Aspirational Entropy: On Post-Soviet Cyberfeminism & the Geo-political Freeze Frame

Bogna M. Konior

On the Net, night never falls. Words that would once sink without a trace here harden into a film, immortalised in a lifeless glow. —Joanna Bator, Ciemno, Prawie Noc [Dark, Almost Night]1

Whatever remains unchanged is essentially already dead. —Chairman Mao resurrected as a digital immortal in Liu Cixin’s China 21852

A feminist tale in four words: there is a body. A cyberfeminist tale in four words: your software bleeds, hard. Feminism enters the cyberspace, shouting: is anybody there? What’s in a word? ‘Feminism’ can be patriarchy’s negative space or it can be a primordial generative swamp, a qualifying undercurrent of known history or a way of fortifying the seemingly insignificant cracks in its bust. Whichever way Ariadne’s thread falls and whether the half-man, half-beast is waiting at its end, feminism would tell us, “watch her fingers.” Watch not the thread itself but the way in which the thread is a prosthetic extension of her body. This is her weapon in the labyrinth of networks, mythical or existent.

Cyberfeminism cannot be easily separated from ‘cyberspace,’ a poor descriptor of the internet even at its inception when the borders of the labyrinth seemed easier to discern. When William Gibson coined the term in his short story ‘Burning Chrome’ (1982), it described a dimension parallel to the physical, a disembodied territory that stored riches of data, which could be accessed by catching a ride on a neural connection, enabled by the latest high-tech device.3 Cyberspace is an aesthetic term essential to cyberpunk, one of the (last) great ‘western’ literary genres, before the region began its symbolic, eschatological descent. The space of cyberpunk is not unlike the space of the western: it imagines how civilisation draws demarcation lines between itself and the wilderness, or simply, the unknown, which is simultaneously a dangerous, fetishised ‘dark land’ and an exciting territory of adventure to be mapped.4 Such mapping, whether of colonial lands or as a literary trope that grappled with the spatiality of the ‘invisible’ world wide web, invited critical diagnoses of this strive towards certainty, mastery, or individuality as an anxiety disorder, where the paranoid prophecies of the coming siege of otherness justified preemptive strikes.

If a corresponding feminist intervention into these discursive battles could be distilled, its essence would be the dictum that the erasure of the feminine is conducted through sketching the body as such a dark land. The conceptual mind, the argument goes, has to define itself as disembodied because materiality is where the feminine is regent, most frightfully in the instance of brewing or annihilating life inside a body.5 Cyberfeminism, understood at this moment as an Anglophone voice in this discussion, was defined through its negation of the dematerialised ideal of the cyberspace. In the 1990s, VNS Matrix in Australia proclaimed that “the clitoris is a direct line to the matrix” and Sadie Plant in Britain conjured a hyperstitional reality in which the history of women and/as technology, from weaving to simulation, mapped onto the rise of intelligent, self-organising systems.6 Plant argued that patriarchy unwittingly fell into the trap of new technologies, which will have eventually overturned the delusion that the world was doing anything but accelerating into an ever more-rounded feminisation. Patriarchy uses women as its “media, means of communication, reproduction and exchange” but as the media multiply, women multiply, “becoming increasingly interlinked” - both networked technologies and femininity, which are for Plant equivalent, need “no centralized organization and evade structures of command and control.”7

In these narratives, whether as a challenge to patriarchy or independent from it, the threat of feminism arrives through touch, slime, blood or other sensual and organic matter interwoven into seemingly abstract, immaterial tech. This is visible not only in cyberfeminist rhetoric but also in what we could see as its legacy: contemporary analyses of networked technologies that pay attention to their material constitution and effects. Franco Berardi writes that the digital automaton involves primarily the nervous systems and the brain, while Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska have done much work to sketch the interaction between technology and biology as a feminist inquiry.8 Kember writes: “it is with the relation between the biological and computer sciences that I make my case for the reinvention of cyberfeminism.”9 Some years before, Katherine Hayles called for practices of re-embodiment as a way of responding to life forms emergent in new technologies, and the ‘new materialist’ framework, often in dialogue with the natural sciences, reinvents feminist studies of discourse beyond language.10 Is there any space, then, for disembodiment in cyberfeminism? Perhaps, on another side of the internet.

