Cyborg sentiments

Sophie Lewis assesses Xenofeminism and its close comrades, bedfellows and associates

March 27, 2019 · 9 min read
Shusei Nagaoka, Androla in Labyrinth, 1984. [Source]

This article is featured in Red Pepper Issue 223: Feminist Futures.

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The Xenofeminist Manifesto, published in 2015, is nothing if not ambitious: ‘XF aims to completely liberate and deliver humanity to its real sexual and communal desires and objectives.’ I’m not sure whether humanity’s deliverance or liberation has been advanced since 2015. What’s more certain is that the term ‘xenofeminism’ has risen to serious prominence throughout – and beyond – anglophone worlds.

Xenofeminism! It titillates academics, not only in the humanities but in various sciences (both ‘hard’ and ‘social’); it influences non-academics in planning, programming, design and art industries; it even inspires trans-feminist healthcare struggles and shop-floor activists, particularly in fields such as strategic communications. This ability to speak to animation techs, architects and geneticists alike is one of XF’s biggest selling-points. Like the 1984 Manifesto for Cyborgs, whose incantatory language it is rebooting for the 21st century – and whose anti-colonial, non-duallist queer materialism it is, to be frank, over-simplifying – XF has already become the subject of hundreds of plenaries and podcasts. In short, it would seem that the ‘moment’ for xenofeminism has arrived.

Disparate choices

But which xenofeminism? Six quite politically-different women wrote the Xenofeminist Manifesto – a mutating list of affirmations ‘readily shareable in snippet form’ – that appeared online on the dedicated site laboriacuboniks.net. And it has become increasingly clear – in particular with the publication of Helen Hester’s Xenofeminism (Polity 2018) – that there are disparate xenofeminisms to choose from.

Even at the outset, the fictive author Laboria Cuboniks could only strictly be said to speak with one voice insofar as readers couldn’t tell who (Helen Hester, Lucca Fraser, Amy Ireland, Diann Bauer, Katrina Burch or Patricia Reed) was behind any given edits to the ever-shifting versions of the pre-‘stabilised’ manifesto. Clearly, they meant what they said: ‘nothing’ – including the very argument inaugurating xenofeminism – was ‘sacred … nothing is transcendent or protected from the will to know, to tinker and to hack.’

What were the main tinkerings, or revisions, innovated by these six – ‘Haraway’s disobedient daughters’? Ethics and rationalism both feature prominently. While XF’s most obvious precursor, the Sydney-based VNS Matrix collective’s 1991 Cyberfeminist Manifesto, ambiguously announced, ‘We are the modern cunt / positive anti-reason … terminators of the moral codes’, the first sentences of the 2015 document declare XF to be ‘a rationalism par excellence’ and science ‘the only true suspension of inequality’.

There are lots of punchy apothegms in the XFM, and a surprising number of column inches dedicated to disparaging the timid, fearful, melancholic, unambitious existing left, reminiscent of the endless irritating broadsides against ‘folk politics’ in the 2015 manifesto Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Reading the ebullient newness XF announces for itself against the grain, however, another question one can pose is, to the extent that one could pin it down, how original was the Xenofeminist Manifesto? ‘Anti-natural’, ‘techno-materialist’, ‘neo-rationalist’, ‘non-absolute[ly] universalist’: what’s new here, underneath its futuristic sheen?

The answer is, respectably, a bit. In its opening lines, XF defined itself as a feminism dedicated simply to the (150-year-old) techno-optimist ‘idea of using existing and emerging technologies to re-engineer the world’. It followed this up with the hardly unheard-of view that our present historical conjuncture ‘requires a philosophy at ease with computation’. To underscore this aesthetically, most of Laboria Cuboniks’s section headings were verbal imperatives seemingly borrowed from the hacker milieu: Zero, Interrupt, Trap, Parity, Adjust, Carry, Overflow.

Not so much novel, then, as a revival, perhaps, of nineties and noughties gender-utopian internet horizons? The veteran German cyberfeminist Cornelia Sollfrank seemed to think so, when she approvingly called the XFM a ‘renewed exhortation for gendered bodies to merge with technology, rationality and the sciences’.

