Signing off from The Staggers

After 18 months of blogging, I’m still convinced religion must be better understood.

After just under 18 months, this will be my last post on The Staggers, in a series that began as the "God Blog" but which then ranged beyond religion into world affairs – two subjects which in many countries are so intertwined that they cannot be regarded as separate areas of discussion – and the occasional foray into British domestic politics.

I think it would be fair to say that, as often as not, my thoughts irritated or even enraged many commenters, leading some to suggest that they should not have appeared on the website of a magazine with such a distinguished left-wing history. This stemmed at least in part from two views with which I would disagree.

First, that the New Statesman should always take a strongly atheist and avowedly secular stance. I pointed out the connection between religion and radicalism in my introductory column, "Age of Homo Religiosus", which I still believe rebuts this point. By way of example, I will merely reproduce the words Keir Hardie wrote in 1910:

I have said, both in writing and from the platform many times, that the impetus which drove me first into the Labour movement, and the inspiration which has carried me on in it, has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than from all other sources combined.

If that was good enough for him . . .

The other argument I have tried to make – although I have been made very aware of the limits of my powers of persuasion in this regard – is that religion is an overwhelming fact in the world. Whatever certain readers may think, my aim has never been to advance the case for any religion, let alone proselytise, but instead to suggest that we would all benefit from understanding it rather than reducing it to extreme and backward-looking versions which we naturally find repugnant. This only serves the interests of fundamentalists of any or no faith.

Certainty is what makes me suspicious, whether it be an unquestioning belief in the current conclusions of sciences that are – as they should be – constantly changing as new discoveries are made, or in dogmas that do not allow for different circumstances and times, remaining stuck in the fabrics of societies that vanished centuries ago. I would include in this also certainties about the desirability of imposing our form of liberal democracy in countries with other histories and sets of values.

Any universalism always starts from a particular standpoint, and when it comes to how we think societies should order themselves the western standpoint is not unique; it also strikes me as arrogant to suggest that it is uniquely right. Those who maintain that the only justifiable left-wing position is to do just that may not realise how much that smacks of neo-colonialism in the many countries that have had quite enough of being told what to do by European and American powers. To me, it seems more naturally left-wing not to subject them to lectures and threats, but to regard and treat them as equals free to determine their own futures.

Second, and less importantly, there has been some objection to my occasional columns in support of Liberal politics. I have always thought of British Liberalism as being on the left – just look up Lloyd eorge's speeches against the privileges of the aristocracy, for instance – and that radical Liberals had much reason to be furious about the actions of the last Labour government.

Who betrayed the left during those 13 years? Not Liberals (who opposed the Iraq war, etc). Tribalism may trump principle in practice, but not, I would hope, in the pages of the New Statesman, which I believe should feel like home for Liberals just as much as it does for Labour, Green and all sorts of open-minded thinkers.

All of which brings me to thank the NS for having me as an online columnist for the last 18 months. The magazine's tolerance for divergent opinions is a tribute to its range and intelligence – and to its readers, however much they may have disagreed with me.

And on the subject of readers, my thanks to, too, to the regular commenters. I will mention just two: Daniele, who frequently took me to task, but from a consistent and coherent standpoint (and one that I respect more than Daniele perhaps imagines), and most especially to Lou, who was often a very welcome voice of support – precisely because he was the only one!

I will still be writing essays and book reviews for the magazine. Perhaps we will meet again in the comments section when future articles appear. Until then, as the Roman poet wrote, "Ave atque vale."

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Warren K Leffler at Wikimedia Commons
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"She wore a USB cord instead of a necklace": whatever happened to Cyberfeminism?

The movement was young, energetic, educated, and art school-heavy. Above all it was “positive”: both cyber-positive and sex-positive.

Sometime in the late 1990s, I met someone else called Joanna Walsh. The fact that this is also my name drew me to study her closely. We were about the same age. She worked in the tech side of the arts world, with which I was also connected via a loose network of zines, "comix" and journals. Instead of a necklace, she wore a USB cord. She knew how to program. She was a cyberfeminist. 

Cyberfeminism had been a word since 1991, coined separately by the British philosopher Sadie Plant (once profiled painfully in the Independent on Sunday as the “IT girl for the 21st Century”) who was then running the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit with fellow philosopher Nick Land, and by the Australian art collective VNS Matrix

In September 1997, the First Cyberfeminist International meet-up took palce in Germany, and the artist Cornelia Sollfrank writes that its members "agreed not to define the term" cyberfeminist, but to understand it through negative. As a result, the Old Boys Network, a cyerfeminist alliance founded at the event, wrote “100 Anti-Theses” in languages from Croatian to Indonesian. The theses defined cyberfeminism by what it is not: “cyberfeminisme n'est pas une pipe… cyberfeminism is not post-modern… cyberfeminismo no es rock'n’roll” - as a gap, a lack, but also posited this newly-available "cyber" space as a place into which bodies could be projected, and within which they could be remade.

