reload: rethinking women & cyberculture
by Linda Carolli
In December, Mary Flanagan http://www.maryflanagan.com was one of the guests on the [-empyre-] discussion list, co-facilitating a discussion about cyberfeminism. It was a conversation that evoked an array of responses as well as inquiry into where cyberfeminism is heading at present. One of the ways in which reload: rethinking women and cyberculture, co-edited by Flanagan and Austin Booth, addresses this question is by exploring some historical manifestations of cyberfeminism through science-fiction and cyberfiction as well as critical theory. Apparently, it didn't begin and end with Donna Haraway's cyborg, although Haraway's landmark essay, A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the late Twentieth Century achieved much in shifting and progressing academic debates surrounding women's and feminist engagement with technology.
As several feminist scholars have pointed out, in the 1990s, second wave feminism had become perceived as authoritarian, somehow inhibiting the freedoms which first wave feminism sought to imprint on the political agenda. Concurrently, with the emergence of new technologies and women's entry into cyberspace, virtual spaces for performing feminist/feminine identities were accessed. Of course, women's access to things technological and scientific is rarely as seamless as these statements would have us believe, and my point is that cyberspace and mediaspaces have emerged to provide women and feminists with new spaces in which to articulate and perform politics and subjectivity. These spaces were welcomed given a series of culture wars (or backlashes) in which accusations of 'political correctness' resonated as if an echo of a witch hunt. From recollection, as the culture wars heated up, cyberfeminist artworks in Australia were gaining attention - Linda Dement and VNS Matrix spring to mind - with their scathing and ironic critiques of cyberpunk and cyberculture.
Through reload, the editors sought to give prominence to feminist voices which challenge the predominant visions of cyberspace provided by male cyberpunk writers and technoculture commentators and those of cyberfeminist theorists. The former visions ordinarily revolved around the actions of a heroic male outlaw figure (hacker or techno-addict) or presented a gender-free cyberworld: either way, these worlds are often devoid of women. The means through which to achieve this was an anthology of feminist science-fiction and cyberpunk. reload pushes further in its purpose and seeks to fill two absences - a volume introducing cyberfiction and a volume considering gender and technological issues from fictional and theoretical viewpoints with and against each other. As the editors state in their comprehensive introduction, "no anthology of women's cyberfiction exists; science-fiction anthologies that do focus on women are typically either fantasy or utopia collections, and cyberpunk anthologies have almost totally excluded women."1 The volume has obviously struck a chord and a Google search reveals that the book, since its release in mid 2002, has been included in many course reading lists across the USA.
Through their investigation, Flanagan and Booth demonstrate that despite its fan base and popularity, women's cyberfiction has suffered the fate of much women's creative work: 'invisible', 'inaccessible', 'absent' or 'excluded'. It belies the reality of women's creation of cyberfiction tropes which reimagine technoculture. Back on [-empyre-], Flanagan commented, "one thing readers seem to be surprised about is the long history of women's science fiction that has dealt with technology. That women such as CL Moore were thinking of technological body modification in empowering terms in the 1940s is amazing! ... [In the U.S.,] most women's cyberpunk gets one print run ... These stories don't stick around much, and it was a challenge to find what we did for inclusion in reload!"2 In a similar vein, I recently encountered the Lesbian Pulp Fiction Collection website at Duke University which states that lesbian pulp has been around since the 1950s http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/women/pulp.html. These works, while available through drugstores and newsagents, were discerned through their coded cover artwork and titling.
In presenting fiction and theory together, as distinct yet connected literatures about gender and technology, reload seeks to "bridge the conceptual and institutional rift between theory and fiction".3 This is a significant undertaking which draws me into its myriad discursive and textual imaginings of cyberspace and cyberculture. While I have encountered much academic and theoretical work of a reflexive or ficto-critical nature, I have not read an anthology quite like this; where fiction and theory sit so comfortably together as facets of the same story or history unless presented as 'historical documents'. Featuring works by nearly 30 writers including Melissa Scott, Sarah Stein, Sue Thomas, Jyanni Steffensen, Octavia E. Butler, Alice B. Sheldon and Laura J. Mixon, the anthology is structured in three sections which respectively reflect on how women use technology, subjectivity and bodies. I can't profess to a great affection for cyberfiction and in terms of women's science-fiction, I haven't read much further than Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood and Marge Piercy. This is partly attributable to my distain for the Cartesian dualism which proliferates in many cyberpunk narratives and partly attributable to my preference for visual (VNS Matrix), interactive (Rosalind Brodsky) and hypertextual (Francesca da Rimini) works. Yet, I did find the readings in reload to be engaging and complex manifestations of gendered technoculture. This body of writing often maps controlling environments and imbalances of power wrought against the body - rape, slavery, alienated labour and oppression are commonly part of their imagined dystopias - reflecting the disturbing political and technological reality of many women. Booth and Flanagan create value around these works, giving them the attention they warrant.
In response to the aforementioned online inquiry about where cyberfeminism is 'at' presently, reload leads me to the contradictory space of cyberspace. Cyberfeminism is not a 'metanarrative' - it is not 'at' any one place, and like cyberspace, it is a fragmented, folded, connecting and multiplied realm. While there is no single truth of cyberfeminism, it remains a site of negotiation and contention. Such negotiation is evident on the Undercurrents list, established to provide a forum for issues pertaining to race, globalisation and cyberfeminism. Despite the achievements and diversity of cyberfeminism, Flanagan is not without some apprehension about where women are 'at' in relation to technology and cyberculture. She is careful not to conflate 'women' and 'cyberfeminist/ism' as one and the same, to acknowledge that for women, cyberfeminism emerges as an interdisciplinary tactic or strategy. In [-empyre-] she observed, "women still have yet to have a major, empowered voice in commercial cybercultural arenas (fiction, commercial gaming, to name a few sites) but in the arts and in activism women are emerging as leaders. I am a strong supporter of cyberfeminist activities and while not convinced or led astray by the liberatory claims of the late 1990s, I do think we can learn a great deal from feminist analysis of cyberculture and make better environments through study and awareness."4
After reading a recent report in Wired, I appreciate both the potential of Flanagan's statement and the obstacles. The European Space Agency has announced that it seeks to recognise young writers and inspire future astrophysicists and astronauts by sponsoring a science-fiction writing contest. The competition seeks to 'bring a sense of wonder back to science' and was instigated after a study of early sci-fi writing, artwork and film determined whether any of the concepts and technologies envisioned could be used as inspiration for current and future spacecraft and missions.5 Needless to say, the examples cited in the article are all male writers - Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Jules Verne, HG Wells, etc. Several of the contributing writers in reload hail from science backgrounds: Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree Jr) is a scientist and Laura Mixon is a chemical engineer. Perhaps the European Space Agency might do well to recall the Chinese Revolutionary slogan, 'women hold up half the sky'.