Revising the split between the natural and the artificial, xenofeminism offers ways of constructing a viable future from former spaces of violence and inhibition.
The Xenofeminist Manifesto is a particularly upbeat text. Composed in 2015 by Laboria Cuboniks—that is by Amy Ireland, Diann Bauer, Helen Hester, Katrina Burch, Lucca Fraser, and Patricia Reed—it claims the birth of a feminism “of unprecedented cunning, scale, and vision; a future in which the realization of gender justice and feminist emancipation contribute to a universalist politics assembled from the needs of every human, cutting across race, ability, economic standing, and geographical position.”
At the time when I came across the Manifesto, its adorable counter-melancholic grit was all I could ask for. Finally, a feminism that breaks with all possible nationalist and identitarian agendas as well as leftist cults, calling for “the right of everyone to speak as no one in particular!” This resonated somehow with “the courage to be an absolute nobody” from Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, and the dots connected in ways most likely unforeseen by the members of Laboria Cuboniks. In any case, I was quite sure that everyone had to read this peculiar iridescent text, so I decided to contribute to its promulgation by translating the Manifesto into Russian.
Eventually, it became clear to me how different everyone’s readings of the Manifesto were—and, after seeing a bunch of xenofeminism-related publications, I did realize that my own understanding of it was also substantially twisted and distorted in relation to the authors’ positions. Later, I began to question some of the Manifesto’s statements, which made me even more curious to see how others were treating it. I've been willing to read it as a radically breathable and permissive set of potentials rather than a program for a Masonic lodge. And this pliability seems to be what the text offers in the first place.
In her 2017 essay “Automate Sex: Xenofeminism, Hyperstition and Alienation,” media theorist Luciana Parisi suggests that “[t]he Manifesto should not be read as a declaration of intent, but must be addressed as an exercise in hyperstition: a thought experiment or an enabler of the future.” The text, which might appear to be audacious and categorical in its proclamation-style terseness and fragmentedness, is, in fact, a kit of intensities that contain multiple philosophical connections and potencies for new assemblages, offshoots, elaborations, and evolutions. It states directly that “Xenofeminism seeks to be a mutable architecture that, like open-source software, remains available for perpetual modification and enhancement following the navigational impulse of militant ethical reasoning.” Treating the Manifesto as open-source software and, as Parisi calls it, “mathematico-geometric architecture” allows one to read it most efficiently, letting the context condition the meanings and uses. This is the reading I am most willing to explore and apply herein.
Nature is all there is
Xenofeminism (XF) is shorthand for a claim that it is possible to face the major challenges of the age—namely, the deadly lack of balance in earthly matters—only with an appropriate gender politics and, as Helen Hester explains in her book Xenofeminism (2018), with thinking through and in terms of reproduction. Reproduction here stands for the complex conjunction between the politics of biological, social, and technological reproduction. In order to be able to observe how this conjunction comes about and functions, it is necessary to untangle the question of reproduction from the essentialist and hierarchical dualist treatment that conflates the (child-bearing) “feminine” with “nature” and “matter” as opposed to “artifice”/“culture” and “reason.”
In other words, if we are to engage with machines and technology in a fruitful emancipatory manner and, as Parisi put it, follow “a persistent direction towards thinking how to construct an us or a we with and through machines,” we must begin with the issues of body and gender. This includes the shift in theoretical tools as well as practical considerations, such as the politics of “access to reproductive and pharmacological tools.” The latter is thoroughly analyzed by Hester on the example of the feminist self-help movement of the 1970s and further connected to the issues of healthcare for trans* people. Ultimately, when we think in terms of reproductive and pharmacological technologies, we come to acknowledge that there is no such thing as a “natural body”—just as much as there is no such thing as an “unnatural body.”
Although “vehemently anti-naturalist”—in the sense that it seeks to take down the essentialist and ideological construct of “nature as an un-remakeable given,” which has been employed to justify social hierarchies, genocides, and distribution of power—the Manifesto does pause to explain that this position eventually implies “an unflinching ontological naturalism.” It means that all the mutable, evolving, constructed, invented, imagined phenomena are not being contradistinguished from “nature.” They are actually the one and only nature there is. “To say that nothing is sacred, that nothing is transcendent or protected from the will to know, to tinker and to hack, is to say that nothing is supernatural. ‘Nature’—understood here as the unbounded arena of science—is all there is.”
