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women@internet: Creating New Cultures in Cyberspace

Editor: Wendy Harcourt
Publisher: London: Zed Books, 1999
Review Published: March 2001

 REVIEW 1: Kalí Tal
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Wendy Harcourt

Mediating suspicions: a response to Kalí Tal by Wendy Harcourt [1]

I found Professor Tal's response to women@internet a rather curious one. On the one hand she grasped well the political intent of the book, including the contradictions, and the sense of what we were trying to do in setting up a community. She picked up the important points made by many of authors, and complimented and deepened them with her own pertinent insights. Her summary of what the book sets out to do as a feminist political project, to explore the use of the Internet as a tool for empowerment, aware of all the pitfalls, is spot on. On the other hand, she badly misread my own position in the project and hence ended up making some rather contradictory and misleading critiques that rather missed the point in the last third of her comments.

Perhaps this is not so surprising because she was judging it as an academic project, with some need to ascertain its validity academically, and therefore to some extent looks at it as an individual rather than as a communal project. Instead it would have been more appropriate to read it as a work in progress by a diverse group of people that has borrowed academic concepts as they saw fit for the project that has a fluid changing membership and set of activities. My role as editor, and as coordinator when we put the book together, was not one of dictating or framing the work but as one of the actors involved in building a sense of community and working across differences (of numerous kinds) which is precisely where I see the strength of the women on the net (WoN) project, though Tal feels we missed it somewhat in the women@internet discussions.

The book was not a product of short-lived listserv but is part of a much longer political process around the work of the Society for International Development (SID) and the interlinkages with other groups engaged in the WoN project. The book was just one of the activities of WoN while I and the authors were doing many other things that are part of this growing community of political women and men who are working for social transformation. The members of project decided, shortly after the book was put together, to move into a much looser association, precisely because of the limitation of the discussions we could have on a listserv and we needed to work on more pressing strategies and not all of us were going to be able to work together. But the interest and possibilities were raised in different ways in the book, which Tal picks up. For most of us, the book allowed a rare moment of coming together to reflect, and we were rather juffed to get it published and for it to enjoy some minor success and interest. It is best seen, therefore, as part of a group process of exploration, and I guess that is why Tal finds it so refreshing and novel. It is really nothing to do with academic cyberfeminism in the way she suggests, it is the product of a cross cultural feminist community that is forming across countries, class, colour, ethnicity, race and gender. It is far from utopian, and far from easy. It is not being led by any particular set of feminist politics, it is emerging as an intersection of different agendas.

I take it as very important that Tal and other academics are careful to suspect white women's hegemonic dominance. I appreciate their job of interrogating circuits of mediation that involve whiteness and asymmetrical power relations. It is a vital job to scrutinize any association that involves the collaboration of women and men from different classes, races, countries, education, organizations and professions. But in this case Tal has misread my function as a mediator for social justice operating between different actors and she also misread the dynamic of the group because it is precisely this type of good feminist practice of interrogation that we did with our every contact.

As an Australian feminist living in Italy and working for social justice projects, rather than as a Canadian academic fascinated by Donna Haraway which I gather Tal thinks I am, this is type of feminist engagement in which I am daily involved. Her review made me wonder what Tal imagined the group was up to. Did this group made up mostly of women of colour (academic and activist) fail to challenge and interrogate our conversations? Not one academic concept passed without people demanding explanation, pertinence and history. We continually engaged with racial, gender and economic oppression in our conversations and in real life. Our cyberspace discussions dismantled and pushed us to limits as we founded friendships and explored experiences that come out of our political work and our conversations across traditional boundaries and borders that make up the experiences of women and men trying to bring about social transformation.

In terms of my role as mediator, the cyberfrictions, like the ones the book reports, are moments in which strategies for change are being formed. This friction is loaded with strong differences of opinion related to experience and theory for minorities and people of colour. In the practice of the group nobody was strictly speaking 'white middle class' or 'black academic' or lesbian' or third world' or 'fourth world,' at least not in any clear cut sense of these terms. The collective dynamic was more fluid and more relative that allowed us to go beyond the problematization of individual identities within the group. There might well be some lesson here for the politics of identity, though of course identities can never be fully transcended, the contact in the flesh and in the net is not alinear one.

