Culture Machine, Reviews


Sarah Kember (2003) Cyberfeminism and Artificial Life.

London: Routledge. ISBN: 0415240271.

Radhika Gajjala

This is a fascinating book that takes us through an examination of hegemonies and contradictions embedded in discourses of microbiology, new biology, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Artificial Life (AL). In all this, the author suggests that a cyberfeminist 'bottom up' appropriation of Alife is possible and desirable. For Kember, as for Haraway, it is not science or technology which is the problem, but the ways in which these are represented and utilized by scientists and non-scientists alike, as well as the ways in which funding agencies shape the design and discourse of science and technology. In short, for Kember, as for many other cyberfeminists, the social situatedness of science and technology within a hegemony that privileges a (neo)colonial, patriarchal discourse is the problem to be countered. Therefore, rather than act as technophobes, Kember advocates that feminists must actively work with technologies such as AI and AL. She writes, '[c]yberfeminist cultural analysis must engage with current trends in science and technology with a critical historical awareness of how they are naturalized culturally and with a strategic investment in dialogue rather than dismissal' (51).

The book deals with two overlapping and intertwined themes -- (feminist) research methodologies on the one hand, and feminist (re)actions in relation to (westernized) science and technology on the other. With regard to methodology, Kember takes us through an in-depth examination of ontological, epistemological, ethical and social frameworks and explains how subjects/objects of research emerge. In her account of Alife and its linking to basic tenets of a cyberfeminism that remains committed to political intervention, she gets to the very crux of the problem of modern day knowledge production and its complicity with colonial and neo-colonial world policies. Kember does this not by exposing current political controversies, but by examining the 'Science Wars' through a discussion of AI and AL. She argues for a feminist engagement with both the ontology and epistemology of science and technology.

With regard to feminism and technoscience, Kember exposes what she sees as a central tension between technophobes and technophiliacs in feminist approaches to science and technology. She urges that feminists need to engage science and technologies critically, understanding their historical, political and discursive impact in order to invent cyberfeminist strategies for the appropriation of science and technologies. Unpacking the possibility for such 'bottom-up' cyberfeminist tactics and strategies in engaging Alife in order to open up spaces of contestation and epistemic diversity, Kember argues that what she terms 'new biological hegemony' is currently taking shape. For biologists situated in this discourse, there is a 'tendency to subsume rather than ignore the social which marks the new biological hegemony.' It is also true, however, that this new biology is wrought with contradictions which Alife re-engineers 'in the form of autonomous and autopoetic entities which contribute to the formation of posthuman identity and invite a dialogic response' (52).

At this point I will ask the (for me, inevitable) questions: For whom does this posthuman identity exist as an option and what world populations will be invited into a dialogic response here? What kinds of cultural and technical literacies and what types of access to capital will lead to such possibilities? Does this critical engagement in itself not become an elite enterprise? What are the possibilities for grassroots cyberfeminisms? Can the young women making chips in borderland maquiladoras access such critical literacies? And can the rural women of South Africa and India, with no entry point into the subversion of such scientific and technological discourse, find ways to engage this bottom-up appropriation of AL? Sarah Kember takes up the notion of a '"cosmopolitics" of risk-taking as a methodological and ontological approach to a world of complex objects' and examines it closely in her last chapter. Might such an approach lend itself to opening up spaces of dialogue and engagement for those populations of the world that remain objectified, silent and/or absent (implicitly and explicitly) in discourses of science and technology?

These questions are not intended to silence the important and optimistic points made by Kember throughout the book - but to invite further discussion. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and recommend it highly for anyone interested in exploring such issues productively and in depth. However, more, more, more bottom-up cyberfeminist tactics is what I am asking for. Thus, let me qualify my questioning with a disclaimer -- I do understand and sometimes even believe in the possibility of what Sarah Kember has so skillfully laid out in her book; however the limitations of her optimistic project lie in its situatedness within notions of Agency and Autonomy that are inaccessible to large populations of the world. I agree that there is a serious need to 'explore the representational, epistemological, ethical and political dimensions' of such situated science and technologies, which is precisely why I fail to see how any cyberfeminist critique (including the critique produced by Kember in this book) of westernized science and technologies can be prevented from appearing like 'a kind of hands-on-your-hip negative critique where you are just standing and shaking your finger, going "this is a racist, sexist, colonialist enterprise"' (Haraway qtd in Kember, 52).

