Friday, 15 November 2013

"Forbidden Voices" and Invisible Affinities: A Review and Critique

 It is difficult to critique a documentary like Forbidden Voices without falling into alliance with the repressive regimes that the film denounces. The danger in that critique of the film's simple binaries (juxtaposing a free West and North and an oppressed and authoritarian East and South), however, is the danger of discourse in a world where the tools and agents of resistance the illegitimate children of the military-industrial complex.i There are no easy or innocent statements in this context, and no easy answers. Forbidden Voices unfortunately largely ignores these complexities in favor of the elevation of its three subjects—Yoani Sanchez of Cuba, Zeng Jinyan of China, and Farnaz Seifi of Iran—as uncomplicated protagonists of political struggle. This can be seen with particular clarity in the case of Seifi, whose case highlights the film's strengths, its failings, and ways in which changing the medium might undo some of these problems.
Seifi's section focuses at the outset upon state misogyny, with interviews from Seifi describing the devaluing of women in her home country of Iran. Her interviews are thus among the most valuable in the film, providing excellent insights into the political and historical context in which Seifi works. It is a context of feminist struggle that dovetailed in 2009 with the wider Green Movement, which emerged in opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before being brutally repressed. Much has been written already about the role of women in this revolution and the way in which the Green Movement offered hopes of feminist reform.ii In highlighting Seifi's first hand account of the way in which the Internet facilitated a strong feminist movement, the film makes good on the promise of its tagline (“How to start a revolution with a laptop”) and adds a valuable perspective to the Green Movement, suggesting that it is a coalition of different interests that are, by necessity, “stepp[ing] in unison with one another.”iii There are echoes here of the critiques of Haraway and Sandoval, which assert a need for a politics of affinity rather than a collapsing of individuals into identity experiences.iv
This history, however, is used in a frustratingly uncomplicated and unexamined way by the film. The statement by Zahra Rahnavard, wife of Green Movement leader Hossein Mousavi, that, simply, she “is no Michelle Obama,”v with all the political complexity such a statement implies, is particularly ironic when considered alongside film's use of Obama in the early framing narrative. Michelle Obama's statements of support for female bloggers, despite her specific references to Yoani Sanchez, are framed in such a way that they appear to encompass the experiences of all the bloggers (and perhaps all bloggers in general, although this speech occurred before Chelsea Manning emerged as an embarrassing and inconvenient counterexample). It is juxtaposed with an image of lines of information radiating out—the World Wide Web realized in glowing light—across the globe, originating with the film's three subjects and their geographic locations. The three bloggers and their experiences are thus equated in the same way that a global, international feminism has sought in the past to discover an essential female
Another striking quote comes from Seifi herself, in a segment where she discusses tactical organization. She states that “When you are an activist who is outside of Iran, the really helpful thing you can do is to support those inside Iran and try to be their voice.” She goes on to discuss the way in which she and Reporters Without Borders have facilitated connections between activists in exile and activists still within the country. This section is quite useful in the way it explores the affinities and material strategies for cyberfeminist resistance.
However, there are two key issues with this presentation. First, while the message of this section seems to be one of facilitation, the voice is still Seifi's, and one other expatriate whose interview Seifi and Lucie Morillon of Reporters Without Borders watch on a computer screen. The film thus shies away from actualizing the presumable result of facilitation: the presentation of a wider range of voices. This highlights the second issue with the film as a whole and Seifi's activism: the film draws simple binaries in which it is not just desirable but actually possible for one voice to speak for millions of men and women within a country. And yet, a very cursory glance around the Internet shows a far more diverse coalition of voices than the film's construction of an easily cross-mappable experience suggests. Consider, for example, the contrast between