My position as mediator or facilitator in this process is as a border thinker, because I work to create and facilitate contacts in different areas with women and men of different political spaces and also because I work on the limit of disciplines, missions, passions, tongues and languages. This is risky work, because as Tal shows, if the critic does not see the border position s/he can misread the whole project. I understand very well, as Tal seems to question, the power of my position as coordinator and editor of the project. But the power comes from the positioning on the border, on facilitating crossings from academia to activism from international agencies missions to the roots of local struggles.

It is from this context that I find it necessary to reply to Tal on some of her critical comments on my contributions. It is revealing that even if she says these critiques are minor she devotes one third of her review to critique them. Her review made me relive again the historical moment in which WoN was being formed, albeit only four years ago, but at a moment when listservs and the like were new and exciting to the non USA public at least and in particular to those of us engaged in critical discussions on gender, race, development and culture.

I want in the following to respond specifically to three issues she raises in relation to the book: what she saw as the annoying use of the cyborg as metaphor, the orientalism of the delicatessen image and the starry eyed/utopian aspect of the book.

It might be that cyborg was not the best metaphor to use if it carries with it a lack of awareness of the hegemony of white middleclassness. This of course can be contested, as Haraway herself grapples with class and race. To some extent the WoN group were 'modest witnesses' to the oppositional ways in which women are using technologies and at the same time challenging the dominant power relations of those technologies. The metaphor had its uses because the group could respond to or challenge it, and, just because we were by no means engaging as an academic group, it developed as a result of those challenges its own inner meanings. It helped explain the rather contradictory sense of political activists intensely engaged in reproductive rights, environment, indigenous rights, sexual politics taking time out to discuss these issues on the Internet. Of course these meanings could get lost once you play back the discussion into the academic world, which as Tal comments, has its own complex vocabulary. Nevertheless, it was a useful image to 'play with' one that I personally found at that historical moment appealing. Spending days on the screen, breast-feeding while I typed, engaging in international workshops via the Internet, as I fought off a miscarriage, organising child care to do so, relaying information to women around the world, these were all my experiences in the flesh that did bring body and Internet (body/machine) to together during the writing of the book. That politics, call it social flesh politics, cannot be excluded from the attempt to understand what can be women's political culture on the Internet. Women's bodies are lived experiences; that is our political starting point and the Internet has stretched those bodily experiences. But this is not to say the Internet offers some cosy acceptance of liberation, there is for most of the WoN group as Tal saw, a deep unease with all of this. There are big buts. We cannot easily manipulate the master's machine to bring about change. I like others, feel caught in this type of capitalist modernity, with a machine mediating my loving times with children, my friends, my family and these close colleagues who in reality live far away. The WoN experience did help explore the contradictions of the Internet in our individual and collective experiences and it did enable us to link our international work, personal life, see the problems of our interest in the Internet and puzzle out its possibilities. And as I said earlier, we did so fully aware of different class and race, social and economic contexts and of the risks in crossing these borders and making connections among very different groups of women and men. Far from being an academic exercise the WoN crossings have been about self-conscious feminist interventions at places where power/knowledge intersect, locally and globally.

The book women@internet tried to capture those crossings, just one set of crossings, amongst a whole set of activities that included southsouth trainings in Africa, producing material in different languages for women in the global south wanting to know more about the Internet, caucausing among women to put the gender perspective into the international board rooms where the power decisions are being made, influencing UN agendas, confronting cyberfeminism 'at home.' If we picked up the cyborg image, it was not the academics (and I am not among them) imposing some rarified theory on the group -- hardly! -- it emerged from the group's discussion. And the reason for any of the people writing in the book, mostly people living in or engaged in third world issues, is because these are the people I work with day to day and I took on the task of pulling the pieces together, of facilitating the border crossings. There is no need for Tal's congratulations for those voices, perhaps it is more about the WoN creating the space for them to explore and to write something, and for me as the mediator/editor, in between all the other tasks, managing to put it together.