During the presidential election of 2001, a decade after Poland became independent from the USSR, the cyberactivist collective CUKT (Central Bureau of Technical Culture) wrote a “civic electoral software,” which included a presidential candidate called Wiktoria Cukt, a female-presenting, ginger-haired avatar, resembling a glam classical Hollywood actress, wearing an elegant coiffure and a string of pearls.11 The opening of each new electoral headquarters was a mixed media warehouse rave with Wiktoria’s animated physique projected onto the walls. Anyone could submit the postulates they wished for her to represent via an online database. Everything that happened was filmed, digitised and circulated online, while at the same time the collective bought airtime on tv and ran a multi-poster campaign in major Polish cities. Programmed as an amalgamation of her society’s beliefs, she was a cybernetic phantom, an unedited summation of political desires and grievances.

On the surface, Wiktoria fits the rhetoric of the late 90s, when the idea of collective anonymity afforded by the cyberspace was at the height of its popularity in the ‘western’ progressive imagination, to which newly democratic Poland was eager to claim its belonging.12 Wiktoria informs that “her [political] program is a computer program” - the idea of cybernetic media as a promising platform for direct democracy was its crucial component. Exemplifying MacKenzie Wark’s description of the vectorialist class as the ascendant type of bourgeoisie defined by its jurisdiction over information, for Wiktoria, politics is the ability to control information: “unrestrained information can be lethal,” she warns (or promises).13 She was but another face of the simulacrum that breeds in all politics - “whomever we choose,” her makers said, “we will be choosing a Wiktoria Cukt.” She was a trojan horse, a virus that, if installed by popular vote, was to expose the absurdity of non-cybernetic elections or perhaps of human democracy at large.

However, the project escapes usual feminist rhetoric, where the supposed ethical superiority of women over narrow-minded patriarchs manifests in a vocabulary of porous bodies, relational ethics, affective networks of care and posthuman becomings. To the contrary, in her platform statement, Wiktoria defines her politics as based in “the aggregated output of humans and machines,” and describes herself as the avatar of “objectivity, professionalism, standardisation, measurement, progress;” in other words, she embodies every nightmare of post-1968 continental theory which, most visibly following from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, favoured subversion, play, experimentation, rhizomatic rather than arboreal assemblages, creativity and the multiplicity of schizophrenia over the neurosis of the managerial “I.”14 Rather than embracing ideals prevailing on the other side of the Cold War, such as decentralisation, horizontality, and locality, Wiktoria claimed that all social relations should be ‘technical’ (controlled by experts), economic (“the only criterium of the cybermarket is speed and reach”), efficient, and massified (“technical culture is mass culture’). It could be tempting to use such divergences from the Anglophone cyberfeminist canon to point out that its attacks on the faux universality of disembodied, patriarchal, managerial cyberspace are equally universalist. We have but to say, ‘Aha! What you perceived as an attack on universality is tainted with the same universalist arrogance! Polish cyberfeminism is different. Measurement and progress are the name of the game. Promoting decentralisation is just western imperialism!’ But it seems to me that the momentum of such unmaskings had already been [exhausted and not even the original cast of Scooby Doo, the proponents of great reveals, would be impressed by such disclosures.

Even if we wanted to follow down this path, is a ‘female’ avatar enough to turn Wiktoria Cukt into an alternative cyberfeminist trajectory? Only the most shallow focus on cultural representation could produce an affirmative answer. Here is one common answer to this question: Wiktoria is no more ‘feminist’ than Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri. In dialogue with the work of Nina Power, Helen Hester describes how the history of automation is intimately tied to gendered roles: starting in the 1950s, machines were advertised as ‘better than human’ at typically female, secretarial jobs.15 During World War II, women’s voices were used in airplane cockpits because women were not around in these spaces, therefore the sound of a female voice was more distinct. Women’s technologised, disembodied presence often corresponds to the absence of women in public spaces, such as the space of politics in Poland in 2001. The proposition of a virtual female president was an exciting science-fiction precisely because such a possibility in ‘real life’ was unlikely or even actively eroded. Hester notes that labor performed by women is treated dismissively until the same work is performed by a machine, at which moment it becomes the symbol of the human mastery of sophisticated tasks through a technical tool. Popular culture produced countless images of nagging wives and moms urging people to clean their rooms but when Siri issues the same order, she is applauded and celebrated as a sign of progress. The status of work changes dramatically “if it [becomes] associated with culturally valued objects rather than with socially disparaged subjects.” The same goes for political labor: a female-presenting bot, controlled and distinct from the frightening things that usually go on in bodies, is the sign of technical advancement but an actual female politician (or citizen) is another story.

