Gender in, gender into, the gender of cyberspace – these are areas of some anxiety for women, considering the period in which we live. A major technologically driven, global reorganization of work and of the infrastructure is underway. What was once and largely still is a male-oriented domain of technology and the computer has generated a virtual realm, aka cyberspace, in which socio-economic activity and communications increasingly take place. Considering the actual distribution of practical and theoretical knowledge about science and technology by gender, it is no wonder that androcentric values dominate electronic culture. What will become of us as women and our limited successes in real space once the domains in which we have made our mark are dematerialized and put on the Net or in the Web? Is cyberspace genderless? When females are virtual, is feminism moot?

Information is the naked instrumentality of cyberspace, a commodity language stripped of its relation to a social and historical context and to the subjects who enunciate it. One might imagine a blank slate, unmarked and unconstrained by appearances on which to inscribe fresh aspirations. However, cyberspace is more like Freud's metaphor of the mystic writing pad: lift the sticky plastic page off the surface and all the delicate over-writing of the last quarter-century is whisked away. On the other hand, put the page back down on the sticky matrix and the lines of the "frontier" and "colonization" engraved deeply long ago map themselves unapologetically onto new cyberskin. (1) In a vacuum freed of mediating traditions and the ameliorating accretions of culture, old myths about technology and gender prevail: technology is posed against "the human body – comparatively unadaptable, vulnerable, mortal that is felt to be the ultimate obstacle to the perfection of the machine environment." (2) Cynthia Cockburn notes in "The Circuit of Technology: Gender, Identity and Power," that the masculine identification of and with technology has survived the muscular period of the "heroic age of mechanization," and appropriated information technology, and one might add, fine motor movements for itself. Western femininity and its "constitution of identities organized around technological incompetence" have apparently survived fairly intact into the present as well. (3)

In contrast, in "Mysteries of the Bioapparatus," Neil Tenhaaf offers the provocative notion that cyberspace represents the femininization of the symbolic system. (4) If this is an invitation to join in a discursive struggle to define cyberspace, I gladly accept. My recent writing, "What Do Cyborgs Eat?" sought to debunk these disempowering assumptions, proposing the vision of a technology that is abject and mortal. (5)  However, define cyberspace as I will, fashioning an inclusive and compassionate electronic culture out of the raw stuff of bits and bytes demands more than critique or what amounts to symbolically turning the table on masculine prerogatives. Even though we may have difficulty in setting the clock on our VCRs, the times demand that we re-engage information with our own values, in a practice that challenges emerging rules of ownership and exchange that exclude so many of us. However, when it comes to "hands-on" technology, why is volitional action or what amounts to willing myself into technological competence so much easier said than done?


The first challenge to shaping and taming this emerging world is the will itself and the human problem of unwill, especially in relation to femininity. I want to first discuss the somewhat embarrassing problem of technological ineptitude (not to be confused with technophobia) as it afflicts me and perhaps other klutzy women deeply involved in a critique of technological discourse to be accomplished by means of and even in the very medium we critique (yes, a double-bind).

Consider that my imperfect feminine identity, a construction of codes by trial and error, has been more virtual than unconscious or biologically determined all along. Beauty culture – the femininity you can buy – never provided enough coverage: I never felt feminine enough. Furthermore, since I've never been sure what it means to be a woman, I've had to rely on other people to tell me, "you can't do that." For example, after reading the literature distributed at a junior high career day in 1957, I decided to become a dentist. The reaction I received led me to the conclusion that femininity didn't include dentistry. The larger problem was that, in essence, none of the literature there was actually addressed to me.

