[Air-l] Re: Undercurrents

Lachlan Brown lachlan at london.com
Fri Feb 15 09:08:23 PST 2002




You are invited to join Undercurrents, a new on-line discussion about how
cyberfeminism, new technologies, postcoloniality and globalization are
interrelated. What follows is our opening statement and the announcement of
a
special Undercurrents project. We have composed this introduction in the
hope
of providing a solid basis for the development of a productive and enriching
discussion that could evolve into events, publications and other projects.

To subscribe send the following message to majordomo at bbs.thing.net:
"subscribe undercurrents YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS"

We hope that you will join us.

Undercurrents Moderators:
Irina Aristahrkova, Maria Fernandez,
Coco Fusco and Faith Wilding

What is Undercurrents?

- currents below the surface
-  hidden opinions or feelings often contrary to the
ones publicly shown
- electronic communication from other sites
- heretofore unspoken questions about the racial
politics of net.culture, new media and cyberfeminism

 Undercurrents is a new on-line discussion about how feminism, new
technologies, postcoloniality and globalization are interrelated. Although
each of these terms has generated its own enriching debate, we see a need to
bring these fields of inquiry together. We seek to challenge the utopian
ideology of cyberculture that posits technology, in the words of Lisa
Nakamura, "as a social equalizer which levels out race and gender
inequities,
since bodies are supposedly left behind in cyberspace." We believe that
there
are many practical and philosophical reasons to question libertarian
characterizations of electronic culture and virtual reality. As much as we
support the democratic goals of many who have contributed to alternative
discourses within net.culture, we do not agree that the ideal of a digital
commons, feminist or otherwise, necessarily transcends the problematic logic
of race and racism. We are deeply skeptical of such assumptions because we
understand that race and racism involve much more than skin, bodies, overt s
egregation or physical violence. We argue instead that race is manifest in
both the essentializing ventures of law and science and in the arenas of
performativity that denaturalize and de-essentialize embodiment, including
cyberspace.
We believe that electronic communication and postcolonial
migration are parallel forces that jointly affect who we are as human
collectivities and how we live regardless of whether we ourselves are
migrants. We are launching the list-serve to join minds with those who want
to discuss how these phenomena relate rather than assuming that the virtual
world can or should completely overtake the social, political and economic
force of lived experience in the physical world. The digital divide is one
important issue that many activists have tried to address in relation to
racism's effect on access to new technologies, but it is not the only way
that racial inequities are manifest in new media culture and theory. Our
world remains polarized along racial lines, and in it, non-white peoples are
the most likely to be exploited as lab rats for biotechnology, cheap labor,
and sex slaves. The visual content of electronic culture is shaped by the
racialized power relations of the physical world -- in the fantasmatic
territory of cyberspace those realities are reconfigured, but not
transcended. In this era of racist attacks against non-whites throughout
Europe, rising xenophobia in North America, and overtly racist immigration
policies through the developed world, claiming that "we are beyond race" is
not only symptomatic of willed ignorance but constitutes an act of political
negligence in the service of white hegemony.

Universalized Whiteness is the Strategy/ Spatial Rhetoric is the Tactic
It has become commonplace in contemporary cultural theory about the internet
and virtual identity to describe net.subjectivity as nomadic,
deterritorialized, and hybrid. These terms cast the embodied experiences of
poor and mostly non-white people in spatial terms, masking their
socio-historical origin. At the same time, all too often in discussions of
the net.cutural politics, attempts by people of color to raise the issue of
race are dismissed by the white majority as "identity politics" that do not
belong in analyses of cyberspace.  We believe there are good reasons to
question the tendency in net.culture to adopt terminology that describes the
experiences of radically marginalized and disenfranchised peoples, most of
whom are not white and who have little choice over their fate, to represent
the imagined freedom that the majority white netizen population associates
with being in cyberspace. Cybertheory's tendency to view postcolonial
realities through the lens of a limited Deleuzian vocabulary and to simu
ltaneously dismiss both race and auto-ethnography as "passé" limit our
ability to grasp the complex interplay of identity and technology on and off
line. This approach effectively silences postcolonial subjects by
de-legitimating the strategies that have evolved over five centuries to
describe colonial domination in which the conquest of territory and the
imposition of racial logic have been enjoined as the key means of commanding
and controlling populations.  Centuries of anti-colonial and anti-racist
cultural resistance should not be misconstrued as being the same thing as a
few years of bureaucratic multiculturalism in North America, a period that
is
routinely dismissed as informed by "political correctness."  Let us not
forget that this epithet emerged from the culture wars in the US that were
designed to purge the culture any and all art that engaged with the social.
Contemporary cybertheory, which cyberfeminism also partakes of, maintains a
storehouse of tactics that suppress racial issues and thus tacitly invest in
whiteness as the universal identity that underpins net.culture. These
tactics
don't have to be conscious to be effective -- on the contrary they work best
when they are internalized as normative. We have identified the following
tactics but welcome contributions from discussants to add to this list.

Those tactics include:

1) the insistence on spatialized references to identity and the situation of
racism as excentric to virtual culture. People of color have to be
"off-grid", migrants or "border subjects" to fit into these paradigms. All
too  often, net.based discussions focus exclusively on semantics and state
repression of subalterns, or on using example of third world peoples who use
the internet to disseminate their political opinions and thus champion
technology as a liberating force --  but they do not address racism in
net.culture.

2) The deployment of falsely linear notions of history through the
insistence
by new media artists and theorists on terms such as post-human, post-racial,
post-identity ontology. These rhetorical moves logically situate
postcolonial
concerns as part of an undetermined "past" and thus replay the 19th century
characterization of colonial subjects as vestiges of an earlier form of
civilization. In actuality, the virtual fantasy of having moved beyond
embodied identity coexists temporally and physically with embodied
subjectivity. The term "post-feminism" generates a similar effect.

3) The reduction of race to somatic factors (i.e. skin) and hybridization to
genetic recombination erases the historical and psychological dimensions of
race as a phenomenological experience and completely overlooks the cultural
specificity of different modes and processes of hybridity and their
incorporation into the political agendas of ruling elites in multiracial
societies.

4) The derision of postcolonial auto-ethnography as "less evolved" than the
allegedly objective and more cultural pertinent scientific discourses of
genetics, cognitive and computer science. Even critiques of the corporate
control of biotechnology do not necessarily analyze the fetishization of
science that masks the return of ideologies that privilege whiteness and
appeal to the idea of creating a "master race.". The insistence that science
and state surveillance are the only relevant discourses for understanding
technology's effect on the body and on the social effectively blind us to
how
a host of voluntary organizations and private practices that all involve
technology and prosthetics are also informed by racial logic. Much more
critical analysis is needed about the ways that contemporary media art and
culture naturalize our subjection to corporate interests by making the
trajectories of techno-science appear desirable, empowering, irrefutable and
necessary. Recycling cyberpunk vocabulary that objectifies the human
organism
through repeated reference to people as "flesh" and erasing the rootedness
of
collective agency in human will by casting it as "biopower"  are not
automatically readable as ironic or critical gesture -- on the contrary,
these invocations can be interpreted as profoundly alienating endorsements
of
disembodiment to those of us who identify with long histories of struggle
against being reduced to property and against the legacy of
disenfranchisement.

5) The techno-formalist fixation on code devalues concern for the narrative
content of net.culture, which is precisely the visual regime where racial
fantasies are most evident.

6) The limitation of treatment of racialized inequities to the digital
divide
(to be redressed by workshops managed by white organizations);

The power dynamics in these scenarios do not unsettle white privilege and
thus focusing on them exclusively while dismissing identity politics
conveniently contains the destabilizing threat of otherness within
net.culture.

With Undercurrents, we want to create a forum for exchange that does not
reproduce these tactics. We recognize the ideal of virtual disembodiment as
an old idea with a new venue. The Industrial Revolution made possible the
Enlightenment with its (disembodied) rational subject and republican ideals
-- but it was built on the enslavement, colonization and dehumanization of
non-white peoples.  Similarly, the digital revolution has engendered more
possibilities of disembodiment while relying on a global economic order that
impoverishes, uproots and commodifies human beings, most of whom are not
white. Keeping this terrible reality in mind, we would like to promote
discussion about the real impact of deterritorialization in contemporary
life
so as not to lose sight of who is most profoundly affected and how those
effects reverberate throughout the societies in which we live. Celebrating
virtual disembodiment need not desensitize us to its physical counterpart.
 In light of this, we welcome the articulation of embodied experiences into
this discussion. The postcolonial tactics of witnessing and giving voice to
the traumatic experience of political, economic and cultural violence are
sorely needed if we are going to understand how technological " development"
can and does subjugate as much as it may liberate. Auto-ethnography, whether
it is chronicled in a story or manifest in politically engaged telepresence,
acts as a needed counterbalancing points of view about the troubling
histories of "hybridization" and "disembodiment". We also need to analyze
how
and why the content of electronic culture remains rife with colonialist
imagery and racialized narratives. We think it is relevant that the mostly
likely place to find women of color on line is on display in pornography, or
for sale as mail-order brides. We want to focus our attention on how and why
it is that these modes of objectification fundamentally determine women of
color's relation to digital technology, and why the colonialist symbols and
stories that run rampant in computerized entertainment culture remain
compelling in a supposedly post-colonial and post-racial world.
".if representational visibility equals power, then almost-naked young Asian
women should be running a very big chunk of cyberspace."
                    Mimi Nguyen, Tales of an Asiatic Geek Girl

Where are the Politics in Cyberfeminism?

For several decades, feminist thought, art and activism have inspired us and
given us tools for deconstructing patriarchal power structures and for
uncoupling the biological and cultural factors that determine our
understanding of femininity. In the course of the past decade, cyberfeminism
has emerged as an important net.cultural discourse in Europe and North
America that has
helped women working with digital technologies to form professional networks
and to stake out an area of thought about the intersection of gender and
technology. Cyberfeminist theory has focused largely on electronic space as
a
venue for transgender performativity, and on biotechnology as it affects
human reproduction. The perspectives that are most central to its
understanding of subjectivity and gender are derived from anti-essentialist
schools of feminist psychoanalysis that emerged in the 1970s focusing on the
social construction of the feminine, and from the writings of Judith Butler
from the early 90s that rework postcolonial theories of hybridity to apply
them to cross-gender role play, or "queering." Because cyberspace offers
ample opportunities for transgendered self-presentation, it was perceived
from early on as a terrain in which liberation from the constraint of
biology
could be equated with cross-gender "passing" on line. As a result, many
cyberfeminists have identified transgender performance as the prosthetically
enhanced embodiment of anti-essentialist femininity. Significantly, the
racial
 history of passing as a survival strategy during slavery and segregation
that involved violent erasure of black people's cultural and kinship ties
and
that ultimately sustained whiteness as a privileged position is ignored or
misconstrued as a purely voluntary gesture in these formulations. We believe
that some reflection on the history of political manipulation of racial and
cultural hybridity in the service of ruling class interests might cast a
very
different light on what is now a redemptive reading of cross-gender
construction, particularly those involving prosthetic re-engineering of
human
beings. The key difference here is not so much the transfer of a racial
paradigm to a gendered one, but a  matter of the degree of personal choice
involved in the construction of the hybrid formation. That question of
choice
and of individualized choice is absolutely crucial to understanding how race
gets reformulated within cybertheory in general and cyberfeminism in
particular.

Like many other cybertheorists who deride corporate control of genetics but
do not dispute the promise that science can usurp and "perfect" (i.e
.rationalize) biological reproductive functions, many cyberfeminists have
linked their anti-essentialism with a positive view of genetic
reengineering.
They promise that their "autonomous" or artistic version is somehow
different, ultimately life enhancing, and a truer response to women's desire
to escape the strictures of biology. The problem, these cyberfeminists
argue,
is corporate control, not technoscience. We argue that the problem is not
just virtual capitalisim, but also cyberculture's fascination with science.
All too often, cyberfeminism has bought into a Eurocentric posture that
equates technological development with increased freedom and presumes that
technology in and of itself will liberate us from the constraints of living
as women in a patriarchal world. They thus imply that the advance of science
as something that can be distinguished from economic interests. This
position
not only fetishizes science but relies on an economically determinist view
of
how society functions.
We agree that the sciences involved in re-engineering human beings and other
forms life forms are not objective or disinterested - they are, to quote
Antonio Gramsci, "elaboration(s) of concepts born on the terrain of
political
economy."   But the desire for them and their popular appeal cannot be
explained as purely economic - they are also racially motivated. Genetics
and
biotechnology are the nodal points of an ideology that was originally
propagated by its predecessor eugenics, another "science" that promised to
catalogue humanity, in this case through comparative analysis of bodily
surfaces rather than through dissection of the foundational unit of the
human
organism. That promise of finding the most perfect mode of classification
and
differentiation with an unimpeachably "objective" basis constitutes the most
elaborate scientific rationale for the hierarchicalization of humanity that
we have ever known. Racial taxomonies were originally elaborated to justify
the unequal distribution of social benefits and political rights. The
deployment of genetic information and human re-engineering already serves
the
same purpose. Those who fetishize science tacitly sanction its use for the
fulfillment of such aims. In light of this, the resistance to
biotechnological "advances" coming from many indigenous groups and other
people of color might be interpreted as something other than backward
behavior. That is why Undercurrents seek to promote discussion of subaltern
resistance to aggressive technological development as a political stance.
Imbuing technology with transformative powers also naturalizes the
consumerist underpinning of "prosthetic" identity. In other words, we buy or
rent machines and bodily extensions to "become cyborgs" and not even a free
software movement will alter that corporate takeover of the most intimate
recesses of the self and of public life. The logic that mystifies prosthetic
identity has a history - it is the last chapter of a five century long
development of possessive individualism in the West, now introjected. The
external objects that once granted sacred status to the mercantile bourgeois
self have become the machines grafted onto and into the bodies and burned
into the retinas of a new cyber-elite.
The dynamic of desire for these machines operates according to the logic
of lack -- we learn to believe that we need technology because we already
believe that it is our existential condition to lack something without which
we cannot be complete. This principle is exploited by marketers who generate
consumer desire, but it is also fundamental to the construction of
subjectivity in psychoanalysis.  Early psychoanalytic theories propagated
the
notion that women's inferiority was derived from their physical lack of a
phallus. In response to this obviously sexist formulation, scores of
feminist
theorists have argued that femininity does not have to be determined by a
binary logic of having/not having, that women are not simply "not men" and
that difference is not necessarily equated with hierarchy. The transgender
role play that pervades the cyberfeminist imaginary veers dangerously close,
we would suggest, to reaffirming masculine dominance by associating female
empowerment with possession of technology and with prosthetically "enhanced"
identity.
While some would argue that cross-gender tactics are masquerades that
undermine male power, we suggest another view, working with the distinctions
delineated by feminist artist and theorist Mary Kelly. In her essay, "Miming
the Master: Boy-Things, Bad Girls and Femmes Vitales," Kelly distinguishes
between Homi Bhabha's description of the de-essentializing work of
hybridity,
which displaces value from symbol to sign in the colonial scenario as "an
affect of uncertainty that afflicts the discourse of power," and the ways
that the displays of male authority in gender play might not always be
subversive. She writes, "In particular, the 'gender hybrid' can serve to
legitimate as well as disrupt the dominant discourse or to institutionalize
the marginal, and through a process of disavowal, can be reconfigured as a
fetish." We would add that "institutionalizing the marginal" can be as
simple
here as playing into the capitalist logic of niche marketing, which
commodifies subcultural practices as a consumer relation with "special"
products. Those products have to be fetishized in order to engender desire
for them and to propagate the illusion that possession of them cancels out
lack.
What eludes us in this continued concentration on gender play is the
question
of warrantability, as was once put forth by Sandy Stone;  " is there a
physical human body involved in this interaction anywhere?" We agree with
Stone that new media and communications technologies demand that we ask
different questions about the relationship between the self and the body
because it is now possible to assume that there might not be a human subject
responsible for the actions of a virtual entity that appears to be appended
to a physical being. However, as Thomas Foster points out in "The Souls of
Cyber-Folk: Performativity, Virtual Embodiment and Racial Histories," Stone
is concerned with postponing the question of responsibility, but
cyberculture
has become enamored with fantasizing "about eliminating questions of
responsibility in favor of a disembodied, transgressive situation of
boundarylessness."  If we limit our interrogation of the construction of
gender to the domain of fantasy and presume from the start that cyberspatial
engagement begins with free choice, we deny ourselves the means to
understand
how our choices are proscribed by the programmed interactivity of virtual
reality, how most female presence is not the result of free choice but of
economic necessity, and how the limitations on most women in the physical
world and in virtual reality are not alterable through gender role play. We
would like our discussion to reflect on the impact of technology on the vast
range of real and imagined experiences of women in the world.

