rhizomes.04 spring 2002

A Modem of One's Own: The Subject of Cyberfeminism [1]
Jodey Castricano

[1] Less than forty years have passed since Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own was adopted as a manifesto by early feminist critics who sought to establish a legitimate "place" for women writers in a literary tradition which had historically excluded them on the basis that women were considered incapable of sustained, intellectual achievement. Although certainly concerned with the politics of such a tradition, Woolf points out that the issue of merit is less about a woman's capacity for achievement than it is about the asymmetry of her position within a system of patriarchal capitalism. In this influential work, Woolf concludes that "it is far more important ... to know how much money women had and how many rooms than to theorize about their capacities" (105).

[2] Today, Woolf's 1929 publication is frequently criticized for its class and race bias. As Alice Walker points out in her "In Search of Our Mother's Garden," the dream of creative freedom and financial independence espoused by Woolf was, as history shows us, impossible for most women of colour who had to contend not only with "chains, guns, the lash, the ownership of one's body by someone else [and] submission to an alien religion" but also enforced labour and malnutrition (2377). Although drawing attention to the limitations of Woolf's manifesto with respect to issues of race and class, Walker builds upon the premises of Woolf's text regarding women's anonymity and creativity to include black women in a feminist literary and cultural history that had excluded them. In fact, Walker shows that if the spatial metaphor of Woolf's "room" offered a cognitive "space" for certain 1970s and 1980s feminists, the mothers' "gardens" would also provide an organic "place" from which to derive "the dynamics of empowerment" through "matrilineage"(Gilbert/Gubar 2365).

[3] In this essay, I will examine how the spatial metaphor of Woolf's "room"--which has been politically meaningful to the identity politics of early feminists--has also come to signify discursively within feminism what Rosi Braidotti has called the "terminal crisis of classical humanism." [2] To this end, I argue that A Room of One's Own has been deployed by early feminist theorists as a strategic metaphor towards an essentialist representational politics that has currently come into conflict with the deconstructive gestures of post-industrial feminism. [3] More specifically, this paper examines what amounts to a paradigm shift concerning the "subject" of feminism as it is currently derived through the multiply-determined figure of the cyborg in contrast to the "one" female inhabitant of Woolf's room. Similarly, I'm interested in how the structural/spatial metaphor of Woolf's "room" has contributed to 1970s and 80s feminist claims about "women's space" in contrast to the indeterminate "dimensions" of cyberspace that inform cyberfeminism. As Nancy Stepan claims "a theory of metaphor is as critical to science as it is to the humanities" (47). The paper, therefore, is concerned with the identity politics of post-industrial feminism(s) implicit in what I'd like to call a modem of one's own, a cyber-driven metaphor which is intended to evoke the discursive inter-relations between embodiment, technology, science and signifying practices while keeping in mind the pervasive influence of Woolf's text in feminist theory. To this end, I will examine the epistemological and ontological differences between the subject of Woolf's "room" and the figure of Donna Haraway's cyborg as reflecting a perceptual shift in feminism traceable in strategies of interpretation.

[4] To begin, Woolf's "room" draws attention to itself as a modernist spatial metaphor that later enabled the revisionary efforts of Anglo-American feminists, especially literary theorists and social anthropologists, to articulate what the American feminist Elaine Showalter has called "[t]he problematic of women's space"--a notion which calls attention not only to the ideology of representation, including aesthetic practices, but also to the secondary status of women in society.[4] Similarly, the concept of "women's space," especially in feminist literary theory, led feminists to posit both a gendered subject inhabiting that terrain, as well as a mode of inner space, a subject position, as it were (after all Woolf did speak of a room of one's own, a subject now seen to be marked by class and race).

