Judith Butler believed we were all performing gender. Photo: Getty
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Caroline Criado-Perez on Judith Butler: What's a phallus got to do with it?

In the late 80s, a new theorist emerged on the scene. She was called Judith Butler, and she was to revolutionise gender theory so fundamentally, that to write a paper on gender in the 21st century that does not at least reference Butler, is to almost place yourself outside of theoretical intelligibility.

The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan once claimed that “woman does not exist”. Women, or as Lacan therefore puts it in his lecture “On Feminine Sexuality” , “Woman”, might be forgiven for double-taking at this outlandish claim, but don't worry. This is only a symbolic claim, it only applies to which gender can have meaning in language, Lacan assures us, before going on to affirm that, “women's sexual organ is of no interest”. Hmmm.

Man, on the other hand, well. Man is different. “A man is nothing but signifier”, Lacan proclaims. He is the originator of all meaning. Taking inspiration from Freud's famous “penis-envy” theory, Lacan tells us that it is the “phallus” that is the signifier. (NB: the phallus, not the penis: we're still in the realm of the symbolic which despite its odd obsession with sexual organs is in no way related to the realm of the physical. Keep up, people.) And the phallus, despite being only symbolic and not related to actual sex, is intrinsically male. As a result, a woman cannot signify. She is without meaning. Symbolically.

As you might imagine, feminists have had some problem with this theory. In reaction against Freud's colonialist designation of female sexuality as the “dark continent for psychology”, (that is unknowable, hence Lacan's “Woman”), Hélène Cixous, one of the leading proponents of the theory of écriture féminine, which proposed that women should write outside of the shackles of male-defined meaning, had this to say:

The Dark Continent is neither dark nor unexplorable - it is still unexplored only because we've been made to believe that it was too dark to be explorable. And because [men] want to make us believe that what interests us is the white [male] continent...

Her point was simple. Freud positioned men as eternal subject, their viewpoint as the viewpoint, when he claimed that “[t]hroughout history, people have knocked their heads against the riddle of the nature of femininity”, going on to clarify that “people” in fact meant “men”, since for “those of you who are women this will not apply: you are your selves the problem”. Cixous turned this blinkered contention on its head. Women are people too, she radically pointed out, and therefore are not intrinsically unknowable. We are not born as pure mystery. Rather, it is because psychology has been written by men, from a male perspective that has no interest in considering whether or not there may be an alternative, female worldview, a view of the world informed by occupying a position at the bottom of the social order, that women have been portrayed as essentialised and unknowable Other. It is because of this failure of imagination that woman has been positioned in the psychological literature as destined never to be a subject, never able to signify in and of herself. Only able to have meaning in so far as she is not the one true signifier: the mighty male phallus.

Cixous radically said that it didn't have to be that way. After all, she points out, white ink is only unreadable if it is written on a white page. So why are we unquestionably putting up a structure, a page, that renders our voices silent, our ink invisible?

Cixous was joined in her radical rejection of a male-defined access to meaning by Luce Irigary, and the French school soon gained currency in Anglo-American theoretical circles. But then, in the late 80s, a new theorist emerged on the scene. She was called Judith Butler, and she was to revolutionise gender theory so fundamentally, that to write a paper on gender in the 21st century that does not at least reference Butler, is to almost place yourself outside of theoretical intelligibility.

Butler is perhaps most famous for her theory of gender performativity, that is, the idea that gender is brought into being by repeated performances of a particular gender role. Gender performativity has entered into theoretical lore, and I have my problems with how it has been deployed to, ironically, position gender as somehow innate. In this essay, however, I would like to focus on Butler's related theory of intelligibility, since I think it throws light on how a theory that you might think would destabilise oppressive gender norms, has actually been used to shore them up.

In Gender Trouble, perhaps her most famous work, Butler criticises ‘received grammar’, as incapable of contesting gender, since ‘gender itself is naturalised through grammatical norms’, warning that ‘the price of not conforming is the loss of intelligibility itself.’ This sounds a bit like Cixous. Let's challenge those patriarchal structures that render our voices unintelligible. Let's stop blindly accepting the white page offered to us.

