On the matrix: cyberfeminist simulations

Plant, Sadie. ‘On the matrix: cyberfeminist simulations’, in The Cybercultures Reader, eds David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy, London: Routledge, 2000, pp.325-326


The Internet promises women a network of lines on which to chatter, natter, work and play; virtuality brings a fluidity to identities which once had to be fixed; and multimedia provides a new tactile environment in which women artists can find their space.

Complex systems and virtual worlds are not only important because they open spaces for existing women within an already existing culture, but also because of the extent to which they undermine both the world-view and the material reality of two thousand years of patriarchal control.


This is the first discovery: that patriarchy is not a construction, an order or a structure, but an economy, for which women are the first and founding commodities.

It is a system in which exchanges ‘take place exclusively between men. Women, signs, commodities and currency always pass from one man to another’, and the women are supposed to exist ‘only as the possibility of mediation, transaction, transition, transference – between man and his fellow-creatures, indeed between man and himself.’ (Irigaray 1985: 193).

If women have experienced their exclusion from social, sexual and political life as the major problem posed by. their government this is only the tip of an iceberg of control and alienation from the species itself.


Irigaray’s male subjects are first and foremost the ones who see, those whose gaze defines the world. The phallus and the eye stand in for each other, giving priority to light, sight, and a flight from the dark dank matters of the feminine.

Denied the possibility of an agency which could allow her to transform herself, it becomes hard to see what it would take for her situation ever to change. How can Irigaray’s women discover themselves when any conception of who they might be has already been decided in advance? How can she speak without becoming the only speaking subject conceivable to man? How can she be active when activity is defined as male?

The problem seems intractable. Feminist theory has tried every route, and found itself in every cul-de-sac. Struggles have been waged both with and against Marx, Freud, Lacan, Derrida… sometimes in an effort to claim or reclaim some notion of identity, subjectivity and agency; sometimes to eschew it in the name of undecidabiiity or jouissance. But always in relation to a sacrosanct conception of a male identity which women can either accept, adapt to, or refuse altogether.

Only Irigaray and even then, only in some of her works – begins to suggest that there really is no point in pursuing the masculine dream of self-control, self-identification, self-knowledge and self determination.

[Patriarchy] needs to contain and control what it understands as ‘woman’ of ‘the feminine’, but it cannot do without them: indeed, as its media, means of communication, reproduction and exchange, women are the very fabric of its culture, the material condition, of the world it controls.


If lrigaray’s conclusions about the extent and pervasiveness of patriarchy were once an occasion for pessimistic paralysis, things look rather different in an age for which all economic systems are reaching the limits of their modern functioning.


And if ever this system did begin to give, the effects of its collapse would certainly outstrip those on its power over women and their lives: patriarchy is the precondition of all other forms of ownership and control, the model of every exercise of power, and the basis of all subjection. The control and exchange of women by their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons is the diagram of hierarchical authority.

This ‘specular economy’ depends on its ability to ensure that all tools, commodities, and media know their place, and have no aspirations to usurp or subvert the governing role of those they serve.

By the late twentieth century, all patriarchy’s media, tools, commodities, and the lines of commerce and communication on and as which they circulate have changed beyond recognition. The convergence of once separate and specialized media turns them into systems of telecommunication with messages of their own; and tools mutate into complex machines which begin to learn and act for themselves.

As media, tools and goods mutate, so the women begin to change, escaping their isolation and becoming increasingly interlinked. Modern feminism is marked by the emergence of networks and contacts which need no centralized organization and evade its structures of command and control.


Parallel distributed processing defies all attempts to pin it down, and can only ever be contingently defined. It also turns the computer into a complex thinking machine which converges with the operations of the human brain.

The complexity the computer becomes also emerges in economies, weather-systems, cities and cultures, all of which begin to function as complex systems
with their own parallel processes, connectivities and immense tangles of mutual interlinkings.

Not that artificial lives, cultures, markets and thinking organisms are suddenly free to self-organize. Science, its disciplines, and the academic structures they support insist on the maintenance of top-down structures, and depend on their ability to control and define the self-organizing processes they unleash. State institutions and corporations are intended to guarantee the centralized and hierarchical control of market processes, cultural development and, indeed, any variety of activity which might disturb the smooth regulation of the patriarchal economy.

Like women, any thinking machines are admitted on the understanding that they are duty bound to honour and obey the members of the species to which they were enslaved: the members, the male ones, the family of man.

But self-organizing processes proliferate, connections are continually made, and complexity becomes increasingly complex. In spite of its best intentions, patriarchy is subsumed by the processes which served it so well. The goods do get together, eventually.


The implications of these accelerating developments are extensive and profound. In philosophical terms, they all tend towards the erosion of idealism and the emergence of a new materialism, a shift in thinking triggered by the emergent activity and intelligence of the material reality of a world which man still believes he controls.


Regardless of recent portrayals of computers – and, by extension, all machines and all aspects of the telecoms revolution – as predominantly masculine tools, there is a long history of such intimate and influential connections between women and modernity’s machines. The first telephonists, operators and calculators were women, as were the first computers, and even the first computer programmers.

And as women increasingly interact with the computers whose exploratory use was once monopolized by men, the qualities and apparent absences once defined as female become continuous with those ascribed to the new machines.


Irigaray’s woman has never had a unified role: mirror, screen, commodity; means of communication and reproduction; carrier and weaver; carer and whore; machine assemblage in the service of the species; a general purpose system of simulation and self-stimulation.

It may have been woman’s ‘fluid character which has deprived her of all possibility of identity with herself within such a logic’ (lrigaray 1985b: 109), but if fluidity has been configured as a matter of deprivation and disadvantage in the past, it is a positive advantage in a feminized future for which identity is nothing more than a liability.

Neural nets function in a way which has less to do with the rigours of orthodox logic than with the intuitive leaps and cross-connections which characterize what has been pathologized as hysteria, which is said to be marked by a ‘lack of inhibition and control in its associations’ between ideas which are dangerously ‘cut off from associative connection with the other ideas, but can be associated among themselves, and thus form the more or Iess highly organised rudiment of a second consciousness’ (Freud and Breuer 1991: 66 7).


If weaving has played such a crucial role in the history of computing, it is also the key to one of the most extraordinary sites of woman-machine interface which short-circuits their prescribed relationship and persists regardless of what man effects and defines as the history of technology


Orthodox accounts of the history of technology are told from an exclusively anthropomorphic perspective whose world-view revolves around the interests of man.

Digital art takes the image beyond even its mechanical reproduction, eroding orthodox conceptions of originals and originality. And just as the image is reprocessed, so it finds itself embroiled in a new network of connections between words, music and architectures which diminishes the governing role it once played in the specular economy.

Touch is the sense of multimedia, the immersive simulations of cyberspace, and the connections, switches and links of all nets. Communication cannot be caught by the gaze, but is always a matter of getting in touch, a question of contact, contagion, transmission, reception and connectivity. If sight was the dominant and organizing sense of the patriarchal economy, tactility is Mcluhan’s ‘integral sense’ (1967: 77), putting itself and all the others in touch and becoming the sense of hypermedia.


The ones and zeros of machine code are not patriarchal binaries or counterparts to each other: zero is not the other, but the very possibility of all the ones. Zero is the matrix of calculation, the possibility of multiplication, and has been reprocessing the modern world since it began to arrive from the East. It neither counts nor represents, but with digitization it proliferates, replicates and undermines the privilege of one.

If the phallus guarantees man’s identity and his relation to transcendence and truth, it is also this which cuts him off from the abstract machinery of a world he thinks he owns. It is only those at odds with this definition of humanity who seem to be able to access this plane. They have more in common with multifunctional systems than the active agency and singular identity proper to the male subject.


Working patterns move from full-time, life-long, specialized careers to part time, temporary, and multi-functional formats, and the context shifts into one in which women have long had expertise. It is suddenly noticed that girls’ achievements in school and higher education are far in excess of those of their male counterparts, and a new transferable intelligence begins to be valued above either the strength or single-mindedness which once gave the masculine its power and are now being downgraded and rendered obsolete.

Such tendencies – and the authoritarian reactions they excite – are emerging not only in the West but also across what were once lumped together as the cultures of the ‘Third World’. Global telecommunications and the migration of capital from the West are undermining both the pale male world and the patriarchal structures of the south and east, bringing unprecedented economic power to women workers and multiplying the possibilities of communication, learning and access to information.

These crises of masculine identity are fatal corrosions of every one: every unified, centralized containment, and every system which keeps them secure. None of this was in the plan. What man has named as his history was supposed to function as the self-narrating story of a drive for domination and escape from the earth; a passage from carnal passions to self-control; a journey from the strange fluidities of the material to the self-identification of the soul.


Men may think and women may fear that they are on top of the situation, pursuing the surveillance and control of nature to unprecedented extremes, integrating their forces in the final consolidation of a technocratic fascism. But cyberspace is out of man’s control: virtual reality destroys his identity, digitalization is mapping his soul and, at the peak of his triumph, the culmination of his machinic erections, man confronts the system he built for his own protection and finds it is female and dangerous.


If all technical development is underwritten by dreams for total control, final freedom, and some sense of ultimate reconciliation with the ideal, the runaway tendencies and chaotic emergences to which these dreams have led do nothing but turn them into nightmarish scenes.

Cyberfeminism is an insurrection on the part of the goods and materials of the patriarchal world, a dispersed, distributed emergence composed of links between women, women and computers, computers and communication links, connections and connectionist nets.

It becomes clear that if the ideologies and discourses of modern feminism were necessary to the changes in women’s fortunes which creep over the end of the millennium, they were certainly never sufficient to the processes which now find man, in his own words, ‘adjusting to irrelevance’ and becoming ‘the disposable sex’.

It takes an irresponsible feminism which may not be a feminism at all to trace the inhuman paths on which woman begins to assemble herself as the cracks and crazes now emerging across the once smooth surfaces of patriarchal order. She is neither. man-made with the dialecticians, biologically fixed with the essentialists, nor wholly absent with the Lacanians. She is in the process, turned on with the machines. As for patriarchy: it is not dead, but nor is it intractable.

There is no authentic or essential woman up ahead, no self to be reclaimed from some long lost past, nor even a potential subjectivity to be constructed in the present day. Nor is there only an absence or lack. Instead there is a virtual reality, an emergent process for which identity is not the goal but the enemy, precisely what has kept at bay the matrix of potentialities from which women have always downloaded their roles.