Kill the Goddess and Birth the Cyborg

A cyborg is an odd creature, not entirely of woman born, but one which lives in the complex hybrid spaces between man and machine, a fictional creature with a lived social reality. Traditional conceptions of humanity rest with our primate origins, our connection with nature and our material existence; the cyborg however unites the man with the man-made, where human augmentation reaches beyond the traditional senses. Hearing is amplified through the use of the telephone; sight through televisuals and touch through haptic technologies. Identity and personhood extend beyond the embodied through the created and on into the ether.

It is in this world that contemporary womanhood is situated. Technology is not created in a vacuum, it is the dominant with access to resources – material and human – that drives technological development. Much of contemporary technology is developed for military and commercial purposes, for the exercise of domination, power and control whether physical or economic. Technological production enslaves Third World women, paid bobbins to produce expensive luxury consumer electronics for Western consumption; uneven technological distribution empowers the wealthy over the poor and technological consumption enslaves workers to their bases, ever on call in a virtual workplace.  Yet technology is subversive, once the genie is let out the bottle, it cannot be contained. Advances in technology, although originally developed to wield power, eventually seep to the masses.  Literacy, a highly prized skill, which required scarce and expensive resources in the middle ages was originally used to enhance the power of the Church, but eventually provided mass communication through the development of the printing press and the ballpoint pen. Many of the developments in audio-visual technology, such as the polaroid camera (first edition: “The Swinger”), cable television and streaming video were driven by the pornography industry, yet now provide citizen recording. So too with the rise of the internet – originally conceptualised by the US military as a means of maintaining information and survival in the event of a nuclear strike, today it operates as a mass communications device. In the West, mass technology is ubiquitous, although this is not yet the case in the developing world, the growth rate is phenomenal, with several steps of development skipped – why lay land lines in Africa when mobile phones require so much less infrastructure?

And it is here that the cyborg emerges. Identity – once entrenched in the physical body – has now transcended its boundaries. People exist now not only as collections of cells but as collections of data packets on remote servers. Experience is lived not only in the physical world, but in the virtual; being has transcended physical limits not only through direct prostheses, but through virtual resonances and trace elements.  Identity is created, reformed and melded through conscious processes.  Identity politics in a world of constructed identities makes reductions to essential nature and physical manifestation absurd.  In such a world, gender becomes a construct. While sex is fixed and immovable, gender becomes much more fluid.

That is not to say that male domination disappears in the virtual sphere.  Even most intimate and physical forms of domination can be replicated in cyberspace.  Rape is after all a crime of the mind.  The first documented case of a rape in cyberspace occurred in LambaMoo, where a “player” set up a programme to action sexual violence against several other player characters. Despite no physical harm, the person behind the worst of the violence experienced a traumatic reaction and difficulty coming to terms with the public violation of her identity.

Liberation rests on a raising of conciousness, an awareness of the dominent ideological hegemony, of the oppression suffered and the means of overcoming it.  Gender is however only one source of oppression; class, race and sexuality all intertwine in a myriad of power structures, along with manyother less well defined ones. When identity becomes fluid, as is the case in cyberspace, oppression does too. Marina is an odd heroine. The interpreter and advisor to Cortes, she was sold to him as part of a package of twenty slaves and bore their mixed race child.  A legendary character, she bears different identities at different times.  As the embodiment of treachery, the quintessential victim and the mother of the new Mexican people, she encompasses Eve, who ate the apple against God’s will, Mary impregnated by God against her will (a rape by any other name) and Gaia, the all giving mother, feasted upon by her parasitic offspring. Her trechery, abuse and exploitation are wrapped together in her nickname of “La Chingada” – “the fucked one”. Many third wave feminists have identified with Marina, a victim, an oppressor and a creature of circumstance depending on your viewpoint, but above and beyond that she is a model of differential consciousness.

The second wave of feminism has long been criticised as being a White Middle Class movement, which ignores the realities of intersecting oppressions experienced by women in poverty or women of colour.  Dominant ideology reproduces itself through state apparatus, overtly in the form of the police, courts and justice system, but also covertly through the  benevolent state functions of education, health provision and media regulation. To effectively challenge dominant ideology, it is necessary to dance.

Women of colour experience dual oppressions and seek solice in the company of their co-oppressed. As women they challenge the patriarchial attitudes found in their culture and heritage; as Blacks, they challenge the arrogant assumptions of hegemonic womanhood. These oppressions meet but in different ways at diffent times. With the rise of Islamophobia, many Asian women found it an insurrectionary act to adopt the hijab. Young second and third generation women brought up in a Western culture to westernised parents started wearing the hijab as an assertion of their culture in the face of community oppression. In such a context it is meaningless to look at the hijab as a tool of womens oppression – although in some circumstances that may be the case, the act of donning the hijab was an act of solidarity and defiance.  Their identity was fluid: as physical embodiments they were both Asian and female, however they chose to prioritise the oppression which they felt most keenly at that time.  We can learn from women of colour, who deal with the duality of oppression. Sometimes prioritising one, sometimes the other, they nimbly move between the differential, challenging the dominant ideology – not through the politics of identity, but through the politics of affinity.  By identifying and locating their oppression in a community and actively challenging at its weak spots they undermine the underlying ideologies which seek to dominate. Rather than a fixed identity, which is defended; their identity shifts to highlight the differential and exchange solidarity with the oppressed.