the aforementioned Dr Rahnavard's apparent support of traditionalist religious modesty with expatriate blogger Leila Mouri's vehement condemnation of the compulsory Hijab.vii Or consider the reported alliances between Iranian expatriates and neoconservative think tanks, which other expatriate journalists decry as a betrayal of the spirit of reform that drove the Green Movement.viii In a world where state-sanctioned extremism in Iran occurs alongside Western assassinations of politicians and civilians within Iran, the simple binaries of the film between authoritarian actors and liberating actors become highly contested. An interpretation of these actors as members in various coalitions, as per Sandoval and Haraway, and the material realities as propositions in a multiverse of articulate possibilities, as per Bruno Latour, is not a postmodern slide into relativism but an honest assessment of complex affinities and alliances of convenience.
It is possible—even likely—that the film's ability to grapple with these nuances was hampered by the limitations inherent in conducting interviews in a powerful state dedicated to forbidding Farnaz Seifi's voice, as the title suggests. However, any conjectured problems are certainly compounded by a series of strange and counterproductive directorial decisions. While it is possible, for example, that no other participants in the Green Movement were available for commentary on the impact of Seifi's writing and the writing and activism of other women, that context could have been provided by interviews with a wide range of expatriates that, like Seifi, have left Iran and found refuge for their ideas with Western and occasionally even Middle Eastern media sources. Furthermore, a greater presence of the director herself and her overt choices and perspectives would have been welcome. While the absence of a singular authoritative voice-over that, in outdated modes of documentary production, asserted absolute objectivity is welcome and fitting, it has been replaced by three voices reduced to a singular experience. The words of the film's subjects are literally inscribed in the sky, transforming into an even more elevated collective figure than the outmoded voice over could have been. With a total absence of the director's hand, and a dearth of other voices, the film falls into a trap of oversimplification and an excessive veneer of objectivity.
The film as part of a wider institution, however, is more successful, and the way in which the Internet has been used to expand upon the documentary points towards a new, far improved mode of production and information distribution. The Forbidden Voices website includes a Flash-based map of thedifferent bloggers and, in a welcome expansion of the available voices, the blogger Ory Okolloh of Kenya and the Reporters Without Borders agent Lucie Morillon. This suggests that the film could be expanded incrementally to include a far wider range of voices and experiences that could even potentially be juxtaposed or counterbalanced with one another. There is great potential here if it was harnessed properly. Even more impressive are the interviews with the bloggers and the additional information on their political context. In Farnaz Seifi's interview reaction to the documentary, she describes the fear of a military strike against Iran, and dismisses sanctions against the country as ineffectual. This shows an element of political complexity not present in the film itself, where the West and East are placed into a simple binary. Her statements are accompanied by a fascinating Reporters Without Borders brief on the rise of draconian censorship policies in Iran. Fascinatingly, they point out that private contractors in the West are largely responsible for the technology that Iran uses to censor and monitor its citizens. Most stunning of all is an account of the production of monitoring technology in Israel, Iran's purported enemy, which is then shipped to a Dutch firm, which sells this technology to the Iranian government.
These strange affinities and disaffinities represent the world as it is: complex, tangled, devoid of innocent positions. The Forbidden Voices extended hyperdocumentary, seen specifically through the lens of Farnaz Seifi and her political context, is thus far more successful than its traditional core product. It is, more than the documentary itself, an interested entity that is capable of producing articulate propositions. This reaffirms the fundamental value of the Internet as the medium of choice for a complicated and politically fraught 21st century, and it suggests that an individual like Seifi—who is, after all, a profoundly brave figure worthy of our respect—need not be championed in a simplistic context to be championed at all.


