From Cyborgs to Hacktivists: Postfeminist Disobedience and Virtual Communities
Androla in Labyrinth, Shusei Nagaoka, 1984. Image via
by Carolyn Guertin
For many the term postfeminist might call to mind the vanilla pleasures of metrosexuality, webcams, online soaps, and blog culture, but, for me, a 40-something cyberfeminist scholar, curator and some time activist, the politically-minded feminist texts I work with are in fact dyed-in-the-wool postfeminist ones that occupy a different place on the postfeminism continuum from those more loudly-lauded, lighter confections. Usually given a bad rap by the media, postfeminism has been accused of being antifeminist, whereas it is instead what the next wave of second wave feminism has become. Its name is not a marker or movement that intends to imply that feminism is dead and gone, any more than Donna Haraway’s “postgender” and N. Katherine Hayles’ “posthuman” mean the death of those old shoes. As Ann Brooks puts it in Postfeminisms, “the concept of `post’ implies a process of ongoing transformation and change” (1). Postfeminism is that indicator that shows us the organism formerly known as feminism has grown into something far more complex than its liberal origins would lead us to expect.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, second wave feminism, which had spoken predominantly from and to a position of white middle class privilege, began to fracture to include a broader chorus of voices, classes, and races. Postfeminism or, more exactly, postfeminisms have expanded to include a multitude of situated perspectives within the context of postmodern thinking, and have swelled to embrace the new emphasis on what Michèle Barrett identified in 1992 (the year that the World Wide Web was born) as “fluidity and contingency” – features that are the trademark stock in trade of the cyber age. Barrett believed feminism’s paradigm shift to be the result of a new interest in culture that in turn gave rise to a whole new collectivity of subjectivities. It is no accident that this shift coincided with the advent of a technology that foregrounded networked communications. It was only a few years earlier, in the fledgling days of the personal computer back when the Internet was still a vehicle predominantly for hackers and technogeeks, that Haraway first articulated a politics of connectivity for women in the context of these new technologies. In her “Cyborg Manifesto” Haraway’s half-woman, half-machine revels in the confusion of body boundaries and fractures all sense of an originary unity or simplex gender through embracing the cyborg as a model: a being who revels in discursivity, multiplicity, hybridity, and perversity. As the Web has evolved, it has become something of a gene pool for creative explorations of sexualities, subjectivities and identities – and has proved to be as liberating for men as for women in that regard. Cyberfeminist scholar Sadie Plant even argues for the feminizing influence of technology in a connected age. Without a doubt, though, this new technology’s most important role has been that of facilitating communication.
Connectivity has been called the genius of feminism by theorist Robin Morgan (53), and this genius is being realized in electronic spaces and texts in more complex ways than in any other medium to date. Connectivity is the poster child of the postfeminist universe, which is why the first cyberfeminist collective, VNS Matrix, chose the image of the matrix – the cosmic womb – as its symbol > . Another cyberfeminist collective, the Old Boys’ Network, defined its local chapters as “nodes” that “collide, disintegrate, regenerate, engage, disembody, reform, collapse, renew, abandon, revise, revitalize, and expand” (OBN FAQ 7). These structural and mechanical concerns are not accidental. Postfeminisms do not inhabit a network; they are the network of feminist discourse in virtual space and they are at their best when they are helping to forge communities of practice. In its incarnation most familiar to ebr ‘s readers, the electronic, hyperlinked text is both a narratological structure and the means of navigation in space and time. In the webbed space of hyperlinked fiction, the pregnant gaps between the nodes are at least as important as the textual nodes themselves. The nodes exist in conjunction with the dynamic space of the journey and cannot be discussed in isolation. So with the newest literary forms of the postfeminist universe. They cannot be separated from the communities and material praxes that they both engender and nurture on and off the Web.
In the cyberfeminist corner of the postfeminist universe, girl gamers such as Brenda Laurel and Mary Flanagan immediately spring to mind; so too do techno-performers such as Laurie Anderson and Coco Fusco, and new media artists such as Mez or Olia Lialina, but the most important and distinctive Web-native postfeminist form is, I would argue, hacktivism. The term was first coined in 1998 > to describe an emerging hybrid form that united the best attributes of peaceful social protest – activism – and tech-savvy online civil disobedience – hackerism >. It is a solution-oriented form of political action that inserts bodies and media-based dissent into real time material concerns. It should not be confused with its adolescent and illegal cousins, cractivism – code cracking, vandalism, data blockades (DDos) and the loss of digital data – or cyberterrorism – acts and agents of wanton destruction including worms and viruses. One of its trademark features is that the Web cannot contain hacktivism’s flows, allowing it to spill out into the world in the form of political protest at WTO and G8 events, for example, and in books, pamphlets, net.art, and performance art.
Hacktivism as a praxis was born in December 1997 when Critical Art Ensemble > member and software engineer Carmin Karasic was so appalled by the events of the Acteal Massacre – 45 Zapatistas were murdered at the hands of the Mexican government – that she set out to create a Web interface that would perform political protest as an aesthetic act. Three other Critical Art Ensemble members joined her in forming a new collective they named the Electronic Disturbance Theatre. (The group’s name is drawn from the concept of civil disobedience first proposed by Henry David Thoreau.) Their electronic civil disobedience engine is named FloodNet; funded by RTMark and launched in September 1998, it is Karasic’s brainchild in her war against injustice. Filling the browser page with the names of the dead, this activism tool “would access the page for Mexico’s President Zedillo seeking bogus addresses, so the browser would return messages like “human_rights not found on this server” (Cassell). Unlike the attacks launched by cracktivists, no damage is done by this software agent. When the Electronic Disturbance Theatre alerts its “online activists to `commence flooding!'” they visit EDT’s website and click on FloodNet’s icon (Harmon). The software then directs their browser to the target, and cues the same page to load over and over again.
As a postfeminist work, it is no accident that FloodNet must function as a community-based performance:
FloodNet’s action only drew its validity from the number of people showing support. “It was only actualized through thousands and thousands of participants,” she remembers. “It was meaningless without the masses.” Popular support transforms a random act of vandalism into a show of presence, Karasic argues. “This is an important difference between the single hacker/hacktivist who takes down a server with a single script” (qtd. in Cassell).
Similar to the disruptive aestheticization of codework by the Dutch trio jodi.org, Karasic sees her collectivity interface as something more closely akin to “conceptual art” than to cyberterrorism (Harmon). No one and no data are harmed in these `attacks,’ but websites are effectively shut down while the protest is being transmitted.
Advancing human rights through the electronic media is also the purview of another collective, a cyberfeminist one called subRosa. It is currently comprised of Laleh Mehran, Hyla Willis, Steffi Domike, Lucia Sommer, and Faith Wilding. It was also formed in the fall of 1998 – around the same time that Karasic was vowing to respond to Mexican excesses with FloodNet. Donna Haraway was the first to identify science as one of the most insidious cultural forms women needed to address to regain control of their bodies; subRosa follows in that tradition. subRosa uses its art to critique “the relationships between digital technologies, biotechnologies and women’s bodies/lives/work” (Griffis). The goal of these hacktivists, akin to the Electronic Disturbance Theatre’s, is the creation of communities, what they call “female affiliations that respect difference and create productive projects in solidarity with others who are working on similar ones” (Griffis).
Embracing bell hooks’ definition of feminism as that which seeks to eradicate ideologies of domination (qtd in Griffis), subRosa undertakes projects of activism and public education on topics as wide-ranging as eugenics, Frankenfoods, stem cell and cloning research, and Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART). Seeing their purpose as a pedagogical one, they launch inclusive electronic campaigns, publish pamphlets and books, and travel out into (particularly third world) communities to perform their topical art. These are what they call resistant projects, tactical cyberfeminist ones, and situational information theatre: “As cyberfeminists and artists we are using the framework of participatory performance as an information theatre of pedagogical art that models various tactics for intervening and commenting on the seductive representations of the flesh machine” (subRosa). One of the keys to their successful distribution of information is their willingness to mix media and cross boundaries, producing their art and materials in a plethora of formats contextually situated for their audiences. Like FloodNet’s participatory form, subRosa’s mode of information distribution is reproducible, for it argues “[i]n the digital age, resistant cultural producers can embrace recombinance for subversive ends” (subRosa).