[5] This gestalt of interior/exterior spaces provided by the spatial metaphor of Woolf's room has also allowed feminists to derive a metonymic network of emancipatory meanings and values. One American feminist literary critic, for example, uses Woolf's text to set up an opposition between the "domestic or private sphere" and "the [patriarchal] public realm of history"(Donovan "Towards a Women's Poetics" 101). In fact, Josephine Donovan argues for what she says is a "woman-centered epistemology" (100), a notion which, to post-industrial feminism, often describes an anti-science metaphysics.[5] Similarly, in "Women's Time, Women's Place," Elaine Showalter's assertion that "female space is the alternative linguistic and imaginative place from which women can speak"(37) demonstrates how the metaphor of Woolf's "room" has acted as a phenomenological coordinate on a feminist cognitive map indicating not only the discursive dimensions of "women's space" but also of women's subjectivity. Thus, it seems that the discursive structural apparatus of Woolf's "room" has enabled feminists to map and to theorize links between the material and psychological conditions of women's lives in spatial terms. In cyberfeminism, this strategy has not changed, for as Nina Wakeford says in "Gender and the Landscapes of Computing," her field study of an Internet café--which "explores how gender operates in a 'real' place where the Internet is both produced and consumed"--"borrows metaphors of spatiality from cultural geography to explain gender in terms of its production as part of landscapes of computing" which can be thought of as an "overlapping set of material and imaginary geographies"(292) including on-line experience as well as discourse about it.

[6] As a spatial metaphor, Woolf's room has signified a material as well as a psychic space for the housing of feminist thought. In fact, the trope has embodied for feminism, what Althusser has called, "the representation of the subject's Imaginary relationship to his or her Real conditions of existence"(Althusser, qtd. in Jameson 51). Indeed, Woolf's claim that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write..."(4) has served to draw attention to the "Real" conditions of women's existence in terms of the relationship between financial independence and gender, race and class. Similarly, the trope has also enabled feminists to use literary theory as a measure of identity politics, although these politics have more recently been criticized as being universalist and essentialist.[6] More recently feminist constructivist theorists have argued that such universals and "essences" are, in fact, "the effects of complicated discursive practices"(Fuss 2 emphasis mine). As Diana Fuss points out, "[w]hat is at stake for a constructionist are systems of representations, social and material practices, laws of discourses and ideological effects"(2). Thus, post-industrial feminisms, including "cyberfeminism" cannot take itself as a "given" but must examine the discursive terms of its own production and organization of differences. This discursive approach seems to be what Judith Squires has in mind when she says,

whilst there may be potential for an alliance between cyborg imagery and a materialist-feminism, this potential has been largely submerged beneath a sea of technophoric cyberdrool. If we are to salvage the image of the cyborg we would do well to insist that cyberfeminism be seen as a metaphor for addressing the inter-relation between technology and the body, not as a means of using the former to transcend the latter. (195)

[7] In "Cyberfeminism With a Difference," Rosi Braidotti takes the assertion that "cyberfeminism be seen as a metaphor" one step further by arguing that "the central point to keep in mind in the context of a discussion on cyberspace [and feminism] is a renewal of the old myth of transcendence as [disembodiment]"(www.kitchenmedialab.org). Instead of "the old myth of transcendence," Braidotti argues that, in the "transition from a humanistic to a post-human world," we need to consider "multiple bodies or sets of embodied positions." While Donna Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto" has undoubtedly served to call into question myths of both origin and transcendence, it has also played a vital role in current deconstructive reconceptions of the relationships between subjectivity, embodiment and technology and, in the process, has set itself up as a critique of essentialist, universalist feminisms. Indeed, Haraway's figure of the cyborg--"a hybrid of machine and organism"(50)--has been instrumental in subverting "biological-determinist ideology"(52) as well as the "animal-human (organism) and machine" distinction (52)--this latter a dualism that Haraway notes has "structured the dialogue between materialism and idealism..."(52).

[8] Interrupting this "dialogue" is the figure of the cyborg. In fact, Haraway's arguments are relevant to post-industrial feminisms because her manifesto strikes at the heart of humanist claims regarding original unity and what Haraway refers to as "the masculinist reproductive dream"(52). Similarly, Haraway's manifesto also sends shock waves along the fault lines of feminist essentialist and universalist claims regarding "women's experience" that have been grounded in an appeal to a prediscursive female body as a sign of ontological and epistemological difference from the "patriarchy." The fact is that while Haraway's manifesto demonstrates how imprecise the boundary is between the physical and the non-physical, it also marks a turning point for post-industrial feminism with the figure of the cyborg serving as a deconstructive lever that introduces into feminist debates an element of radical undecidability that undercuts any essentialist or universalist claims about the identity and category of "woman," especially where that identity is grounded in notions of a "sex" that pre-exists gender.