iDonna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” in Feminism/Postmodernism, ed. Linda Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1990), 193.⁠

ii“What we are witnessing in Iran is a natural consequence of years of feminist presence and the active participation of powerful women in the public sphere which has taught little girls that being a woman does not mean just being a mother or a wife and that women must be present and fighting in order to achieve their rights and demands.”
Women have been undoubtedly a great part of the so called "Green Movement." Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, became a key part of the campaign. Her presence meant a promise of a more open arena for women in the political scene and maybe some relaxation of the rigid social laws. Young women appreciated the attention that Mousavi gave his wife, treating her as his equal and a friend. They envisioned that such relationships would become more widespread in Iran if he became the next president.”
iiiGolbarg Bashi, “Feminist Waves in the Iranian Green Tsunami?,”
The PBS article links to a series of quotes from individual writers, which in turn lead to a series of blogs that, alarmingly, have gone offline since the article was published four years ago. The original quote, which reads: “we--as members of the women's movement in Iran and as civil rights activists from diverse areas such as NGOs, political parties, campaigns, press and trade unions--have realized that there are many ways in which to achieve women's demands. When it is necessary, we have stepped in unison with one another” presumably came from one of the lost articles.

ivC Sandoval, “NEW SCIENCES Cyborg Feminism and the Methodology of The,” in Cybersexualities: a Reader on Feminist Theory, Cyborgs, and Cyberspace, ed. Jenny Wolmark (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 247–263. Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,”⁠⁠

v“Dr Rahnavard has been careful to present herself as a firm believer in the Islamic revolutions with books such as The Beauty of the Veil. She stressed recently: 'I am a follower of the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed, who has the same name as I do. I am no Michelle Obama. I am Zahra Rahnavard.'" Can I take a moment to step outside my academic neutrality voice to say that this woman is truly badass?
viDonna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,”⁠

viii“Meanwhile, thousands of Iranian dissidents fled Iran and opted for the indignity of exile in the region, or in Europe or North America. Some of these dissidents joined intellectual US neocon operations and/or the pro-Israeli think-tanks to call for regime change in Iran. But the overwhelming majority of them opted for a full recognition of the dignified limits of what they could say or do from abroad and never joined the bandwagon of "regime changers", or the treasonous path of plotting against their own homeland.

The outdated monarchists and the discredited Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) tried to jump on the bandwagon of the Green Movement but failed. The main body of expatriate Iranians remained committed to the democratic aspirations of their homeland but equally adamant and vocal in opposition to the crippling economic sanctions that Washington neocons, their Zionist contingency, in collaboration with their Iranian allies, were seeking to impose on Iranians - or even talk of military strike - as a kind of 'humanitarian intervention'.” Hamid Dabashi, “What Happened to the Green Movement in Iran?,” Al Jazeera America, June 12, 2013.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Haraway's "A Manifesto for Cyborgs": A Facilitated Discussion Response

(Apologies to readers of this blog that aren't participants in my particular spacial grouping of Dialogues in Feminism and Technology, but I'll be talking pretty particularly about class this week, so while I think it should be somewhat comprehensible, I can't guarantee that  you'll be able to suss out all the context, particularly when I quote specific participants. Sorry!)

I found leading a discussion on Haraway's "Manifesto for Cyborgs" to be something of a daunting task, considering the sheer breadth of the text, its nigh omnipresence in feminist technology criticism, and the often somewhat complex and even confusing layers of meaning and irony that Haraway makes use of. It is, after all, a text particularly interested in a group of beings Haraway characterizes as "partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity."1 It is difficult to limit the reading to just the broad overview of the text, as so many interesting elements are contained within brief sentence-long digressions or metaphorical extrapolations.

In an effort to narrow the scope of the conversation, my summary largely focused upon the way Haraway positions herself in opposition to Feminist Socialism--a theoretical camp she belongs to but critiques quite forcefully over the course of her manifesto. I wanted to emphasize, in particular, how the deconstructive work she does over the course of her essay is not simply an academic exercise but a reflection of the way in which technological society is in the process of deconstructing itself. Feminists and socialists alike must adapt to these postmodern conditions in order to survive in a diaspora of identity.2

This context framed one of my two major questions: in this deconstructive theoretical background, is there room for real political action, or by critiquing Marxist Feminism is Haraway reducing the field to a kind of postmodern slurry?

This seems like an important question, as some academics have read Haraway that way in the past.3 This question elicited some interesting responses about the ethics of forming or disavowing particular alliances. In particular, Alex's mention of the Men's Rights movement (to audible sympathetic groans) made for an interesting, if unresolved, discussion of how much we should critique ourselves for shying away from alliances that we find particularly disquieting, and for failing to make room for alternate worldviews.

Of course, Haraway isn't interested in forming affinities between her outright opponents, necessarily. She does, after all, describe teaching Christian Creationism as "a form of child abuse," among other similarly strident declarations.4 Her manifesto seems to be interested primarily in forming affinities between oppressed groups, as well as between groups (like male silicone valley workers) teetering on the brink of being devalued and downgraded in the social hierarchy. Finding useful alliances, for Haraway, does not mean accepting the entirety of another's ideology or subsuming identities into a coherent whole.