Slutwalk is another example of oppositional conciousness. Although the roots are in poor housekeeping, its meaning has been sexualised, as techology has negated the need for much female domestic labour, so women are prized for their sexual rather than domestic production. The slut is a creature who challenges sexual mores, who does not stay chaste outwith a relationship and faithful within it. Most often applied to young, white women it acts as a disciplinary tool to reinforce the boundaries of acceptable female sexual behaviour and shame those who refuse to conform. By the aggressive identification with the slut – “the fucked one” of the Chicano feminist discourse, it undermines that discipline and challenges the ideology that gives rise to it. And so too for the cyborg. Identity is no longer fixed and immutable, but presented and represented over and over again. By identification with the marginalised, seeking out power differentials and locating strategies through praxis, a map of active resistance can be drawn. The co-option of technological advances offers us new options to actively challenge, new methods to record experience, new tools to develop affinities and new mediums to communicate.

The Goddess is dead.  Long life the cyborg.


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Morag Eyrie
    Jul 17, 2011 @ 22:06:48

    Hi Mhairi, you already know I love this post. I think it could easily contain at least 5 longer posts if some of the points raised were each teased out!

    One of the things I’ve always been very interested in is this issue of how we as individuals prioritise our political allegiances. So it was good to read some discussion of that (to do with Muslim women choosing the hijab). It seems to be too easy for white middle class feminists to universalise their experience, and to think it should be central to *everyone’s* political priorities. But as a white middle class feminist I can’t let women who do that off the hook- if I’ve been able to empathise with (and understand) others’ struggles, and to prioritise those who are different from me, why can’t they? Privilege is an insidious thing in its ability to blind people to what’s right in front of their faces.

    Having said that, I think my next post is going to be on the various big “splitting the left” issues of sexual violence- e.g. DSK and Assange. I do bloody wish more men on the left prioritised my and my sisters’ safety and bodily autonomy as much as they want folk to prioritise their issues!

    Anyway, can’t think of anything particularly challenging or substantive to add: hope lots of people read this and that it gets them thinking and maybe even discussing.


  2. Mhairi McAlpine
    Jul 17, 2011 @ 22:32:44

    The interesting thing about the hijab was that it was often 2nd/3rd generation Asian women who took up the hijab, without having been raised to wear one and having seen their mothers and older sisters go bareheaded.

    It was an active and distinctly political choice these women made and in doing so asserted their right to wear whatever they wanted without instruction.

    I’ll look forward to your post on DSK and Assange, of course this kind of splitting of the left over mens sexual behaviour has an interesting precident closer to home ;)


  3. Morag Eyrie
    Jul 17, 2011 @ 22:48:14

    Oh, so it does ;-)

    Yeah I want to develop a coherent response to the idea that such cases are right-wing conspiracies to bring down successful/powerful men of the left. In fact I think they *are* often exactly that- there are just as many powerful right-wing men who do the same things and never get called on it. But for fuck’s sake why do “our” guys keep giving them the ammunition? And then use every vicious patriarchal boys-together tool in the toolbox to try to silence us?

    I’m also reminded of the Clarence Thomas case in the US where Anita Hill was castigated by large swathes of the African American community for betraying them by washing their dirty linen in public, and thereby seeming to side with the right.

    Anyway- I’ll not start writing the post here and now! I need SLEEP! Had a big long walk up a very steep hill today.


  4. dd
    Jul 25, 2011 @ 19:37:15

    I’ll tell you what irks me…..its all very well that folks take into account that its women of colour that make the majority of technological devices but do they bother to take care of them? ive heard feminist arguments against dusting and generally cleaning things for a while and it makes me mad. Some woman spent hours hunched over, exposed to all sorts of nasty things making your imac/phone whatever. look after it! when yer done with it recycle it or pass it on to someone. get my drift.
    on another note re accessibility, wouldn’t it be nice to have accessible language. I know lots of women that would be interested in this site but would steer clear of it after attempted readings… not saying dumb down but a lot of writing in alternative groups assumes that the reader will understand various words and concepts. How about a glossary or something similar??

    over and out.


    • Morag Eyrie
      Jul 25, 2011 @ 21:31:24

      Hi dd. Thanks for commenting. I’m not sure how you managed to see over my shoulder to the manky state of my laptop, and indeed my house. I am not the author of this piece, but I am one of those feminists who doesn’t do much in the way of cleaning and maintenance (although I don’t claim that to be part of my feminism, just laziness).

      I’m not sure how it will help the women who made my laptop for me to look after it better but I will say it has withstood everything I’ve done to it for 2 1/2 years and counting, and I appreciate that mightily.

      Re your comment about accessible language: the other authors on this blog are free to use whatever language they want within the guidelines, but I’ll just note that (as per the guidelines) this is not a Feminism 101 blog, which means it’s not for beginners. There are plenty of other places on the Web for introductory level stuff, and Google is your friend if you don’t understand something. We won’t be compiling a glossary for that reason- stuff’s already out there and glossaries and such are a LOT of work.

      The trouble with requesting more accessible language is the ‘how long is a piece of string?’ thing. How accessible is accessible enough? What about the readers (like me, that’s why I started the blog) who want something complex and full of new, interesting words?

      Having said that we have a variety of authors promising articles which I’m sure will come in a range of styles and approaches so the blog may not end up quite as daunting as the initial three posts may suggest. Hope you see something you like sometime.


  5. mhairi
    Jul 25, 2011 @ 22:59:43

    On the language issue, I do appreciate that its not as accessible as perhaps it may be, maybe links would help and its something that I’ll bear in mind.

    In terms of technology, care and recycling – technology moves at such a rapid rate that things are very very quickly obsolete. While furniture made 200 years ago may be valuable and cared for and still usable, a computer made 10 years ago is to all intents and purposes useless without continual and expensive upgrading.


  6. Trackback: Kill the Goddess and Birth the Cyborg « Random musings

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