All of this may seem somewhat removed from the electronic book and literary traditions, but when postfeminisms meet the new media they encourage these kinds of pleasures in the confusion of boundaries between bodies, texts, technologies, politics, and cultures. In a hyperlinked age when the only true path through a text is a personal journey, the many roads of postfeminism show that comminglings of radical politics and material concerns are alive and well in both the virtual and real worlds. How effective these hacktivist actions are is difficult to measure, but they are remarkable as tools for global mobilization and peaceful protest. It is clear that they are very effective at allowing women’s voices to be heard.
Piece originally published at Electronic Book Review |
Postfeminist Artists and Groups:
Electronic Disturbance Theatre. http://dpa.ntu.ac.uk/dpa_search/result.php3?Project=290
Flanagan, Mary. The Adventures of Josie True. http://www.josietrue.com/
Fusco, Coco. Coco Fusco’s Virtual Laboratory. http://www.thing.net/%7Ecocofusco/
Karasic, Carmin. FloodNet. http://www.thing.net/~rdom/ecd/ZapTact.html, http://www.xensei.com/users/carmin/wlajfa/pledge1.htm, and Karasic’s Homepage: http://www.xensei.com/users/carmin/
Lialina, Olia. http://art.teleportacia.org/
Mez. The Data][h!][Bleeding Texts. http://netwurkerz.de/mez/datableed/complete/index.htm
Works Cited and Consulted:
Barrett, Michèle and Anne Phillips, Eds. Destabilizing Theory: Contemporary Feminist Debates. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992.
Brooks, Ann. Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.
Critical Art Ensemble. http://www.critical-art.net/
Critical Art Ensemble Defense Fund. http://www.caedefensefund.org/
Cassel, David. “Hacktivism in the Cyberstreets.” AlterNet. 30 May 2000. 16 June 04. http://www.alternet.org/story/9223
Griffis, Ryan. “Tandem Surfing the Third Wave: Part 3, interview with subRosa.” YOUgenics. 2003. 16 June 04. http://yougenics.net/subRosaInt.htm
Haraway, Donna. “The Cyborg Manifesto.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women. New York: Routledge, 1991.  149-181.
Harmon, Amy. “`Hacktivists’ of All Persuasions Take Their Struggle to the Web.” New York Times on the Web. 31 Oct 1998. 16 June 04. http://www.thehacktivist.com/archive/news/1998/Hacktivists-NYTimes-1998.pdf
Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.
jodi.org. 17 June 04.
metac0m. “What is Hacktivism?” thehacktivist.com. Dec 03. 16 June 04. http://www.thehacktivist.com/hacktivism.php
Morgan, Robin. Demon Lover: On the Sexuality of Terrorism. London: Methuen, 1990.
Old Boys’ Network (OBN). “FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions.” 16 June 04 http://www.obn.org/inhalt_index.html
Plant, Sadie. Zeros and Ones. New York: Bantam, 1997.
subRosa. “Tactical Cyberfeminism: An Art and Technology of Social Relations.” 16 June 04. http://www.artwomen.org/cyberfems/subrosa/
VNS Matrix. “Cyberfeminist Manifesto.” 1992. 17 June 2004. http://www.obn.org/reading_room/manifestos/html/cyberfeminist.html
Wajcman, Judy. TechnoFeminism. Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2004.
Wray, Stefan. “Electronic Civil Disobedience and the World Wide Web of Hacktivism: A Mapping of Extraparliamentarian Direct Action Net Politics. Nov 1998. 16 June 04. http://thehacktivist.com/archive/edt/wwwhack.html