In its refusal to see anything as transcendent or supernatural, XF definitely echoes the radical immanence of Baruch Spinoza’s substance. In Abstract Sex (2004), Luciana Parisi provides a beautiful explanation of how this concept works and offers an alternative to further modernist dualisms: “The Cartesian split between the mind and the body originates from the separation of the cosmos from matter, of the transcendent God (the power of the soul–mind) from nature (the power of the physical body). Spinoza’s concept of substance demonstrates that nature is not separated from the cosmos. The body originates in God as God corresponds to an intensive and extensive substance. God does not create matter, but is matter able to manifest itself through the ceaseless mutation of bodies and things in nature.” This is an important statement that I will return to shortly. Spinoza reconnects spirit or reason and matter, cosmos, and nature, in the non-hierarchical “world of ontological immanence”—as Gilles Deleuze elaborated, “If substance possesses equally all attributes, there is no hierarchy among the attributes, one is not worth more than another.”
Overcoming the fallacious Cartesian split between body/matter and mind/discourse— with the consequent hierarchical separation between, in particular, nature and culture or artifice—is a major issue of the xenofeminist project. As Parisi elaborates, referring to the cyberfeminist agenda that nurtured it: “To claim the feminine materiality of the matrix also meant that matter and thought belonged to an immanent plane of multiplicity, instead of being caught in a dualistic mediation between matter and sign. Hence the connection between human and technology, above all, means that body and machine undergo affective encounters and intensive degrees of change.” And hence, according to Hester, “technology is as social as society is technical.”
For XF, the focus on what we may broadly call body politics is inseparable from the focus on technological mediation. After all, “Digital technologies are not separable from the material realities that underwrite them; they are connected so that each can be used to alter the other towards different ends. Rather than arguing for the primacy of the virtual over the material, or the material over the virtual, xenofeminism grasps points of power and powerlessness in both, to unfold this knowledge as effective interventions in our jointly composed reality,” the Manifesto reads.
Here it is necessary to clarify the terminology. The material and the virtual are not a pair of comparable attributes. The virtual is the counterpart of the actual, not the material. And the material is the (quasi) counterpart of the discursive, not the virtual. The realm of the digital is not all virtual—moreover, it is largely actual. The realm outside of the technological or digital mediation is not all actual, and neither is it all material—it also has its virtual and its speculative areas. Matter itself conducts its virtual operations.
Referring to Deleuze and Guattari, Luciana Parisi explains that the virtual is not to be confused with the realm of the possible: “The possible, in fact, is often the reflected image of an already determined reality contained in a closed set of choices. Possibilities do not have a reality, as their reality is already determined. Instead of denoting a possible reality, the virtual is reality in terms of strength or potential that tends towards actualization or emergence. Thus, the virtual does not have to become real. It is already real. It has to become actual. The actual does not derive from another actual, but implies the emergence of new compositions, a becoming that responds to (acts back on) the virtual rather than being analogous to it.” Obviously, this connection between the actual and the virtual does not follow the same pattern as the connection between “digital technologies” and “the material realities that underwrite them.” Conflating “digital” with “virtual” may lead to dangerous short-sightedness in dealing with the potential of technology.
Keeping this in mind, it is hard to overestimate the importance of viewing computation and technological mediation with and within “the world of ontological immanence” that the xenofeminist agenda implies. Our access to the world is already always technologically mediated—if we see language, writing, and thought as technologies developed through “what a body can do.” The general dissolution of the borders between the natural and the artificial, the matter and the mind, has major consequences for the ways we may engage with reason. One of the main and most discussed stances of the Manifesto is a call to reclaim reason to emancipatory ends: “Xenofeminism is a rationalism. To claim that reason or rationality is ‘by nature’ a patriarchal enterprise is to concede defeat. [...] Rationalism must itself be a feminism.”
What does that mean? It’s not about saying that the modernist project of rationality can be easily stripped of its oppressive implications rooted in Cartesian assumptions and get repainted as “feminist.” It rather means that cognition and reason do not match the borders outlined by the modernist project of rationality—and it shouldn’t disturb us if it was the modernist project that eventually made this understanding possible. It is actually necessary to read through modernist rationality in order to seize its emancipatory potential and develop new instruments, as well as to discover that reason operates beyond the construct of a man—or a human. In a 2016 interview with philosopher Stanimir Panayotov, Luciana Parisi speaks of how the xenofeminist endeavor implies dealing with reason, which already is something different from the modernist rationality: “The instrumentalization or mechanical reproduction of reasoning has forced reason to be more than the domain of human species. The xenofeminist reflection on the relationship between gender and technology could perhaps be pushed further since you cannot just re-appropriate reason without looking at the logic of reason that has been challenged and changed from within machines.”
If we see “the artificial” or “machinic” as indistinguishable from “the natural,” we should also understand that if machines are able to change what is understood under “reason,” it is only because reason itself has never been exclusively “human” (not to mention exclusively male, European, or white). As Parisi specifies, “there is a lot of work to be done in order to actually say: We shall be going back to the Enlightenment project of Reason so as to claim back alien versions of reasoning. But to claim it back requires taking into account the historical moment in which, in the name of reason, patriarchy and colonialism became enterprises of domination. The legacy of reason and the history of instrumental reason need to be debunked and reconstructed, and not just adopted.” The project of opening towards the “artificial” reason is, in fact, insufficient if it does not include opening to what the non-dualist treatment of “nature” and “artifice” presupposes.