To pose the above questions to Kember's work, however, is an easy critique of her overall project. On the close reading of chapters one and two, for instance, we find the reason for the absence and perhaps even (im)possibility of an engagement with such 'outside' and on-the-periphery subjectivities in much existing literature on the topic of cyberfeminisms. In the preface, it is clearly stated that the aim (and therefore scope) of the book is 'to trace the development of identities and entities within the global information network encompassing both human and non-human environments, and to offer a pluralized cyberfeminist engagement with artificial life as both a discipline and cultural discourse' (vii). The questions I raise in relation to cyberfeminism and artificial life are about identities and entities -- subjectivities -- outside the logic of such a global information network. Further, in chapter one, the author does clearly locate AL and AI within globalization and posthumanism -- describing 'humanized HALs or intelligent agents of post-cold-war era' (ix). This move in itself maps out the possibility of including the populations outside of the logic of the global information networks within digital circuits. This exclusive framework succeeds in implicitly highlighting the absence and discomfort of such impossible subjects within this logic where AI and AL reside. Thus, to me, Kember's apparent forgetfulness is reminiscent of the tactics used in movies such as Matrix Reloaded, where the skeletal juxtaposition of the worlds of the Matrix (the digital) and Zion (the mechanistic) erases the existence of diverse communities of production and practice. For instance, in the portrayal of the two universes there is a significant absence of subjectivities and knowledges that still exist in our world (rural Africa, pockets of South East Asia and rural India, for example) outside of the Mechanistic world of Zion and the Digital world of the Matrix. These absent socio-cultural and economic spaces (while definitely endangered by the speed with which certain ways of existence are spreading throughout the world) have not yet been subsumed, for better or for worse, within the logic of global consumerism and multinational corporate management. Thus there is a symbolic absenting of geographical locations where the histories, economies and politics of community and nation have thus far permitted the (albeit sometimes illegitimate) parallel existence of so-called 'premodern' modes of production with the postmodern ones. Masses of people literally do not exist for scholars, artists and media makers situated in such ontologies and epistemologies, while development specialists bypass such communities of production through the rhetoric of 'development' which overlooks such logic of production and consumption as those present in such outside spaces. Therefore, while Kember's analysis in the early chapters of her book leads to an examination of the disappearance of such bodies from the digital cyberfeminist maps, there is still a troubling celebration of the radical potential of AI and AL.

However, I must emphasize that, considering the difficult and tricky nature of appropriating technology and knowledge-production in the cause of underprivileged populations of the world, Kember does an excellent analysis that contains the possible answers to questions such as those that I have posed above. Chapter two, for instance, contains answers to some of my questions in its tracing of the discourses of evolution (leading to social Darwinism embedded in the colonizing missions of the 19th century) and microbiology. Kember shows here how the practices of science and technology can be steeped in a socio-political discourse that leads to the objectification and erasure of the Other/(Woman/Native).

The issues that cyberfeminism has to work with are indeed multiple and diverse. Kember's book is brilliant in that it succeeds in making the argument -- both explicitly and implicitly, wittingly and unwittingly -- that cyberfeminists should be concerned with the disappearance of various communities of production and practice, as well as with cultural and biological genocides all around the world. Carving out a path for what strategies and tactics must be adopted is not completed in this book -- but perhaps such a path cannot be carved out by an individual project such as a single book. But at least the dialogue has been initiated if through her analysis Kember has permitted the asking of questions such as mine and more. Further, there is no doubt that academic and corporate research methodologies and issues of ontology and epistemology need to be questioned and engaged through cyberfeminist practice.

Radhika Gajjala (Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh, 1998) is an Associate Professor in Interpersonal Communication/Communication Studies at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, USA. She teaches courses on cyberculture, humanistic research methods, and feminist research methods in communication. Her research interests include new media technologies, critical theory, feminist theory, transnational communication, and postcolonial theory. She is a member of the Spoon Collective and runs a few online lists related to gender and postcolonial theory. Since 1997 she has also been collaborating -- both through Internet dialogue and through engagement in the field - with NGO fieldworkers examining alternatives developmental models in order to benefit handloom weavers in South India. Work by her has appeared (or will appear) in journals such as Feminist Media Studies, International and Intercultural Annual and Works and Days and in books such as Technospaces: Inside the New Media (Continuum) and Domain Errors! Cyberfeminist Practices (Autonomedia). She is currently working on a book-length project on issues related to Feminist Cyberethnographies (under contract with Altamira Press). Website: