNS Matrix ("VeNuS" Matrix) in Adelaide, Australia may have been the first to employ the term with their 1991 billboard manifesto, "A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century." Since then, VNS Matrix's Virginia Barret has been influential in popularizing an understanding of cyberfeminism as the legacy of Haraway's "cyborg feminism" outlined in "A Cyborg Manifesto." Participants in the 1994 London conference "Seduced and Abandoned: The Body in the Virtual World" likewise spoke of "cyberfeminism" as a derivative of Harway's cyborg feminism.

Taking a different and almost polemical approach to the definition of cyberfeminism, Sadie Plant believes that the social relations engendered by new technologies are to be embraced as "positively feminine." Plant's cyberfeminism celebrates the way that non-linearly distributed digital processes are, according to Plant, intrinsically associated with women and the feminine. Distinct from Plant and VNS Matrix's largely uncritical embrace of new technologies, Cornelia Sollfrank and Faith Wilding popularized a variant application of the term cyberfeminism as part of their work with the activist group Old Boys Network (OBN) founded in 1997 in Berlin. For the OBN, cyberspace is understood as entirely consistent with patriarchal society and cyberfeminism is an undertaking committed to creating and maintaining real and virtual places for women in regards to new technologies while taking into account the age, race, class and economic differences of women all over the world. In light of all of these competing definitio ns, the pluralization "cyberfeminisms" appears frequently and not without good reason. Reload offers yet another take on the nature of cyberfeminism that succinctly synthesizes the various approaches outlined above, although the productive differences among the competing definitions of cyberfeminisms are effectively diminished. Reload's editors Flanagan and Booth define cyberfeminism as a new wave of feminist theory and practice concerned with issues of identity and the body in cyberspace, and go on to propose that cyberfeminism is a pivotal influence on the writers collected in this volume. While many of the essays in Reload are arguably inspired by the sort of cyberfeminism defined by Flanagan and Booth, it is important to note that other selections would be much better understood through one of the variant definitions of cyberfeminism outlined above.

Flanagan and Booth originally developed the collection of 28 texts in Reload for pedagogical purposes; the two were unable to find a collection of essays on women s cyberfiction when they were teaching a university course on cyberculture. The editors have provocatively interspersed the fiction and criticism chapters so that (consciously or otherwise) Reload's juxtapositions between fiction and criticism enact the very themes of nonconformity and discontinuity that concern the majority of the writers. Setting out to challenge what the editors consider to be the twin myths of most writing on cyberculture--the heroic image of the male outlaw hacker and the utopian notion of a gender-free cyberworld--the book successfully complicates the situation. Reload is divided into three parts--"Women Using Technology," "The Visual/Visible/Virtual Subject," and "Bodies." Although the rationale for these categories is not addressed in the text, it Is not too presumptuous to assume that the editors aspired to surmount traditi onal categories, such as "Fiction" and "Criticism," and hoped that intermingling both kinds of writing under these broad themes would lead the reader to make some interesting connections on her own. In fact, this anthology is so wide-ranging that the diverse texts indicate innumerable opportunities for future interventions at the intersection of cyberculture and feminism.

Taken as a whole, Reload is concerned with what Flanagan and Booth call "women's cyberfiction," although certain "criticism" chapters stray beyond literature into digital art, film, computer games and the like. 1970s feminist science fiction, described by the editors as an intervention into the traditionally "masculine" genre, and the 1980s cyberpunk movement (itself heavily influenced by feminist science fiction), provide a useful context for considering women's cyberfiction. Cyberpunk's manic working through of destabilized Identities in representations of hacker culture has suggested to some critics a progressive understanding of sexual difference; Flanagan and Booth refute this interpretation, pointing out that the conclusions of cyberpunk novels and films generally reinscribe "traditional" gender identities and relations.

The women cyberfiction writers in Reload for the most part reject the trope of a disembodied consciousness (the user who "jacks in" to a virtual world and leaves the body or "meat" behind) as well as the utopian promise of virtual bodies (the "postgender" possibility of transcending the biological body) found in so much cyberculture fiction and criticism. In her introductory chapter Booth instructively points out that women's cyberfiction echoes certain "postmodernist" feminist theorists, such as Elizabeth Grosz or Judith Butler, by fore-grounding the material body's relationship to the construction of subjectivity. On the other hand, Booth acknowledges that gender identity is fairly stable in Reload's examples of cyberfiction. The fact that these seemingly paradoxical points are both valid observations regarding the disparate texts in Reload gives some Indication of the book's ambitious breadth even as it hints at the rather tenuous connection between the assembled texts.

eading this massive book in its entirety reveals fascinating themes and stimulates a cross-fertilization of ideas. Fictional and theoretical speculation on the cyborg--often a specifically female cyborg--is recurrent. Haraway's by now canonical essay is referenced in nearly every criticism chapter, closely followed by numerous references to Katherine Hayles's (1999) and Allcuquere Rosanne Stone's (1991) writings on cyberculture and embodiment. There are several outstanding essays in this vein. In her reading of Marge Piercy's novel He. She and It. Heather Hicks's contribution to Reload reimagines the cyborg figure as completely bound up with the concept of work. Hicks' provocative essay challenges the reader to rethink certain cyberculture theorizations with more attention to material culture. Concerned with the body's status in cyberculture, Julie Doyle and Kate O'Riordan chart a fascinating history of medical imaging from the eighteenth century to the present in their essay "Virtually Visible: Female Cyberbodies and the Medical Imagination," persuasively demonstrating the gender binaries that these practices hold in place. Similarly interested in exploring binary formations, Dianne Currier's excellent essay proposes Deleuze and Guattari's model of the assemblage for thinking through technology in a non-binary way. Her thoughtful examination unearths binaries of mind/body and immaterial/material in even the most highly self-reflexive critical writing.

