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Zeros + Ones: Digital Women + the New Technoculture

Author: Sadie Plant
Publisher: New York: Doubleday, 1997
Review Published: June 1999

 REVIEW 1: Patrice McDermott

It is temptingly easy to take Sadie Plant at her word and to read her text as being about what its title says it is.

But then there are Anna Freud and her father. And weaving and plaiting. And lichen and mosses. And mitochondria. And so much more -- and the reader has to ask "what is going on here?" The key is in the misleadingly simple first half of Plant's title, "Zeros + Ones." Of course, we all know this refers to computer code and the reduction of all digitized processes to a series of ones and zeros -- on and off switches, the overs and unders of the warp threads of weaving and the encoding thereof in the Jacquard looms that are the predecessors of computers. If we follow this thread, we begin to find the weft of the text(ile)ual tapestry that Plant is weaving.

The weft is provided by the quotations from the texts of Luce Irigaray, Monique Wittig, Gilles Deleuze and Filix Guattari. Plant's text is a hypertext in a print-on-paper medium, that presumes that the reader is going to be able to make the intellectual linkages about the phallocentrism of Western philosophy, thought, science, language -- Western theory in all its manifestations. For what the quotations from the above writers bring to the text at hand are presentations -- of great difference from one another -- of the suppression of multiplicities, the repression of all that does not lead back to the One that is the masculine, the unitary male sexual organ, the precedence of male desire (and only one appropriate desire at that) in biology, the male line, the one explanation, rational logic, the apparent. All else is lack, nothing to be seen, Zero, a hole.

What are the warp threads in this tapestry? They are too many to enumerate (1). But they all have to do with interconnectedness, multiplicity, relationality. From Freud's (dismissive) comments on women's pubic hair and its role as the origin of women's braiding (plaiting) and from there their development of weaving, to the persistence of mitochondria through the female line over eons, a pattern is developed. Not a simple pattern, certainly, but a pattern nonetheless.

Am I reading too much into this text? I don't think so -- it is all there in the tapestry. However, what Plant is also doing, I believe, is to practice textually what she is arguing. She is doing an écriture féminine of the Western history of women and science and technology. She is practicing a never-just-one, non-linear analysis and commentary. This makes her text frustrating -- she never does lay it out for the reader and her practice also makes impossible a straightforward, linear review. It is a tapestry with no immediately apparent story line, no logical pattern; it is all in those weft threads.

This lack of transparency, this illogic makes Plant vulnerable to a cursory reading. Is there anything to be had from such a reading? Of course. At a minimum, one would get some lessons in the history of computing and of biological science (and the substantive contributions of women thereto), and would learn about one very interesting woman -- Ada Lovelace. So, it is worth the read even just for that. The would-be cursory reader will be well-advised, though, to pay attention to Plant's title: it is not zeroes AND ones; it is zeroes PLUS ones -- which always add up to one. Nor is it "digital women AND the new technoculture." The question should be who and what are "digital women" and what happens when you add them to the new technoculture -- or, more likely, the other way around.

For the reader who either brings to this text a knowledge of French theory of the 70s through the early 90s (with an especial emphasis on French feminist thought which will reduce this number even further!) or who is willing to make the effort to take all the threads that Plant provides and follow her as she weaves them together, this text is great fun and provides a series of aha's when one figures out why she has suddenly introduced some new element and watches the rhizome head off in a new direction.

Visitors to the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies will find Zeros + Ones a rewarding, if challenging, read--and, for those who are willing, a crash course in late 20th century French post-psychoanalytic linguistic, semiotic and philosophical theory -- + digital women + technoculture.

1. Some of the prominent warp threads are Ada Lovelace herself and her contributions to the history of computing; the suppressed/repressed contributions of women in the cracking of the German Enigma code in WWII; the use of Alan Turing in this effort (and his contributions to AI) and abuse of him for his homosexuality after the war; and Beatrix Potter's scientific studies and (repressed) contributions. But the reader should not look for linear tales -- and will miss much if an "add women and stir" history of computing is the focus of attention.

Patrice McDermott:
Patrice McDermott is Director of Agenda for Access, a project of OMB Watch. She is also an adjunct assistant professor in the Women's Studies Program and has taught in the Communication, Culture and Technology Program at Georgetown University.  <patricem@ombwatch.org>

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