This persists in the present. Most notably, Sophia, the robot produced by Hanson Robotics was recently granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia, and as such was the only ‘female-presenting’ citizen attending a business and technology summit in Riyadh in 2017. Following from this logic, the answer to my original question would be ‘no’: a female avatar or any female ‘representation’ is not enough to be a feminist case although it is always a case for feminism. From there, the whole matter could be dismissed quite easily, lest we only point out that Wiktoria was brought to life by a predominately ‘male’ collective. This ‘big reveal’ is where the essay could end. I could proclaim that Wiktoria’s makers could not help but project the disembodied, managerial ideals onto the ephemeral body of a science-fictional presidential female candidate. And yet, Plant would tell us that this judgement is too quick and instruct us to remember that patriarchy cannot help but feminise itself through networked technologies. Following from there, Amy Ireland writes:

When artificial intelligence appears in culture coded as masculine, it is immediately grasped as a threat. To appear first as female is a far more cunning tactic. Woman: the inert tool of Man, the intermediary, the mirror, the veil, or the screen. Absolutely ubiquitous and totally invisible. Just another passive component in the universal reproduction of the same. Man is vulnerable in a way that “he” cannot see—and since what he cannot see provides the conditions by which he sees himself, he has to lose himself in order to gain sight of the thing that threatens this self. Thus he is in a double bind: either way, the thing he cannot see will destroy him.16

Both for Plant and Ireland, the spectacular, fetishised, objectified condition of women is not to be fought off. In the long run, it is precisely this ostensible ‘safety’ of the woman-object, the passivity of her fetishised body produced in culture as an empty image that allows for its mass replication. For Plant, cyberfeminism comes from the future - the present is only its retroactive effect and the multiplication of the seemingly feeble woman-image throughout history is equal to the establishment of camps and the installation of spies for the progressive complexification of intelligent networks. It is a long game that we are playing.

From this standpoint, Wiktoria is a feminist case, unbeknownst to her makers. Perhaps the image of the woman is what will allow women an exodus from representation altogether? Wiktoria might be a patriarchal fetish, buried somewhere in the archive of the web, an easy object of disdain. This image of a woman where there were no women marked the visible exclusion of female politicians from the public/cyber space in Poland in 2001, their missing bodies masked by the presence of Wiktoria’s image. And yet, Wiktoria Cukt, the ‘problematic’ cyberfeminist icon produced by patriarchal-managerial logic, could be used as an intelligent distraction, a tool in what we could call, after Hito Steyerl, the politics of spam. For Steyler, in today’s image economy, we are “represented to pieces.”17 Instead of fighting for more authentic representations, we could use existing images as a cover or a form of camouflage, a way of deflecting the appetite of omnivorous representational apparatuses. Wiktoria and other fetishised feminoids captured in a net of feeble representations, trapped in a world without bodies, could be reinvented as a spam army, absolving us from our own participation in the spectacular, “doing,” as Dominic Pettman puts it, “the thankless work of the Spectacle for us.”18 Cyberfeminism could adopt these stray images, proto-fembots coded into the annals of the cyberspace, knowing that in the long run, over our cities grass will grow: what has been constructed as a (cyber)space of mastery will be slowly but surely overtaken by its lowest, most plentiful and overlooked species. The avatars are multiplying, exaggerating themselves in their femininity, waiting for the right moment. These politics will play out somewhere else.

The plot thickens. If this abstracted, bodiless woman-thing cannot be easily judged by the gender of its avatar nor by the gender of its makers, cyberfeminism, which I described as a response to a genre concerned with territories, must also interrogate Wiktoria Cukt as a form of geopolitical modelling. The post-USSR constitutes a stereotypical ‘dark land’ in the (post)colonial academe, which ascended through the glorification of western European colonial exploits and maintains the spotlight by reversing thus established channels of intellectualism and opening up to the ex-colonies undoing colonial thought. Poland falls on neither side of the “west and the rest” or “colonies and the colonisers” divide. The question famously asked by David Chioni Moore - “is the ‘post’ in post-colonial the same as the ‘post’ in post-Soviet?” is a question for cultural and political theorists.19 For cyberfeminism, the question would rather be, how are bodies placed in this post-Soviet cyberspace?

In 2014, writes art historian Wang Xin, when the world was celebrating the internet’s quarter centennial, “the fact that the World Wide Web has never been worldwide...was scarcely acknowledged of explored.”20 Instead of “rigorous specificity,” however, the predominant reaction to this failure is too often “reduced to postcolonial thought and American racial dynamics, both widely mistaken as universal,” and the simultaneous obligation to “translation,” where the “‘other’ has indeed gained a voice, but only to continuously explain, qualify, and make sense of itself.” The ‘post-Soviet’ could very well be such a self-orientalising conceptual ornament, fetishised through its perceived ‘otherness,’ and paraded as another foundation for shallow cultural identity politics, nostalgic ethno-nationalism, or other paralyses of political imagination. But Wang argues that this failure to grapple with any other internet but the ‘western’ one is rooted in the illusion of instant and simultaneous access, which masks the fundamental nature of the cyberspace: “time functions differently -radically so- across the web.” Chinese language, she gives an example, exhibits a varied range of linguistic temporalities online, which means that the seemingly flat terrain of the internet is, in fact, a complex, unevenly layered geography, where “semiotic breakage is [guaranteed] at every interpretative turn.”

Such breakages are not simply the result of different national cultures or diverse cultural contexts but rather of the specificity of historical (=temporal) geopolitics. Sure, I could claim Polish cyberfeminism as an identity category but, luckily, I could not do the same with a post-Soviet one - the post-Soviet is a process, not an adjective. Both in the post-colonial and the post-Soviet, the ‘post’ is aspirational, albeit the post-Soviet reckons with the factual dissociation of a political and economic form, while colonialism suffered less damage and largely prevails. Rather than stating that there is Polish cyberfeminism, I want to inhabit the ‘post’ not as a chronological marker but as an aspiration towards entropy -the ‘post’ is an endless fall, a wish towards dissolution. If cyberfeminism brings bodies into the cyberspace, post-Soviet cyberfeminism must be an axiom of bodies endlessly falling through this space, stuck in a looped temporality of geopolitical entropy. If ‘identity’ happens here, it is an identity that is buffering, pending, stuck somewhere at the event horizon, surrounded by the mute images of Wiktoria Cukt and other feminised spam, planted there for a yet unforeseen reason: a politics yet to happen.

Perhaps this endless falling in the aftermath of political dissolution reverberates across post-socialist and post-colonial conditions, thus sketching their respective cyberspaces alongside the vectors of such wishful entropy? Chinese science-fiction writer Liu Cixin’s debut novella portrayed a cyberspace where past historical icons were revived, leading a completely computerised existence. As a female leader points out to digital Mao, “to live is to change, to live forever is to change forever” - she notes that the coveted digital immortality is also a freeze frame, immortality is death. In the final book of his famous Three Body trilogy, Liu describes a similar situation, when a wife of a scientist who fell into a small black hole battles the insurance company over her husband’s life insurance. The task proves impossible because the man keeps falling:

Scientists observed the black hole via remote-controlled microscopes, and discovered that at the black hole’s event horizon—that’s the surface of that tiny sphere with a diameter of twenty-one nanometers—there was the figure of a person. It was 高 Way passing through the event horizon. Under general relativity, a distant observer would see a clock near the event horizon slow down, and the process of 高 Way falling toward the event horizon would also slow down and stretch into infinity. But within 高 Way’s own frame of reference, he had already passed through the event horizon. Even more oddly, the figure’s proportions were normal. He had been compressed into the nanometer range, but space there was also extremely curved. More than one physicist believed that the body structure of 高 Way wasn’t harmed at the event horizon. In other words, he’s probably still alive at this moment. And thus the life insurance company refused to pay out, although 高 Way had passed through the event horizon in his frame of reference, and should now be dead. But the insurance contract was made within the frame of reference of our world, and from this perspective, it is impossible to prove that 高 Way is dead. It’s not even possible to begin the settlement process.21

Cyberfeminism is a historically specific discourse and cannot be thought in separation from the cyberspace, a concept that does not map perfectly onto how we currently understand networked society. It gives us little in terms of coherent politics but can be an instructive tool in interrogating how rhetorics of materiality, the body and the feminine function within an aesthetic idea of ‘the cyberspace,’ and what kinds of geopolitical configurations emerge. This inquiry is rife with traps and could easily produce ornamental identity politics, where each nation can claim its specific approach to the problem. Unlike the canon of cyberfeminism, the post-Soviet or post-socialist cyberspaces are not conquered through bodily plasticity or unrestrained materiality. The legacy I engage here has little of the playful détournement of VNS Matrix or the prophetic feminisation of tactile, decentralised technologies in Plant’s oeuvre. There is rather the sensation that it’s not even possible to begin the settlement process. Night never falls or falls forever, just like light trapped inside a black hole. At the moment when cultural analysis produces endlessly customised aesthetics as a substitute for politics, the free-fall or the freeze-frame of post-Soviet cyberspace could be a template for where representational politics came to die. Instead of emancipatory representation, here is the forever unfolding graveyard of patriarchal spam.