At about that age, math phobia and technical ineptitude are culturally implanted in numerous American female adolescents. I think of the implant as a painful internal prosthesis, a glass ceiling within that subconsciously restricts the body from entering paths of desire that are tacitly forbidden. Of course, there are exceptions, women who are mechanics, experts in high mathematics and artists quite at home with machines of all kinds. Further, the "femininity" in question is culturally circumscribed: it is Western and probably heterosexual, as well as racially inflected with "whiteness" and by ethnic assumptions about whose job it is to mediate between the family and the world. My travels in Eastern Europe before the end of the Cold War revealed women as crane operators, mathematicians and engineers untransformed by beauty culture: these women questioned a lot of things, but never their femininity. In spite of recognizing and experiencing all this relativity, and try as I will, I remain divided, will against unwill, in awkward attempts toward technological competence in spite of something foreign in myself (that is, my specific kind of femininity implant) that deflects me from my resolute path.

Michel Foucault viewed power as the "infinitesimal mechanisms" that operate on the body of the individual, deploying subjectivity in this way and not that.(6) Then, will and unwill might be thought of as the internalized experiences of the minute and trivial that produce or don't produce homo faber. When it comes to my body in technological performances, unwill enters the page from the matrix below, like faulty instructions or an old program that has never been erased, causing slip-ups and occasional crashes. Unwill or the part of us that slips or forgets is also the part of us that is slothful, that loses motivation or a sense of purpose, in nuce, that resistance of the flesh to being harnessed or programmed by this or that ideology. Unwill is thus a hazy mixture of vegetative corporeality and an ineptitude that amounts to culturally inscribed hysteria. As a woman in a male-oriented technological world that devalues the flesh, my struggle is thus against myself embodied as a woman – albeit a culturally constructed one. My unwill is then to some extent or other my femininity and my female flesh itself. Such unwill is not amenable to talking cures; even once instructions are recognized and lifted off the page, deep gouges in the matrix remain. How then do I get my disciplined and punished body to co-operate with my feminist (as opposed to feminine) ideals?

Recently I braved the throngs of screaming kids at the San Francisco Exploratorium to try out an intermix of Web sites and installations. At a computer terminal linked to a virtual city, I got caught in an endless loop. Suddenly I noticed a little hand under mine, clicking the mouse. Someone was tucked onto my seat and giving me little pushes. Luckily for my self-esteem, the program wasn't working and the little guy now in charge of the computer was caught in a loop too. Yet, it was clear that something about our culture says to him, this is your place: claim it.

There have been few moments when I have felt this invitation to be addressed to me. One such epiphany, as ridiculous as it might seem, was viewing the opening screen of Christine Tamblyn's CD-ROM, Mistaken Identities (1995), namely, an image digitized from a woman's nightgown. The pink screen with tiny rosebuds on the monitor transformed the slick beige machine into something excessively feminine. I was surprised at my own reaction; I let out a deep breath and felt released and at ease.(7)


What is cyberspace? My operating premise is that virtual communities and/or environments such as may be found on the Internet or in particular computer-supported worlds allow us to enter and move around inside in what amounts to our own symbolic system. In a three dimensional pictorial and/or aural virtual world one is literally, albeit virtually, inside the visualization of a symbolic field; in language generated worlds, this "insidedness" must be understood more figuratively. In either case, the point of view from inside can be revelatory.

Take, for instance, gender identity in a text-based virtual realm online such as an MUD or multi-user dungeon. Unlike situations determined by one's biological gender assignment and physical appearance, it is possible to become a member of any sex or species and to change oneself at will, creating personas and "rooms" which can express themselves to others. Such mutability would tend to underline the arbitrariness of gender and reveal its symbolic as opposed to its biological function. Oddly enough, however, judging from the experiences of my students in surfing the Net, virtual worlds do not necessarily or even commonly reveal interactions that transcend gender or cross culture. "Virtual females" told me how often they were hit upon (confronted in a sexually charged manner with demands or expectations to put out or perform sexually, albeit virtually). Why? Because the values encoded in the symbolic system prevail in the minds of the users. In physical reality, it's not so easy to become He-Man or Barbie, character dolls that are the crystallization of notions of masculinity and femininity; however, in a virtual world, stereotypical ideas about gender and sexuality can be simply brought to bear without the inevitable contingencies and imperfections that plague the act of physically embodying a gender identity. (Here the role of the body in moderating or impeding technology can be seen in a more positive light.) Even when male users are capable of successfully posing as women in virtual communities, a kind of gender polarization rather than a transcendence of gender takes place. Such interactions are caught with a vengeance in the very same dualisms that structure our language and relations to material reality, wasting the potential for insight that virtual play with symbolic forms could give us as a culture.