Techno-Dreams and Techno-Nightmares
This reliance on the fantasmatic scenarios of role play in which freedom and
pleasure are predicated on having the power of consent obfuscates the extent
to which women of color's bodies have been and continue to be acted upon via
the technological intervention without their full knowledge, and certainly
without their having the opportunity to make informed choices. It is women
of
color who have historically been subjected to forced sterilization, who were
used as breeders on slave plantations, and whose genitals were pickled for
posterity in the service of eugenics. It is indigenous people in the
Americas
were the first targets of biochemical warfare when smallpox blankets were
uses by colonial settlers. It is the five centuries of genocide and
destruction in what is now called "the Global South" brought about by
technology and eugenics that make many people of color less than hopeful
about the supposedly intrinsic ability of science and machines to promote
democracy and freedom. And it is the legacy of having been reduced to the
status of property that make some blacks think twice about the "joy" of
disembodiment. When many of us have tried to voice our skepticism about the
fetishization of prosthetic identity or the utopian script of
techno-liberation, we have been derided as "luddites" and "essentialists".
We
argue however, that our position is neither.

We seek to question the privileging of prosthetic identity. The
process of becoming a wired society is also one of ever increasing
consumption which involves the intensified objectification of human beings
and human experience. Some social and cultural groups have good reason to be
wary of being drawn into the network. In a global society wracked by
economic
polarization, it is poor people in the third world who are more likely to
experience overwhelmingly abject relations to technology. When the bodies of
women of color are subjected to technological intervention, whether it be
the
mandatory plastic surgery that Latin American wannabe beauty queens accept
to
have a stab at a career in media, or the force feeding of birth control
pills
to Mexican maquiladora workers to keep productivity rates high, the
interests
of multinational capitalism, and its reliance on the most retrograde
misogyny
and its misuse of technology become glaringly evident. If we only
concentrate
on the potential for "gender performativity" via genetic reengineering and
the liquid architecture of virtual reality,  we forsake an ethical
responsibility to bear witness to how digital media, voyeuristic and
militarist internet entertainment culture and privatized medicine all
partake
of the sadistic impulses of global capitalism that objectify, dehumanize and
impoverish the majority of the world's women. As feminists committed to
social change and the respect for human rights, we see a need to broaden the
parameters of discussion about women and technology beyond the experiences a
select and privileged few.