On first reading this, I couldn't help excitedly thinking of my feminist awakening while reading Deborah Cameron's Feminism and Linguistic Theory. Cameron referenced a study showing that when women hear “man” or “he” referring to mankind rather than specifically the male of the species, they nevertheless think of a man. This was despite the arguments from grammar purists that grammar is merely abstract, with no link to the reality of social gender (remind you of anyone whose name begins with an L?). It was a shock to me; I had never noticed it, but I realised this was exactly what I did, and that it had led to “lawyer”, “doctor”, “politician”, so often accompanied by the grammatically correct, default genderless “he”, also appearing in my head as a man. My whole mental world was peopled by powerful, successful men – no wonder I felt inadequate.

Butler goes even further in Undoing Gender, writing that “[t]here are advantages to remaining less than intelligible, if intelligibility is understood as that which is produced as a consequence of recognition according to prevailing social norms”. So far, so exciting. Like the French theorists of écriture féminine, who proposed a specifically feminine form of writing, one that expressed the female perspective, Butler says that we don't have to accept male-defined meaning. And if that renders us unintelligible – unable to signify – who cares? We understand ourselves – you can make the effort to get beyond your own myopic perspective.

But having identified this problem of male-defined meaning, Butler goes on to prescribe a rather surprising solution. In Bodies That Matter, Butler says that Lacan has no right to assume ownership over the phallus, and thereby determine its meaning. Instead, she says, we must disrupt, we must queer, his misogynistic claiming of meaning for the male, by insisting on the “transferability of the phallus”. And so, like a genderqueer rabbit out of a hat, the “lesbian phallus” is born. This disrupting birth is, Butler assures us, “compatible with the Lacanian scheme”.

I can see where Butler is coming from with this, but I can't help but feel that it's slightly . . . unambitious. Why, we might ask, is it so important that we cohere with the Lacanian scheme at all? What happened to the radical notion of saying, actually, Freud, no, “people” have not “knocked their heads against the riddle of the nature of femininity”, men have, because they never thought it worth just asking us. We are not “[our]selves the problem”, Freud, the problem is a male-defined and male-constructed schema, that conceives of humanity, sex and gender purely from the perspective of the male sex class, as if the perspective from the bottom simply doesn't exist. I don't want to reappropriate the phallus; I would rather make like Irigaray and pledge allegiance to the “void”, that “gaping emptiness heavier than any matter”. I don't see why I have to accept this schema as so fixed that all I can do is “queer” it; I would rather demolish it.

The immediate argument against that, and one that Butler herself might propose, is that calling for a rejection rather than a reappropriation of the phallus is to essentialise gender roles. Of the French feminists, Butler wrote that their “model of culture” was not that far from the patriarchal one, in that it assumed the “constancy of sexual difference”. What she wanted, was a “femininity” of “multiple possibilities”. This is a cry that has been taken up by a whole army of third-wave feminists, and it is extremely attractive. You do not have to be the fainting, incompetent, violable victim that your culture tells you you are. Just reject it and say you can be as good as any man, you can be as meaningful as any man. You have as much access to this signifying phallus as he does, and what's more, you're de-heterosexing it. Take that, patriarchy.

The problem with this, on the surface, attractive solution, is that it confuses the personal with the public. Just because I personally believe, or even know, that I am a strong, independent woman, who has intellect, who deserves an education, a public voice, who doesn't deserve to be raped, who doesn't deserve to be killed, that personal knowledge doesn't change a global order that says the exact opposite. And this matters, because we are not just dealing with theoretical abstracts here, but a global order in which one out of three women suffer from violence at the hands of men, 85,000 women a year are raped in the UK alone, and two a week die at the hands of their partners. This is not to say Butler does not acknowledge this – of course she does, and she works outside of the academy to combat it. But her theoretical work does not seem to account for the reality of the world in which women operate, and it is a world that does conceive of sex difference as fixed. The fact that most feminists accept that this is a culturally rather than a biologically ordained phenomenon, does not make it any less real for the women who are denied an education, denied a say in the global order, who are raped, who are killed.

Accepting that and constructing a feminist theory that takes account of this reality, is not the same as saying that this reality is fixed. It's saying, this is our reality in the here and now and we have to acknowledge that in order to solve it. Pretending reality is what we would like it to be is not going to change anything. At best, it's going to make one woman feel more powerful. But it will do nothing for women as a class. And feminism worth its salt can't be about making individual women feel better about themselves – feminism cannot be reduced to individual therapy. What feminism needs to be about is altering a social structure that positions women at the very bottom. That is what will enable femininity to signify “multiple possibilities”. To paraphrase the brilliant Audre Lorde, queering the master's tools just isn't going to cut it.

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

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