Some speculate that, like technology, cyberspace itself – what I think of as an externalization of symbolic code is masculine. (8) Such a perspective seems to be from outside and to emphasize control of the virtual environment. Others, including cultural theorists who share a Kleinian psychoanalytic framework, think of it as feminine (especially, when considering the inside, an area enveloped like a fetus in a woman's body). Then, perhaps cyberspace is hermaphroditic, divided by gender inside and outside. The interiority of cyberspace, like the interior of a cave, is like being enclosed inside the womb. Furthermore, the interfaces of cybernetic space have been imagined as a seductive and dangerous garment. The fantasy of putting on such a second, virtual skin is said to express a longing "to become woman." (9) Perhaps this desire to put on the other (from a male point of view) explains the commonplace of men's fiction as female personas on the Net. Furthermore, its gender might depend on what it means to put on the other. My own experience of putting on the interface of virtual reality – the gloves and the head-mounted display – was like putting on a technological empowerment which, like the freedom of flight, allowed me to enter a masculine world otherwise foreclosed to me, even in my dreams. I was both psychically outside and in control and deliciously inside careening around in its illusory depths.(10)

However, this play with gender tends to be predictable, depending as it does on stereotypical notions of sexual identity. For instance, Sarah Kozol, a dancer who participated in Paul Sermon's Telematic Dreaming (1992 and 1994), a piece which electronically united two distant beds into one on screen, stressed how often the behavior of her bed partners was part of well-worn scenarios connected with the bed as a symbolic space. Poetic innovation did take place, albeit rarely, and Kozol apparently revelled in the expansion and contraction of her body boundaries as she identified with the body in the screen image. The virtual body was composed of her own physical body partially hidden by a bluescreen sheet and electronically mixed with one or more physically distant participants into one monstrous combination that was none the less her body. Experiencing a vicious attack on her virtual body underlined the way in which virtual and material bodies were intertwined." Thus, the assumption that the virtual is a separate realm of free play without actual consequences is misguided.

In my own experience, the virtual and the material are intertwined and superimposed on every aspect of cyberspace. In a recent talk, I described how I experienced an asthmatic panic much like I might under water while immersed in the multi-dimensional worlds of Char Davies, Osmose (1995). Unfortunately for me, the metaphor for the interface of the piece was one of diving under water; breathing in allowed one to ascend, breathing out to descend. One of the worlds consisted of machine code that scrolled upward relentlessly as I tried fruitlessly to escape it; other worlds were "under water." While I remained fully aware of the absurdity of the situation, I was having trouble breathing none the less. My unwill could be recognized but not negotiated; while this unwill has part of its roots in internalized, arbitrary, now even historical gender codes, it is also imbricated somatically with the body itself with needs other than ideological. Even the ability to breathe has psychic as well as avular components.


However willing or unwilling, the fundamental question before women is one of praxis: What is the contemporary situation for volitional action and intervention? I believe that the times are unusually propitious for speech-acts or performatives that constitute new realities, actual and virtual. On one hand, emerging notions and interpretations of reality are still quite soft, not yet hardened into their own rules of what kinds of statements can be made and who can make them. On the other, common sense has been undermined by implausible technological feats. This window of opportunity for volitional action is especially furthered by the spontaneous growth of a virtual public sphere on the Internet. However, access to this sphere is technologically circumscribed – you need to have knowledge and equipment to get in – and now that sphere itself is economically and legislatively threatened. In the meantime, social policy discourses have taken a hostile turn, sidetracked into making the beneficiaries of the safety net, from welfare mothers to school lunch programs, into the scapegoats for the deficiencies and failures of our society per se. Issues of civil rights and social justice for minorities and women in an information society have been deflected into a debate about affirmative action. Drifting amidst uncertainties, it seems that when we lost our enemy, "communism," internal others took on new importance, bearing the burden and the blame for vast socio-cultural changes and a restructuring of the nature of work.