Nineties cyberfeminism drew heavily on contemporary feminist postmodernist theory, including the work of Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigary. As with any radical movement concerned with identity politics, there was a tension between repurposing or remixing stereotypes and the near-impossible task of destroying them and creating new archetypes. The work of trans cyberfeminist Sandy Stone is indicative of much of the movement’s gender-fluid stance: the Old Boys Network's founding aim was to “contribute[s] to the critical discourse on new media, especially gender-specific aspects,” by members who self-select “if you call yourself a woman.” 

"A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century” by VNS Matrix.

As Sadie Plant explains in her book Zeros and Ones—and as Elena Ferrante demonstrates through her (anti?) heroine Lila in the Neapolitan novels, who is an early coder — computing was once considered “women’s work’”. Like Plant, MIT Professor and digital theorist Sherry Turkle described women as digital natives, particularly suited to its “bricolage” methods. The VNS Matrix art collective, by contrast, saw women as biological infiltrators of “Big Daddy Mainframe”. 

Like other strands of 1990s feminism, whether they were prefixed with “Riot” or “Spice”, Cyberfeminism was “girl”-oriented. Zines were called gURL, and Geek Girl, and in 1995 Linda Dement made a “Cyberflesh Girlmonster”. The movement was young, energetic, educated, and art school-heavy. Above all it was “positive”: both “cyber-positive” and “sex-positive”. Cyberfeminism’s enthusiasm, its refusal to self-define, could be exhausting, but is it exhausted? The OBN's calendar takes us up to 2003, the function feminism timeline to 2005. In 2012 a reassessment of the movement titled Cyberfeminism 2.0, was published. What happened in the interim?

What happened is, we all became users. The internet is so embedded in our lives as to make the prefix “cyber” tautologous as “road traffic” or “free gift”, but use of a medium implies neither expertise or control. Not only have women become notoriously scarce in programming, but, as technology becomes more complex, everyone is losing access to the basic means of production. JR Carpenter, a digital artist who continues to make “handmade” web pages, quotes Lori Emerson’s 2014 Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound:

“‘The iPad works because users can’t know how it works.’ Reading the web on an iPhone, iPad, or similar device, readers do not have the option of viewing the page source. The iPad provides consumers with access to materials created by others, but cannot easily be used as a tool in the handcrafting of new materials.”

As internet consumers we are all feminised, invited to complete ourselves through purchase: “The boundary between empowerment/subjectivity/agency and market-driven formation of self, which in fact has never been clear, becomes more nebulous,” wrote Radhika Gajjala’s and Yeon Ju Oh in their introduction to Cyberfeminism 2.0. “I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess,” declared Donna Haraway in her Cyborg Manifesto, published in 1991, Cyberfeminism’s year zero. But who are our cyborgs now? Default-female Siri and her cohort of servers with a smile? The internet’s “Mechanical Turks’”, mostly women in low-pay jobs whose hand-input is disguised as technology? 

The net can be an echo chamber of reinforced thought as, from Twitter to porn sites, users seek out communities that reflect their offline opinions. “Networked knowledge,” wrote David Weinberger  in a recent essay in the LARB, “is inextricable from its social context,” and can even offer a new, improved platform for offline prejudice. In April, the Guardian catalogued what everyone already knew: that’s it’s primarily their women (followed by non-white) correspondents whose work attracts trolling, abuse and threats.

An unusual feature of Cyberfeminism was how quickly it began to bemoan its own demise. Gashgirl/Doll Yoko/Francesca da Rimini of VNS Matrix wrote as early as 1997:

“after 6 years of surfen sibapussy g-slime as one of the vns matrix pussy posse i don't feel particularly inspired to comment anymore on cyberfeminism/s [if u dont have nothing new to say don't repeat yrself]… cept to say that as far as i rememba things vns matrix never *seriously* wanted to rule the world ..or women to dominate the net...necessarily.... .. but, as artists, we were serious bout usin strategies like irony 'n inversion of cultural stereotypes to raise some of the many issues around women and technology.”

As such, though the internet has been of inestimable benefit as a platform and network for feminist activists (at least those who can access the equipment), “online feminism” is not absolutely identifiable with Cyberfeminism. 

Like Ginger, Posh, Baby, Sporty and Scary, Cyberfeminism it posed a question, rather than giving an answer but, during a brief window of blue-sky thinking as to what the net could be. Artist Cornelia Sollfrank writes that “simply attaching the happy 'cyber' hype to the term feminism in the early 90s opened up immense potential. The synonym for an unreflective, euphoric understanding of new technologies, which 'cyber' definitely is, breathed new life into the debates around gender and feminism.”

Now, Cyberfeminism remains live because rejection of definition is its founding feature. Many 90s cyberfeminist groups and artists are still practicing, including Subrosa, Studio XX, and forums on OBN and elsewhere remain active. Members of the CCRU and VNS Matrix can be found working in academia and the arts, and contemporary theorists include Professor Radhika Gajjala who writes particularly on "subaltern" and south Asian "Cyberselves".“Cyberfeminism does not express itself in single, individual approaches but in the differences and spaces in between,” writes Sollfrank. “All continue to write the story.”

But now, when I use Google to search for “Joanna Walsh”, even in conjunction with institutions with which we were both linked, the only name I find is my own. 

This piece is part of our themed Internet Histories week. See the rest of the stories here