Dark lineage

Perhaps because they are rationalists, proponents of XF do not advocate for the sort of esoteric, ecstatic and/or nihilist-apolitical methods VNS Matrix called ‘probing the visceral temple’. (A possible exception is the poet Amy Ireland, who gives interviews where she says things like, ‘The cunt is a ditch with an upturned car in it.’) But psychedelic watchwords and cryptic provocations were also big among the accelerationist occultism thriving at Warwick University around Nick Land and Sadie Plant at the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. Helen Hester has been circumspectly critical of The Accelerationist Reader that grew out of this school, calling it ‘somewhat oblivious to much of the feminist work on science and technology that struck me as a key part of its lineage’.

However, the relationship here is complex: Laboria Cuboniks convened in Berlin explicitly because of ‘a shared interest in stripping accelerationism for parts’. Consequently, some critics have expressed concern that XF may still not be exercising sufficient reflexivity about the provenance of its xeno- prefix (which means ‘foreign’, ‘strange’, ‘monstrous’ or ‘alien’). Calling things xeno- this and xeno- that was, after all, the predilection of a ‘cyberpositivist’ research centre that flourished three decades ago under a man nowadays better known as the founder of ‘dark enlightenment’, a eugenicist network, and the figurehead of the avowedly ‘hyper-racist’ movement Neoreaction (NRx).

McKenzie Wark has said: ‘I’m not inclined to read Land, or anyone, through a teleology in which the later positions were always present in embryo.’ Nevertheless, Annie Goh has persuasively argued for a paranoid reading of XF based on this kinship and on the absence of a ‘robust’ theorisation of coloniality and white supremacy within it. Xeno for who? Xeno from whose perspective?

In a political moment when women’s rights are increasingly mobilised by racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetorics, Goh reasons, any uneasy resonances or genealogical points of contact between a feminist text and the delirium or ‘dark enlightenment’ of the far right cannot go uninterrogated. Alternative projects such as Glitch Feminism and Black Quantum Futurism, among others, appear best equipped to lead the way in providing clues as to how to clarify – or create – the non-negotiable anti-fascist valences of the feminist project of xeno-hospitality (the practice of welcoming difference).

The prospects for this are promising in the hands of Helen Hester, whose ‘version of XF’ already vindicates reproductive justice, democratic practices of scientific bricolage and irreverent collective biohacking. Her version is still indebted to Cyberfeminism and the CCRU, but skews anti-racist, ‘gender-abolitionist’ and ‘transfeminist’ in ways they did not. Hers is, in particular, a project interested in resolving the tension between the latter two things, dialectically.

Reduced not renewed

At least one of the ingredients of XF, however, strikes me as reduced, rather than ‘renewed’. The concept of ‘alienation’ touted in the XFM (and, happily, abandoned by Hester in her book), puzzles me, because it just looks like a misunderstanding of the pro‑human post-humanism of the Cyborg Manifesto.

I am aware that my perspective on this, as a former human geographer, is quite specific. Among critical (Marxist, feminist and multi-species) geographers and political ecologists, there has been a conversation about the ‘production of nature’ going on for an awfully long time, where we established long ago the limitations of a simply ‘anti-natural’ critical stance. Having been trained in this tradition, I find it almost impossible to get on board with the ‘politics for alienation’ that XF proposes.

My view is that, when someone like the ecofeminist Maria Mies claims that reproductive technologies alienate us from our bodies (in a bad way), our response as pro-queer left feminists doesn’t have to be ‘Well then, three cheers for alienation!’ Rather, we can eschew the temptation of edgelord-ism and say: no, actually, given the right conditions, technologies help us to collectively remake the nature of our bodies in such a way as to disalienate.

This is closer to what Hester is doing in Xenofeminism when she points out that Mies isn’t anti-alienation so much as she is pro- a different – enchanted – form of alienation for pregnant people. Meanwhile, Alyssa Battistoni contends that this xeno/eco binary is itself false, preferring that we work ‘towards an eco-xeno-feminism (xecofeminism?): an ecofeminism that’s strange, monstrous and alien, that’s against “Nature” in the sense of the given order of things but interested in nature as it actually exists in the world.’

The XF slogans ‘If nature is unjust, change nature!’ and ‘Let a thousand genders bloom!’ are dynamically cyborg sentiments I see as most welcome additions to such a project; likewise, the xenofeminists’ willingness to demand the abolition, not only of race and class, but of the nuclear family.



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