The primary question I posed revolved around the last portion of Haraway's essay where she discusses cyborgs in fiction.5 I wanted to grapple with the notion of cyborgs as an artistic construct and potentially a form of art practice. Coming from a science fiction-influenced background, the question of how literally we/I should express this concept (or, as Professor Ordonez suggested, the concept of other monsters) is of major importance. This conversation was productive, I felt, in that we collectively generated some new ideas of what a cyborg art practice might look like (Shauna's suggestion of glitch art as a literal expression of transgressed boundaries was interesting, for example, as was Alex's suggestion of a fusion of the Cyborg and Goddess figures into some strange whole), but I wonder if the conversation might not have run more smoothly if we collectively had a stronger grounding in the fiction Haraway draws from. Were I facilitating a conversation like this again, I would want to spend more time discussing these stories and their major elements, and perhaps even have a fiction reading component to the dialogue. In particular, for the future I want to become better acquainted with these authors and what they have to offer.

On the whole, however, I think the conversation was productive in its irresolution. It seems like one of the characteristics of cyborg thought is a lack of a need to fully resolve these questions in a permanent way. This might make it a particularly valuable form of contemporary art practice, which elevates the ongoing process of production and increasingly questions the possibility of a completed and resolved work of art. The discussion was able to be vital precisely because it was, by necessity, ongoing.

1.  Haraway, Donna. 1990. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” In Feminism/Postmodernism, edited by Linda Nicholson, 192. New York: Routledge.
2.  Ibid. 212.
3.  Sandoval, C. 1999. “NEW SCIENCES Cyborg Feminism and the Methodology of The.” In Cybersexualities: a Reader on Feminist Theory, Cyborgs, and Cyberspace, edited by Jenny Wolmark, 247–263. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.  Sandoval provides a useful summary of these misreadings and effectively reclaims Haraway's position from this kind of postmodern confusion.
4.  Haraway, "A Manifesto," 193.
5.  Ibid. 215-223.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013


I love science fiction and fantasy and weird, weird porn, in part because these genres tend to toss turpentine across the sharply delineated De Stijl canvas of the world. The boundary between reality and metaphor in these genres is slippery at best, and that's seductive in the extreme.

I think I'm attracted to deconstruction and poststructuralism for the same reason, actually. I'm never totally sure, in reading Haraway, of just how literal she's getting with her cyborgs--how much the realm of science fiction is intruding into reality--or how far someone like Halberstam is prepared to take the complex layers of metaphor and myth that she weaves. If Alan Turing's bite from a cyanide apple isn't literally the inspiration for the Apple logo, and isn't literally a type of Fall, does it really matter for the way we're constructing the universe?

We've been talking a lot lately about attempting to find lines of communication across dramatically different ways of interpreting the world, and it seems like maybe there's some compatibility between this view of the world as a fluid set of signs that construct a narrative beyond the literal and the Byzantine notion of typology and prefigurement. If Hercules can be a type of Samson, or Jonah a type of Christ, Turing can be a type of Adam, and the circumstances of his Fall (without, significantly, an Eve--if the heterosexist godmachine of state Christianity denounces her lack, what does that do for the original myth itself where Eve is the initiator of the fall?) shape the course of cybernetic life just as Adam's banishment affects biological life. It's in the realms of the poetic, in the realms of science fiction and fantasy that these modern myth structures can emerge (and when did Literary Fiction become so god damn boring; when did it all turn into a reflection of a particular kind of middle class Real World?).

I'm including Weird Porn in this because I think that's a realm where, in the best cases, the boundaries between male and female can get extremely--ahahah--slippery. Roles can flip and new dynamics, new genders, new sexual biologies, even, can be developed.

Which isn't to say that in ANY of these fields such flippings and floppings DO occur. There's just as much potential for weird porn or for a fantasy novel to retain the same boundary between metaphor and reality, the boundary between human and monster, man and woman. I'm so bored with dark and gritty fantasy with "realistic" or "historically accurate" gender dynamics. I'm so bored with modes of criticism that don't try to confuse or undermine gender structures. I'm so bored with hentai that reproduces the same stereotypical porn gender dynamics with demihuman subjects.

And I'm not the only one either. Autostraddle just ran a great review of Blue Is The Warmest Color which, fascinatingly, suggested that the straight male gaze within the film was a disappointment in part because it meant that the film failed to arouse or titillate:

It didn’t look like a young woman discovering the body of her partner for the first time. It didn’t look like an experienced partner relearning passion in the arms of her new lover. The voyeuristic angles, the awkward and choreographed movements, and all of them made me feel uneasy, unable to forget the directorial eye, and, quite frankly, bored. I feel sorry for those straight individuals who thought they were about to see something scandalous. Besides Kechiche’s somewhat clunky fetish for women’s asses, there’s little here that would shock your average Crash Pad viewer.

This is so interesting to me because it suggests that the film is weak not because it includes explicit sex scenes, but because those explicit sex scenes fail to capture anything essentially queer (or anything essentially vital at all). It made me think of Ursula "Writing About Queer People Of Color Before You Were Born" LeGuin's scathing critique of the adaptation of her Wizard of Earthsea series and the whitewashing of the cast:
I didn't see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn't see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had "violet eyes"). It didn't even make sense.
It's frustrating, in a field that has such potential, to be confronted with continuous artistic laziness.

Anyway, for me these readings and their call for a loosened conception of metaphor and gender and sexuality and humanity speak to my own compulsion as an artist to explore these unfamiliar spaces. I need to catch up on my queer sci fi as well--I still haven't read any Butler, much as it shames me, my house, and my cow to admit it. And it seems to me that the boundary-breaking science fiction and fantasy and porn are in need of some serious critical analysis. Maybe I'm the right person to engage these topics a bit more closely? I suspect it's still kinda taboo in academic criticism to be anything other than critical of porn in particular, but maybe it's time for that to change.

Maybe, too, it's time to screw around with the types that we're constructing. Is Turing a type of Adam, after all, or is he a type of Eve? Or Sophia, perhaps? There's so much room here for weird recombinatorials that I think we could keep ourselves artistically amused and aroused for a long time.

This is Cyborg Maria, and I'm ready for my stories to take a walk on the wild side.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Toxic Affinities

One of the most fascinating recurring themes in our texts and discussions is the notion that the technologies we're marshaling for the cause of Feminism may be mobilized just as readily by those we generally see as our opposition. Sometimes those affinities and opponents might even be invisible to us.

I get the impression that some feminists see the debate on positivism and a sort of evangelical mode of science as largely in the past, for example--that no one seriously posits Western science as the sole origin of truth anymore. This is probably true in Theory circles, but I'm not sure it holds true outside of the academy. Look at someone like Christopher Hitchens, who is as much an evangel for atheistic, scientific rationality as a person could be. What an odd guy is Hitchens--supporter of the Iraq war, enemy of Zionism... it's kind of fascinating to me actually to see how a radically antitheist position led him to this strangely contested relationship with American Neoconservatives, loudly triumphing an imperialist war on the one hand while condemning the support of Israel and the return to an extremist Christian position on issues such as evolution!

I'm not sure how we interact with someone like Hitchens. Do we mark him as an opponent on postcolonialist grounds, or on the grounds of the toxic affinities he has with the racist, homophobic, chauvinist policies of the American radical right? Or is he, like everyone else, caught in a postmodern condition of sullied (or simply always absent) innocence?

The weird thing about Hitchens, too, is that he, like Dawkins, like AI advocates such as Eliezer Yudkowski, doesn't seem to see himself as not-innocent, as subject to the same errors of thought that have plagued humans for centuries and have often manifested themselves not just in religious systems of power but in scientific and medical ones as well. By ousting the Abrahamaic myth structure I think they've concluded that they're beyond Original Sin, to really run with this metaphor further than it should probably be run with...

Not that we're necessarily doing a lot better when it comes to putting our money where our mouths are. The rise of climate change deniers or anti-vaccination agitators is a hell of an unintended consequence of postmodern criticism. And I suspect there's nothing more uncomfortable than having, as a Tumblr friend of mine just did, your post about the classist implications of anti-GMO legislation favorited and retweeted by the PR division of a major chemical company. Yikes.

The fact that so many of the critiques of postmodernism from engineers and scientists are whiny, lazy, and made in transparently bad faith ends up, I think, distracting us from these problems within our own camp--the uncomfortable and toxic affinities we may have made.

It's kind of a distressing state of affairs, I guess that's the confusing state we're in--a world without innocent positions.

This is Cyborg Maria and I have no idea what to think of any of this.