What Does Undercurrents Want?
Undercurrents  seeks to address what Saskia Sassen has noted as the systemic
relation between globalization and feminization of wage labor.  We believe
that cyberfeminist theory and art have not yet developed the
tools and methods we need to develop an activist cultural practice that
engages and analyzes how new technologies, the economic systems that they
are
a part of and the ideologies that celebrate them actually contribute to the
disempowerment of millions of poor women across all continents.  We would
like
our discussion to explore how feminist thinkers, artists and activists
around
the world are contending the social and economic inequities and ills that
are
also products of the digital revolution, such as labor conditions in export
processing zones, biopiracy, gene patenting, the multinational corporate
disruption of  locally based agricultural, and the global trafficking
of women for the sex trade.

Our interest in the social impact of globalization and technology does not
mean that we are not interested in aesthetic experimentation with new media
technologies. On the contrary, we are deeply invested in the creation and
analysis of innovative art that engages new media. That said, we are
skeptical about assuming that the very fact that a woman uses a computer to
make a work makes the work radical, avant-garde, cyberfeminist, interesting,
or otherwise notable. We recognize continuities between new feminist
computer
art and other feminist art forms in the present and past - perhaps because
we
have been around long enough to remember life without computers. But it is
also because we are against adopting a technocratic approach to creativity
that would only have us define our artistry in relation to tools and
specialized skills. This has never been part of the feminist art movements
of
earlier decades. Feminists from widely divergent backgrounds revolutionized
our understanding of the cinematic apparatus and made groundbreaking
contributions to video art in the 1970s, by approaching the production of
moving images with an interdisciplinary arsenal of interpretive paradigms, a
firm basis in institutional critique of the culture industry and strong
commitment to the political advancement of women in the real world. We see
no
reason to forsake those goals.

We are extending invitations to our colleagues in a variety of fields to
share their thoughts on these issues and other related ones you propose as
starting points for discussion. However, we want to emphasize that we are
seeking
discussion here rather than looking to produce yet another list for people
to
post invitations to events, notices of publications and announcements, and
then
carry on one on one conversations off the list. Ultimately, we hope that
this
discussion could lead to an important publication and/or and event. But for
that to happen, we have to build the structure from the ground up.

PROTOCOLS
We ask that those who decide to participate in this on-line discussion
refrain from using the list for spamming, flaming, or other forms of virtual
rudeness. Our goal is to create an exciting and thought provoking atmosphere
and an arena for the exchange of ideas and critical reflections on issues
that all of
us believe are crucial.
    We are committed to doing our best to make this list open to people
whose
primary language is not English. In light of this goal, we can offer to
translate short posts that are sent in Spanish, French, German and Russian -
but please understand that we need some time to do the actual translations.
We will also be posting versions of this opening statement in Spanish and
French shortly.

"Invest in the X" - An Undercurrents Project

Undercurrents announces its first financial venture, Invest in the X.  This
venture is specifically designed to force a shift in the balance of power
that multinationals capitalize on in export processing zones. Many companies
regularly violate labor laws and the civil rights of workers in Mexico with
impunity because they anticipate that the victims will not have the
knowledge
or the resources to defend themselves. Those workers, the majority of whom
are female, assemble the technologies that we use.
 Invest in the X is being created in conjunction with Casa de la Mujer-
Factor X in Tijuana, Mexico, an organization that offers support for women
working in maquiladoras. Our program will enable investors to support the
empowerment of maquiladora workers in Mexico by providing scholarships for
their training as labor organizers and also by subsidizing their legal
defense in cases against employers who violate Mexican labor laws and
workers' civil rights. Invest in the X will increase the opportunities for
these women workers to exercise their rights.

    Stay tuned for more information about Invest in the X.

-- 

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