[9] Rhetorically speaking, then, the cyborg is a figure that asks us to examine the role that social and historical discursive practices have in the production of knowledge. By invoking the cyborg as being a creature of both social "reality" and of "fiction"(50), Haraway suggests that the cyborg questions the role that empiricism has played in representing knowledge "as constructed out of 'given' elements, the elements of experience, the 'facts' of history, etc."(Hindess/Hirst 2-3). There is nothing "given" about the cyborg. Haraway's use of the word "fiction" therefore involves the workings of the politics of genre. And, in this case, by alluding to what the Greeks call poiesis, Haraway uses the figure of the cyborg to demonstrate the role that "invention" plays in representations of truth, including empirical facts, "which are never given; they are always produced"(Hindess/Hirst qtd in Fuss 118). So, in this context, the word "fiction" also links the cyborg to a certain deconstructive politics of writing, reading and interpretation implicit in what Haraway refers to as "a movement from an organic, industrial society to a polymorphous, information system"(53).

[10] As Derrida has shown, philosophy has historically subordinated the "literary" to philosophical truth. While Haraway's juxtaposition of the words "reality" and "fiction" alludes to the historical arbitrariness of these distinctions in Western metaphysics, they also draw attention to their function in the language of science. Haraway's use of these terms, however, not only links the cyborg to technology but also suggests that the cyborg functions as a figure of speech--a metaphor--that enables a critique of truth claims regarding "sexuality and gender by suggesting that theories produced by scientists can also be understood as 'science fictions'"(1989). As Foucault has already demonstrated, such "science fictions" have served discursively to either legitimize or pathologize the object of "knowledge." Given its association with "invention," however, the figure of the cyborg calls attention to the metaphorical nature of scientific discourse which has only more recently been subject to analysis. In calling for a study of the role of metaphors in scientific theories, Nancy Stepan points out that although science has historically been "identified with truthfulness and empirical reality" (39), it has also relied upon analogy and metaphor to "help construct the very similarities and differences supposedly 'discovered' by scientists in nature"(40); inequalities in race and gender or race and class being examples of how metaphor and analogy have become "'naturalized' in the language of science, and their metaphorical nature disguised"(41). According to Foucault, power flourishes where it best conceals itself. What better place to disguise the workings of power than in the language of science which claims to reveal--rather than produce--the fundamental biological and psychological differences between the sexes, classes and races?

[11] At the centre of Haraway's critique of the dualisms which help construct the very similarities and differences supposedly 'discovered' by scientists in nature lies the hybrid and thus deconstructive figure of the cyborg. Peggy Kamuf's description of Derrida's deconstructive gestures with regards to the arbitrary distinctions supposed by philosophy towards "literature" are relevant here as Haraway's cyborg, like Derrida's deconstruction, can also be seen as a "a writing practice that does not claim to represent some truth outside itself and thus does not attempt to hide its own inscription" (143 emphasis mine). Although Haraway's manifesto offers a critique of the traditions of Western science and politics and metaphysics, it also troubles feminism in that it calls for no less that the deconstruction of what Derrida has called "the ideological consensus of feminists" ("Choreographies" 25) which, in Judith Butler's view constitutes "the unproblematic unity of 'women'"(9) that, paradoxically, "safeguard[s] certain tenets of humanism"(13).

[12] The current moment of undecidability for post-industrial feminist theory seems the equivalent of what Derrida's pharmakon has been for philosophy in that the cyborg, like the pharmakon is double. Like the pharmakon, the cyborg "enters the dialectic from both sides at once...and threatens the process from within"(Kamuf 113). What this means for current feminism(s) is that the cyborg, like the pharmakon, "cannot be made to function as an unambiguous term available to dialectic reasoning..."(Kamuf 113). The figure of the cyborg thus makes possible and necessary the deconstruction of a certain feminism that naturalizes the idea of a universal female subject as well as the relation between sex and identity. Like the pharmakon which is associated by Plato with writing--and a level of textual play that Plato could only partially control--the cyborg is, for post-industrial feminism, a deconstructive maverick figure associated with a discursive play that disrupts foundationalist assumptions that manifest as "women's truth"--including an appeal to a causal pre-discursive body. The notion that the cyborg is linked to textual practices is confirmed, in part, by Haraway who refers to the "reconceptions of machine and organism as coded texts through which we engage in the [arbitrary] play of writing and reading the world" (52 emphasis mine).

[13] What is relevant for my interests here is how Haraway's claim regarding the cyborg's availability as a figure for "re-conceptions of machine and organisms as coded texts" draws attention to the semiotic relations between science, (reproductive) technology and the body. Haraway's reference to the word "conception" is also ironic and directs our attention to the cyborg's links with reproductive technologies which, traditionally, have been seen as being contrary to "nature." The word "conception" also shows that these technologies, as signifying systems, are bound up with language, representation and power. For example, as Dion Farquhar points out, "entirely new discourses about pregnancy have been spun by users (buyers and sellers of reproductive technologies" and these technologies "have stimulated alternatives modes of representing the female body at the same time that they struggle to recuperate its 'natural' fertility"(212). In the case of such paradoxical "re-conceptions," the question to ask might be "what cultural apparatus arranges [the] meeting between instrument and body"(Butler GT 146) and what does this meeting make possible? As Kathryn Woodward argues, the cyborg offers "possibilities for feminists exploring the interrelationship between technoscience and the material body" and for critiquing "the representations of reproduction and the meanings re-produced by reproductive technologies"(TGS 169).

[14] This critique surrounding representation, reproduction and reproductive technologies also extends to the deconstruction of the notion of origins in the West and is relevant especially where that disruptive gesture is made by poststructuralist feminism in the direction of feminist theory which essentializes the female author and the female text and argues that "writing the body" "promises a clarity of perception and a vitality that can bring down mountains of phallocentric delusion"(Jones 366). When Haraway writes that "the cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden"(51), she posits a post-industrialist feminism that rejects the idealization of the female body as well as the Western myth of origin that haunts essentialist representational politics. Instead, Haraway uses the cyborg to sever the link between biology, destiny and writing thereby suggesting, in Derrida's terms, that "to write is to produce a mark that will constitute a kind of machine that is in turn productive"("Signature Event Context" 91). As a "kind of [writing] machine," the cyborg challenges certain organic metaphors that have linked knowledge production with paternity. For example, Edward Said points out in "On Originality," that in the Phaedrus, Socrates uses such metaphors rhetorically when he appeals to "the slow methodic cultivation of a garden and ...the creation of a family by a solicitous father" and, thus, to argue for the way "that knowledge is formulated, disseminated, and acquired..."(Said 131). Said also mentions that the Phaedrus insists that "there can be no theoretical knowledge without a discernible origin" and that knowledge is the mind's "legitimate offspring"(131 emphasis mine). Of course, cyborgs disrupt all this because, according to Haraway, they are "the illegitimate offspring of mainstream and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism...[and] are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential"(51-52). If fathers are "inessential," what can be said about mothers? This question is especially relevant for feminism, since Haraway's play on the word "essential" calls up, once again, feminism's dilemma: how to discuss issues of reproduction--writing, representation, reproductive technologies, embodiment--without reproducing what Haraway refers to as "the dream of community on the [heterosexual] model of the organic family"(51) which is, of course, headed by the father who legitimates his offspring?

[15] The notion of reconception hints at how the figure of the cyborg reconfigures representations of the body and embodiment in relation to technology. By rendering ambiguous the distinction between machines and organisms, the cyborg demonstrates that technology does not exist "outside" ourselves and that we are not mere users of it. Rather, the figure of the cyborg reminds us that as Marshall McLuhan might have it, technology is an extension of ourselves and whether it be of our limbs or our nervous systems, "any extension ... affects the whole psychic and social complex"(4). McLuhan's linking of technology to "the whole psychic and social complex" suggests that the cyborg, like cyberfeminism, can be seen as a "metaphor for addressing the inter-relation between technology and the body, not as a means of using the former to transcend the latter"(Squires 195 ).

[16] As a metaphor evoking the discursive inter-relation between technology and the body, the cyborg signals a paradigm shift--within feminism--from what Rosi Braidotti calls "a humanistic to a post-human world." While such a transition is evident historically and materially, the differences are also discursively traceable. But "difference" is not just a given; it must, as Jonathan Culler, suggests, also "be produced"(50). In this context, the production of differences within feminism has often seemed to be played out politically at the site of Woolf's "room." When Jane Marcus, a feminist literary theorist, uses Woolf's text to argue for "a woman's alphabet," she repudiates deconstructionist readings of A Room of One's Own, claiming that "these critics [Peggy Kamuf and Gayatri Spivak] deny the authority of the female text" (89). Tellingly, Marcus also claims that Kamuf and Spivak take "father-guides to map the labyrinth of the female text [and thus] deny the motherhood of the author of the text. These readings [Marcus claims] reinforce patriarchal authority"(89).

[17] It is at this intersection of differences that 1970s and 80s feminist identity politics seem to collide with post-industrialist feminism's invitation to engage in the arbitrary "play of writing and reading the world" (Haraway 52) that I mentioned earlier. In this regard, Haraway's use of the word "play" is important because it calls attention to the necessary dismantling of a certain fixity of thought implicit in the totalizing gestures of an essentialist feminism that can be seen, as Judith Butler might say, to "uncritically [mimic] the strategy of the oppressor instead of offering a different set of terms" (13). Butler points out that while "universalistic claims are based on a common or shared epistemological standpoint," the fact that these claims can be seen to operate in "both feminist and non-feminist contexts"(13) suggests that totalizing gestures are "not primarily or irreducibly masculinist"(13). Rather, the insistence on a certain substantive coherence--that of the epistemologies of the "female text," "the motherhood of the author of the text," "women's space"--can be thought of as being what Derrida refers to in "Structure, Sign and Play," as "a linked chain of determinations of [a desire for a] centre,"(279) for a "point of presence" or for a "fixed origin"(278) all of which are at play not only in the history of metaphysics in the concept of structure which resists play but also in essentialist representational politics that insist that "the term women denotes a common identity"(Butler, 3). As Judith Butler argues, such universalist claims are predicated upon "the ostensibly shared structures of femininity, maternity, sexual, and/or écriture feminine"(14). This "structurality of structure" as Derrida calls this perceptual apparatus ("Structure, Sign and Play" 280), suggests that the displacement between architecture and the architectonics of Woolf's "room" serves as an organizing principle which has made possible the idea of a substantive and central subject of feminism: "woman" irreducible and unchanging whose "experience" is, as Judith Butler asserts, unmarked by "dimensions of class and racial privilege"(Butler GT 14).

[18] Derrida's remarks regarding the concept of structure and the desire for a centre are useful in understanding how feminist readings of A Room of One's Own are implicated in the double character of interpretation. It is not enough, for example, to claim that meaning resides in either the text or the experience of the reader. And yet, as Jonathan Culler points out, "[t]he combination of context-bound meaning and boundless context on the one hand makes possible proclamations of the indeterminacy of meaning...but on the other hand urges that we continue to interpret texts, classify speech act, and attempt to elucidate the conditions of signification"(133). If we are concerned with readings of Woolf's room that insist on feminist consensus, we might consider how consensus functions as a certain political speech act and how Haraway's version of cyberfeminism overtly resists definition based on humanist idealisms. But certain identity politics also demonstrate a resistance to engaging in the arbitrariness advocated by Haraway. Moreover, this resistance can be seen, as suggested by Derrida's remarks, "to mark out and define [the relationship between]...the structurality of structure"(278) and the desire for such a centre.