Lack of access to the technology of information society threatens to screen out vast parts of the world population behind a curtain of silicon, producing socio-economic disparities that are even more acute. After all, a network is defined as much by its holes or what it leaves out as by its links. To be left out is not merely privation – to some, freedom from constant technological innovation would be a welcome condition – but rather, to become part of a shadow world influenced by but having little influence on the flow of value and the exercise of power.

I recently spoke idealistically on the need to think of the holes in the net in relation to art:

Art should not be ghettoized into the electronic and/or virtual environment versus the rest, but thought of as linked by metaphors across different degrees of materiality. That also means that an artist in Russia or Africa could participate beyond her or his material and technological means in what must be made a truly global dialogue with local positions. Then, for me, cyberspace is the manifestation of what some call the data sphere in perceptible – and that means largely metaphoric – forms. Relations to cyberspace as nightmare and/or utopia are understandably related to one's position in this economy and the mode of access to it, if any – the data entry worker is different from the programmer, the cultural entitlement of a little girl to cyberplay is not the same as a little boy's. The subsistence farmer's life, if not status, could not be more different than the fast food worker's, but they will be nonetheless ultimately related in a global system of integration and exclusion, like the strands and negative space of a net. (12)

So, when I was invited to compose a workshop panel for the International Symposium of Electronic Arts or ISEA 1995, convening in Helsinki, I tried to think of a productive way to follow my own prescription and produce a range of responses to a unifying metaphor, the cave. I was particularly keen to include a Hungarian-Romanian artist from Transylvania, Alexandru Antik, or as I later discovered, Sandor Antik, after seeing the cave Iike Imagination Held Prisoner/Prisoner of the Imagination at the first exhibition of electronic art in Bucharest in 1993. (13) His installation was a dark room, littered with the empty boxes in which film projectors that served now defunct provincial cinemas were once housed. Flickering light, the projections of the slides of dead embryos and the video buzz of a trapped fly suggested a psychically devastated world in which the imagination had been nearly extinguished. Antik and the other participants in the exhibition had been given access and instruction in video for this occasion, though it was not clear how or if such access would continue beyond the show. For the Cave Panel, I matched Antik's presentation of a ritual that he had performed in a cellar in Cluj, with Jeffrey Shawls EVE, an extremely high-tech apparatus for displaying virtual images. (14)  Fran Dyson described the philosophy of the sound cave, while I introduced a wide range of recent pieces of electronic art on themes ranging from the prehistoric era and the cave of Hebron to virtual reality. Disparate themes and technologies resonated lyrically together in these evocative presentations. The limitations and infelicities of my plan only became clear to me later. Paradoxically, my strategy of inclusion had isolated the representative of the art and cave without technology, Antik, into a singular and exceptional position in a technologically rich gathering with which he had no language in common. Had I applied my own knowledge of what it feels like to be a woman in a male-oriented domain, I might have realized that the real problem incuration is not as I had framed it, in anyone event, but in the creation of a domain.

That wasn't all: a woman in the audience for the panel asked, Why haven't you talked about the cave in relation to the female body? I suddenly realized I had left out a rich range of associations that included goddess worship and fertility figures in an unthinking act of self-censorship. I admitted in response that I was afraid, though I didn't realize at the time that it was a fear of being accused of falling into biological essentialism. (15) Accepting the idea that "woman" is a culturally constructed category had evidently entailed corollaries in my mind that were far more questionable. They included an unresolved relation to the will – in line with the notion that "we are spoken" – and, sorriest of all, a difficulty or inner reserve about addressing and celebrating acts performed by women that change lives. In other words, I had confused the level of my post-structuralist convictions about the culturally constructedness of femininity with the actuality of women as subjects and agents, engendering worlds.