Reload distinguishes itself from much writing on cyberculture by giving careful attention not only to gender, but also to issues of race, class and sexual orientation. The politicized correlation between bodies, power and privacy is common to many of these essays. The protagonists of the women's cyberfiction in Reload are haunted by their unequal access to technology, although the nature of this impediment varies widely. Mary Rosenblum's short story "Entrada" involves Mila Aguilar; a young Latina obliged to care for a malicious rich woman in order to gain access to a coveted HarvardNet degree. The dystopia lived by Melissa Scott's Cerise in an excerpt from her science fiction novel, Trouble and Her Friends, is the inverse; the under-privileged (queers, women and the handicapped) are marked by their intimate dependence upon computer technologies, compelled to accept overly-invasive "brainworms" to access cyberspace rather than the elite systems that can be turned off at will.

Reload's selection of women's cyberfiction is thoughtfully composed and the anthology is worth buying for the fiction alone. The late artist, CIA agent and writer known as James Tiptree, jr. (Mice B. Sheldon) has inspired countless other science fiction writers since she began writing in 1973. Her short story "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" from 1974 is the earliest example included in Reload. Constantly reminding her reader that she is reading a work of fiction, Tiptree recounts the story of P. Burke, an ungainly and disadvantaged street girl who lives out her fantasies in a cyborgian body of a "perfect" 15 year-old blond courtesy of the evil corporation GTX who uses P. Burke (now "Delphi") literally to facilitate product placement in a world-where-advertising-has been outlawed. When Delphi finds true love it's just a matter f time before her boyfriend senses something artificial about her and erroneously concludes that she is "wired" to sell products, never guessing that she's in fact a robot propelled by the real P. Burke who lives happily below ground at corporate R&D headquarters. Tragically, if predictably, Paul can't cope with the truth and brusquely repels the disfigured P. Burke when she exposes her real body.

Renowned science fiction writer Octavia Butler (winner of a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant in 1995) is represented by her short story "Speech Sounds." Butler describes a future Los Angeles of "impaired" people who can only communicate through body language due to an incurable epidemic. The protagonist, Rye, was once a professor at UCLA but has been reduced to mute illiteracy like the other survivors in this post-apocalyptic scene. For a brief moment she finds the perfect mate yet she looses him when he is shot while trying to help another woman. Thoroughly devastated, Rye considers leaving the murdered woman's two children behind ("they're old enough to scavenge") but in the conclusion she discovers that the children can actually talk ("if they can talk then there is hope") and she decides to mother them after all. It is not until Rye reassures the frightened children that the startled reader discovers she had been capable of speech all along. While Butler's extraordinary writing offers a heady and poignan t glimpse into a futuristic world it also serves as a good example of how cyberfiction can work to sustain traditional gender roles.

Like many anthologies, Reload's greatest strength lays in its component parts. While Flanagan and Booth have done a commendable job of assembling an absorbing selection of texts, their introductory essays are unfortunately not as rewarding. Both introductory chapters lack focus, covering vast amounts of literature with cursory detail and too little in the way of explanation as to how the criticism and fiction selections constitute a meaningful relationship. Reload is most rewarding when sampled at random without following the, sometimes willful, juxtapositions the editors have constructed. The fact that the fiction and criticism chapters aren't clearly labeled is also frustrating. Since this book is such a wonderful resource, particularly for pedagogical purposes, it is lamentable that the selections do not have headings with the original publication information or, at the very least, the original publication date. (The interested reader can search for this information in the book's "Acknowledgments" section, however.)

In its entirety, Reload is a fruitful compilation of hard to find writings by leading and upcoming writers concerned with women, fiction and cyberculture. Reload opens up a much-needed cultural imaginary beyond the male hacker or gender-free cyberspace paradigms, and it is an ideal resource for both expert and novice readers interested in cyberculture, science fiction and feminism. In Reload, Catherine Ramirez theorizes that science fiction's tendency toward dis-recognition and estrangement makes the genre a compelling site for feminist interventions. Ramirez challenges us to understand other literature that possesses these distancing qualities as "science fiction" and hence capable of disrupting established orders. It is with this theory in mind that the selected essays in Reload can be said to cohere and to inspire us to "reload"--to rethink women and cyberculture.

* KATIE MONDLOCH is a doctoral candidate in art history at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is writing a dissertation on screen--reliant media installation art from the mid-1960s to the present.

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