  1. Bator, Joanna. Ciemno, prawie noc. Wydawnictwo W.A.B. 2012, 83. My translation. 

  2. Liu’s debut story, published in 1989, has not yet been translated into English. I cite here after a short translated paragraph in Wang, Xin. "Asian futurism and the non-other." e-flux, vol.81, (2017). 

  3. Gibson, William. Burning chrome. Hachette UK, 2017. Reissue. 

  4. Spatiality, and the cybernetic ‘frontier,’ is one of the most written-about subjects in cyberpunk studies, for example, Bukatman, Scott. "The Cybernetic (City) State: Terminal Space Becomes Phenomenal." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 2.2 (6 (1989): 42-63; Yen, Alfred C. "Western frontier or feudal society: Metaphors and perceptions of cyberspace." Berkeley Tech, LJ 17, 2002; Sardar, Ziauddin. "alt. civilizations. faq cyberspace as the darker side of the West." Futures 27.7 (1995): 777-794. 

  5. For example, Spelman, Elizabeth V. "Woman as body: Ancient and contemporary views." Feminist theory and the body. Routledge, 2017, 32-41. 

  6. V. N. S. Matrix, "Cyberfeminist manifesto for the 21st century." Sterneck.net (1991); Plant, Sadie. Zeros+ones: Digital women+the new technoculture. Fourth Estate, 1997. 

  7. Plant, Sadie. "On the matrix: Cyberfeminist simulations." The cybercultures reader (2000): 327-328. 

  8. Berardi, Franco. The soul at work: From alienation to autonomy. Semiotext(e), 2009; Kember, Sarah, and Joanna Zylinska. Life after new media: Mediation as a vital process. M.I.T. Press, 2012. 

  9. Kember, Sarah. "Reinventing cyberfeminism: cyberfeminism and the new biology." Economy and society 31.4 (2002): 630. 

  10. Hayles, N. Katherine. "Narratives of evolution and the evolution of narratives." Cooperation and conflict in general evolutionary processes (1994): 113-132; Coole, Diana, and Samantha Frost. "Introducing the new materialisms." New materialisms: Ontology, agency, and politics (2010): 1-43. 

  11. This and subsequent citations translated by me from Wiktoria Cukt’s political program as depicted in the archival video, which can be accessed here: https://artmuseum.pl/pl/filmoteka/praca/c-u-k-t-wyrzykowski-piotr-wiktoria-cukt 

  12. I trace the evolution of this idea in more detail in a forthcoming publication, Konior, Bogna M. “Apocalyptic Memes for the Anthropocene God: Mediating Crisis and the Memetic Body Politic.” Post-memes: Seizing the memes of production, Punctum Press, forthcoming 2019. 

  13. Wark, MacKenzie. A hacker manifesto. Harvard University Press, 2004. 

  14. Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014. Translated by Brian Massumi. Reissue. 

  15. Hester, Helen. "Technically Female: Women, Machines, and Hyperemployment." Salvage, 2016. http://salvage.zone/in-print/technically-female-women-machines-and-hyperemployment

  16. Ireland, Amy. “Black circuit: Code for numbers to come.” e-flux, vol. 80, 2017. 

  17. Steyerl, Hito. "The spam of the earth: Withdrawal from representation." e-flux, vol. 32.2 (2012): 1-9. 

  18. Pettman, Dominic. Infinite distraction. Polity Press, 2015, 201. 

  19. Moore, David Chioni. "Is the post-in postcolonial the post-in post-Soviet? Toward a global postcolonial critique." Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (2001): 111-128. 

  20. Wang, ibid. 

  21. Liu, Cixin. Death’s end. Head of Zeus, 2016, 947-948. Translated by Ken Liu. 

Bogna M. Konior is a Lecturer in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam and soon to be a Postdoctoral Fellow in Interactive Media at NYU Shanghai. She was previously a Research Fellow at the International Research Institute for Cultural Techniques and Media Philosophy at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar. She is the editor of Oraxiom: A Journal of Non-Philosophy. Her work can be found here.