There are numerous organizations that promote female-oriented domains in cyberspace – WIM (Women in Multi-media), Women's Wire and WIT (Women in Technology) – and I have had contact with a few. However, there is a little known category of activist women in the arts about whom I have longed to write. I have come into contact with women curators in the last decade who do indeed generate domains that make the appearance of technologically-based art possible under the most unpromising of conditions. Their work often involves considerable personal sacrifice and seems to be sustained by a belief that the redeeming power of artistic expression should be made available to those who are excluded from the mainstream of information society. Their labors have a limited visibility, since they are collaborative and especially when there is no ongoing institutional relationship to support them. The common denominator of all of these women is that they did not occupy a niche or serve a pre-existing group, but crossed cultural boundaries and oppositions to create new domains that include technological have-nots. Their work has a feminine flavor – a cave building and garment fashioning that envelops or wraps a domain of technology and artistic creation. Among these practitioners I would include:

I would also include women who have links to the corporate world, considering that the very condition of possibility of some technological art forms may depend on not being free of commercial contexts.

My admiration of women in adventures of art and technology is less for their adventures than for their practice and what I and others can learn from it. Just so, my own stories of awkwardness and of self-inflicted limits in praxis are also stories of self-discovery. However discouraging the snafus or exhilarating the successes, it is in setting precepts and ideas into praxis that I am able to shed those tired old codes, creating whatever it will mean, in my case at least, to be a woman.