Now, for this concern of Tal's over the metaphor, delicatessen. I see it brings into play a whole range of concerns about orientalism ala Edward Said. Perhaps because of where I am situated I feel it very difficult to be accused of exoticism. Delicatessen may be a capitalist notion, but is a visual display of food necessarily capitalist, or modern for thatmatter? Have cultures before or outside capitalism not taken joy in the diversity of foods and their consumption? Nor do I comprehend entirely the orientalist charge. I find it intriguing that so much of what was problematic for Tal with the book is linked to this image, as it was precisely what we were breaking down in WoN work together, and what was discussed explicitly as important and new for all of us. As most of the people writing or who will read the book were either living in or come from the South, I was, in my interpretation of that image, responding to what Marisa and Arturo were saying about the complex relationship between the North and the South. And in the context of delicatessen it was originally used as the idea of cyberfeminists at a Berkeley conference where we met consuming the WoN group where we were indeed concerned that we might have been seen as a spicey mix, the subaltern coming to legitimate the cyberwomen. I was continuing to play with this image, raising the problem of how people from different cultures, from different places (and WoN is not centred on the anglo saxon culture or on the North) think they can create and make new connections. But in fact that sense of connection can be an illusion that fragments once they engage in trying to bring about social transformation in concrete ways, and the social, political and cultural differences emerge. The project was dealing all the time with this border crossing from South to South, North to North. We were continually reminding ourselves from where our identifies emerge, from where our sense of place was emerging, those born in the South living in the North, those travelling using cyber cafes, those born in the North living in the South, all found themselves in an ambiguous position to 'the other' cultures.

This takes us to the starry-eyed quality, even utopian sense of 'yippee here we are in the brand new world of cyborgs' that Tal points out pops up in the book. Well, here there is simply a misreading of the strategies on which WoN was based. It was more 'you've got to be in it to win it' strategy. The reasoning ran more down to earth than in the skies. Something like: here is the Internet, like everything in the neo-liberal capitalist modern world, it carries with it major problems, reflecting the institutions which make it, but let's try and figure out what is going on that could be different, see if there is something useful that can support particularly third world women's strategies to bring about change. The discussion began with let's get over the machine phobia, the fact that it is as usual, the boys who are in charge, let's use the fact that women are networking and Internet offers a faster and cheaper and just maybe more accessible way to do it, let's grab the interest, the money, the possibilities for women and make it a tool for change. There really was very little starry eyedness, a lot of trying to get over the reluctance to use Internet and understand how it could be useful to our various political projects, if we could manage to get access to it and go for it.

Which brings me to a last concluding remark about Tal's review. In a world that assumes that the Internet is the 'new economy,' the future is still by and for powerful white men, and hides the reality that it is third world women of colour who are making the chips, working the factories that make that world possible, WoN wanted to be part of a social transformation that brought out the possibilities for those women to get in there, not just relay the voices, but make it possible that others listen to them. The book is just a part of that work. Therefore I, as mediator, take an optimistic voice. And instead of the 'why are we forever left out of the story' which maybe the more pressing and more real concern, it seemed more politic at that moment, amongst all the hype, tosay well here we are (a very diverse and broad 'we' but mostly coming from the South or Fourth World or marginal political world), and we would like to see if, despite the difficulties, we can create different cultures, ways towards social transformation, using this tool.

The WoN project began, after a rushed set of invitations, when we found ourselves in a room in Santiago de Compostella, face to face, telling each other our stories, our commitments, our fears (mostly) and our hopes (much less) about what for most of us was very new tool, the Internet. As we looked at each other, heard some of our histories, the energy in that room was palpable. It was a community that could inspire, and did inspire the book, and goes on to inspire a diverse number of political feminist struggles. I am glad that Tal recognized the genuineness of the book's political commitment to feminism in her review which made women@internet book of the month for March 2001. And in the spirit of what the book is about, I trust Tal's suspicions have been allayed, and my role as a facilitator of border crossings, as a mediator for social justice moving between the different actors in the WoN multiculturalfeminist project, reinstated.

1. Thank you to Franck Amalric, Arturo Escobar and Marisa Belausteguigoitia for their guidance in the writing of this response.

Wendy Harcourt
02.22.01

Wendy Harcourt


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