Theoretical physicist and feminist theorist Karen Barad, in her beautiful contemplation based on the research of quantum field theory, insists that “[t]hought experiments are material matters.” “Theories are not mere metaphysical pronouncements on the world from some presumed position of exteriority. Theories are living and breathing reconfigurings of the world. The world theorizes as well as experiments with itself,” she writes in her essay “On Touching – The Inhuman that Therefore I Am” (2014).
At this point, I would like to make a promised return to Spinoza’s heretical idea of God, that, as explained by Parisi, “does not create matter, but is matter able to manifest itself through the ceaseless mutation of bodies and things in nature.” It’s curious to observe that, in Helen Hester’s 2018 book, a nearly identical definition is given to the xeno of xenofeminism: “It is, in part, within the mutational that the xeno resides—in the perpetual possibility that repetition might enable the emergence of difference.” After all, Spinoza was constructing an escape route from commonly applied versions of Judeo-Christian theology that fed the Cartesian worldview, and his accusation of Descartes’ ideas as “occult” ironically resonates with the XF’s call to “exorcise” the essentialist naturalism that “reeks of theology.” I only wonder to what extent exorcism can be a valid method once we’ve agreed on the inseparability of spirit and matter, as well as nature and artifice.
Again, for Karen Barad, quantum physics enables us to see what nature can be after the “Nature” of the Enlightenment. “Bohr’s philosophy-physics is a particularly apt starting point for thinking the natural and social worlds together and gaining some important clues about how to theorize the nature of the relationship between them, since his investigations of quantum physics open up questions not only about the nature of nature but also about the nature of scientific and other social practices,” she writes in Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007). “In particular, Bohr’s naturalist commitment to understanding both the nature of nature and the nature of science according to what our best scientific theories tell us led him to what he took to be the heart of the lesson of quantum physics: ‘We are a part of that nature that we seek to understand.’” This is the most complex and radical turn for the concept of reason. It is not the (human) reason that explores the objectified nature—reason is the way the universe configures itself, reason is the function of the universe.
In his latest book The Terraforming, Benjamin Bratton (2019) follows a similar logic, which recognizes “our own cognition and industry as manifestations of a material world acting upon itself in regular intelligent patterns.” Bratton articulates a very important idea that has to be kept in mind whenever we talk about the changes that technology supposedly causes in “reason”: “That unease is rooted not in what a new technology may do, but, once more, in what it reveals that was always there all along. Microscopes do not cause microbes, but now that we know they are there, we can never see surfaces the same way again.” Machines do not transform reason, but rather let one observe—and apply—reason in a way that reveals its proper qualities, overlooked or obscured (in a way, by the Enlightenment itself!).
Linking the “artificial” and the “natural,” Bratton suggests viewing “human cultural accomplishment as a marvelous, astronomically unlikely career of matter signaling to matter about the world through fleshly abstraction and physical expression.” Here, however, it is necessary to pause and examine who exactly is being understood under the term “human,” and what exactly is being graded as “cultural accomplishment.” Once we can move from the idea of human as a vague yet exclusionary and oppressive construct of the dualist mindset towards “humans” that “are neither pure cause nor pure effect but part of the world in its open-ended becoming”—as Barad argues—we might be able to find new ways for the “human” that are no longer trying to encourage them to escape from their own shadow in seeking dissolution in the “alien” and the “xeno.”
This awareness may open multiple ways for the reappropriation of existing systems and tools towards emancipatory ends and new hospitable, inhabitable futurities that emerge from a logic that no longer contains the scenarios of Man vs. Nature or Civilization vs. Barbarism.
Xenofeminism is largely about the possibility to construct the future. But what is the construction material? How does the universe construct itself? What is the future if not just another set of outcomes that are going to change and mutate in their becomings? Perhaps we can say that it is a future of multiple co-possibilities emerging from former spaces of violence and inhibition. The Manifesto calls for “a transformation of deliberate construction, seeking to submerge the white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy in a sea of procedures that soften its shell and dismantle its defenses, so as to build a new world from the scraps.”
In the world of immanence, there are no prioritized sources of the future. Xenofeminism welcomes and nurtures the emergence of whatever could have been earlier labeled “xeno”—it welcomes nature in its artifice and pliability, in its universal indifference to the imposed hierarchy of attributes. This is what the xenofeminist “superior forms of corruption” may stand for: the lust for life that implies the all-embracing readiness to mutate, the multiplicity of potentialities where you can have your cake and eat it too.
Cover image: Suzanne Treister, Fictional videogame stills – Series 2: Q. Would you recognise a Virtual Paradise? Fragment, 1992. Courtesy of the artist