1. For a critique of the "frontier" metaphor see Laura Miller's "Women and Children First: Gender and the Settling of the Electronic Frontier," in James Brook and lain A. Boal (eds) Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information (San Francisco: City Lights, 1995), pp.49-57. 
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2. As a result, "the human subject can only feel a sense of belittlement, incompleteness, lack" or "Promethean shame." Christopher Philips has unearthed Gunther Anders' ["Other," born Stern] speculation that the desire to escape mortaality and the flesh is behind the phenomenon of celebrity; in the reduction to a serially reproducible image, the celebrity becomes a relatively immortal machine. "Desiring Machines: Notes on Commodity, Celebrity, and Death in the Early Work of Andy Warhol," in Public Information: Desire, Disaster; Document (New York: Distributed Art Publishers and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1994), pp.39-47, citing and commenting on Gunther Anders', Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen: über die Schicksal der Seele in den zweiten industriellen Zeitalter (Munich: H. Beck, 1956). Similar speculation abounds that the posthuman fantasy of having one's brain patterns downloaded and digitally preserved is "cyborg envy" (Allucquere Roseanne Stone) that may also be seen as a far from postgender "womb envy," that is, the power to give birth, in this case, to oneself as machine.
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3. In Roger Silverstone and Eric Hirsch (eds) Consuming Technologies: Media and Information in Domestic Spaces (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), p.41. 
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4. In Mary Anne Moser and Douglas MacLeod (eds) Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1996), pp.51-71. What might be problematic in Tenhaafs proposal is an assumption that immersion presumes a psychic state without much in the way of distance provided by disavowal or a fiction effect. She may be proposing a state much like the over and under identification associated with women in feminist approaches to film and television by Mary Anne Doane and Tania Modleski, for example. However, I have questioned the idea of immersion in cyberspace as a more total surrender to the fiction effect in a talk given at the Tate Gallery London in May 1995, to be published in a CD-ROM of the Symposium on Virtual Reality as a Fine Arts Medium; I also stressed that virtuality is not the same as fictionality.   
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5. "What Do Cyborgs Eat? Oral Logic in an Information Society" in Gretchen Bender and Timothy Druckrey (eds) Culture on the Brink: Ideologies of Technology (Seattle: Bay Press, 1994), pp.157-89, 198-204, describes various imaginary ways of becoming machine-like or cyborg via introjection of smart drugs, electronic second skins or abandoning the flesh entirely by downloading human brain patterns into a computer. I, in turn, valorize the messy strategies of turning machine into flesh and question the omniscience and immortality not to mention intelligence that is projected onto machines. This line of thought found further expression as "Artificial Stupidity," a talk delivered at the International Symposium of Electronic Art in Montreal 1995, in which I question human-machine relations as the contact of the mortal and the divine. 
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6. See Cockburn's application of Foucault, in "The Circuit of Technology: Gender, Identity and Power" in Roger Silverstone and Eric Hirsch (eds) Consuming Technologies op. cit., p.44.
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7. Looking to the next generation, Marsha Kinder, the author of Playing with Power in Movies, Television and Video Games: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), a book which explains how little boys are acculturated by video games, is producing an electronic game designed to attract little girls, as well as to play with concepts of gender.
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8. Andreas Huyssen explained why mass culture, technology itself and machines are gendered female in his After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986). For a male cyberspace, see Rob Milthorp's "Fascination, Masculinity and Cyberspace" in Immersed in Technology, pp.129-50. Gillian Skirrow's "Hellivision" draws explicitly on Klein to describe a male and a female relation to the game world as inside the mother's body. 
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9. Allucquere Roseanne Stone, "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?: Boundary Stories About Virtual Cultures" in Michael Benedikt (ed.) Cyberspace: First Steps (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), cited and commented on in Alberto Moreiras, "Hacking a Private Site in Cyberspace" in Verena Andermatt Conley and the Miami Theory Collective (eds) Rethinking Technologies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p.108ff.
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10. Further described in "Enthralling Spaces: The Aesthetics of Virtual Environments," in the catalogue of ISEA 1994, pp.83-9
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11. Susan Kozol, "Spacemaking: Experiences of a Virtual Body" Dance Theater Journal, Summer 1994, pp.12-13, 31, 467. For another description of a violation of the virtual body that is tantamount to rape, see Julian Dibbell, "A Rape in Cyberspace," Village Voice, 21 December 1993, pp.36-42. On the other hand, Miller takes issue with the idea of virtual rape, pp.53-7, by suggesting that it plays to stereotyped notions of women as victims. Perhaps then violation would be a more appropriate term.
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12. From my talk at the Symposium on Art and Virtual Environments at the Banff Centre in 1994. A revised version was printed as: "Nature Morte: Landscape and Narrative in Virtual Environments" in the aforecited Immersed in Technology pp.195-232. 
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13. The piece is further described in my "Romanian Art and the Virtual Environment" in Calin Dan (ed.) Ex Oriente Lux (Bucharest: Soros Center for Contemporary Arts, 1994), pp.67-8.
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14. Shaw's EVE was a response to the CAVE, another image-surround developed in Chicago; rather than putting miniature televisions like goggles over one's eyes, as in virtual reality, the interior surface of a cube is covered with images. Whoever wears polarized glasses with a tracking device governs the point of view inside the virtual space. One the other hand, EVE is a very large spherical projection surface. Rather than projecting an entire image surround, images appear only there, where the gaze of the person with the tracking device is directed. This piece makes the fantasy of producing the world through one's gaze explicit. I might add that so far, images for it have been borrowed rather than produced to fit its unique surface.
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15. Several participants in "Questions of Feminism: 25 Responses" October 71 , pp.5-47, address the issue of essentialism from a contemporary standpoint. Mary Anne Staniszewski notes that "The problem with essentialist feminism was that its essentialism was patriarchal. Not unrelatedly, so are oppositions that restrict the way we would think and live and work", p.43. Thanks to Christine Tamblyn for bringing the article to my attention. Neil Tenhaafs aforementioned article also notes a need to rethink the notion of essentialism.
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16. "Body, Brain and Communication" in Resisting the Virtual Life, pp.124ff.
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