[19] Derrida points out that "the function of [a] centre [has been] not only to orient, balance, and organize the structure--one cannot in fact conceive of an unorganized structure--but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the play of the structure"(278). By seeking consensus regarding the subject "woman," certain feminist readings of A Room of One's Own can be seen to have limited or resisted the play of that text, for in spite of Woolf's caveat that "[i]t is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple," and "it is fatal for anyone who writes [and perhaps we can add "reads] to think of their sex" (104) many feminist theorists have done just that.

[20] From the standpoint of the "play" of signification invoked by Haraway's cyborg, post-industrial feminist theory has come to see that totalization no longer has any meaning. In fact, "play" in this context involves a double gesture. To use Haraway's terms, it involves deconstructing "the transcendent authorization of interpretation [and] with it the ontology grounding Western epistemology"(52). As a theoretical "position" available to post-industrial feminists, the cyborg draws attention to what is at stake in deconstructionist gestures such as Haraway's which are a kind of decentering without nostalgia. As Derrida says, one "cannot criticize metaphysics radically without still utilizing [it] in a certain way"(Of Grammatology 35). For Haraway and other post-industrial feminists, like Judith Butler, Diana Fuss, and Rosi Braidotti, deconstructive play is also serious: while such play must negotiate the transition to a post-human world, it must simultaneously question its own negotiations as being an ideological effect of social and material practices, including the relations between science and technology. With the cyborg in mind, however, such play is interminable. As Jeanette Winterson writes in The Power Book: "Time is downloaded into our bodies. We contain it. Not only time past and time future, but time without end. We think of ourselves as close and finite, when we are multiple and infinite"(121). Although with the help of cyborg imagery, we can claim to be "multiple and infinite," the fact remains that such assertions often elide issues of race, sexuality, gender and class. As Jennifer Gonzáles points out, "it may be that the cyborg is now in a new progressive phase, but its 'racial' body politics have a long way to go"(71). In the meantime, however, the cyborg, at best, is a metaphor that can provide, as Donna Haraway claims, "a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves," for what is at stake is "not [as an earlier feminism would have it,] the dream of a common language, but a powerful heteroglossia"(181). Consequently, if the cyborg is an anomalous figure within feminism, there can no going back to the garden or, for that matter, to Woolf's or anyone's room since the metaphor signals a paradigm shift in late capitalism about what it means to be a woman in a post-gender world.



[1] The author gratefully acknowledges the financial support that was received from a grant partly funded by Wilfrid Laurier University operating funds and partly by the SSHRC Institutional Grant awarded to WLU.

[2] See Rosi Braidotti's "Cyberfeminism With a Difference" at «www.kitchenmedialab.org/download/activism/Cyberfeminism%20with%20a%20difference.doc».

[3] I will address the debate between essentialism and social constructionism through the lens of deconstruction which has consistently called into question the notions of "presence" and "essence." These questions have, arguably, found their way into the works of Judith Butler and Diana Fuss as well as Donna Haraway whose concern with "play" echoes Derrida's in "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." In Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978.

[4] See Elaine Showalter's "Women's Time, Women's Space: Writing the History of Feminism Criticism" in Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship. Ed. Sheri Benstock. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. 30-44.

[5] See Josephine Donovan's "Toward a Women's Poetics" in Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship. Ed. Shari Benstock. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

[6] The feminist "Imaginary" was also essentialist in that it represented "women" as the abiding subject of feminism having a common identity and experience of the oppression of "patriarchy." In fact, while Virginia Woolf's modernist "room" became synonymous with "women's space" for many liberal Anglo-American feminists, the "one" inhabiting that room, first manifested as the foundational subject of a 20th century white, European, heterosexual, feminist conceptual system, the representational politics of which, to use Judith Butler's terms, worked under the assumption "that there is some existing identity, understood through the category of women, who not only initiates feminist interests and goals within discourse, but constitutes the subject for whom political representation is pursued"(Gender Trouble 1).



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